فصل 06

کتاب: سرگذشت یک تحصیل کرده / فصل 7

فصل 06

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Chapter 6

The winter after Tyler left, Audrey turned fifteen. She picked up her driver’s license from the county courthouse and, on her way home, got a job flipping burgers. Then she took a second job milking cows at four A.M. every morning. For a year she’d been fighting with Dad, bucking under the restraints he put on her. Now she had money; she had her own car; we hardly saw her. The family was shrinking, the old hierarchy compressing.

Dad didn’t have enough of a crew to build hay sheds, so he went back to scrapping. With Tyler gone, the rest of us were promoted: Luke, at sixteen, became the eldest son, my father’s right hand, and Richard and I took his place as grunts.

I remember the first morning I entered the junkyard as one of my father’s crew. The earth was ice, even the air felt stiff. We were in the yard above the lower pasture, which was overrun by hundreds of cars and trucks. Some were old and broken down but most had been wrecked and they looked it—bent, arched, twisted, the impression they gave was of crumpled paper, not steel. In the center of the yard there was a lake of debris, vast and deep: leaking car batteries, tangles of insulated copper wire, abandoned transmissions, rusted sheets of corrugated tin, antique faucets, smashed radiators, serrated lengths of luminous brass pipe, and on and on. It was endless, a formless mass.

Dad led me to its edge.

“You know the difference between aluminum and stainless steel?” he said.

“I think so.”

“Come here.” His tone was impatient. He was used to dictating to grown men. Having to explain his trade to a ten-year-old girl somehow made us both feel small.

He yanked out a chunk of shimmering metal. “This here’s aluminum,” he said. “See how it shines? Feel how light it is?” Dad put the piece into my hand. He was right; it was not as heavy as it looked. Next Dad handed me a dented pipe. “This here’s steel,” he said.

We began to sort the debris into piles—aluminum, iron, steel, copper—so it could be sold. I picked up a piece of iron. It was dense with bronze rust, and its jagged angles nibbled at my palms. I had a pair of leather gloves, but when Dad saw them he said they’d slow me down. “You’ll get calluses real quick,” he promised as I handed them over. I’d found a hard hat in the shop, but Dad took that, too. “You’ll move slower trying to balance this silly thing on your head,” he said.

Dad lived in fear of time. He felt it stalking him. I could see it in the worried glances he gave the sun as it moved across the sky, in the anxious way he appraised every length of pipe or cut of steel. Dad saw every piece of scrap as the money it could be sold for, minus the time needed to sort, cut and deliver it. Every slab of iron, every ring of copper tubing was a nickel, a dime, a dollar—less if it took more than two seconds to extract and classify—and he constantly weighed these meager profits against the hourly expense of running the house. He figured that to keep the lights on, the house warm, he needed to work at breakneck speed. I never saw Dad carry anything to a sorting bin; he just chucked it, with all the strength he had, from wherever he was standing.

The first time I saw him do it, I thought it was an accident, a mishap that would be corrected. I hadn’t yet grasped the rules of this new world. I had bent down, and was reaching for a copper coil, when something massive cut through the air next to me. When I turned to see where it had come from, I caught a steel cylinder full in the stomach.

The impact knocked me to the ground. “Oops!” Dad hollered. I rolled over on the ice, winded. By the time I’d scrambled to my feet, Dad had launched something else. I ducked but lost my footing and fell. This time I stayed down. I was shaking but not from cold. My skin was alive and tingling with the certainty of danger, yet when I looked for the source of that danger, all I could see was a tired old man, tugging on a broken light fixture.

I remembered all the times I’d seen one of my brothers burst through the back door, howling, pinching some part of his body that was gashed or squashed or broken or burned. I remembered two years before, when a man named Robert, who worked for Dad, had lost a finger. I remembered the otherworldly pitch of his scream as he ran to the house. I remembered staring at the bloody stump, and then at the severed finger, which Luke brought in and placed on the counter. It looked like a prop from a magic trick. Mother put it on ice and rushed Robert to town so the doctors could sew it back on. Robert’s was not the only finger the junkyard had claimed. A year before Robert, Shawn’s girlfriend, Emma, had come through the back door shrieking. She’d been helping Shawn and lost half her index. Mother had rushed Emma to town, too, but the flesh had been crushed, and there was nothing they could do.

I looked at my own pink fingers, and in that moment the junkyard shifted. As children, Richard and I had passed countless hours in the debris, jumping from one mangled car to the next, looting some, leaving others. It had been the backdrop for a thousand imagined battles—between demons and wizards, fairies and goons, trolls and giants. Now it was changed. It had ceased to be my childhood playground and had become its own reality, one whose physical laws were mysterious, hostile.

I was remembering the strange pattern the blood had made as it streaked down Emma’s wrist, smearing across her forearm, when I stood and, still shaking, tried to pry loose the small length of copper tubing. I almost had it when Dad flung a catalytic converter. I leapt aside, cutting my hand on the serrated edge of a punctured tank. I wiped the blood on my jeans and shouted, “Don’t throw them here! I’m here!”

Dad looked up, surprised. He’d forgotten I was there. When he saw the blood, he walked over to me and put a hand on my shoulder. “Don’t worry, honey,” he said. “God and his angels are here, working right alongside us. They won’t let you be hurt.”

I WASN’T THE ONLY ONE whose feet were searching for solid ground. For six months after the car accident, Mother had improved steadily and we’d thought she would fully recover. The headaches had become less frequent, so that she was shutting herself in the basement only two or three days a week. Then the healing had slowed. Now it had been nine months. The headaches persisted, and Mother’s memory was erratic. At least twice a week she’d ask me to cook breakfast long after everyone had eaten and the dishes had been cleared. She’d tell me to weigh a pound of yarrow for a client, and I’d remind her that we’d delivered the yarrow the day before. She’d begin mixing a tincture, then a minute later couldn’t remember which ingredients she’d added, so that the whole batch had to be tossed. Sometimes she would ask me to stand next to her and watch, so I could say, “You already added the lobelia. Next is the blue vervain.”

Mother began to doubt whether she would ever midwife again, and while she was saddened by this, Dad was devastated. His face sagged every time Mother turned a woman away. “What if I have a migraine when she goes into labor?” she told him. “What if I can’t remember what herbs I’ve given her, or the baby’s heart rate?”

In the end it wasn’t Dad who convinced Mother to midwife again. She convinced herself, perhaps because it was a part of herself she couldn’t surrender without some kind of struggle. That winter, she midwifed two babies that I remember. After the first she came home sickly and pale, as if bringing that life into the world had taken a measure of her own. She was shut in the basement when the second call came. She drove to the birth in dark glasses, trying to peer through the waves distorting her vision. By the time she arrived the headache was blinding, pulsing, driving out all thought. She locked herself in a back room and her assistant delivered the baby. After that, Mother was no longer the Midwife. On the next birth, she used the bulk of her fee to hire a second midwife, to supervise her. Everyone was supervising her now, it seemed. She had been an expert, an uncontested power; now she had to ask her ten-year-old daughter whether she’d eaten lunch. That winter was long and dark, and I wondered if sometimes Mother was staying in bed even when she didn’t have a migraine.

At Christmas, someone gave her an expensive bottle of blended essential oils. It helped her headaches, but at fifty dollars for a third of an ounce, we couldn’t afford it. Mother decided to make her own. She began buying single, unmixed oils—eucalyptus and helichrysum, sandalwood and ravensara—and the house, which for years had smelled of earthy bark and bitter leaves, suddenly smelled of lavender and chamomile. She spent whole days blending oils, making adjustments to achieve specific fragrances and attributes. She worked with a pad and pen so she could record every step as she took it. The oils were much more expensive than the tinctures; it was devastating when she had to throw out a batch because she couldn’t remember whether she’d added the spruce. She made an oil for migraines and an oil for menstrual cramps, one for sore muscles and one for heart palpitations. In the coming years she would invent dozens more.

To create her formulas, Mother took up something called “muscle testing,” which she explained to me as “asking the body what it needs and letting it answer.” Mother would say to herself, aloud, “I have a migraine. What will make it better?” Then she would pick up a bottle of oil, press it to her chest and, with her eyes closed, say, “Do I need this?” If her body swayed forward it meant yes, the oil would help her headache. If her body swayed backward it meant no, and she would test something else.

As she became more skilled, Mother went from using her whole body to only her fingers. She would cross her middle and index fingers, then flex slightly to try to uncross them, asking herself a question. If the fingers remained entwined that meant yes; if they parted it was no. The sound produced by this method was faint but unmistakable: each time the pad of her middle finger slipped across the nail of her index, there was a fleshy click.

Mother used muscle testing to experiment with other methods of healing. Diagrams of chakras and pressure points appeared around the house, and she began charging clients for something called “energy work.” I didn’t know what that meant until one afternoon when Mother called me and Richard into the back room. A woman named Susan was there. Mother’s eyes were closed and her left hand was resting on Susan’s. The fingers on her other hand were crossed, and she was whispering questions to herself. After a few she turned to the woman and said, “Your relationship with your father is damaging your kidneys. Think of him while we adjust the chakra.” Mother explained that energy work is most effective when several people are present. “So we can draw from everyone’s energy,” she said. Mother pointed to my forehead and told me to tap the center, between my eyebrows, while with my other hand I was to grab Susan’s arm. Richard was to tap a pressure point on his chest while reaching out to me with his other hand, and Mother was to hold a point in her palm while touching Richard with her foot. “That’s it,” she said as Richard took my arm. We stood in silence for ten minutes, a human chain.

When I think of that afternoon, what I remember first is the awkwardness of it: Mother said she could feel the hot energy moving through our bodies, but I felt nothing. Mother and Richard stood still, eyes shut, breath shallow. They could feel the energy and were transported by it. I fidgeted. I tried to focus, then worried that I was ruining things for Susan, that I was a break in the chain, that Mother and Richard’s healing power would never reach her because I was failing to conduct it. When the ten minutes were up, Susan gave Mother twenty dollars and the next customer came in.

If I was skeptical, my skepticism was not entirely my fault. It was the result of my not being able to decide which of my mothers to trust. A year before the accident, when Mother had first heard of muscle testing and energy work, she’d dismissed both as wishful thinking. “People want a miracle,” she’d told me. “They’ll swallow anything if it brings them hope, if it lets them believe they’re getting better. But there’s no such thing as magic. Nutrition, exercise and a careful study of herbal properties, that’s all there is. But when they’re suffering, people can’t accept that.”

Now Mother said that healing was spiritual and limitless. Muscle testing, she explained to me, was a kind of prayer, a divine supplication. An act of faith in which God spoke through her fingers. In some moments I believed her, this wise woman with an answer to every question; but I could never quite forget the words of that other woman, that other mother, who was also wise. There’s no such thing as magic.

One day Mother announced that she had reached a new skill level. “I no longer need to say the question aloud,” she said. “I can just think it.”

That’s when I began to notice Mother moving around the house, her hand resting lightly on various objects as she muttered to herself, her fingers flexing in a steady rhythm. If she was making bread and wasn’t sure how much flour she’d added. Click click click. If she was mixing oils and couldn’t remember whether she’d added frankincense. Click click click. She’d sit down to read her scriptures for thirty minutes, forget what time she’d started, then muscle-test how long it had been. Click click click.

Mother began to muscle-test compulsively, unaware she was doing it, whenever she grew tired of a conversation, whenever the ambiguities of her memory, or even just those of normal life, left her unsatisfied. Her features would slacken, her face become vacant, and her fingers would click like crickets at dusk.

Dad was rapturous. “Them doctors can’t tell what’s wrong just by touching you,” he said, glowing. “But Mother can!”

THE MEMORY OF TYLER haunted me that winter. I remembered the day he left, how strange it was to see his car bumping down the hill loaded with boxes. I couldn’t imagine where he was now, but sometimes I wondered if perhaps school was less evil than Dad thought, because Tyler was the least evil person I knew, and he loved school—loved it more, it seemed, than he loved us.

The seed of curiosity had been planted; it needed nothing more than time and boredom to grow. Sometimes, when I was stripping copper from a radiator or throwing the five hundredth chunk of steel into the bin, I’d find myself imagining the classrooms where Tyler was spending his days. My interest grew more acute with every deadening hour in the junkyard, until one day I had a bizarre thought: that I should enroll in the public school.

Mother had always said we could go to school if we wanted. We just had to ask Dad, she said. Then we could go.

But I didn’t ask. There was something in the hard line of my father’s face, in the quiet sigh of supplication he made every morning before he began family prayer, that made me think my curiosity was an obscenity, an affront to all he’d sacrificed to raise me.

I made some effort to keep up my schooling in the free time I had between scrapping and helping Mother make tinctures and blend oils. Mother had given up homeschooling by then, but still had a computer, and there were books in the basement. I found the science book, with its colorful illustrations, and the math book I remembered from years before. I even located a faded green book of history. But when I sat down to study I nearly always fell asleep. The pages were glossy and soft, made softer by the hours I’d spent hauling scrap.

When Dad saw me with one of those books, he’d try to get me away from them. Perhaps he was remembering Tyler. Perhaps he thought if he could just distract me for a few years, the danger would pass. So he made up jobs for me to do, whether they needed doing or not. One afternoon, after he’d caught me looking at the math book, he and I spent an hour hauling buckets of water across the field to his fruit trees, which wouldn’t have been at all unusual except it was during a rainstorm.

But if Dad was trying to keep his children from being overly interested in school and books—from being seduced by the Illuminati, like Tyler had been—he would have done better to turn his attention to Richard. Richard was also supposed to spend his afternoons making tinctures for Mother, but he almost never did. Instead, he’d disappear. I don’t know if Mother knew where he went, but I did. In the afternoons, Richard could nearly always be found in the dark basement, wedged in the crawl space between the couch and the wall, an encyclopedia propped open in front of him. If Dad happened by he’d turn the light off, muttering about wasted electricity. Then I’d find some excuse to go downstairs so I could turn it back on. If Dad came through again, a snarl would sound through the house, and Mother would have to sit through a lecture on leaving lights on in empty rooms. She never scolded me, which makes me wonder if she did know where Richard was. If I couldn’t get back down to turn on the light, Richard would pull the book to his nose and read in the dark; he wanted to read that badly. He wanted to read the encyclopedia that badly.

TYLER WAS GONE. There was hardly a trace he’d ever lived in the house, except one: every night, after dinner, I would close the door to my room and pull Tyler’s old boom box from under my bed. I’d dragged his desk into my room, and while the choir sang I would settle into his chair and study, just as I’d seen him do on a thousand nights. I didn’t study history or math. I studied religion.

I read the Book of Mormon twice. I read the New Testament, once quickly, then a second time more slowly, pausing to make notes, to cross-reference, and even to write short essays on doctrines like faith and sacrifice. No one read the essays; I wrote them for myself, the way I imagined Tyler had studied for himself and himself only. I worked through the Old Testament next, then I read Dad’s books, which were mostly compilations of the speeches, letters and journals of the early Mormon prophets. Their language was of the nineteenth century—stiff, winding, but exact—and at first I understood nothing. But over time my eyes and ears adjusted, so that I began to feel at home with those fragments of my people’s history: stories of pioneers, my ancestors, striking out across the American wilderness. While the stories were vivid, the lectures were abstract, treatises on obscure philosophical subjects, and it was to these abstractions that I devoted most of my study.

In retrospect, I see that this was my education, the one that would matter: the hours I spent sitting at a borrowed desk, struggling to parse narrow strands of Mormon doctrine in mimicry of a brother who’d deserted me. The skill I was learning was a crucial one, the patience to read things I could not yet understand.

BY THE TIME THE SNOW on the mountain began to melt, my hands were thickly callused. A season in the junkyard had honed my reflexes: I’d learned to listen for the low grunt that escaped Dad’s lips whenever he tossed something heavy, and when I heard it I hit the dirt. I spent so much time flat in the mud, I didn’t salvage much. Dad joked I was as slow as molasses running uphill.

The memory of Tyler had faded, and with it had faded his music, drowned out by the crack of metal crashing into metal. Those were the sounds that played in my head at night now—the jingle of corrugated tin, the short tap of copper wire, the thunder of iron.

I had entered into the new reality. I saw the world through my father’s eyes. I saw the angels, or at least I imagined I saw them, watching us scrap, stepping forward and catching the car batteries or jagged lengths of steel tubing that Dad launched across the yard. I’d stopped shouting at Dad for throwing them. Instead, I prayed.

I worked faster when I salvaged alone, so one morning when Dad was in the northern tip of the yard, near the mountain, I headed for the southern tip, near the pasture. I filled a bin with two thousand pounds of iron; then, my arms aching, I ran to find Dad. The bin had to be emptied, and I couldn’t operate the loader—a massive forklift with a telescopic arm and wide, black wheels that were taller than I was. The loader would raise the bin some twenty-five feet into the air and then, with the boom extended, tilt the forks so the scrap could slide out, raining down into the trailer with a tremendous clamor. The trailer was a fifty-foot flatbed rigged for scrapping, essentially a giant bucket. Its walls were made of thick iron sheets that reached eight feet from the bed. The trailer could hold between fifteen and twenty bins, or about forty thousand pounds of iron.

I found Dad in the field, lighting a fire to burn the insulation from a tangle of copper wires. I told him the bin was ready, and he walked back with me and climbed into the loader. He waved at the trailer. “We’ll get more in if you settle the iron after it’s been dumped. Hop in.”

I didn’t understand. He wanted to dump the bin with me in it? “I’ll climb up after you’ve dumped the load,” I said.

“No, this’ll be faster,” Dad said. “I’ll pause when the bin’s level with the trailer wall so you can climb out. Then you can run along the wall and perch on top of the cab until the dump is finished.”

I settled myself on a length of iron. Dad jammed the forks under the bin, then lifted me and the scrap and began driving, full throttle, toward the trailer’s head. I could barely hold on. On the last turn, the bucket swung with such force that a spike of iron was flung toward me. It pierced the inside of my leg, an inch below my knee, sliding into the tissue like a knife into warm butter. I tried to pull it out but the load had shifted, and it was partially buried. I heard the soft groaning of hydraulic pumps as the boom extended. The groaning stopped when the bin was level with the trailer. Dad was giving me time to climb onto the trailer wall but I was pinned. “I’m stuck!” I shouted, only the growl of the loader’s engine was too loud. I wondered if Dad would wait to dump the bin until he saw me sitting safely on the semi’s cab, but even as I wondered I knew he wouldn’t. Time was still stalking.

The hydraulics groaned and the bin raised another eight feet. Dumping position. I shouted again, higher this time, then lower, trying to find a pitch that would pierce through the drone of the engine. The bin began its tilt, slowly at first, then quickly. I was pinned near the back. I wrapped my hands around the bin’s top wall, knowing this would give me a ledge to grasp when the bin was vertical. As the bin continued to pitch, the scrap at the front began to slide forward, bit by bit, a great iron glacier breaking apart. The spike was still embedded in my leg, dragging me downward. My grip had slipped and I’d begun to slide when the spike finally ripped from me and fell away, smashing into the trailer with a tremendous crash. I was now free, but falling. I flailed my arms, willing them to seize something that wasn’t plunging downward. My palm caught hold of the bin’s side wall, which was now nearly vertical. I pulled myself toward it and hoisted my body over its edge, then continued my fall. Because I was now falling from the side of the bin and not the front, I hoped—I prayed—that I was falling toward the ground and not toward the trailer, which was at that moment a fury of grinding metal. I sank, seeing only blue sky, waiting to feel either the stab of sharp iron or the jolt of solid earth.

My back struck iron: the trailer’s wall. My feet snapped over my head and I continued my graceless plunge to the ground. The first fall was seven or eight feet, the second perhaps ten. I was relieved to taste dirt.

I lay on my back for perhaps fifteen seconds before the engine growled to silence and I heard Dad’s heavy step.

“What happened?” he said, kneeling next to me.

“I fell out,” I wheezed. The wind had been knocked out of me, and there was a powerful throbbing in my back, as if I’d been cut in two.

“How’d you manage that?” Dad said. His tone was sympathetic but disappointed. I felt stupid. I should have been able to do it, I thought. It’s a simple thing.

Dad examined the gash in my leg, which had been ripped wide as the spike had fallen away. It looked like a pothole; the tissue had simply sunk out of sight. Dad slipped out of his flannel shirt and pressed it to my leg. “Go on home,” he said. “Mother will stop the bleeding.”

I limped through the pasture until Dad was out of sight, then collapsed in the tall wheatgrass. I was shaking, gulping mouthfuls of air that never made it to my lungs. I didn’t understand why I was crying. I was alive. I would be fine. The angels had done their part. So why couldn’t I stop trembling?

I was light-headed when I crossed the last field and approached the house, but I burst through the back door, as I’d seen my brothers do, as Robert and Emma had done, shouting for Mother. When she saw the crimson footprints streaked across the linoleum, she fetched the homeopathic she used to treat hemorrhages and shock, called Rescue Remedy, and put twelve drops of the clear, tasteless liquid under my tongue. She rested her left hand lightly on the gash and crossed the fingers of her right. Her eyes closed. Click click click. “There’s no tetanus,” she said. “The wound will close. Eventually. But it’ll leave a nasty scar.”

She turned me onto my stomach and examined the bruise—a patch of deep purple the size of a human head—that had formed a few inches above my hip. Again her fingers crossed and her eyes closed. Click click click.

“You’ve damaged your kidney,” she said. “We’d better make a fresh batch of juniper and mullein flower.”

THE GASH BELOW MY knee had formed a scab—dark and shiny, a black river flowing through pink flesh—when I came to a decision.

I chose a Sunday evening, when Dad was resting on the couch, his Bible propped open in his lap. I stood in front of him for what felt like hours, but he didn’t look up, so I blurted out what I’d come to say: “I want to go to school.”

He seemed not to have heard me.

“I’ve prayed, and I want to go,” I said.

Finally, Dad looked up and straight ahead, his gaze fixed on something behind me. The silence settled, its presence heavy. “In this family,” he said, “we obey the commandments of the Lord.”

He picked up his Bible and his eyes twitched as they jumped from line to line. I turned to leave, but before I reached the doorway Dad spoke again. “You remember Jacob and Esau?”

“I remember,” I said.

He returned to his reading, and I left quietly. I did not need any explanation; I knew what the story meant. It meant that I was not the daughter he had raised, the daughter of faith. I had tried to sell my birthright for a mess of pottage.

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