Though my mother was a flock of adjectives herded together from unlikely corners, there was no getting around the shepherding force of dignity. There was a geometric precision about her, so much so that when she entered a room doing anything—clapping shut her gardening shears, lugging a hip-propped laundry basket—it had the effect of a statue unveiling. So much so that when the divorce finally came, I wasn’t surprised, for “love” had always seemed somehow beneath her.
What I was surprised by, though, was the word “boyfriend.” Hers. Wholly. Named Dave. His devotion was so swooping that he’d offered to marry her the first time he walked into Toby’s Steakhouse and saw her saunter toward him with a pitcher of lemonade, her smile more efficient than friendly. His first line, “If I had enough money, I’d buy you and take you home,” was a testament to both his plainness of mind and flamboyance of heart and she smiled. When she came home that night, she told me about him while I counted her tips.
“He’s fifty-something but doesn’t look half bad,” she said. “Two divorces, No kids. Owns a cattle ranch down on seventy-three.”
“You would really be a rancher’s wife?” I asked, picturing her Shakespearian Quarterlys faced down in bales of hay.
“An aspiring concert pianists wife sounds better, doesn’t it?” she said dryly, stacked the ten-apiece bundles of singles into a cross-hatched leaning tower, and left the room.
My father came home some days just before midnight. The stillness of the hour when he opened the front door made the walls’ lurch even more seismic. Beside me in bed, I could feel my mother clench in her sleep, and the fact that her eyes remained shut would frighten me even more than the trail of extravagant clamor that my father left in the wake of rifling the cupboards, slapping together a sandwich, kicking off his shoes. It was as if a fuse had been blown in the too-thin air of the Rachmaninoff and Bach concertos he’d been practicing all day and now his every nerve hankered for earthly creak and groan. It was more than an irritated whim. I read the stakes in the hard clamp of my sleeping mother’s jaw: he was a loose cannon. We were a sinking ship.
I was earnest and sodden in those days, the short end of thirteen. At school, I sat in the front row of every class and raised my hand so much that the teachers skipped right over me. At lunch, I sat with Louise, who wore fishnet stockings to school on Valentine’s Day, and Jackson, her dreadlocked best friend. They marveled at the Victorian-themed romance novels I checked out by the dozen from the public library and the perpetual whiteness of my Keds. “What do you want to be when you grow up?” Louise asked me once.
“A doctor,” I said. “Or a lawyer.”
“You’re smart enough,” she said, nodding. “But maybe too weird.”
At home, my mother flared up at me for little things. Coming to bed with my hair still in a ponytail, rubbing a hole erasing a sum on my algebra paper, praying with a face theatrically grave.
“Stop mooning through life and get a grip,” she told me. “You’re almost a woman now.”
She, on the other hand, was a woman veined with steel. Though we hadn’t spoken to my father in more than a month, she never started when their paths crossed in the house, never sought his face for signs of calm or danger. I, on the other hand, took each step like a trespasser. Coming home from school each day, I’d pause in the front yard if his Oldsmobile is there or if her work sneakers were on the front porch. I’d circle the house, ducking and listening at each window. After detecting that they were in separate quarters of the house as always, I’d zip through the foyer, living room, kitchen, and head toward the garage, where I’d put on my suit and head out back to see my bees.
My beekeeper’s suit used to be my father’s, and is much too big for me. He patched together from scraps years ago using a motorcycle helmet he’d bought from a garage sale, a wool muffler, some painter’s overalls, and a pair of leather gloves. They’d sewn everything together using my mother’s sewing machine, piercing his finger twice in the process as they bickered over the positioning of the pieces. After it was finished, and after two weeks of scouting the country fields for hives, he came home with his first batch of bees. The bee-boxes were the only equipment he spent money on. To keep the boxes isolated, he had agreed to do a month’s lawn mowing for our neighbors in exchange for an old covered wagon. It now sat in our backyard, thatched weeds growing wild against its wheels. No one but me goes in now. Though my father came from generations of beekeepers and my mother never went near them if she could help it, I was the only one that had never been stung.
I cherished the first look inside a hive the most. The furry, striped bodies of the bees buzzing frenetically into whorls and knots. It looked thrillingly ugly, a living moving ugliness that I’d have to resist my urge to smash. Moving slowly in my suit, I would lift out the panels to check for any dead bees or unusual congealment, and then, finally, remove the supers with their frames full of honey, and drain them into jars. Though my mother found the taste of our honey cloying and my father haven’t touched the jars in the cupboard in many months, I still did this daily. I had two reasons for this. One, no one would take care of the bees if I didn’t, and I had nightmares of lifting the panels from the box and seeing a field of sticky motionless carcasses. And two, though I couldn’t explain it to my mother, I liked being in the wagon, where my every move had a reaction. The bees knew when I came in, their flight paths becoming more agitated. When I inched my face as close to the panel as I could, I could see their rubbings through my visor, their movements small and electrical-accurate, their buzzing so low that it was only a vibration on my skin. I didn’t imagine that they liked me—even then I was too old for that. What I enjoyed, I think, is being fully occupied in my senses. If it had been just a little more—if the bees had only smelled, I thought, the ecstasy would have been too much. I would have thrown down a panel, crushed the humming bodies under my heel, and ran out into the open fields.
I startled awake one night in June. My mother leaned over me, holding an old corduroy coat much too big for me.
“Put this on,” she said. “Dave is outside in his truck, and he wants to meet you.”
She was wearing a white nightgown so translucent that I could see the contour of her body inside it. Her hair was a loose maelstrom around her shoulders and, for the first time, I felt a revving of elements that made me dizzy.
“Are you going out like that?” I asked, before realizing that she had probably come in like that.
Out in the jasmine-scented air, my mother opened the pickup’s door, placed a hand on each of my shoulders, and ducked behind me so as not to compromise the effect.
“And this is Eve,” she said as if they were already in the middle of a conversation.
He looked less oily than I’d thought. No buffed hair or shiny boots. Rather, he was as roughly hewn as a grizzly, the bushy fray of his eyebrows drooped into his eyes, the skin folds of his knuckles puckering fat like roses.
“How d’you do, ma’am,” he said with a nod and no smile, extending his hand toward me. When I took it, his sandpapery skin and anchoring grip made me understand a little why my mother liked him. I smiled to be polite but was mildly seasick
“Eve is very excited about meeting the animals on your ranch,” my mother said, stroking my hair. She only touches me tenderly when she thinks I’m distracted, I thought but continued to smile.
“Well, it will be an honor for them to meet such a beautiful little lady,” Dave said.
On the last day of school, Louise and Jackson waved goodbye to me in the hall and continued on their way, hooting like coyotes at the student council girls in pastel jeans who struggled not to turn their heads as they walked past them. “Don’t come back with a tan or anything, Miss Evie,” Jackson shouted and then blew me a kiss. Louise laughed and pulled him out of sight around a corner. I wondered if it was loneliness I felt. Every morning that summer after my mother left for the restaurant, I would hear my father’s door yawn open. His noises were calmer in the morning as if there’d been resolutions in the night. At around noon he left for the university conservatory with his briefcase filled with fruits and sheet music. I pictured him in an empty practice room, threadbare in comparison to his former carpeted office with the polished Steinway piano. Here he would spend the best part of summer, his fingers flitting into a blur amongst the smooth ivory keys, the music emanating a simulation for the gardenias outside, the ivy climbing into a snarl, the slow conversations on a darkened porch that he used to have with my mother about the bees, or me, or the neighbor’s leeks.
He had kept to himself even before the layoff. I knew, because when I was introduced to his colleagues at a Christmas party, they’d smiled at me with melting kindness, look from my face to my father’s, and then step away gingerly. How, once, when I missed the school bus and decided to walk to the music department to catch a ride from him, I caught a glimpse of his slack-legged walk in the hall, his vacant expression , magnifying absence without check.
I grew heavy with anticipation. It could have been paranoia. At night, when all the lights are off, I thought I’d heard my father pace through the house, his noises neither angry nor composed, but methodically repetitive. The floorboards in the kitchen would creak and creak again. The walls thrummed as if windows were continually being opened and then shut. Sometimes, when my mother and I were cooking in the kitchen, he would come in, deliberately traverse the small space without touching us, and open the fridge only to close it again without retrieving anything. Our conversations would never start again after he left. And, whatever she was making, my mother would turn up the burner and add all the spices at once.
My mother started coming home hours after her shift ended. I watched her from the front window, getting out of Dave’s red pickup, standing in her stocking feet on the porch and crouching down gracefully to put on her ballet flats. Did she know I was watching? Could it be all instinctive—the precision of the crook of her finger hooking into the heel of a shoe, the coltish tilt of her chin? When her path crossed with my father’s on the way to the bathroom or the kitchen, did his carefully-exercised equilibrium trip upon her cocked elegance that had, even when they’d first met, made beauty a moot point? I turned over what little I knew of the episode in my head: two overly-solemn sixteen-year-olds meet at an arts camp in nowhere, Pennsylvania. She tickled by the stupor he lapsed into when he penciled in a treble clef, he ceding all at the steadiness of her hand under his elbow as she led him onto the darkened gymnasium dance floor.
Perhaps it was in keeping. Maybe they’d never learned to speak through the blunt-beaked mimicry of words. And instead, they did what two overly-solemn teenagers do during a summer: felt moved when they merely touched. And, when they discovered she was going to have a child, speculated that it was going to be beautiful.
“Is it about money?” I asked my mother. We lay in bed back to back. She didn’t answer immediately but didn’t pretend I had wake ned her.
“Maybe,” she said, and then: “your father knows about Dave, you know. I told him a week ago.”
I wasn’t surprised by this, but felt a hard gallop in my chest, and was suddenly close to tears. Why I wondered. I hadn’t talked to him for months, dreaded the instance that he might speak to me. When I heard the clap of the door at his exit, I’d always felt relief.
“I don’t want you to waste your life trying to figure him out, Eve,” she said when I said nothing.
I didn’t cry. I was sleeping next to my mother who had a rancher boyfriend. Crying would have made it all a mockery.
When the day finally came to move to Dave’s ranch, we tried to make as little noise as possible. Dave didn’t enter the house out of respect for my father and waited with his back leaning against the truck bed. His pose was one of a world-weary cowboy — I thought with an inward sneer. I tried to time each of my emergences from the house to coincide with my mother’s so that I wouldn’t be with him alone, but I’d also wanted to flee, and so worked faster. When I trudged up to the truck with a canvas bag of paperbacks, Dave took it from me with a mock grunt.
“How are you holding up?” he asked.
“Fine, thank you,” I said. “Are these too heavy?”
“What? No. No problem.” He glanced down at one of my book covers. The silhouette of a man and woman locked in a kiss against a dusky sky. I felt my cheeks warm and struggled to think of something else: the acres of grazing fields that I could roam in like a gypsy maid, the bedroom full of white wicker furniture that my mother said Dave had waiting for me. Despite mild nausea at the thought of Dave as our benefactor, I knew I still wanted these things. I was about to return inside when Dave caught my shoulder. His grip hurt, but I saw that he didn’t know it.
“Listen, your mother’s a good woman,” he said. I nodded. And then, wondering if he meant it as chastisement or refrain, I said I knew.
He continued to hold my shoulder and look into my face as if he could find absolute truth there. My mind skidded around what to say next, and I was about to try yanking my shoulder out of his grasp when above us, suddenly, came a harsh crash.
I looked up at my father’s bedroom window and saw an unfamiliar pattern of shadow and light as if the furniture had been rearranged. But I didn’t see him. Through the front door, my mother came trotting out.
“The last box,” she said, hurrying me into the truck. Though I knew it wasn’t.
My father died nine years later when a commuter plane skidded off the runway during landing at Washington Dulles. Out of eighty-four passengers, twenty-three fought their way out of the burning fuselage, their bodies leaping with live fire, and tumbled into the snow-covered flanking field. My father was among them. By the time the ambulances came, the charred matters had settled. He had stopped breathing
The images were insistent, bounding across the Atlantic to my leaky, frigid student flat in Oxford, England. I was in grad school there. I had not kept contact with him all these years. When my mother phoned me, the news was already three weeks old.
On the blank canvas of these gaps, then, I envisioned the flames. The sinews in his quiet body blooming bright like lit fuses, the riot in his cells dynamiting vast, outward. I realized how appropriate this was, the trumping of this single, soaring note over the old, meek enigmas: the hesitation with which he had held my hand at baseball games as if the pose somehow embarrassed him. The humid months we spent in that embattled house, misfiring with the ceasefire. On that last day: h is blood’s swift wilt after it had first tided within him to upend a vase, a dresser, anything, to make a bit of noise, to imprint himself onto the scene. I could not dwell on any of these particulars then. That indelible dripping night in Oxford was well worn, ordinary: my mother, at a crash that shook the rafters of a house, breaking into a jog yet not a run. Her penny-by-penny re-bargaining with fate after the first youthful, swooning fall. Instinct versus instinct. Prodding. Plodding.
Author’s bio: Wei Xiong moved to rural Ohio from urban China at the age of nine. She is currently an online instructor of humanities and an adjunct instructor of English living in, again, rural Ohio. She received her Ph.D. in creative writing from Florida State University in 2013.