Reproduced from Glory Days by Melissa Fraterrigo by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. Copyright 2017 by the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska.
No one sees her slip out back wearing one of her daddy’s shirts as a nightgown. They think Luann’s in bed even though there’s much to do. She pulls the wagon best she can and her doll Tracey sits inside it. Luann maneuvers around a busted footstool, a plastic milk crate, and other things spit from the sky three days past. Tracey refuses to sit upright. She doesn’t want to be here and keeps toppling over inside the wagon. The air is full of smoke, rot.
Luann finds a bodiless Barbie face down in newspaper, yellow hair neon in the fading light. She tries to hide it from Tracey but it’s no use. The doll begins to tremble and demands that they return home. Luann picks her up, looks into her fear-globed plastic eyes, and pats her hard shoulder. It won’t happen again, Luann says, uses a soothing voice. Repeats what her daddy has said: A storm like this only happens once a lifetime.
A tree fell on the train crossing and now the bell rings constant, three days since the tornado struck. There are piles of boards and the fence has collapsed, countless trees uprooted. Bump bump, Luann stops the wagon. There are dented cans of pineapple from Welmann’s, a busted birdcage, a tan armchair with its price tag still affixed. Nothing they could afford but now it’s theirs. All of it. Anything Luann wants is for the taking.
Daylight has given way to that plumy color. Things underfoot snap and crackle. Tracey, never fond of the dark, pleads for them to turn back. We aren’t supposed to be here, she says.
But Luann has noticed a furrow in the river grass, cardboard heaped in a sudden clearing. She sees a twisted hand. Thinks she hears a voice. Bends down, lifts the cardboard and that first look of him sucks her breath away. His mouth is stuffed with grass and his blue face is lifeless and still. Tracey buries her face in Luann’s shoulder, begins to howl.
Let’s go back, Tracey pleads through her unmoving mouth.
Be quiet, Luann says. And then the boy speaks. It’s okay, he says, coughs his words out like pebbles. Don’t need to be afraid.
Leave him, Tracey says. There’ll be trouble.
Hush now. Quiet. Luann repositions Tracey, pivots the doll’s legs on her hip. Give me think, Luann says and knows these are her mama’s words. Rubs her lips so they’ll stop. She doesn’t want to consider her mama now.
Help me, says the boy.
Tracey’s the one who is confused, and the doll speaks up. But he’s dead, she says. This boy is dead.
Moments before the tornado struck, the cows grazed in pasture. The horses were in the barn. Her daddy put halters on them and then opened their stalls and all the interior gates. He would have remained in the barn if Grandma had let him.
Luann, her grandma, and Daddy huddled in the root cellar just off the basement and listened to it roll down and hit. Screams pierced the ground, toppling everything. Luann’s breath uneven, jittery. Jellied beets shivered in their jars. The cows lowed steady, and her daddy’s face was stony. His hands broke open and shut. She knew if it were up to him he’d lead as many of them as he could into the basement. But it’s Grandma’s house and Grandma’s rules, and no matter how often he spoke of them getting their own place again, Luann knows now that will never happen.
It was not just the tops of houses but cars and trees, tractors, combines. It snatched up Red Arrow Bridge, its pieces scattered like toothpicks on Route 26. Even after it stopped, all that whupping rushed on. While her grandma cried, Luann waited for the cellar roof to crash, bury them. She never saw her grandma cry, and now she isn’t sure she’ll ever stop.
All day her daddy heaved loosened boards into a pile and then started a great fire in the pasture. Mr. Sparkman and a few other men came over a day after the tornado. They tied bandanas over their mouths and dragged the cows and horses, the ones that didn’t make it, into one fly-swarmed heap. They found one of the horses ten feet up in a sycamore. Took two of them more than half an hour to get it down. Now the fire burns and snaps, black smoke rises. The stench bites her nostrils. She’s supposed to stay away.
Stuff that’s never had a smell, like her great-grandmother’s Windsor chair, stinks. The dresser from her daddy’s room on the second floor is without drawers and backside up on the front yard. The mattress from Luann’s own bed is lodged in the window frame, bent like a hook. Walter Sparkman said they were lucky, said nearly twenty people died in Pruewood, where it first touched down. Ingleside was already flat, he said. Tornado just furthered that.
Church people brought food, blankets. Daddy didn’t want to take it but Grandma said they had no choice. Don’t be stupid, she said, pulling on a donated Mickey Mouse sweatshirt despite the heat. Luann stood there, listened to them, traced the kitchen table with two fingers. Someone gave them a tent and blankets and her grandma set it up in the living room on top of the rug. She refused to go outside. Darkness puddled her eyes. She cried and cried and said they were forsaken.
Crying won’t help, Daddy said. We need to focus on rebuilding, cleaning up.
Grandma threw back her head, spoke the most words she’d said in days—You’re crazy, Teensy. Bulldoze the whole thing. If you don’t, I will.
Her grandma’s been sad forever. She hates Ingleside despite being here so many years. Waited until Teensy went outside before speaking again, this time to Luann. What do you care? she said, jutting with her chin. This isn’t your house. You don’t like it you go back to your own.
She waved her hand manically, that old person smell wafting off her as she shuffled to a cabinet of broken dishes, began to wipe the inside door with a rag. Winter grass pushed flat. Cornstalks tilled to the ground. Rotting smell. Train crossing bell in the distance.
Luann doesn’t favor either of them right now, which is why she and Tracey snuck out to this land chalked with things. A hairbrush, books from the public library, a boy’s bike curled up like a potato chip. Here’s a desk miles from school. Everything suddenly spilled out on Grandma’s property. It’s like the whole world has been shaken and turned upside down. The handle on the wagon Luann pulls is crooked, but the wheels move just fine. Smoke rises and the burning stench masks air.
He’s not right, Tracey says about the boy. Maybe he’s even diseased. And Luann, who has had things gathering in her for days says, Enough! Takes Tracey with both hands and sets her firm in the wagon. Get me out of here, Tracey screams, pounds her feet.
I am the big person, Luann announces. You’ll do what I say or I’ll throw you away like all this other junk.
Tracey quiets and Luann leaves her, lifts the boy from his cluttered grave. She cradles him like a baby, although he says he’s not. His legs dangle over her arm, much heavier than he looks. She clears the grass from his mouth and carries him to the river, stumbles beneath his weight. The water beats white and restless, churns with torn branches and garbage. A lawn chair does cartwheels farther downstream. Luann cups water and lifts it to his lips. Go on, she says. Drink. His hair fritters in the breeze, caught in the smell of ruin; she combs his hair with her fingers, soft and fine as rain. Something scurries across her foot.
I need to get home, he says, and his words seem to tilt, slant sideways. She holds him steady, and while she does so, he speaks. He tells her how the wind gushed in the apartment, blew the door off the pantry where they crouched, and snatched him from his mother’s arms. A dizzy gray radiance ripped off his clothes, and he saw a car lifted hundreds of feet in the air. Glass and heavy moving things battered his body. There was the pop of power lines and the slit of his rump cupped air. He tasted damp wool and old milk, whimpered hot and cold all at once; he heard screaming in the wind, everything swirled, grew thick. He tried to find his mother but he felt only jagged things suspended. His bones buckled, cardboard draped him, and then everything became black.
Luann feels his tears only they live deep, deeper than the space on his face, the eyes that remain open, glazed. It’s over now, Luann whispers. How rough he’s been worked. She pets his hair real nice. Water rushes past. She tells him to cry all he wants, wobbles as she rocks him. In the wagon Tracey waves her fist in the air. She pounds her feet on the hollow wood, yells for Luann to pick her up right this minute, to take her home goddamnit! And then she says what Luann already knows: the boy has begun to smell unkind.
Still, Luann swings him in her arms. Daubs his face clean with the hem of her daddy’s shirt. She knows it does her no good to think of her own mama, the one in the ground, so Luann considers the one who birthed her, the one she knows nothing about. If Luann missed her hard enough, she wonders, might she return to claim her? She thinks of this as she rocks the boy. His loneliness, his stillness. Does anyone even know she’s here?
I’m not going anywhere, she promises. He cries, and she holds him as the moon brightens up high. Smoke scrolls the distance, her daddy’s work. And this, this holding on, hers.