Sunday, August 8, 2010

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In the years that the fence stood between the yards, Dad grew lean, and frail, cheekbones high like hills, leaving his face with valleys and dry riverbeds. The handsaw sound of him nervously grinding his yellow front teeth drifted over the fence. During the few times I saw him that year, it was hard not to notice how short and flat his smile was, and when he opened his mouth the tips of his teeth had rings like tree stumps. Sometimes he coughed deep and raspy like rolling gravel, leaning his body against the fence, creaking the panels, as moist air and mucus burst from his lungs. His hunched over shadow looked helpless through the cracks in the fence, and once the cough subsided he sucked in air, his lugs sounding like wet grocery sacks.

Mom must have noticed the decay of his body, how could she not? She drove past Clarks Corner Mart and could see his slender frame slogging in to get a Pepsi and a Milky Way. Despite the fence, she could see him driving in and out of the shop, and hear him groan, cough, and scrape his boots in the gravel. Most of his words were muffled through the slats, but phrases like “Ah hell,” and “Son of a bitch,” were easily discernible because he used them so often.

She assumed she would feel vindication and satisfaction over the fact that in her absence Dad’s body had gone to shit, but she didn’t. The anger and remorse over his adultery, and the way he went behind her back to sleep with Penny, that other woman, still stung. After he left, her nightly prayers went from one minute to several. She mumbled into her bed sheets as she knelt on the carpet, right fist drawn into the left, back arched and trembling with loss and longing. I assumed she asked the Lord for Dad to become beaten and weary and for her to be able to bear witness to how wretched he had become without her.

Women from our Mormon congregation sat in our living room wearing ankle lengthened dresses wile cradling cups of ice water and telling Mom of seeing Dad’s slender hand wrapped around Penny’s, his stride staggered, smile lazy, as he shopped for Wranglers, or stood in line at Park Pharmacy. They said Penny was unattractive and Dad looked horrid; that their clothing was wrinkled and cheap. “It’s a trial.” They told her. “You’re being wrought in the Lord’s forge, but soon enough you’ll be as strong as iron.” People assumed that by telling Mom of his decay they were helping her to feel better about him leaving. By losing Dad she had cut away the dead wood they said.

And for the first few months of the divorce, I think Mom believed that she was better off without him, and it was all just a test. Sometimes she sat cross-legged in the living room gazing at the empty fireplace and wondering if it was her that had drove him to his decay. Perhaps if she had not been so demanding he would have not become this frail man. Despite his appearance and the stories of his decay told to her by the ladies from church, she could not help but wonder if he was happier without her? Or more successful? Or perhaps experiencing a greater love than he felt with her? And I think she hated these moments of remorse, because it was then that she still loved him.