Nativity

Matt Matthews


            Jordan sat in the peeling, metal chair watching the distant rooster tail of dust come closer and closer. A thin curtain of riled desert ascended, drawing closed his perfect view of red sandstone mesas burning in late afternoon sun. He sat here every afternoon since the Bureau-wide mandatory retirement kicked in at fifty-seven, which he thought he was ready for, but wasn’t. Every sunset was the same, beautiful like the resurrection, eternal light fleeing from the dark in every direction.

            He recrossed his legs, giving his bad left knee a rest in favor of his bad right knee. Two cold Dos Equis every afternoon helped, and so did the Motrin with his TV dinner. His doctor said he needed to wait until he couldn’t stand the pain any more before stainless steel replacements. He had great insurance, but was in no rush. And he was accustomed to pain.

            He didn’t appreciate what that approaching white pickup was doing to his view. Didn’t appreciate the thought of a visitor, either, but this rutted road didn’t go anywhere, so he’d have to get up when the guy stopped at the end of his sidewalk, walk from the patio along side of his beat up Winnebago to the mailbox nailed crookedly on a wobbly post planted in a bed of plastic flowers, and tell the guy how to get the hell back to the highway—and hope he had enough gas to get there.

            When he could tell it was a young man behind the wheel, he thought immediately of Andrew, the familiar stab of pain shooting through his chest, the instant twist in his stomach, even after all these years. Poor, lost child. How a kid raised so well could turn out so bad sounded like a pick-up line crack heads might use in the honky-tonk outside of Pinon. Try as you might—and he did try to be a good father—it just happens that way sometimes. You don’t always reap what you sow.

            He pushed out of the chair with strong arms as he slipped into worn, square toe boots. For twenty five years he had done push-ups on his finger tips. He could poke a man to death with his fingers. The Bureau taught him that and lots of other things, like how to survive a fight, how to run from a fight, how to have eyes in the back of your head, how to immobilize, how to resuscitate,  to shatter, to splint. The Bureau taught him how never to trust an inmate. Ever.

            The hardest thing of all was the paperwork.

            After the truck stopped and before the roiling storm of dust caught up, the wiry young man Jordan saw gawking through the cracked windshield looked familiar. Impossible. He turned the truck off. Not a good sign.

            Jordan shuffled between the line of white stones that sufficed for a front  sidewalk. He eyed a hard-tine rake he had left leaning against a sorry excuse for a flag pole near the mailbox. He pumped his fists, then let his tingling hands dangle loosely at the pockets of his Levis. He approached leading slightly with his left side, which would allow for a jab with a left and a few hard swings with his right. Just in case. The Boy Scouts in sixth grade taught him to be prepared. The Federal Bureau of Prisons taught him to expect the worse.

            Out of the cloud he heard the door screech open. Another bad sign.

            “Chaplain McLerran!” the man shouted, emerging through the dust. “You are a sight for sore eyes.”

 

* * *

 

            The truck popped and ticked as it cooled in twilight. The young man sat in a bent, metal chair and leaned his forearms against the wrought iron table on the makeshift, gravel patio. His hands were folded together in prayer as if awaiting his last supper. He had guzzled three glasses of iced tea. Jordan was counting the minutes until he’d ask to use the toilet.

             Jordan knew Mark Brown from the Farm. He had come to the facility to work off a three year sentence. They taught him how to weld and he spent his days hardening Blue Bird school buses that were to be used for transporting prisoners. He learned a trade with a blowtorch and had become something of an artist at installing wire over windows, cutting gun ports, and crafting the steel cages that kept inmates away from the driver and guards. Jordan knew a good weld when he saw one from his summers at the shipyard in Newport News. Mark enjoyed less productive summers, spending his teen years breaking into cars. Now he had become quite the expert at making prison buses impossible to break into or out of.

            He had driven the 1,500 miles straight through from Terre Haute to see his old chaplain—retired and rotting in the middle of Arizona.

            “You could have sent a card,” Jordan muttered, irritated. “You didn’t have to come.”

            “I did,” Mark insisted, leaning forward, eyes widening. “Really. You made me see things for the first time. I was out of control, and if it weren’t for you I would have ended up right back in the system, except next time it would have been the Big House.”

            Jordan wanted to correct him. It was an Institution or Facility, not the Big House. It was a Prison, not a Jail. It wasn’t Up The River from anything. And it wasn’t the Man’s fault you ended up in the Slammer; a jury of your peers said it was your fault. Beyond a reasonable shadow of doubt, they said that you put yourself there. 

            Jordan wanted to point those distinctions out, but it would have been a waste, just like his career had been a waste pouring himself out for reprobates who lied and manipulated to get whatever they needed. It was no different on the outside, of course. Jordan’s enthusiasm for the human race had faded long before retirement. Long before his son’s tailspin. Long before Amy started getting his emotional leftovers.

            “So much for until death do you part,” Jordan had helplessly told her.

            “I’ve been dead for years,” she snapped. “And if you haven’t noticed, you kicked-off at least a decade before I did.”

            It hadn’t been a decade, but it had been a long time.

            While he felt it shouldn’t have been, it was a shock at first when it sank in that people on the Inside and the Outside told the truth only when they stood to gain something. Everybody had an angle, and everybody was locked in a prison of some sort, it’s just the guys behind the razor wire were easy to spot in their beltless khaki pants, denim shirts, and shoes with Velcro straps. Chaplain McLerran was forced to wear a ridiculous clip-on, green tie, and a minister’s plastic smile. He had spent twenty five years down on all fours praying for the whole lot of them, at first fervently then out of habit like exercises you hate, and for what? No wonder his knees were bad.

            Everybody used somebody, and Jordan knew that Chaplain McLerran could help inmates get what they needed. A trip to the infirmary. An extra writing tablet from the commissary for one’s spiritual journal. The possibility of a few extra minutes on the phone with your baby back home. It was the chaplain’s job to get the split white oak for the Indian sweat lodge, the consecrated wine for the Roman Catholic masses, the ashes for Orthodox Lenten celebrations. The chaplain made sure the warden revised meal schedules to accommodate the Muslims in order that they not have to eat in daylight during Ramadan. The chaplain could request exceptions to the inmate visitation policy. The chaplain notified the next of kin when somebody died, or was getting ready to die. He did what he could for the living dead. And everything he did had to be documented in triplicate, which required the biggest miracle of all.

            Jesus will never forget his imprisoned lambs, and neither will Chaplain McLerran. Alleluia.

            “You saved me.” Mark had cool, blue eyes. A steady gaze. His pupils weren’t dilated. His hands were steady, no shakes. His forearms were clean, no tracks. He smelled like dust and Old Spice. “On the inside, I told you I was innocent,” Mark added.

            “Everybody’s innocent,” Jordan grunted impatiently, wanting to slip his aching feet out of his tired boots. Twilight wouldn’t linger for much longer.

             “But I was guilty as charged. The Farm was where I needed to be, but I didn’t know that until I got out. Man, the only thing scarier than the inside is when the bus drops you off at the station in your home town. Now, that’ll really give you the squirts.” Mark nervously rattled the ice in his upturned glass and jiggled a cube into his mouth. “You always reminded me I was loved, that’s the thing. That’s the thing that saved me.”

            “Love is a four-letter word,” Jordan said under his breath.

            Mark set his glass down, folded his hands neatly in his lap, and crunched his ice as he looked off into the distance. He wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “If I ever have a kid, I’ll tell him that every, single day, I swear. He—or she—might get real tired of hearing it, but I’d never get tired of saying it. You taught me that.” He looked up at Jordan. “You.”

            “An over used four-letter word,” Jordan said.

            The desert was getting cool. There were no metal bars here to keep the weather or the bad guys out. Spotty cell phone coverage. Gorgeous, barren land in every direction. Cold nights, scorching days, unremitting sun that melted the shade and one’s ability to care about anything. Nowhere to hide from the elements, from yourself. Twilight had evaporated. It was dark.

            “Mark, what do you need,” Jordan said, squinting. “What’s your angle?”

            “I need you to know how you saved me. I need you to know how I was circling the drain, so cocky, and so completely screwed up.”

            “Cut the crap, Mark. We’re not on the Farm. I’ve got absolutely nothing to give you, nothing I can do for you. I can’t call the warden. I can’t file a form. I can’t put in a good word. What do you want, son?”

            Mark leaned back in his chair and took a deep breath. “Man, they’re bright out here,” he said, pointing at the stars. “That one there’s like the star in the Bible.”

            Jordan closed his eye and sighted down Mark’s outstretched arm. “That’s Sirius.”

            “It sure is serious,” Mark said. “Seriously bright.”

            Jordan wanted to correct him again, but didn’t.

            Jordan knew his only mistake—besides allowing something inside of him to die—was that he was sitting with his back to the truck. His hearing wasn’t what it used to be, and the eyes in the back of his head had gotten lazy, hypnotized as always by the distant mesas smoldering on the dark horizon. Jordan knew Mark might not have come alone.

            “You broke me, Chaplain McLerran,” Mark said. “Broke me from my addiction to myself.” He put his arms back on the table, leaned forward. “You saved me. And I just came by to say thanks.”

            “I didn’t save you,” Jordan said evenly, firmly like a teacher tired of making the same point. “If you ever listened to my sermons, to my Bible studies, to all that wasted breath, you’d a heard me say over and over again that God does the saving, not us.”

            “God saved me,” Mark said, smiling slyly, “but God used you to do it.”

            It was easy to be patient in the Facility. The shift always ended. You got to clock out, change clothes, go home.

            Real life had increasingly posed a problem. There was no way to turn it off. In real life, it didn’t do any good to pace yourself to the end of your shift because, like the road he lived on now, the shift never ended and didn’t go anywhere.

            “Do you want money, is that it?” Jordan looked at the veins in his hand, the jagged scar on his middle finger from childhood, his unevenly chewed fingernails. There was an upturned cinder block by the steps within ready grasp if he needed it. “If I give you a hundred bucks, a thousand bucks, do you think everything’s going to be better? God isn’t Santa Claus, and I’m sure as hell not, either.”

            “I didn’t say . . . ”

            “Look,” Jordan interrupted, pushing back from the table. “I’m retired. My son’s in worse shape than you and I can’t fix him. His all-expense paid trip to Afghanistan didn’t help things one bit. He’s got the brain chemistry of a monster. PTSD from the war. ADHD from childhood. LSD and too many DUIs to count. He’s an alphabet soup of calamity. My wife invited me to leave the day I retired, sick and tired of yours truly. She, obviously, didn’t feel the love anymore. I’m living in bum-fuck-Egypt, typing medical transcriptions for a group of doctors in Scottsdale. I can afford enough frozen dinners to last the month and to pay a mortgage for a house I don’t even live in. My Geo has 215,000 miles on it. That’s all I got.”

            “Frozen dinners are expensive,” Mark said. “You could switch to beans and rice and save some money.”

            “That does it,” Jordan blurted. He had resisted drinking in front of Mark, had resolved to be content with unsweetened iced tea. Now he stormed into the trailer, clicked on a light, slammed a few things around, and came out with an unopened beer in one hand and a oven mitt in the other. “As you can see, I’m afraid you’re barking up the wrong tree.”

            “I guess its nice to know you’re human,” Mark offered, then leaned back uneasily in his chair again and looked up at the night sky. “I’ve never seen such a beautiful thing. This place is so beautiful it makes my chest hurt.”

            Men on the Farm had not slipped up as badly—or gotten caught—as the guys on the Inside had. The Inside was “high security,” a euphemism for the absolute maximum security required to keep men locked up who had been convicted of doing horrible things, usually multiple times. Most of those guys were hardcore lifers, having racked up at least one life sentence, sometimes several. No chance of parole. Some were sweet and kind, like Jordan’s helpers in the chapel. Some, obviously crazy. Like-minded groups provided unflinchingly brutal protection for their own. Most of them were angry. Many were violent. And all of them had been framed and were amiable, law abiding citizens simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, never mind the sawed off shotguns covered in their prints, and other evidence they say the cops had planted.

            The guys on the Farm could slip away anytime they wanted, but usually didn’t dare. Virtually all would get out soon enough and many would stay out, due arguably to either restoration or punishment models of incarceration, but, either way, cured enough of their ill behaviors never to come back.

            Mark had a perfect record on the Farm, and was a gregarious, hard worker. He gave every indication that he’d make it. But, depending on which of the endless and dense reports you read, recidivism rates were high, and a lot of guys just like Mark ended up back in the system. Or dead.

            Jordan watched Mark watch the sky. The details of Mark’s history came to Jordan’s memory in snatches. He typically didn’t read prisoner files, but he took an extra interest in some of the guys, and Mark was one of them. He would be about 25-years-old now. His mother worked in childcare, but couldn’t handle her own kid. Some extended family in Gary, white-trash, working-class. He’d gotten a GED. Had a short resume of fast food jobs and minor league misdemeanors until he started jacking high-end cars and ending up in jails. A combination of his smile, impeccable manners, and overcrowding made him illegible for almost immediate parole. The third conviction landed him three years in the Federal Bureau of Prisons on the Farm.

            The night was kindly, a glorious pitch sky dotted with stars practically weeping drops of neon green. It was getting cool.

            Mark shifted, looking at his hands in his lap, then cleared his throat. “I wanted to thank you,” he said. “And I wanted to ask you something.”

            Jordan cocked his head, reluctantly turning his good ear toward his guest. Here it comes.

            “What am I supposed to do now?” Mark said quietly. “I don’t know what to do next.”

            A cool wind stirred the canvass flap above the patio.

            “Besides the program at the jail, I never graduated from anything. I never had anybody I could get advice from, besides crooks and an overworked mom always on the edge of losing it. She probably loved me too much, if that’s possible. I never had a sober friend.” Mark looked at Jordan’s unopened beer on the table. “I thought getting out of prison was going to give me a fresh start. But I’m right back where I started. I’m not doing anything that matters. I’m not making a difference. I’m just treading water.”

            “You’re devolving into clichés,” Jordan said, irritated. “And join the crowd. Look, Mark, what’s you’re point?”

            “I just don’t know what I’m supposed to do now,” Mark said. “Now that I’m free.”

            “Is the truck stolen,” Jordan asked matter-of-factly.           

            “No, sir.”

            “Don’t shit me,” Jordan said, knowing that he’d long passed the place where he was wasting his breath.

            “I bought it from my uncle. I’ve been working construction for him since I got out three months ago. Lived with mom. Saved every penny.”

            Jordan didn’t say anything and for a long moment, Mark didn’t, either.

            “I don’t suppose you have a note from your mom with you verifying all of this?”

            “Very funny,” Mark said. “I wouldn’t believe me, either. You’re the only person since—” Mark paused, squinting his eyes. “—since forever that has ever really listened to me. I just figured you’d have some—word. You always seemed to on the Farm, and I just figured . . . ”

            “Great,” Jordan said, shaking his head. “Mister Empathy strikes again.”

            Mark was silent. “It’s true,” he said to the ground.

            “And your mom?”

            “Mainly she just cries and screams,” Mark said. “She doesn’t know what to do with me.”

            “I know the feeling,” Jordan said, shaking his head. He stood up and stretched his six-two frame. “Might as well come in. Lasagna’s almost ready, and you look hungry.”

            Mark stood up reluctantly.

            “You do know, don’t you,” Jordan asked, “that they told us never, ever to have anything to do with an ex-inmate?”

            “Okay,” Mark said. “Why are you doing this, then?”

            “Good question,” Jordan mused. “I guess, because I don’t have a single thing to lose.”

 

* * *

 

            Jordan heard the car coming at 3:07 a.m. He decided to lie there and listen for a while.

            Mark had been bunked down and snoring on the couch since the second quarter of the Dallas season opener they had been listening to through the static on the radio. Jordan lay dozing on the queen in the back with a cheap pizza cutter under his pillow; he didn’t own a gun, not even a .22 to keep away the mangy dogs that sometimes roamed. He believed the best way to resist violence in the world was not to arm oneself for it, which was a contradiction, he knew, given what he was trained to do with his bare hands. 

            The window was cracked open despite the cold. The breeze stirring over the awning and through the screen made him dream-think of his grandmother’s house on Virginia’s Northern Neck. In the summer, she kept the windows wide open and at night you could hear the constant murmur of the Chesapeake Bay, the rustle of marsh and waves. In the morning, the laughter of gulls, the pop and sizzle of bacon on the stove. Arizona sunsets and memories of waking up in that house were among the only things that brought him a modicum of what might be called pleasure.

            He was becoming something of an expert at identifying night sounds in this quiet place. Pygmy owls, the yip-yap of coyotes, the golden alto of  grasshopper mice, the scurry of kangaroo rats taking sand baths beneath the camper.

            He lay still, listening. He could hear his pulse quickening at the base of his skull.

            This was a car. Gas, not diesel. Just being able to keep your car on the chalky road, nearly indistinguishable from the desert, was no small feat, especially at night when it was nearly impossible to see the unlighted utility poles that vaguely marked the way. Given its relative high rate of speed, this car was driven by someone who knew where they were going. Or someone who didn’t know how easy—and dangerous—it was to flip in a desert arroyo at night.

            He finally sat up wearily on the side of his bed. In one try he poked both sockless feet into his boots. Was it the sheriff coming after Mark? Another ex-con? Had the Federal Correctional Institution of Terre Haute picked his camper for a reunion? He could serve leftover lasagna and the guys could pass around flasks of homemade hootch.

            Hearing gravel now, he pulled on a thick, loose sweater and padded through the camper in his flannel boxers. “Sleeping beauty,” he muttered as he tiptoed past Mark, still snoring. The camper creaked and groaned with every step like a moaning, old man stirring from a nap, seized again by arthritis and the stale nightmare of being awake. He eased open the wooden door as quietly as he could to a protest of more squeaks and cringes before giving up. He clanged belligerently through the dented screen door onto the metal stoop.

            The surrounding Hopi and Navajo could track soundlessly through the desert and high forests, but even they couldn’t walk through a ’74 Winnebago without waking the dead.

            It was cold outside. The night sounds had ceased, all ears cocked towards the gathering white noise of a four-door sedan approaching from the same direction Mark had. It crunched to a stop by the mailbox and cut the lights. Jordan could hear a baby begin to scream through the closed windows and a woman launch too vigorously into a lullaby he had heard before.

            When the dust cleared he recognized a maroon Tarus—his. A woman leaned awkwardly into the backseat, singing at almost full voice. She pulled the fussy baby out, bounced it efficiently onto her shoulder, and turned for the sidewalk.

            It was Amy. His Amy.

            Jordan stood in his boots, boxers, and big sweater.

            “She cries when ever I stop the car,” Amy said as she approached. “Only sleeps when you’re moving. So I got into the car and started driving. Two days ago.” She stopped at the foot of the stairs.            “You’re a sight for sore eyes,” she said, looking Jordan up and down.

            “I’ve heard that one too many times in the last 12-hours,” he said, nodding awkwardly.

             She thrust the child forward like he imagined Abraham doing at a wilderness altar with poor Isaac. He took his hands awkwardly out of his sweater pouch, loose change and a pizza cutter clattering onto the metal steps. She deftly gave him the child.

            “Meet your granddaughter, Jordan. About time you took some turns changing her diapers.” She nudged past him and stepped into the camper.

            The baby had ceased crying. She lay looking at her grandfather wide-eyed, her shock seeming to mirror his. Amy clicked on the camper light and Mark let out a yell. Amy yelled. They began shouting. The baby screeched once, sobbing a few airless beats before sound finally came, and came, and came.

            “Hey, hey, hey,” Jordan said distractedly to the baby, fumbling with the door.

            The shouting eased into animated, fast talking. Amy cackled loudly the way she always did when she tried to hide her nervousness. It worked in cocktail parties after a glass or two of wine. Mark was full of stammering ma’am’s and apologies. “No, no, no,” Amy insisted. “I’m the one who owes you . . . ” More muttering. Awkward pleasantries. A profusion of words, the baby showing no signs of simmering down. Above the sobbing and Jordan’s frantic yanking on the metal door, he heard his first clearly uttered, full sentence: “Ah, Mrs. McLerran. Your husband saved my life.”

 

* * *

 

            Hot tea on the stove warmed the room. After passing her around, Mark contentedly held Tiffany who sucked on a warm bottle.

            Amy and Jordan were arguing in hushed tones through clenched jaws. She said leaving with the baby made as much sense as anything, certainly more sense than calling the welfare people. She’d had enough of government institutions. She had thought that she would do a better job raising the baby herself than her crazed birth mother would, until she realized she just couldn’t muster the whatever-it-was to be a mother again. The birth mother, as best Amy could tell, was an addict that Andrew had met living on the street in Indy. They blew in, got into a fight, and he left. She left a few days later. After ten days, no one showed up or called. That’s when Amy kenneled the dog and loaded the car.

            Mark watched them argue back and forth like people watch tennis at the U.S. Open. He said, “Have you ever watched that show Intervention? I feel like I’m in the studio audience.”

            They glared at him.

            Mark let his wide smile drop. “They don’t have a studio audience, of course. Just saying.”

            “And how did he find me,” Jordan wanted to know, jabbing a finger in Mark’s direction. “Nobody knows I’m here but you, Amy. Nobody.” He looked to Mark. “How did you find me?”

            Mark winced and pointed slowly to Amy.

            “He’s a criminal, Amy.”

            “Ex-criminal,” Mark interjected.

            Jordan glared at him. “He could have robbed you, and come here to rob me. To kill me!”

            “Your insurance is paid up,” Amy sniped. That could have been a slight smile on her tired face. Or not.

            “You were taught to be more careful than that, Amy. You were taught—”

            “No, Jordan. You were taught to be careful. You were taught to be suspicious. You were taught to be jaded and dark and hopeless. You were taught not to care.”

            “I cared,” Jordan hissed. “I spent my whole career caring.” He paced a small circle, then sat down in the drivers seat with his back to the living area, both hands on the wheel, foot on the gas, going nowhere fast.

            “You,” Amy softened, “spent your whole career caring for other people, which was fine. I was always proud of you, your big heart, your service. That’s why we got married—we wanted to change the world. It’s just somewhere along the line you stopped caring for me.” She pulled the second pot of tea off the stove at its first hint of whistling. “For me, Jordan. For me.”

            “After Andrew,” Jordan said quietly, “it got complicated. I didn’t have anything left.”

            “You think I did?” Amy blew into her steaming tea. She slid down into the passenger seat beside her husband. “You seemed to have plenty left for the guys at the prison.”

            “Helping them was like helping him,” Jordan said. “Of course I wasn’t helping anybody, but I played along. Kept hoping.” Jordan ran his fingers through his thick, disheveled hair that had grown long. “It was complicated. And it was my job.”

            “And I was your wife.”

            “You’re still—”

            He lightly tapped the steering wheel, surveying the widescreen dark. The camper couldn’t break fifty and got seven miles to the gallon, maybe less. It was pathetic but still road worthy. Had new tires.

            The cup of the Big Dipper pointed perfectly to the North Star. Even through the grimy windshield Jordan could make out the constellations. The Dog Star howled while sultry Mars was getting ready for bed. At this hour who else noticed? Who else cared?

            There were guys like Andrew in prison who did fine. Prison brought out the best of them. It was easier to stay clean. There were no mind-bending decisions to make, fewer distractions. Some earned law or theological degrees. The ones who took advantage of the religious activities that Jordan knocked his brains out preparing could quote the Bible back and forth. They had all day long to read it, to become enveloped in the stories, for their own eyes to brighten with John’s vision of the new heaven and new earth where tears would be no more, to cheer lustily when the walls of Jericho came tumbling down.

            But these men needed walls—the walls, and the bars, and the staff to keep their otherwise unruly lives together, to lend the cohesion they lacked on the outside. Many, not all, thrived. Being told what to eat, when to sleep, where to pee, how long they could stay outdoors, how often they could play ping pong, lift weights, go to the library did them good. Some souls never fit it, bucked the system until they died, hated the world with a perfect hatred. But others became human again.

            That’s what Jordan wanted for Andrew, which is why he loved and served the guys in prison with every ounce of himself, hoping against hope that it would matter, that Andrew would walk in to their kitchen one afternoon and ask his mother what was for dinner. This is why Mark had come all this way to see his old chaplain. And this is why Jordan, despite his grumbling, was glad he did.

            “It doesn’t work,” he said, nodding to the small dream catcher dangling from the rearview mirror. “Dreams or prayers.”

            Amy didn’t say anything.

            “He’s not coming back,” he whispered. “He’s never coming home, is he?”

            “No,” Amy said finally, looking out to where the mesas would be when the sun came up. Her hands were cupped around her mug, which she held close to her lips. She lightly blew into it, steam misting her brown eyes. Jordan had a hundred photographs of her doing that—in the stands at Colts games, on Saturday mornings looking at the newspaper, on a few family trips in this very camper.

            “Each time he comes back he’s a different person,” she began. “I try listening. He doesn’t make sense. I try bending my logic to fit his. But I can’t. I try. So, I just listen like I’m inside one of those dense Ezra Pound poems I never understood in college, Greek references, intellectual obscurities. I listen to his words, to the sounds they make. When I turn my brain off and just listen to the sounds, the syllables, the gutturals, I almost enjoy him again. Almost.”           

            She was a speech therapist and she knew her pharyngeal and uvular consonants, voiced affrication, palatal fronting, a, e, i, o, u. She had a fondness for words, had written poetry that found its way into family Christmas cards. Jordan remembered how when Andrew was young he would excitedly jabber and gesticulate and Amy would listen with the biggest smile. He had always been a talker even before he became unable to say more than a few sentences without resorting to obscenity.

            Amy looked at Jordan and waited for him to look back. “The boy we knew is never coming home.”

            Jordan looked down to his lap. He caught each big tear as it dropped into his opened, weathered palm. In some cases, the only thing more desperate than letting go of hope is holding on to it. Maybe this wasn’t about hope at all, but something else. Expectations? Control? He squeezed his eyes closed and tried not to think.

            “It’s quiet,” he said finally. He looked into the rear view mirror, then to his wife. “Where are they?”

            She wore a blank expression.

            “Did you hear his truck,” Jordan said, scrambling awkwardly from the seat. He helped Amy up and they rushed to the door. “Mark,” he yelled. “Mark!”

            They ran outside. The truck hadn’t moved. The car was still there.

            Jordan heard a rattle snake, but it couldn’t be a rattle snake. It was too cold. He followed the sound down the side of the camper. Mark was sitting on a metal chair flailing one arm, shushing them madly to be quiet.

            “She’s asleep,” he hissed. “Shut up, already.”

            His blood pumping, Jordan pointed Amy to the other metal chair. He sat down on the edge of the stoop. It took longer and longer to catch his breath these days. He felt old. He also noticed just now, catching his breath, that he felt alive again, too. Maybe it was caring about somebody who needed him. Maybe it was COPD. He got up, and went inside to turn the camper lights off. Who needed lights when you had the stars? He sat down again on the stoop. It was dark and quiet. He thought he could hear everything breathing. They sat quietly for a long time.

            Amy broke the silence. She looked to Mark and said, “I’m one-quarter Navajo on my mother’s side. I used to come here—near here, to Tuba City—when I was a girl. I have cousins that live on the rez. People who work in the canyon. My parents lived in Phoenix.”

            Amy looked at Jordan, then turned her chair to face Mark. She scooted up and touched Tiffany, sleeping. Then she held Mark’s arm. “You can raise a baby here. With them.”

            Mark blinked like a cartoon. “That’s crazy,” he said.

            “Life is crazy,” Amy blurted. She glanced over to Jordan, then back and Mark. “You’re good with her.”

            “Good with her? I’ve only been holding her for half a night,” Mark said, looking to Jordan. “Just half a night.”

            “You’re a natural,” Amy continued. “Look, Mark, I want to take my husband home.”

            “What,” Jordan heard himself say? “Home?” He didn’t know where home was anymore.

            “You can take him home,” Mark said. “And the baby can go, too.”

            “Me?” Jordan asked. “Home? With you?”

            “I can’t,” Amy said. Tears came quickly. She snorted indelicately. She wiped her eyes. “I can’t raise another child. I can’t fail again.”            

            “It’s late,” Jordan said. “We all need sleep.”

            “I want to take my husband back to Indiana,” Amy persisted, her voice quivering like an exhausted child. Jordan knew she was prone to irrational meltdowns when she was exhausted. Poor Mark was clueless. She rubbed Mark’s arm in slow circles. Mark leaned away like she was radioactive. “We were good once. For a long time. But to start again, we have to go back.”

            “Good once,” Jordan repeated. “Start again. Back home.” She was right about being good once. He feared she was right about having to go back.

            “This is nuts,” Mark said, shaking his head. “Jordan, you’ve got to talk to this woman.”

            “Talk is cheap.” Jordan smiled weakly. “Besides, it sounds like she has her mind made up.” He liked watching Mark squirm. “Looks like you’re going to be a dad.”

            “This is nuts,” Mark hissed. “You’re crazy.”

            “Sorry I can’t offer you a cigar,” Jordan said.

            “We’ll come back to help you,” Amy pleaded. The day, the weeks, the years were catching up, overcoming her like a smooth, dark wave. She spoke in short, desperate bursts through a gathering storm of sobs. “We need some time alone.” Sob. Breathe. “At home. Please.” Sob. Breathe. “My cousins will come . . . and help while we’re gone . . . People on the rez are good at taking others in.”

            “Somebody needs to chill,” Mark said. He cradled Tiffany closer, rubbing his cheek lightly against her forehead, and alternating his wary gaze from Amy to Jordan.

            Jordan glanced to his wife whose histrionics appeared to be winding down. He studied his hands folded in his lap, crisscrossed with the lines of so many roads not taken. What a surreal night.

            The chaplain part of him raced sluggishly through a check list of assessment questions. Besides sleep deprivation, were drugs involved? Valium? A bad reaction of antibiotics? Had Amy developed diabetes and was she slipping into shock? Did she need a candy bar? Was she dehydrated? Demented? Possessed by aliens? The little boy inside of him wanted to run away. The husband was confounded. The internal critic said it was his fault.

            “Shhh,” he soothed. He wanted to hum. Maybe a hymn. Maybe a Willie Nelson song. All he could manage to get out was another long, “shhhhh.”

            Mark rocked Tiffany, mumbling to her in a deep, sing-song rant. “Your grandparents are crazy, little girl. Bless your sweet, little heart.”

            Amy had drawn up into a ball, head resting dolefully on her knees.

            Jordan wondered how Joseph felt when Mary told him she was pregnant. He may have wanted to do his duty, but it couldn’t have been easy. He must have felt the weight, all eyes on him, angels taking bets on whether he’d stay in the game or bail. What a genealogical tangle and royal mess. Yet he plodded on, the great Eeyore of the new testament, no speeches, no magnificat, nary a whimper.

            Home wasn’t home anymore. An RV in Arizona. A split-level in Terra Haute. Little pieces of him left behind in every place he had ever lived, dispersed like star dust from a catastrophic bang, strands of his very own DNA twining in the baby Mark was holding. He was just passing through. A stranger in an increasingly strange land. He had no idea where he would end up.

            But he knew where he was going next.

            “Mark, there’s three hundred dollars in an envelop above the passenger-side visor. It’ll buy a lot of beans and rice. Stay here and keep the fort if you’d like.”

            “I am not going to keep this baby,” he said flatly. “There’s no way. That’s totally messed up.”

            “Yes it is,” Jordan said, “and, no, you’re not.” He looked to Amy whose head was still down but whose ears, he hoped, were open. “Amy and I will take Tiffany back to Indiana. There’s a lot to figure out. We’ll start there.”

            “I don’t think she’s well,” Mark whispered. “And I’m not so sure about you.”

            “She’s tired, Mark. Real tired. You ever felt that way?”

            Mark paused and reluctantly nodded.

            Jordan watched Mark watch the baby. Beauty blooms in the most impossible places. “I know a man has a small company outside of Pinon. Runs two shifts. He might be able to take on a welder.”

            “What’s in it for you?” Mark asked warily.

            “I’d like for someone to cut the grass while I’m gone,” Jordan said flatly.

            “There is no grass.”

            “Um,” Jordan grunted, looking around. “Gives you one less thing to do, then.”

            Mark pulled Tiffany close and looked up into the sky.

            “Your call,” Jordan announced, slapping his bare legs and standing up awkwardly with a groan. “You’re free to stay. You’re free to go.”

            “Free,” Mark said, nodding. “Now, that’s a concept.”

            “It’s a four letter word,” Jordan said. “Be careful how you use it.”

            “I’m a good welder,” Mark said quietly to Tiffany. “I’m handy with acetylene. I’ve bent some steel.”

            Amy heavily lifted her head and said that she had a copy of Tiffany’s hospital discharge records. “Tiffany James McLerran,” she declared.

            That familiar jolt hit Jordan again in the chest. A quick heave, but no tears. Tears might help if only they would come.

            “He named her after me,” Amy said through even more tears.

            She was right, of course. James was Amy’s maiden name. In a rare flower of a moment, their son had done something beautiful and kind.

            Everything gets quiet when somebody begins to weep, even the desert. Jordan wondered, were they listening? The mice, the owls? Even the breeze had died down.

            It was freezing for September. The thermometer on the bird feeder hovered just below 50. Jordan’s flannel boxers did little to warm his exposed legs. Amy sat knotted up on her metal chair, jacket zipped to her chin. Bundled warmly, Tiffany seemed content, oblivious to these perilous negotiations. Mark still held her with both arms. He looked more relaxed, leaning back in his chair, legs crossed. The dark was just turning from violet to rose at its edges.

            Jordan stretched. “Everybody, inside.”

            Amy dutifully stood, and he gently led her by the hand up the narrow steps into the Winnebago. She still wore her silver wedding band that he had purchased in Santa Fe.

            Mark paced a cautious circle on the patio, testing his legs. He looked at the stars. “It sure is pretty out here,” he said, shaking his head slowly from side to side. “I just can’t get over it. In prison, we never got to see the night sky.” He turned to come inside, looking at Jordan’s bare legs, white scars carved around each knee. “You could get arrested looking like that.” He took each metal step one at a time until he and Jordon stood together on the tiny porch. “If they throw you in the slammer, I’ll visit once a week.”

            “And if you don’t,” Jordan said, “I’ll always have some well-meaning chaplain.”

            They looked at each other and paused. Jordan trusted the possibility—however vague—that something at that very second might be getting redeemed, or close, so kept his mouth shut and just nodded.

            Both men looked into the placid face of the baby for another long moment. Jordan took the child, nesting her neatly over his shoulder. Mark shuffled inside holding the rickety door open. Tiffany whimpered and stretched, tugging her little arm out of its blanket cocoon. It limply fell around Jordan’s thick neck.

            “There, there,” Jordan soothed. “Shhh.” He angled his temple gently into her pink cheek. “I’ve got you now. I’ve got you.”

            Who was holding whom was uncertain.




Matt Matthews lives and writes in South Carolina, where his first novel Mercy Creek (published by Hub City Writers) won the South Carolina Arts’ Commission First Novel Prize.  His children’s story Fritz & Christine and Their Very Nervous Parents was published by Avenida Books.  


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