February 26, 2015 / Creative Writing
A man climbs buttes in western North Dakota, wondering if he’s a force of good or evil.
October 5, 2015
While her husband tried to explain to their two kids why they had to skip their Little League tournament in order to attend their grandmother’s church (and that, no, they couldn’t wear their uniforms, and not their 4-H T-shirts either, and no, just hurry up and get dressed, it would take too long to explain, that’s just how you do things at church), Shelly went out to the barn for a smoke. She wasn’t really a smoker. You can’t be a smoker when you’re pregnant. She sat on a flipped-over slop bucket, behind the barn where no one could see her. She rested her hand with the cigarette on her belly, where the baby inside was roiling.
Her in-laws’ barn, Shelly would admit, had sagged into some decrepitude. The rotting beams. The layers of animal droppings. Folks called it the Darling Barn, since it had been in the Darling family for over a century. And it was indisputable that Shelly, who had been a Darling for almost a decade, after all, and who had endured having her in-laws as next-door neighbors, for God’s sake, for all of that long time, should be allowed to restore it.
The hand-hewn oak timbers. The precision joinery. The beam with John’s and her initials on it. Elegant chandeliers would hang, all the way down from the loft into the main dining room. The wide, knotty pine planks would be sanded down and refinished into a warm, honey gold. Under the auspices of Shelly’s cooking and that wide, welcoming remodeled dining room, lifelong friendships would be cemented, broken relationships restored, and faltering romances rekindled. She closed her eyes and inhaled, holding the smoke in her lungs. She could see it so clearly. Her name on the sign. Her food on the tables. Her proper renown.
Shelly had always believed she was, and would one day do, something special. When she was sixteen, she had won a recipe contest for her “bold yet classic” recipe, tuna and noodles with lime and arugula. The prize was an all-expenses-paid trip to cooking camp and a small scholarship to culinary school. Before she won the contest, most folks in town had not even heard of culinary school.
But when you’re twenty-nine years old and the cafeteria cook at a public school, people don’t care about your accomplishments the same as they did when you were sixteen. She still liked to cook up an elegant dinner, something caramelized or ethnic, something with an exotic cheese that she could only get at Dahl’s an hour away. But people, like her mother-in-law, Delores, were not impressed. Her children were not impressed. They wanted pizza and tater tots. They wanted fish sticks.
Her kids complained: “You’re never home when we get home,” “You always smell like sloppy Joes,” “You never bake us pies.”
“Your friends’ mothers don’t bake pies,” she said.
“They didn’t go to pie baking school.”
“Culinary arts,” she always corrects. She’d practically skipped pies. There was nothing special about pies. But then Jake was born, and she never got her certificate. But with that barn, she’d have no need of certification. She flicked the cigarette into the dirt and used the heel of her pump to crush it.
Later, at church, there seemed no end to altar calls, songs, and praying. Shelly herself was not a regular churchgoer, except when John made a special request for his mother’s sake, such as today, Delores’s birthday. Delores’s favorite hymns were like dirges. Anything mournful in a minor key, full of yearning for heaven and quivering, delayed consummation.
Shelly was not much for praying, especially in public, but when the pastor, a new guy, sent a microphone into the small congregation and told them that no request was too insignificant for God, she thought, why not? When the microphone was near, she stood and bowed her head. “Lord.” Her lips brushed the mike. It was warm, and a little wet. “If you could see fit, I would ask that you knock some sense into Don and Delores.” The sanctuary grew silent. Nobody fanned their bulletins. Nobody blew their nose. “And give me, John and me, their barn. Or at least sell it to me. For a fair price. A reasonable price.” She glanced at Delores, whose head was bowed and had not moved an inch. “Instead of just letting it rot to hell. Thank you. Amen.”
At lunch after church, Delores said grace. “Lord, remember Sarah Miller in her trials. Restore her to us whole. Show us the folks who’re hurting and how to help ‘em. And most of all, cleanse our hearts of ambition and desire. For thy bounty we thank you. Amen. So, Don,” Delores said, laying her napkin across her lap and serving the scalloped potatoes. “When did you say the demolishing guys are coming?”
“Tomorrow. After lunch.”
“Demolishing? What demolishing?” Shelly said.
Delores had planned to explain, she really had—wasn’t she the one who had brought it up, after all?—but then her ambulance beeper went off and she had to leave. Well, that was fine by her. Let Don explain about the barn and endure their daughter-in-law’s griping.
Delores was the only woman to have been on the Good Samaritan Volunteer Ambulance Crew since its inception in 1965. She missed the old days, when the ambulance was also a hearse. That ambulance, a commercial Cadillac chassis with a large, low-ceilinged body for the conveyance of coffins, had belonged to the funeral home, who contracted with the town. From the thick pleated curtains to the dark, velvet headliner, the ambulance-hearse’s interior had been crimson all around. It had smelled of motor oil and sawdust.
In those days, before she was certified as a driver, volunteers like her could only transport patients and could not intervene in any way. So Delores would talk to the patients. She talked about making amends and setting things to rights. She held their hands and recited Bible verses about Jesus healing the sick. She sat on the little fold-down chair beside their cot, urging them to pray. If, on occasion, they cursed at her or snapped, writhing in pain, “Your healer’s a quack,” she reckoned she couldn’t be held accountable for their souls.
When Delores arrived at the ambulance dock, Billy and Rita Gleason were already there. Billy was just stepping into the cab, and Rita was already seated, ready to drive. Delores rolled down her window and shouted at them from her car, “What do you have?”
“Car wreck on 43. Teenagers. Scrapes and bruises. Your garden-variety juvenile pandemonium.” Rita turned on the lights and siren and shifted into gear.
“Shouldn’t one of you be home with the kids?”
“They’re at my mother’s!” Rita shouted back, giving a little salute with her index finger to the tip of her baseball cap. For a call like that, two was enough. They didn’t need Delores.
Well, maybe it’s for the best, Delores thought. Rita was a nurse and Billy an EMT. Some folks, under the stress of an injury, found comfort in things like that. She drove home slow with her window still open, lulled by the sound of her tires clicking at regular intervals against some grooves in the pavement.
Delores’s first baby, Matthew, had died quietly in his crib. She and Donald had been in the room beside him, peacefully sleeping. At his funeral, Delores thought to pitch herself into his grave and go down with him. Into the soft wet earth, where even her grief would decay and cease to disfigure her soul.
But she was a coward. Watching the pine box go down, she had relinquished only a fragment of earthly concern. She gave up a measure of grief, but also desire—the part of her that could want, with hope and desperation, the part that could hurt and mortally wound her soul. She had imagined her hands reaching out toward the hole and tossing it, the bright white light of her desire, under a shovelful of dirt. This is how you go on, she said to herself, turning her back to the grave.
Home to the farm after the ambulance call, Delores parked in the lane and sat quietly in the car for a moment, her hands still on the steering wheel. The buzzing of the cicadas amplified and reached toward an urgent and frenzied peak and then returned to a monotonous thrum.
Some things, well, you just have to let go. Like the barn. Shelly wants life to be what she wants it to be instead of what it is. Life and death are all scrambled together. The sooner she learns that, the better.
Delores looked at the barn in her rearview mirror. It was mostly gray, but in the light of the late-summer sun it took on a pale, orange glow. It had always been there, as long as she could remember. But its time had passed, as would hers, and everyone else’s, soon enough.
After supper the whole family had to go back to church again, this time for the wedding shower of one of John’s distant cousins, a somber, thirty-year-old woman who wore a suit the color of liver to her very own shower.
While John was talking to other farmers, about market volatility and expected yields, Shelly searched the kitchen cupboards (unsuccessfully) for contraband alcohol that a kind soul might have concealed therein. She snuck to the bathroom to pee and then take off her panties, slipping them into her purse. She tried to pull John into the parking lot and into their pickup, like they used to do before the kids were born, but he just said, “Not now, Shelly. Can’t you see I’m talking?” So she flirted with Zebulon Haas, her old boyfriend from high school, leaving a trail of lipstick-smudged plastic cups on his table.
But later, John commandeered her. She was in the church kitchen, watching with awe and disgust as John’s cousin Karen pulled a jar of Hellman’s mayonnaise from the fridge and smeared a glob of it onto the guts of her tattered empanada, Shelly’s contribution to the potluck. He kissed her neck from behind, right there in the kitchen in front of his cousin, who paused and stared and then walked backward out of the room, holding the empanada half in, half out of her mouth. He rubbed Shelly’s ass and then pulled her tight against him, clutching her hips. When he took her hand and pulled her out into the hall, she followed, curious and excited.
Even on this hot summer evening, the Sunday school room where he took her was cool, shaded all day by a tall oak on the west side of the church. But her Johnny was hot, a radiator of sex. In the dusky Sunday school room, John heaved three tiny tables together to create a private corner. They closed the shades and made love on a beanbag chair, maneuvering around her eight-months pregnant belly. The beans rolled like tiny massaging hands under Shelley’s knees and thighs.
“God, you’re ravishing,” John said.
“This is just what I needed.”
The walls were covered with large construction paper drawings and paper dolls of biblical characters. A boy shooting gold-star laser beams from the tips of his fingers at what she thought was that giant, Goliath. A stick-man with the word lepr over his head. When she saw what she took to be Adam and Eve, with yellow felt hair and clusters of green yarn covering their genitals, Shelly laughed. A warm, spontaneous laugh that filled her whole body with pleasure, exhilaration, and hope.
Meanwhile, Delores was looking for John. He should be helping the men take down the tables, not lollygagging out of sight. The Noah’s Ark Sunday School room seemed an unlikely place to find her grown son, but she had looked near everywhere else and thought she’d heard voices down the hall.
When she opened the door, her first instinct was fear. The room was silent and dark, and yet she could tell that someone was there. The disordered chairs. The smell of vinegar and skin.
She was about to back out of the room and go get Don, but then she saw a foot along the floor. Bare, with painted toenails. “Hello, is anyone there?” Then she heard a brief, stifled moan. Without thinking, she stepped forward, ready to stanch whatever blood she encountered. But instead of blood, there was skin, and so many moving limbs. There was laughing. And hair. And there was her son on the floor, holding a children’s Bible across his lap, which otherwise seemed to be naked, while Shelly hunched behind him, snorting and repairing her own particular state of undress.
“Ma!” John said. “What are you,” he stifled a laugh. “Why don’t you—” He gestured dismissively toward the door.
“You two should be ashamed,” Delores said, the start of a headache pulsing through her temples. “What if I had been one of the children?” John reached for his pants. “You’re in God’s house.”
Shelly stood up behind John, slowly buttoning her shirt over the unborn child and a number of what Delores could only surmise were hickeys. “Did you need something, Delores?” the shameless girl said. John’s belt buckle clanked against the floor as he tried to slide on his pants. Shelly stared, unabashedly, at Delores.
“This,” Delores said, pointing at the floor. “This is why the Darling Barn will never belong to you.”
By chaining herself to the barn early the next morning, while Delores was with the church ladies organizing the food pantry, Shelly thought that John would see how important this was to her and enlist on her side. She had jugs of water and juice. She had a hamper full of bread and fruit and peanut butter. If it rained, she could duck inside the barn. Delores would have to back down before the barn was demolished that afternoon or have the mother of her grandchildren bulldozed into the ground.
But when John came looking for her after feeding the sows for his dad, chewing a long piece of grass and wondering, no doubt, why the kids were eating Chips Ahoy for breakfast, he took off his John Deere cap and threw it, hard, to the ground. He turned and walked a few steps away from her. He put both of his hands on the back of his head and stared at the hogs in the hog lot.
“Just what are you fixing to accomplish?” he asked, his back still turned to her. With her one free hand, she lifted the hem of her shirt and flapped it around her belly. She wanted him to know what she hoped to accomplish without having to explain.
He sighed and turned to face her. “I suppose it’s too much to hope,” he said, taking a bandana out of his pocket, “that you just want to make a point. That you’ll give me the key and we can talk about this later.” He wiped his forehead with the bandana.
“I’m sick of waiting, John. I’m almost thirty.”
“It’s my mother’s barn. Just what do you want me to do?”
“It’s not what I want you to do. It’s what I want you to want.” She sat down, slowly and heavily, on the ground, feeling the baby’s fluids sloshing around inside her. The doctor had said she had three or four weeks to go, but her kids were always late. Like their father, they seemed content to just stay wherever they were. She leaned her head against the barn. The wood was rough against her face. The hinge creaked faintly, and across the yard a feeding trough clanked open, then shut. “It’s like you’re in limbo, and you want me stuck there with you.”
“This is not about me.” He picked up his hat, slapped it against his thigh to shake off the dirt, and put it back on, pulling the green bill low over his eyes. “Look, I’m happy. With you. The kids. I wish you could be, too.” He scuffed the grass with his toes. A grasshopper leapt, up and away.
She frowned and shook her head. She watched him walk across the yard, up the porch, and into their house. When he let the screen door slam shut behind him, she jumped, and the baby kicked her hard, against the ribs. She winced. She crawled just inside the door of the barn, out of the sun but close enough to the door to watch for Delores.
When Delores got to the ambulance dock and heard that the trouble was out at her own farm, she didn’t even ask what, exactly, was the problem. Nothing they could tell her would get her there any faster. She paused, her hand shaking, to put the removable blue emergency beacon on top of her car and then sped onto the County Road, creeping up to eighty miles per hour. She was not, technically, supposed to speed and use the lights, since, again, Rita and Billy had taken the call. But these were her children, her grandchildren.
Between cracks in the barn boards, a sharp beam of sunlight shone through, revealing the floating clusters of fine particles—hay, skin cells, spores—that filled the air. Leaning back against the barn wall, Shelly rubbed her palm across the skin of her turgid belly and breathed in the scent of straw and composted manure.
But the thin dust filled her throat like a sticky paste, and she started to cough. To top that off, the heartburn had kicked in. Like clockwork, all her kids gave her heartburn when they were eight months in the womb. She reached for her purse and started digging around for some Tums. What she found, instead, was a cigarette. One mashed-up, lonely cigarette. She shoved it to the bottom of the bag and pushed the bag away. She really had to quit, for the baby. She sat with her back against the barn wall, chewing on her fingernails and trying not to think about how it would feel, the smooth smoke filling her mouth and then her lungs, the slow purposeful exhale.
A little puff wouldn’t hurt. Just enough to help her relax. All this stress isn’t good for the baby, either. She found a little motel matchbook in her bag. She lit the match, puffed once on the filter, and then paused. What was she doing? She held her breath. She ached to inhale. But the baby. And John. She held the match and the cigarette apart and away from her mouth. She took a tiny, barn-air breath and then a deep one. She swallowed and closed her eyes, thinking about the night that Jake was conceived, right here in this barn. At the time, she could not have imagined what it would be to love—and be loved by—a husband, a daughter, a son. She lowered her arms, willing herself to dispose of the match.
Then she heard footsteps. She opened her eyes just in time to see a shadow flicker into and out of her beam of sunshine. She put her hands behind her back. “The kids want to know what you’re doing out here,” John said, standing in the doorway and holding Jake and Pearl in front of him by one shoulder each.
“Can you make us wiener winks for lunch?” Jake said, hopping back and forth on his feet like a little boxer.
“Dad says he doesn’t know how,” Pearl chimed in.
“Are you done?” John asked. “With this stunt?” Shelly shook her head, turned her eyes away from him. “OK kids, time to go back inside.” And just like that, Jake and Pearl pranced out the door and toward the house, shouting “Bye!” as they went, with John trailing behind. They were such good kids, it made her ache.
She turned around and crouched, looking through the crack where she’d shoved the evidence of her transgression. She pushed her finger through and felt around. Nothing. Well, if she couldn’t find it, then surely no one else would.
Delores turned left—too fast, the car leaning right and almost careening into the Hildreths’ ditch, spitting a plume of gravel behind her—onto county road 46. She could just see the farm, at the end of the mile. Late afternoon sun glared sharply in through the windshield.
Oh, God. Was this one of those moments? Another one of those moments? Often enough, while driving the ambulance, she’d seen these moments in other people’s lives, marching in and taking charge. Now you’re a widow. Now you’re a cripple. Now you have witnessed the death of your child. She cannot go through that again. She thought she should pray, but she couldn’t think straight. The best she could do was Don’t let this be one of those moments.
Something, somewhere, was burning, and she could smell it. Not leaves. Not tires. Maybe a trash pit but probably something bigger. She pressed harder on the accelerator and tried to roll down her window to smell the fire better, but gravel dust blew in and choked her. Before she could close the window, a film of dust clung to her skin and the windshield, and grit clogged her nose and eyes. She was breathing thinly and sweating. She was sure she could smell the burning, her family burning.
Shelly smelled the smoke before she saw the flames. But then she saw it, too, fire in the grass and weeds just along the edge of the barn. She stepped outside of the barn and stamped on the smaller flames with her foot, but they were spreading too quickly. She heard the screen door to her and John’s house slam shut once and then twice. John was running toward her and then turning to shout at Jake and Pearl, “No! Go back!” They paused, deciding whether or not to obey. “Do not follow me! Jake, call 911. Tell them we have a fire at the Darling farm.”
Shelly looked up. Jake looked uncertain. He looked at the barn and at his mother, clearly puzzled. John ran back to the porch. “Just do it!” he shouted, prodding Jake toward the door.
As John ran toward the barn, he pulled off his shirt and tried to help Shelly smother the fire. Shelly had pulled the chain taut, and could barely reach the flames. Her wrist under the chain was bright red and bleeding. “Where is the key?” John pointed to her wrist with one hand while slapping his shirt down with the other. “The key!”
“Just put the fire out!” Some sparks flew out from the fire and onto her arms. She slapped at them and jumped back. The flames were almost as high as John’s shoulders.
“Shelly, this isn’t the time. Just tell me—”
“I don’t have it, all right! Jesus. I mailed it to myself. I figured—I don’t know what I figured. OK?”
“Christ, Shelly,” he shouted, running into the barn. He ran back out carrying a small fire extinguisher. He pulled out the pin and aimed the extinguisher at the base of the fire, in the charred weeds beside the barn. He pushed her back, away from the fire, and pressed the lever. The extinguisher hissed and a powerful stream of thick white powder burst from the nozzle, coating the fire as John swished the nozzle back and forth slowly across it. Shelly heard the town’s emergency siren go off. They stood together for a few minutes, in silence, staring at the extinguished fire now covered in thick white clumps of dirty chemical powder.
“How could you be so reckless!”
“John, I’m seeing this through.” But then—“John!” she barked, looking over his head and behind him. There was fire again, this time at the top of the barn. Flames from inside the barn shot out through the hayloft window. He ran to the door where her chain was latched, and yanked. She knew he would pull the door off at its hinges if he had to. He got it to slump and lean away from its frame, but it wouldn’t come loose.
Shelly ran toward the barn. John tried to grab her and stop her, but she lunged away and into the barn, her chain clanking. Sparks reached a tangle of cobwebs and a line of fire sped across the top of the barn, which crackled in flames. She ducked and ran faster as a blazing clump of cobwebs plunged to the floor. She ran back out, passing John a hatchet. Gray flakes flecked his hair. She collapsed onto the ground, coughing.
John drove the hatchet into the chain as far from her arm as he could, but the chain was too thick. He heaved the hatchet high above his head and lunged at the barn door, first groaning and then shouting. He had not aimed well, and the hatchet, which was dull, chopped awkwardly and ineffectually into a barn board near the ground. “Shit,” Shelly said, slapping the ground. He hoisted the hatchet again, this time to the side, and it sunk into the wood just a little. He lunged again and again. His sweat flew wide and dripped onto her arms, and the hatchet kept slipping loose. He rubbed his palms, quick and hard, against his pants. He stepped back from the barn door and ran, heaving the hatchet and all the weight of his body against the barn. She saw the wood crack, but it did not splinter apart.
When Delores lurched into the yard, Billy and Rita were already there, and the fire truck raced past her on the lane, toward the barn. She feared the worst. John, Jake, Pearl. Don. Her family consumed in fire, beyond deliverance. But as she ran closer, Delores saw John on the porch, arms around Jake and Pearl while they watched Rita kneeling over someone. “Don!” she cried, stepping out of the car. But then saw that he was in the tractor, with the manure spreader hooked up, pulling it safely away from the flaming barn.
While the volunteer fireman shouted and raced from the truck to the barn, Billy and Rita were helping Shelly lie back onto the stretcher. Delores had never seen her daughter-in-law so haggard, her face pale and smudged with soot, her hair matted flat and muddy to her head. Her clothes were soaked. A thick, silver chain dangled from her arm.
“You’ll be fine, honey,” Rita was saying.
“You have to save my baby!”
Delores’s tongue felt thick and dry, like her mouth was full of sawdust. She stared at Shelly and at the mound of baby inside her. Evening was coming on fast. You take like you get, she wanted to think, and you go on. But even in her head, the words wouldn’t take their shape.
“You and the baby will be fine,” Rita said. “Your water might have broke anyway. We’ll be at the hospital in a jiffy.”
“You!” Shelly said, grabbing John’s hand. “You have to save the barn! You have to make them save the barn.”
“Shelly, I can’t do that. I’m coming with you!”
“Used to be,” Shelly shouted, “men folk weren’t allowed at the birth. Right, Delores? Right? That’s what you always said!”
Everyone turned to look at Delores. She knew that she was standing, straight and still, but she felt like she was sinking deep into earth.
Rita and Billy hefted Shelly into the ambulance. John started to climb in with her. “And remember, last time, with Pearl, you almost fainted when her shoulders got stuck.” Her daughter-in-law was right. For all his years growing up on a farm, John wasn’t much use at birth.
“Delores!” Shelly shouted. “Come with me.” John paused, one foot on the ground, one foot on the ambulance floor. “Johnny, I need you to do this for me.”
Her son must have known that he couldn’t do what his wife was asking. Anyone could see that the barn was far beyond saving. He looked at his mother. She put out her arm for John to help her into the ambulance. She would go. She knew what to do.
But what could she say? This wasn’t what she’d expected, driving through her ditch and across her lane with flames shooting out to heaven. She had pictured her husband, writhing in flames. Her grandchildren, weeping and frightened. Her son, clutching his molten face with anguish. But she had not imagined this. Shelly, pale and in need of her.
What could she say? She could think of nothing. Nothing that would be right in this moment. She didn’t want Shelly, or her grandchild, to die, but that just seemed too obvious to say. She knelt beside Shelly and stared at her daughter-in-law, who winced when the needle went in.
As the ambulance pulled out of the lane, Delores watched John out the back window. Before running to the fire truck, he threw his arms up toward the sky, a pitiful awkward wave or a mute, exasperated prayer. Hard to tell which. They cling to you, Delores thought. Your children.
Your people. With their damp, sticky hands and their turbulent urges. But Shelly was not her child, her kin. Not even her friend. But here she was, the one hysterically crying and trying to roll to her side. The one moaning and dripping amniotic fluid on Delores’s shoes, speeding toward God-knows-what calamity and fire. For better or for worse, today they’re headed there together, with ashes in their bones and sirens wailing overhead.
Lori Huth wrote a glorious wreck of a novel to earn her MFA in creative writing from Goddard College and is now writing her second novel. Her work has appeared in journals such as Lake Effect and Vestal Review, and she has been selected as finalist for the Katherine Anne Porter Prize and Glimmer Train’s Very Short Fiction Award. She writes, teaches, and mothers in the woods of Western New York.