Tonight, I cried and cried and cried. I haven't cried like that in years. Not like that. Not since Petey… well, the funeral. Since then, I crushed the knuckle on my right ring finger. My old Toyota pickup caught on fire and nearly killed me. I left all my friends and family to move to Wyoming. Warm heart, dry eyes. That's how I am. I hold it together. I'm no onion, no willow tree.
I didn't kick Mom and Daddy out. They ditched me after driving cross the country. That's what I keep repeating to myself. Right? I didn't make them leave. They could have fought to stay, fought to keep their only goddamn daughter, their only surviving offspring. You'd think I might mean something to them after my brother. After a visit from them I crave the sound of linen sheets ripping.
Maybe this thin Grand Teton air fuzzed up their brains. It takes time to acclimate. Took me a few months. At first I thought the guys up at the mine just didn't have manners. That's why they looked at my tits all the time. Or they didn't give a shit about niceties and feelings, which is peachy with me. Eventually, they did stop. I realized they had been staring because I'd be panting and heaving from the lack of oxygen. Just walking up the steps to the office would set my chest thumping like in a Saturday morning cartoon.
My folks are probably back at the motel already. I bet they're packing right now. Daddy's snapping the suitcase latches shut like little alligator mouths. He has a whole set of calfskin suitcases that he bought abroad after the Korean War.
Sometimes, when my little brother and I got bored, we'd go play around the cellar and I would show off the suitcases to our friends. We'd stand around one, running our little gummy hands up and down the soft pelt, ruffling the short black and white hairs. "What you're touching right now is the real dead skin of a baby cow," Petey would say to the dumbstruck kids. He was always getting things mixed up. I'd have to correct him. "A calf, Petey, a baby cow is called a calf."
Daddy manages the Regal Brand Shoe Store on Main Street of Elyria, Ohio. He's proud of it, too. His great Uncle Hal founded it in 1907 and it still has the original wooden seats with the rubber matted ramps on which the salesmen sit and scoot up and down each aisle, swapping boxes, sewing new laces into each piece of footwear like they were surgeons making the rounds. Daddy loved to scoot and oooh at customers' feet. He understood texture and shade and he…
Dammit. I'm going to cry again. Shit. I just wish he'd ooohed at me, you know? Maybe I could have become a frou-frou girl. A satin ribbon honeysuckle rose. The daughter he always wanted.
By now he's probably lifting the suitcase from that saggy excuse for a bed. Everything at the Iron Maiden Motel is this dizzy electric blue. It's the same blue that all the girls wore to homecoming dances or sweet sixteens. A Barbie blue. Barbie blue dresses so shiny they squeaked, with those poochey shoulders, those wing things, that made me feel like a praying mantis. At the motel, the curtains, the linens, even the bible covers are all that sweet, sweet Carolina blue.
I invited them to stay here. Daddy was going over the itinerary on the phone and mentioned that AAA recommended a fine motel. I said, "Daddy, you and mom can have my room and I'll stay on the couch." There was a pause like Moses. Then a whisper: "Your mother and I worked hard our entire lives so we'd never have to sleep in a trailer," he said.
There is nothing inherently wrong with a trailer. Daddy harbors these half-assed, Suzy Easy Bake oven models of domesticity. It's nineteen-fucking-ninety already. Women have run foreign countries, have run for vice president. But he keeps giving me cooking accessories for my birthday and Christmas, like the astrological apron last year that said, "I'm a Taurus. I don't take any bull." Or the Tweetie Bird egg timer. The Cleveland Browns oven mitt.
You'd think most parents would be tickled to have an engineer for a daughter; they'd beam like a headlamp. Most parents have Grand–Canyon-sized ambitions for their kids. But no, Daddy always wanted me in heels, wanted to slow me, rope me, make me wobble a little. Thought I'd settle down, like the apple lees in a jug of cider. Never earn more than him. Never tell him to go to hell.
I know Mom is secretly pleased with me. I know that irks Dad deep down, too. My financial success is her revenge for all her casserole years. But I wish she'd just once, just one time in her life, stand up for me. Instead, she goes on about his stubbornness. "You know he has a head like a walnut," she'd tell me after he went into a tirade because I'd question his decision not to let me do some stupid thing or another. Like ride my bike after supper. If Petey or I'd appeal to Mom, she'd shake her head slowly, bent as if in prayer, looking down at her fingers plying that white handkerchief, her eyeballs floating up and peering out of the top of the sockets.
I know she wasn't particularly proud of my trailer, but she understands you don't have a lot of choices when you're heading up a mining operation like this one. You have to be on top of the men, or at least you have to be a presence they can sense. A condo sixty miles away in Jackson Hole won't cut it.
According to my calculations, they've missed checkout time, which will upset her more than the leaving. Ha. They'll have to pay for another night. I imagine my mother standing in the bathroom in the dark, mouthing "I hate yous" so Daddy won't see how warped she's become, a little bonsai of a human being. Stunted but immaculately groomed.
I've got to stop crying again. I see crying as resignation. It's saying, "Okay. I give up. White flag. Surrender Dorothy." I lived with Mom waving her flag day in and out for seventeen years. I swore to myself that I wouldn't be that kind of woman. So I'm not. I can't afford to be. Not when you live alone in the middle of Nowhere, Wyoming, in charge of thirty-five men.
I applied for a transfer out here from the home office right after the business with Petey. Six months later, I had settled in enough so I thought Mom and Daddy should drive out and visit me; it would be a nice vacation for them. "Just point the old International Harvester west," I told them.
In general, I've been happy, which was a change. Things had started out smooth. Well, except for that Tuesday last month when a rear-loader toppled and crushed Henry's rib cage like it was made from Popsicle sticks. I got there quick. Henry was barely conscious. His eyelids fluttered like a geisha girl. But he spoke. He called me J.J., which he always does. Instead of Juliet, which the others do.
Henry smirked as they lifted him onto the stretcher. And I thought, "This man knows how to treat women right; we've got to have a few drinks when he recovers." Then I thought I was going to lose him, and I started to freak, to hyperventilate. Not because he's a great site manager. I just don't handle loss so well these days.
I realize that even out here, where it smells like I'm living inside a bottle of Pine-Sol, Petey comes a-creeping. It's odd that recently I'd been drifting back to his junior high recitals. Daddy would make us sit in the first row, so we looked up at an angle so steep our necks hurt. One time, Petey was playing a Bartok concerto or maybe a Mozart, I don't remember. I looked across Mom's lap and saw Daddy beaming, his face bright as a Christmas candle. Daddy was so proud of Petey. With everything that happened between them, between him and Peter after, I always liked to remember his expression in that moment, his look of awe, of love.
Henry caught me once. He had just come into my office. "J.J.? That shaft collar? It's gonna…" He was trying to warn me about a fairly serious technical situation and I'm in this reverie, back in Elyria. I snapped to and watched him take off his dirty work gloves and fritz them together and smush the dirt out of them like wringing ash from shale.
I told Henry to replace the collar. It was a top-line item, sure. Expensive. He knew the budget was tight. On our way into town a few weeks back, I had told him all about the pressure uppity management was applying: efficiency ratings, surplus incentives. I wonder now if he was scared he might lose me. If I'd be fired for the shaft collar. I can imagine Henry wanted to save me. He was always flirting. Like the time he'd held the door for me on the way into the hardware store. "Your hair smells just like sawdust, and I love sawdust," he said as I passed by.
I really hope he wasn't covering for me. I hope that's not what caused his accident. He should have bought a new one. I told him so. I told him you can't fix those old ones. But Henry's proud of his little fixes. He has great hands for soldering, welding, sanding off itchy parts that at first don't seem to fit together. He's a coaxer. Not many men have that patience. Henry does and now he's in ICU while I'm trying to stop bawling just long enough to brush my teeth.
You know I can still hum that Chopin waltz Petey'd always practice? At home, I remember I would be doing my trig or algebra and then the Chopin would start, and I'd try to hurry and finish. If I was quick enough, I could lay down my pencil, wait for those familiar last notes and the pause as the tones died out. Then, the bang of the keyboard cover when Petey slammed it shut, like a little gun shot.
I never really told Petey how much I loved his piano playing. I guess I should have. Told him. I guess. I don't know. What was I waiting for? His Carnegie Hall debut? I can be slow on the emotional uptake.
Eventually, Peter and I drifted apart. He moved to Washington D.C. after Oberlin and was working in this funky classical record store. He was having fun I guess, going to concerts, playing around. He hadn't talked to Daddy for about two years until the day he called to say he was sick. We lost him quickly too. At first we told ourselves all the stupid statistics about some men who are still alive six years after their diagnosis. I was hopeful. I flew to D.C. once and drove there a bunch of weekends. I lent him a couple thousand dollars after he lost his job so he could pay rent.
By the time he moved back to Elyria, he was already half-way to the next world. I was in Pittsburgh at the time and it was a couple of hours drive home. I walked upstairs and found him in his old bed looking all small and shriveled. Mom had combed Peter's hair but you could tell it was the hair of someone dying. Matted with sweat. Stiff and shiny as if he'd put too much mousse in it. There he was, a grown man with a stubby, half-grown beard, lying in his little childhood bed. Over the bed, his black and white Van Kliburn poster loomed, the pianist in Moscow, looking as princely and perfect as ever, wearing white bow tie and black tails.
That was one of the last times I cried this hard. Seeing my little brother in his room, holding on to the edge of the sheet with his fingers all boney and curled, the clear oxygen tubes running out of his nose. I couldn't help but feel that he just got it wrong again. Petey. Oh, Petey. It was a cow not a calf. I kept thinking I could just correct him somehow, set him straight.
The funeral was a farce. The denial was so thick you could have drilled spot wells. No one would say the obvious. Daddy refused to let Tim, Peter's partner, come to the funeral. Nothing we could say would change his mind. Only reason he let Peter come home at all was because it would have looked bad, his son dying on the street in our nation's capital.
It's getting toward dusk now. They're probably arguing about the route home. Daddy likes to meander the back roads and Mom just likes to get places. She hates using the restrooms at those highway service plazas, but she always has to go. It's a real experience driving with them.
Daddy hasn't gotten over the 1950s, that's his problem. He still thinks President Reagan's a great movie actor. His viscosity is way too high. In the 70s, everything seemed to betray him—the width of his ties, the length of his sideburns, the size of his car—and he took it all very personally. Take the calfskin suitcases. The small case looks so flea-bitten you wouldn't want to put your underthings in there. But no, he hangs on to it like a life preserver.
That's why this morning, when Daddy suddenly said he'd decided to sell Petey's piano, I was kind of stunned. Mother noticed my expression. She smiled at me like I was a pet schnauzer and did her little silent guppy mouth: "We love you." What's with the fucking "we" all the time, anyway? I wish she'd just speak up for herself, just once. I love you. I.
Why do I need to hear those words so much? I've lived 29 years without them for long stretches. I feel stupid not letting Henry know I thought he was… I don't know… I should have said something nice to him. I should have kissed him right on the goddamn lips on the floor of the shaft.
The doctors said one of Henry's ribs pierced his left lung. Machines are pumping his breath in and out. Pumps. God, you gotta love pumps—and I'm not talking about the shoes. That's something Petey would have said. See, I've taken on his sense of humor.
But Dad… Sell the fucking piano? Did I hear right? A silence parachuted over the three of us sitting there in my trailer. I'd made tea, both iced and hot. They only drink tea cold, but I converted in Wyoming. Why? I don't know. That's why they call it fucking Wyoming, I guess. Sell Petey's piano? Burr. It did get cold in the trailer suddenly, as if my brother physically descended into the room. Finally, I asked them why they're not holding onto such a beautiful instrument. Who knows? Maybe I would take it up some day. Or Mom could play it.
Mom doesn't look at me when I say that. Daddy stands and jiggles his pockets. He says, "I'd like you to come visit us. See what we're doing with the house. The house goes all to you, you know, like if a freight train crushed us on the way back to Ohio. It'll be yours. And it'll have a nice new patio. After we sell the piano."
When I suggest they keep the piano and leave the old backyard setup, Daddy snorts and asks me if I've ever paid for a funeral, if I know the going rate on headstones.
So I flipped. I'm sorry. I couldn't keep my mouth shut. I really wanted to smack him right in his rusted bucket, make him sting, but he's bigger than I am. Instead I said, "I will buy Peter's piano from you. I would like my kids to have it."
Dad laughs that sick, sharp laugh that makes his throat sound like a coping saw going through sheet metal. "You? You buy that piano? Kids? What kids? Where you going to put a piano, never mind kids? You going to rent another trailer especially for it?" On and on. He wouldn't listen to anything I said.
Somewhere during his tirade I go to my working Tims in the shoerack by the door. He thinks I'm leaving and starts following me back toward the kitchen. But I'm not leaving. I'm just retrieving my cash stash. There have been thefts lately and I thought no one would look in my boots.
I get back to the kitchen counter where Mom stirs her tea and sighs so she won't start crying. "The patio will be nice, sweet thing."
"It's Petey's piano, goddammit, Dad!" I yell.
"You watch your tone…" he starts, in his bear growl.
That's when I pull my fucking trump card and reach into my boot and start slapping hundred-dollar bills on the kitchen counter. "You tell me when to stop, Daddy," I say. "I'll pay for the damn piano. You tell me when I've arrived at a fair price." At first he's stunned, his daughter taking it to him like this. I might as well have been dynamiting his nut sack.
At about twelve or thirteen I tell him, "Put up or shutup," borrowing his favorite phrase.
"I don't have to take anything from you that I don't want to," he says and starts in again. By about twenty-two he's screaming about how he gives, gives, gives and gets crapped on in return. He gets himself worked up. He's stomping around so hard that the trailer actually begins rocking. Spit forms on the corners of his mouth; his face turns red as a stop sign.
I could feel my insides grinding into a pillar of stone. Mom finally said something. Something like, "Charles, please." But he was too revved, and only when he started coughing and went to the sink—my little trailer sink, not much bigger than his head—and put his mouth to the faucet and slurped lungsful of water did he finally shut down.
That's when I turned into something that I didn't recognize. As politely as possible, I announced, "This interview is over. Thank you for your effort in coming. Perhaps we'll have something for you in the future." I can't believe I said it. Interview? It was like I was back in Pittsburgh hiring support crews.
Dad wiped his mouth with his raincoat sleeve. He looked toward heaven and I swear I actually saw his lips move. I looked at Mom and she was inching toward me. I could see there were tears in her eyes which made me feel this loathing you can't imagine. She kissed me timidly on the cheek, squeezed my hand, and turned to Daddy. "We better go now."
Daddy looked at her. He studied the charts of the Blue Sky Mine that I had hanging over my bed, all the dark black lines detailing the shafts, the cross cuts and the manways. He looked down and picked up my letter opener, the one with the plastic rainbow trout handle that was lying near my hardhat. He tossed it in his hand a few times and then chuckling in this strange way drew the blade across his throat while looking straight at me. He smiled. "We'll get by, Juliet." He flipped the letter opener up in the air as if he was testing whether it'd stick into this leather recliner I'd bought for ten bucks at a flea market in town. He opened the door. I didn't move.
Mom kind of shuffled out and at the edge of the door she stopped as if at an invisible wall. She turned around. Her eyes were still moist but her features composed, her arms pulling the blue coat tight around her. She mouthed silently, "We love you."
I plastered a huge fake smile on my face. Inside, I was shouting, "Get them out, please lord, make them leave!" Daddy didn't turn around. He reached back to close the door and just before it shut, he reopened it a crack. "Your mail just arrived." Then he was walking down the path and gunning the car to life. The engine gurgled and spluttered for awhile before I heard him put it into drive. I peeked out the curtain and the wheels were popping pebbles and for some reason the wipers were on, streaking dust all over the windshield. I listened for a long time as they made their way gently down Turner Valley.
It's Sunday afternoon. They've missed their second Sunday of church. They'll be home Wednesday or Thursday morning if Mom's bladder has any elastic left. I wonder whether I can handle living without them, or, rather, with this new family of ex-cowboys and Mexican Pentecostals, and drifters straight out of one rez or another.
I know, I know—so many so-called professionals say crying is therapeutic. I say it sucks. I hate the after-feeling—hollow, carved out empty like a canoe. What if Henry or one of the other men came in and saw me? What if there'd been a collapse or cave-in at the mine? It would have been all over.
They might stop on the way back. Not to apologize. Maybe to drop off that picture of Mom's garden she promised. Dad'll tell her to mail it instead.
It's only now, now that this visit has come and gone that I'm beginning to think that someone's going to have to use nitro to get at my resources. Whoever he is, whenever he comes, he'd better have more than a jackleg drill. I may need serious excavation—not some hedgehog strip mine operation. God, I've buried stuff deep. Deeper than any drifts or bottom roads I've ever worked on.
Why? Why is it funny? How can I be so hard, hard like buxite? Even with parents like mine. Even with a dead brother whose Chopin waltz keeps playing, over and over, in my head. Even with my name that I hate: Juliet June Johnson.
Someone better trust that I'm really like everyone else on the inside. Kind of like a geode, spiky and sparkling, reflecting light.
Notes from the Author
This story originally was written, with an actress friend of my wife's in mind, as a monologue in a play called "Ambulance of Love." It's dedicated to Dan Bedard, an actor and good friend, who died of AIDS when we were all in our late 20s and early 30s. Our last visit with Dan in his parent's Detroit home, where he was confined to his childhood bedroom, informs Juliet's description of her brother Petey's final days. That unforgettably tragic experience provided me the emotional core to the story.