Dad squats on the porch stoop, sucks a Marlboro clear down to its butt, grinds the stub beneath his heel, jams in his work shirt, centers it around his soft paunch. Big man with barrel-shaped arms, thick neck, face pink as the earthworms that weave beneath the camellias. Auburn hair clipped close to his skull. His father worked for Standard Oil, and has plenty of savings, but not him. Dad works midnights at the local steel plant.
“Got the money?” mom says, voice taut as barbed wire. Long hair swept up under a baseball cap; the long braid flirts with her waist, unloosened and brushed a hundred times each night.
Bowl of purple cherries on the narrow table. Wappo mortar, Wappo pestle, volcanic grey stone. Remington box and .22 cartridges propped by mom’s elbow. Worn blue ledger, too where she does all her calculations. Mom’s always adding numbers. Pencil behind her left ear. Today she’s figuring out exactly what she must order for the ranch. Long columns of neat little figures. She hadn’t slept well, up before dawn when birds stitch the day .Got heart pain too. Spent half the night staring at the walnut trees in the moonlight, praying decades of her rosary, praying for a miracle, praying he won’t come to take me away.
Mom places the flat of her hand in the small of her back, stretches. The day before dad’s visit means a snakebite of strife. She cradles the roughhewed rifle, middle finger latched around the glistening trigger. Harsh, truculent mother- cold most of the time, a crack of light now and then.
Dad steps into the parlor, reaches around his old mottled money belt, withdraws a folded white envelope, tenders the envelope to mom over the oilskin tablecloth. Mom sets the envelope on the kitchen sink alongside an empty plastic milk jug peppered with buckshot.
Cowboys spit tobacco, watch on their leather saddles under the bower of cottonwoods. Lariats lost in rawhide gloves. They’ll close and latch the wooden gate when dad and I leave.
“Remember to bring her back the week before school starts, ” mom says. Slow scar of breathing. Teenage face inside aggrieved middle age. Ground meal for hens, gruel for calves beneath her nails.
Dad takes two steps toward her to kiss the top of her head. She backs off, shoos him away.
“Pray you do or sooner,” mom says. Eyes are comet sparks. Skin gives of little wafts of Jean Nate in the rustling heat of late July.
She taps her foot, empties the bullet from its chamber, rubs the fore stock’s veneer, jams the cleaning rod half in the muzzle.
“Remember I’m the one who’s got custodial rights. The girl can forfeit seeing you when she turns eighteen. Almost there, aren’t you?”
I nod. Wad of bubblegum stretches, smacks.
“Now go. Don’t look back.” Mom chews her painted lips, fixes a print on my cheek, sort of spore print. I stare at dad and I harden like flint.
Leonore Wilson is a professor of English and creative writing in Northern California. Her work has been featured in TOUGH, Quarterly West, Laurel Review, Iowa Review, Rattle, Terrain, etc. Recently her Napa Valley ranch burned down in the LNU wildfire.
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