This Great Society - Arts

 

Illustration: Joel Bentley

Patrick O. Strickland: Milk Trees
Illustration: Joel Bentley

 
 

          “No, it isn’t too heavy!” Liam barks with an unfounded confidence specific to eight year olds. He struggles with the grocery bag; he picks the heaviest bags to prove a point to no one in particular, but to prove it nonetheless.

          The fleeting remnants of an orange orb fall beneath the horizon, its glow overtaken by the descending charcoal haze, an ever-recurring dispute between light and dark, an argument neither definitively wins, though valid points are made day by day. Liam continues unloading bags. Smoke drifts from the mother’s slow burning menthol, distorted lightning bolts hovering into the night, disappearing. Past those of the cigarette, against the distant twilit sky, much larger streams of smoke dazzle upward like pale gray wraiths, the paper mill’s sacrifice to the heavenless sky above Bradford, Florida.

           She knows Liam is a weak child, his arms bordering atrophic, but it can’t be helped—the problem is that he is a picky eater, unreasonably selective, not that he goes without meals (she works hard to provide for him, stubbornly ignoring their prequalification for Welfare). His diet is limited to peanut butter and marshmallow sandwiches, popcorn, chicken nuggets, soda—junk food. “Liam, just put the bag on the driveway and I’ll get it. It’s too heavy for you—thank you, please.”

           “Shut up, dummy,” he mutters so low that he may in fact have merely thought it. “I’m strong enough to get it, Mom.”

           He continues to load more grocery bags onto both arms until the strained plastic handles completely eclipse his flesh from wrist to elbow. He turns to start up the driveway and a carton of milk tumbles down, bursts on the concrete, splatters against the side of the car. The mother is a tired bartender that works deep into the gray period between late night and early morning; she yells not out of anger so much as from conditioning, a mechanical response to drunks that spill pitchers of beer on the bar. She yells, “Goddamnit, Liam!” He looks down at the mess with his mouth wide in disbelief. “What’d I just fucking tell you? You know, the money for that milk doesn’t grow on trees. Milk doesn’t grow on trees.”

           “You say everything doesn’t grow on trees,” he mumbles inaudibly.

           “What’d you just say? If you’re gonna talk back, speak up!”

           “It was just bad luck… Sorry,” he manages. His confidence fades and his face crumbles to a sour frown as tears well up in his eyes. Enough saltwater glazes over his cheeks to drown much of the American southwest under water, and through the watery eyefuls the mutating image of the mother going from angry to sympathetic is like seeing someone’s poolside face from under water. Though Liam finishes crying, his face is still molded as if he is fighting off an accident in the Mom-I-just-had-an-accident sense. “It’s OK, sweetie, really. Mama is sorry for cursing, and I shouldn’t have yelled it in the first place. You were trying to help.” He nods limply, the relationship between his neck and his head unharmonious and uncertain, as if they’re never quite on the same page. She continues, “Wait here, Liam. Let me just go in real quick and get something to clean up this mess.”

           As the mother disappears through the door of the trailer home, Liam walks through the yard, most of which is red clay. He crosses the tops of the trisecting hillocks sprinkled with parcels of grass, forming subtle valleys, and picks up his ball at the edge of the lot. It needs air, is almost flat. He kicks the ball toward the driveway, but it is too deflated and only rolls halfway there. The summer chirping of crickets rises from the brush at the edge of the lot. Two trees stand solemnly: a small émigré palm tree next to the mailbox and a Sycamore tree in the back corner of the front yard. Under the draping branches of the Sycamore rests the melancholy frame of an automobile abandoned by time and owner alike. Its umber rust appears inherent, almost primordial. The shell of the car betrays nothing of its former owners. Long weeds peek through the glassless windows. Liam wonders how long it has sat in that same spot, picks up an arrow-shaped stone and tosses it at the car, missing by a long shot.

           The mobile home is raised and amplifies the mother’s thudding footsteps, which Liam absently hears through a cracked window. He follows his mother’s path with his ears: Down the hallway, across the bedroom—the steps stop while she clicks on the answering machine—and finally into the bathroom, where she no doubt is searching for rags and paper towels. The sound of the rewinding tape reaches him, and then clicks. The gravid humming of the tape’s beginning, before the messages start playing, reminds him of the black and white films his grandfather used to watch. He walks around to the backyard, climbs over the chain link fence, and hops down. His dog, Bear, runs to him and jumps on him, showers him with love and slobber. In its excitement the dog pisses on the mother’s new lawn chair, where she sits each morning after she gets off work, one last smoke before the sun shows up and announces her bedtime. Liam will not tell the mother, who hates all animals indiscriminately; he is afraid she would literally kill the dog.

           Back in the front yard Liam can hear his grandmother’s voice from the machine. Between intervals of yawns and frustrated, impatient pacing, a vague anxiety he remembers feeling only before a terrible storm, Hurricane Opal. He shuffles side to side, lightly dancing to a soundless tune of boredom and nervousness. He realizes that if the mess isn’t cleaned up before the mother’s boyfriend Kenneth gets home, even if the mother had forgiven him, the consequences will involve a black leather belt. Kenneth has a temper, and he also doesn’t think that milk or money grows on trees.

           When Destin got too expensive, Liam and his mother moved to a trailer home roughly 30 minutes inland, in Bradford, a submissive town with a bloodless history. Not long after, Kenneth moved in. Bradford, a town immune from time’s passing, where neighbours have to drive on road kill littered gravel roads to borrow sugar, where the ditches are full of mounds of empty Natural Light cans, where gas stations still pump for you.

          It’s hard to remember the last time he saw his biological daddy (the mother’s words which will later become his own), who didn’t like having to drive so far to pick Liam up. He doesn’t call anymore, doesn’t pick up Liam for visits on the first and third weekends of every month. Liam called him months ago, asked him if he wanted a copy of his Christmas list, in the case that he ran into Santa before the mother.

           “Sure, kid. Send it over. I’ll see you next weekend, on Christmas eve.”

           He didn’t. He’s mad at Liam, Liam guesses, for the debacle that took place last time he stayed with him, over a year ago.

           Standing in the yard, Liam hears the unfamiliar voice of a woman on the answering machine.

           Last time his biological daddy did pick him up, Liam had to tag along on a date with him. His date—she understood the complications of shared custody, having two sons (grown now) herself—suggested renting a movie and staying in, letting Liam play Nintendo in the other room while they cuddled up to a horror film. They went to the Network Video in Destin.

           Trying to give his date the impression that he was a warm and loving father, his biological daddy had bought Liam a large soda and a bag of sour candy (and a small keychain of a ninja on a surfboard, which Liam swore up and down he’d wanted all his life). By the time they were in the video rental store, Liam was wired from sugar. He could no longer control himself, ran up and down the aisles wildly, knocked over movies and videogames, while his biological daddy’s date watched in horror, slack jawed and paralyzed. Liam’s biological daddy watched his date’s reaction in horror, slack jawed and paralyzed, knowing that he his fathering skills were now up for debate. Things were made worse for Liam and his biological daddy’s image by the Accident, which occurred mid-sprint, rolled down his leg, flew forward and landed perfectly under his next step. Once this happened Liam got scared, ran even faster, more determined to evade capture and punishment. The Network Video’s night shift manager and his biological daddy were not trying to catch him for the sake of punishment so much as to stop replication. But by the time the biological daddy finally got a hold of Liam, the aisles were heavily spotted with overlapping trails of size three shoeprints, a mosaic of earth tones, a miasma of stench.

           Liam walks to the edge of the driveway to meet Summer Anne Jenkins as she rides up on her bike, her blonde ponytail jitterbugging behind her. When Liam notices she hasn’t got training wheels anymore, he shudders with embarrassment at lagging behind a girl. Summer Anne’s denim shorts are eclipsed by an oversized Marlboro t-shirt, the reward of her mother’s patient collecting of cardboard proof-of-purchase symbols. “I heard Mrs. Rodriguez wasn’t in class today because she had her baby,” she starts.

           “Nooo. That’s not true,” Liam counters. He doesn’t know for sure if she did or did not have her baby today, but he knows he cannot agree with Summer Anne. About anything. His head shakes furiously, legs wobbly. “You’re wrong.”

           They silently stare at each other, each determined not to falter in their respective glare. In ebbs, the sound of the answering machine reaches them. Summer Anne is sitting on her pink bicycle seat, using one leg to balance on the tilted frame. She breaks eye contact. “Liam, you’re a jerk,” she says with the sound of defeat in her voice. After she rides off, a rusty pickup truck speeds by and patina dust clouds twirl in its wake.

           Summer Anne Jenkins will not be in class tomorrow to feel the full force of defeat when Mrs. Rodriguez returns to class still pregnant. A rumour will spread that her mother took her and her sisters and left their father.

           Liam stumbles idly toward the house and spots a lady bug. He crushes it under his LA Gear, the shoe’s sole lighting up as the bug sees its final flash of the unfamiliar driveway, the great range his friends and family warned him not to explore, urging him to ignore his youthful desire to travel, to stay at home in the yard’s grass, amid the blades, in safety. “Gay dumb bug,” Liam declares. He doesn’t know exactly what gay means, though he once cried when older kids on the school bus, on the one day he felt brave enough to venture to the back, said he was gay. His mother had told him it meant happy, that he shouldn’t worry about it because they were jealous he was happy. He didn’t feel all that consoled.

           The sound of the nameless woman’s voice drifts out to Liam from the answering machine. The tone is confessional, shaky and on the perimeters of hysterical. “I’m sorry. I had to tell you about me and Kenneth—I should’ve told you in person—I couldn’t—It hurts me, too—It was easier to leave a message—If this ever happened to me, I would want someone to tell me.”

           He leans against the mother’s car, uses his hot breath to steam the window, draws a penis with his finger. The wind picks up and for a second he hears only the sound of the neighbouring lots murmuring in tongues. He swears he can make out words. He is bored and feels like he’ll fall asleep if he doesn’t keep moving. He walks to the other side of the car and sees the spilled milk. It has made its way to the end of the driveway, dribbling over the cracked divide where the pale gray concrete confronts the red Florida clay road that leads from their mobile home. It is a branching tree of pale zigzagging liquid, each tangential stream in a race to the muddy clay at the road’s end. “A milk tree,” Liam says, still alone, in the Smart Alec manner he’d never dream of using to his mother’s face.

           A loud smash emerges from the trailer home. It is followed by a half second’s silence and a cracked, throatless moan that devolves into a whimper, uncomfortable to Liam’s ears in the same way as pocket change flailing in a dryer. What was that, Liam thinks.

           Quiet moments follow before the mother appears out of the front door and cautiously hobbles down the steps. “Come on, Liam. Get in the car.”

           “But why? Who was—” stopping, noticing that she’s hurt. “Are you okay? What’s wrong?”

           Her forehead is carved with deep worry lines, she is limping heavily on her right side, and Liam can tell she is biting her lip. She looks like a funhouse mirror image of herself. The mother gets in the car. She starts the engine and leans against the steering wheel. Her body pulsates with Lamaze-like breaths. He wants to ask her again; instead he just loads the bags of groceries into the backseat, by himself, to show to the mother that it was just bad luck earlier, that he is perfectly capable of carrying the heavy groceries, that he’s strong enough, that she ought to be proud. He will one day describe the melancholy in the car as palpable. Crossing the border from concrete to clay, they leave the settling milk tree and the impending arrival of another aborted stepfather behind, existing not as tangible spills or breathing humans, but as memories sometimes harder to recall than the specifics of a car crash.

 
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