by Kathryn Johnston
I carry what’s left of my life in an old Army-issue rucksack. I first packed it while my old man was on the porch, where he was drinking whiskey out of a jelly jar.
I had to be quiet, quiet like a churchmouse. I was running away. If he knew, he’d have stopped me with Shep who lay at my old man’s feet where it waited for orders to attack.
I didn’t have a lot in the rucksack to start. I threw in some clothes, an extra pair of sneakers, a comb and toothbrush. I had to look presentable. I’d be looking for work. Even I knew no one would hire a ruffian. I also had serious doubts they’d hire a kid who couldn’t read or write, but as long as I was doing manual labor, who’d find out I was uneducated?
The last thing I put in there before I took off was something of my mother’s. Her hair ribbon. A blue one. It was sitting on her dresser. Right where she’d put it, wrapped up in one neat coil. Looking like she’d be back to use it any day.
What I really wanted was her picture. But it was sitting too far back. And he was on his way up the steps. I didn’t have enough time. The ribbon used to smell like her. Now it just smells old.
The part of Kentucky I knew was poor. People came to live there after they’d heard you could grow tobacco, but not where I lived. Our land was dead. Even the river that went through it was full of death. That’s where Pa threw my baby brother. He was so heartbroke over Mama losing all that blood, he took it out on that crying baby. Wrapped him up in a burlap sack—I think it still had some chicken feed in it—and threw that sack in the water like it weren’t nothing more than a bag of trash.
I tried to save my brother. I jumped into the water, crazy rushing water black as night. Once the sack sunk, there was no chance in hell of finding it. I was lucky to grab hold of a fallen tree rotting under the water. I used that to get myself to the bank.
Pa set Shep on me for that stunt. He said if he’d wanted me to die and the baby to live he’d have hit me over the head and thrown me in there. There were good reasons he did what he did, and I weren’t to mess with God’s plan. Or something like that. I stopped listening after awhile. It’s difficult to pay attention to logic when fangs are ripping your skin to shreds.
It was things like that which told me I was on my way to dying if I didn’t do something and quick. That’s why I run off. I didn’t know where to go at first, not able to read road signs. But I knew east from west by the sun, and I went north, because it didn’t make any sense, and I figured it’d be harder to find me that way.
One day I saw this huge expanse of blue far away. At first I thought it was a lake, but it didn’t move like water. A wind came up and blew over the surface and when I saw shafts of dark and light I realized it was blue grass. What crazy devil put blue grass out here was what I was thinking at first. But as I got closer I saw it wasn’t blue at all. It was green.
It was the most beautiful sight I’d ever seen. I plopped myself in the middle of that grass. I told myself; see that, if you’d stayed with your old man, you’d never have seen anything this incredible. That’s when I promised myself I weren’t gonna sit still anywhere for long. I was gonna see the whole country, the whole world. Go sailing and flying and mountain climbing. No one gonna stop me from living again.
But getting out of Kentucky and setting off on a grand adventure wasn’t as easy as I dreamed. You can only get so far on illiteracy, know that? If I was gonna go anywhere, I had to learn reading. But I couldn’t go to school because I was a runaway. Runaways don’t go to school.
When I walked into Shim Creek, I saw a rooming house where the roof looked ready to collapse. I knocked on the door. The lady who ran it, Nellie Smith, was an educated widow with no money to fix her roof.
That’s how I learned reading and writing. She gave me room and board and reading and writing lessons in exchange for a roof and odd jobs. That’s something else I have in my rucksack. Books Ms. Smith gave me. They’re all worn and marked up because I’d circle words I didn’t know, and she’d write down the definitions.
When I told Ms. Smith about the blue grass I’d seen, she gave me a nature book. She showed me the different species of grass and flowers and trees that I was sure to find across my journey. She told me if I was gonna be anything at all, to be passionate about something. I told her I was pretty passionate about building things.
“That’s your skill, Jerry. That’s not the same thing. You need something you can believe in. If a day comes when you can’t build something, what would you do instead? You have to find something that lives inside you, something that keeps you going.”
Truth be told, I picked nature as my passion because no other ideas came to mind; the conversation happened all because of Kentucky bluegrass; I got a great book on the subject; and I figured I’d be spending a lot of time around nature as long as I was a drifter.
That’s not to say my passion isn’t sincere, that it weren’t bred from pureness, and that I don’t enjoy stopping and checking out a colony of flowers. But knowing me, if she’d handed me a book on constellations and gave me that same lecture, I’d be walking around with a telescope in my rucksack instead of wildflowers.
I couldn’t stay long in Shim Creek. That’s kind of an awkward story, but it has something to do with a farmer’s daughter, the Baptist church, and Johnny Vreeland. I lost my best comic book with all that commotion, but the look on Vreeland’s face was worth it.
After Shim Creek I was reading and writing and I did some research. I read up on places like Florida and Colorado and New England and I decided to head for New England. Several reasons behind that because I’m a guy who makes decisions based on more than one reason. I’ve never seen the ocean or a sunrise or snow. New England was growing fast, so that meant lots of building opportunities. Besides I was planning on heading north anyway, so it seemed kinda providential.
I plotted out a route on my map but I didn’t have an exact destination in mind. That was one thing I was careful about. I wasn’t gonna get stuck. I wasn’t gonna get it in my head that I found something so wonderful I couldn’t leave it behind. That’s how people wither to nothing. I’d hunker down when I found something I liked. Then, when I got bored I’d move on.
I found some work on a wharf, which was totally different from anything I knew. That’s why I went for it. I might have been a better carpenter than a fisherman but at least I knew how to do both, and that’s being resourceful. No one can claim I don’t know how to make the best of things.
The coast weren’t too bad and I really liked working on the docks and learning about the fishing trade. Only problem I discovered right away is fishermen cavort with dogs as a rule. At least, they did in this area, and I was constantly sneaking around town to avoid running into one. I finally got fed up and spent all my money on a motorcycle. But those damn bastard dogs chased me on the bike, too. The guys thought I was a hoot, scared of a pack of mangy mutts, and as a joke put some shaggy thing with eyes in the cottage I rented.
I didn’t know what the hell the thing was. It didn’t bark. It screamed in bursts. It hated me as much as I hated it and we spent a whole afternoon staring at each other through the screen door because it wouldn’t let me inside. Finally I got smart and took my bike downtown and got a soup bone from the butcher. When I got back I waved the bone, trying to entice that thing out of my place. It finally came out, snapping and growling. Its teeth were as big as my fingers, I swear to God. I tossed the bone out far, but too late realized I’d thrown the bone in the road. Next thing were screeching tires and honking horns and this sad little thump.
I can still hear that thump in my head.
I liked going to a bar, Blue Cadillac. It was swanky, this joint. Guys smoked cigars and ladies sipped wine. All inside was a haunting, glowing blue. It made me think of Kentucky bluegrass. The hue came from lights shining behind blue silk. I liked going there for three reasons. That dreamy blue, beers were ice cold, and Ronnie Michaels.
Ronnie was a mite of a thing. I could fit three of her in my arms. Her skin had this sparkle to it, it shimmered when she turned or when she laughed. Her hair was out of fashion for the times but it suited her slim face, a pixie style that curled up at the ends. It made her eyes stand out, black and almond shaped, like coffee beans.
I tried asking her out a dozen times before she told me she didn’t date fishermen.
“You smell like a flounder. I’m not going out with you.”
“Well, for Pete’s sake, you smell like prime rib and all I wanna do is nibble you.”
She walked away.
My lucky break came in the form of an actual break. My arm. That’s another awkward story. It’s got something to do with untied shoes and a forgotten fish head on the dock.
When I came to Blue Cadillac, in cast and all, I actually got a sympathetic “What happened, Jerry?” out of my crush. She couldn’t have been sweeter. She helped me eat and wiped my mouth and got my money together for the bill. “How are you going to work?” she asked.
“Oh, well, I get paid leave. That means I got alotta free time on my hands. Er, hand.”
“Yeah.” She wiped the table. She didn’t take my cue.
“The wildflowers are in bloom.”
Ronnie laughed. “Did you hit your head when you fell?”
“Whatcha doing after your shift?”
“I haven’t decided yet.”
“Let me take you someplace. It’s nice, I promise.”
She eyed me suspiciously, but she took in my cast and I could tell she felt sorry for me. She nodded. “Okay.” She walked away but came back. She had a book of matches, and she was scribbling inside the front cover.
“I wrote my phone number inside. Call me around three.” Then she looked frantic, anxious, like she did something wrong. “When you’ve used up all the matches, you can just throw that away.”
I flipped open the cover and looked at her handwriting. It was swirly. Very feminine. I’d memorized her number by the time I got back to my place, and I slipped the matchbook in my rucksack. I don’t smoke.
Ronnie followed me out to Graham’s Hill, a wildflower meadow I found in my exploration of the area. It’s not easy maneuvering a motorcycle with a broken arm, and I’m sure my weaving all over the road had her worried about what she was getting herself into. But, it also meant I probably didn’t look threatening either. That might be why she agreed to go out with me.
The sky was so deep and far with blue it looked like it had been ripped open, all the way to the sea on the other side of the world. The landscape on our right rose sharply, sloped out of sight. Ronnie tensed beside me.
“What is this?”
“We’re going wildflower picking.”
“Seriously?” She looked me up and down. “You don’t strike me as a flower kind of guy.”
At the crest of the roadside hill, I paused and she paused alongside me. Cast in delicate blue-violet, the meadow’s life spread out before us for what seemed like generations. It was a distance I once never imagined traversing. I took her hand with my good hand and helped her scale the other side of the hill.
I assumed she knew about flowers. I thought every female did. When she asked me if I knew the names of the different species, I was startled. She knew nothing about New England Aster, Devil’s Paintbrush, Yellow Rocket, or Ragged Robin. For the first time, I was teaching someone something.
I stooped to a large colony of nodding blue flowers. “Campanula rotundifolia.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Harebell.” This was the flower that gave the bluish hue to the meadow. One kind of plant, responsible for the meadow’s first impression.
“It’s lovely,” she said. “It’s really lovely.”
I stood up. We walked through more Harebell and Yarrow and Purple Milkwort. Then the plants thinned out before a spot of bare meadow. Just beyond that, a cluster of three plants. The flowers were purple and upright.
I crouched down. “Wow.” I looked at her over my shoulder. “This is Harebell, too, but a different species from the other one. This one isn’t common to this area.”
As I looked closer at the cluster, I saw a lone flower, similar to the other three, but in poorer condition. Its purple color wasn’t nearly as vivid and its petals were drooping and wilted.
“Looks like it’s dying.”
I plucked the solitary flower from the ground. I stood up and faced her. With my good hand, I ran my finger along her hairline. Slowly, I slipped the flower in her hair patting it securely in place.
“There. Now it’s beautiful once more before it dies.”
Her mouth parted in wonder as she stared at me. She blushed, gingerly touched the flower in her hair. She whispered, “thank you.”
We sat in a bed of Yarrow. She asked me where I learned so much. I didn’t tell her the truth. I didn’t tell her I learned things because of an empty belly and scarred flesh. I didn’t tell her I came from a rickety shack in Kentucky. I told her lies. I told her my dreams and made them sound real. I gave her visions she could believe all because I know the scientific name for Harebell.
“You were raised among flora and underneath rainclouds,” she murmured dreamily, her head on my shoulder, my broken arm holding her close.
“Something like that.”
Ronnie and I got married in the meadow, where the flowers grew again. Things moved pretty fast with her, or maybe it was me after all. Who knows? But before we were ready, we had two kids, Ben and Ally; we were stuck in jobs we didn’t like; and a mortgage up the ass.
One day I got a call from Joseph Landcroft in New Sparwich. He’d heard about my building skills and asked to see a portfolio. I didn’t have anything put together like that, so I invited him to Dover to give him a tour of my work. The newlywed house for the Fosters. The porch on Duff’s house. The second floor for the Andrews. The greenhouse in Miss Liza’s garden. The playground at the elementary school.
Landcroft was impressed and wanted me to interview in Boston. I guess I did good there too because he offered me a job as a foreman on his next project. It was the kind of opportunity that I told Ronnie was gonna change things.
We talked about moving into a bigger house, like one of the colonials in downtown Dover, or a beach house in Saltspoon Bay. We talked about how Ronnie could quit her job at Blue Cadillac and stay at home with the kids. Money would never be a problem and we could take the trips we dreamed about, like New York City, Disney World, Europe. A belated honeymoon in Mexico. Ally could get the piano lessons she wanted; Ben could learn golf.
On a humid August day, I went to the job site to meet the crew. I brought along Ronnie, Ben, and Ally at the invitation of Landcroft. I drove in through the south entrance, past a kennel of barking dogs. A man was inside the cages, feeding the dogs. I eyed those dogs suspiciously. But they took no notice of us, just went on eating. Finally, just over a hill we saw the construction site.
Landcroft was a ruddy faced man who smiled a lot. He gave Ben and Ally lollipops, complimented Ronnie on her dress, shook my hand.
While Ben and Ally played in a sandbox, Landcroft took me and Ronnie around the property. Suddenly, we heard ferocious growling and barking.
Someone yelled, “No! Jack! Get back here! Get back here!”
Out of nowhere, an enormous German shepherd came at us. I ran. “Kids! Don’t move!”
Ben and Ally didn’t move a whisper. They were frozen, staring at this monstrous creature, all fangs and claws, shooting like lightning through the lot.
I got to the kids before that beast did. That thing didn’t stop. It leaped at me. I fell. Teeth went through my back. I heard Ronnie screaming, the kids crying, Landcroft shouting for help.
Finally, a shot rang out. I heard a yelp and felt this heavy slumping weight. The dog collapsed on top of me. The dog was dragged off. But I couldn’t move. My body jerked. I rolled over. God, my back was on fire. I couldn’t feel my legs. I felt the earth move. I saw it roll past me.
Ronnie grabbed my hand. “They’re fine, honey. You saved them.” I wanted to ask her more. I thought a bunch more, but couldn’t get it out. Last thing I remember is looking down and seeing I still had both legs.
I never took that job with Landcroft. I stopped doing anything. I lost the job at the docks. I stayed in the house, blinds closed, television on. Drank myself to a place where I couldn’t remember a thing.
Ronnie was as patient as any wife could be. I know that now. She worked double shifts at Blue Cadillac, made sure the kids got where they needed to be when they needed to be there. She ran the errands, paid the bills—when we had the money—and took care of the house and yard. No help from me.
Ronnie took me to that meadow where the carpet was blue. We stood on the hill where we were married. “Remember that first day you brought me here? That was the first day you made me feel beautiful.”
I didn’t want to remember. It’s part of what got me here. Truth is, I blamed her. She’d trapped me into marriage. She’d saddled me with kids and an outrageous mortgage. Forced me to stay in one place to pay for it all. I shoulda taken my motorcycle and gotten the hell out of there.
I said, “That was my first mistake.”
I wish I knew how it got worse than that. I wish I’d known how to stop it from getting worse. But I was so tuned out I wouldn’t have known if the sugar maple keeled over and fallen on the house.
Ronnie was battling the flu and had to sleep. It was a Saturday. Ben and Ally were home. She bribed them with movies and pizza if they’d play in the living room while she slept.
But the plan meant I couldn’t watch television. It was bullshit. I took the remote, turned off the movie, and pushed the kids off the couch. They ran crying to Ronnie, waking her up.
She came in. Her voice was throaty and raw. It made me angrier. “Do something else. I promised them movies. I’m sick, and I need to sleep. This is the only way it’ll work.”
“They can play outside. I’m watching the game.”
“You play outside,” she said and picked up the remote.
“Drop it, bitch,” I yelled, snatching back the remote.
Ally’s jaw dropped. “Daddy,” she whispered. “You said a bad word.”
I told Ally, “Shut up you little twit.”
Ronnie stepped in, her hand on my chest. “Jerry, take a nap with me.”
I smacked her arm. “Get outta my face.”
Ronnie touched me again, her hands searching for mine. “Come on. We’ll lie down together. Let the kids play quietly…”
“Fuck you!” I pushed her. She fell to the floor. She stared at me in shock. I had never touched her like that before.
I switched back to the game. Ben helped her up. I pretended I didn’t hear him ask, “What’s wrong with Daddy?”
But Ally made me snap. She’d always been the bold one, from the moment she was born. I bet she was wailing even before she slid out of that canal.
She came up to me. “You hurt my mommy.”
“Ally,” Ronnie said. “Don’t…”
I rounded on Ally, slamming my fist at her little head of chestnut hair. She was on the floor in one second flat, dead quiet, dead still.
Ronnie was with her in that next instant. She pulled our baby girl into her arms.
Ben was horrified. I saw hell in his eyes as he stared at his little sister. Then Ronnie picked her up. She told Ben to get her purse and car keys and go out to the car. She walked past me, not looking my way.
She said nothing. She left the house after Ben. All I could really see of them leaving was Ally’s little arm hanging down, swaying, from Ronnie’s grip. There was nothing in their retreat that told me they were coming back.
I go to the hill by myself now. That’s about all I do these days. Go to the hill and sit in the thickest growth of wildflowers and think about things that can’t change now that I think about them. I watch the bees and the hummers visiting each bud. I watch the blossoms sway in synch to the wind’s gusts. I listen to the creek down beyond the line of trees and I think about how there’s probably no such thing as avoiding your destiny. I think about how people don’t just turn into raging storms overnight. How there’s something there that secretly brews, from a time long before. And how some people get sucked into the eye of that twister, people who can’t fight back. And then there are those who are stronger, in heart and soul, and they don’t let a wallop take them down.
I think about my rucksack. How it won’t stop growing even though I stopped living.
Anytime I see a lone flower, I pick it. I got a flower press on Ebay. I’ll take the flower to my apartment that sits over the video store and press the blossom. Then I wrap it in tissue paper and stick it in my rucksack.
I guess that’s how I keep the dead alive.
Bio: Kathryn Johnston is a writer currently looking for an agent for her first novel. She graduated from UNH with two BAs in English and Psychology, a combination she has found to be supremely compatible for creative writing. She lives in New Hampshire with her family and her (very sweet) dog.