Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Here it is - The Replacement

The Replacement


Noah Matthews

Copyright 2008

The smell was unbelievable. I had been warned by a deputy sheriff about the smell, and the flies – hundreds of them. The largest flies I had ever seen – desperate, frantic black dots, hundreds dead, hundreds dying. But no warning could prepare me for this assault, this stench of wet leather and rot, so powerful that it temporarily immobilized me. I struggled to breathe through my mouth, to rationalize the affront. The room around me began to cry out with memories from the past – of a trick or treat night when I peed in my plastic dime store costume because I was too afraid to ask to use the restroom, of being stripped naked to reveal melted flesh from an overturned percolator filled with boiling coffee that had landed in my lap, of a resurrection plant that browned, greened, and browned again in an endless cycle all contained in a glass bowl with a tan and cream seashell and a discarded belt buckle, of the grate in the center of the floor that imprinted little squares on the bottoms of my feet and covered a coal-fired furnace below that glowed with the fires of hell and the acrid smell of sulfur, of a rainy afternoon spent with my grandmother urging her to draw chickens on the back of a used envelope – the only thing she could draw, while she complained that when I leaned on her lap, my elbows were too sharp, of the sun pouring into the room through the open screenless door as I bathed outside in the lawn in a galvanized steel tub with cold water run from a hose and pumped from a spring otherwise used to water the cattle.

“In this heat, the body had liquefied so it made quite a mess. You’re gonna want to get that linoleum out of there. Do you want me to help?” The coroner stood unfazed, picking at his teeth with a book of matches before awkwardly shoving them into his shirt pocket. The biggest fly I had ever seen landed and danced above his upper lip. He made no effort to swat it but instead tolerated it until it buzzed mindlessly away.

“That’s OK. I’ll manage.” My vibrato was false and he knew it. He turned without another word and moved to the kitchen, me closely behind him. The stench rose to my open mouth and lay like exposed bowel on my tongue. My stomach lurched in protest and I moved to the back door, opened it, and stood gulping air. Behind me the floor, layer upon layer of cracked, curled, and worn linoleum, was awash in liquid death. My God in heaven is this what becomes of our flesh after only five short days? Five hot, country August days behind closed doors and plastic-covered windows is enough to reduce us to a pool of flesh and liquids. All our laughter, joys, triumphs, battles, sins, victories, failures – our days reduced to this.

I stood gathering my thoughts as echoes of my childhood bounced quietly from the soiled walls. Had there been happiness here? Could there ever be? Eli, Eli, lemana shabakthani.

The heat of the day passed and I sought refuge on the sagging front porch from the macabre tasks now but a mental aberration catalogued for sleepless nights and lonely days. In the distance a trail of dust followed an older blue car traveling in the center of the gravel road that twisted its way to the old farm house. The tires crunched the stones and made the sound that only tires on gravel can make and an occasional ping as a rock was picked up by the treads and flung against the undercarriage. Lurching into the driveway and disappearing momentarily in a cloud of dust, the driver pushed open the rusted car door as it squealed in protest, adjusted her hairpiece, and then emerged from the dirt cloud to greet me on the front step.

"Sweetheart, I came as soon as I heard. Just as soon." She clamped her smoker's lips together tight in a ring of deep lines and seized me violently, pulling me into her sizeable bosoms. I stood awash in the smell of mothballs, arthritic cream, and cheap perfume and wondered at the plethora of terrible odors the world had to offer.

If Silkie was her true given name, no one knew. She had married a young thick-necked American soldier stationed in Germany two decades after World War II . Eleven years her senior, he had "jumped the twig" as she was fond of saying, and was buried at the first level spot on the hill behind the home they built together. She passed her days eating rum-filled chocolates, pampering her five dogs that lorded over her diminutive domicile throwing hair over every surface, and cleaning house for neighboring famers when they had babies, sickness, or the wives grew tired of doing double duty working in the field all day and then coming in to cook and clean for the others in the household who twisted out of their earth-tired clothes and called the day's work done. One part cleaning, and two parts gossip, these visits made Silkie an internet alternative - information on demand and at your kitchen table.

Days became weeks and weeks months that blew across the abandoned fields and orchards, through the weary outbuildings and barns, shifting thoughts and intentions, bending benevolence, changing the course of compassion. And so entered greed where once tenderness sprouted and grew. Summers spent together wading the edges of the pond, jumping from hay bale to hay bale under a blanket of stars, sitting with our backs to the cool of the water tank as we rode along and planted tobacco, all these now meant nothing. The years spent working alongside each other, laughing and playing together were swept away for most, but not all. Cousins became enemies, aunts and uncles foes who used words like fiery arrows. Shadows became truths and they fooled even themselves. My sorrow grew and swelled until I thought it might consume me completely.

Neighboring farmers began to take advantage of the abandoned property, shifting fence lines and appropriating equipment that lie idle, all while smiling coffee-stained smiles and muttering "God bless you" and tilting their sun-bleached hats to my wife. The goodness of man is but a thin veneer put on for appearance sake but easily splintered and shucked off like the outer shell of the locust when its time has come to arise and quench its insatiable need to feed. Stripping away life, they feed.

Silkie turned her face from the phone to take a draw on the cigarette she had rolled herself and I could imagine it thrust between her sausage-like fingers, and then her habitual movement to the bridge of her glasses as she nudged the tortoiseshell colored frames upward with her thumb, her dogs at her feet. "Sweetheart, I'm gonna tell you this and it may not be easy to hear but I've got to say it," her German accent heavier in her familiar reproach. "You could have done better by your grandmother. You should have come down to see her more often." My grandmother had been dead for years and Silkie felt it her duty as one of my grandmothers dearest on-again, off-again friends to periodically remind me of what she saw as my shortcomings, even those from a decade ago.

"I know, Silkie. But, I did the best I could. I have a family of my own, a job, I couldn't be there every weekend. Its a four hour drive. But you were a good friend to her Silkie. I know you really helped her a lot. I really appreciate that." Silkie knew my grandmother controlled people and events, all from the comfort of her cheap recliner. With only a phone, a radio nearby blaring both prayer and donation requests, and a clear view of the neighborhood through her picture window, she wielded unimaginable power from her home just within the city limits. "Yes, Mrs. Martin." "No, Mrs. Martin." "Of course, Mrs. Martin." Summoned by a phone call, she sent her proxies scurrying while she picked at her meals delivered to 'shut-ins' and seniors with financial need - both of which were roles she chose to play.

"I was. Sure enough, I was. Maybe if you had seen her more, you wouldn’t have had the mess you had." Silkie was referring to my grandmother's decision to leave two million dollars to charity, nearly her entire estate, instead of to her family. Her children and grandchildren each received a five hundred dollar punch in the gut. The exception was the farm. Two hundred rolling acres that had three decades before ceased to be a working farm and became a refuge for my uncle who drank himself to death in the decaying farm house. This had been willed to me with the provision that he be permitted to remain there the duration of his life. He died alone that August, amid open cans of rotting food, piles of papers, and dozens of loaded guns. And now, still burning from the sting of my grandmothers vituperation from the tomb, their eyes turned to me and to all the backhanded and covert actions I surely must have enacted in my supposed scheme to rob them of even this, their childhood home. It was, of course, ridiculous but sanity and insanity are closely related, as were we who tore at each other with teeth sharpened on disappointment. I had plenty of regrets. Namely that I had not taken the risk of connecting with my uncle before he dissolved into the kitchen floor. During my childhood he had been harsh to his own children, but deferential to me, as one might be to the next in line for the throne. Antipathy was poorly masked by disingenuous kindness and even as a child I felt the true meaning behind each word, each action. It placed a distance between us as I retreated. This retreat only fed distrust which bred further contempt.

"Silkie, I'm thinking of giving the farm away."

"Why would you do a damn fool thing like that?" The announcement must have thrown her into a paroxysm that stirred the dogs into a brief barking frenzy before they settled back at her feet. "You need to hold on to that farm for your children. Craziest thing I've ever heard."

"I'm sick of the whole business. I'd give it all up if we could just be a family."

"Just like on T.V.?" She rattled a smoker's phlegm-laden laugh and then with immediate depth of longing, "That would be nice." She was thousands of miles from her family - most now dead. She had left them all for love.

"Yeah, Silkie. Just like on T.V."

The letter stood out from the sea of junk mail as I slid the lot from the kitchen counter and sorted through it, my back to my wife who was standing over something that bubbled and steamed on the stovetop. The handwriting was not familiar and there was no return address to suggest its origin. I sat at the kitchen table, asked my wife about her day and about the kids, then opened it. The scratchy signature was that of my deceased uncle's oldest son. Encumbered by a disorder that rarely struck anyone his age, any effort with his right hand was rewarded with a tremor. He had recently learned to write with his left hand, clearly a struggle for him.


I hope that you and your family are doing well. We are all ok here. Michael and Rachael are both doing well in school. Michael is still crazy about soccer and Rachael thinks she might want to try it herself in the Spring. She wants to do everything her brother does.

When we were going through my dad's things we found a letter in his Bible he started but never got around to sending you. I thought you should have it.


Brian wrote as if we had spoken only last week. In fact, I had not seen him since we were teens, and had never met his two children. I watched the back of my wife as she stirred whatever was in the pot before her. Her hips swayed in what would otherwise have been an evocative motion were my mind not held captive by this small note. Still in the envelope, folded over three times, was a yellowing piece of paper. I unfolded it cautiously, afraid of what it might contain. It began, "Son," My uncle had begun calling me son after my father passed away. He required that his children reply to him with "yes sir" and "no sir" so it never felt like a term of endearment but rather like a positional title to make sure I knew my place; just one step above being called "boy."


I've never been much for letter writing or talking on the phone for that matter but, there is something I want you to know before I'm gone. When your dad passed I lost my best friend. It seems foolish to say it but I expected to find that friend again in you; my brother reborn. But, as you grew up you were nothing like your daddy and I confess I came to despise you for that. Your dad never knew a stranger, laughed all the time, he could fix anything, any piece of farm equipment. You were quiet, kept to yourself. Me and doctors don't get along but my kids finally convinced me to go in to that clinic at the upper part of town and they say my ticker needs work. Gave up drinking years ago, despite what Silkie tells half the county, but I won't be giving up my pipe and I won't be having surgery. All this fuss has set me to thinking about things. We only get one chance, Son, and I had mine with your daddy. Was wrong for me to look for him in you. I know now that I let my grief

And there it ended unfinished and so did my understanding of who I thought I knew my uncle to be.

I stood on the iron grate, a child again, warm air rising over my bare feet and up my pajama pants. It was familiar, comforting. Had I stood long enough for a crisscross pattern to appear on my heels? I realized I was unable to move my legs. Something seized my ankles and I looked down to see my uncle, his arms somehow thrust through the iron grate, his hands desperately gripping my ankles to secure purchase as he dangled over an endless abyss below. Sulfurous smoke swirled beneath him and rose from a distant ominous orange glow. Without uttering a word he communicated absolute desperation; fear of letting go, fear of what lie below.

"I'm sorry," I cried out. "You wanted me to be him. You all wanted me to be him. I'm sorry. Show me how. I'm sorry."

A roar tore from the depths and rushed over me like fetid breath, growing louder and louder, drowning out my confession. Louder and louder still. Covering both ears with my hands, I continued to wail. "I'm sorry! I'm sorry!" The weight of my uncle was incredibly great, the iron work pressing painfully into the bottoms of my feet. Louder, louder, it resonated within me, vibrating my sternum. Then, in an instant it was gone and I lie awake in my bed, my wife fast asleep at my side.

"I'm sorry," I repeated to no one.

Today the house sits empty, senescent and forlorn. The boundaries of the farm continue to shift in step with the vacillating veracity of its neighbors. The barns overlook the pastures once dotted with cattle and fields once busy with work and they hope for restoration, and so do I. So do I.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

The Back Window

Back in the day before seatbelt laws, I used to lie in the space just behind the back seat, tucked up beneath the curve of the back window of my mom's car. There between the cool of the glass and the velvety upholstery, I would watch the stars peek at me between dark branches overhead as we drove the meandering tree-lined gravel roads that made their way through the farmland that surrounded us. The ping of an occasional rock being thrown by the tires into the undercarriage of the car completed the almost hypnotic music of the engine and the general rumble that gravel makes under the wheels. On rainy days I watched the streaks of water race down the glass, tendrils of liquid silver. Snow was like a meteor shower. And on some nights, I was chased by the moon. There, in my little sideways V-shaped universe, I was at peace.

One day we were on our way to the nearest small town and I was in my usual spot when someone pulled out in front of my mother forcing her to brake suddenly. I was jettisoned from my dreamy world to the floor of that cavernous old car, first bouncing off the back of the front seats, before landing on the worn carpet of the floor. Blinking and gathering my wits, I heard my mother gasp from the front seat. "Sweetheart, are you alright?"

Alright? I had just been propelled like a human projectile, slammed into the seats with enough force to knock the wind from me, and dumped onto the floor.

I am reminded how life can be like that moment. We are jettisoned from what is known, comfortable, safe and we find ourselves beaten up and wondering what just happened.
Isaiah 51:7 "Hear Me, you who know what is right, you people who have My law in your hearts: Do not fear the reproach of men or be terrified by their insults."
Too often what has knocked the wind from us are the words of others; unexpected negative comments, social snubs (your name didn't make it to the guest list), or lack of approval- when your accomplishments are met with little or no enthusiasm by the ones you love. It is interesting that we are told not to be "terrified by their insults." Terrified. Wow. That seems extreme, but if we are honest with ourselves, we are indeed terrified at times of what people may think or what they might say. Perhaps we should be concerned about getting to know their needs and finding ways to love them; even if that love is not returned.

So, my answer to my mother's question after I had flown through the air like a sack of potatoes? Was I alright? You bet! "Can we do that again?" I chirped from the floor.

I hope you find peace this week and enjoy the view.

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

High Water Boy

Back in the day, rowdy boys (as we were known by anyone over 70) wore Toughskins jeans.  I vividly remember a rust colored pair of pants with reinforced knees and sturdy stitching in the ... ahem ... area where the pant legs attached, that could have withstood a nuclear blast (though I am happy to report never having had to subject them to that test).  We were sent out the door summer, winter, spring, and fall in Toughskins.  Video games didn't become a household phenomenon until I was nearly ten years old  (yes, indeed life was possible as a child without them),  and we did the unthinkable and played out-of-doors. Far from being vaporized by the rays of the sun as some readers with gamer's thumb might think, we actually enjoyed roaming the fields and woods that surrounded our home.  I remember we used to slide down one particularly steep wooded hill on our bellies or behinds, as the mood may strike us, like human surfboards adrift in a sea of fallen leaves, prickly weeds, rocks, decaying logs, saplings, trees, and dirt.  We generally came home at the end of the day looking like something that had been dropped from a plane over the city dump.  And remarkably, our Toughskins bore it all like some sort of alien armor; withstanding the tortures their rowdy bearers subjected them to day after day.

My family was poor, plain and simple so you made what you had last as long as possible. Generally the clothes I wore weren't new, but they were new to me courtesy of a cousin or a yard sale, and I never minded.  And since Toughskins could easily last five or six generations before finally being retired (or so it seemed), I wore them until I could no longer fasten them around my waist even though the legs broke a good inch or more above my shoes - high waters, as we called them.

I've often wondered what my mother must have thought as she watched us playing in the yard, or as she looked back to see us trailing along behind her like ducks in a row as we filed into Mt. Olive Baptist Church tucked next to an ancient cemetery where the winding gravel road reaches its highest point on the hilltop.  Did she feel some sense of regret as she saw us in our ill-fitting hand-me-downs?

My pastor and friend recently reminded us of 1 Samuel 16:7 when Samuel was looking for the next king.  It was the custom for prophets to anoint, and thus appoint, the next king, and Samuel was looking for qualities he expected the king to have.  He should be tall, strong, handsome, and wearing Toughskins (or the equivalent of the day) that fit. Certainly not high-waters.  However, God taught Samuel an important lesson by rejecting all of David's brothers. 

1 Samuel 16:7  But the Lord said to Samuel, "Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him.  The Lord does not look at the things man looks at.  Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart."

In other words, it doesn't matter to God if you are wearing hand-me-down high-waters.  And mom, it didn't matter to us either.