So, I’m going to show you my life. Not in pictures, for I cannot paint or draw. I use words. And I hope these words will form some small image of me I long to share with you. In order to do this I think I must reach all the way back into my past to the time before I had a name or even a face, swimming free in the dim recesses of that place from which we all come and that place to which we all will one day return. But I find there is nothing to say of that.
I began in a dried up little town in the middle of the state of Kansas. It never rained for a whole year when I was ten years old and all the trees died off from thirst or beetle disease and what crops that grew withered in the fields while farmers wrung their hands looking to the sky as they prayed for rain. But God didn’t hear. I remember that town in its vibrancy before the dust settled over it and the soil cracked in great chasms which small children had to take care not to fall into lest they be lost forever.
I knew everyone and everyone knew me. A gigantic grain elevator dominated the center of town… below it small stores and houses, streets and alleys, washed out in gentle waves like they were blown there by the wind that graced the surrounding prairie. At night a quiet would settle over it all with the early hum of street lamps and sometimes a fog would creep in from the creek that stuttered through town settling low obscuring the ground making it seem as if everything in the world floated on that mist.
Mornings I’d wake to the tinkle of milk bottles and the crowing of roosters welcoming the dawn and the smell of bacon frying and coffee. My father had no land of his own. Before the drought he worked at a many thousand acres farm on the outskirts of town… sometimes in the spring he’d bundle me with him to go riding over the fields in a growling tractor pulling tillers and plows turning the prairie sod to lay baking in the sun. I’d sit proud beside my father smelling the dampness of the newly turned soil and believe in the beginnings of life.
Late afternoon my mother would ring the dinner bell that hung on the back porch. It had a distinctive sound unlike any bell I’ve heard since and we could hear it way out in the fields. My father would look at me as if to say, we’re done for today, and he’d drive the tractor back to the barn where it was kept and together we’d walk the short distance home, wondering to each other what might be for dinner tonight and laughing at each other’s belly’s growling like that old tractor.
My father would always wash up first while my mother asked how things went today and wonder if the lunch she sent with us was enough to eat or if she should send more tomorrow. My father would say, “Fine, it was fine,” and take his place at the head of the table where a bottle and a small glass greeted him. He’d fill the glass with amber liquid taking care not to spill and throwing back his head drink it down in a practiced gulp. I liked to watch the change settle over him as he downed the third and fourth of the small glasses.
If I dawdled watching, my mother would scoot me to the sink with her hands under her apron, instructing me to make sure my fingernails were clean and to take a cloth to my face. She would load the table with biscuits and beans and potatoes and fried steaks and sometimes pork chops with onions and if it were Friday fish and there would be a pitcher of cold milk for my mother and me and bottles of beer for my father.
On Sundays we’d go to church and the whole town would be there dressed in finery with bibles in hand and the light of God shining in their eyes. After the preacher told us all what to watch for lest we swim eternal in lakes of fire, we’d shuffle out row after row and I’d see the men standing in the sunshine renewing acquaintances and the women seeking out shade and catching up on the latest gossip while the children sat quietly doing their best not to muss up their Sunday shoes. I remember those as fine days.
Early in the spring of my tenth year it quit raining… like God had reached down and turned off the spigot. When I went with my father to plow the fields huge clouds of dust billowed up following us and we had to tie handkerchiefs around our mouth and nose to keep from choking on it. The wind blew dust through all the tiny cracks in the house and it settled over everything, causing my mother to fret and fuss, endlessly wiping off our plates and silverware and sweeping up small piles of dirt that accumulated in corners and on window sills.
By early summer none of the crops we’d planted had sprouted and the people my father worked for said they were sorry but they didn’t need him to come to work any longer. I remember he quit laughing so much after that and sat at the table sometimes until noon scouring the local paper in search of a job, circling hopeful-looking ads and sometimes picking up the phone to call a number. Once in a while he’d dress up and drive off somewhere in the car. But I guess all the jobs were filled. He’d always come back disappointed. I noticed our neighbors started to disappear one by one. Sometimes they’d tell us they were going but sometimes they left in the middle of the night taking only their clothes and what they could carry with them. At church each Sunday there were more empty seats.
My mother took in what laundry she could and sold eggs from her laying hens and jars of honey from her hives out back at the local grocery but that barely covered the cost of our food. As summer wore into autumn my father seemed to give up looking for work and took to sitting silent on the front porch with a brown jug under his rocking chair which he’d raise to his lips from time to time and when my mother would say something to him he’d wave her away with his hand, as if to say to some old dog, “Git.” Sometimes I’d hear her crying late at night.
One day my mother turned on the kitchen faucet and nothing came out. I remember I was sitting at the table doing my numbers and she said, “Lisa, please go to the bathroom and see if the water runs when you turn on the faucet.” So I did. And I came back and told her, “No.” She seemed to collapse in on herself, hunching over by the sink, holding onto the counter to keep from crumpling to the floor, having a hard time catching her breath as if she were gagging on the very air. I could tell she didn’t want to break down and cry in front of me.
My father came in and saw my mother and asked what was wrong. My mother couldn’t answer so I told him there was no water when we turned on the faucets and he said the well must have given out. It was happening all over town. He said maybe it was time we thought about packing up and going somewhere else. He took my mother in his arms and held her for a long time. We left the next day. I’ve never been back to that town in Kansas and I still dream sometimes that it just up and blew away.