Sunday, December 14, 2008


Because I could not stop for Death,
He kindly stopped for me;
The carriage held but just ourselves
And Immortality.

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

We passed the school, where children strove
At recess, in the ring;
We passed the fields of gazing grain,
We passed the setting sun.

Or rather, he passed us;
The dews grew quivering and chill,
For only gossamer my gown,
My tippet only tulle.

We paused before a house that seemed
A swelling of the ground;
The roof was scarcely visible,
The cornice but a mound.

Since then 'tis centuries, and yet each
Feels shorter than the day
I first surmised the horses' heads
Were toward eternity.

Emily Dickenson

Body Warmth , a short story

Willamina was a logging town. Surrounded by forest, dotted by ponds full of logs. It always smelled like wood smoke and pine pitch, and rich wet earth. I still love that smell. That combination of fresh rain, decaying vegetation, the smell of green and burning sawdust. I think we stayed in a motel for the first couple of days, but my memory of it has the fevered, steamy quality of an erotic dream.

Our first house was on the outskirts of town at the top of a long sloping hill. It was a small white box, with a smaller white box behind it. The garage was almost too short for the station wagon. The house had a small living room, a small kitchen, one small bathroom and one small bedroom. It had a back porch which doubled as a laundry room. The washing machine was one of the old fashioned kind that had a roller on it. It was just like Grandmother’s in Texas. The water emptied into a big, double sink. I slept across that room, next to an inside wall for warmth.

School started right away. We moved in, and Daddy and I went off to school. Maggy was left at home to do the unpacking. We didn’t bring furniture, so she had to furnish the house. She did it sparsely, beds first. Mine was a metal-framed single bed with a lumpy mattress. Theirs was a double box springs and mattress, no frame, no headboard. They eventually set it on bricks at the four corners to get it up off the floor. Two beer boxes up-ended were used as tables on either side of the bed. We used the biggest box we packed for a kitchen table. There was built-in storage in the bathroom for towels and stuff, but no chests of drawers, no dressers, no chairs to sit on when we ate dinner. Maggy hated the house and Willamina. She hated the constant rain, the 100% humidity. She hated not working. For two weeks she haunted the second-hand shops looking for the odds and ends of civilized life and found little that pleased her. The house remained sparsely furnished.

One of Daddy’s students gave me her old bicycle. I loved it even more then my bike in Salt Lake. This one was a real grown-up girls bicycle with a basket on the front and a long flat panel on the back to carry a passenger. It had a bell, too. Even with the seat as low as it would go, I could barely reach the peddles when I sat. It became my private measure for how much I was growing.

Maggy became increasingly difficult to be around. If I came straight home after school, she would hound me about cleaning my room, picking up the clothes off the floor of the curtained-off corner that was my closet. She’d say things like, “It’s about time you started to take some responsibility around here. I’m not your slave, do you understand me! You’re going to learn to clean up after yourself and start doing chores, like everybody else. Where’s your homework?”
“I did it at school, in the library. Why are you so mad at me?”
“I’m not just mad at you. I hate this place. Now help me clean up. Start in your room.”
“Why did we come here if you hate it?”
“Because it was the least of three evils.”
“I don’t understand what you mean.”
“I know you don’t. It doesn’t matter. Just stay out of my way and keep your room clean. I want you to clean the tub after you bathe. You could help a little more with the dishes, too. Now do what I ask, and leave me alone.” She turned her back and walked out of the kitchen into the living room where she had her sewing machine set up on a card table. She was making curtains. I stood there, very quiet, and then I went into my room and started with the closet. I picked up the piles of clothes on the floor and laid them on my bed. Then I started playing dress-up. After I tried on an outfit I hung it up or folded it, and put it in the cardboard boxes that were my chest of drawers. If something smelled really bad, I dumped it in my dirty laundry basket. Then I quietly tiptoed out the back door and got on my bicycle. I rolled out the driveway and instead of circling the house around the picket fence that surrounded the front yard, and heading down the paved road to town, I took the dirt road at the back of the house, coasting over the pot-holed, rocky surface, cruising the neighborhood, heading for the woods that bordered the north end of town, only a few blocks from our house.

I found trails among the trees, ferns as tall as a grown-up bordered the trails. I found delicate, orchid like flowers, fallen trees with trunks covered in a rug-like green moss. Within the cover of that forest, even in heavy rain I could remain remarkably dry. The trees were like gently dripping umbrellas. I found a huge variety of mushrooms and toadstools, and saw squirrels and chipmunks, does with faintly spotted fawns. I saw a skunk and he saw me. We stared at each other for a moment, then he turned and walked away, stopping once to look back at me. Then he hurried on. I went home when it started to get dark.

The smell of dinner hit me before I even opened the back door. And I could hear my mother’s voice raised. I paused with my hand on the doorknob. Maggy was raving about mildew. About mildew and money. That seemed safe enough for me to open the door. As I entered the kitchen, glancing quickly at the table to see if it needed setting, I heard her say, “So I got a job. I start work Monday. I’ll work in the front office at the Electric Company. Judy’s going to have to help out here. And I’d appreciate it if you backed me up on that. Could you try to get home a little earlier?” Then she noticed me getting silverware out of the drawer. “Where the hell did you go?”
“I just went for a bike ride.”
“Did you hear what we were talking about?”
“I heard you say you got a job.”
“Well, that’s going to mean more work for you. I’m counting on you to help me out here, okay?”
“Okay.” I went about my business of setting the table. We had chicken with dumplings and salad. It was great, one of my favorite things. A filling, comforting food. And there were leftovers to eat after school tomorrow. And nobody would be home, so I could do what I wanted and wouldn’t get yelled at. I sang as I washed the dishes. “We are poor little lambs who have gone astray, baa, baa, baa. We are little lost sheep who have lost our way, baa, baa, baa. Gentleman songsters off on a spree, doomed from here to eternity. God have mercy on such as we, baa....baa...baa.”

When I took my bath I sang “A tisket a tasket, a red and yellow basket, I wrote a letter to my love and on the way I lost it.” I couldn’t remember any of the other words, so I kept repeating the same line over and over. I scrubbed out the ring in the tub with my washcloth and bar soap. I hung up my towel. I put on my pajamas, carried my dirty clothes into my bedroom and threw them on the closet floor. Maggy was sewing, and Daddy was grading tests. I said goodnight and went to bed. I was delighted that Maggy would be going to work.

When Daddy came in the next night to read with me, he said, “It‘s cold out here. We need to get you a heater. Sit up and let me scoot in there. We can keep each other warm while we read. Did you ever hear of the Donner Party?”
“No. What kind of a party did they have?”
“They were explorers, pioneers, and they got caught in a snowstorm, crossing Donner’s Pass. That’s a high mountain pass. They ran out of food, and they were so cold. Almost as cold as I am right now.” He stuck his bare feet on the side of my calves. They were like ice.

“If I’m going to finish this story, you’re going to have to keep me warm. Come here.” He wrapped me in his arms, and pulled me close to his body. Snuggling me in close, my head nestled in his armpit. “They call it the Donner Party, because it was a group of people who all died in a horrible winter storm. Nobody was prepared for how much snow there was or how cold it got. When the horses died, they ate the horses. That kept them alive for awhile, but now and then someone died in the night, even though they all slept together, like this. Do you know the best way to stay warm?”
“To wear lots and lots of clothes and keep your hat on?”
“That’s best in the day time, but at night, even with clothes on, your body temperature drops. So the best thing to do is share body warmth with someone else. Let me show you what I mean.” I had my back to his stomach, and he scrunched back from me and pulled his sweatshirt up, and pulled his pants down. Then he moved his bare stomach and chest and legs close to me, and it was like backing close to the gas heater in the living room. Then he pulled my nighty up and it was skin to skin. My butt was cold until it snuggled into his lap, which was hotter than the rest of him. It was like the hottest part of the fire. “See what I mean? That’s how the Donner Party stayed alive as long as they did.”
“Did they all die?”
“I’ll finish that story next time, but you need to practice your reading, so read to me kiddo.”

I leaned forward, breaking contact, to reach my reader. Daddy pulled me back, and with his hand he opened my legs, slipping his penis between my legs, resting it snug against my peepee. It was warmer than anything. Then he said, “Now I’m comfortable and warm, how about you?” I nodded my head. “Well, are you going to read to me?”

I turned pages to the slow, rhythmic rocking of Daddy’s naked body behind me, between my legs. His breath was warm and wet on the top of my head. I turned another page and held my breath, listening. He whispered, “Does that feel good? Are you warm enough?” I nodded my head. He used the hand that had slipped his penis between my legs to reach across and touch himself. Then he put his fingers on my peepee and they were slippery. They slid into the lips of my peepee, and he opened them so his penis was rubbing against me closer and slippery. He whispered, “Give me your hand.” I took my hand and put it in his, and he moved them both to the hot slippery place between my legs. He put my palm over the wet round top of his penis, with his hand on top on mine, he pressed our hands around it, and our hands moved together, touching my slick peepee then pulling back to move through the crack of my bum, then forward again, so slow and warm and slippery. The inside of my thighs were slippery, too. He made a soft huffing sound and our hands filled with hot wet slimy stuff. He held my hand there, full of that stuff, while he whispered into the top of my head, “God, oh God, you are the sweetest...oh...ah, God...”Then he used the hem of my nighty to clean up our hands. It was the beginning of a new tradition.

Another tradition was shooting rats at the city dump. The only picture of me holding that gun and aiming it, is when I'm nine. The gun I'm holding in the picture is my mother's Luger pistol, a spoil of war my first father brought back from his adventures in World War II. I am a thin, long legged girl with shoulder length hair. The picture was taken at the city dump in Willamina, Oregon, in the summer. My Daddy and I are out of school and shooting rats at the dump. He leans against our ugly green station wagon, a cigarette dangles from his lips, and when he isn't aiming a camera at me, he's holding a bottle of beer and smoking a cigarette. I'm a good shot by then, but I don't remember when I held this gun for the first time. It has a fierce little kick that I have learned to control. I am standing there facing my Daddy, with the gun held in my right hand, arm extended, head turned to the right, shot by the camera in profile, squinting slightly as I aim. My left arm hangs so nonchalantly at my side. I have very good posture. I'm wearing shorts, a camp shirt, and espadrilles. It was so easy to swing that gun in a quarter arc and shoot my Daddy dead. I remember the thought drift through my brain like the wisp of a dream. And then as if it were just a dream, I do it. I don't even think about it. It just happens. That quarter swing of my arm, and I pull the trigger. My aim is wrong. The top of his head flies off and splatters the windshield of that ugly green station wagon. He doesn't make a sound. He is slumping down, sliding off the bonnet of the station wagon, missing the top of his head. Then there is the sound of the beer bottle hitting the dirt. It's a soft little sound, as the beer bubbles up and spills into the dirt. Now it's so peaceful at the dump.

I'm curious, and walk slowly toward the station wagon with the gun dangling from my right hand. The cigarettes are in the breast pocket of his short sleeved shirt. Blood and bits of other stuff are soaking the shoulders of his shirt and I want to get the cigarettes out of his pocket before they're ruined. I put the gun in his lap, and then I reach into his pocket and grab the pack of cigarettes and his zippo lighter. He's never let me use the lighter. He always lights my cigarette for me. It takes me two tries to get the flame to pop up. It's easy. I wonder why he made such a big deal about the zippo being dangerous. I sit in the dirt, and lean back against the tire in the shade. It's so quiet. I can hear birds chirping and a squirrel scolding off in the distance, the sound of insects.