A House Divided
Jacob hadn't touched his breakfast. After eying it suspiciously a while, as if it were something strange and not the same thing he had eaten most every Sunday for twenty years, he pushed it away. Pushed it away without a word then clasped his hands on the table where his plate should have been. It was a bad sign. Leah cut a slice of toast and spread one half with a thin layer of grape jelly. She glanced at her husband. He was staring into the nook that was now home only to a broom, but where Matt's highchair had once stood. That corner of the kitchen was always dark. No matter what the time of day, the light from the window never reached into the far recesses of the room. Leah wondered what it was that he saw there.
Over by the stove, the dog circled ritually three times before flopping down on the rag rug.
Silence hung thick as grease in the stagnant air. Leah said nothing, for there was nothing to say and neither she nor Jacob had ever been ones for talking just for the sake of it. If she did speak she'd be obliged to look at him, at the arms bristly as hog flesh and at the upper lip, which even at this early hour would be glistening with sweat. Today of all days, to talk would require an immense effort of will, and she did not feel up to it. So she did what she had often done of late and, fixing her gaze on something—anything—nearby, she let her thoughts run free.
Today the breakfast caught her attention; the breakfast spurned by her husband that she had got up at seven to make, leaving the pancake batter to stand so there would be no lumps. The sausage, egg and neat stack of pancakes had the appearance of something preserved, shellacked in syrup. It put her in mind of the fake breakfast, made of resin or some such thing that had sat in the window of Mae's diner on Main Street, for as long as anyone could remember.
"All Day Breakfast Special—99c!" The yellowed sign barely clung to the window now, the brittle tape coming unstuck at the corners, but no one thought to change it even though the price had long since gone up to $1.69. The resin breakfast was still there too, although with a layer of grime, it now looked mighty unsavory. After Mae died of some kind of woman's cancer that nobody talked about, the heart had gone out of the diner and no one else could be bothered to keep it clean.
But years ago, when the breakfast really did cost 99 cents, the platter in the window had certainly enticed Matt.
Jacob and Leah had taken him to the diner on of those blue-sky mornings in spring, when clouds froth above the horizon like milk boiling over the rim of a saucepan. Matt, dressed in the crisp little white shirt that was usually saved for Sundays, couldn't have been but three years old back then and so excited to be going into a restaurant. He stopped out front, tugging on her skirt to come look at the platter in the window. And she, unthinking, had squeezed his hand and said, "Yes, Mattie, that's what you're going to have. I hope you're hungry." And Matt looked up at her, his long-lashed eyes round with amazement that this was for him.
Tracey, the eldest of the Blackhurst girls, had been their waitress. Always such a friendly girl and never missed a Sunday in church. Not long afterwards, it was all around town about her and the boy from the hardware store and, when she began to show, Jacob swore he'd never go into the diner again to be waited on by a whore. But that day everything held together until Tracey brought their breakfasts. Matt had taken one look at his, at the pallid scrambled eggs, the rivulet of butter trickling off the uneven stack of pancakes, and pushed it away. He'd been late starting to talk and could say but a few words then, so by way of explanation, he kneeled on the seat of the booth and pointed. His food was there on the window ledge; he had seen it, shown it to his mother—sunny eggs and perfect pancakes crowned with a golden nugget of butter that would never ever melt.
After saying that it was a sin to waste what the Lord had provided, Jacob had doggedly eaten every morsel on his own plate, while Matt, his face puckered and blotchy from crying, pummeled the red plastic seat back with his little fists.
And later, after the whipping, Leah asked Jacob why he'd not allowed Matt to touch the plate in the window; Mae wouldn't have minded and then he could have seen for himself that the food wasn't real. Jacob had replied that his son must learn to take things on faith and to obey.
"I'll be off now."
Jacob's voice wrenched Leah back, forced her to focus once again on the moment. She watched him. Fists on the table, knuckles touching, he used his arms as a jack to ratchet himself up from the chair. His knees must be bad today, she thought.
"Where to?" she said. She knew, but the words slipped out anyway.
"I told you," he said, too quietly, "I'm going to bring Matthew home."
"But you haven't eaten your breakfast," she said, stretching her face into a smile, "you haven't even had any coffee."
Looming over her, his bulk dammed the sunlight that flowed in the window and cast a shadow across the table. Backlit he was without definition; an amorphous mass.
She said, "You don't want to be driving all the way to Phoenix with nothin' in your belly. You know how you get when your blood sugar's low."
"Pour me some coffee, then."
With his first step away from the table he was no longer between her and the window. The blinding sun, now higher in the sky, shone into the room like a searchlight. Instinctively she turned away and, as she blinked, the one light became many—a myriad miniature suns floating around the dark figure of her husband as he plodded painfully towards the door.
Hastily Leah pushed her chair back from the table, remembering too late that one of the legs had lost its rubber base. It scraped noisily on the hard vinyl floor. Jacob stopped in the doorway almost filling it, his irritation palpable. Although Leah could see nothing of his face, she knew the dark vein in his temple would be pulsing.
"I thought you wanted coffee," she said.
"I'll come back for it."
"I been thinking," she said, rising, "maybe you should wait. Today's Sunday and…"
"And I'm doing the Lord's bidding," he said, still framed in the doorway.
"Well, maybe I oughta come along. It's a long drive. Keep you company."
"No." The monosyllable was said with such finality as he left the room, not even turning around to deliver it, that she knew there was no point in arguing.
She rose and began to clear the table, not stacking the few dishes, but methodically carrying each one to the sink where she rinsed it before going back for the next. Her movements were slow; not strained like her husband's, but measured. This was all there was now, this activity. If she could only keep doing things…
Jacob's plate was the last. She carried it over to the dog's bowl and was about to scrape the sausage patty into it when she heard the closet door click open. She looked up.
If the dog made a sound as it scrabbled to its feet, she did not hear it; so intently was she listening to Jacob's movements in the hall, interpreting what she heard - understanding but hardly able to believe. The dog sidled up unnoticed, tall as her hip. With a snap of its jaws, it snatched the sausage patty and knocked the plate from her hand. The thick lusterware did not break, just span once before the dog pounced on it and began licking up grease and syrup. That much sugar would surely make the beast sick but she cared nothing for the dog. Jacob had insisted they get it, since his arthritis had gotten worse and he couldn't shoot so good any more.
Leah held her breath; heard the closet door closing, the heavy footsteps retreating down the hall towards their bedroom.
Leah spun on her heel, frantically scanning the kitchen for some ammunition of her own, some way to fight this terrible thing that he was going to do. She opened the drawer and grabbed the smooth handled carving knife. She held it up, seeing its point pierce Jacob's coarse skin, feeling its long blade slip through flesh, scrape against bone. She shuddered and released her grip on the knife. It clattered back amongst the utensils and she turned around, leaning back against the drawer to shut it. It was then that she found herself gazing intently at the pantry shelf without having the least idea why. Then came the revelation.
She grabbed the bag of sugar. It was less than half full; she hoped there would be enough. She dashed outside, being careful to close the screen door quietly, and ran swiftly over to where the old Ford was parked in the shade of the barn. Within a moment she was back in the kitchen and pouring a cup of coffee from the steaming pot. As she put the cup down on the table she noticed that the sugar bowl was almost empty. She tipped what remained into the cup and was stirring the coffee just as Jacob entered the kitchen.
"Give me my coffee, then," he said, taking the cup from her outstretched hand. "Where's the sugar?"
"I put sugar in."
"You never do that."
"I did today."
He took a sip. "It needs more."
"There isn't any more. We're out."
He slammed the cup down. Black coffee sloshed over the rim and pooled on the oilcloth. "I can walk over and borrow some from the Blackhursts," she said, "It'll take but a few minutes and I can make a fresh pot when I get back."
"I'll borrow nothing from those…" he began, already turning to leave. "Never mind," he mumbled, "never mind."
Leah grabbed a paper napkin from the holder and began to mop up the coffee. A moment later the screen door squeaked open. Wiping her hands on her apron she hurried after him. "Jacob, hold up." The dog barged past her and Jacob and out to the yard.
Jacob stood on the stoop holding the screen door open with one hand. In the other he carried a canvas bag. Leah tried to ignore it, looking instead over his shoulder at the leaves of the cottonwoods shimmering like sequins in the hot wind.
"Well, what is it now, woman?"
"Jacob," she said, looking into his eyes for the first time that morning, "Matt's all growed up now and…" she hesitated; the set of his jaw told her that no words could reach him in the place he was now. In vain she searched his face for any vestige of the man she had married so long ago. It was all she had left, this silent appeal.
"Remember the word of God, Leah: except ye repent, ye shall likewise perish. He must come home to the Lord," he said, "one way or another." His voice was weary, but the determination in his eyes was unwavering. She stepped back and he let go of the screen door. The sprung hinge that had been loose for a while must finally have come away because the door slammed shut with a force that surprised her. A china plaque crashed to the floor at her feet—the same plaque that had hung securely over the door through windstorms that rattled the clapboard house until it groaned.
Outside the car's engine sputtered for a moment and then died. The dog began to bark. And above it all the sounds of Reverend Frank's Bible Hour blared out the open windows of the car.
Leah bent down and picked up the shattered plaque. She fumbled with the pieces, putting the words of the Bible verse together in the right order like a child's puzzle. "As for me and my house," she muttered, laying them on the hall table, "we shall serve the Lord."
It wasn't but a few steps down the hall to their bedroom, past the locked door of what had been Matt's room. Leah did not hurry, even pausing to pick up the empty cardboard box that Jacob had discarded on his way out. As she entered the bedroom she caught sight of herself in the dresser mirror. The reflected woman could almost have been her. She recognized the body, still slim but with shoulders that now stooped a little; the face, even features that had lately grown hollow and timeworn, but the eyes, her eyes, sparked wildly with the kind of abandon only seen in the young or the mad. Leah turned uneasily away, shame threatening to overwhelm her. With a sigh she dropped to her knees beside the bed, resting her clasped hands on the crocheted coverlet. But her eyes would not close and her head would not bow.
She leaned back on her heels, lifted the coverlet and reached underneath the bed.
Out in the yard the engine turned over again. Jacob must have let it sit for a minute or two, not wanting to flood the engine. As Leah walked back down the hall, she could hear that the car radio was still on. Even though she could not make out the words, the hypnotic tones of Reverend Frank were unmistakable.
Letting the screen door slam behind her, she stood on the porch. It was then that she noticed it; things had shifted slightly. It was odd, this change. Every day she cleaned, cooked, rushed from here to there doing chores without really thinking about any of it. Occasionally, she would find that she had done something like wash the floor but she would not remember having done it. But this morning the simple act of putting one foot in front of the other demanded that she be conscious of every muscle, every nerve. And yet none of her movements were forced, only acutely felt. It was as if her whole life had merely been a prelude to this second when she was about to step off the porch.
For a moment she hesitated, afraid, feeling like she had at the County Fair years ago, when she had taken Matt into the fun house with its sloping floors, trick mirrors and lopsided doorways. Back then she had frozen, disoriented, feeling so foolish, but unable to move until seven-year old Matt took her hand and telling her it was just a trick of the eye, urged her to concentrate on the square of floor at her feet. Together they had returned to the undistorted world in which everything that ought to be straight was, and you could believe in what you saw.
No matter this time that Leah had no one to lead her. Alone she began to make her way across the parched grass, past the flowerbed where nothing ever grew, towards the road.
She was aware of all the usual things: the searing heat of the sun on her bare arms, the smells of hay and dust and gasoline, the sound of the wind rustling the maize stalks. But the familiar was somehow altered, no longer ordinary, but ringing with an intensity that frightened yet exhilarated her. Guilt and memory dissipated, ashes in the wind, and only the sensory remained. She was purified.
Jacob tried once more to start the engine. This time it did not even turn over, just gave a desultory click. He looked up as she approached.
"There's something wrong with the…Hey, where do you think you're going?"
Leah said nothing, did not even turn to him.
"Leah! Where are you going? Answer me! "
He opened the car door and tried to climb out. But his limbs, rigid and unyielding, would not obey and she was already almost at the line of trees that separated their property from the road. He reached over to the passenger seat, unzipped the canvas bag and pulled out his rifle.
"I'm warning you, Leah, come back. Leah!" He rested the barrel on the car door and took aim at her slender back.
She kept going through the line of trees, turning onto the county road that led into Twin Forks. The air rattled with the noise of insects, like fingernails grating down a washboard, such that she could barely hear the gravel crunch under her feet.
And back in the yard a howling, raw and animal.
Leah shielded her eyes from the sun and squinted into the distance. The road bent and wobbled in the heat haze rising from the pavement but she was not worried. It was just a trick of the eye; in reality the road was straight as an arrow. If she got disoriented all she had to do was concentrate on the little bit of road immediately in front of her and she would be fine. On the horizon she could just make out the slender tower with the oversized red sign on top that she knew said, "Beacon Oil Company— last gas for thirty miles." Only a half-mile farther on lay the town and the bus station.
Putting her hand in her pocket she pulled out the paperback novel she had borrowed from Jeanie Blackhurst. "Enter the thrilling world of Private Eye Dirk Magnum," said the blurb on the back. Every night she had managed to read a couple of pages in the bathroom before joining Jacob for their devotional reading. She hadn't finished it yet, but she could always mail it back to Jeanie. She opened the book where she had left off reading the night before. Dirk had just foiled a robber's escape by dumping sugar in the gas tank of the getaway car.
The letter from Matt marked her place. She stopped and unfolded it. "You'll always be welcome here, Mom," he'd written. "Dad too, if he has a change of heart." He'd signed it, "Love, Matt and Greg." Slipping the letter between the pages once more she put the book back in her pocket and continued on her way.
Perhaps someone would offer her a ride, perhaps not. She didn't care one way or the other. Her suitcase didn't feel at all heavy in her hand. She would walk the whole way if she had to.
Phoenix was a long way, but she had bus fare.
Copyright © 2002 Julia Ravenscroft.