Photo from private collection of Roy M. York
Carl stood with his back to the wagon, raising his voice over the wind as he called to the house; a ramshackle building leaning slightly in the hazy Oklahoma sun. “Are you a comin’ or not?” He tried again and realized it was no use. The wind was carrying his words away, just as they had carried his hopes away soon after they moved here.
The door jerked opened and Marie stood there, hair straight and stringy, face haggard and drawn, belying her 41 years. She stared at him intently, eyes piercing, her weathered face streaked with tears. “I thought you mighta left without saying goodbye.” Her voice just a little more than a whisper, she started to cough, and she strained to control it. “I thought you was a goin’. There ain’t no need in draggin’ this out. You done made up your mind hasn’t you?”
“We talked about this Marie. We talked about this until we got blue in the face. For the life of me I cain’t see what’s holdin’ you here, You ain’t never give me a good reason for why you want to stay.”
“Carl James, if’n you kin find it in your heart to sit down and listen to me, instead of all the time tellin’ me what I gotta do, you might jist find out.” She coughed weakly again.
Carl pulled his hat off his head, the top of his forehead white, meeting the raw, sun beaten skin below his hat line. He put the reins of the horse on the wagon seat and started walking back to the house. “All right Marie, I promise you I’ll have a cup of coffee and I won’t say a word. I’ll sit and listen, but this time you gotta give me a better reason than saying you just wanna stay.”
Carl sat down at the table and Marie brought him a cup of black coffee and poured one for herself. She pulled her hands through her hair, gathering it in the back and tied it into a bun. Wisps of hair hung down on the side of her face. For a brief moment, Carl saw the young woman he brought here over 20 years ago. She was still there sometimes. He could see it at night, when the moon was bright; while she lay sleeping, the worry lines and wrinkles had smoothed out and reclaimed the youthful beauty that still lay under all that pain.
“Carl, I love you more than life itself, and that’s the truth. You worked hard and done your best to make this house a home and a place where we could raise our children. There ain’t no tellin’ why God chose us to be here, and there ain’t no accountin’ for why Oklahoma has been gittin’ blowed away since the day we got here.
“I remember how strong and handsome you was, and how long you worked through all them hot days to git a room built we could sleep in. She smiled briefly, remembering a sudden happy thought. “And I remember them nights in the back of that buckboard when you and I would love each more than I thought possible.
“Then the dust came. I’ll never forget that first cloud of dust that swallowed us up. You was lucky to make it back to the cabin. And all these years of dust, relentless dust, fillin’ our house and killin’ our crops. Yet, we hung on. Eight children I gave you. Each one of them holdin’ the promise of fillin’ our dreams, not one of them makin’ it past the third year. All eight of them nothin’ more than little piles of dust, lyin’ buried out back. Those are the eight reasons I ain’t leavin’ the only place I call home.”
She reached across the table and took his hand. “I want to be buried out there, next to my children, and you jist cain’t take me away from that.” She coughed again and took a sip of coffee.
Carl looked into those eyes he fell in love with, now darkened with illness, and knew he was beaten. “Okay, Marie, I know when I’m whupped. I’ll put the wagon away.”
Marie’s frail body lost it’s valiant fight in late spring. Carl pounded the cross into the mound of dirt, stood up and removed his hat. He looked down at her grave, with his hat in his hands. “I kept my promise, Marie. I finally understand why you didn’t want to leave your children behind.” He placed a tenth cross in front of the grave next to hers, empty, except for the dust that had already begun finding corners to fill.
Written in a childlike scrawl, his note lay under a cup of coffee, telling where to put his body. The shot echoed through the dark Oklahoma night above the sound of the howling wind driving that damned, prevailing, ever present dust.
If I was a better writer, I’d probably be able to give some sort of constructive criticism. I’m not a fan of westerns, though this seems to have taken place during the Dust Bowl so that’s a little later. Well written and clear, this was a sad tale and I sympathized with Marie well enough. The phonetic dialogue sounded believable and managed to not trip me up nor slow me down. Good work over all.
Thank you Jason, I believe in real dialogue, and I was honestly standing next to Carl and Marie as they said those words. That’s the way I write.
Kelly Wise says
That’s a beautiful story, love the writing. As reader, I can put myself right in the middle of that conversation, in that relationship, and feel it crucial to say the least. His feelings of having no other choice after she dies reverberates, his last chance at saving himself were sacrificed in staying…the difficulty in knowing the right thing to do at any given juncture, so human. Great job!
Thank you, Kelly. It was a flash fiction piece for another forum and I fleshed it out a little. The picture with it is my Grandmother and Grandfather about the ages of the people in the story and they actually lived a few miles away from the story site in southern Kansas, where my father was born in 1920. It’s all fiction, but, as all fiction is, based on fact.