Road of Five Churches
by Stephanie Dickinson
AMIGA MOM FROM PLANET IRAQ
Upstairs I unbutton my dress coat, pull off my left sleeve first, and then shrug my right arm free. I look at my breasts, two handfuls. Take your overalls off, a voice from long ago, the boy from the next farm. Flat stomach, my mother’s thighs. You have a beautiful body, at least what I can see of it. My belly gives off whiteness, almost a shine like the dust rubbed from a moth. I put on a pair of jean cutoffs, and a Hawkeye Downs teeshirt. You can’t miss the stump. This is the bedroom of my childhood, the south bedroom, and across the hall, my mother’s room, and the attic bedroom where the wind sleeps. Maybe I’ll live like I did as a child. I’ll tramp the roads; I’ll visit the drainage pipe that runs under the gravel. I'll crawl through; I’ll watch rain and after dark I’ll wait for eyes to appear, civet cats and raccoons.
“Are you ready to eat, Bethany?” Mom calls up the stairs.
“Give me a few minutes, Mom.”
“Supper, everything’s ready!”
“Go on and eat.”
It’s dark by the time I thump down the stairs and make the turn into the farmhouse kitchen. Mom hasn’t turned on the lights. She looks up from the round oak table where she sits in the gloom. Her laptop waits on the card table in closed position.
“Didn’t you eat?” I ask.
Her untouched plate of food sits in front of her. “I waited for you.” There are creases on either side of her mouth. “Would you like a candle, Bethany? We could pretend we’re at a restaurant.”
“I don’t care.”
She lights the stump of an old red Christmas candle, the flame flickering over the coleslaw, my favorite dish, and pigs-in-a-blanket, hotdogs breaded in Bisquick. A vitamin pill waits in a jar lid beside my plate.
“I made pink lemonade,” she says, rattling farmer matches. “You were up there so long I didn’t want your ice cubes to melt. I put your drink in the ice box.”
I stand and go to the refrigerator.
“Bethany, I’ll get it.”
“Mom, don’t treat me like an invalid.” I grip the refrigerator handle.
No other person in the world can belong to this refrigerator. Mom washes out margarine tubs and cottage cheese containers and uses them to store leftovers. Every bread crust and hunk of moldy Velveeta, every spoonful of lima beans and hominy grits has its own container. I reach for the pineapple pitcher. Containers spill off the shelf and clatter to the floor, lids open and peas roll. Then I hear the flap of Mom’s flip-flops, the creak of her knees as she kneels beside me, helping to scoop up the peas. Her hands are good at picking up crap. Big and strong, not like a woman’s hands, but not a farmer’s either. Our heads almost bump.
“Bethany,” she takes a deep breath, averting her eyes, “you were born perfect.”
I sit back at the table. I take my first bite of coleslaw.
Mom scrapes up the peas and dumps them in the sink. “Eat,” she says, “and not just slaw.”
The pigs-in-a-blanket taste like burnt newspaper. Mom always fries the hot dogs black before coating them in dough and baking them. She doesn’t look at me when she sits down at the head of our round table. I watch her cut her hot dog into smaller and smaller chunks. Finally, she puts a piece into her mouth.
“Well, was it worth it?” Mom asks, slowly chewing.
Her question circulates around the kitchen big enough to make thresher dinners in. Eventually it fades into the corners and there’s only the sound of me chewing onions and apple vinegar mixed in with the cabbage. When I finish the whole bowl Mom scoops the coleslaw off her plate and onto mine.
It’s after midnight when I lug the duffel bag down the stairs. Leaving it by the door, I ease the junk drawer in Mom’s desk open, slip a box of farmer matches into my pocket. The screen door doesn’t make a sound as I step out into the night, but the door to the summer kitchen creaks. Inside, my fingers find the flashlight and set it on a stool, using its misty beam to fill an old Hawaiian Punch can with lawn mower gas.
Stars are out, spilling over the sky, the darkness of the fields making them brighter. I wedge the can between my left elbow and body, and then open the gate to the back pasture, kicking the duffel bag in. The moon washes the barrels where we burn garbage.
I heap the uniforms on the ground, slosh gas over them, and strike a match. The flame makes a whooshing sound. The Friend or Foe Identification square on the shoulder flap catches fire first and then the knee pouch and leg cuff, the rank insignia above the chest pocket. My patrol cap burns in an instant, the hot-weather desert boot is resisting. I remember that famous picture we all studied in high school of a Buddhist monk who burned himself sitting in a lotus position, his fingertips touching as the fire flowed around him. I sit down on the ground cross-legged. How beautiful he looked in the flames like a flower opening. Now sparks fly, metal buttons pop, the forward cargo pockets and sleeves flutter like black fireflies. The bonfire is a meteor hurled to earth and men with angry black eyes telling stories of angels and the Prophet Mohammed coming down from Heaven to lead the fighters.
“Bethany,” I hear Mom call. “What are you doing out there?”
“I’m looking at the stars.”
The Big Dipper is pouring comets into the ground. I must watch until everything burns.