To get caught up: Part I
“My family moved around a bit when I was a young girl. It was during the Great Depression. Work was hard to come by. It probably didn’t help matters when the bread winner of the house spent more time in the bars than looking for work,” she let out a deep sigh. “But we come into this world hardwired to love our papas and our mamas and to respect them. It isn’t until we’re older that we realize or even see their imperfections…” she paused and her eyes stared through me.
“Ms. Snellfield?” I asked. Really, all I needed was a few quotes for the paper. I didn’t come looking for any kind of confession to a deep hidden family secret.
“It is time,” she said. “It is time.” And she continued her story.
We moved to Wyoming a year before I turned twelve. Both my parents were from here originally but had moved around to find work. To find a better life. Always in search of something better. My grandma had been instrumental in getting my papa a job in a mine here. I suppose she wanted to keep an eye on her son and his family.
Mama hated coming back though. The high mountain desert makes for tough people. I think mama wanted to be cultured and live the city life. She had many dreams that life took her away from like a boat adrift at sea. She could see the horizon but had no means of getting to where she needed to be. To where she belonged.
Since we had moved around so much, I felt obligated to watch after and take care of my younger brother Thomas. He was only eight but carried the weight of the world on his shoulders. It seemed like he felt things so deeply. More so than I ever did.
The two of us had to be there for each other. Especially when papa would stop at the bar before coming home from work. We would huddle together under the covers when he’d come home and take out his frustrations on mama. I just thought that’s what men did. But Thomas, Thomas knew better. He’d be the one to help mama afterward by cleaning her face and trying to ease her pain. I don’t know why he felt like he needed to pick up the pieces.
Years later, he helped me and picked up my pieces after I married my first husband. A man just like papa.
I remember one day, just after I turned twelve, we visited grandma. She was as tall as she was round but solid. No one ever thought of messing with her. My grandma was well known in the community to be one tough broad. And that’s saying a lot because our community produced many tough people.
Mama sent Thomas and I out to play in the hills behind grandma’s house.
“Thomas,” I said running to our favorite rock, “you be the Indian and I’ll be the cowboy.” I never found any satisfaction in pretending to be a princess or other such nonsense. I always played the hero.
“How come I always have to be the Indian?” Thomas asked catching up with me.
“Because,” I gave my standard answer for any question he asked, “I’m older so I get to be the good guy.”
Unlike other times, Thomas paused. His silence caught my attention and I looked into his eyes. He had the most beautiful eyes next to mama. They were the same shape as mama’s with long eyelashes. This was unfortunate in his view because as papa often reminded him, ‘boys shouldn’t have girly eyes.’ The only difference was mama had light blue eyes and Thomas had dark brown eyes like papa.
“I don’t get it,” Thomas spoke softly. “Why are Indians always the bad guys?”
“Because that’s how it is in the movies,” I said losing patience.
Just then we heard mama calling us.
“See now?” I asked irritated. “Too many questions and no time to play.”
When we got back to the house mama was saying goodbye to grandma.
“It will be okay,” grandma told mama. We didn’t get to see a tender side to grandma too often but both Thomas and I could sense something different about this parting. “Everything will be okay soon enough.”
Mama nodded her head and told Thomas and I to get into the car.
“What do you think they’re talking about?” Thomas asked while we watched them from the car.
I shrugged my shoulders. It was getting hot in the car and I just wished mama would hurry.
Mama walked to the car and climbed in.
“What were you and grandma talking about?” Thomas asked.
“Nothing,” she said and forced a smile. “But I want you to know how much I love you both and a mama’s job is to protect her cubs. And I will do anything to protect mine.” She looked at Thomas directly.
“I’m so hot,” I complained. The moment was missed on me. I took it for granted, a mama’s love. But the moment wasn’t intended for me anyway. I was an intruder on some inside secret between mama and Thomas.
She nodded. “Let’s get home and out of this car then.” And we drove home.
That night mama sent us out of the house before papa came home. I didn’t want to be around when he came home from work anyway. He worked a late shift that day and things were never pleasant at home when he came home from the late shift. I wanted to sleep in a cave behind our neighborhood that night. But Thomas insisted we go home and check on mama. We returned too early.
Trees were almost unheard of in our desert. But the previous owner to our house had taken the time and effort to not only plant a tree but to make sure it thrived. We were the only kids in the neighborhood who had a tree to climb and we often did. It was our spot to hide and wait things out. When we arrived home we climbed our tree and each stretched out on a branch.
“It’s taking longer than usual,” Thomas whispered tensely.
I nodded my head.
“What’s he sayin?” he asked.
“Shh, I can’t hear,” I lied. I could hear the exchange perfectly but didn’t want Thomas to know.
Both of our heads popped up when we heard a slap of leather.
“What is that?” I asked straining to hear.
Thomas nodded his head knowingly. “The belt.”
I looked at him doubtfully. But when his stare caught mine I could see his information wasn’t coming from an unexperienced 8 year old. Instead, it was a voice of knowledge.
“Thomas?” I asked unsure. His eyes lowered to the ground and confirmed my suspicions.
Our attention was drawn next to the back door slamming. We watched as papa stomped off toward town.
As I tucked Thomas into bed moments later, I looked into his brown eyes. I could see a new depth of pain I had never noticed before. I wiped a long strand of hair from his forehead. No eight year old should have to have that much pain behind his eyes, I thought. My eyes shifted to the door and what waited for me in the other room. Neither should a 31 year old.
The next morning was the Fourth of July. Mama was already awake and slowly sipping her coffee at the kitchen table. Although by the looks of her, she probably never had gone to bed. She slowly rocked herself on the kitchen chair and barely seemed to notice us.
“Mama?” Thomas surprised us both.
“Hey there,” she smiled faintly and faced us. I grimaced at the sight of her swollen pink eye. “Listen,” her voice was shaky, “Tara I want you to take Thomas to town today. Your papa will be up soon and will be going into work. He is working a long shift today so he won’t be back until tonight. The fair’s in town, there is plenty to do. You stay in town today, alright?” She pushed two dollars to us and I had to blink my eyes a couple of times. I had never held so much money before. “That’s a gift from your grandma. You two go to town and have a nice day today and don’t come home. I want you to go to your grandma’s house at six, you hear? Do not come home. I will pick you up at from your grandma’s but you have to be there by six.”
I nodded my head and licked my lips. The thought of being responsible for so much money both excited me and made me nervous. I stuffed the money in my pocket. As we were leaving, Thomas ran back to mama and gave her a big hug.
“It will be okay, now,” she said. “Go have fun with your sister today.”
He nodded his head and we walked toward the crowded town streets. A parade was going to kick off the festivities and I wanted to see it.
But that’s the image I see in my mind of mama. Grandma had pictures of her in her wedding dress with her makeup done up and her hair just right, but it’s that image of my mama with dark rings under her eyes, a pink swollen cheek and eye, and looking like she was pushing fifty instead of not even 30, that is how I remember mama.
Thomas and I walked to town and watched the parade. I kept my right hand in my pocket holding onto the money because I didn’t want to lose it. After the parade, we stayed and watched some of the festivities. We ate lunch in a shop and for the first time, we ate until we were both full. That might not have been the best idea as our little stomachs didn’t know what to do with so much food. Thomas started complaining of not feeling well by the early afternoon. But I had promised mama to not return until six.
“Please,” Thomas begged. “I’m not feeling good.”
“Mama said we weren’t to come home until six,” I used my best big sister voice to reprimand him.
He held his stomach. “What time is it?”
I asked a man walking down the sidewalk and found out it was only 4:30. “Too soon,” I told Thomas.
Just then we heard the shrill sound of sirens. I stepped closer to the street to watch the fire truck speed by. There is no reasonable explanation but I suddenly felt an overwhelming sense of dread.
“Please,” Thomas cried.
I thought for a moment. Mama always slightly favored Thomas and rarely even yelled at him. As for me, I usually received the brunt of the discipline from her. Since I was the oldest and the girl, she always expected more from me.
“Tara, please,” Thomas pleaded.
I nodded my head slowly. “Okay,” suddenly I wanted to be home and I didn’t care if I would get a scolding for going home early.
We walked slowly in the hot sun. Thomas limped while holding his side. If I didn’t get in trouble for returning early, I was sure to be in trouble for returning Thomas in such poor condition.
“You’re okay, Thomas,” I tried to reason with him. “Don’t limp.”
He tried to walk straight but would always slouch after a few steps.
The closer we got to home, the more commotion was encountered. When we turned onto our street, we could see the fire truck parked about half way up the hill. It looked like it was right in front of our house. We looked at each other and started running.
There was a crowd of people that had gathered and had tried to help. As we pushed our way through we met the eyes of the volunteers. As soon as they recognized us, they either looked away or nodded their heads. But nobody spoke. They just let us get to the front line.
The fire had been contained but still burned.
“Mama?” Thomas called.
I looked back at the crowd. Surely, she was there. We must have missed her as we walked through all the people. And papa, papa had to be nearby also.
“Papa?” I called. Where were they? Were they helping the firemen?
“Tara?” I heard someone say and I turned around expecting to see papa. It wasn’t him. It was the Police Chief, Mr. Wilson. “Tara and Thomas, I need to speak with you for a moment,” he led us away from the group and took us to a neighbor’s house, Mrs. Smith. She was standing in her kitchen and wiped the tears from her eyes as we entered.
“There you are,” she said. “Chief Wilson said he’d be bringing you over. Why don’t you have a seat and I’ll fix you some tea.” She looked at the Chief and he nodded his head. He slipped back out the door and we each took a seat.
“Now, there’s been an accident,” she explained as calmly as possible. “Your parents,” her voice faltered, “your parents were in the house.” She paused. “They did not make it out.”
I looked at Thomas. He continued to look at Mrs. Smith.
“I’m so sorry, dears. Your parents are gone.”
I didn’t want to hear anymore and decided to run out. There had to be some mistake. We just saw mama that morning. How could this happen?
I ran back to the house and watched the men as they finished putting out the fire. Surely, mama would come out any second now. She had to. I refused to believe she was gone.
She never came out.
I climbed the tree and watched the smoke reach to the sky. My life had just changed. I needed something, anything to hold onto that had not changed. I stretched out on a branch and watched the firemen finish their job and begin to leave. All of them left except for two. Chief Wilson and a younger fireman.
“Sir, I must speak to you,” the younger fireman said to Chief Wilson. “What is it, Doak?” the Chief asked.
“There is something strange about this whole thing, sir,” Doak said.
There was a slight pause and then they shifted their position slightly so that they were out of the way from everyone else. But they moved directly underneath my tree. I knew they didn’t know I was there so I made an effort not to move and listened intently.
“Go on, Doak,” Chief Wilson said.
“We found the bodies and to tell you the truth, I think we’re going the wrong way in this investigation.”
“I’m telling you, he came home early from work and passed out with a lit cigarette,” the Chief’s words caused me to almost fall out of the tree. It was papa’s fault?
“No sir, I think it was started intentionally,” Doak responded.
Intentional? Papa set the house on fire? I don’t know why I was so quick to blame papa but that’s the only thing that made sense. Even to my young mind.
“He didn’t start it,” Doak continued.
Chief Wilson looked at him. “I know him from school. It was him.”
“Consider this,” Doak pressed on, “he appears to have been lying on her feet.”
The Chief listened and nodded his head. “I’m sure he wasn’t helping her up. He was holding her down.”
It was Doak’s turn to nod his head. “Perhaps but…”
“There’s more?” Wilson asked.
“There was some residue of rope around his ankles. It also appears he had been tied up.”
“And we found suitcases in the bedroom on the bed.” Doak waited a minute for his words to sink in. “It’s my professional opinion that she was leaving him. I think she set the fire on purpose and he tried to stop her.”
Wilson paced back and forth and looked around to make sure nobody else had heard. “Did you tell anyone else this, Joe College?”
“No, sir,” Doak responded.
“Then don’t. This information stops right here. This fire was an accident. That is the official ruling.”
“But…”Doak tried to protest.
“You are not from here,” Wilson used his most authoritative voice. “I am. I went to school with both of them. Why she chose to tie her lot with him has always been a mystery. But she did. She was too good for him and didn’t deserve this. I will not let her name be dragged through this town’s mud. This fire was an accident, pure and simple. Case closed.”
Doak didn’t say a word.
“If I catch you saying otherwise, you will be transferred so quickly out of this town and I will make sure you will not set foot in any law enforcement jobs ever again. You may have your connections with the state but it will not help you to find a job in any town. This is how it works in the real world. All your fancy education will be a waste, do you understand me?”
“Yes, sir,” Doak said.
“Good,”Wilson relaxed a little bit. “Now go home, and enjoy your Fourth of July with your family.”
Doak nodded his head and turned and left. To his credit, he never uttered a word about what he had found in the house. The town from that day forward called the fire accidental although most were convinced papa had something to do with it. But nobody blamed mama and she became the town’s saint. A poor victim.
At that moment, I, however, became very angry with mama. This was her fault that much I understood. Even though I loved her and I was loyal enough that I did not tell a single soul what I knew – not even Thomas – I felt a lot of resentment toward her. I carried that with me for many years until I fled in the middle of the night from my first husband. Then I understood. With understanding came the sweet release of forgiveness. I hold no grudge against my mama. She did what she needed to do.
Years later, I took care of grandma as she struggled with making peace before passing on. She slipped in and out of clarity. But most days she seemed to live in the past. One of those times, I listened to her almost incoherent conversation and pieced more of the picture together.
“They’ll be gone, they’ll be gone,” she mumbled.
“Who will be gone, grandma?” I asked while applying a damp washcloth to her forehead. “It’s a perfect plan, he will come home from work and they’ll be gone. “
I let her ramble for a moment.
Suddenly, she sat up in bed. “Luke is a good boy, he’s a good boy.” I stopped what I was doing and listened intently. She was talking about papa again. “He’s such a tender heart, a tender heart.” I had never heard papa described as a ‘tender heart’ before so I thought she was giving in to one of her delusions. “He’s such a tender heart,” her eyes narrowed, “but that monster beat it out of him. He beat it out of him until there was no more tenderness left. We were given two boys. One was his, an exact copy of the monster. The other was mine. Luke was supposed to be mine. I was supposed to protect him but I didn’t. I didn’t.” Grandma and grandpa had two boys. Levi, the oldest, had drifted from town to town causing trouble and usually ended up being run out of each town he entered. Luke, my papa, married mama in high school.
I rinsed the washcloth in a wash basin next to the bed. “Shh, grandma, it’s okay,” I put the washcloth back on her forehead.
She grabbed my hand rather strongly and looked into my eyes. “We must protect the boy. I didn’t protect my Luke. The boy, the boy is just like him. We must protect him.”
She was talking about Thomas.
“I will give you money to get away. When he is at work on the long shift, you pack your suitcases and get ready. Burn that house down. Burn it to the ground so that there is nothing left. Then leave. Leave town with those kids. Protect the boy like I should have protected mine. Let him think you were in the house. I have money saved up. Take that. Take the kids and get a fresh start.”
That was the plan. While papa was at work, burn the house down and slip quietly out of town for a fresh start.
“I let the monster turn my Luke into a monster. I should have stopped him but I didn’t. It’s too late, too late. Protect the boy.” Grandma relaxed a bit and fell asleep.
The next day, I was picking up some dirty linen from the floor when I heard her mumble, “At least, my Luke died trying to be a hero.”
I realized she had no idea what had happened. None of us actually knew the truth but from what I pieced together I think I had the most complete picture. Grandma and mama had come up with some plan to get the three of us out of town. It involved staging an accident that looked like we had died in a house fire.
Mama sent Thomas and I to town so that she could pack. Papa was supposed to be working a long shift in the mine so he should have been out of the house and unreachable until late that night. But grandma didn’t know that he had been sent home early a few times that month due to inappropriate conduct at work. This must have been one of those times. At any rate, he came home early. Perhaps he saw the suitcases being filled. It wouldn’t surprise me if he tore into mama.
Afterward, he probably passed out and mama saw her chance to modify the plan. She tied him up. But he woke up and there was a struggle. If she started the fire or if the fire started because of the struggle that much I don’t know. But both perished in the fire.
Grandma must have thought the fire had already started when papa returned home. In her mind, or at least what she had convinced herself of to get some peace, he ran in to rescue us and instead, he and mama died. I don’t know if she actually believed it or if she just needed to so that she could distance herself from the part she played in the matter.
Grandma died with a smile on her lips thinking she was going to be reunited with her hero son. A smile on her lips but a fear in her eyes because of the reckoning that was coming due. We lived with grandma and in relative peace for four years. But four years to the day we had become orphans all that changed when the monster came home.