Oh, dear Lord, this is the flattest place on earth…
Cherie turned off I-70 with great reluctance, rumbling up the exit ramp in her rusted MG, leaving a trail of smoke behind her as black as her mood.
Amos was about as uninspiring a town as could possibly be imagined. Here, the endless monotony of horizontal skyline was only briefly interrupted by a massive, white grain elevator and the tall, stone steeple of a Catholic church, a few hundred homes sprawled out in grid fashion from a wide, cobbled main street edged by brick fronted businesses in varying stages of economic death. From her position atop the exit ramp, Cherie could see the sprawl of a sparkling new Wal-Mart, a Casey’s, a newish Motel 6, and in the far distance, a water tower bearing both the town’s name and a most striking resemblance to the Tin Man’s head.
Whatever Amos was, it was going to have to do, she decided, mentally squashing her instinct to go for Option B: Floor it and head for the Colorado border, maybe take up with the circus… Her faded red Midget gave a shudder as she ground the gears trying to pop it back into first, reaffirming her fears that its transmission was in its death throes. It would never in a million years make it, and so she was stuck with Plan A: Dear Old Dad.
Rumbling past the Wal-Mart and into town, Cherie, while not coming to the point of completely absolving her mother for having fled the man twenty years ago in the dark of night with infant in arms, felt for the first time in her life a commonality with the work-obsessed parental unit she referred to as Mom.
Mom had done well, earning her PhD in Psychiatry after relocating to the east coast, clawing her way up the professional ladder with a child in tow, forging new territories for herself in Psychiatric journals and speaking at national seminars on the vast and varying shades of schizophrenia. Mom, the renowned expert in mental illness, had provided as richly on the monetary front as could be imagined, all the while remaining a virtual ghost in her own household. Life was too busy for tears and it was too hectic for long conversations about periods and boys and the angst of growing up.
And so Cherie had learned independence.
The two women had got along astonishingly well for most of Cherie’s life, though whether because of or in spite of the emotional distance between them, she was never entirely sure. In any case, there was no malice or rebellion involved when Cherie abandoned her academic scholarship to Brown in her third year in favor of travelling with a repertoire theatre company as make-up artist. Week in and week out of Midsummer Nights and Punch and Judy was infinitely preferable to weekends spent in the library among the stacks.
Cherie, for all her academic brilliance, had a short attention span.
“Just like your father,” her mother had said. “He never followed through on anything either.” Mom dropped a few bills onto the table between them and snapped her Vuitton bag shut, regarding her daughter with cool brown eyes. “Next thing you know, you’ll be shadow boxing with your ego and drawing up conspiracy theories on the backs of unpaid bills.”
She had watched her mother draw on her long, white cigarette and wondered what sort of client would willingly pay for such a prognosis. “It’s just for one summer,” she offered in defense. “We’ll be visiting summer camps and doing theatre workshops for underprivileged kids and all. It’s not so bad as all that…”
Her mother exhaled slowly and said nothing for a long moment, a moment that stretched into an entire year. So, when the phone rang last week, Cherie had been surprised to hear Mom’s voice on the other end of the line.
“He’s dead,” she said simply. No preamble, no apology.
“Your father, of course. He’s left you the house.”
House? What house?
“You’re going to need to go out to Kansas and settle things there,” said her mother sharply.
Cherie was silent for a long time, shocked and confused in equal measure. She did not know what to say, much less how to feel. “Oh,” was her only reply. It was the best she could manage.
“I can’t help you, you know,” Mom said. “I can’t go back there. I just… can’t.” There was the faintest catch in her mother’s voice. It was the closest Cherie was going to get to either apology or understanding, but she accepted it nonetheless. This was Mom. It was the best she could do.
Cherie navigated her way down Main Street and turned left by the school, heading on up a short hill to the outskirts of Amos. She was pleased to find that, in spite of its barren appearance from the interstate, the little town boasted tree lined streets and row upon row of pretty neo-Victorian refurbs nestled in amongst matchbox ranch-style houses, most of which were nicely kept. The Bermuda grass was still brown from winter with odd, thick tufts of dark green just beginning to make an appearance, but she imagined it was quite a pretty place in the summer. Well, between tornadoes, anyway.
At the end of Sycamore Street stood a low slung, post rock ranch set among tightly trimmed shrubbery and impeccably maintained lawn, a postage stamp of deep green flanked on all sides by yellow lawns only just beginning to emerge from winter. Whatever her father’s failings, yard work was not one of them.
In the end, it was the yard work that had killed him. Her father, a man completely and utterly unknown to her since infancy, had dropped dead of a heat stroke tending this lawn on a Tuesday afternoon. He had been discovered on Friday by the UPS driver, trying to deliver a new microwave. The driver, finding no one to answer the door, was intending to leave the package in the shed out back when he stumbled across Old Dale’s body, half cooked under the unseasonably intense March sunshine. No foul play was suspected… it was an open and shut case for the coroner, and poor Old Dale had passed secondary to heat stroke and dehydration.
If Old Dale had been a mystery to Cherie, he was no less a mystery to the residents of Amos. He had lived more or less a hermit’s existence, his modest lifestyle financed by proceeds from a patent he held on a specialty bit used in oil drilling equipment. In his heyday, Old Dale had been something of a mad scientist, a genius, actually, before the voices in his own mind took over and drove his wife away.
Everyone in town agreed. Old Dale was crazy. Harmless, yes. But absolutely, certifiably crazy.
She recoiled at the very word, having spent a lifetime being told that, “Crazy is a term used by ignorant people who have no education in mental illness.” And perhaps that was true. It was always puzzling to her that this sermon was endlessly preached by the same woman who had fled her own “crazy” husband all those years ago. For all the thousands of hours she had spent understanding mental illness in other people, she had spared precious few understanding Old Dale.
Cherie sat in the driveway and fingered the house key in her hand, the key to a lifetime of memories she knew nothing of, and she began to cry for Old Dale. Was it foolish to mourn a man she never knew? Or was she mourning the fact that she had not known him? Who are you? She wondered.
The wind picked up, and she considered briefly whether to pull the roof closed. Cherie decided almost immediately against it. She opened the door got out of the car, looked up at the darkening sky and thought, “Let it rain.”
feature photo: speidelsadventures.blogspot.com
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