Before Me

HIST Mundelein corn fieldsFirst draft chapter from a novel-in-progress.
Setting: Suburban southern Illinois, summer, 1991.
Narrator: Sixteen-year-old boy.

Before me, my mother and dad were really new at this. Today they make it seem relatively easy. I wasn’t around so I always forget that my brother wasn’t planned, that my parents were really pretty young, that there was no Mick’s Liquor and that Edenton wasn’t even supposed to be the place they ended up.

Dad was from Kentucky, Mom’s family came from Wisconsin. Somehow they met in the middle. Mom was in her first semester at Andewell College in central Illinois and was thinking, between keg parties, about whether she should pursue anthropology as a degree. When she was a girl up around Wauzeka her grandfather would sometimes take her around to the spots where there were Indian mounds, and they’d rake the soil around the bases of them. No digging, just raking, because her grandfather said the family had some Native blood and it wouldn’t do to be stirring up the ancestors. Sometimes by turning only the topmost skim of earth they’d sift up a flinted blade or point. He could estimate the ages by the workmanship, and my mother, in coveralls with dirt impressed in the knees and sleeves, would feel her eyes go round as the years he described went up toward the thousands.

Dad got something similar from his father. The farm in Kentucky where he was raised butted straight up against the hills and the woods that crowned them, and after my father turned ten he and his old man would sling compound bows and hike off up the rises to any of a dozen deerstands the family had built, some of them in treeboughs, some ragged stand-alone half-cabins. The first deer my father ever shot at, a medium buck, just stood there drinking from a rivulet and didn’t notice the arrow that winged by above its shoulder. Then my grandfather nocked an arrow and put it straight through the buck’s ribs so the deer jerked a little, walked two steps and collapsed forward with its aorta slit open. Dad’s first kill, later that day, was a much smaller doe.

One time when my father was thirteen he came down from one of the treestands to try and stalk a buck he’d seen trailing a fecund doe. He fired an arrow into a patch of brush, thinking he’d seen the deer moving in there, and instead planted his shot in the ass of a man-sized black bear. The bear came after him like the world’s speediest fat man, with the arrow jouncing sideways from its butt like a second tail. Dad scrambled up into the stand with his father while the bear paced and snorted at the foot of the tree. My grandfather ignored Dad’s urgings to rain more arrows down on the bear, saying that might only send it humping off into the woods to lick its wounds and spend days dying. The bear eventually rubbed its ass along the ground, scraped the arrow out and did a slow mosey back up into the treeline. My father didn’t get to come down from the stand until the bear was long gone and his father had walloped him a good one for not looking where he was shooting.

When Dad met Mom he told her this story, and claimed that his meeting with the bear, and his formative age at the time, explained why he was broad as a brick wall and couldn’t dance any better than a slow ursine waltz. She danced with him anyway.

“That’s not the real reason,” my sister said to Dad one time after dinner, back when she was only six and hearing the story for the first time.

“Stand on a stack of bibles,” Dad said. “I swear it’s true.”

She was on his lap and poked him in the belly. “Mommy says it’s just ’cause you eat so much.”

“A bear’s gotta stock up for winter,” Dad said.

“Not in April they don’t,” Mom said, busing away the remains of her pot roast.


Mom learned to make that particular dish as a girl in Wisconsin, where pot roast is heavy business. Her own mother, who was involved in few relationships that were as important to her as the one with alcohol, was no great shakes as a cook. This meant that the best meals came at her grandparents’ house. From her grandmother she first got the basics of sauces, stews and broths. This was handy when there wasn’t much in the fridge at home but a bundle of green beans, one sorry carrot and half a chicken skeleton. By the time she was nine Mom could go so far as to render the chicken down into stock, simmer the beans and carrot slices therein, salt the whole, and feed herself well while the shadows spread out across the windowsills and there was no sound of a car in the drive.

Sounds late at night can signify whole lifetimes to a kid. They lie in bed and attach volumes of meaning to a father’s footsteps, or the sound of a sink running downstairs. My mother’s childhood was one of significant silences. After I started driving and began coming home later and later I could walk past my parents’ bedroom and feel her awakeness there, the waves of listening she threw off into the dark, waiting for me. It wasn’t my late arrival but the absence of it that could break her, could leave her waiting in that vacuum of girlhood for the scrape of a cherished shoe on the walk that was meant to come but wouldn’t.

There came a night, when she was thirteen, when she waited for the sound of her mother until the sun came up. Then she slid from bed and called her grandmother. The old woman was at the duplex door almost before the phone hit the cradle. Then came the cops, whom my mother had always been taught to avoid. Then social services. Then she and her grandmother locked up the duplex and drove out to the old family house, the country house, where she always felt most comfortable anyway. There was that sharpened empty sense of abandonment, yes, the feeling that her ears would forever remain open against further loss, but in truth she had left nothing behind in that duplex apartment more meaningful than what she had here. For my mother, this was not a displacement so much as a homecoming.

The phone call came a few days afterward. The first half of it took place in the kitchen, with her grandparents passing the receiver back and forth between them. Each of them would start out slow, conciliatory but still dire, then work upward into a stuttering of tears and disbelief that would force a handoff. This went on, with my mother sitting in the livingroom, tilting her supernormal powers of hearing toward the copper wires running into the house, for the better part of an hour. Then there was a lull, and they invited her in to talk with her mother. She was sorry, that drunken woman, she was contrite. But she was not coming back. She’d met someone, he wanted her to come with him to California. He didn’t want the child along. She knew her daughter was strong enough to go on without her. Granny and Grandpa were there. She would have told her before she left, but she didn’t want to worry her.  She loved her. A man called her away from the phone. She loved her. She had to go.

My mother replayed the phone call in her head several times throughout her girlhood. She didn’t listen much to her memory of what her own mother had said, instead cueing forward to the man’s voice. Close as she craned she couldn’t distinguish the precise words, only the urging in the tone like come on it’s time we gotta go, and the timbre and depth of the man’s voice itself. Over the next decade, she felt that voice become more familiar to her than that of the woman who’d birthed her, and she listened for warning echoes of the man’s distorted plea coming from the throat of  every boy or man who offered her a ride, paid her a compliment, bought her a drink.


My father’s first drink was a little bit delayed, when you stacked his experience alongside that of his peers in Kentucky. Most of them got their deflowering shot of mash at thirteen or so, but Dad’s father held out till he was sixteen. By this time my dad was within reach of six feet and as wide in the shoulders as he would ever get, easily mistaken for a man. His father passed him a small glass of still whiskey one night in summer while they sat and played euchre with Riley and Loren, his father’s brothers. Between these three, the family farm established by their forebears in the 1840s had been divided into equal parts, each steward pursuing his own crop. My father’s family raised corn; his uncle Riley was in tobacco. Uncle Loren, then just twenty-two and the youngest of the brothers, didn’t join in with much of the discussion of tilling and seeding.

My father’s first shot of whiskey set the nerves of his upper body jangling with tremors that seemed to come to rest somewhere in his right pinky. He sat quietly after the spasm, shifted the cards in his fist, and asked for another.

Uncle Riley blurted juice from his chew into an emptied beercan. “Careful, Ty,” he warned his brother. “Your boy there’s gonna be too rubber-legged to work the corn tomorrow.”

“Hell, give him another,” Uncle Loren said. “I’ve worked a crop in worse shape.”

“And look at the crop you work,” my grandfather said to Loren, his eyes blue ice. Loren dropped his smile and rapped on the table, shedding a card.

Each of the brothers held a hundred acres. My father had explored every foot of his dad’s territory and a good bit of Uncle Riley’s, but the acreage kept by Loren was a fuzzy spot on his interior map. He knew from his father’s descriptions that it was some of the less lucrative soil in the estate, a little rocky, downhill from the other fields so it got a good share of the runoff from the neighboring two farms. On hunts in the fall, he saw lots of deer wandering that way. His father would never let him track a buck that traveled that direction.

Late that summer my father was dispatched over to Loren’s farm to pick up a borrowed tiller and drive it back. He could have followed the valley’s curve around south and trailed along the fenceline, but the straighter shot was across the hills and straight into Loren’s fields. He went up and then came down from the slope and found himself in a plot of tall emerald stalks that looked and smelled like no corn he’d ever seen.

“Do not. Fucking. Move,” came his uncle’s voice, and my father froze. Loren stepped out from one of the green rows, gingerly, and nudged Dad in the chest until he stepped backward. Loren pointed down, and my father saw the shin-high tripwire he’d almost kicked on his way into the marijuana patch.

Uncle Loren had done a tour in Vietnam two years before, and there, by process of deconstruction, he’d learned how such traps were rigged. His job with the platoon was advance scout, and he specialized in sniffing out Vietcong mines and tripwires. After a day of walking the brush, neutralizing claymores and getting shot at from the treeline, he found pot was the only prescription to help him sleep. So after he lost his left thumb to a North Vietnamese sniper, whose bullet struck his hand where it gripped the stock of the AK-47 he’d liberated from a dead Mekong soldier — “The M-16s the Army gives you ain’t shit,” he told my father —the three souvenirs that came back in his duffel were a Purple Heart, a brick of Thai stick and a long-stemmed hashish pipe with an ivory bowl.

After he returned, and ran wild for a few months in Knoxville before coming back to the homestead, he had to learn how to farm again with his missing digit. Uncle Riley had been maintaining Loren’s acreage and, somewhat grudgingly, setting aside the profits and losses in a separate ledger for him. Loren hauled in a double-wide trailer and parked it out at the roadside edge of his land, and started tilling for corn. The Thai stick proved invaluable to his rehabilitation and daily maintenance. Each night he would clean out the herb on the unfolded spine of an Allman Brothers LP, toss the seeds out the window of his sitting room, and smoke himself blue.

Seeing the skinny green chutes that erupted beside his trailer after a few weeks triggered the agronomic instincts he’d buried to go off to war. Loren dug up the stalks, brought them down to this secluded corner of the farm, separated the male plants from the female and transplanted them. The result was smokeable. Loren got on the phone with some of the friends he’d made back in Knoxville, and through them found a distributor. It was a new moonshine industry — drivers could haul the dried, processed crop north on the Interstate to Chicago, over to Memphis, down to Atlanta. The potential profits, when Loren did the math, made his eyes go googly and forced him to sit down and smoke some more. Then he went out on the tractor, cleared out two full acres on the edge of the woods — screened on three sides by corn and visible from nowhere in the forest unless you stumbled out of it the way my father eventually did — and became a gentleman farmer of a variety his brothers had never seen.

The tripwire was rigged to a snare, not a claymore, that would have grabbed my father’s ankles and hauled him airborne from the limb of an overhanging tree. It had enough tension to break his leg in the process. Technically speaking, it was to keep the deer from wandering down out of the trees to browse on Loren’s acres of dope, which they loved. Trapped deer usually became dinner.

“That was Loren,” Dad told us. “A barbed-wire fence would’ve been too easy.”


The country house where my mother was a teen had no significant acreage anymore. Her grandfather had cashed out of agriculture when he found himself in middle age with no male children to plow the furrows. The loans had mounted up over time, and the land had stopped giving up the return he deemed fair. Instead he’d taken the quick out, subdividing his land and selling off the new parcels to developers or single buyers. By the time my mother became their ward, her grandparents’ house was just this modest white manor on a low hill surrounded by new ranches, bungalows, split-levels, the kind built with recessed lighting and bar counters in the finished basements.

In later years, remembering this girlhood of cul-de-sacs where there should have been fences and drainage tiles, my mother couldn’t help feeling that she’d missed something important.

In school, she felt gawky and pitied. No one in town didn’t know about her mother’s departure. This reinforced the lesson of her mother’s phone call and the sound of her lover’s dominating mumble — that there were those who were cowed by life, and those who directed them.  She broke past people’s sympathy or contempt with greater ease that way, ignoring it, stepping over it, sliding sideways when the arrows came at her, and so making admirers out of adversaries.

By the time she was sixteen her collection of arrowheads hung in her room in a hand-fashioned display case her grandfather had made for her. She became a treasurer of natural ornaments, feeling delight in the touch of a smooth rock washed in a riverbed. She got a stone polishing kit for Christmas and tumbled agates and quartz into glassy gems suitable for jewelry, and her grandfather built a second case for her rock collection. Organizing them, clacking them together in her palm, exploring their smoothness againt her thumbprint let her feel the world without friction, and informed her that things went beyond her house and town, extended farther than her unknown father and missing mother.

She had her favorite worry stone, a flat tan agate shot through with veins of caramel, in her pocket the night she had her first drink. She and her friend Jenny Lindfor had gone to this party in town, the loft of some older guy who hosted gigs for the kids, which was icky but no less appreciated. Hickory, cinnamon and bitter propane collided in the back of her throat, and the rest of the night was a spiral the color of the ceiling light, an ambivalence at somebody grabbing her ass and a vomity, runny-edged car ride home. Jenny only found my mother’s housekey when she patted down her jeans and encountered the bulge of the worry stone. She dumped Mom on the livingroom couch and buried her in a comforter. Nothing gross in my mother’s first night out with alcohol, nothing fatal: The stone in her denims had brought her a muddled kind of luck.

“What else would we have had in common if not for sweet, sweet booze?” Dad asked her one time.

“A profound urge to leave home,” she said.


Dad’s urge had its avatar in Loren. His youngest uncle had exited high school in the throes of seventeen, pummeled around by a savantlike technical ability compounded with awful hormone peaks. Loren spent freshman English taking his watch apart and putting it back together in the farthest rear desk, and his hour in machine shop always tended to bleed over into his social studies class and then gym. He knew he couldn’t speak or write well; he also knew that machines held so little mystery for him that he was desperate to learn more. He applied battery power to tiny riveted models which then inched on their own like caterpillars. When he got expelled for setting a fire in the guidance counselor’s trashcan during his evaluation, his shop teacher was rumored to have wept.

Three years later, when Loren disassembled and reassembled an M-16 for his drill instructor before most of his fellow new crewcuts had separated stock from barrel, he got the job that cost him a thumb and won him a Purple Heart. “Try driving a goddamn nail with two fingers to hold it,” he told my father.

Loren kept a motorcycle, a 1962 Harley with a Panhead engine, that was mostly there to be taken apart, toyed with, reassembled. He showed my father the separated parts, outlined their functions, taught him to maintain the beast and how to respond when it broke down. Dad fiddled with the components and discovered his own talent — just a sliver of Loren’s, not the same intimacy and ease of learning, but a talent nonetheless for mechanization. He took what he learned out at his uncle’s and brought it home to his father’s farm, repairing the tractor when it was ill and keeping the machinery humming along through the growing season so it was ready for harvest.

He became also a kind of intermediary between the estranged brothers. When his father had a request for Loren it was Dad who delivered it. This was partly out of need, because Loren had no phone at his trailer. Dad doubted whether his father or Uncle Riley would have picked up the phone to call Loren even if they could.

It was too quiet in my father’s house. His mother had died when he was ten, and in these later days she was just a set of photographs in a mantelpiece shrine that had not moved in seven years. There was a radio in the house that my grandfather never turned on. The television could pick up programs only when the stars were rightly aligned. The old man spoke little — and to my father that’s what he had become, an old man, widowed into early decline. The war was still going on when my father graduated from high school, without the grades or the inclination for college, and when he registered for the draft there was a gremlin in his mind that pointed to the army as my father’s chief escape route from the weighty silence of the farmhouse.

“Fuck a whole bunch of that shit,” Loren told him, and passed over a roll of bills, a highway atlas, and the key to the 1962 Harley. The atlas had certain roads marked out in red pen, the quickest route to Canada, where a young mechanic could earn his way repairing cars and never even have to pronounce the word Vietnam.

“I’m going,” Dad told his father.

“You go,” the old man said, “and I’ll never forgive your uncle.”

My father fulfilled his threat; his father fulfilled his own.

“That’s why Grandpa and Uncle Loren never came for Christmas at the same time,” my brother surmised later.

“Your father’s family all have rocks in their head,” my mother told him. “Even your father. Especially your father.”

“I had rocks somewhere,” Dad said, eyes wrinkling on good memories.


Mom packed her collection of stones and spearpoints in the late summer when she was seventeen. She was wondering then whether she’d be able to hang them on the dorm wall at Andewell College, or whether it would be made of some kind of cinderblock that wouldn’t take a nail. The scholarship was generous, for pursuit of sciences, and though it wouldn’t cover the full tuition it would make a sizable dent. Her grandparents offered up what was left, plus support money, though they wondered aloud and sometimes with tears why she wanted to move to a school so far away, down south to Illinois.

A few months into her fall semester, when my father, roadsore from miles on the Harley and just looking for a place to crash, stumbled into Andewell and found himself at an off-campus keg party, talking to a dark-haired woman with wide eyes, he wondered, as he unspooled his story, why my mother said so little. It wasn’t until years later, after my older brother was born, then after me, that she told him — she had been listening, very intently and with a growing sense of hope, to the sound of his voice.

— end. for now. —

This entry was posted in stories that will never get published and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Before Me

  1. wimmer76 says:

    This is REALLY nice so far, man.

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