by Kenneth Cook
Laura watched the thunderstorm from the living room window. The clouds bloated and darkened, common in the Panhandle in the late afternoons, and then it poured’a gusty, whipsaw wind driving the rain sideways against the house. The rain hardened into thick, white pellets of hail, which soon sheeted the yard. Gene and Rich joined her at the window, and their mother stopped cooking in the kitchen and stood behind them, drying her hands on a cloth.
The boys soon tired of the show, but Laura and her mother continued to stare at the white pellets pouring down’dumped, it seemed, from a huge bucket in the clouds. Lightning crinkled the gray sky, and, to gauge the distance, Laura counted slowly until she heard the thunder. One, two, three, four, BOOM! The time between the light and the sound shortened, and then in an instant the hail stopped, the sky opened up, and a bright beam of sunshine shone on the street. They squinted.
A moment later, simultaneous thunder and a flash of silver heat cracked in their yard. The house shook as if bulldozed. Rich screamed. Laura felt blinded for a few seconds. Her body vibrated, jangled, and her teeth kept clicking, as if she was sending a signal in code.
Her mother stood in front of the window, frozen, her face cut by the sudden shadows after the light. Gene led Laura to the couch.
‘Are you okay?’ he asked.
‘The tree,’ Laura stuttered, ‘the tree.’
Her mother opened the door and went outside. The old oak was split in half, a bright black burn down the center, the heavy leaves of the top branches strewn across the white-pelleted lawn and porch. The ends touched the door.
‘My God,’ Mrs. Tate said, shuffling through the melting hail. She touched the dark center of the trunk. ‘It’s hot,’ she said. ‘It’s still hot.’
Laura moved to the door, the muscles in her thighs and calves quivering, the joints of her knees still vibrating. Her teeth wouldn’t stop clicking. Small lines of blinking silver crosshatched her vision. The sky darkened again. She and her brothers stood on the porch, afraid to move into the yard.
Their mother touched the trunk, the branches, the leaves, as if searching for a heartbeat. ‘So hot,’ she muttered, ‘so hot.’
The next morning, the destroyed oak lay about most of the yard like a huge, stricken animal. Mr. Tate and Manny had cleared away some of the debris that night, but the large job of cutting the heavy branches and uprooting the burnt base of the trunk would take longer and would require special equipment. Leaving for school, they had to maneuver carefully around the fallen branches and the blackened husk of the split trunk. It was a mess.
Coming home on her bicycle later, Laura rounded the curve, saw the tree, and felt again the lightning in her body. Faint silver lines again blurred her vision. Her teeth involuntarily clicked. All this triggered, miraculously, by the presence of the tree.
She got off her bike in the front yard and wheeled it around to the side of the house. The front door was slightly ajar, and she pushed it open.
‘I’m home.’ No one answered. ‘Momma? Rich?’
Still no answer. She went through the kitchen and opened the back door, expecting them to be in the backyard. But all she saw was Fay scratching around the fences.
‘Where’s everybody?’ she called.
Fay trotted over. Laura patted the old dog’s coat and head, careful around the wounds that their other crazy dog Greta had gouged in her face. Fay licked Laura’s wrists and cheek with her bad breath. Inside, on the kitchen table, Laura found the note, quickly scrawled, in her mother’s crooked handwriting: ‘Rich is at Mrs. Ambling’s.’
‘Where did my mother go?’ Laura asked Mrs. Ambling.
‘I was wondering the same question. She just asked me if I would watch Rich until all of you kids got home. She seemed in a hurry. She headed down the road with a suitcase.’
‘Yes, a brown one. Not that big.’
‘Where’s your mother?’ Mr. Tate asked when he and Gene arrived home.
‘We thought you were going to tell us,’ Manny said.
‘Mrs. Ambling said that she left Rich with her, and told her we would pick him up when we got home. Laura found the note. Give it to him, Laura.’
‘Where did she go?’ he asked, glancing at the paper, turning it over as if there had to be more to it.
‘We don’t know,’ Manny said.
‘She took a suitcase,’ Laura said.
‘A suitcase? She walked to town with a suitcase?’ he asked.
‘That’s what Mrs. Ambling said.’
Mr. Tate went into his room, searched his dresser and nightstands. He opened the closet and grabbed the empty hangers and dropped them to the floor. The hangers bounced. He pulled the covers from the bed, looked under the pillows, threw them on the floor. The kids watched him warily from the doorway. His lips twitched. His forehead was stitched into a wrinkled frown. He eyed them as if he was going to say something but then didn’t. Suddenly, he slammed his hand down on the top of the dresser, and they all jumped. Rich grabbed Laura’s leg. Her father whipped the drawers from the dresser, overturned the contents onto the bed and floor. Laura and her brothers continued to watch from the hallway, not crossing the threshold.
‘Damn it!’ their father shouted. And then he struck the lamp by his bed. It crashed against the headboard.
He looked at them as if they were to blame. Then he shook his head, sighed heavily, and brushed past them into the living room. ‘Stay here,’ he said and opened the front door, slamming it behind him. They ran to the window and watched him walk to Mrs. Ambling’s house, kicking the dead branches from the oak aside. They did not follow him.
Mrs. Ambling answered her door and, with his arms folded across his chest and his forehead still furrowed, he asked her questions they couldn’t hear. She nodded and shook her head. They spoke for a few moments, and then he looked up and saw Laura and her brothers at the window. Mrs. Ambling turned and looked at them, too, and then he went inside her house, his arms still crossed.
‘What did she say?’ Manny asked.
Mr. Tate didn’t answer. He hurriedly grabbed his keys. ‘I’ll be back later.’
‘Where are you going?’
‘To look for your mother.’
‘Where is she?’
‘That’s what I aim to find out.’
They ran to the porch as he started the truck and backed out, shooting gravel. They all jumped down and skirted the tree and stood at the edge of the road and watched him drive away, his tires squealing.
By midnight, he hadn’t returned. Laura made Rich go to bed. The child was cranky, unsettled, and had been crying off and on in jags, saying, ‘Where’s Momma? Where did Momma go?’
Laura said, ‘She’ll be back soon. Don’t worry.’ She lay down with him on her bed and rubbed his back and sang songs quietly until he nodded off, and then she went back in the living room. ‘Gene, you should go to bed, too,’ she said. Skinny Gene, the most frail of them all, just stood at the window, looking out. ‘We have school tomorrow.’
‘No,’ he said.
‘It’s after midnight. You’ll be exhausted.’
‘I’m not going to school tomorrow.’
‘Yes, you are.’
Manny said, ‘Give it a break, Laura. None of us are going to school tomorrow.’
‘We don’t have a choice.’
‘We goddamn sure do,’ he said.
‘Momma won’t stand for it.’
‘She’s not here, you idiot! And she ain’t coming back either. Can’t you see that?’
‘Dad’s going to find her.’
‘Fat chance! Are you blind? She’s gone. Long gone.’
‘You’re wrong,’ Laura said.
Gene sat down on their father’s chair, covered his ears, and began to cry.
‘Quit yelling,’ she said to Manny. ‘See what you’ve done?’ She bent down to comfort Gene.
‘Who gives a shit?’ Manny said.
‘Sshhh. You’ll wake Rich.’
‘He might as well be up,’ Manny said.
‘It’s okay, Gene,’ Laura said, stroking his head.
‘No, it’s not,’ Manny said. ‘It’s not okay.’
‘Will you just shut up,’ she said.
‘You fucking shut up!’ Manny shouted and lurched toward her, his face red. She put her arm up to ward off his blow, but he stopped himself. Still, he hovered over the chair.
Gene yelled, through his tears, ‘Stop it, stop it, stop it!’ The intensity of his voice startled both of them.
Rich screamed shrilly, then called, ‘Momma!’
Laura shook her head and grimaced at Manny. ‘What is the matter with you? It’s not our fault.’
‘Laura!’ Rich shouted.
‘Rich, I’m right here,’ she said. She went in the bedroom and made him lie back down. ‘I’ll check on you in a minute.’
‘Don’t leave,’ he cried.
‘I’m just in the living room.’
‘Stay with me.’
She lay down on the bed next to him and rubbed his back again. She thought he was asleep several times, but each time she moved, he startled awake, clutching her.
‘I’m not leaving,’ she said.
She remained as still as possible and closed her eyes and tried not to think. Gene and Manny spoke in hushed whispers in the living room, and then they opened the front door and went outside. Their father wasn’t home, though. She hadn’t heard his truck. She relaxed for a second, nodded off, and then woke, startled, afraid that she’d slept too long. She looked at the clock. Only twenty minutes had passed, but she felt groggy, disoriented. Rich was deeply asleep now.
She grabbed her sweater and slipped on her shoes and went outside, where Gene and Manny sat on the ground, in the debris of the halved oak. She turned on the porch light, left the front door open in case Rich woke again, and then sat down with them.
‘I’m sorry,’ Manny said.
‘It’s okay,’ she said. ‘Let’s go on to bed. He’ll be back soon, and we’ll wake up then.’
‘You two go on,’ Manny said. ‘I’ll wait here.’
‘I’ll wait, too,’ Gene said.
‘No, you come on to bed with me,’ she said. ‘We’ll get up when he comes home.’
‘Go on, Gene,’ Manny said. ‘She’s right.’
‘I don’t want”
‘I don’t care what you want,’ Manny said. ‘Go on with Laura.’
Gene and Laura slipped into the house, and then into bed, without changing into pajamas. Gene slept fitfully. Laura heard him tossing throughout the night. Rich wouldn’t stay on one side of the bed, but he kept waking when she moved him. Finally, she sat in the chair by the window and watched Manny, standing now in the split of the tree, staring down the dark street. Waiting.
Mr. Tate did not show up the next morning. They didn’t go to school. Laura tried to busy herself and Gene and Rich with chores’making breakfast and lunch, washing some laundry and hanging it on the line, pulling weeds from the garden. She fed Fay, who had lost her appetite and moped about, as if she also knew what was going on. Then they watched television, but nothing good was on’no baseball game, just a silly soap opera. So they played Crazy Eights, but Gene started crying in the middle of the game, and that set off Rich, and then soon she was crying as well.
Manny left on his bike right after lunch, said he couldn’t just wait around. He was going to try and find their father, and maybe figure out what in the hell happened. Around three in the afternoon, he rode back up.
‘Did you find him?’ Laura asked.
‘No. The man at the bus station said he came by last night, asking questions.’
‘Did the man know anything about Momma?’
‘He said she caught the bus yesterday.’
‘He couldn’t remember. Maybe Amarillo, maybe Denver.’
‘Where is Dad?’
‘Gone looking for her, I guess.’ After a few moments of silence, he added, ‘She left us.’
‘Why would she do that?’
‘How the hell do I know? She hates us, I guess.’
‘It’s my fault,’ Gene said.
‘No, it’s not,’ Laura said.
‘Yeah, it is. On Sunday, I stole two quarters from her dresser, and she caught me and whipped me.’
‘It’s not your fault,’ she said again. ‘Besides, Dad will find her.’
Manny was conspicuously silent.
Mr. Tate didn’t come back home until early Friday morning, close to dawn. Laura had started to wonder if perhaps neither of her parents was coming back. Bu then his truck rolled into the driveway, crunching the gravel, and they all jumped from their beds and ran to the window.
He was alone. She felt her stomach drop. She and her brothers all stood at the window, staring at him. He turned the ignition off, but he didn’t get out. He laid his head on the steering wheel. She wondered if he had not slept the entire time he’d been gone, and now, exhausted, home, he didn’t have the energy or will to even get out of the truck. He was there for five, ten, then fifteen minutes.
‘I’m gonna get him,’ Manny finally said.
‘Maybe you should just let him stay there a little longer,’ she suggested.
He ignored her and opened the door. She, Gene, and Rich stood on the porch and watched as Manny walked cautiously to the truck.
‘Dad,’ he said, but their father didn’t stir. Manny placed his hand on his shoulder, shook him. ‘Dad!’
He lifted his head slowly. His sagging face was grizzled with black and white stubble.
‘It’s almost six,’ Manny said. ‘You fell asleep.’
Mr. Tate opened the truck door and eased out. He didn’t speak. He started for the porch, but stopped by the debris of the oak.
‘What happened?’ Manny asked him.
He didn’t respond. It was as if their father didn’t even register their presence. He moved among the branches of the tree. He crouched down at the base and put his hand on the black charred wood.
‘Dad,’ Manny said, ‘tell us what happened.’
Their father rubbed his fingers over the dead wood and then smelled the burn on his fingers. He put his face down into the tree. When he lifted back up, his cheeks and nose were blackened. Manny’s body stiffened. He inhaled deeply and then waded quickly through the branches and closed in on his father. Gene, Rich, and Laura moved instinctively down a step toward the yard.
‘Damn it,’ Manny shouted, ‘what in the hell happened?’ He grabbed his father’s arm.
Mr. Tate whirled and, quick and vicious as lightning, struck Manny across the face. Manny fell among the branches. He did not rise. Black finger marks were streaked across his cheek. He lay on the branches and started to cry. Even though he was fifteen, he seemed like a small boy, crumpled there. Mr. Tate looked down at him for a few seconds, and then he crouched next to him and placed his hand on Manny’s head. He began to cry, too. Laura had never seen her father cry before.
Rich and Gene sat down on the porch, and first Gene and then Rich began to cry. Laura breathed deeply and looked up at the sky. It was cloudy and pink. The light spilled over their house, but the sun was blocked from view. The street was empty. She stood on the lawn, her two younger brothers on the porch, crying. Her father and Manny, huddled by the tree, crying.
She stared at the horizon. It seemed right there, but so far. She thought of that bus, disappearing over the edge, rolling away from them, her mother not looking back.