"Dust to Dust" can be found in the short story collection The Lizard's Ardent Uniform and other stories. Click for here more details.
The county had long since paved over the main road. Low slung shopping malls and tract houses with two car garages replaced most of the ancient barns and silos that once scattered across the skyline. So much had changed but my mind was stuck on the last time I came down this road nearly forty years ago.
It was the morning after school closed in the spring of 1963. We left the city before dawn. By first light my father was driving over rutted, dusty roads past ancient farm houses, many needing a coat or two of paint. Riding through the tiny town of Culbertson, not much more than a drug store and a one pump gas station, I started to cry.
My mother reached back and gave my knee a hard smack.
"Stop blubbering. You danced. Now you pay the piper."
Her voice scratched like chalk on a pitted blackboard. My father urged her to shush.
When we got to my grandmother's farm, they dumped me and my scant luggage in Granny's sitting room. My mother sat on a chair in the kitchen and wailed her grievances about how I'd gone wrong as if we were all discovering for the first time why the trip had been made. My Granny fussed around offering sweet tea and promising everything would turn out as the Lord planned. My father had the sense to thank Granny for taking me in. My mother took it as her God-given birthright that her mother would hide the mess I'd made. Soon enough, my mother marched purposefully out the door, announcing that she'd see me when "it" was done and gone. My father stopped to give me a quick hug and whispered. "It'll all be over soon. Pay your mama no mind. We'll visit. I promise."
I spent the first couple of days tossing and turning on the stiff mattress of the single bed in Granny's spare room. When I wasn't sobbing my heart out, I was trying to find a spot where I could wriggle in comfortably. The little monster, as I called it, was growing bigger every day, stretching my belly, taking up room I didn't know I had.
Finally Granny was having no more of my melancholy.
"Come out to the porch," She stood her hands planted firmly on her hips. "You're wasting sunshine, sprawled on that bed, day in, day out." She shook her head. "It's all I can do to get you to eat supper."
That last part was true. My stomach had stopped retching long ago but the smell of most foods still caused the occasional flip flop. I knew Granny wouldn't stop prodding 'til she got her way, so I dragged myself outside and dropped onto the weather-beaten pillows of the porch swing. The overhang shaded my head and shoulders, while my growing belly was warmed by the morning sun. The little monster began kicking as if he was dancing to a tune on the radio.
After a while Granny brought out a bowl of peas for me to string.
"Here you go. Time to start earning your keep." And she plopped the bowl and a knife on the swing next to me.
Even as a little girl I visited Granny's small farm for a few weeks every summer. I'd spend hours running in the fields chasing butterflies in the daytime and fire flies at dusk. Most mornings I'd swim in the pond, really not much more than a mud hole. Afternoons I'd rock in the porch swing, my mind wandering to nowhere and back while I listened to the radio. When I got older, I'd thumb aimlessly through magazines like Movie Life and Photoplay and imagined my grownup self as a high-fashion model or movie star.
Sometimes Granny would help me build a wood fire in her back yard pit, just east of the vegetable patch. Then we'd hold an old pot with a long handle over the fire and shake kernels of corn until they popped all fluffy and white. Once in a while we'd sit on the porch and take turns hand cranking the ice cream churner. We'd look at the sky and speculate which of the stars were closer to earth and which were further away.
What changed now? How is it I had to earn my keep? I thought about that while I pulled the string on each pod, dropping the peas in the bowl and tossing the pods and strings on the floor to be swept up for compost.
When I finished shelling the peas, Granny brought me a glass of fresh squeezed lemonade and two sugar cookies. She sat in the rocker next to the swing and watched me as I nibbled cautiously always fearful the nausea would return.
"This ain't the worst thing could've happened. You know the Good Book says 'dust you are and to dust you will return.' Lot happens between the two. You're a good girl deep down. Made a mistake is all. No point paying for it all your life. Just move past it. Your mama means well but she's harder on others than she is on herself. Next summer you'll come back and it will all be forgotten.
That was two things Granny got wrong. I never went back, not until today. And I never forgot the humiliation.
The second week, Granny drove me into town. Not tiny Culbertson but the next town over. Bigger, with more streets and more people. And a doctor, an old man whose left hand trembled slightly. He sat on one side of a wide scarred oak desk. We sat on the other. He called Granny "Sarah" and asked about her arthritis.
"Not too poorly. But this here is my granddaughter, the one I told you about. Got herself in trouble."
I dropped my head as far into my shoulders as I could but she went right on talking like I wasn't there. "I need you to take a look, make sure she's doing okay."
"Arrangements all made. Nice couple. Might old to go through an agency, so we can do this all private like."
"From the City. He'll see it's done legal."
Still nodding at Granny, the doctor turned to me.
"Let's take a look at you.
He walked over to the doorway and called for Louisa. She didn't look much older than me, even dressed as she was in nurse's white.
I followed her to the examination room. She weighed me and then asked how much I'd weighed before. She told me to strip below the waist and handed me a cloth to drape over my lap. She opened the door, nearly stepped out and then changed her mind and closed it again.
"Only sixteen and in the family way? What did the father say when you told him?"
Seeing as how I never did tell Mike Kelly a thing, I had no answer. Mike heard the rumor in school before I'd worked up my courage to say a word to him. He lied all over town saying how I swore I'd done it with a dozen guys before him, and my experience sure showed if the listener got Mike's drift—wink, wink.
So I shrugged at Louisa and shook my head.
I dropped my eyes when I saw the pity in hers.
"Poor kitten. They're gonna take your baby. Well, it'll have a better home than you can give it and I suppose you'll be better off."
Then she waved her left hand in front of my face, and I saw a flash of sparkle float by.
"I tell my boyfriend, Kenny, even this engagement ring don't give him privileges. Boys will take what liberties they can. I guess someone should have told you that before now."
In a few minutes I heard the doctor mumbling outside the door and I wiped the tears Louisa's thoughtlessness had caused.
The doctor poked and prodded for a bit. Then he put his stethoscope in his ears and listened to my ever-growing belly.
He smiled and told me everything sounded good. He called the little monster "the baby" and pronounced it healthy and normal.
Nothing normal about this for me.
We came out of the doctor's office and the bright sunlight hit me, draining the blood from my head. I grabbed Granny's arm. She took one look at my face, declared she'd seen skeletons with better color and walked me right next door into Woolworths. We sat on worn red leatherette stools lining the soda fountain. Grandma ordered me a seltzer, which I obediently drank. After a while I felt stronger and said so. Granny urged me to have something to eat, trying to tempt me with a bacon, lettuce and tomato on toast, my favorite sandwich. The only thing I wanted was to go back to life before. Before Mike Kelly and his sweet talk and groping hands.
When we stood, I noticed the next counter over was stocked with bibs, diaper pins, talcum powder, all the trappings a new baby would need. We passed along, heading for the door and I snatched a green rubber toy, shaped like a pretzel, tiny enough to be gripped by baby hands. I slid it in my skirt pocket. With what I'd already done, stealing was hardly worth a thought.
So the days and weeks crawled by. I went to the doctor another time or two but mostly I sat on the porch, if only because Granny wouldn't let me lie in bed all day. Each afternoon I walked to the mailbox to bring in Granny's mail, her newspapers and such. I'd written letters, made up stories of life in the country and sent them to a few girls from school. Girls I thought were my friends. Not one ever wrote back. I bet they were spending plenty of time talking about me, feeling superior because it was me instead of them got caught.
Summer got hotter. I got bigger. The walk to the mailbox seemed longer.
Some nights Granny would bring the ice cream maker out to the porch and we took turn cranking, while the radio faded in and out with the likes of Tex Ritter singing "I Dreamed There Was a Hillbilly Heaven." If ever the radio man said, "Next we gonna hear Ferlin Husky bless us with his rendition of 'White Dove,'" Granny would clasp her hands, close her eyes and sing along in a reed-thin voice: "A sign from above … On the wings of a dove."
When the music ended she'd rest for a minute and then, like the song was written just for me, she'd say, "The Good Lord's been telling me you'll have a grand life. Just need to get through this is all. One day you'll be an old woman like me and won't hardly remember."
But the day never came when I didn't remember.
I can still feel those pains. No matter I've had three children since. I can still feel those first labor pains. I yelled for Granny and she drove me to the hospital just off Route 40. I try not to think about the rest of that day. Pain followed by more pain and in the end nothing to show for it.
Oh, I had a baby. A baby who was going to grow up as someone else's sweet little girl. I cried, I begged to see her. My parents came, I thought to visit me, but really to sign the papers giving my baby to what mama called "her real parents."
My father kissed me on the forehead and told me it was all for the best. It was my future they were thinking of.
My mother acted like I was invisible. She kissed the air alongside my cheek and was gone, papers signed, her job done.
I lie in bed for three nights listening to babies cry in the nursery, wondering which one might be mine. On the fourth day while she was plumping up my pillows, Granny told me I was going home the next day and asked me what clothes I wanted her to bring in the morning.
"Mind you, everything's not going to fit right away. How about I bring the green plaid jumper?"
I shrugged. Who cared what I wore?
"And the baby?"
When Granny answered, my head snapped up in surprise. It was the first I realized that the question rolling around in my head had been asked out loud.
She patted my hand and told me not to worry. "She's going to a fine home. People got lots of money and a big house. Best of everything for your little girl."
She saw the tears starting and handed me a Kleenex from the box on the night stand.
"Go ahead, have a good cry. I'm taking her to the lawyer this afternoon. Turn her over to her parents all proper like. Then you'll finish growing, have a life of your own. Do anything you want."
She turned to the door.
"Granny, wait. Under my pillow—"
Her eyes took in the pile behind my head.
"Not these. My pillow at home. At your house. I have a baby toy. Little green rubber pretzel. Could you give it to her? I want her to have something from her mother. From me. Something she can keep for always."
Granny's shoulders dropped and her always ramrod spine seemed to collapse. She threw her arms around me and rocked me like I was the baby. Then she smoothed my hair with both hands and kissed me.
"Don't you worry, I'll see she has it forever."
And she hurried out of the room while I pretended not to see her tears.
I stayed at Granny's house another week or two and then my parents drove me home. I was expected to live the rest of my live as though nothing unusual happened that summer. And so I did. Went back. Finished high school, followed by a degree in economics. In graduate school I met Joe, the man I would eventually marry, but not before telling him my dreadful secret. He has spent ages trying to erase my emotional scars and for that alone I will always adore him.
I never came back to Granny's farm. Not once in forty years. Not even when Granny died. Not until this week.
My father's been gone and buried for a long while. Mama died a month ago. September 28, 2001. The entire country was still mourning the attacks on the World Trade Center, so no one noticed how sparsely I mourned my mother. Still, there were legal things to be done. It had finally come as I knew it would, that I was the sole owner of Granny's old farm.
Right after burying Granny, my mother contracted with an old time farmer named Zentz who lived closer to Culbertson. He leased a few acres for crops. As part of the bargain, he kept an eye on the place.
My mother's lawyer advised me to clean out any family bits and pieces and put the property on the market. He said there'd been offers from time to time from developers anxious to build a dozen faux farmhouses with extra size lots for gardening. Joe offered to work with the lawyer so I needn't dredge up the old memories. But I knew I had to take care of this myself. Scare away the ghosts one final time.
I'd spent decades dreaming of burning the place to the ground. When I turned in the driveway and stopped near the rusted out mailbox, I was struck by the deterioration of the house and the outbuildings. The idea of a fire did not seem unreasonable.
I pulled up to the front porch and parked next to a faded blue Chevy Silverado with more than a little mud on the tires. I was glad that Mr. Zentz was already here, cleaning out the barn and stable as I'd directed. I don't care what he did with anything, I wanted everything gone, the estate settled. Then I'd be free of it all.
I sat on the porch steps, not wanting to go into the house. It wasn't long until Zentz, nearly as weathered as his truck, came out of the barn to introduce himself. He thanked me for allowing him the good fortune of having first pick of the farm equipment.
"I'll sell what I can't use. Happy to give you the profit."
I was telling him for what seemed like the fiftieth time that this place had nothing to offer me, when a younger version of Farmer Zentz came running out of the barn with a tattered tan satchel in his hand.
"Pa. Pa. What do you make of this?"
He reached the porch and remembered his manners long enough to tip his hat to me.
He set it down on the ground between his father and me. Satisfied he had our attention, the boy used his kerchief to clear away the layers of dust along the inflexible rim and he pulled the sides wide open. Dust billowed out, as if making room for sunlight that flooded into the bag and reflected on ancient bones. Tiny bones. Tucked among them was a green rubber pretzel.
Granny kept her promise. My little girl still has her remembrance of me.
Copyright © 2014 Terrie Farley Moran.
Twice short-listed for Best American Mystery Stories, Terrie Farley Moran's cozy mystery novel Well Read, Then Dead is the first book in the "Read 'Em and Eat Café and Bookstore" series. Terrie tells anyone willing to listen that hanging out with any or all of her seven grandchildren provides life's grand and joyful moments.