Fire Blight

A FTER DADDY DIED, MAMA JOINED UP WITH THE FAITH Evangelical Choir of the Daughters of Zion Pentecostal Church. She practiced her hymns around the house the way other ladies hummed “My Blue Heaven.” Elsie Stitt, the first soprano, worked at the Lodge, and she told Mama she could get her a job there too, but first Mama had to be trained. We still had the house, but the orchard was up for sale, and Mama needed a way to earn us money. For weeks Elsie would come home with Mama from their choir practice and give her lessons on massage. This was after I’d been put to bed, but one night I couldn’t sleep and padded into the parlor from my room upstairs. Mama was lying on the braided rug with nothing on but a towel over her privates, and Elsie was rubbing oil into Mama’s legs. I said from the doorway, “If my daddy were here, you wouldn’t do this.”

A Short Story



WHEN I WAS A CHILD, MY FATHER DROPPED OFF A bridge in full view of my mother and me, and disappeared forever into the Shenandoah. This happened in Harpers Ferry, where the three of us had gone for a Sunday excursion. Afterward, I would hear her describe the way he had plunged into the water to save a drowning boy, and had perished himself.

“Mama,” I’d say, “why don’t you tell the truth about my daddy?”

She would fix her glare on me. “What do you know about truth? You were only five years old. You were a baby. What could a baby remember anyhow?”

Everything, I’d think. More than I care to.

Mama preferred denial and invention. In Berkeley Springs, West Virginia, she raised me in a farmhouse two miles down the road from the Lodge, where she worked. She gave massages to the people who came there for the famous mineral baths—they still do. George Washington had visited there, and Mama talked as if she. Esther Scruggs Temple, had helped him down into the healing water. “George Washington,” she’d announce, “put us on the map.” This from a woman who worked for an hourly wage, collected tips in her pocket like a waitress or worse, and came home exhausted every day to soak her hands in a solution she made from Epsom salts. Her joints hurt so from all those hours she kneaded backs and shoulders, soothing the aches and pains of well-off ladies from D.C. or Charleston. Mama crowed about George Washington as if she were the proprietress of the establishment. It gave her a sense of dignity that the work itself did not provide. It gave her a place in history by association. But then she would go on about how he had this lumbago and all, and how he would come to Berkeley Springs with this assistant or that, but never with Martha—“It appears they didn’t get on so well,” she would confide—and even what he had eaten for breakfast, lunch, and supper during his stay.

He did come, true, but i don’t think the Lodge was even there at the time. That part she made up entirely, just as she’d fabricated her story about my father’s death.

Finally, when she was old, she said, “He put up a good front. Window dressing.”

Here I had pressed her all these years for explanations, reasons, a truth in which my sorrow could retire. She gave me harsher news than I wanted.

“That’s your opinion,” I said. “I think it was the fire blight.”

Daddy raised Rome Beauties, winesaps, and McIntosh. While he was alive, my mother sold the fruit from a roadside stand she operated in front of our house. She sold cider she pressed herself, failed gallon jugs with a siphon from the vat that rested on the newspaper-covered wooden floor in the kitchen. I remember the smell of that tart perfume the way another person remembers her mother’s cologne. Off-season, Daddy drove a backhoe for a builder in town and did carpentry jobs for neighbors, but if you asked him what his work was, he would tell you, “I have the finest orchard in Morgan County.”

“Think what you like,” Mama said. She shut her eyes. “It’s all water over the dam.”

If so, I’m still swimming in those white-frothed currents.

MAMA AND I ARE ON THE FRONT PORCH, SHELLING peas. It’s mid-April, dogwoods and azaleas and all the spring bulbs ablaze.

“Fire blight,” Daddy says.

When she sees him standing there with that blackened branch, the pods in Mama’s lap clatter across the weathered floor. She is on her feet that fast.

“All mv McIntosh have it,” he says. He sinks down on the bottom porch step, his forehead to his knees, his shoulders quaking as if he were chilled, as if he were sick, rather than his trees. I’ve never seen him sad before.

“A farmer’s life is always risky,” Mama says. She is still on the porch, and if she had a pulpit in front of her, she could pass for a lady preacher. Her arms are stretched out wide, and one of them pushes me back toward the glider when I make a move for the steps. “Nature does not promise us—”

“Damn it, Esther!” He cracks the branch in two across his knee and heaves the pieces into the yard. Withered blossoms scatter like ash over the lawn. This action empowers him again. He’s on his feet, full height. “It I wanted an agriculture lecture, I’d call up the extension service!” He stomps off for the road, which I’m not allowed to cross. The orchard’s on the other side. At the front yard’s edge he turns around. “Don’t you know how to give a little comfort to a man?”

Mama’s arms collapse. Her mouth gapes, but no sound comes out, just air. She looks the way a fish does when it’s caught. She forgets about me and charges into the house, pea pods squashed beneath her stride. Through the screen door I hear her clomping up the stairs, and then the door to their bedroom slams, and who is left to comfort him but me?

It seems I fly the span from porch to orchard, avoiding altogether that deliberate and forbidden trek I must have made through the grass and over that graveled road, where cars and trucks and tractors pass our property all day long. I am in that grove, is all I know. Up and down the dappled paths that run the length of the orchard, I hunt for him. I’m halfway along a blighted row—those trees look as if they had been in a fire, yet nothing is burned away— when I see him straddling a high limb, his arms hugging the ruined bark. “Daddy!” I call to him. Before he can right himself, I have started up the ladder. Each rung’s a whole leg-span for me, but I am climbing as if my feet had springs in them, and fear is no greater than a tickle in my throat.

“Rosie, good Christ, how—? Now watch yourself, be careful—”

He does not order me down. He’s glad I’ve come. He guides me up, up to where he is, hoists me from ladder to branch, and when I’m there beside him on that perch, his arm holding me secure, it isn’t fire blight I see this close to the skv but dazzle. In that shining realm we sit together for a while. Then he carries me down, into the shadows again, and home.

LIKE MAMA, MY HUSBAND, WENDELL, DID NOT LIKE me to talk about Daddy’s suicide. “I try to leave violence at the office,” he would tell me. “I can’t come home to yet another grim tale, Rose.” By “the office” he meant the FBI building in Washington, D.C. Wendell worked in fingerprints for thirty-odd years. He never could rid his nails of the residue collected there like coal-mine grime, like furnace soot. Months would pass. I’d keep my silence. Memory shoved up under my heart, pressing against my ribs, shooting pain down a leg, up my back to my shoulder blades, sometimes straight to my head. Migraines, I called those attacks, when really the cause was Daddy, poised on my brain as if on the ledge from which he’d jumped. If the pain struck on a weekend, Wendell would sit beside me on the bed in our darkened room, our boys banished to the park or the movies or a neighbor’s apartment, and he would lay cool washcloths over my throbbing eyes. So long as the pain was in my body, Wendell nursed me with sweet patience. But let me call out for my father in the middle of the night, and Wendell would shake me awake, his voice rough and insistent:

That’s enough now, Rose. You’re having a nightmare.” He said it as if I had burned dinner or lost my keys. As if he were pointing out some lapse on mv part. Some failure. “It’s Daddy,” I’d say, locked on his image there by the bureau, there by the clothes hamper, now there by the closet door. Wendell would snap on the light. “Don’t go stirring up morbid memories,” he’d say. “Stop dwelling in the past.” When women marry, we are supposed to drop our girlhoods behind us like so much extra freight and call ourselves Mrs. Whoever and bob our hair. The past wiggles away like half of a severed worm. Miracle or mutilation, which is it? Well, what did that mean, after all—“dwelling in the past”—but being at home in your own life?

That day comes back to me all on its own, like weather, like the sunny day it was, June 5, 1923. Sometimes I wonder what would have happened if it had rained, if we hadn’t driven for hours, my parents and me, into the Blue Ridge Mountains, and parked behind the train station where John Brown let through that conductor who sent the troops right back to capture him. What if we had stayed in our farmhouse on Winchester Grade Road and played checkers?—the way we did on dreary days when the rain pelted the tin roof and kerosene lamps burned in every room. It is hard to think of suicide as an urge that comes on you like a passing itch, nothing major, which, if you leave it alone, will give up and stop pestering you by the time you’re ready for bed. Hard to think that, but even harder to believe that death had such an urgent claim on someone who wore happiness like a custom-made suit. John Temple was all strut and swagger; you would have thought they’d have to drag him off this earth, not that he’d decide to leave it at the age of thirty-one.

That morning, almost two months since I had climbed the tree to comfort him, Daddy and Mama packed the picnic basket with hard-cooked eggs, ham sandwiches, pickles, and strawberries from the patch by the back door. Daddy gathered up the newspaper and laid it across the food. Mama folded the quilt from my bed and gave it to me to carry. She was in charge of the mesh sack into which she had put bug-bite ointment, a rubber ball, a deck of cards, her needlepoint project, and three visors we could use if the sun began to bother our eyes. At seven we got into our Ford. We sat three abreast, me by the window, and rode from one mountain range to another. The earth seemed to have no flat places on it, only ascent and descent; balance seemed not to come easy anywhere in the world. We braced ourselves against the jostling. I pressed my feet up against the dashboard. Mama held onto Daddy’s sleeve and mine. He wedged his shoulder into the corner made by the seat and the door. Daddy and Mama talked to each other most of the way, and I liked the sound of their voices that morning, even though sometimes at home their talk shut me out and I was lonely in their midst. Maybe that came from being the child. Or maybe my father’s unhappiness was in our house all along, living under his words like rocks beneath the water’s surface. Maybe Mama was right: he put up a good front, and the fire blight was not the beginning of his troubles at all. I do admit that sometimes the sound of them talking to each other at home encircled them like an electrified fence: Keep out, it said. Dangerous to children.

But not that morning, not in the car. Maybe because we were all pressed up against each other, connected one to the other almost like one body. I don’t know.

WHEN WE PUT ON THE VISORS, MY MOTHER SAID, “We look like card sharks. Who’s for gin rummy?”

She was fishing in the mesh bag for the deck of cards, while I helped my father spread the quilt on the grass. Up and down the riverbank I saw sets of parents and children readying their own picnics. No matter that behind us lay the site of a bloody Civil War battle and several murderous floods, and in front of us the river twisted over sharp rocks and storm-felled trees, their roots, upended, like claws sticking out of the water.

Mama said, “Here’s your hand, John.”

On my knees I watched him play.

“Rosie,” Daddy said. That was his name for me, and I’ve never allowed anvone else, not even Wendell, to use it. “Rosie, you are the best luck this small-time gambler ever had.” He rubbed my elbow as if I were one of those amulets betting people carry in their pockets and he had everything he owned on this game. He had a look in his eyes that said, “I need magic, Rosie. I need good fortune bad.” I smiled hard; I held my breath and clenched my fingers and toes and made a low growling sound in my throat for him; but Mama called “Gin!' the third time she picked a card from the pile and Daddy lost his nickel and his grin and his good posture all at once.

Mama said, “Now, John, it’s just a game,” and reached out to tweak him. But he flinched, stood up as though a bee were after him, and walked off huffy and shamed. I watched him get smaller and smaller until he was just a slash of blue—he was wearing blue overalls. I watched him move past where the last clump of people sat, down to the place where the bridge pilings were. From where I was, they looked like toothpicks; the bridge that arched over Mama and me looked as though it were holding itself aloft, floating, not attached to anything.

Mama said, “Well, Rose, let’s eat our lunch.”

She said it in a strange way, as if there were only two of us.

“When Daddy comes back,” I insisted.

But she was taking the food out of the basket, placing it on the blanket. She was holding her head at an angle of reproach toward me or Daddy, I couldn’t be sure which.

I wanted to run over the grass to where he was and lead him back. I scanned every inch from the blanket to the pilings to the last family in sight. But I couldn’t locate that blue form anywhere.

Right then I realized that others were searching too. Or at least they seemed to be. Heads craned all along the grass. Hand after hand pointed upward, and voices rose in a single web of sound, a hummed “oooooohhhhhh” that lifted to the level of the bridge and hovered there like an in the fierce light of that distant afternoon.

“Mama,” I said, “what—”

And then we saw him: too far to make out his features, too near to mistake him for any other man. My father, Daddy, John Temple, swinging a second leg over the railing and stepping off into the air, easy as it the ground were still beneath his feet, falling through the bright air like a bird zooming to earth. What I mean is, something about him seemed to be at home in flight, comfortable in his sudden descent, a winged creature’s acrobatics, not a man’s last plummet. I felt sure that my father would loop up right before impact, soar to the bridge, win everybody’s dazed applause.

But Mama’s scream was no cheer. Shriek, wail, cry of terror—I thought my head would burst from the sound of it. I had never heard a person make a noise like that, and I haven’t since.

He glanced off rock. Daddy did. sank into the ater’s foam, and I never saw him again.

The rest of the day drowned with him. I have no recollection of what we did, who took us home. I’m blank on everything up until the moment when, four days later, his coffin was lowered into the earth, rain tapping like a child’s knuckles on the wood, he not answering the little knocks, no, my daddy deaf to all appeals now, gone down into the final quiet, gone down now, gone.

Mama made a noise like barking. She bolted up and the towel dropped away. Lamplight fell on her oil-shined flesh and she looked for all the world like a stranded seal, “Well, your daddy’s dead,” she rasped. “And you know what he left me to raise you with? Eight hundred dollars in debts and a lapsed life-insurance policy, that’s what.’

She was crying now. I wanted to give her back her towel, but Elsie Stitt retrieved it first and handed it to Mama, and I ran upstairs to do my own crying in that pillow where I poured out my nightly grief.

I never said another word to Mama about her massage work, but I knew she didn’t like it any more than I did.

She’d say things to me like “The body is merely the soul’s temporary lodging, Rose.” Yet she spent all day attending to the flesh she now dismissed. Herself, she let go. She quit making herself pretty, let her hair get stringy; her smooth skin became puckered and lined like a web, like the inside of an orange peel. This continued for nearly two years. Imagine.

Then she got herself a boyfriend: Mr. Homer Simpson, a just-widowered traveling salesman from Akron, Ohio, who passed through Berkeley Springs on business and decided to have himself a treatment at the Lodge. Homer Simpson looked very much like W. C. Fields. I used to imagine him cuddling up to Mama and whispering “My little chickadee” into her ear. He started courting her immediately. That very first night he bought her dinner in the dining room, and she came home with eight boxes of wood-handled steak knives (that was his line) and color in her cheeks that I hadn’t seen since before Daddy died. You’d have thought Homer had given her underwear, the way she blushed showing me that cutlery. Three weeks later he moved himself down to Berkeley Springs and rented a room in a boardinghouse. Mama dropped out of the choir, started using a curling iron, and gave herself facials every other night with a mixture of eggs and lemons and mud that she dug up from a place under the downspout by the back door.

I couldn’t say which I preferred, religion or romance. Both of them made her strange.

I still remember how things were when my father was alive. Begonias blooming on the window sills, starched sheets, lattice-topped fruit pies cooling on a rack in the kitchen. “You don’t make pies anymore,” I told her a few months after the funeral.

She said, “All the pies in the world won’t bring John Temple back to us.” As if that were my notion. I was the one who was missing her care; she was gone a lot, first with the choir and then with Homer. She never married Homer. They “kept company” until she died. “We’re in no rush,” she’d say when people asked, which, as you can imagine, they did. “We’re taking our time.” What I think now is that she never got over seeing herself as Mrs. John Temple, so marrying Homer was not a real possibility for her. That is what I think, although we never did discuss it. This theory comes from losing a husband myself and hearing people call me a “widow” when I know I’m as married as ever, even if Wendell has “gone to his reward,” as they put it.

I don’t know where anyone goes when they die. I don’t know where Daddy is, or Mama, or Wendell. Unlike my father, Wendell left me insurance money, and after his death, five years ago, I placed a call to Elton Howard, realtor, Berkeley Springs. I had been reading the classifieds under “Mountain Property for Sale,” something I have done daily for almost forty years, since I married Wendell Fry, left West Virginia, and came to live in an apartment building on upper Connecticut Avenue in Washington, D.C. Wendell never wanted a house. He said apartment living suited him fine, that he couldn’t be bothered with upkeep. But I have always missed the sense of roaming I had as a girl. All my life I have wanted land, flowers that would put the National Arboretum to shame. My daddy was a gardener. I can close my eyes and smell the soil he’s just upturned, see the startled worms burrowing back into the earth’s dark depths. I have plotted out entire yards in my head: how I’d plant the azaleas, where I’d put the rows of daffodils and tulips and impatiens. I’d have lotsofimpatiens, pink and white and that blood-red color they have, blooming in the shade my cherry and magnolia trees would make. Once I figured out a whole Japanese garden, stone river and all, hyacinths sprouting along the edge of the imaginary water.

“My name is Rose Fry,” I said to Elton Howard, “and I am interested in buying a house.”

What did I have in mind to spend? he asked.

I told him.

“Mrs. Fry—I take it it’s Mrs.—that wouldn’t buy you more than a barn.”

Five years ago I let that stop me, thanked him kindly, had myself a good cry, and walked a while outside, until the traffic din and bus fumes drove me in again. But last night I dreamed that I placed that call a second time. “I’d like to see what you have,” I told Mr. Howard, and then I was there, in Berkeley Springs, buying myself two stories of weathered wood and windows taller than Wendell was, over six feet even at the end.

In my dream I have acres, some still wild, some cultivated, just the way my father did. I look out over the Cacapon River. On the opposite bank fluted rock cliffs rise like a tabernacle built right into the earth. In the morning I walk up to the pasture. The sun polishes everything—sky, mountains, river, grass, cliffs, even the faded-gray barn siding itself—to such a sheen that the world as I know it seems just a thin layer of brightness that could at any moment give way, like an eggshell or a crust of ice or a light bulb’s fragile glass casing. A whole other world would then reveal itself to me.

I contemplate this a while. Then I walk back to the barn. Begonias bloom in the window, pies cool on the sill. Between two maples, starched sheets flap like sails on the clothesline. I take one down and spread it on the grass. “It’s time for our game!” I call. In the doorway to the barn he appears—my father, Daddy, John Temple—riffling a deck of playing cards, wearing his gambler’s grin. “Get ready, Rosie, my luck’s come back!” He strides toward me, into the dazzle, and I swear I’ll let him win as many hands as he can play.