Nate pulls us all from the pool. I lose sight of my cotton twin in the confusion, and then I am thrown into the darkness of another maw. I tumble, letting this new monster chew me as cud that is never swallowed.
MRS. LOUIS CLAYTON JAMES
She Has a Grievance Which She Has Brought All the Way From Lincoln County, Nebraska And now She Airs It for the Readers of “The Nonpareil.”
There is a woman in Council Bluffs who has a story. Her name is Mrs. Louis Clayton James, and besides her story she has four small children. She came here Sunday from Lincoln county, Neb., and is living with her divorced husband’s mother at the corner of Tenth street and Avenue H. Mrs. James, the mother, has a number of children, and the two families are living in a two room hovel. Mrs. Louis Clayton James is very bitter against her husband-who-was. She declares that she will have him arrested to-day for securing a divorce from her by false testimony. She consulted an attorney yesterday and if the story she told a Nonpareil man last night is true, Mr. Louis Clayton James had better elope at once. Her story is rather difficult to follow, because Mother James was present during the interview and chimed in so often in defense of her “darling boy” that at times the air was a bedlam of confused prattle. Here’s what the reporter heard:
“Mrs. James is my name an’ my husband’s name’s Lou James.”
“Taint so,” remarked Mother James, “my son’s name aint ‘Lou’ James; It’s Louis Clayton James an’ I want it put in th’ paper that away.”
“Mother, I wish you–”
“I aint your mother,” said Mother James in frigid tones, “an’ I don’t want t’ hear no more of your motherin’ me.”
. . . Miss Louis Clayton James continued:
“Me an’ my husband we went to Nebraska three years ago an’ we took up a claim in Lincoln county. Not quite a year gone he told me he was tired o’ me an’ he left me, so he did, an’ him [come] back t’ Council Bluffs. I didn’t hear no more from him an’ only twiced he sent me money. He sent me $1.50 onced an’ $2 ‘nother time, an’–”
“No look ahere,” protested Mother James, “that’s a lie. He sent you $2 th’ first time an’–”
“He didn’t nuther, he–”
“He did, I say–”
The reporter called time and Mrs. Louis Clayton James proceeded:
“Last month I sent my little darter t’ Council Bluffs t’ visit an’ she [sent] him back t’ me in Nebraska all beaton an’ bruised an’ my husband, he–”
“No he didn’t nuther,” screamed Mother James, “he didn’t do nothin’ o’ th’ sort. He never beat the child, an’ I can swear he didn’t.”
“Well that’s nuther here nor there,” said Mrs. Louis Clayton James, “so I’ll drop it.”
“Your’d better drop it,” chimed in the aggrieved Mother James, and the woman went on with her story.
“I didn’t know just how I was fixed wi’ my husband so I pulled up an’ [come] back t’ Council Bluffs an’ now I find he’s got a divorce from me an’ is married again t’ a Kissell woman, who is janitor o’ the’ Hall school. He got th’ divorce on th’ grounds that I ‘aint a good woman an’ I am told by neighbors that he married th’ Kissell woman afore he got th’ divorce from me, an’ if that’s so I–”
“I know better’n that,” said Mother James. “He didn’t marry Miss Kissell afore he got his divorce from you. I know this because we went down t’th’ court house one evenin’ an’ paid $10 for the divorce an’ then he went an’ got married;”
“I don’t care nothin’ ’bout what you say. That’s what th’ neighbors tell me,” continued Mrs. James. “An’ then I’m told that he paid a man t’ swear I was a bad woman, an’ when I find out th’ name o’ th’ man I’ll make him dance. I went down t’ th’ court house an’ looked at th’ records, and they only show that he was given a divorce; they don’t say what for. I’ve seen Lawyer Boulton, I have, an’ I’m go’n’t make it hot for that man. I’ve seen th’ chief o’ police too, an’ I’m goin’ t’ have James arrested too. He just wanted t’ get rid o’ me an’ I’m goin’ t’ get even with him an’ that huzzy he married.”
Mrs. Louis Clayton James and Mother James commenced another round and the reporter sneaked off, leaving them to fight it out.
Despite the journalists’ sensationalism and his attempts to make my ancestors sound like bumpkins, I was pretty excited to find this article and even more excited to prove that these two are my ancestors. The shady Louis is my great-granduncle, and “Mother James” is my 2nd great grandmother, Olivia. I feel like this gives me an idea of who she was: fiercely loyal to her children and able to speak her mind. She was the kind of woman who told the journalist exactly how her son’s name should appear in the newspaper and the journalist listened. As for how this situation resolved, here’s one more document:
Name: L C James
Birth year: 1849
Birth state: Ohio
County of Residence: Pottawattamie
Date of incarceration: 26 Mar 1891
Term of sentence: 2 yrs
“The bitch threw me out. Can I stay here tonight?”
Oscar hesitated, but then stepped aside for his son. Jimmy took his work boots off in the breezeway and threw a pink, polka-dotted backpack on the recliner before he slumped into the couch.
“Get your feet down. I don’t want those things anywhere near where I take my meals.”
Jimmy did as he was told, then closed his eyes. Oscar grabbed two Miller Lites from the fridge and turned off Wheel of Fortune to let Jimmy be a minute. When Jimmy didn’t thank him for the beer, didn’t even open his eyes to see it being offered, Oscar lost his patience.
“Well?” Oscar said. “I thought that shrink was helping you two out.”
“It wasn’t about Traci; it was Miranda. She told the school nurse that I was beating on her.”
Jimmy’s eyes popped open. “No.” He took a swig of beer. “So the school called CPS and some dink with a clipboard came out in a hatchback to stand in my driveway and ask me stupid ass questions no one needs to hear the answers to, and then he told me about some services down at Southern Methodist we can go to and I told him, I says, ‘We’re already paying for a therapist, dude, that well’s dry’ and Shit-for-Brains says to me ‘Situations like this tend to fester, Mister Taggart.’ And I says ‘Situations like what exactly?’ And he’s all high-and-mighty but with his clipboard up against his chest like this, and he says ‘Situations that involve anger control issues and step-daughters.’ Now have you ever had someone tell you exactly what your problem is while you’re standing in your own damn yard, Dad? In all your years in this goddamn town, has some stranger ever had the balls to park in your driveway, shove some pieces of paper in your face, drill you with insulting questions for twenty minutes, and then tell you exactly what they think your problem is?”
“Son, there’s entire industries based on doing that. Heck, I used to go door-to-door in the ’60s making people feel bad for not buying their kids the right kind of encyclopedias. But I don’t get why Traci would throw you out for not hitting Miranda?”
“I don’t know. The woman’s fucking nuts. One second she’s asking the dink to back out of the driveway so she can pick Osage up from cheerleading practice—”
“That name. I’ll never get used to it.”
“—and the next second she’s telling me to grab my shit and get out. Zero to sixty, that’s her way.”
“And the social worker just let you leave? What was the point of him even coming out if he wasn’t going to do something?”
“What, you wanted him to put me in jail or something?”
“Nah, I just think whoopin’ on a girl is a serious thing whether it was done or not.”
“I didn’t hit Miranda, Dad.”
“No, I know. I know. That’s not what I’m saying, though that social worker might have a point about your anger. No, what I mean is they can’t just drive up and start asking questions. Don’t they need proof or something to back up the story before they start an investigation?”
“I think you’ve been watching too much CSI, old man. CPS has to answer every call. They don’t need no backing up nowadays. If a girl says so, they come out. She probably showed the nurse the bruises on her shoulders—don’t look at me like that; it was an accident. They was obviously from fingers. Eight little bruises about the size of a nickel and this far apart? What else would leave marks like that? Randa wasn’t listening to her momma again and I was doing something about it. That girl is so dramatic about things.”
“Well, that’s sure as taxes. I ain’t never seen that young lady pass up a chance to stand in front of people.”
“All she needed was Ma and a Target store floor and it could have been Traverse City all over again.”
Oscar cracked a smile. “You know, your mother came home from that and insisted I pay for her to rent another cabin in the woods for a week. That’s where these afghans came from. She spent the whole week by herself sipping red wine and knitting. When I picked her up, she packed them in the back of the truck and—swear on sweet baby Jesus’s manger—she skipped before she slid in next to me with that grin of hers…that was the last time I saw it, I think. You hungry? Think I got some fish sticks in the freezer.”
Jimmy said he was, then his phone rang and he stepped out the back door. When he came back in, Oscar smelled the smoke on him. Jimmy pulled a bread knife from a drawer and started jabbing at the potatoes.
“You’re gonna hurt yourself chopping like that. Just get out of my way, Jimmy. I don’t need no Great Wall of China between me and the icebox. Just sit in that chair and tell me who was on the phone.”
“It was Traci, telling me Miranda needs her backpack for school in the morning.”
“So you’re heading back home.”
“I told her to go fuck herself. She didn’t even think of standing up for me to Shit-for-Brains. She shoulda told him how easily Randa bruises, but she didn’t—none of ‘em did— and they were all standing there like deer, staring at me then staring over at the dink. They all saw her acting up and me taking her shoulders and telling her like it is: ‘Your ma doesn’t want you at the Howards and that’s that,’ I says. ‘You go to the Howard’s place: your ass is grass.’ I pressed a little too hard; I get that…but I was backing Traci up. And I know, I know Traci and Randa’s dad aren’t gonna say shit about it to her.”
“You can’t touch them kids, son. They ain’t yours to discipline.”
“But nothing. You’re the lone wolf trying to join a new pack. Come hell or high water it’s you they’re gonna shove ahead when trouble walks into the yard. It was the same when I married your mother. That first Sunday dinner your grandpa and your uncles met me. Your Uncle Junior gave me this scar that day telling me they expect me to be a stand-up man, they expect me to cherish their Lois like the angel she is, and all the while with that same shit-eating grin that family has. Pack mentality and all that. Soon as they heard about the cancer they took her from me. Didn’t even let me wipe soup from her chin. Your aunts and uncles cooing at her and reading to her all the time, singing her favorite songs. Thought they were being nice, ‘sharing the burden,’ they called it. No. After all those years and kids and grandkids and great-grandkids I still wasn’t one of them. I was still the new wolf. Still am, I guess.” Oscar laid a slab of fish in a skillet.
“That’s it. I’m staying here tonight.”
“To be honest, Jim, I’m fine on my own. Took me a while to get used to the holes your mother left around here. I’m still working up the courage to eat at the dining room table even though there’s no game of solitaire to mess up anymore. You want some vinegar for your fish? Your mother left enough of these packets to feed all of the third world, there you go— but I like the way I fill the holes myself now. I don’t need you young people coming around trying to fill them up for me. The last thing I want is a fuss. Plus, I don’t see how staying here is going to do you any good. You should go home and face them girls. Your mother called that kind of thing ‘clearing the ivy.’”
“I remember, Dad. I’ll go if you want, but you \can’t keep shutting yourself up in this house. You ain’t no loner. Besides Ma’d want you out living a life, in your garden, at the diner with your guys from the Post, not sitting in here talking to her afghans.”
Oscar put a pan of potatoes back on the burner. He stared at the area rug Lois had brought back from Lansing.
“I heard you talking to her when I was outside,” Jimmy’s voice was just above a whisper. “Ain’t no shame in missing Ma—I miss her like Christmas morning—but the time for licking wounds is up, Dad. Think of Andrew and Charlotte and Colin. Most guys don’t get the chance to know their great-grandkids, you lucky sumbitch.”
Jimmy listened to oil sizzle. He watched his father’s elbow pull back, forcing potato pieces to fly up above the lip of the pan for a moment before their dramatic return. He grabbed plates from their spot in the cabinet beside the fridge, and he marvelled that the rose stencils on the silverware drawer hadn’t worn off in all the years they’d been there. The men ate dinner in silence.
That night lying on his parents’ couch, Jimmy smelled his childhood in the sheets and pillows. He heard every familiar creak of the stairs and floorboards as his father came down to the kitchen early the next morning. The flip of the lightswitch. The whistle of the coffeepot. His father tried his best to close the back door quietly when he went out for his morning walk, but the hinges needed oiling. Jimmy laid there thinking things through. When he finally decided to haul out of the sagging cushions and get himself dressed, he found an afghan folded up in Miranda’s bright pink, polka-dotted backpack.
We asked our sonorous ship to call out, to sing her silent aria so the notes would chase each other into the chasms of the lake, returning only when they’d found you hiding beneath three hundred sixty-five feet of shimmering viridian crepe.
DUSKAT DUSK THEY COME ALIVE. Or rather, I bring them to life. Every night, as I open each of their little hatch doors with the hook at the end of my lighting spar, I imagine them bowing slightly, offering their waxen hearts for me to relight so they may carry on with their duties. If you have walked down President’s Way, then you know their helpful gaze. Of course to them you are no different than the surreys that glide down the broad street like debutantes down a grand staircase. I’ve always admired that of my sentries: their easy way with people. How they give each citizen a gift and allow them to keep it even after the people ignore them and pass into the care of one of their brethren. No jealousy lies between the posts, only slabs of sidewalk. They are as comfortable in their role as the city’s night watchmen as I am in being their keeper.
DUSKSince the very night I finished my schooling years ago, I have walked to the department an hour before twilight, surrendered a plaid coat of one size or another to the gray embrace of a locker, inspected and maintained my spar; and then, when satisfied, lit its wick and walked the streets of my neighborhood nudging my charges awake. My friends call me The Peacock, after the olden bird—long extinct—that, to impress a mate, unfurled a bright tapestry of feathers behind its head. But I am not as proud a man as all that; I only want to do good for my children, my wife, my friends. That is what is important.
DUSKThe other night, about halfway through my rounds, I came across a policeman—a novice, judging by his triangular cap—hunkering at the base of a lamppost near the yawning garage door of the firehouse. The novice seemed very sure of himself for someone so young . . . nimble, determined; I decided to watch him for a while before I approached.
DUSKHe held wire cutters in his left hand, and in his right I saw black wires that led into the post’s casing—you may not know, but those wires feed lecktricks to the bulb atop each of the streetlights. They’re used so infrequently I often forget that they’re there myself. Government workers, like that novice, have lecktrick devices, but they know about as much as I do on the subject of how lecktricks work. Few people are allowed to know about the science nowadays: the sons of the rich, certainly, a few poor young men who stumbled upon a secret of the President’s. In my time as lamplighter, I have only met two workers who’ve learned. One of them told me that in olden years people had many lecktrick machines in their homes, they watched them after supper—although I can’t imagine what a lecktrick would do to keep people’s attentions for too long—they used them in the afternoons to plow the fields, they even had lecktricks to wake them up in the mornings. Just imagine that: a lecktrick that shook you plum out of your bed! Ah, but the novice. . .
DUSKRemembering my duties, I checked the top of the post to verify that no warning box hung over the avenue. None did. That was good; no one would perish because of malfunction. As eerie as I find the boxes’ green, yellow, and red lights when they shine during Superstorms, I know we’d suffer greatly without them.
DUSK“You…novice. What are you doing there?” I said. The shine from the man’s cutters blinked out of sight.
DUSK“Hello, Uncle Jessop, hello.” It was Fowler, my niece’s husband. He had shaved his dark beard into a V since I last saw him; its point pinched his chin, its arms slashed across both cheeks. It stretched and shrunk as he spoke, “I was wondering when you’d be about. I saw a rat scurry into this post. I was looking for it just now. I felt it necessary to make sure nothing was severed inside. Since I know this is your route, I wanted to tell you.” He pulled out his police-issued selfone and tapped the face of it, apparently to report the damage to his sheriff. I knelt at the foot of the post. Fowler offered me more excuses, but his words floated above my bare scalp.
DUSKNothing was cut, but the insulation around the wires was indeed nibbled away. The shreds were not the fine dust I am used to seeing whenever rats have made work of the wires—it was coarser, like the size of sleet that falls in May during Alninyo years. I looked up after I asked him about his wire cutters, sensing that my words had not found any ears.
DUSKI was right; my nephew was gone.
This story is very much inspired by Anthony Doerr’s gorgeous novel All the Light We Cannot See. I highly recommend it. Also, this is my practice writing genre stories for the upcoming NYCMidnight short fiction contest.
Waiting for the bus, Osage slipped her hands into her pockets and found something. Cellophane crinkled as she pulled out four bright orange and yellow Jolly Ranchers. That was the third time this month.
Osage spotted her friend Jessica’s shock of purple hair in the fourth seat from the back of the bus, their usual. She heard bubble gum snapping as she walked between the seats. “I found more candy just now,” she said when she reached Jessica. Jessica looked up from her phone. Osage recognized the deep-voiced narrator of Candy Crush saying ‘Sweet.’
“You don’t think it’s me, do you?”
“Yeah. I think you totally woke up early, carried a ladder five blocks, and snuck into my bedroom window just to put some stupid candy in my pocket.”
“Ever hear of doors, smart ass?” Jessica’s phone cheered and whistled before she continued. “Have you checked your other jeans? Maybe whoever did it hid the candy before and you’re just finding it now.”
“I checked. Nothing. It gotta be Mom because she’s not letting Jimmy, my step-dad, sleep in the house anymore. No way it’s Camden. That would require him to acknowledge my presence.”
“Why don’t you just ask her?”
“I don’t know. Why doesn’t she just give me the candy?”
“True. She’s being pretty stalkery. Like how does she even know which jeans to put them in?”
“I lay my clothes out on my dresser at night.”
“You’re such a freak, Ozzie. No one sane does that.” Jessica’s attention shifted back to her phone. Osage watched a few purple locks of her friend’s hair come loose from behind an ear. They reminded her of the tentacles of a cartoon octopus.
“Shut up. My mom does it, too.”
“That just proves my point…is she any better?”
“Sort of.” Osage traced the seam on the edge of the vinyl seat with her finger. We’ll get through this, her mom had said between sips of beer, we’ve done this before.
A few summers ago, her mom and dad packed her and Camden up for a surprise trip. They acted weird on the drive down, being super nice to each other, like Mom asked permission before she changed the radio station, and Dad didn’t check his phone once while he was driving. Camden and Osage spent the car trip tossing looks across the back seat of the Blazer.
They stayed the night at a La Quinta outside Jeff City. Boys on the floor, girls in the bed. In the morning, her dad told them to put their swimming suits on before they got in the car. After another hour of driving, her dad pulled into a parking lot near a river. They walked down a pier that ended with a tin shed, brightly colored canoes nodding at them as they passed. A man with a long beard handed them four lime green life jackets and two oars, then pointed to a canoe the color of a pencil eraser. Her mom got in first, and Osage followed, then Camden and her dad. For some reason, the morning didn’t feel fun to Osage, it felt like doing chores.
After about ten minutes of half-steamed paddling, their father pivoted to face his family. “Do you kids know where you are?”
Camden shrugged his shoulders; Osage scanned the buildings. Her dad pointed to the shed they’d just walked past. “That’s the boat rental place I worked at in college.”
“This is the Osage River?” Osage dipped her fingers into her namesake; the cool water pushed against her fingers.
“Yeah, and that’s Camdenton,” her mother finally said. “We wanted you guys to see how gorgeous it is here, how special.”
“This is where we started,” her dad said, using his oar to turn the canoe. “And this is where we want it to end. There’s no good way to put this: your mother and I have decided to break up.” Twelve gongs of a church bell announced the arrival of the afternoon.
“It’s going to be weird for a while.” The boat reeled as her father shifted his weight. “But we still care for each other. We just think we’ll be a stronger team apart. Right, Traci?”
Back in the bus, Osage thought of the last time she’d seen Jimmy at the house. He had offered to pack their lunches. He’d never done that before.
Osage pulled her own phone out of her backpack, clicked on Jimmy’s text thread, and typed, “Thx 4 the candy!”