فصل 15

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فصل 15

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Chapter 15

There was a moment that winter. I was kneeling on the carpet, listening to Dad testify of Mother’s calling as a healer, when my breath caught in my chest and I felt taken out of myself. I no longer saw my parents or our living room. What I saw was a woman grown, with her own mind, her own prayers, who no longer sat, childlike, at her father’s feet.

I saw the woman’s swollen belly and it was my belly. Next to her sat her mother, the midwife. She took her mother’s hand and said she wanted the baby delivered in a hospital, by a doctor. I’ll drive you, her mother said. The women moved toward the door, but the door was blocked—by loyalty, by obedience. By her father. He stood, immovable. But the woman was his daughter, and she had drawn to herself all his conviction, all his weightiness. She set him aside and moved through the door.

I tried to imagine what future such a woman might claim for herself. I tried to conjure other scenes in which she and her father were of two minds. When she ignored his counsel and kept her own. But my father had taught me that there are not two reasonable opinions to be had on any subject: there is Truth and there are Lies. I knelt on the carpet, listening to my father but studying this stranger, and felt suspended between them, drawn to each, repelled by both. I understood that no future could hold them; no destiny could tolerate him and her. I would remain a child, in perpetuity, always, or I would lose him.

I WAS LYING ON MY BED, watching the shadows my feeble lamp cast on the ceiling, when I heard my father’s voice at the door. Instinctively I jerked to my feet in a kind of salute, but once I was standing I wasn’t sure what to do. There was no precedent for this: my father had never visited my room before.

He strode past me and sat on my bed, then patted the mattress next to him. I took my seat, nervously, my feet barely touching the floor. I waited for him to speak, but the moments passed silently. His eyes were closed, his jaw slackened, as if he were listening to seraphic voices. “I’ve been praying,” he said. His voice was soft, a loving voice. “I’ve been praying about your decision to go to college.”

His eyes opened. His pupils had dilated in the lamplight, absorbing the hazel of the iris. I’d never seen eyes so given over to blackness; they seemed unearthly, tokens of spiritual power.

“The Lord has called me to testify,” he said. “He is displeased. You have cast aside His blessings to whore after man’s knowledge. His wrath is stirred against you. It will not be long in coming.”

I don’t remember my father standing to leave but he must have, while I sat, gripped by fear. God’s wrath had laid waste to cities, it had flooded the whole earth. I felt weak, then wholly powerless. I remembered that my life was not mine. I could be taken out of my body at any moment, dragged heavenward to reckon with a furious Father.

The next morning I found Mother mixing oils in the kitchen. “I’ve decided not to go to BYU,” I said.

She looked up, fixing her eyes on the wall behind me, and whispered, “Don’t say that. I don’t want to hear that.”

I didn’t understand. I’d thought she would be glad to see me yield to God.

Her gaze shifted to me. I hadn’t felt its strength in years and I was stunned by it. “Of all my children,” she said, “you were the one I thought would burst out of here in a blaze. I didn’t expect it from Tyler—that was a surprise—but you. Don’t you stay. Go. Don’t let anything stop you from going.”

I heard Dad’s step on the stairwell. Mother sighed and her eyes fluttered, as if she were coming out of a trance.

Dad took his seat at the kitchen table and Mother stood to fix his breakfast. He began a lecture about liberal professors, and Mother mixed batter for pancakes, periodically murmuring in agreement.

WITHOUT SHAWN AS FOREMAN, Dad’s construction business dwindled. I’d quit my job at Randy’s to look after Shawn. Now I needed money, so when Dad went back to scrapping that winter, so did I.

It was an icy morning, much like the first, when I returned to the junkyard. It had changed. There were still pillars of mangled cars but they no longer dominated the landscape. A few years before, Dad had been hired by Utah Power to dismantle hundreds of utility towers. He had been allowed to keep the angle iron, and it was now stacked—four hundred thousand pounds of it—in tangled mountains all over the yard.

I woke up every morning at six to study—because it was easier to focus in the mornings, before I was worn out from scrapping. Although I was still fearful of God’s wrath, I reasoned with myself that my passing the ACT was so unlikely, it would take an act of God. And if God acted, then surely my going to school was His will.

The ACT was composed of four sections: math, English, science and reading. My math skills were improving but they were not strong. While I could answer most of the questions on the practice exam, I was slow, needing double or triple the allotted time. I lacked even a basic knowledge of grammar, though I was learning, beginning with nouns and moving on to prepositions and gerunds. Science was a mystery, perhaps because the only science book I’d ever read had had detachable pages for coloring. Of the four sections, reading was the only one about which I felt confident.

BYU was a competitive school. I’d need a high score—a twenty-seven at least, which meant the top fifteen percent of my cohort. I was sixteen, had never taken an exam, and had only recently undertaken anything like a systematic education; still I registered for the test. It felt like throwing dice, like the roll was out of my hands. God would score the toss.

I didn’t sleep the night before. My brain conjured so many scenes of disaster, it burned as if with a fever. At five I got out of bed, ate breakfast, and drove the forty miles to Utah State University. I was led into a white classroom with thirty other students, who took their seats and placed their pencils on their desks. A middle-aged woman handed out tests and strange pink sheets I’d never seen before.

“Excuse me,” I said when she gave me mine. “What is this?”

“It’s a bubble sheet. To mark your answers.”

“How does it work?” I said.

“It’s the same as any other bubble sheet.” She began to move away from me, visibly irritated, as if I were playing a prank.

“I’ve never used one before.”

She appraised me for a moment. “Fill in the bubble of the correct answer,” she said. “Blacken it completely. Understand?”

The test began. I’d never sat at a desk for four hours in a room full of people. The noise was unbelievable, yet I seemed to be the only person who heard it, who couldn’t divert her attention from the rustle of turning pages and the scratch of pencils on paper.

When it was over I suspected that I’d failed the math, and I was positive that I’d failed the science. My answers for the science portion couldn’t even be called guesses. They were random, just patterns of dots on that strange pink sheet.

I drove home. I felt stupid, but more than stupid I felt ridiculous. Now that I’d seen the other students—watched them march into the classroom in neat rows, claim their seats and calmly fill in their answers, as if they were performing a practiced routine—it seemed absurd that I had thought I could score in the top fifteen percent.

That was their world. I stepped into overalls and returned to mine.

THERE WAS AN UNUSUALLY hot day that spring, and Luke and I spent it hauling purlins—the iron beams that run horizontally along the length of a roof. The purlins were heavy and the sun relentless. Sweat dripped from our noses and onto the painted iron. Luke slipped out of his shirt, grabbed hold of the sleeves and tore them, leaving huge gashes a breeze could pass through. I wouldn’t have dreamed of doing anything so radical, but after the twentieth purlin my back was sticky with sweat, and I flapped my T-shirt to make a fan, then rolled up my sleeves until an inch of my shoulders was visible. When Dad saw me a few minutes later, he strode over and yanked the sleeves down. “This ain’t a whorehouse,” he said.

I watched him walk away and, mechanically, as if I weren’t making the decision, rerolled them. He returned an hour later, and when he caught sight of me he paused mid-step, confused. He’d told me what to do, and I hadn’t done it. He stood uncertainly for a moment, then crossed over to me, took hold of both sleeves and jerked them down. He didn’t make it ten steps before I’d rolled them up again.

I wanted to obey. I meant to. But the afternoon was so hot, the breeze on my arms so welcome. It was just a few inches. I was covered from my temples to my toes in grime. It would take me half an hour that night to dig the black dirt out of my nostrils and ears. I didn’t feel much like an object of desire or temptation. I felt like a human forklift. How could an inch of skin matter?

I WAS HOARDING MY PAYCHECKS, in case I needed the money for tuition. Dad noticed and started charging me for small things. Mother had gone back to buying insurance after the second car accident, and Dad said I should pay my share. So I did. Then he wanted more, for registration. “These Government fees will break you,” he said as I handed him the cash.

That satisfied Dad until my test results arrived. I returned from the junkyard to find a white envelope. I tore it open, staining the page with grease, and looked past the individual scores to the composite. Twenty-two. My heart was beating loud, happy beats. It wasn’t a twenty-seven, but it opened up possibilities. Maybe Idaho State.

I showed Mother the score and she told Dad. He became agitated, then he shouted that it was time I moved out.

“If she’s old enough to pull a paycheck, she’s old enough to pay rent,” Dad yelled. “And she can pay it somewhere else.” At first Mother argued with him, but within minutes he’d convinced her.

I’d been standing in the kitchen, weighing my options, thinking about how I’d just given Dad four hundred dollars, a third of my savings, when Mother turned to me and said, “Do you think you could move out by Friday?”

Something broke in me, a dam or a levee. I felt tossed about, unable to hold myself in place. I screamed but the screams were strangled; I was drowning. I had nowhere to go. I couldn’t afford to rent an apartment, and even if I could the only apartments for rent were in town. Then I’d need a car. I had only eight hundred dollars. I sputtered all this at Mother, then ran to my room and slammed the door.

She knocked moments later. “I know you think we’re being unfair,” she said, “but when I was your age I was living on my own, getting ready to marry your father.”

“You were married at sixteen?” I said.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. “You are not sixteen.”

I stared at her. She stared at me. “Yes, I am. I’m sixteen.”

She looked me over. “You’re at least twenty.” She cocked her head. “Aren’t you?”

We were silent. My heart pounded in my chest. “I turned sixteen in September,” I said.

“Oh.” Mother bit her lip, then she stood and smiled. “Well, don’t worry about it then. You can stay. Don’t know what your dad was thinking, really. I guess we forgot. Hard to keep track of how old you kids are.”

SHAWN RETURNED TO WORK, hobbling unsteadily. He wore an Aussie outback hat, which was large, wide-brimmed, and made of chocolate-brown oiled leather. Before the accident, he had worn the hat only when riding horses, but now he kept it on all the time, even in the house, which Dad said was disrespectful. Disrespecting Dad might have been the reason Shawn wore it, but I suspect another reason was that it was large and comfortable and covered the scars from his surgery.

He worked short days at first. Dad had a contract to build a milking barn in Oneida County, about twenty miles from Buck’s Peak, so Shawn puttered around the yard, adjusting schematics and measuring I-beams.

Luke, Benjamin and I were scrapping. Dad had decided it was time to salvage the angle iron stacked all around the farm. To be sold, each piece had to measure less than four feet. Shawn suggested we use torches to cut the iron, but Dad said it would be too slow and cost too much in fuel.

A few days later Dad came home with the most frightening machine I’ve ever seen. He called it the Shear. At first glance it appeared to be a three-ton pair of scissors, and this turned out to be exactly what it was. The blades were made of dense iron, twelve inches thick and five feet across. They cut not by sharpness but by force and mass. They bit down, their great jaws propelled by a heavy piston attached to a large iron wheel. The wheel was animated by a belt and motor, which meant that if something got caught in the machine, it would take anywhere from thirty seconds to a minute to stop the wheel and halt the blades. Up and down they roared, louder than a passing train as they chewed through iron as thick as a man’s arm. The iron wasn’t being cut so much as snapped. Sometimes it would buck, propelling whoever was holding it toward the dull, chomping blades.

Dad had dreamed up many dangerous schemes over the years, but this was the first that really shocked me. Perhaps it was the obvious lethality of it, the certainty that a wrong move would cost a limb. Or maybe that it was utterly unnecessary. It was indulgent. Like a toy, if a toy could take your head off.

Shawn called it a death machine and said Dad had lost what little sense he’d ever had. “Are you trying to kill someone?” he said. “Because I got a gun in my truck that will make a lot less mess.” Dad couldn’t suppress his grin. I’d never seen him so enraptured.

Shawn lurched back to the shop, shaking his head. Dad began feeding iron through the Shear. Each length bucked him forward and twice he nearly pitched headfirst into the blades. I jammed my eyes shut, knowing that if Dad’s head got caught, the blades wouldn’t even slow, just hack through his neck and keep chomping.

Now that he was sure the machine worked, Dad motioned for Luke to take over, and Luke, ever eager to please, stepped forward. Five minutes later Luke’s arm was gashed to the bone and he was running toward the house, blood spurting.

Dad scanned his crew. He motioned to Benjamin, but Benjamin shook his head, saying he liked his fingers attached, thanks anyway. Dad looked longingly at the house, and I imagined him wondering how long it would take Mother to stop the bleeding. Then his eyes settled on me.

“Come here, Tara.”

I didn’t move.

“Get over here,” he said.

I stepped forward slowly, not blinking, watching the Shear as if it might attack. Luke’s blood was still on the blade. Dad picked up a six-foot length of angle iron and handed me the end. “Keep a good hold on it,” he said. “But if it bucks, let go.”

The blades chomped, growling as they snapped up and down—a warning, I thought, like a dog’s snarl, to get the hell away. But Dad’s mania for the machine had carried him beyond the reach of reason.

“It’s easy,” he said.

I prayed when I fed the first piece to the blades. Not to avoid injury—there was no possibility of that—but that the injury would be like Luke’s, a wedge of flesh, so I could go to the house, too. I chose smaller pieces, hoping my weight could control the lurch. Then I ran out of small pieces. I picked up the smallest of what was left, but the metal was still thick. I shoved it through and waited for the jaws to crash shut. The sound of solid iron fracturing was thunderous. The iron bucked, tossing me forward so both my feet left the ground. I let go and collapsed in the dirt, and the iron, now free, and being chewed violently by the blades, launched into the air then crashed down next to me.

“WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON?” Shawn appeared in the corner of my vision. He strode over and pulled me to my feet, then spun around to face Dad.

“Five minutes ago, this monster nearly ripped Luke’s arm off! So you’ve put Tara on it?”

“She’s made of strong stuff,” Dad said, winking at me.

Shawn’s eyes bulged. He was supposed to be taking it easy, but he looked apoplectic.

“It’s going to take her head off!” he screamed. He turned to me and waved toward the ironworker in the shop. “Go make clips to fit those purlins. I don’t want you coming near this thing again.”

Dad moved forward. “This is my crew. You work for me and so does Tara. I told her to run the Shear, and she will run it.”

They shouted at each other for fifteen minutes. It was different from the fights they’d had before—this was unrestrained somehow, hateful. I’d never seen anyone yell at my father like that, and I was astonished by, then afraid of, the change it wrought in his features. His face transformed, becoming rigid, desperate. Shawn had awoken something in Dad, some primal need. Dad could not lose this argument and save face. If I didn’t run the Shear, Dad would no longer be Dad.

Shawn leapt forward and shoved Dad hard in the chest. Dad stumbled backward, tripped and fell. He lay in the mud, shocked, for a moment, then he climbed to his feet and lunged toward his son. Shawn raised his arms to block the punch, but when Dad saw this he lowered his fists, perhaps remembering that Shawn had only recently regained the ability to walk.

“I told her to do it, and she will do it,” Dad said, low and angry. “Or she won’t live under my roof.”

Shawn looked at me. For a moment, he seemed to consider helping me pack—after all, he had run away from Dad at my age—but I shook my head. I wasn’t leaving, not like that. I would work the Shear first, and Shawn knew it. He looked at the Shear, then at the pile next to it, about fifty thousand pounds of iron. “She’ll do it,” he said.

Dad seemed to grow five inches. Shawn bent unsteadily and lifted a piece of heavy iron, then heaved it toward the Shear.

“Don’t be stupid,” Dad said.

“If she’s doing it, I’m doing it,” Shawn said. The fight had left his voice. I’d never seen Shawn give way to Dad, not once, but he’d decided to lose this argument. He understood that if he didn’t submit, I surely would.

“You’re my foreman!” Dad shouted. “I need you in Oneida, not mucking with scrap!”

“Then shut down the Shear.”

Dad walked away cursing, exasperated, but probably thinking that Shawn would get tired and go back to being foreman before supper. Shawn watched Dad leave, then he turned to me and said, “Okay, Siddle Liss. You bring the pieces and I’ll feed them through. If the iron is thick, say a half inch, I’ll need your weight on the back to keep me from getting tossed into the blades. Okay?”

Shawn and I ran the Shear for a month. Dad was too stubborn to shut it down, even though it cost him more to have his foreman salvaging than it would have cost him to cut the iron with torches. When we finished, I had some bruises but I wasn’t hurt. Shawn seemed bled of life. It had only been a few months since his fall from the pallet, and his body couldn’t take the wear. He was cracked in the head many times when a length of iron bucked at an unexpected angle. When that happened he’d sit for a minute in the dirt, his hands over his eyes, then he’d stand and reach for the next length. In the evenings he lay on the kitchen floor in his stained shirt and dusty jeans, too weary even to shower.

I fetched all the food and water he asked for. Sadie came most evenings, and the two of us would run side by side when he sent us for ice, then to remove the ice, then to put the ice back in. We were both Fish Eyes.

The next morning Shawn and I would return to the Shear, and he would feed iron through its jaws, which chewed with such force that it pulled him off his feet, easily, playfully, as if it were a game, as if he were a child.

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