What Do Ducks Do in Winter?
by Lewis B. Horne

South Robinson Street


[103] When my father was fifteen, his mother was widowed. On the day of the funeral, he had too high a fever and too sore a throat to attend. From the small farmhouse, he listened to the cars drive over the wooden bridge of the irrigation ditch. The farmland had already been sold, the pasture, the cows, the cotton field. Now his mother felt forced to sell the house with the screened-in veranda where he lay.

Aunt Mae, his mother’s sister, had placed a pitcher of water beside his bed, wrapping it in a damp cloth to keep it cool. She lay another wet cloth over his forehead while Uncle Wyler cranked the Ford.

His mother groaned her anguish at leaving him by himself. She touched his cheek with the back of her fingers. “Boyd, Boyd,” she said with a tattered and worried smile on her pale face. “My curly-haired boy. Just burning away.”

“I’ll be okay, Mom.”

“He’ll be fine, Gen,” said Aunt Mae.

They’d planned for his cousin, Stanford, to stay with him, but at the last minute he was needed for driving.

As the sound of Uncle Wyler’s car tapered off, my father settled himself to being alone. He listened for any stirring of air in the [104] cottonwood trees next to the ditch. He listened for sounds from the empty corral. He thought this must feel like being marooned. But he didn’t mind. Now if his eyes teared at the pain of swallowing, he wouldn’t have to see his mother’s worry, his Aunt Mae’s childlike round eyes water. He could groan his misery. He kicked the sheet to the floor. For coolness, he rearranged the towel on his forehead. He tried to think of what it meant to have no father. Some of it was easy. There would be no one to help dress, no one to push in the wheelchair to the outhouse. His mother could sell both wheelchairs, the one for the house and the one for out-of-doors. He and his mother were penniless. What she might get for the house would barely pay the back taxes, according to Uncle Wyler. But they’d always been poor, it seemed. Cotton prices went down after the war, after the Armistice. Then three years ago his father had his stroke, so they couldn’t manage the milk cows any longer.

What was not easy was to know how he felt. What did he fear? He knew that he was afraid not to have a father. He felt he might have been living in a bubble. He had been waiting since last Tuesday for whatever it was that was going to reach him inside there, the thing he might be afraid of. Last Tuesday afternoon Dr. Rogers and his mother came from the bedroom into the kitchen where he and his brother Frankie sat, and he knew without their saying so that his father was at last in another world. His soul had left his body. That was good for his father, but he still did not know what it meant for him, only that the dimensions of his life were altered.

His mother had already cleaned the bedroom. She had already folded his father’s clothes to give away. She had been boxing his diaries, his seashells from Samoa where he was a Mormon missionary. If being alone was like being marooned, then everywhere he looked from that island—he thought of palm trees, of a sandy beach, of a bay that opened onto the ocean—was the blankness he was trying to map out. Like when his father in Samoa would wonder when the next ship was coming and what mail from home, if any, it might bring.

[105] When they found a place and moved to town, he would work in his uncle’s service station. Maybe there was nothing at all out there in the openness. Maybe when your father died, not that much changed. Maybe you just went on with what you did every day. Frankie would go back to California where he worked as an electrician for the telephone company. And you waited.

Except, my father told us, there wasn’t anything to wait for. He just went on. Shortly after Frankie left, he and his mother packed up, scrubbed the house, and, with the help of Uncle Wyler and some of his other uncles and cousins, moved into the house on South Robinson Street.


Not once in the five years since they moved to South Robinson Street had Gen been back to the farm and house that had once been hers. She didn’t avoid the place, but she didn’t miss it. Her house sat two blocks south of Main on Robinson, almost midway between the Valley National Bank in the center of town and the railroad station.

South Robinson was a good location for Boyd, too. The high school was a block away. He’d decided to finish his last two years. He’d tried twice before, but October would scarcely begin before he told her he’d found something new—a job somewhere, stringing power lines across the desert, loading or unloading in one of the lettuce fields, working in the packing shed. This time the school had given him a job driving a school bus.

She was cleaning a chicken at her kitchen sink and keeping her eye out for Mrs. Treat. Soon, her neighbor would cross the weedy lot between their two houses. She’d have seen Gen come home from the Safeway, one hand pulling her wagon with its two bags of groceries, a children’s wagon it was, the other hand holding an umbrella against the sun. Even in November her pale skin would burn.

[106] Ah, there she was, stepping off the small screened porch, a tall, thin lady.

“Come in, come in,” she called through the screen door.

Mrs. Treat lost her husband after only ten years of marriage, long before Gen knew her. She had no children.

“Ours is the widow’s side,” said Mrs. Treat, when she first met Gen. But Mrs. Jack across the way had a sick husband. And then Mr. Hofstetter collapsed in his back yard in front of his wife and two visiting grandchildren. He was dead before the boy could get to a doctor.

Gen rinsed the gizzard of the chicken under the water, rubbing its parts together till it was clean, waiting for what she knew Mrs. Treat came to say.

“You were later than usual going for groceries,” said Mrs. Treat. “I’d just put Rio out.” Rio was her parrot. She frequently hung his cage on her front porch during the day. Noisy creature with its raucous cries. “I hope that chicken’s for you and Boyd.”

“Me and Boyd and whoever.”

“I hope sometime,” said Mrs. Treat, “you’ll listen to me. My warning was right before. I hope you don’t wait too long this time.”

“It’s been over two years now since that happened.”

“And you took it as a warning. Sleeping out on your porch. I know it’s hot, but—”

“We used to sleep outside on the farm.”

“But this is town. And all these men around—”

“I don’t sleep outside anymore.”

Not now—not after she woke behind the honeysuckle vines on her front porch to see a whiskery face not six inches from her own. The man apologized for frightening her. Which was fine. He smiled and showed missing teeth. Which was no surprise. But he had no business being that close, the sun barely into the sky. He could have cleared his throat. After that, she started sleeping inside behind locked doors in spite of the summer temperature.

“Those men,” said Mrs. Treat, “they have your place marked.”

[107] Now it starts, thought Gen. Again.

“It’s like they put up a sign on your front lawn. ‘Stop here,’ it says.”

“As long as I have some food, and someone is hungry, I’m going to share it,” said Gen. “I can’t help myself.”

“That’s probably on the sign too,” said Mrs. Treat.

“The Depression is terrible,” said Gen. “All I had left for that poor fellow this morning was bread and milk. Not even a piece of cheese. But he was grateful to get that.”

“And Boyd was gone to school by then. And you late for your shopping.”

“He wasn’t any harm, that young fellow.”

He almost cried, she started to say. Not much older than Frankie. But you didn’t see that until you looked to see behind the stubbled chin, the uncut hair, the crumpled clothes.

“Not that man. But the next one—!”

“I just think: suppose it was Frankie. I hear the whistle whenever the train goes through, and I think: suppose it was Frankie.”

“Frankie’s got a job in California.”

“He’s one of the lucky ones.”

Mrs. Treat was silent a moment. “I dreamed again last night,” she said. Ready to change the subject, having said her say.

“Your husband?”

“Yes. When I wake in the morning, I feel a little sad because nothing’s changed. But I feel happy, too.”

“I’ve never dreamed about Joseph.”

“He seems closer when I dream.”

“I wish I did dream of Joseph. It would hold things together for me, I think. Sometimes it’s hard to hold things together.”

Mrs. Treat nodded. But Gen didn’t believe she knew what she meant. It was like the time she said goodbye to Mae and Wyler when they moved to Salt Lake with their family. Still another goodbye. That’s the way it felt. There was so much of saying goodbye. She had said goodbye to six children. Some of them she’d never said [108] hello to. Born dead. Joseph buried them in the field. Two of them she’d said goodbye to as young toddlers. What was left her were Boyd and Frankie, and only Boyd was home.

Her name was Genevieve, but she’d been Gen all her life, just as Mae Belle had been Mae. She had nephews and nieces who called her “Aunt Gen.” She had said goodbye to some of them as well. Mrs. Treat was fortunate to have a link through her dream.

“Sometimes if I don’t dream for a long time,” said Mrs. Treat, “I give Rio a good hard look. I think of the forests and the vines and the flowers of the Amazon. The mystery of it, the colors. There are animals in the forest and other parrots brighter even than Rio.”

Gen smiled. “That’s nice,” she said.


My father wouldn’t have said so at the time, not in 1930, but he felt that he was getting over some kind of disruption in the world around him. It was like being turned around and around and around until you were dizzy enough to fall and then let go. That’s what had happened to him. Now he was beginning to get his balance back. But it was only appearance. He and his mother had settled on South Robinson, where the water truck passed twice a day to keep the dust down in the street. He could walk to the pool hall on Main, where some of his cousins liked to hang out. He was close to the high school. But only now was he starting to feel that things were coming to a stop—as though life and everything that made it up had been whirling about him. He was finding in fact the calm and stillness that he’d thought he’d been in. But that was all it was: thinking he was in it. He had started school again, and this time he was sure he would finish. The wooly times with the workers on the power lines, on the road crews—those had been fun. Giddy and virile and tough. But they were part of the whirl. You couldn’t stay in a spin always, even if you weren’t at first aware of the turn-around you were in, even if you thought the twirl was normal.

[109] By 6:00 that evening he had hosed off and swept out his bus. It was gassed for his run to Apache Junction tomorrow, fifteen miles east on the desert. By now he was older than the high school kids so he had no problems with them misbehaving. The grade school kids liked his teasing. He waved to the other drivers as he left the motor pool. In front of the high school, he sat on the curb and smoked his cigarette. His mother didn’t like his smoking so he never smoked in the house. At first, when he was home, Frankie smoked inside till Boyd told him to cut it out. “Can’t you see that Mom don’t like it?” Sometimes Frankie didn’t think much about other people. If he did, he’d let their mom hear from him more often, write a letter now and then. But he wasn’t selfish, Frankie wasn’t. Just absent-minded.

The school building was nearly empty. The teachers had gone home, and the janitors had taken over.

Frankie had money. But he never got ahead. A man wanted to get ahead. That’s what Boyd wanted. He wanted to better his condition.

Did he mind being the oldest student in school? That’s what Mrs. Treat asked him, her little eyes, close-set behind her glasses, as bright as her parrot’s. No, he didn’t mind. Yes, he knew his mother was pleased he wanted to get his diploma. Pleased mainly that he wasn’t out taking up the ways of the world she was afraid he might be taking up. Around home he did odd jobs for Mrs. Treat. The same kind he did for his mother—emptied her wash tubs, put up her screens, hammered down loose boards on the porch steps, and put up shelves, dug up flower beds. Thank you, Boyd. And the way she said it, you knew she meant it. A shy, skinny, nervous, old lady. But nice.

He ground out his cigarette. His mother would be getting supper. He walked in front of the high school past one of the playing fields toward Robinson. At the corner stood three girls that he recognized from the class ahead of his, though they were all three younger than he. Two of them were sisters named Washburn. The [110] other lived near the railroad station. The younger sister had short straight hair, clipped below her ears and turned forward across her cheeks. He nodded to them out of politeness. Two of them spoke, but the younger Washburn girl looked away and giggled.

My father couldn’t help wondering what she was giggling about, though he was aware that some girls had a habit of giggling for no reason a man could understand, that some girls were “boy-crazy.” But he wondered too if she laughed at his ears, which he thought stuck out. Or at the size of his two front teeth. Or maybe his curly hair that could be doing something strange.

The Washburn sisters, the older one said, were expecting a brother to give them a lift home. Otherwise they would have to walk. “You know how far out of town we live?”

He shook his head.

“On Base Line. Half way to Chandler.”

My mother looked at my father briefly and turned away. He saw only the side of her head, the long forward curl half hiding the younger sister’s cheek.

And that was the way it happened—the first time my father ever spoke, even indirectly, to Fredelle, my mother.

Besides getting ahead, besides improving his condition, my father said, a man wanted a family. He wanted a good wife and a family. But he had not yet begun to think about that. He was still getting his head clear from the spin.


Mashed potatoes. Hamburger. Canned peas. Frankie wouldn’t eat much else. Steak or chicken. And ketchup—he had to have ketchup. Gen got it from the refrigerator and buzzed for her son, who lived in a small house behind the oleander hedge. He’d built it when he came back from California. Just two small rooms and a bath. Between the two houses, he’d strung a wire so she could buzz for him. He drove to Phoenix for work every day. Gen prepared his [111] breakfast, a meal for his lunch pail, and supper in the evening.

Mashed potatoes, meat, and a vegetable.

He had to stoop to come in the door. She looked at the long-nosed face, the receding chin, as he took his first bites.

“Everything all right?” she asked.

“Yes.” Only once: Yes.

She knew he wouldn’t say anything more. “Go lie down” is what he wanted to tell her. So she lay on her daybed until he finished.

He was shy and lonely. She knew that, but she couldn’t do anything about it. If she tried to question him, he’d only grunt. Joseph had never been much of a talker either. Frankie was worse. He kept to himself. Read his westerns, his crime magazines, his adventure magazines. Then there was his drinking, and whenever that happened, Boyd was a help to her. Fredelle was understanding.

After she washed the dishes, she turned down her bed. She went to the telephone in the kitchen.

Milo, the oldest of the three boys, answered. Elizabeth was yet too young.

“Hello, Milo,” she said. “Is everything all right there?”


“Goodbye then,” she said. “I’m going to bed.”

She slept better when she could keep in touch. Boyd usually stopped for a few minutes when he left the post office on North Robinson, sitting in the rocker while she lay on the daybed by the front porch window. Visiting, telling her about his plans. He always had plans, his plans to get ahead. She’d been surprised that he wanted to try another farm. Maybe he thought it better for the family. Maybe it gave him some relief from the post office. “A man wants to be his own boss,” he said. With the world at war once more, Hitler and Mussolini and those people, maybe out in the country was the place to be.

At her bedside, she prayed that Boyd would be classified too old to fight. She prayed that the war with the Axis would not be a long one. She prayed for the Lord’s spirit to be with Frankie.

[112] Fredelle and Boyd could have had eight children, like the eight children in her own family. Think of that.

But her two little brothers died. So there were the six girls that poor Pa used to say made the millstone he wore around his neck. That was his joke. He worked hard and never complained. She wondered if Mrs. Treat—dead now for half a dozen years—had ever dreamed about her father the way she had dreamed about her husband. The only way Gen could keep hold was to remember. To think of how much she forgot frightened her.

She needed letters. Her mother wrote: “Children went up to Sunday school this morning and Frances and Gracie have just gone to meeting. Pa didn’t feel well enough to go so we stayed at home as usual. Pa has a suit of new clothes at last for which we all feel to give thanks as you know how badly he needed them before you left.” Pa writing in his funny way: “we were all well Mother and myself are still enjoying the Grippe but will soon be around I am in hopes.”

She needed her father’s kindness. She needed it in her mind. She was only a little thing the day he took her in the buggy to see his brother on the ranch. A trip she was proud to make because his business was necessary. A hurried visit too. But they weren’t half way there when they came on Mrs. Hogle, an elderly widow lady, chopping weeds in her ditch. She was struggling with her hoe, her hair coming loose under her bonnet. And there was Pa, like a Good Samaritan. He climbed from the buggy and cleaned the ditch for her, whatever the rush he was in. Gen could be an impatient child. “Gen,” he said, “would you like to see your mother cleaning a ditch?”

Gen sat with her mother at his deathbed, his gentle eyes opening shortly before his last breath, staring at the ceiling, as though he could see what was coming, what lay out there for him.

We need joining together, she told herself. Reconciliation. We need those things. Maybe that is what she always tried for, thought Gen. Without realizing it, without knowing exactly what she was doing, she wanted to remain reconciled and keep her family [113] reconciled, into the past and across through the present. She wanted to make kindness a part of the world she was herself a part of.

Otherwise how could you keep on keeping going?

Did her father dream? Or her mother?

Gen didn’t remember that they ever said.


Before I was born, my father and mother—Boyd and Fredelle—sometimes walked out to the old farm where my father had lived. The doctor told Fredelle that walks were good exercise for her. When they first married the two rented a small apartment across from the armory on South Robinson Street, a block from Gen’s. They’d cross Robinson and walk east past the high school and its playing fields, cut through a vacant lot north of the football stadium, and on the north side of the railroad tracks head east on the dirt road toward the farm. Sometimes the irrigation ditch along the road had water in it, and Fredelle would comment on how the running water sounded.

They had stopped by Gen’s for supper. Frankie was supposed to be there, but he didn’t show up after work. Boyd told his mother not to worry. Fredelle was shy, and Boyd knew she still didn’t feel at ease with her mother-in-law. But the meal passed quickly and easily. Gen sent them on when Fredelle suggested she do the dishes.

“I bet she didn’t think I’d get them clean enough,” she told my father as they started off. My mother wore a sleeveless cotton house dress and carried a sweater. The leaves were turning.

My father took her hand.

“Do you hear Rio?” he asked. “I wonder what Mrs. Treat would do without Rio.”

They’d been married five months. Fredelle had gone to business college after graduation. When Boyd graduated a year later, they drove to Phoenix to a justice-of-the-peace. A hot July day. Now, [114] in early November, he could feel movement inside if he rested his hand on her tummy. He liked the thought of continuing a line. Two lines really, his and Fredelle’s.

Before she got pregnant, during the year and a half they dated, he walked out to the Washburn house on Base Line. Since he was in the National Guard, he sometimes took horses out from the armory to ride. On Friday nights, they went to the dance at the Mezona with all the other young people they knew. He and his cousin Stanford had gone to the School of Allied Arts in Phoenix for dancing lessons so he felt sure of himself on the dance floor. Fredelle and her sister both liked ballroom dancing. They liked the Charleston, too. “Friday night,” Fredelle exclaimed once after a dance, “is the best day of the week.”

Now as a married man, starting a family, he worried about providing. He had no job. What hopes he might have of getting one looked thin. When work was available, he substituted at the post office. He still drove the school bus. Now that the government had fixed it so enlisted men in the National Guard got paid, he had a bit of money from that. The sum from those jobs might get them by for now.

“Things will have to change,” he said. “If Hoover stays in, I don’t know that they will. But something has got to happen. Just making it from month to month … A man needs a chance.”

He had all kinds of plans if the chance ever came. Range cattle—if he could get himself some longhorns … He could lease grazing land from the government. He could get tips from his cousin up in McNary, who had cattle, rode the range, knew about dealing with the government. He had a ranch on the edge of the National Forest. But you needed money. “You got to have money to make money,” he said. He’d like to go to college too. He’d like to be a chemical engineer. He’d done well in science in school. If not a chemical engineer, then he’d make a good lawyer, he thought. “There’re all kinds of opportunities if you just have the chance.” He loved looking at a herd of longhorns. He liked the idea of college. [115] Fredelle drew her sweater over her shoulders. Her own father was a different kind of farmer. He was foreman for a man who grew lettuce, cotton, carrots, cantaloupe. He could tell you when a crop in a field was good and when it was bad. He’d hired Boyd during the season to load carrots. Sun-up to sundown, loading carrots. Boyd shook his head. That wasn’t the kind of life he wanted to lead. He wanted to get on with things.

“I’d like a nice house,” Fredelle said, “where you can invite your friends.”

“Oh, we’ll have that, Freddie. If we can just get ahead.”

Look at the desert, he said, all that desert out there. Some day the land was going to be valuable. If he could afford to buy some of that land now and just hold it, keep up the taxes on it—one of these days, he said, it was going to be worth something.

He was quiet as they stood by the gate looking in at the farmhouse. He was surprised these days how small it looked. A kerosene lamp was burning. The outhouse had been moved from the side of the corral. He pointed to the cottonwood tree where he had hoisted the carcass of a dead calf to use as a punching bag. “Frankie came in from California with a pair of boxing gloves for me. This calf had died—”

Yet even thinking of such shenanigans, he felt a heaviness of spirit.

Out here in the open, the flat alfalfa fields laid about, the smoke of his cigarette triggered thoughts of a campfire, made him think of the mountains, made him think of camping last summer near McNary with Stanford and two of his other cousins. The sound of the irrigation water made him think of a stream, of juniper trees, of the smell of powder from their 410 shotguns.

“On our way back,” he told Fredelle, “a sheriffs posse stopped us outside Miami. I don’t know what they were looking for. They were loaded with shotguns and rifles, but when they saw us sleepy boys, late at night, they told us to beat it. They were expecting trouble, they said.”

[116] Walking back to town, they sat at a headgate, the water rushing through, the sky in the west sinking into one of its pale yellow sunsets.

They’d already decided that if it was a boy they’d name the baby after him. Boyd Zenos Farr. If it was a girl they’d call it after her two grandmothers: their middle names. Susan Melissa Farr. “I don’t want to call her Fredelle,” said my mother. “I don’t know where my folks ever got a name like Fredelle from.”

When the mosquitoes began to gather, they stood.

“We won’t live on Robinson Street for long,” my father said. “No longer than we can help. We got to get on with things.”


Though I was in my first year of high school, Frankie’s was the first funeral for a grown-up I attended. Not because I didn’t know people who died. But Frankie was a relative.

It was a hard time for my grandmother because shortly before Christmas her sister Mae had died in Salt Lake. She was her baby sister, and the story was that as the years passed and she put on more and more weight she placed too heavy a burden on her heart.

With Frankie such a quiet man, who would guess that anything was wrong? My grandmother knew he hadn’t been feeling well. But he never complained. He drove to his work in Phoenix all that week. Then on Friday, when he didn’t come in to pick up the lunch my grandmother had fixed for him, when he didn’t respond to the buzzer he’d set up between their two houses, when my grandmother opened the door of his house in back and found him still in bed, she knew something was going to happen. “Yes,” she said, “I knew in myself there was something serious. He said he was okay, not to fuss. He started to dress. You know how he is—was. ‘You better stay in bed if you don’t feel well,’ I said. But now he was determined to dress. So thin he looked, never put on any [117] weight. Just like Joseph. It wasn’t drink that kept him home this time. I could tell that. ‘Don’t you want to eat?’ I said. ‘You need to eat something.’ ‘No,’ he said, ‘I don’t want anything.’ ‘Some soup? Some bread and milk? I’ve got some fruit. A bit of Jell-O? Does that sound good? I could warm up—’ ‘No,’ he said. Just let me get dressed.’ I was afraid then, stubborn as he is, that he’d go off to work, no matter how he felt. ‘Maybe you should call a doctor,’ I said. ‘No. No,’ he said, each word single and separate: No. No. So I called Boyd at the post office, but he was out on his mail route.”

I felt specially involved. I had walked over from the high school at lunch time. By now the war was ended, rationing was over. The world should be getting back to order. Her radio was turned loud so she could hear the soap operas. I couldn’t tell anything was wrong.

“Milo,” she said, “do you have time to go to town? Maybe a bit of chicken would taste good to Frankie. He’s not feeling well.”

When my father stopped by after work, he went out to see his brother.

“What did he say, Boyd?”

“You know what Frankie’s like, Mom.”

“Does he say what’s the matter?”

“He says nothing is the matter. There’s nothing you can do, Mom. Do you want me to stay the night?”

“No,” she said, “you go home.”

“Call me if you need some help.”

By the time she did call, the physical trial was over. Frankie was in the hospital. She told my father what happened.

Frankie came in at supper time, she said, his long face pale. He sat down at the table as though he had to concentrate hard to get there. She wanted to ask him: how did he feel? did he need anything? could she do something? But she set his meal before him. She wouldn’t distract him. Just eat. That’s all he need do. She’d ask questions later.

[118] She didn’t know whether he got a bite to his mouth before he began to cough. In that cramped kitchen, he coughed and coughed, something trying to come up. What did come up was blood. On to the plate, on to the table. His chair fell back as he stood.

“Frankie, Frankie—!”

He pushed her arm aside and staggered to the door. The screen door went open with him, and he fell to his hands and knees on the back porch near the washing machine. She was under his arm somehow. Then off the porch. Across the back yard, the path of bare dirt he’d made between the houses.

“I called, and I called,” she said later. “I couldn’t make anybody hear me.”

She staggered with him. He coughed more blood. She felt as though the earth teetered, tumbling them to one side or the other, rolling them at last through the oleanders against the door.

Inside, he fell again.

“I managed to get him on his bed. He stained his pillow. I called Boyd. I called the doctor. The ambulance got here just after Boyd drove up. I felt it in myself, I felt it in my soul when they carried him out on that stretcher that I would never see Frankie again. I would never see him alive again.”

My grandmother was quiet as we rode to the cemetery, the fields, the canal, the citrus groves looking calm, even cool, beyond the tinted glass of the vehicle’s windows. My father and mother didn’t speak. My two brothers rode with relatives.

Inside the cemetery, we followed a road lined with olive trees and orange trees across the front of the area. It was the old section with many tall headstones. The new part at the back had flat markers. The pallbearers carried the coffin from the hearse and lowered it onto the racks above the empty grave. Next to it, I saw a flat plain marker: JOSEPH HYRUM FARR.

After the funeral, we went home with my mother. My father stayed in town that night and the next with my grandmother.


[119] My father heard his Uncle Wyler’s Ford turn into the yard after his father’s funeral, but he did not really wake until he heard his mother step onto the veranda. He heard her tell Uncle Wyler and Aunt Mae to go on home, and he wondered what time it was.

“But Gen—”

“Wyler has the milking. Boyd and I will get on fine.”

She felt his forehead and cheeks. “Oh, Boyd. What are we going to do about you? Let me get you some cool water from the well. I’ll wet the washcloth.”

He could only manage a swallow or two without tears. But the dampened rag folded on his forehead was soothing.

“Where’s Frankie?”

“He’ll be home later, dear. Stanford is bringing him home.” She smiled. “It’s really you and me, Boyd. You know that? Frankie has his job he has to get back to.”

Boyd understood. Frankie was not so much a part of his thinking. He was five years older and living a different life. His mother though did become a part of my father’s thinking. He had slept fitfully most of the time she was away at the funeral, but the question was still unsettled: what did it mean to have no father? It meant one thing if he was by himself. It meant another if his mother was with him. They weren’t just two people, mother and son, but two times, two generations, two fields of being. And now his father was gone, here was another order of things. My father didn’t think simply of responsibility. That notion was straightforward, and he accepted it without question. He would “look after things.” It was something else, this new order of things. He felt he was looking backward to where his father was gone, disappeared, and wondered how he would keep hold there, how he would carry forward what was disappearing, because as he looked back he was moving on, he had to move on, shuffling forward into whatever was out there.

“It was a nice service,” said his mother. “A lot of people were [120] there. The church was full. A lot of people, friends neither one of us has seen in years. Uncle Alma gave a beautiful sermon. One of the best I’ve ever heard. Joseph looked up to Uncle Alma. He liked the old man, someone who came across the plains.”

My father’s eyes tired, and he closed them.

She continued to speak. Later she asked him if he were hungry.


“You should eat something, Boyd.”

He didn’t open his eyes. “Not now, Mom.”

She squeezed his hand. He heard her go through the kitchen and into her bedroom. He heard the noise that let him know she was changing her clothes. Sometime later, he didn’t know whether he had drowsed off or not, he heard her sit again in the chair beside him.

She was in her house dress. In her hands, she held one of the seashells from Samoa. He watched her turn it in her fingers. The sun was going down. The light came through the cottonwood, through the screen, and lay in patches on the wall. It fell across her lap. She turned the shell in the sunlight. He used to hold some of the large ones to his ear. “You can hear the seashore,” his father told him. Frankie would listen too. The sound of waves, distant waves, seemed to play.

But his mother didn’t hold the shell to her ear. She turned it first one way, then the other, looking at the delicate curves, the cool sheen, coral-colored, the tapering of its shape.

“So many colors,” she said. “You can see so many colors in it. Look, Boyd?”

A painful swallow. He opened his eyes. Holding the shell, her fingers looked wrinkled. But he could see what she meant.

“I see, Mom,” he said. “Lots of colors.”

He closed his eyes, and she told him more about the funeral. His mind didn’t stay with her all the time. He thought he heard her tell him she was surprised at how hard Frankie had cried, that the flowers people sent were lovely. He heard her say that Uncle Wyler [121] had heard of a small place on South Robinson that they could put a down payment on. “We drove by. Maybe it would do.” Once he thought she said, as though praying, “To them that beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.”

He must have drifted off into sleep, thinking of islands and palm trees and seashells, because when he opened his eyes to see her still holding the shell, he said again, as though it would comfort her, “Yes, there’s lots of colors.”