Today the Ugandan man who’s been living with my parents—the one who was adopted by my sister’s husband’s brother at age fifteen and who slept for a year with a hatchet under his pillow in case what he’d heard back home about white people using black people for spare body parts turned out to be true—was watching the first half of Everton vs. Manchester United on the television in my parents’ living room, a space with a cathedral ceiling and two sets of glass doors through which abundant sunlight was streaming. And then Everton scored. And then, in a matter of minutes, Everton scored again. And then, because the Ugandan man was a Manchester United fan, and because he would soon be late for the landscaping job he was scheduled to perform, he donned a floppy hat, bade us adieu, and left. I knew, because my father had told me, that this same young man could throw a football for seventy yards. And that before he’d been adopted, his grandmother had dreamed that two white people would show up one day and take him away, to America. And that, on his first day of high school, not long after he arrived in this country, a classmate asked him if he wanted to be best friends, and the man, who at the time was the only black person in his school, agreed, but when he tried, as was the custom in Uganda, to hold the other boy’s hand, his new best friend called him “gay” and ran away. However unfortunate that might’ve sounded, my father assured me, in the proud way he has of co-opting other people’s supposed acts of self-redemption, that by the time the man from Uganda had reached his senior year, his classmates had voted him “Most Popular.” Everton scored again. Despite sitting front and center for the soccer match, my mother was not watching the game; she was pinching bits of food from the towel my father had pinned underneath her chin and lifting the crumbs to her mouth. Six months before, my mother had not needed a bib. She had not moved in slow motion. She might not have been able to utter a full sentence without the words devolving into an incoherent jumble, and she might’ve been unable to dress herself properly without help, but she could’ve walked without shuffling, without suddenly freezing in place, and then wobbling, and then looking as if she might fall over and crack her head open on the edge of the wood stove. “The other day,” my father said, “I was doing something in the kitchen, and your mama wanted to help me, but she didn’t know how, and I reminded her that, for forty years, she’d served me breakfast, lunch, and dinner, and cleaned up afterward, and that I’d never once complained about not getting to help.” My mother looked at him, mouth agape, as if astonished, and blinked. “What goes around comes around,” I said, cheerfully. “I sure hope so,” my sister mumbled, a reference, I was sure, to the years of neglect and psychological suffering I had inflicted on her during our childhood, back when I’d enter her room, which was, from my perspective, a menagerie of gag-me-with-a-spoon, and which I entered only to mess with the speed of her record player, to knock over an elaborate tableau inside her dollhouse, or to put her American Girl doll in a headlock and punch it in the face. “Don’t count on it,” my father said. “Whatever,” I replied. I decided just then that I needed to take a hike, to pay my respects to the property’s landmarks: the family cemetery, the creek, the field, the ridgetop, the little mossy stump that my mother used to say resembled a troll’s ramshackle house—at least, before it fell over—and the “Lookout Rock,” from which I had imagined, as a child, that my family and I would rise into the sky when Jesus returned in his angel-frothing cloud of glory. First, though, I needed to locate the machete, which I always carried with me on these hikes to lop off whatever branches might obstruct my path, and which, I’m not ashamed to say, made me feel somewhat like a swashbuckling badass. I began my search in the garage. Dirty tools hung from hooks on the wall. Extension cords lay in tangled heaps. An inflatable unicorn floaty drooped its head. Opened cabinets revealed stacked flowerpots. But no machete. I selected a rusted hatchet instead. Outside I began climbing the old logging road, flicking fallen twigs that my mother, had she the wherewithal to accompany me, would surely have been swiping clear from the path. It was a beautiful day. The streams were full and roaring. Branches were swabbed with lichen and feathery moss. A tree had grown in such a way that it appeared to be slowly eating the yellow “Wildlife Sanctuary” sign a forest service employee had nailed to its bark fifty years before. I paused to consider the ripped-open heart of a fallen tree and whether it might be the result of a grub-scavenging bear. The previous day I‘d asked my father whether he thought the photo one of his patients had sent of a mountain lion roaming the woods behind the town pharmacist’s house, just up a ridge from the house where we used to live, was real. “Of course it’s real,” he’d said. “But the wildlife and fish people declared it extinct years ago,” I’d replied. “Did they ever come to check it out?” My father had said that they’d verified the story but hadn’t wanted it told, hadn’t wanted anyone else to know. Now a beige moth on the ground flapped itself over and over, but failed to take flight. I pointed my phone at it, zoomed in. Tiny ants crawled over its wings; I didn’t know what they were up to, but I assumed they didn’t have the moth’s best interests in mind. I turned away. What did it say about me that I preferred my woods to be dark at midday, my forest floors dappled with light splotches? Or that I no longer believed in paragraph breaks? I didn’t want to know. Beliefs, I realized, had become less interesting to me; I preferred not to have to listen to the recitations of creeds. Tell me a story, though, and I’d be—from head to toe—all ears. Once upon a time, for instance, my mother sent letters and postcards and birthday missives to friends and family, and kept commonplace books in which she transcribed passages from scripture. She used the doubles she ordered whenever she took film to be developed at the local Rite Aid to make scrapbooks. Now she couldn’t write her own name. I couldn’t even say for sure how familiar my face looked to her. The night before, she’d looked distraught when I told her “good night,” but then she’d pulled back the covers to give me a hug. Now I was using this time alone in the woods—away from my family who I almost never see—to use the voice feature on my phone to record my thoughts about what it was like to come home. I’d never been much of a fan of spring—something about all those colorful buds suggested a kind of garish lasciviousness—but I realized then that this was one of the best times of the year to walk alone in the woods. Green blades poking through the underbrush. A smattering of purple bulbs. No ticks or gnats, no snakes or wasps or bees. A breeze washed over the ridge, animating baby leaves. It was easy, what with all this coming back to life, to see how people had chosen to believe in all their many afterlives. How many of the people celebrating Christ’s resurrection today knew that the first and oldest gospel ended, not with Christ’s ascension, but with an empty tomb, from which two women fled, “for terror and amazement had seized them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid”? I suspected that few of the people staying at my parents’ house this Easter did, but the only thing I could say for sure was that none of us had gone to church. My mom, dad, and sister never had—at least not on Sundays. No sunrise services. No standing around fires outside sanctuaries in the pre-dawn light. No ringing of bells once the sun rose. Back when I was a kid, Easters weren’t church days; we would’ve already gone the day before, as we had every Saturday. We’d listened to sermons about Jesus’s suffering on the cross: how the Romans wouldn’t have driven the nails through his palms because they wouldn’t have borne the weight of his body—that would’ve been the job of his wrists; the nails would have punctured his radial nerves. We’d heard how, back when the word of God was first transcribed, the writers had used no punctuation so, preachers insisted, when Jesus told the thief, “I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise,” that the comma had been misplaced, and that the verse should have read, “I tell you today, you will be with me in paradise.” As members of the denomination to which my family and I belonged well knew, the dead didn’t go to heaven or hell, but stayed underground, where they slept until Judgment Day. Most importantly, we’d hear how Jesus rested in the tomb on the seventh day, as if keeping the Sabbath by staying dead was as important as awakening to life on Sunday. The next morning, though, my sister and I would’ve forgotten all about Jesus’s dutiful Sabbath-keeping: we had Easter baskets to plunder. We’d comb through plastic grass, finding sticker books and plastic eggs full of jellybeans and chocolate bunnies jacketed in shimmering foil. How long, I wondered, as I now considered mounds of star-tipped reindeer lichen, which resembled clusters of dehydrated brains, had I been walking? If I didn’t turn back soon, I figured, someone back home would ask where I was, and my wife would start to worry. This, I realized, was the kind of space I preferred to inhabit: alone but close by—and unseen. Expected and though not yet home, on my way. And so I began my descent, passing by the place where, according to my father, my aunt had prayed that God might show her a lady slipper to provide her with the answer to a question over which she’d been agonizing, and then, a few steps later, one had appeared. I was thinking, as I often did whenever I spotted a hunk of shale angling out of the ground, what manner of native person four hundred years ago, back before a blight decimated the chestnut tree population and all manner of game wandered these ridges and hollows, might have squatted to outwait a thunderstorm. Thirty years ago, I’d visited, with my father and our pastor, a rocky overhang at the end of one of those hollows; the pastor was something of an armchair archaeologist and had, on one of the walls of his home, hung a collection of arrowheads he’d affixed to a bed of foam behind a glass frame. That day, beneath the massive stone, we’d shoveled sandy dirt through a square, wooden sifter, shaking the contraption to see what solid things remained. We found pottery shards and musket balls but no arrowheads. That same pastor—the one who baptized me in the creek so full I could hear it from where I stood on the ridge—had recently suffered a stroke. He was now dead. My mother, I acknowledged, had outlived him. But for how long? That would be a question I’d not voice aloud to my father, when we drove the Highlander later that day deep into the mountains, to visit a doctor whose house seemed as if intersecting doublewides had birthed a porch whose windows were curtained with zippered plastic, overlooking a spectacular view of a series of pinkly greening mountain ridges. On the way my father confessed to me that he didn’t know what to do with the truck he rarely drove because it needed both taillights replaced and was overdue for an inspection. “Sometimes,” he said, “I think about something that needs to be done, and then I just . . . freeze.” He didn’t know whether I’d noticed, during the Easter lunch we’d just finished, that my mother had tried to eat her mashed potatoes with the wrong end of her fork and then acquiesced to letting my father feed her. We passed a church sign bearing the following message: DUCT TAPE MAY PATCH A LOT OF THINGS BUT THREE NAILS FIXED EVERYTHING. “Where are we going?” I asked. “To see Dr. J,” my father explained. Dr. J and her husband, Dr. Snotty, had moved here forty years before, when Dr. J, a slight and smallish woman, had worn her hair in two long braids—a look that intensified her already childlike image; in fact, soon after their arrival in these mountains, Dr. J and Dr. Snotty had paid a visit to the Doctors Parrot, a pair of married doctors who had a number of children, all of whom, upon seeing Dr. J, had asked their parents whether the braided girl might come and play with them. The Dr. J of today was also small. She invited my father and me into her house: a jumbling of cushiony furnishings, draped with blankets and magazines and plastic tumblers bearing dozens of scissors, as if at any minute one might be called upon to make a collage. Dog beds everywhere, but no dogs—at least not inside. Buddha statues and copies of Vogue and a library that included a version of the Tao Te Ching and—taped to the door of a cabinet overhanging a desk-like vestibule—an invitation to the inauguration of President Barack Obama. Dr. J, it turned out, owned a number of books on the subject of Parkinson’s, had been collecting them before she knew her own mother would succumb to the disease. She asked my father to describe my mother’s behavior, and he nodded to me and I tried to answer, not knowing if what I said was accurate. She’d seemed somewhat distracted, I said, like she was on the verge of finding the thing she’d been looking for and in the process of looking had subsequently forgotten what that thing had been in the first place. Dr. J excused herself to retrieve from her freezer a cube-shaped sample of the medicine she’d promised might bring my mother some relief. She told my father to keep it in the fridge—she’d frozen it so it’d stay cold on the way home—and that perhaps the best way to feed it to my mother would be to just shave a tiny slice from the cube and spread it on a cracker. At this point, Dr. J said, the most important thing was my mother’s comfort. At this point, I thought, and allowed myself to think, for the first time, Mom’s dying. I wanted to ask Dr. J how much longer we might expect my mother to live, but maybe I hadn’t wanted to know, because I couldn’t bring myself to speak. On the way home my phone vibrated. It was a text from my wife. She wondered where we were; my mother wanted to know when my father was coming back. More and more, she couldn’t bear to leave his side, seemed even more lost and alone when he wasn’t close by. “There’s what’s-her-name’s place,” my father said, pointing to a house by the side of the road. I knew who he meant; he’d pointed out the house before. It had once belonged to the woman who’d played a dead mother in the movie Nell, which had been shot not far from here and starred Jodie Foster as a young woman who spoke in an off-putting, sing-songy, made-up language. Back when the filmmakers were looking for extras, the woman who’d played Nell’s dead mother—whose only part was to lie still, eyes closed, in a casket—had gone to the casting call with her two younger sons, both of whom had made fun of her relentlessly, claiming she was way too old to score a part. In the end, though, the mother had the last laugh: neither son had earned a role, but she had, and so she’d told them, as they drove home, that once they got back to the house, if they were real nice, and if they both brushed their teeth real good, that she just might let them kiss her hind end. My father repeated this line in this exact way, as he always did, and we laughed. I wanted him to drive faster, though. The sun was on the downslope. Mountains had begun to cast great shadows. And I couldn’t shake the image of the old woman in that casket, holding still for each shot, not moving, not breathing, not saying a word, as if practicing in earnest when she’d do it for real.
NONFICTION April 3, 2020
Matthew Vollmer is the author of two story collections—Future Missionaries of America and Gateway to Paradise—as well as two collections of essays—inscriptions for headstones and Permanent Exhibit. He teaches creative writing and literature in the English Department at Virginia Tech, where he is an Associate Professor.