Mica in the Rock
"Thought we'd see a change by now," Doc O'Neill says to Mom. "Better keep him home another week, Ruthie, then bring him back on Friday." My brother's sitting on the end of a silver cot looking out the window. Doc O pats his head like he's a lonesome retriever, but Terry doesn't move. He just stares out at a line of geese crossing Cat Gut Slough.
I'm in an old chair in the corner that Doc O keeps around for tag-along brothers like me. The leather's split clear up the middle. I figure sick peoples' germs climb in there, just like Indians hid in caves along the river. If I were a germ, I'd head right for that crack.
Terry and Mom and me and sometimes Dad live up Byers Coulee near Hillvale, Wisconsin. Sister Ann said ‘coulee' is a French word that means ‘flowing.' A long time ago, Canadian trappers came here looking for pelts. When they sat down on the ridge to watch the snow melt, they saw the run-off scoot down the valleys between the bluffs. That's when they told the Indians, "Hey, you guys live in coulees." The Indians must have laughed—they'd been here a million years and already had plenty of names for everything. Their chief won in the end, though—he named the Mississippi River and the trappers had to learn all those extra letters.
We're in Hillvale's only silver trailer. It's an Airstream—says so right on the side. All kinds of streams run down these coulees, but they're generally filled with water. An airstream's different—it's a breeze that follows its own secret path. Most people travel around the country in their Airstream trailers, but not us. We stay put. Every day, here we are, snug as coons—eating cookies, playing chess, listening to Mr. Casals, and looking down on the wide old Mississippi.
Terry started getting skinny last spring—right after the Coast Guard cutter came up from Saint Louis. Every year, soon as winter is over, the cutter shows up to ram the river ice with his sharpened hull. That's how he opens the channel and lets the barges through. The ice is three feet thick in spots, so the cruiser takes his time—sometimes he only moves an inch an hour. Each crack of the ice is louder than a gunshot. Every single smack ricochets off the bluffs, echoes down the coulees. Me and Terry can hear the cutter long before we spot him. From way up here, the boat looks like a little gray mouse gnawing its way through a chunk of white cheddar. We knew the captain couldn't see us, but we stood on the front steps of the Airstream and waved like crazy anyway.
All the next week, dirty little islands of ice gave up and floated away. By then, Terry was feeling whoosey. That's Aunt Aggie's word—‘whoosey'—and when she says it, she rocks back and forth and looks at the ceiling. The maple leaves started to come out that week, too. The branches turned green as mint tea and tossed a fishnet of shadows along the curved walls of the Airstream. We could hardly spot the river through the trees—all we'd see was a flash of water shining like mica in a rock.
In no time, it was fall and those same leaves were changing color. One day, I was waiting outside for Mr. Morris to give me a lift to school and there it was—a red maple leaf just the right size for Sister Margaret's bulletin board. Soon as I got in the truck, Mr. Morris asked me, "Where's Terry?" I said he wasn't starting school just yet, that he needed a breather. Mr. Morris said his second cousin's boy had the same thing, but he couldn't remember the name because it wasn't in regular English. Mr. Morris had a lot of questions about Terry—how was he doing and wasn't it all too bad he was so sick. I just looked out the window. I don't like talking about Terry because he'll be fine soon enough and besides, it's family business. Mr. Morris is just a neighbor. By the time he dropped me off, my special maple leaf was wrinkled as a rag, so I tossed it in a puddle. I missed having something to twist in my hand, though, and my fingers felt lonesome until I went up to the black board for arithmetic—that's when I saw my fingers were Indian red with leaf juice. I felt better right away—a little bit of that nice leaf had stayed around after all.
Terry never talks to me unless he has to. Sometimes he calls me The Squirt and moves in fast like he's going to slug me. Mom told him it wouldn't hurt him to be civil, but I don't mind Terry calling me The Squirt—at least he's calling me something. My birthday's in the beginning of the summer and Terry's is at the end, so all July we're only one year apart. I used to think I was catching up to him, and that maybe then he'd talk to me. But Terry said I'd never catch up, no matter what.
Every once in a while, Terry shows me something real cool—like how to light a match on your pants. One snap up the zipper and—there you have it—fire! In second grade, all I wanted was to learn how to read and how to light a match on my pants. One day, I was practicing in my room and Mom came in with a basket of clothes. She took one look at me and all those broken matches and gave me a good swat. I never even got a chance to explain.
Knutson's Lumber sells wood and shingles and about a million kinds of nails. Mr. Knutson hangs nametags on each kind of wood but he shortens the long words. Sometimes he just uses a few letters, like ‘Plywd' and ‘Asph Shing." Last month, Mr. Morris stopped at Knutson's and bought a big sheet of tin for Sister Margaret's Music Appreciation class. Sister wrote "Corrugated Tin" clear across the blackboard and put in every letter. I know the alphabet doesn't have any feelings, but if it did, I bet all those letters had a ‘Welcome Home' picnic up there behind Sister Margaret's chair. She left the words up all day long so the letters would have a little extra time together.
Sister passed out spoons from the lunchroom and told us to tap on the tin and listen to the sound. We thought that was a dumb idea because around Hillvale, you hear corrugated tin every time it hails and nobody calls it music. Then we figured maybe Sister never gets to hear the rain because of all the praying in the convent, so we banged away with the silverware like it was something special.
Sister Margaret said sound moves through the air in ripples, like waves in the tin and waves on the river. Even though we can't see them, she said, they're coming in from all directions. I figure all those waves must bump into each other, chop up the air like the wake of a barge. You'd think we'd see something that busy going on right in front of us.
I told Terry about sound coming in waves and we decided to go down to Knutson's and see the machine that puts the curves in the tin. The man working the yard said corrugated tin comes that way. Terry said, "Well, it doesn't come out of the ground all rippled up. Somebody's got to give it a curl." The man stood up fast and said he was sick of Terry always being such a smart aleck, so we left.
By January, Terry was tired all the time. His legs looked like pogo sticks. I remember because I got his pants. "That boy's growing like a bean," Dad said, and messed up Terry's hair. "Put a few bricks on that redhead, Ruthie. He's getting too tall for the trailer." Dad gave me a big wink. I guess he hadn't been around long enough that time. He didn't see how Terry was turning into a bone. By then, Mom was watching Terry every minute. She didn't smile at the old brick joke. The next week, Dad left again.
Terry's pants were real blue jeans with real copper studs and a secret pocket for my Indian head nickel. I couldn't believe I got to keep them, but he didn't even care. Some days, it seems like Terry's getting younger and I'm getting older, like we're passing each other going opposite directions. Now, I'm tall enough to jump up on the kitchen counter in a single try, but Terry's turning quiet. Only his hair's still loud.
Right before Easter, Dad came home. Me and Mom and Terry were over at Aunt Aggie's. Uncle Oscar was the first person in Byers' Coulee to get a television, and everybody wanted to help move it to the rec room. It was hard work lugging that big thing down the stairs. I came last because I was in charge of the cord. I saw the tops of everybody's heads and heard them grunt. One step...clunk…ugh. Another step...clunk...ugh. Just like a row of Indians, only fatter.
Afterwards, we had an inside picnic with rice crispy bars and Kool-aid. The little kids climbed in and out of the TV box while we waited for the test pattern to start up. A test pattern is a mess of gray circles and triangles that lock up then float apart. Mr. Morris said it's target practice for the eyes. He told Uncle Oscar his television picture would clear up as soon as he got a rooftop antenna. "It's a fishing net for television waves," he said. I was surprised that television has invisible waves, too. I guess there are important things going on around us all the time. We don't even think about them.
I was sitting next to Mom on the couch when Dad came down the stairs like nothing was new. He touched Mom on the shoulder and went right over to the foldout lounge chair where Terry was taking a catnap. Dad scooped him up like he didn't weigh a penny and held him tight for a full minute. Then Dad looked at me. "How ya' doing, Sport?" I felt better right away. Dad didn't mind that Terry was sucking his thumb. I didn't either. Terry's not exactly my big brother any more. He's just my brother Terry.
Soon as we got home, Mom started some popcorn, and me and Dad pulled out our chessboards. We have about thirty games going at the same time. Each board's the size of a Bingo card and it's covered with little squares just big enough to show each move. Dad tests the popcorn while I spread the cards around the trailer. Nowadays, Terry's on the couch. That way, Mom can keep an eye on him. He leans against the pillows and sorts our new postcards. Each one's from another player who has a pretend name—'Mel from the Dells', ‘The Cootie', ‘Bored Enuf', ‘Shenanigans'. I like to keep things simple: I call them all Mr. Invisible.
It's my job to match the chessboards with the postcards, then hold them both out for Dad like I'm his altar boy. Dad looks at the move written on the card, then he stares at the board. "Hmm. Hmm," he says, over and over. Finally he makes a move for us, and tells me how to write it down in the secret language of chess. Bb5 a6 NfgK Nbd2. After that, me and Terry stick stamps on the return postcards. Off they go to Mr. Invisibles around the world.
Mom leans against the sink and watches me and Terry and Dad like we're doing something interesting. She says the same thing to Dad every time, "Honey, you should be in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most chess-by-mail games of anyone on God's Green Earth."
While they're talking, I'm careful to eat just one piece of popcorn for every move we make. Terry has his own bowl of popcorn bowl beside the couch. She calls Terry her ‘little fella' when she gets him more juice. Nobody remembers that I used to be her little fella, but I don't mind.
We never play chess without inviting Mr. Casals. Once the chessboards are out, I pull his record from the cardboard cover. It has a big smiling picture of Mr. Casals on the front. Dad gets down on one knee to set the needle on the record in just the right spot, and I tuck the album cover against the duck lamp. That way, Mr. Casals can see everything we do. He doesn't sing or talk on his record—he just plays his cello all by himself. I think the music sounds sad in some spots, but other parts are busy as hailstones and polka dots. Dad says Mr. Casals plays these same six tunes every single morning of his life, like they're his morning prayers. Once I called them Mr. Casals' sweet songs and Dad laughed. "They aren't ‘sweet'," he said. "They're a ‘suite'. ‘Bach's Suite for the Solo Cello'." Even so, Mom and Dad look at each other and say, "Got some time for those sweet old songs?"
Dad likes to tell me how he got to watch the real Mr. Casals play his suites. "I was walking down a street in New York," Dad says, "and Mr. Casals was trying out cellos in a shop off Broadway. The Bach streamed out the door and around the corner like it was looking for me." Dad went after the music like a bird dog heads for water. He found the shop, went in, and sat on an extra chair in the corner. He stayed there all day. "Seeing Pablo Casals play the cello the best thing that ever happened to me," Dad says, "except your mom, your brother and you."
Dad told me Mr. Casals is getting on and that he might pass any time. After somebody dies, Dad said, a little of them hangs around their favorite place. He figured since we play Mr. Casals' music so much, he might want to live on here with us in the Airstream. Dad looked at Mr. Casals' photo on the album cover. "Think you might stay here with us?" he asked. We both thought Mr. Casals gave a little wink.
I told Dad that Sister Margaret says sound is wavy as water. I thought Dad might laugh at me like he did about the suites, but he said Sister was right. He said Mr. Casals wanted an old cello because beautiful music smoothes out the insides of an instrument. Sound waves shake up bits of wood too tiny for us to see. They slide around until they're lined up in the same direction - like first graders in a fire drill or pine trees growing down the coulee. "A cello has to be played for years and years before there's a shift in the wood," Dad said, "but after that, it's changed forever." I figure the sound waves from Bach's suites are smoothing out our Airstream—we're Mr. Casals' big silver cello. Even when we don't know it, things are turning out as they should.
Mom takes Terry into Doc O's all the time now, but I don't come along anymore. His head's wobbly, so Mom wraps him tight in the blue blanket and carries him all the way up the clinic steps. While they visit Doc O, I stay with Aunt Aggie and watch TV. Hop-Along Cassidy's my favorite show. He has a white horse that's smart as a person. Mr. Morris has a white horse, too, but his horse has brown teeth and smells like manure. Still, his eyes are big and soft as Terry's. I miss the old Terry almost every day now, but I don't say much. I just talk to the Terry we've got now.
I came home from school on Monday and all the chessboards were gone. Mr. Casals was in the cupboard and everything was cleaned up. "Dad went North, Honey. To Wausau," Mom said. She was washing dishes that didn't look dirty. "He got work with the maple syrup people. It won't be long until the sap comes in—he'll be back before you know it." She stared out the little round window above the sink like she was waiting for something. "After all, you're pretty lucky. Not every kid gets to be the baby, then the big boy, then the man of the house. And all in the same year."
I said Dad could have at least said good-bye.
"Your dad's having trouble saying good-bye these days. He's a great guy, but he can't stand being sad. Makes him run away. Don't worry—you'll be here when he comes back." Then she squeezed the edge of the sink so hard her hand turned white.
This whole week's been cold and cloudy. Every day after school I walk around inside the Airstream, pretending Mr. Casals is playing his cello and Dad's gone outside just for a minute to read the thermometer. I know he didn't run away. Only kids do that.
Yesterday, the sun finally came out, so I went outside to check the river down below. Somebody at school said the Coast Guard cutter was coming through. I didn't see any black line through the ice. Spring was coming, but it looked like it might get here too late for the lumpy islands down-stream. They were gray and tired—like they'd waited too long in the doctor's office. I went back inside.
Terry was awake. His eyes were big and dark as a coon's. For a minute he didn't seem to know where he was. I told him the Coast Guard hadn't come up-stream yet, but he just stared at our curved ceiling. Then he whispered that he'd like to see the channel open, but his head was swimming too much.
"It's ok," I said, "The cutter will probably come through at night. We'll wake up one of these mornings and the water will be wide open."
Just then, I remembered what Sister Agnes said about angels and saints and how we should try real hard to be a saint. That sounded boring to me, but being an angel—that would be okay.
I said to Terry, "Hey, maybe you're turning into an angel. Maybe you'll be able to fly down and see the river for yourself."
"Maybe," he said, like he meant it.
I'd only been kidding about him turning into an angel, so I didn't know what to say next. Then I remembered the tadpoles in Knutson's bait pond and how they turned into frogs, and Sister Maureen's tomato bugs and how they changed into moths. If there are any angels, they've got to start someplace. Maybe an Airstream's just another kind of cocoon.
Mom was in the other room talking to Aunt Aggie on the phone. The door was shut, but I could hear her say maybe she'd waited too long to take Terry into the clinic that first time. After a minute, she was quiet. Then she said she'd be right over to drop me off, that she'd take Terry into the emergency room. "Ok. Ok. Good-bye," she said and hung up. I could hear her coughing and crying and slamming the cupboards. Terry didn't even notice. He was looking at his thumb like it was something brand new. I wish Mom were feeling better. I don't think she has to worry about Terry. I figure getting to Doc O's is like getting to base: you just have to touch it before you're tagged.
It was almost dark when Mom picked me up from Aunt Aggie's. I'd watched all the TV there was and now the Hamm's Beer beavers were singing about "sky blue water." They were pounding on a log with their tails in time to the Indian drums. Mom pulled into the driveway and honked three times. I ran out fast and climbed into the backseat. Mom didn't look at me once, not even in the mirror. "We're going to church," she said. Mom doesn't like church much so I was surprised, but she was mad about something so I was careful not to kick the seat.
The church was empty. Mom picked a pew in the back where moms sit with their crying babies. She tried to settle Terry on the seat between us but he wanted to sit on the kneeler, so she helped him down and wrapped him up like a chief. Then she sat up and stared straight ahead. Her hands were tight in her lap. I thought maybe she was squeezing a rock.
Everything was quiet. Mom had her eyes shut. I cleaned the dirt off the rim of the wooden book holder in front of me, then I folded back some crinkled pages in the hymnal. I leaned way back so I could see the curve in the ceiling. After a while, a bent-up man came through a little door way up front, behind the altar. He was carrying a blue beach pail. He walked right past the fancy red lamp that hangs from the ceiling and stopped at the altar. First he wiped the big silver candlesticks until they shined like mica, then he dusted the little gold house where Jesus lives. I watched him genuflect, turn, and step down to the secret gate in the middle of the communion rail. He clicked it open and passed through to the pews for the regular people.
Just for a second, I saw his face. He was as crinkled and sad as God. I heard a gurgle as he shook oil on his rag. The sound echoed around the church. The old man shined the ledge where you rest your hands to pray, then he wiped every germ off the seat. At the end of the first pew, he stepped into the aisle, genuflected, and dropped back a row. He began again. I could smell the polish—it reminded me of oranges and clean sheets. The old man moved from pew to pew like Dad and me at our chessboards, like the invisible bits in Mr. Casals' cello, shifting and sorting until they all face the right direction.
All of a sudden, Terry tugged hard on the leg of my jeans. I almost fell over. His face was bright, like he was getting ready to blow out his birthday candles. He pointed to the floor in front of us. I looked, but there wasn't anything there—just dirty boards.
"It's so cool!" he said.
"Come on! Look!" For a second, he sounded like the old Terry who was always telling me what to do. I was so glad to hear him that I lied—right there in church, right there in front of Baby Jesus. "Wow!" I said. "Neat!" I figured it was just a fib and besides, Terry looked excited to be staring down at nothing.
It didn't work; he knew I was lying.
"Don't you see?" he said. He ran his finger along a shadow on the floor.
I sat down on the kneeler and paid close attention. There were lots of shadows there under the pew—and they all came together right in front of Terry. A curved shadow swooped down from the pew behind us and bumped into a half circle from Mom's elbow. A blue shadow came in from someplace else maybe the stained glass window. Some pink shadows met up with the purple shadows from Mom's purse. They curled around each other, like they were holding hands.
Some floated in and overlapped like parts of a test pattern. The bright center stayed steady, shining down from the lamp above Mom's head.
"Wow!" I said.
"Now—shut your eyes."
What a surprise! The shapes were still there, but bigger than real life. They sparkled like sunlight on the river. Little lost bits rolled together into a star—lopsided, like the ones first-graders make with triangles. I watched that star float clear across the sky on the inside of my head.
"Wow!" I said again. I looked at Terry. His eyes were shut and his face was bright as a cloud. He looked different. Softer. Almost happy. Without opening his eyes, he ran his hand along my arm like he was dusting off an old pew.
Mom had her head in her hands but when my kneeler creaked, she looked down at me. "It won't be long now, Honey," she whispered, and pushed back my hair. I though she meant it was time for us to go, so I nudged Terry and helped him with his blanket. He was white enough to see through, but he was still smiling. Mom wasn't mad anymore. She wrapped him tight and drove us up the coulee to home.
Soon as Mom stopped the car, I jumped out to help. She pulled the blanket around Terry and carried him up the path. I ran ahead and yanked open the silver door of the Airstream. First thing I saw was a chessboard. Then I saw they were everywhere—on the coffee table, the window ledge, the kitchen counter, even on the floor. Mr. Casals was playing his suites. His smiling face was wedged against the duck lamp. I smelled popcorn.
Mom saw all the chess cards and gave a yelp. Holding Terry, she pushed right past me into the center of the room. Then she stopped and started to cry. Dad opened up his arms and pulled Terry and Mom into him like they were a single person. Dad looked over Mom's shoulder at me and gave me a wink.
Mom cried a long time last night, but she's better today. Right now, she's putting animal crackers on the cowboy plate. Dad's on the couch, helping Terry drink some juice. I figure after we have a little treat, we'll stick stamps on our postcards and mail them off to all the Mr. Invisibles. The Coast Guard cutter opened the channel last night. By sunset, he'll be coming back through the open water. Maybe then, me and Terry will go outside and wave to the captain as he heads on home.
"Mica in the Rock" won the 2002 Patricia Painton Scholarship awarded by the Paris Writers Workshop.