The Bukowski Agency - Shelter - Excerpt

a novel by Frances Greenslade


JENNY IS THE ONE who asked me to write all this down. Her mind now is agitated by disorder. She wants me to sort it for her, string it out, bead by bead, an official story, like a rosary she can repeat and count on. But I started writing it for her, too. Mom, or Irene as other people would call her, since she moved a long time ago from whatever “Mom” once meant to her.

Even now there was no stopping the guilt that rose up when we thought of her. We had lost her, like you lose a cat who goes out the back door one night and doesn’t return, and you don’t know if a coyote got her or a hawk or if she sickened somewhere and couldn’t make it home. We did not try to look for our mother. We let time pass, we waited, trusting her, because she had always been the best of mothers. She’s the mother, that’s what we said to each other, or we did in the beginning. I don’t know who started it.

That’s not true. It was me. Jenny said, “We should look for her.” I said, “She’s the mother.” But I didn’t know the power those few words would take on in our lives. They had the sound of truth, like a slogan, loaded and untouchable. But they became an anchor that dragged us back from our most honest impulses.


We waited for her come and get us and she never did.

There was no sign that this would happen. I know people always look for signs. That way they can say, we’re not the type of people things like that happen to, as if it can be predicted, as if we should have seen it coming, too. But there were no signs. Nothing except my worry, which I think I was born with, if you can be born a worrier, and Jenny thinks you can.

Worry was stuffed into the spaces around my heart, like newspaper stuffed in the cracks of a cabin wall, and it pushed against it, so that it choked out the ease that should have been there. I’m old enough now to know that there are people who don’t feel this way, dogged by the shadow of disaster, people who think their lives will always be a clean wide, open plain, the sky blue, the way out clearly marked. I wasn’t born that way. My anxiety made me tight and curled into myself. I couldn’t be like Jenny, opened up like a sunny day with nothing to do but lie in the grass, feel the warm earth against her back, a breeze, insects in the air. Soon, later, never – words not invented. Jenny was always and yes.

As I say, there was no sign of anything that might go wrong in the small, familiar places that made up our world. The bedroom Jenny and I shared was painted robin’s egg blue and the early morning sunlight fell across the wall, golden, luminous like an eggshell held to the light. I watched how it fell on the wall, and after a while tiny shadowed hills rose up and valleys dipped in the textured lines of the wallboard. Morning in that land came slow, and slanted with misty light, like mornings everywhere, waking into the glare of day.

Our house in Duchess Creek had a distinctive smell that met me at the front door: boiled turnip, fried bologna, tomato soup, a persistent tangy cooking smell, held maybe in the curtains or in the flimsy boards that made the walls and ceiling or the curls of newspaper that insulated them. It was a warm house, Mom said, but not built by people who intended to stay. The kitchen cupboards had no doors and the bathroom was separated from the main room by only a heavy flowered curtain. Electricity came to Duchess Creek in 1968 and a saggy wire was strung through the trees to our house. But we had electricity only occasionally, and only for the lights.

There was a small electric stove, but it was never hooked up or it didn’t work and Mom never made a fuss about it, though her friend Glenna asked her about twice a month when she was going to get the stove hooked up. Mom cooked out of necessity, not pleasure, and stuck mainly to one pot, stew-like recipes that she had learned to cook on the woodstove. We didn’t have an electric fridge either. We had a scratched old icebox where a lonely bottle of milk and a pound of butter resided.

There was a pump in the backyard where we got our water. Someone before us had made plans to bring water into the house, since there was a shower and sink in the bathroom, but neither worked. We pumped our water and carried it in in a five gallon bucket that sat on the kitchen counter. We had an outhouse, but at night we used a bucket with a toilet seat on it; it was emptied each morning.

Dad had rigged up a bathtub in the backyard especially for Mom. It was a heavy old clawfoot tub. Underneath he had a dug a hole and in that he’d make a small fire. He ran a hose from the pump to fill the tub. The water heated nicely and Mom sat in there on a cedar rack thing he’d made so she wouldn’t burn herself. Some evenings we’d see her out there, steam rising from behind the screen of fir boughs he’d wound through a piece of fence and we heard her singing to herself. I thought that if she needed any proof that Dad loved her, that was it.

There must have been a time when I sang myself awake, trilling up and down a range of happy notes as a beetle tracked across the window screen and cast a tiny shadow on the wall. But I don’t remember it. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t look at the world and feel apprehension chewing at the edges. It wasn’t our mother I worried about. She was the best mother, and I felt myself lucky to have a mother who took us camping, wasn’t afraid of an axe, loved to drive the empty backroads, looking for a lonely place. Our measure of a good camp was how far from other people it was. “No one around for miles,” Mom said, satisfied, when the fire was built. She was the constant in our lives, the certainty and the comfort. It was Dad I worried about.

Dad had to be approached like an injured bird; we doled out bits of attention tentatively. Too much and he would fly off. He was never mean; he was almost too gentle. If he was in the house, he liked to sleep by the oil drum that was our woodstove. I wanted him to stay asleep. If he was asleep, he was with us. If he woke up, he would stretch, look around at us as if somehow unsure how to join us, as if he was an outsider, and then I’d feel the sting of disappointment as he went for his jacket by the door.

He made it casual; sometimes he whistled, made it seem like nothing, putting his arms into the flannel sleeves. Then he’d go outside, chop wood for a few minutes, like a penance, then disappear into the woods for hours. Worse days, he’d go to his bedroom and close the door.

I listened with my ear against the wall in Jenny’s and my bedroom next door. If I stood there long enough, I’d hear the squeak of bedsprings as he turned over. I don’t know what he did in there. He had no books or radio. I don’t think he did anything at all.


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