Rural Nobodies

That’s hot? I heard someone ask a literary agent recently. Rural, she said. Nobodies. Rural nobodies. Older people. People capturing ways of life that are disappearing, have disappeared. I think of the popularity of the Delany sisters.

I tell Dad. Oh shit, he says. He sits in a chair, his ankles swollen, his ancient toes curled up inside his houseslippers with arthritis or gout or poor circulation or disuse. He watches a little TV, nods off a lot, smokes millions of cigarettes. His ashtrays run over. Like the carrots full of systemic poisons to deter nematodes, his body is so full of nicotine a bacterium wouldn’t want to live there if it could. He reads the newspaper and works the crossword puzzle every day, but he tells me he can’t use his typewriter any longer except to address envelopes. He can’t work his fingers well enough. But he wished he’d worked until age 70 in the post office. His pension would have been more, but he didn’t think he’d last that long. Optimism is not a family trait. Dad has surprised himself with his longevity. And so he smokes more.

His memory is good. No. Amazing. He reminds me of my friend Jean’s autistic son, John, the way he remembers data. John remembers Billboard magazine and maps and logos. Dad remembers names. He remembers temperatures and weather. He remembers every slight and missed opportunity like it was yesterday. He knows when anybody was born or died or married. Death dates are especially important. His mother’s death. His father’s death. My mothers death: Every year for the past 10 years he has had a period of mourning for her, encompassing the anniversary of her birthday, her death, her funeral. He used to drink during that period—once I found him drinking vodka out of the bottle with a straw—but now he just gets depressed and won’t eat. He remembers when she wanted to go to Salt Lake City to see Guy Lombardo at the Coconut Grove, and he wouldn’t take time off work and take her. He wishes he’d gone. He flagellates himself, which makes me uncomfortable because I see myself as depressive and ponderous, not spontaneous, and I flagellate myself, too, about different things.

Dad, a rural nobody, has stories about the old days that have disappeared, but he doesn’t think they’re important, or that they document anything of great interest, and of course he won’t write them for me. The stories come out in little tantalizing pieces: stupidity, pain, anxiety, meanness, poverty, disease, miserliness, regret, irony. No unbounded joy, but sometimes I sense a little delight or a little glee at just deserts.

I’ve lived from the covered wagon to the space age, he says, proudly but a little surprised, like it has been a little too much for him, like he was pushed off the ride just as it was revving up but stood by, watching. His father, my granddad, he tells me, wouldn’t invest in the Ford Motor Company when he had the chance because he didn’t think the automobile would ever be practical. He thought roads would be the problem. Instead, my granddad invested in telegraph poles and in mining companies that went broke. Then he lost everything he’d worked for when the banks closed, and he died at age 48.

But didn’t Dad’s mother’s father, Grandpa Porter, live a long time? I ask. Oh yes, Dad says, 92. He was an old patriarch. Had granulated eyelids. Had this little eyewash glass to wash his eyelids. Liked a little nip. When he went to work in Idaho, Grandma Porter sent my mother with him to keep him out of the bars, he says.

Dad’s in an apartment in Arizona, near my sister. I call once a week. How are you doing, Dad? I ask. Oh, don’t ask, he says. What are you doing, Dad? I ask. Just waiting for the Old Grim Reaper, he says. Did you work the crossword puzzle? Oh yes, he says. What are you eating? I ask. Nothing tastes good, he says, oh hell, oh shit. I gave my car to Dean, he says. I can’t drive any more. There’s snow up home, he says. Isn’t it early for snow? I ask. Oh no, he says, we had a big snowstorm on October 17, 1929. It was bitter cold.

Dad, born in 1907, says he was born 50 years too soon. I suppose he imagines that if he had been born in 1957, he could have made some money, which I suppose would have meant he could have had more things, done more, wouldn’t have had to buy groceries on credit, wouldn’t have had to buy everything used, and on time. He could have had a car when he needed it. He could have bought laborsaving devices when he was young. He could have fed his family better. They wouldn’t have had to go to his mother-in-law’s house during the Depression. My mother’s mother, a widow, told him she could feed her daughter and two granddaughters, my older sisters, but not him. Dad went back to live with his folks until he got a job for the WPA as a timekeeper. Only typing and bookkeeping kept me from being a laborer, he tells me. As timekeeper for the WPA, my timid and sensitive father was once provoked into punching a guy, then worried himself sick that he would lose his job. But Dad’s supervisor, when he heard of it, congratulated him.That is a gleeful story, and Dad laughs.

If Dad had been born 50 years later, he could have escaped the influenza epidemic, two world wars, the Great Depression, work in the smelter, outhouses, the seven-year-itch, castor oil, mustard plasters, false teeth. Maybe his mother wouldn’t have died when he was 7. Maybe he would have had fruit to eat in the winter. Maybe his father would have been more generous and wouldn’t have died when Dad was 17, and Dad could have graduated from college, instead of dropping out after one year. Born 50 years later, Dad could have been an accountant or something, anything. He could have slipped onto the ride easy and ridden all his life on freeways, maybe on the information highway. I only had one new car in my life, he says. And that was the one I just gave to Dean, he says, because I’ll never drive again. I’m just cooped up, housebound, he says.

I’m impatient. I’m visiting. I want to get the stories out. Well, I was born 50 years too late, I say. I missed the kerosene lamps, the blacksmith shop, quilting bees, living with a passel of relatives. Trees. I’d give anything for the trees you had, like the one in the photograph of my granddad. You had the Roosevelts. I had Reagan and Bush. I live in the age of AIDS, nuclear bombs, driveby shootings, clearcuts, plastic, overpackaging, overpopulation, and roadkills that make me want to throw up. A world that’s worked over like an anthill. Death of the family, anonymity, loneliness.

I lapse into guilty, flaccid, frustrated silence. I’m done. Dad sighs, sniffs, looks into his lap, picks up a news magazine, doesn’t open it. Somebody has to be the last leaf on the tree, and he’s it.

Dad’s apartment is nice and clean. I hug him.You’ve got everything, I say. Except some pictures. You need some pictures on the walls. What for? he says. I wouldn’t look at them. He’s being stubborn. He misses the old days, when he knew everybody, was related to everybody, the days when mail was carried from Escalante to Boulder by mule, when he and my mother rode horses to Boulder. I miss them for him. In his little gnome-like body with the curled toes, I know he’s still got all these stories that are not recorded. Stories of rural nobodies, lives that have disappeared.They’ll go with him, lost forever, and I don’t have the patience or self-discipline to wrench them out of him. Some, of course, he will never tell, but sometimes a little piece slips out, like a grasshopper suddenly jumping past my nose.

A grin splits Dad’s lips. A story: When my brother, your Uncle Gardner, was a kid, he went over to Aunt Mina’s, he tells me. Aunt Mina was known for her cakes. My ears perk up. This is a new one. You got any cake? Gard asked her. Why, no, she said. The last piece is gone. Ate, Dad says. Well then, Gard said, you got any crumbs?

Dad goes to a nursing home for a few days while my sister is in Hawaii with her son’s family. I offer to come out to stay with him in his apartment, but my sister says I can’t possibly bathe him, that he will have to go to the nursing home anyway. I tell myself maybe he will like the company, but Dad is not happy. He calls Hawaii and tells my sister he is going to check out and go to a motel. She is thousands of miles away. What can she do? The calls go back and forth. I talk with him on the telephone. Are they good to you there, Dad? I ask. Oh, yes, he says. Is the food good? Oh, yes, he says. My sister’s plane arrives in Phoenix at 1 a.m. Dad calls at 6 a.m. Get me out of here, he says. She does, quickly, and they go back to his apartment. I lost a quarter of my intelligence in that place, Dad says.

I fly to Phoenix, and my other sister, whose husband has a brain tumor, makes arrangements to come from Virginia. I expect to stay for some time with Dad, so my local sister and her husband can get a little rest at home. I kiss him. I’ve brought crossword puzzles and reading and mending, and I sit by Dad’s bed while he dozes. Smoking hurts his stomach, and he has essentially quit eating. He’s been drinking Ensure the last couple of days. He sips a little water through a straw, snoozes, wakes up, asks a question—When did you get here? How are you doing? Snoozes again.

His mind is lucid as ever, but his body has run its course. His lips are dry, and his breathing is openmouthed and sounds like wet marbles. But he wakes up and calls me honey, like always. He loves me. A lot. For years he has asked me, Have you written any stories? Send me a copy. My heart hurts that I have not been with him every day, that I have not lived next door to him, that we have not had coffee together every day of my adult life.

It’s warm, and he’s just in his boxer shorts under the covers. His chest skin is pale, soft, not so bad, but the tanner skin of his arms and face is translucent, the blood vessels just under the skin and, oh, so fragile. I can see every sinew of his arms. There are the big hands that I have seen do so many things: paint my name on a wagon, make a dollhouse, plant sweet corn, pull the handle on a calculator, type, tie bundles of mail bringing the twine under and over, under and over. I remember when he drew a diagram of an internal combustion engine for me while I sat on the arm of the big chair, watching his sure pencil strokes. I know his handwriting, his neat printing, like I know my own. His thumbnails have a partial split down the middle like they have always had. My nails are split in the same way. Now Dad’s nails are deep purple.

Dad wakes up and wants to get up to go to the bathroom. I tell him I don’t think he should. I have a bedpan. He insists and rolls over toward me and sits up with an energy I didn’t think he had. I get him on his feet. We walk to the bathroom, slowly. He sits on the toilet, dangles his right arm and leans his left arm on the sink counter for support. He seems OK. I look briefly in the linen closet for sheets, then stand close to him. I guess you’ve helped a lot of men pee, he says. I smile. What does he think of me, his thrice-married daughter, his daughter who did not succeed in producing grandchildren, his baby daughter? Oh, not too many, Dad, I say.

He farts a little, and I think the trip probably wasn’t worth it. We walk back in to the bedroom, slowly, slowly, hugging. He is so small. He used to be so big. I say slow, slow, and I get him back down on the bed. But as he turns limply, his round blue eyes that greeted me for so many years through the post office window are staring without seeing me, and his mouth is open. He breathes a little, then pauses and breathes again and pauses. Come on, Dad, come on, come back to me, stay with me, I say. I have just arrived, and he is gone.

It is October 23, 1995. I have a lump in my throat as big as a baseball. Dad had said we should just cremate him. I know he didn’t mean it. He just didn’t want to cause any trouble. We take him back to Escalante to bury him by our mother, in the cemetery where he knows everybody, the cemetery that for more than 100 years was sagebrush and is now planted in grass, with a sprinkler system. Two young cottonwood trees near the fence seem to wave their yellow leaves at me, although the air is still as death.Yellow was Dad’s favorite color. Beyond the cottonwood striplings, we are circled by red and white sandstone plateaus and hills dotted here and there with dark green pinyons and junipers, the fantastical landscape that was fixed on Dad’s retinas for most of this century.

Some of the relatives and some of the oldest people in town, most also relatives, show up at the cemetery in their church clothes, hug us and tell us what they remember best about Dad. For the service, my sisters and I have written some of our favorite stories about Dad. A cousin tells them for us, then tells some of his own, as does his brother. Dad’s name is inextricably linked with that of our mother, who must be listening. We sit briefly together in the arena in which Dad s life has unfolded and played out, and we paste together the separate pieces we have of his life. Aunt Bernice, who has nodded and commented all along, begins to struggle with her cane. I help her to stand, and she tells her own story about Dad.Yes, she says, that’s the way it was. The barber, our mother’s cousin, tells a story about Dad before he prays the benediction.

About the Author

Jill Carpenter

Jill Carpenter, a biologist and journalist, is the author of “Senses and Sensibilities” (John Wiley & Sons) and has edited a collection of poetry and prose about frogs and toads.

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