Wind, Leather, Time, Pigs
The day Jamie Lynn tried out for the high school football team, the grass was beginning to brown in the late August sun, the sky hung like lead over the town, and a great tornado, blown by winds out of the east, swept in and carried off the entire marching band. When they were discovered the next day two counties over, they were alive but shaken. It was noted, however, that the percussionists from that day forward had lost their ability to keep time.
The town of Nappanee weathered this storm as it had all previous natural disasters, by stoically rebuilding fences, providing for those in need, and grumbling quietly amongst themselves about the encroachment of the Amish. It was widely agreed that these acts of God were sure to decrease if only their electricity- and zipper-shunning neighbors would have the good sense to join the 21st century.
Jamie had very little time for such bickerings. In the three months leading up to tryouts, she had spent every afternoon in the high school weight room lifting. Every other day she lifted arms, and every otherday she lifted legs. She found a certain solace in the sticky black seats that sucked at the back of her thighs every time she stood up, the animal smell of sweat, the anticipation of bodies that had gone before her and were waiting to take her place after she left.
Gloria, Jamie’s mother, thought that Jamie was possessed by devils. No other girls that Gloria knew had such perverse predilections. So every day after lifting, Jamie walked the three blocks down Main Street past the Brother’s in Christ Church, past the First Church of Christ, past the pit bull that jumped and barked, past the owl carved out of a tree stump to the Missionary Church, a great mall of a building, for her exorcism sessions. In the basement of the church, under the four floors of glass and chrome, under the three sanctuaries with their state-of-the-art projection systems, under the piles of red velvet carpets, her personal shepherd waited to save her from her demons. Her personal shepherd’s name was Pastor Dave.
“How are you today?” Pastor Dave asked the day before football tryouts.
“Fine,” Jamie Lynn said as she did every day.
“Hearing voices?” Pastor Dave asked. “Speaking in tongues? Have you forgotten anything?”
Jamie wanted to say that of course she had forgotten things. The day before she had forgotten the number of stairs up to the second floor of their house and had stubbed her toe. Only last week she had forgotten to avoid the worms that popped out onto the sidewalk after rainstorms spelling “I, I, I” with their fat pink bodies. She had squashed four of them before she noticed.
The problem, Jamie wanted to say, wasn’t forgetting things. It was the not forgetting things. She couldn’t forget the sound of her father’s feet on the floorboards down in the kitchen, or the way he hummed, or the way he got her mother to laugh, a peal of bells dropped out of a window, at unexpected moments. She wished she could forget these things as they served only to fill her head with soft tickings and rustlings that she could neither ignore nor understand.
“No,” Jamie said.
“Good.” Pastor Dave leaned back in his stiff-backed rocking chair and stared evenly at the pale slight girl with oddly defined arm muscles in front of him. He was a straight-forward and rational man who didn’t find anything particularly disturbing about this girl except for her tendency not to blink. He looked around the room to avoid her dark eyes and allowed his gaze to rest on the only ornamentation present: a portrait of Christ holding a lamb. It was a fairly vapid lamb except that it had the bad habit of weeping blood at inopportune moments, whenever it saw a time piece or paintings by the Dutch Masters. When he first moved into the office, Pastor Dave had spent many an afternoon wiping up the blood with paper towels and bleach. He had finally solved the problem by placing a mirror opposite the painting; the lamb had presently ceased its crying, but still a dark brown stain could be seen running from the portrait, down the wall, and to the floor.
“Shall we pray?” Pastor Dave suggested.
“Sure,” Jamie said. And she prayed that she would make the football team.
At home in the sweltering August heat, in the kitchen of yellow laminated wood, Gloria, Jamie’s mother, stood cooking macaroni and cheese. Gloria had been brought up on the heat of the Bible and the heat of casseroles, and she would be damned before she let something as trivial as the season keep her from her traditions. She was a pale woman, with wisping gray hair flying away at the temples, and a face run through with wrinkles. She had been born jaundiced, and so was set out in the sun, greased with butter and surrounded by reflective baking pans in order to recover her coloration. She had been left out too long, though, and had faded due to over-exposure. Now she stood at the stove; nothing more than a worn piece of string wrapped around a finger to ward off forgetfulness.
When Gloria had learned of her only daughter’s interest in football, she had locked Jamie in her room and sat outside reading the Old Testament straight through, pausing only for bread, water, and a plate of anchovies which she graciously divided and shared with Jamie. Gloria struck upon the compromise of exercising and exorcising when she came to the part about King Solomon.
Jamie walked in through the open front door, the door that hadn’t been closed since her father, Elias, had died in the act of opening it a year earlier. In the kitchen, Jamie could hear her mother stirring, metal spoon clinking against metal pot.
“Hi, Mom,” Jamie called.
“Hi, honey,” Gloria called from the kitchen. She set the spoon down on the waiting plate.
“I’m going to my room,” Jamie said and headed for the stairs.
“Okay,” Gloria said and picked the spoon back up. She continued stirring and stirring in the cloud of steam, a bead of sweat running down the side of her face. The macaroni boiled quietly, little elbows bending and unbending.
Upstairs in her room, Jamie did her best to count back from five thousand to zero. She heard her mother humming tunelessly downstairs and lost count. It sounded too much like her father.
Elias, Jamie’s father, had always smelled of books. There was always ink under his nails and in the tread of his hand. For thirty-five years until the day he died at fifty-seven, Elias had run the only printing shop in the town of Nappanee. It used a printing press, old ink and typeset, in the interest of serving both Amish and non-Amish communities alike.
Every morning of his marriage, Elias woke up with cold feet, as every night Gloria had the habit of pulling the blankets around. Elias found the sight of his wife breathing heavily in her cocoon of blankets to be so endearing, that he never told her and simply spent the rest of his life buying and steadily losing thick pairs of woolen socks.
At twenty-two, Elias, a quietly ambitious man, had known exactly what he would do with his life. He had applied to art schools across the country from Ann Arbor to Bloomington and everywhere in between. Armed with a portfolio of hands, feet, and torsos drawn from the willing corpses at the town morgue, Elias had been waiting at the bus stop for his first interview when a gust of wind from out of the east whirled in and without a fuss lifted off all his drawings. Crestfallen, Elias returned to his home and never drew again.
It came to be, though, that his drawings made it out even if Elias never did. The wind carried the sketches from Nappanee across the border to Champaign, Illinois where they were deposited on the desk of the studio art professor. The professor was so impressed by the haunting desperation of the drawings that he spent the next nineteen years tracking down the artist. When the professor finally arrived in Nappanee in early spring when the grass was just beginning to push its way through the dry thatch of winter, it was too late. Elias had already married and was expecting his first child. Art was no longer in the picture except for the small everyday sort found in printing.
Not long after her father’s death, Jamie had uncovered an old football that had belonged to him. It had small black marks near the laces where his ink-stained hands had held it. Jamie tromped outside, cradling the football against her chest, looking out across the cornfields to the woodlands on the outskirts of town. She thought about her father taking her out into the woods, her mother accompanying them. She remembered her father pointing out an empty wasp’s nest, where it hung lumpy and gray from the branch like a piece of forgotten laundry. Standing in the yard, Jamie felt the weight of the memory curling heavy in her chest and hated it. Without thinking she brought the football back past her cheek and threw it with all her might over the neighbor’s fence. The ball had rocketed away and connected with the neighbor’s Border collie. The dog died on impact.
At 7:30 Jamie went downstairs to eat dinner with Gloria. They sat across from one another at the yellow wooden table eating the macaroni and cheese.
“How was school today?” Gloria asked.
“Did you talk to Pastor Dave?”
“Yes,” Jamie said.
“What did he say?”
“He said I need to want to be saved.”
“Do you want to be saved?”
“Everyone wants to be saved.”
“Good,” Gloria said and nodded approvingly.
Jamie kicked her feet against the floor boards. They were so thin that she could hear the echo from the basement underneath.
“Tryouts are tomorrow,” Jamie said.
“I’m going to try out for quarterback.”
“Mhm,” Gloria said and didn’t look up.
Jamie wished at that moment that her mother had died and her father had lived. She knew this must make her a bad daughter, but she reasoned that most people turned out to be bad at some point in their lives.
Gloria, for instance, had proven to be a bad daughter in her time. She had married the town printer instead of a nice young man from seminary. When she first walked into the print shop all those years ago to place an order of pamphlets for the Missionary Church, she had been impressed by the stocky young man behind the counter with a bright red face and ears that stuck out at almost right angles. For his part, Elias had never seen a more perfect and faded woman. She seemed to him like a blank page before the first impress of ink. Enslaved by love he printed her an entire book of poetry. The poems were terrible, stilted and overly precise, tendencies left over from his days of sketching, but to Gloria, familiar only with the Bible, the poems were shockingly personal.
On the day he died, Gloria locked herself in her room and re-read the entire book of poems, weeping. She cried so much that her tears caught some of the pages and wiped them clean, and in this way many of the poems were lost.
At 8:15 Jamie excused herself from the table and made her way back up the stairs past the open front door. When she slept, she dreamt of a thousand pigs running over a cliff and diving into the waiting sea below. They dove with perfect form. Not a single splash.
The next morning dawned in a sweat. The grasshoppers clung to the ground too wearied to spring. The red-wing blackbirds fluttered wings in lazy circles attempting to beat off the oppressive heat.
Jamie awoke and put on her jeans and least favorite t-shirt. If she was going to fail she wanted something to blame. She walked out the open front door without saying anything to her mother who was stirring oatmeal in the kitchen. Tiny oats bending and unbending. Gloria hummed softly to herself and fanned away idle thoughts.
On the morning he died, Elias had felt no premonitions. Not a single tremor. He simply woke up, removed his woolen socks, walked down the stairs past the closed front door and to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee. After the first sip he realized how stuffy the house had become. He made his way to the front door and placed his hand on the doorknob.
Outside the wind was waiting. It was the same wind that had snatched away Elias’ dreams of being an artist twenty-two years earlier. Now, it had traveled to the Pacific and back and was heavy with the weight of accumulated time. The wasted minutes at a stoplight in Flagstaff, the hours of missed flights in Denver International Airport, the moments when someone walked into the room and temporarily forgot what they were doing in Decatur. All these the wind had gathered and now it had grown bloated, swollen, and powerful. It waited, poised outside the front door.
Elias turned the knob and in rushed the wind. It swept through him and into the kitchen. As it passed through his body he felt every second, minute, moment of the time, and his heart, overwhelmed, beat one final panicked beat before stopping altogether. With a roar the wind passed on and away back towards the Atlantic. Jamie had found her father lying across the front door mat, a look of bewilderment on his face. His last thoughts had been of his wife, who, after all those years, still reminded him of a blank page.
At school, Jamie waited for classes to end. When the last bell finally rang, she made her way to the football stadium. The clouds above aggregated into rows, thick and gray, mirroring the cornfields below.
“What are you doing?” the head coach asked when he saw her approaching.
“Trying out,” Jamie said.
The head coach scratched his left ear meditatively. The head coach was the only Catholic in town and therefore a lifelong outsider. He appraised the slight young girl before him. He noted her visible muscles, her athlete’s stance, and above all her fierce almost disconcerting gaze. She reminded him of nothing so much as a gazelle charging a pack of lions. At last he shrugged. Who was he, he thought, to deny a miracle?
“Sign-up sheets are over there,” he said.
Wrappers and chaff raced each other across the field, driven by the slowly rising gale. In the east the wind, sensing its prey, began its approach on slowly padding paws.
Jamie dragged the pen across the sign-up sheet, watching it dip and dodge, leaving its trail of ink spattered out behind it. She heard slight snickering. When she turned she was confronted by a gaggle of teenage boys in various states of pubescence.
“What are you doing?” Jeremy Stones asked.
Jamie didn’t say anything. She made her way to the line forming for quarterbacks. Above, the clouds began to take on a sickly yellow color.
At home, Gloria heard the open front door swinging crazily on its hinges as the wind began to gain speed. She moved to the hallway to see what was the matter.
“You’re a girl,” Jeremy Stones continued, “You don’t belong here.” He moved to follow Jamie but was stopped by the head coach.
“Receivers over there,” the head coach said and Jeremy stalked away. “Can you throw the ball?” the head coach asked.
“Show us.” He handed her a football.
Jamie took it and felt the comforting grip, the rough leather pressing against her skin.
The clouds began to rotate in a clockwise fashion above. The head coach looked up, but some unspeakable inertia kept him from saying or doing anything.
Jamie pulled the ball back to her ear, her newly formed muscles tightening and pulling, wires held taut.
In his office, Pastor Dave looked up to the sound of glass shattering. He saw in the jagged reflection of the now broken mirror that the lamb had begun crying once more.
“Go ahead,” the head coach said. Down the field Jeremy Stones whistled softly, a long low tone.
Jamie inhaled. The wind from the east sensed its time was at hand and coiled up in anticipation. Jamie exhaled into complete silence. Now, she thought. And the electric impulse raced from her brain down her arm muscles to send the ball rocketing through the air. It was stopped before the ball could be released as with a scream the wind pounced. A funnel of cloud, dust and debris descended from the sky to surround Jamie.
She stood quite still in the center, cut off by a wall of husks, dirt, leaves, and the sweet smell of decay. The wind had grown strong in the year since it had killed Elias. Now it had traveled to the Atlantic, swallowing up the months of an anxious and ill-fated love affair in Cambridge, the decades of a retired racehorse trotting around in its paddock in Lexington, the centuries of an old oak grown dusty and forgotten, too old to die, too tired to live in Columbus. Jamie felt it all, the weight, the sheer utter chaos of it. It overwhelmed her until her head drooped, her knees sagged. The energy that had kept her upright and moving drained slowly out into the ground. Her hand fell and she cradled the ball to her chest.
At home, Gloria sank to the floor as the front door ripped off its hinges and flew over the house across the street. She heard over the sound of the wind, her husband’s voice reciting the poems that only the year before her tears had erased.
On the field, Jamie, head pressed down by the wind, noticed for the first time the faint sign of fingerprints on the football, little black marks, inky remembrances. She pressed her hands to the ball, taking comfort in it, a hand holding hers. She felt again the impress of memories on her heart, still heavy, but now suddenly full of air.
Jamie stood then, pressing against the force of the wind, calling on every ounce of strength she had. She brought the ball back up to her head and then past her ear. The wind sensing a shift in balance howled angrily and fought back. Jamie shook her head once. She inhaled. She exhaled. She threw the football rocketing down the field, past Jeremy Stones, past the head coach who, in a movement that would earn him censure, crossed himself, past the chain link fence and straight into the midst of the practicing marching band. The tornado, pulled by the force of the throw, followed its trajectory, and roared down the field towards the marching band. Then, in a clash of cymbals and woodwinds, as quickly as it had appeared, the tornado disappeared out over the cornfields and the desolate August horizon taking the band with it.
That night Jamie and Gloria ate dinner across from one another at the yellow wooden table.
“How was school?” Gloria asked.
“Fine,” Jamie said. “I made the football team.”
“Huh,” Gloria said and looked at her daughter carefully.
Somewhere two counties over the marching band was slowly coming to, alive and forever out of time.