Chapter 16
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Bless This Home

Chapter 16 is proud to present the winning story in the Nashville Reads fiction contest

Wood smoke billows from the chimney, and I’m convinced the bearded man has used too much wood again. My mother rents him the rustic cabin down the hill, small even for one person, though the gutted school bus near the water pump is a viable space for storage. The night is cold, but the air hangs limp, and the smoke pumping from the chimney lingers in plumes, reluctant to move on.

I pretend I’m not home. Curtains drawn, I rest the brass lamp on the floor, enough to light my way without setting the window glass aglow. Murphy swallows his bark as long as I pin him between my knees, but I can feel his spirit balk and lunge in his chest.

This afternoon my mother left for Hart, a good drive from here, to collect the unsold items from her antique booth and close up shop for good, all the old broken lanterns, the rusty tools she bought from a Saginaw yard sale last summer, tarnished saws that bend with coarse coatings, screwdrivers stripped smooth-edged, and wooden stepstools and signs that say Bless This Home and Live By the Sun, Love By the Moon. Phrases painted on barn wood plant microscopic splinters in my skin, and I pick at them in my sleep. I am hungry for food we never have in this house.

The bearded man shuffles from his cabin to his truck without a flashlight. I pause to flick the porch light on but decide that he should know his way in the dark by now. We have not spoken more than once, the bearded man and I, and his cagey behavior towards me says that he has been warned against engaging me in dialogue just as I have been warned against veering too close to his cabin. Whenever I’ve fish-tailed down the hill, I pull toward the school bus, sometimes folding in the automatic door to see what’s new inside.

Tonight I wait to see if my mother carts Sir Benson home along with her unsold antiques; Sir Benson is her boyfriend since the Summer Solstice, who insists on the Sir as if it could polish raw leather. Mostly it confuses people, leaves them wondering how to address him. He is enlightened, my mother leans down close while I take a bubble bath, like it’s a secret she’s been keeping, and I think, Oh. Well then. My mistake. I yank the plug from the drain.

Sir Benson has tried in vain to befriend me, and I have made a game of bucking his kindnesses. He has a habit of presenting me with baubles and small ceramic animals—hedgehogs and rabbits—glued to cardstock squares, and I’ve discovered a truth about these miniature mammals: the smaller the statue, the more impossible to break.

My mother lists excuses for my dismissive attitude behind my back, tossing out the number of years I’ve been alive, puberty, a lunar eclipse as detailed in Mystic Mama, and when we settle in as a family for an episode of Jeeves and Wooster, she shakes a dusting of turmeric onto my microwaved popcorn like magic fairy dust.

By now you must be wondering when it was that the bearded man and I exchanged words. When something is forbidden, the four winds conspire like a pack of wolves. But it isn’t remarkable, or I would have described it outright. He knocked heavy handed against the front door of our house, a real salesman, and he held out a blue plastic gasoline container, empty by the swing of it. He stood at an angle, his palm pressed against the doorframe, supporting his substantial weight. Murphy jumped to the screen and licked the wire like a cat.

I wonder if you’ve got any, he said, knocking the empty jug against the wood flat below the screen. Behind him, the headlights of his truck illuminated the grass that cut between our homes. It was as though nothing else existed beyond the twin cones of light, ecstatic insects revolting in amber, ravines on either side.

I doubt it, I said.

There was a space then, in the conversation, and I made no motion to fill it with words or gestures.

But you haven’t even looked, he said.

My doubt is significant.

I have learned to speak this way from my mother, with steady focus and short, pointed statements. I have learned to lean against the screen so that my bare shoulder grazes the wire weave. I have watched her start and end relationships this way, sometimes at this very door, and once in the most beautiful white dress.

Murphy whines, and the newly planted trees whip in the September wind. For a moment I think they might snap in two, and then I remember how small they are. For the second time this evening, the bearded man leaves his cabin and walks across the gravel to his truck. His steps are slow; the gravel spreads and churns beneath him. I hope he cannot find what he’s looking for, and then I hope my mother comes home without Sir Benson tonight, that we might make a mess of sausages in the morning and use the salty grease to fry our eggs.

Murphy howls from his lupine roots, and the bearded man turns to our kitchen window, the light from the truck’s cab warming his backside and shadowing his face.

We meet on the ridge that divides the driveway from the country road. It curves ahead and behind, an elongated S from the bird’s eye view. I’m afraid something remarkable has occurred, I say. I would like to lie down in the road.

I haven’t found what I’m looking for, he says. I want to lie down, too.

With chilled asphalt underneath us, I imagine my mother’s saws descending from the sky, and Murphy clamors inside the house, his bark is panicked, and the bearded man lies next to me, stiff and still, a regular plank of man. My mother should return home at any moment with Sir Benson’s pick-up, and I pray for the first time in five years, not since my mother left for a week unannounced, I pray that they don’t see us in the nighttime dark, and plow over our shins with grizzled tires, gifting us a shared brokenness from which we might, God willing, never heal.