What the Seasons Bring
By Heather Luby
And I'm lost behind
The words I'll never find
And I'm left behind
As seasons roll on by
--Chris Cornell, Seasons
John Marshall, sixty-six and staring down the last corridor of life, leaned on the dusty tailgate of his pickup. He studied the FOR SALE sign freshly stabbed into the soil of his property. His wife Vida placed it in the yard the day before, but he hadn’t agreed to any of it. The fact that his grown kids were in Texas didn’t change a thing. A daughter married to a man as bland as his khaki pants. A son he’d stopped caring to understand twenty years ago. He’d never considered the clay soil and white oaks of his Missouri home would cease to be the landscape of his life and he wasn’t going to consider it now.
And yet, when his mind wrote out the list of reasons to stay, he knew Vida would find a way to cross off each one. She might have reasons to stay too, but she only needed one reason to go—grandbabies. Deep down he knew the only real thing holding him back was Walt. But what kind of man picks a stranger over his wife and family? And wasn’t that what his friend had become, a stranger?
There was no light yet from his kitchen window and the dirt of his driveway and the road beyond lay settled. He watched as the sun painted the land with amber light where it rose from the ridgeline. He pulled a handkerchief from the back pocket of his blue jeans and wiped his forehead, damp in the heavy summer air. He pushed himself from the tailgate and walked till he was close enough to give the sign a swift knock from his boot. Two stiff kicks of the heel to each flimsy post and it fell forward from the split earth. John flung the sign into the bed of his pickup, already practicing the words in his head that might buy him a bit more time.
John sat at his linoleum kitchen table, a full cup of coffee in front of him, and his toast turning cold on the plate. Vida wiped crumbs from the kitchen counter and chatted absently of the upcoming Fourth of July holiday, cataloging which children and grandchildren would be visiting up from Texas. She sighed in a pretend display of frustration as she listed all the food she would have to prepare to satisfy them.
“Johnny always insists I make my homemade beans, but Amanda only likes the macaroni salad, so—”
“Vida,” John said. She continued, now pacing with a pen in hand, scribbling in the air as she searched for scratch paper. “Vida,” he said again.
John shook his head, but she was already bringing the pot.
“Want a bowl of cereal,” she asked, nodding to his toast, now soggy with butter. She stood perched and waiting.
“I think you oughta sit down.”
He took a cautious sip of coffee, hoping Vida wouldn’t notice the slight shake of his hand. She placed the coffee pot on the table and smoothed out her dress before sitting down in the vinyl-covered seats. Her own smile appearing a bit strained, her lips pursed tight, the deep breath forced through her nose sounding like a complaint. John considered the tired look in her eyes, the hurried way her gray hair was pulled back and nestled in a loose bun. It wasn’t hard for him to remember taking thick handfuls of her chestnut hair in his hands, kissing her, right in this very kitchen. Jesus, they were so young once.
“Well, I’m sittin’,” she said.
His practiced words failed him. “We’re not selling.”
“Now, who said you just get to decide.” Vida shot up from her seat.
John held up his hand to her, as if it could halt not just her words, but everything.
“Don’t put your hand up to me, mister,” she fired back. “I’ve already listened to all your nonsense reasons.”
“You don’t have to like my reasons. I’ve got them and we’re not going to discuss it further.” John pushed himself up from his own chair and dusted imaginary crumbs from his jeans. He hitched up his belt and arranged himself with an authority he didn’t feel, hoping she wouldn’t test. “Maybe in a year or two—”
“And then what?” Her voice softened. She stood and walked the coffee pot back to its warmer. She spoke with her back turned, her words preceded with a sigh. “I know he’s your friend, but Walt has care now.” She turned to face him. “We’re your family.”
“Now that ain’t fair and you know it.” John could feel his color. He hadn’t given Walt as a reason to her, not once, and living in a rest home hardly counted as care. “I’m needed here. Maybe not by you, but you’re not my only obligation.”
He knew it was the wrong thing to say, but he turned and walked the worn path down the hallway just the same. The hardwood sloping with age, exhaling with familiar groans under his weight. He grabbed his hat and his keys from their hook. He called back over this shoulder. “I’ve got to open the store.”
His truck kicked a cloud of white dust as it turned onto the highway toward town. He wondered if Vida was watching, standing at the window over the kitchen sink like so many years, but he couldn’t risk looking back.
John parked his red ‘92 Ford pickup in his usual spot behind the hardware store. It was early yet, but he expected to see a few of his regulars soon, before the heat of the day settled in and made work slow and tiresome. He unlocked the back door and took in the sharp smell of pine and metal. The gritty sound of his footsteps carried through the aisles. He switched on the overhead lights and walked to the front to unlock the door. The place was too quiet. He thought to call out to Walt in the back, like he had for the last forty years, but instead he whispered his name just to hear it.
He wasn’t coming back. Everybody knew when you start needing someone to corral you, keep tabs so you don’t wander off, that’s pretty much the end of things. John pictured Walt growing deep lined in the face, sitting in front of a silent TV down at the old folk’s home. The damn Old Timers whittling away what was left of his mind. A fate John knew many in town would say too kind for a man with Walt’s past, as if kindness was something best rationed by the righteous.
For decades Walt occupied the small aluminum desk at the back of John’s store, but also a seat at his dinner table most nights and in the front of his john boat on the weekends. Even now, Walt’s office smelled sweet of tobacco and John lingered in the doorway before he sat down in Walt’s chair. It was the type of chair that rolled around on casters, and didn’t really do much to support your back, but Walt never would replace it. Either the man was too stubborn or too grateful, it was often hard to tell.
He’d kept things how Walt liked them. A Styrofoam cup nearby for spitting, the day’s paper folded just right for reading the sports section. The bourbon in the bottom drawer. John pulled it open and let a near full bottle roll into his hand. He held it careful in his lap. He wondered if Walt could still remember why he kept that bottle, if he would remember all the blurry years before he beat the stuff, or all the rest of it. John suspected if a person had to forget the good along with the bad, then it was too high a price to pay for a cheap kind of peace. Hadn’t losing his only girl been payment enough?
It occurred to him that taking the bourbon to Walt might be the only way to know for sure how much of his friend’s mind really remained. How much Walt would register his betrayal if he left for Texas, and left him behind. Only way to do that was for him and bottle both to pay Walt a visit. The few phone calls he’d made to Wedgewood Gardens to check on Walt’s state of mind never garnered him much information, seeing he wasn’t family by blood. Nobody seemed to care he was footing the bill.
He locked the store and flipped the dusty sign over to CLOSED. He placed the bottle in the passenger seat next to him and pulled onto Main Street. He tipped his hat toward the sheriff, who was parked as usual at the edge of town hoping to catch an outsider rolling through a stop sign.
Dressed in his usual jeans and worn western shirt, Walt was sitting in a floral armchair at the window just inside glass front doors. John thought it seemed reckless, putting a man in Walt’s condition so close to an exit. He stood in the doorway, holding the bottle of bourbon. He folded the newspaper over it a little tighter, and carried it in under his arm. The front desk had one
nurse, talking on her cell phone, who waved him away.
He walked past her and sat down across from Walt. He slid the bottle out from the paper and placed it on the small table between them. Walt eyed the settling waves of dark liquid, then looked up at John.
“You’re here a bit early today.” Walt said.
John wondered if he should play along. If Walt believed he’d been here before, who did he think John was? He was ashamed it’d taken him so long to come, but he’d feared seeing Walt the way he was before, the night he’d brought him to this place. Angry, spit gathering at the corners of his mouth, sure his wife was off with another man and they’d stolen his TV, replacing it with some Chinese piece of shit to hide her goddamn deception.
It was true Belinda was off with another man, only she’d been married to him for near twenty years, living out in California. John tried to reason with him, but Walt started ripping out his own hair, clawing at his head. When John grabbed him, he realized he was scaring Walt even worse. John was downright terrified himself. The sheriff found them in the bathroom, Walt crying into a wet rag and John gray in the face, trying to doctor the raw spots on Walt’s head with shaking hands.
“I’s just out and thought I would come sit a spell. You had breakfast?” John asked.
It’d only been a few weeks, but John thought Walt looked thinner. His hair grown shaggy around his ears.
“I did. Biscuits, I think. They do ‘em up good here with the sausage gravy I like.” Walt cocked his chin and scratched at his days-old whiskers.
“How they been treatin’ you here? You like it?” John couldn’t help but question a place that didn’t give a man the dignity of a proper shave.
Walt raised an eyebrow in suspicion. “How come you ask so many questions? Are you a government man?”
“It’s John. John Marshall.”
Walt didn’t look comforted. “Marshall? I thought I’d warned you to stay away from my Jenny.” Walt placed his hands on the arms of his chair and leaned forward, eyes sparking. “It’s John from the store, where you work.” He paused. “We fish together. Every Sunday.”
Walt sat back in his chair, but still didn’t say a word. John continued, “I brought you some whiskey.”
“None of that piss from Tennessee, is it?”
“Wouldn’t let it cross my lips. No Sir. Kentucky true here.”
John wanted to see if he would drink the bourbon. He knew it was a cruel thing to do to a sober man, but maybe it would tell him what he needed to know. If the taste of whiskey on Walt’s lips didn’t bring back what’d he done to his own child, then those memories were gone forever. If they were gone, surely everything else that mattered was gone too. John just wasn’t sure which would be easier to for him to live with.
“Well, whatdaya waiting for?” Walt’s voice was almost too loud. “Ask Jenny in the kitchen if she’ll pour it up for us.”
“I’ll do that. You just sit tight.” John stood.
Forgetting things, appointments, names and such, that was to be expected. But forgetting his own daughter was dead, forgetting his own part in it? John picked up the bottle and placed it under his arm. He left the paper, folded to the sports page, on the table. He couldn’t meet Walt’s eyes.
“Tell Jenny to bring us some of those cookies I like too, she’ll know what kind.”
John headed for the door, but stopped, speaking to Walt or maybe himself. “The wafers. You like those little crème wafers. Orange the best.”
Outside at his truck, he looked back one last time. Walt, framed in the windows and sunshine, waiting.
The house was hot and noisy, full of bodies and laughter or arguments; it was hard to tell. Children ran underfoot hollering after each other, and four dogs were ready to claim even the smallest scrap of food that might fall. John was tired. He knew he should be thankful the kids and grand kids came up from Dallas for the fourth of July, but none of it pleased him.
John watched Vida in the kitchen. Her face was a little damp from the heat coming off the stove, but he liked the way it made her cheeks flush. She wiped her hands on her apron and started pulling silverware out of the drawer, calling over her shoulder, “Somebody come make drinks.”
The smell of baked beans and smoked meat was already drawing the voices and bodies closer to the kitchen.
“John, honey,” Vida called into the living room. “Can you run out to the garage and get me a bag of ice in the deep freeze?”
John looked around wondering if he should ask one of the younger men to do it. The garage was an old shed his father built when he was just a boy and it sat halfway across their large yard. He could ask John Jr., but Johnny was too busy telling Amanda about some stock purchase he’d made. It galled John to see the man his son had become; a man who always stunk of the booze that drove his wife away. And God knows John didn’t feel like asking his son-in- law. Michael might help, but then he would have to talk to him, and that just didn’t seem worth the trouble.
Vida poked her head around the corner just as he was about to walk out the back door. “Hurry now, supper’s almost up.”
“I heard ya,” he called back.
In the garage, John pulled the ice from the freezer. When he turned around Amanda was standing in the doorway, her curly hair pulled into a ponytail with a pink ribbon, as if she wasn’t a woman of forty.
“Hey Dad, need a hand?”
“Nah, I got this, pumpkin. Ain’t too old just yet.”
Amanda stepped aside and held the door. She looked like Vida, only her hair was still dark instead of gray. She had always been John’s favorite; though it was getting harder over the years to keep up the bond they once had.
“Momma said you don’t want to move now. That you’re too worried about leaving Walt.” “Did she now?” John walked back toward the house. He knew Amanda wanted him to say more, but he wasn’t in the mood to argue.
The sun was pulling low and the sound of cicadas was rising in a shrill chorus somewhere in the distance. John could feel the sweat from his forehead slide down and begin to burn his
eyes. Blinking through the sting, John realized he didn’t have an appetite. He was too hot to listen to Johnny complain about his ex-wife, too hot to tolerate Michael’s regurgitation of the New York Times, and too hot to ignore Vida’s attempts to deploy the bunch of them against him.
“Why don’t you take this on inside and I’ll be along in a minute.” John handed off the bag of ice to Amanda and turned back toward the garage.
Amanda spoke after him. “Momma said he doesn’t remember. Maybe it’s the Lord’s way of finally giving him some peace after what happened.”
John considered his response. What a man can rightly say to his own daughter and still maintain family relations. It occurred to him they’d been praying for Walt to disappear from their lives for some time. Only now that it was happening, they each wanted to disguise their impatience as righteous or worse yet, divine intention.
“Won’t you get this ice to your momma now before it melts.”
John knew where Walt kept his extra house key—under a frog statue, just to the side of the cement porch steps. The damn thing was left by the lady who lived there before. It was frightful in a way, a frog wearing lipstick standing on hind legs, holding a polka dot umbrella.
It didn’t feel right being in Walt’s place uninvited, but never coming back again didn’t feel any better. The air was dead and hung about the room. He caught whiff of something between wet animal and wasted milk and decided to avoid the kitchen, picking a loveseat on the far end of the room instead. He sat down and listened to the clock tick, wondering how Walt had slept with the damn thing making an announcement of every spent second.
The place was a shrine to Jenny. Photos dug out of old shoeboxes and photo albums and then framed with no purpose or plan, arranged in no particular order. It was a wonder his ex-wife Belinda let him keep a single one, but then again, she didn’t exactly hang around long. John couldn’t recall if she even stepped foot in the place after the funeral.
Headlights fanned their white light across the room. John could hear heavy boot steps coming down the walk. There was a rap at the door before the sheriff pushed it open. John knew Barry was a grown man, but he could only see Barry as the kid Vida caught looking at nudie magazines out in their garage, his own son Johnny denying he had any part in it.
“Out for a drive?” Barry took off his hat, but didn’t come in any farther than the doorway. “Something like that.” John didn’t get up from his seat. “Vida call you?”
“Just to ask if I’d seen you around tonight.” Barry made a noise in his throat. “Everything alright?”
“How’s those kids of yours?” John asked. “Heard Daniel’s gonna play varsity next year.”
“Kid’s built like a damn tank.” Barry laughed and then poked his head out the door long enough to spit.
John wanted to like Barry. He’d been a decent enough kid. He kept on with his family and did his part, unlike his own son. But the badge made him a little too self-satisfied for John’s liking. Barry stepped in and took a turn about the room picking up odds and ends, fishing trophies and framed pictures, turning them over in his hands and then putting them back, not quite the way they were before.
“You been over to see him?” Barry asked.
“I have.” John rested his hands on his knees and drew in a breath like he might stand up, but didn’t. “He’s the same nasty bastard he’s always been, thank the Lord.”
Barry slurped up the juice from his chew. “I heard he’s been asking for Jenny.” John forced a smile. “Folks do love their gossip.”
“Don’t suppose he’ll be coming back here.” Barry glanced toward the kitchen and sniffed the sour air. “Might be he could sell this place, if it’s cleaned up a bit. Might help pay his care for a bit.”
“Might could. ‘Course he don’t own this place. Belinda does.” “No shit. Somebody call her?”
The sheriff walked a last loop around the room, stopping in front of a picture of Jenny in her cheerleading uniform. “I don’t guess I ever understood why he stayed after.”
“I don’t guess you would.”
Barry gave John a once over, an almost smirk. “You always did have a soft spot for that old drunk.”
John didn’t have a response. There was nothing he could say to this generation of men who didn’t understand the definition of loyalty, of sharing the weight of another man’s burden.
The sheriff walked back to the door. “I’ve always wondered how you forgave him.” Barry turned his hat over in his hands before putting it back on. “I know Johnny never did.”
John stood up, the room suddenly too hot. “I don’t reckon Walt ever did anything that needed Johnny’s forgiveness and certainly not mine.”
“Must be I listen to too much gossip then.” The sheriff tipped his hat at the door. “I’ll tell Vida you’ll be home soon.”
The house was dark when John pulled into the drive. A figure sat on the squat front steps of his house. The sight of his boy made a lump of anger rise up in him he didn’t know how to beat down. Vida loved their boy deep, right down into her bones, but John didn’t know how to grow that sort of love for him. His heart felt starved by his son’s inability to take responsibility for his life.
He turned off the engine and sat collecting his words. He rolled up his windows, but he could still hear the frogs, a sound like pebbles being clicked together. Walking across the yard, John saw the glowing tip of a cigarette and smelled the cheap menthol smoke in the air.
“You know your momma hates you smoking under her roof.” John stopped at the steps. “Good thing I’m out here then.” Johnny drew a long pull from his cigarette. Neither man made room for the other to pass.
“That was pretty shitty of you today, driving off, leaving momma and us wondering where the hell you went.”
“Sometimes a man has responsibilities, but I don’t guess you know too much about that.” Johnny stood up, taller than his father even without the aid of the steps. He was a big-shouldered sort of man, passed down from Vida’s stock, but still freckled like a boy.
“Jesus, it’s always the same with you.” Johnny said, mashing his cigarette under his boot. “Whenever you’re finished being a self-righteous asshole, you have a dinner plate in the microwave.” Johnny turned and walked up the steps toward the door. Two beats before he reached it, John spoke again.
“Why’d you never tell me you were foolin’ with Jenny?” John heard his own voice ask the question—the one he’d been turning in his mind the whole way home—even if he already suspected the answer. “Folks talked then, after, but you never said nothing.” John said.
It was dark, but John could see his son reach for the door handle, grasp it, then let it go.
Johnny turned around to face his father. “I was a kid.” “You were a twenty-year-old man,” John said.
“Sure, but I also a kid who didn’t want to give his dad another reason to think he was a fuck up,” Johnny said. “Look how that turned out for me.”
“You don’t think telling your part was the right thing? That folks mighta thought differently about what happened if they knew?”
The porch vibrated with the baritone of boot steps as Johnny crossed back to face to his father. He spoke barely above a whisper, but with a tone full of fury.
“Knew what, exactly? That the love of my life had a raging drunk for a father? That he said I wasn’t good enough? That he wasn’t going to let me ruin her life? That she was sneaking back in her window that night with my ring on her finger when he shot her?” Johnny’s voice trembled. “What exactly would’ve made folks think differently about ol’ Walt? That maybe it wasn’t an accident or that it was supposed to be me?”
“You watch your mouth, son.” John said.
“Or maybe,” Johnny said, leaning in, “When it comes to Walt, folks have always known what you refuse to see.”
Johnny turned away from him to go inside. In all his years John never raised a finger to wife or child. He knew plenty of times that warranted cause for it, but he liked to think himself better tempered than his own old man. But in the moment, John’s hands weren’t connected to reason. He took the steps between them in a blink and felt his fist connect with Johnny’s back. His son sprawled forward, ripping through the screen of the front door.
Johnny whipped around, but John was already stumbling backward down the steps and into the yard.
“Jesus Christ!” Johnny came down the steps rough, towering over his father. “Have you lost your damn mind?”
“You never told me!” He tried to stand up, but the pain in his ankle screamed fire up his leg.
“Get the hell up before momma comes out here and finds you like this.” Johnny reached a hand out for his father, but John slapped it away and kicked dirt at him with his good leg.
John felt like his heart was a stabbed balloon. Snot and tears ran into his mouth. “He meant to shoot you.” John felt the shock of his own words, hearing them out loud, finally believing the truth of them.
“And I bet you wished he had.” Johnny put his question in a soft tone, meaning it wasn’t a question at all.
John felt a cold wash of guilt for not knowing if it was a lie. The porch light burst on.
“What in the Lord’s name is going on out here?” Vida pulled her robe tight over her chest and stepped from behind the door. “One of you’d better answer me.”
“Why don’t you go make some coffee, Momma.”
“Don’t you order me around. What’s happened here?” Vida voice trembled. She gathered her long gray hair in her hands and twisted it with one hand, still holding her robe closed with the other.
“Nothing” Johnny said.
Johnny reached down and grabbed his father under his arms and hoisted him up. John sank into his son’s grip. The bugs were already gathering toward the lights. The sound of their bodies beating against the glass, the hurling force of their destructive desire, was the only sound John could hear.
The late August sun came up hot. The bleached grass crackled underfoot. John hadn’t been able to sleep and left before dawn. It was now past noon. He’d managed to pack up what was left of Walt’s belongings from the store and Walt’s home, and delivered them to the storage unit he’d rented. All that was left was one more delivery.
John carried a small box out to his truck. He walked with the deliberate steps of a man assembling a map in his mind should he ever need to find his way back. As he drove through town he saw Barry standing outside the grocery, drinking a coke and talking to a woman with copper hair and a tattoo from knee to ankle. The sheriff tipped his hat at John, and he enjoyed ignoring it.
“Good morning Mr. Marshall.”
John nodded hello to the nurse, Delmer Teague’s niece if he correctly recalled, and continued down the hallway until he came to the right door. He shifted the box to his hip and gave a little knock. The door was already open.
“Walt, it’s John,” he called out as he entered.
Walt was sitting in a chair by his only window. John placed the box on a table near the bed. The room was tiny, the bed taking up most of the space, reminding John of the hospital room where his mother died.
“I brought you a few things.” “You did?”
“Thought we might sit a spell and go through them.” “I guess I could tolerate a little company.”
John brought the box over and placed it at his feet. He sat down in the only other chair. It seemed inconceivable to him a person’s mind could wipe itself clean of so much muck. It seemed as illogical as being washed clean in the blood of Jesus. But maybe it wasn’t like that at all. Maybe it was more like the mind just locked up a room and misplaced the key. “Thought you might like a few pictures of Jenny.”
“Did you know she’s planning on applying for college? Smart as a tack, my girl. She’s gonna get out this here town.” Walt slapped his knee as he spoke, as if it was the damndest thing he’d ever heard.
“She sure is something, isn’t she?” John gave himself permission to pretend. He pulled a picture of Jenny from the box. She was maybe ten in the photo, a fishing rod in one hand and the other on her hip. He held it up for Walt so they could both look at her, all sunshine and promise.
“Remember the time we took her over to Bull Creek?” Walt began, never taking his eyes from the photo. “We fished all day. Her and Amanda both got some of those Kentucky bass, then she fell right out of that johnboat, takin’ the cooler and all.” They both chuckled at the memory. “Boy, she was madder than a hornet.”
John waited, no longer sure he could play along. Maybe Walt would never have to remember. But now John was left alone with the truth. It was supposed to be Johnny.
Walt pulled pictures into his lap, surveying each one with the kind of arrogant nostalgia that comes from being the parent of living child. The two of them sat quiet for a bit. John watched the parking lot, his eyes sparking stars from looking at the reflection of sunlight off the windshields. It was hard to look at Walt now.
“We should go fishing sometime” John lied.
“You think you can get us some of those night crawlers I like?” “Never did know why you liked them so much.”
“They last longer. A bucket of those and you don’t have to go home for quite a good while.”
Walt’s gray hair seemed to sprout from his ears, instead of his head. Someone would need to cut it. He was about to say so when he noticed the pictures slip from Walt’s lap onto the floor. There weren’t many lucid times left, but John already recognized the change in Walt’s expression when they arrived.
“They won’t let me go to her grave. Did you know that? They won’t take me. They won’t let me go.” Walt voice was suddenly angry, and his eyes disappeared behind a rush of tears. John wondered if he should get someone, but he was afraid they’d make him leave without getting to say his goodbyes.
“I’ll take you.” John said. “We’ll go right now.”
The only bench in the overgrown cemetery faced a pond skimmed over with algae. Beyond the pond were rows of tract homes. John picked up the bench, one side at a time, and turned it to face the view beside them: a landscape dotted with cylinders of hay. Thunderheads crowded together in the distance. They sat down shoulder to shoulder.
“You’ll keep up the flowers for me?” Walt asked.
“New ones every month.” John answered, knowing he’d already made the arrangements weeks ago.
“You figure you’ll get in much trouble?”
“Nah. I may not be your next of kin, but ain’t no judge in these parts gonna hassle me for taking you for a little drive.”
“It feels good to be here,” Walt said. “Even if it’s just for now.”
Then, without pause or deliberation, John pulled Walt into his arms and hugged him to his chest. John gripped his best friend beyond the awkwardness, willing himself to make a memory of the moment. Walt hugged him back, but his hold felt slight and wavering, as if he were clutching a stranger in a moment of catastrophe. And maybe he was.
He let Walt go.
They sat and watched the baler in the distance, moving down another row, trying to beat the rain. John took it all in, one the last time. He knew the seasons and what came with them.