5532

 

Ladybugs andAngels

 

 

By Neal Dorenbosch

 

 

    The quarter moon hung precariously in the evening sky like a pale, accusatory leer. Lois Kramer sat on her front porch, wedged firmly between the arms of an old wicker high-backed chair, a pile of scrawny pecans balanced in the scoop of purple housedress between her great thighs. The pecans were diseased this fall and appeared to proclaim a curse. And, as if this did not provide enough evidence of her current persecution, Lois remembered the ladybugs. Even the ladybugs had given her a clear reproach.

     They had arrived in early summer and had come in cotton bags packed with excelsior. Each bag contained a teeming mass of red and black. She had paid $24.95 for four thousand of them. The shipping was extra. Lois imagined the poor creatures had starved after such a long journey, so she hauled them directly outside to set them loose on an abundance of unsuspecting aphids. 

     She had taken the boy in the garden with her. He was Lois’ grandson but, until now, she hadn’t heard a word about him since his birth.  The boy’s mother divorced Lois’ son not long after that, and the child had gone to live with her in the city.  Lois had never heard a peep from them until this spring when the boy’s mother was suddenly struck ill. 

     Lois knew it was God’s punishment for divorcing her only son. The mother had no longer been able to care for the child, so she had sent him to live with his father. The boy had been in his custody only a month before his father was struck stupid and ran off with a female carnival worker.  He had dropped the boy off on Lois’ doorstep with only a knapsack of clothes and a few broken toys. He told her the child was twelve, but Lois couldn’t believe it. He didn’t look a day over eight. He looked like he’d been surviving on nothing but crackers and water. Lois’ son explained that he could no longer care for the boy.  A carnival life was no life for a kid.

     It was late afternoon and Lois and the boy released the ladybugs into the clear, June sky.  Some lighted in her tangle of drab brown hair, and she madly swatted them away to send them to their proper destination. The boy stamped and leaped about the garden quite abnormally for his age. He chased the beetles, swatting them when he could.  A wild light burned in his eyes, but behind them there appeared to be nothing. 

     "Foolish boy," Lois muttered, dumping out the last of the insects. It took her half an hour to coax her grandson back in the house.

     That evening she had watched, astounded, as her ladybugs escaped. In droves they left, wave after wave, as if they had collectively found her garden inhospitable. She watched stupidly from the front porch as the swarm traversed her property toward the road, and then nearly fell into shock when she realized where they were headed.  They settled, eventually, in Mrs. Johnson’s garden.  Lois couldn’t believe her eyes. She gave chase, charging across her lawn like some bounding caribou, attempting to cut off the remaining deserters by waving her great hands wildly in the air and shouting and running about as if she could corral them across the street and back into her own yard. Her efforts were futile.

     At last, out of breath and panting, she gave up the impossible task. She lumbered to the house, dejected, and found a single ladybug clinging to her screen door. Deserted by its cousins, the insect appeared to be seeking solace indoors.  It parted its delicate shell in alarm when Lois approached.  Instantly, her plump hand shot out. She left a smear of bright-spotted shell and broken wing tangled in the aluminum weave.

 

     It was September now and the summer had given Lois a clear rebuke.  Her pecans were diseased. Her pecan pies had won first prize in the county fair the last five years running.  The tree was her pride. It stood in the far north corner of her garden and soared upward, a bright green swath a hundred feet high. The deeply furrowed trunk measured six feet round at the base, and the arched branches swept downward as if to gather up its own fruit, not wanting to lose even one of its progeny. For years it had produced the finest pecans in three counties, but this year it had given up its pods too early. The shells contained only dead kernels. And, as if this tragedy were not enough, the boy had shown up. She wondered how she would bear it all.

     From inside the house Lois heard her husband’s incessant thump, thump, his leg brace stumping the floor, eternally announcing his bout with polio as a child. He had told her when they first met he had contracted the disease from eating raw hamburger. She had never believed such nonsense. Lois knew that such things were given of God. Her husband’s leg would always remain encased in leather and steel as a reminder of some sin he had committed (probably as a child and long forgotten, yet without absolution) and now served as one more reminder of her own suffering -- a suffering she often compared to Job’s.

     At last Lois pried herself from the wicker chair. The pecans tumbled from her lap and scattered across the porch. She didn’t bother to pick them up. Instead, she stumbled inside the house.  She found her husband sprawled on the sofa, his good leg curled under him. The braced leg hung stiffly aside, the foot resting on the floor. He was watching television. She shuddered.

     "Ezra!  It’s Sunday, for heaven sakes!"

     He did his best impression of a mannequin but answered her in a slow mumble: "Just a little news, mother."

      She had meant to shoo him away from the television, but before she could get another word out he passed gas. It was a resonating fart that warned her off quickly. She redirected herself and waddled to the kitchen. There she found the boy. 

     He sat on the linoleum floor punching paper holes into a black, thirty-gallon trash bag. The bag was nearly half full. Since arriving, the boy had spent more time punching paper holes than doing anything else, and this activity was beginning to alarm Lois. At first she had humored him. Now she thought she would go crazy if she had to hear the shink, shink of the silver paper punch at work in the boy’s hands much longer. 

     She hovered over him, arms folded, and demanded: "Why do you do that?"

     The boy gave no indication that he heard her. He had avoided eye contact with everyone since arriving in the spring. He hadn’t said a word and seemed to not notice that anyone else existed in the world. The only time Lois had heard a peep from the boy was when he burst out in odd fits of laughter for no apparent reason.

     "Why do you punch those paper holes?" she insisted. Again, there was no response other than the maddening shink, shink, shink and the crunch of paper. 

     She gave up, motioning with her hands as if pushing away some imaginary enemy, and wandered back to the living room. Ezra was snoring. She snatched the remote control from him and then piled into her pea-green, corduroy recliner. His news program was over. She turned the television off and in the unexpected silence her mind wandered back to the boy.

     Lois believed that abandoning his own child was nearly the worst thing her son had ever done. The worst, of course, had occurred when he had been an adolescent himself. The horror she had witnessed that day had been permanently seared on her mind. No matter how hard Lois tried to forget, she was destined to be reminded of it for the rest of her life whenever she pulled a milk jug from the refrigerator.

      She had caught her son on her brother’s dairy farm with a certain part of his anatomy stuck in a milking machine. Upon realizing what her son was up to, which took more than a little puzzling and some imagination on her part, Lois had reacted with the force of Old Testament retribution not seen since the razing of Canaan. Lois could not find in her memory a trace of such filth -- even in the stories of Sodom and Gomorrah. She had snatched up a pitchfork from the corner of the milking barn and had charged stolidly forward, fully intending to impale him. 

    Upon discovering his mother barreling full force toward him, her son had managed to ply himself free of the milking machine (with some difficulty at first) and then ran, headlong, out the back of the barn.  He had managed to scamper through the holding pen and out across a stubble cornfield, all the while trying to zip his recently milked member back into its corral.

     Blind with the fury of God, and not to be outdone by her own flesh and blood, Lois high jacked a John Deere tractor from her brother and steered off across an adjacent field in pursuit of the unnatural fornicator.  She had brought this fright into the world, and she fully intended to run him over to send him out of it. Only through Satan’s help, she was convinced, had her son managed to escape.

     "Why God?" Lois had cried from the tractor.  "The roots are deep. The tree is strong, but why have you allowed the devil to take my son?"

     And now he had abandoned his own flesh and blood. But she could bear all this. She could bear all this and more if God wanted it. After all, she had come from a long line of healthy Christian stock. Years ago Lois had taken on the role of family genealogist and knew more about the family line than any one of them. Through gathering their stories she had come to realize that most everyone on her side, the Jackson side, had been blessed with the seer’s gift.  From the roots of the family tree on up the trunk and then out to each branch drawn across her genealogy charts, she imagined each name as a pecan, each holding a gift inside.

    It had started with her great-grandfather, Thaddeus Jackson, who had been a fiery preacher and had become quite famous for dancing with angels. From him the gift was passed down to each new generation. Her grandfather had discussed the mysteries of God with cats. An uncle had spoken in tongues after a brief but tragic career in snake handling.  Another uncle prognosticated through dust bunnies and had made a reputation for himself as an oracle of sorts. Her own father had been blessed with the power of divination as well, although he lacked the charisma of his brothers. Then, of course, there was the nearly forgotten great aunt who had wrestled with Satan -- and had won.  If not for Lois, this amazing piece of Jackson history would have died out like the small pox. 

     Lois thought even she had been given a sign once, but it had turned out to be only moonlight and shadows on her bedroom wall. The disappointment had been stinging, but she could not believe she would go to her grave without a sign like the others.  And even if she had not yet had any revelations herself and could not speak in tongues and had not wrestled with the devil, she knew it was only because God worked in mysterious ways.  Still, a sense of impatience festered inside her. She had begun to wonder if God might forget her.

      When Ezra woke, he got up off the couch, straightened his bad leg and then stretched his arms up over his head. "I'm goin’ down to the church for my evenin’ meetin’," he announced.

     "Dressed like that?" Lois drilled.

     "No, mother. I'm puttin’ on my good jacket."                                                                                                    

     He thumped to the coat rack near the front door, slipped on a ratty, blue suit coat and then clambered out the door and down the front steps.  Lois heard him nearly slip on the pecans she had neglected to pick up. She imagined it all in a flash: him tripping, toppling over and crashing down on his head.  It would be her biggest test yet. He would lay there in a coma at County General. Finally, they would have to pull the plug and let him go to his judgment. There would be a funeral and a lot of people would come to the house and offer their condolences and hug her and bring all kinds of food. Even Mrs. Johnson from across the street would come, and Lois would be very Christian and not mention anything about her stolen ladybugs.

     Suddenly she remembered the boy. It had been more than an hour since she last checked on him. She decided to put some food down whether he wanted it or not, but she found him asleep on the kitchen floor, his head lolling on the bag of paper hole centers. "Little heathen," she muttered. "Nathan!  Boy!  Hey, wake up."

     The child stirred but did not open his eyes.

     "Come on now. I’m going to make you a little dinner and put it on the table here. If you want it, you can eat it. If not, you can starve."

     Lois found a can of ravioli in the cupboard. She rolled up onto her toes to fetch it down and then took it to the electric can opener. Nathan woke with a start when the machine began to whir. His eyes were hollow and looked out of place in the small, pale face. When he had first come, Lois felt that looking in his eyes was like looking into the eyes of a dead deer. Ezra hunted every year, and she had seen the same empty eyes before, gazing at her but not seeing her, from the back of his pickup. 

    Nathan pulled himself into a sitting position, never taking his eyes off the can opener.  When the machine stopped buzzing, she turned to find him awake.

     "My!" Lois said, instinctively clawing at her collar. The boy made her nervous. He was nothing like his father, but she couldn’t quite figure out who he resembled. Certainly not the mother. There was too much Jackson in the face in spite of the boy’s anorexic appearance.  Still, she felt as though there was something familiar about him, something she couldn’t put her finger on no matter how hard she tried.

     “You don’t know how lucky you are to be here,” Lois addressed her grandson. Even though he didn’t appear to understand a word she said, she continued. “You might have turned out all wrong and gone to the devil. But now you’re here. You have no idea how powerful Jesus has been in your relations, do you? You have no idea that some of them saw angels decked in all their glory. Danced with them, too.”

     She fetched down a glass bowl from another cupboard. She slid a spoon out of a drawer and plopped the ravioli into the bowl. She set the whole mess on the kitchen table. "There it is if you want it," she said. Then she stepped out onto the back porch, letting the door bang shut behind her.

     The night reverberated with the chirrup of crickets. Cicadas buzzed nervously in the trees. Lois turned her broad face to the night sky, but didn’t see the stars. Instead, she peered out past them, farther on to something mysterious and celestial. A wave of self-pity overcame her and she dropped to her knees. She began to pray.

     "I’m running out of time, Lord. Give me a sign. All the others had a sign. Send me some angels to dance with. I’m growing tired and running out of time."

     The sound of breaking glass put an end to her entreaty. She wiped her eyes and staggered back to her perpetual martyrdom. She found the raviolis strewn across the kitchen tile.  Nathan had managed to squeeze pasta between the jaws of the paper punch and was attempting to punch ravioli holes. The bowl lay in shards across the floor. Lois felt God’s wrath rising in her chest and she hurled herself towards the boy with all the indignation of Moses come down from the mount.

     "What in God’s name are you doing?" she screamed red-faced. "Full of the devil! Full of the devil, just like your father and that whoring ex-wife of his! Spare the rod and spoil the child!"

     Lois seized her grandson by the hair and yanked him up with all her strength. She swatted the paper punch from his hands. She marched him into the living room and stood him against a wall. There she took down a razor strap that hung from a nail near the front door.  The strap had been used often on her own son. She had placed it near the door as a daily reminder whenever he came or went, and it had stood as an icon, a reminder that sin lay everywhere and had to be avoided. Lately it had hung, unused, a failed experiment in classical conditioning.

    There was a familiar smell of rawhide as she handled it now, the leather a smooth walnut brown worn from past use. It curled in her hand like a snake waiting to strike. She stood behind the boy and whipped him several times. Each time she brought the strap down, she cried, "spare the rod and spoil the child!" Afterward, she marched him into the dark basement.

   Nathan had not cried out once when lashed with the strap. Seeing what she intended to do with him now, he broke out into a wild, desperate seizure, clawing at the walls, kicking and screaming like a lunatic.

     Lois yanked open the door to a small closet. The closet was damp and smelled like earth and old potatoes. Even in the dark the child seemed to sense the smallness of the room, and Lois forced him inside and slammed shut the door. Then she locked it from the outside.  She could hear him kicking at the door, screaming unintelligibly, as she lumbered up the stairs. She nestled in her recliner, exhausted, and sputtered, "What a great and terrible test you have laid at my doorstep this time, Lord!” 

     She must have fallen asleep some time after that. Her husband thumping up the front porch woke her. She was bleary eyed but coming awake by the time he rattled open the door. Ezra hung his suit coat on the rack. Then he stumped over to the sofa, plopped down and began fishing around for the remote.

     "You put the boy to bed?" he asked absent-mindedly, pulling back the cushions.

     "The boy?" Lois said, confused.

     "Nathan! You put him to bed?" he asked again, irritated. 

     "Oh, my. I’ve forgotten him. I had to punish him, Ezra. You should have seen what he done. I locked him in the punishment closet downstairs and I’ve forgotten all about him again. He’s made a terrible mess of the kitchen."

     Ezra groaned as he stood. He scowled but knew better than to argue with her about sparing the rod. He limped to the stairs and disappeared. When he returned, he plunked down on the sofa and began his perpetual search for the remote again.

     “Well?" Lois asked.

     "Well?" he echoed.

     "Is he more tolerable?  Did he learn his lesson?"

     "You know, the boy said the darndest thing down there. And I was beginning to think he couldn’t talk after all this time.”

     “He spoke to you?” Lois asked, incredulous.

     “He said the craziest things. He had some kind of vision down there. Said he saw an angel or some such thing. The boy’s touched, I tell you."

     Lois’ heart flopped like a winged bird then. Suddenly she understood. “Suffer the little children to come unto me,” she whispered. 

     “What?” Ezra asked.

     "Nothing,” Lois said quickly. “What kind of vision?"

     Ezra fumbled around some more and finally saw the remote was in her lap.

     "What kind of vision?" she bellowed.

     "Oh, I don’t know. He just said he saw some stuff while he was locked up down there.  Not normal stuff, you know. Like I said, angels. Something about angels. The boy’s got a cloud over his mind. It ain’t normal."

     Her soul soared then. She felt as though it would expand in her chest like a balloon until it lifted her to heaven. “It’s for me!” she exclaimed. 

     “What’s for you?” Ezra mumbled.

     "Did he say anything about me?" she asked, impatiently.

     "What?"

     "Did Nathan say I was in the vision, for example?" Lois was certain she had been the primary focus of it. She imagined the boy had seen her great-grandfather Jackson, clothed in the raiment of heaven, still dancing with angels and come to give her, Lois, a sign.  Now she realized whom Nathan resembled. He was the splitting image of her great-grandfather, Jackson. There was a picture of Thaddeus in her family album. It was a grainy black-and-white and was the kind of antique photograph that made the people in them look like spirits staring out from another world. Lois was convinced her great-grandfather was finally reaching out to her through the boy.

     "No, why would he?"  Ezra asked. He passed gas again as he did whenever she annoyed him.

     "Heathen," Lois muttered. Ezra had never believed her great-grandfather had danced with angels.  He hadn’t believed anyone in her family had been given visions or worked any kind of miracles, but now he would have to believe. The evidence was right under his nose.

  “My sign has finally come, Ezra. My sign has come in the form of a child. I knew God wouldn’t forget me. I knew it.”

     “Now, Lois,” Ezra said carefully. “That boy down there’s touched. He’s not right in the head. Mrs. Johnson suggested we take him in to see Dr. Miller and find out just what’s wrong with him.”

     “You wouldn’t!” Lois howled.

     “It’s best for the boy to find out what’s wrong. Mrs. Johnson said he acts just like a nephew of hers, and that boy has ah-tism.”

     “There is nothing wrong with Nathan!” Lois boomed. “Nathan has brought me a message. He’s got the gift, too, Ezra. Don’t you see? Maybe you’re just too jealous that no one in your family did. Mrs. Johnson, humph! She wouldn’t know a ah-tis-tik if one came up and bit her on the nose.”

     Lois plunked back into her recliner and fumed. How could Ezra understand? she thought.  He had never been tested. But Lois had. She was continually being tested. She, like Job, had weathered curse after curse. She had not renounced God, and this was her reward. Finally, He had sent her a sign. 

     Lois dashed to the basement to retrieve the boy.  He would no longer sleep on the old mattress by the water heater; that would no longer do. She brought him upstairs to the guest room next to hers. She tucked him snuggly into the feather bed normally reserved for important visitors and then lulled him off to sleep with a song. When the child finally fell asleep, the Saints were still marching in.

 

     The next morning Lois woke to the boy’s awful breath. He stood over her panting and staring out from the brown, dead eyes. Ezra had already gone to work. She woke with a start, instinctively wanting to scold the boy before catching herself. 

     "Well," she chimed in a falsetto, "are you finally going to talk to grandmamma today?"

     The boy only squinted his eyes to slits and continued staring at her.

     "Do you have something you want to tell your grandmamma?"

     The boy sniffled, stuck out his tongue and then made his eyes go crossed.

     "Well, I see," Lois said, throttling an urge to slap the child. She tried to remember God’s will comes in mysterious ways. "Why don’t we go downstairs and get some breakfast, hmn?"

     She swung her heavy legs from under the covers and plopped her feet onto the floor.  Her feet were two great mounds of pink flesh that seemed to move of their own accord in search of cover. Apparently she appeared quite comical to the boy. He giggled and slapped his knees and watched Lois wriggle her feet into some old, brown slippers. 

     Finally, she stood and gazed at Nathan in wonder. "I’ll bet you’d love to try some of my griddlecakes, wouldn’t you?" she chirped. 

     Nathan only flapped his arms wildly at his sides in imitation of some bird. A loon, Lois thought. Communicating with him was like playing charades.

     "I’ll make blueberry and you can put chocolate syrup and whipped cream on them."

     Nathan hopped up and down in place and inserted a finger into one nostril. 

     "You shouldn’t do that, honey. That’s not a safe place to put a finger when you’re jumping."

     Nathan removed the finger and ceased hopping. A trickle of blood ran from the offended nostril, and he ran his tongue along his upper lip to taste it.

     "Oh, my!" Lois said. "You’ve gone and given yourself a nosebleed." The muscles alongside her jaw jumped. "You better lie down," she said. "I’ll get a cold cloth."

     Once she managed to stop the nosebleed, Lois took her grandson to the kitchen and made griddlecakes. The boy sat staring at a spot on the wall, eyes vacant. 

     When she offered him some whipped cream, he dipped a finger into the bowl, drew out a glob and flicked it across the room. The dollop hung momentarily on the refrigerator door before sliding slowly downward, an albino snail leaving a wet, sticky trail.  Lois clenched her fists. Her teeth ground together and might have broken into little pieces if she hadn’t remembered herself. Gathering all her Christian strength, she calmly smiled.

     "My!  Wasn’t that interesting how that whipped cream stuck to the fridge?"

     Nathan responded by scooping out a handful of cream this time. He flung it to the opposite side of the room, where it splattered across her favorite picture of Jesus. One forgiving blue eye peered out from behind the mess, as if the Son of God had taken to voyeurism from behind the clouds.

     Lois immediately snatched up the breakfast things from the table. She scuttled the food into the refrigerator and then banged out the back door. In the garden, she folded her hands and raised them to her forehead.

     "Give me strength, dear Lord. Give me strength to receive what you have placed before me. I have waited so long for your call.” Then she hurried back inside.

     "Well, let’s do something special today," she said. She found the boy asleep, head down on the table. "Nathan! What do you want to do today? It’s your special day."

     Nathan rolled his head up and gazed at her. A line of drool extended from his bottom lip to his forearm. She had the strange feeling he was looking at her but not seeing her again.  He said nothing.

     "Well.  How about if I pick?"

     There was no indication he heard a word she said.

     "I know. Why don’t you help me gather pecans this morning? We’ll see if there are any we can salvage. If you help, you can go shopping with me later. I have to go the market today. How would you like to come along with grandmamma and we’ll stop and get an ice cream?" She peered into the boy’s unnatural eyes, looking for any sign he understood his own importance. She wondered if he would even remember the vision by now, but her faith never wavered.

     She took him outside and showed him how to tell bad pecans from those with possibility. She handed him a small wicker basket and took up a larger one herself. After a while Lois became aware of the presence of someone else in her yard. She turned and found Mrs. Johnson ambling toward her across the back lawn. Lois groaned and ordered Nathan behind the hedges. She didn’t feel like discussing the child’s oddities to anyone right now, least of all to Mrs. Johnson again. The boy complied. It was the first time he had seemed to understand anything she said.

     "Well,” Mrs. Johnson remarked, once in earshot. "Looks like the aphids got your roses this year."

     Mrs. Johnson was a small woman with dry, brittle hair and beady red-rimmed eyes. Her voice was shrill, and she talked louder than a woman of her stature should, Lois often thought. 

     "And my goodness," the pinched voice continued. "Look at those pecans. Appears the weevils got your tree. I guess you won’t have any pecans to make those wonderful pies of yours."

     Lois bristled. "The roots are deep and the tree is strong," she said. "A few weevils can’t hurt this old tree. This tree has given the best pecans for miles around, and next year it’ll do it again."

     "Well, of course, but that will be too late for this year," Mrs. Johnson observed. Her

eyes glistened, and a thin smile crept over her lips.

     "Five years running," Lois said. "Five years running I’ve won the blue ribbon. Won’t hurt to let someone else have a turn, I guess."

     Nathan suddenly shot from behind the hedges with his basket as if running from a swarm of killer bees. He was screaming like a banshee. He had filled his basket full of rocks and, upon seeing Mrs. Johnson, ran right up to her and emptied them onto her toes. He giggled and jumped up and down and clapped his hands. Lois rolled her eyes and sighed.  She wanted to cuff the child.

     "Well, looks as if he’s found the best pecans yet," Mrs. Johnson joked.

     "It’s time for his nap," Lois lied, settling on the first excuse her mind could come up with.  She took her grandson by the collar. "Time we be going in, Nathan."

     The boy twisted out of her grasp and pulled his basket over his head.  He began rocking back and forth madly and making humming sounds.

     "Have you taken him to see the doctor like I suggested?" Mrs. Johnson asked. "They might be able to tell you what’s wrong with him."

     "There’s nothing wrong with him," Lois blurted. She knocked the basket off the boy’s head and got hold of his collar again. She began making movements like she was going back to the house. "There is absolutely nothing wrong with this child. He’s been given a gift. All down my family line we’ve been blessed with certain gifts. Mental infirmity does not run in my family, thank you very much!"

     "Yes, you’ve told me your family history," Mrs. Johnson said, knowingly. "That’s why I think you ought to take him to see a professional."

     "I’m sorry," Lois said. "It’s time we be getting in." She didn’t know how to tell someone like Mrs. Johnson that her grandson had brought her a sign. She couldn’t begin to tell her that she, Lois, was chosen for a message from God. Mrs. Johnson was the kind of woman who would twist it all around into some kind of sick joke to spread around the neighborhood. It would be like casting her pearls before a swine. 

     "All right," Mrs. Johnson condescended. "Nice to see you again, Nathan." She turned to leave. Then, over her shoulder as an afterthought, she said: "If you want some nice pecans, I’ve got some just coming off the tree. I know my tree isn’t as old and stately as yours, but since you got the weevils . . . I’m just being neighborly."

     Lois jerked Nathan toward the house and didn’t bother to comment or to say goodbye.  She believed Mrs. Johnson wouldn’t know a good pecan if it rolled up and bit her on the foot. And if Lois’s roses had the aphids, the only reason in the world for it was because that annoying woman had stolen her ladybugs.

 

    They walked hand in hand to the market that afternoon. Nathan allowed her to lead him like a well-healed dog. He looked at nothing but his own feet as he shuffled along, and whenever a noise startled him, he would stop dead in his tracks and refuse to go any further.  Each time this happened Lois would have to coax him with the promise of ice cream to get him going again.

     All the way to the store she tried to get it out of him. She was losing patience and wanted to know what God had to tell her. At first she casually brought up the topic of angels, not wanting to be too direct. She asked Nathan what he thought angels might look like, but the boy said nothing. "Have you seen an angel?" she finally blurted. Nathan only stared at his sneakers and looked shell shocked from a tractor that had rumbled by.  

     It took Lois longer to reach the market than usual on account of the boy. Then, once there, he refused to step on the automatic doormat to enter the store. Lois tried to pull him inside, but Nathan backed away like a stubborn mule. When she tried to get behind and push him forward, he twisted around and began screaming like a maniac. Reverend Goodall found her in this predicament as he made his way up from the parking lot.        

     When she saw the reverend approaching, Lois quickly snatched two quarters from her purse and pressed them in her grandson’s hand. She shoved him in the general direction of a miniature carousel. The boy stared at the quarters like he didn’t know whether to eat them or to wear them. Finally, he saw the carousel and wandered off toward it.

     "Well, Mrs. Kramer," the reverend crooned when he reached her. "Who’s the handsome young man there?"

      "That’s my grandson,” Lois confessed.

      Reverend Goodall watched the boy with interest. Nathan stood near the miniature carousel, gazing at the red horse, yellow car and little police motorcycle as if he were in a trance. 

      "He’s a peculiar boy," Lois added. 

     "He looks like a very nice young man. I haven’t seen him at Sunday services. He must have just arrived for a visit."

     "Reverend, he’s just been laid on me," Lois blurted. She knew full well that Mrs. Johnson would have alerted the reverend to her grandson’s arrival months earlier, and she didn’t know why she had just lied. "He’s an odd boy but one of God’s creatures and we all have our crosses to bear," she added quickly as a cover-up. She hoped this would impress the reverend. She wanted him to know the length to which she would go to do her Christian duty, even if she hadn’t brought the child to church services because he might embarrass her.

     "Yes, the special ones are God’s favorites," the reverend nodded. Lois thought he had meant this compliment for her, but when he turned and gazed in the boy’s direction Lois looked that way too. She found her grandson standing on the little police motorcycle, pin-wheeling his arms around like a crazy person. She was certain his arms might fall off soon.

     "You don’t know what I’ve been through since he came," she heard herself saying. A lump rose in her throat and she thought she might cry. She wanted desperately to explain the boy’s importance, and the child wouldn’t stop acting like a dimwit for even one minute. She wanted the reverend to understand that the woman he was speaking to had been chosen for a revelation, that she was not just an ordinary old woman toting around some strange child.  If she could make him see the importance of it without sounding like a lunatic herself, she would have done it right then. "Be careful, Nathan," she called out instead.

     "It must be very difficult for you," the reverend sympathized. "You must have a very good heart."

     Lois felt her burden lighten then. Goose bumps stood out on her arms. She felt the reverend had just seen through to the heart of her, and she was sure she could confide in him now. He would understand her completely. Lois gathered her strength and tried to think of how she would tell him. Would she begin by reminding him of her family history?  Perhaps she would just come right out and explain that this odd boy, who was presently sitting on the carousel with his pants down, masturbating in public and in broad daylight, had been given a vision  . . .

     Her mind went instantly blank. Her head pivoted back to Nathan to see if what she thought she had seen was real, then swiveled to see if the reverend saw it, too. To Lois’ horror the reverend’s eyes were trained directly on the boy. Not only had he seen Nathan, but he continued to watch! She nearly fainted from shock before deciding anger was the better reaction.

     "Does he do that often?" Reverend Goodall asked, as if Nathan were performing some silly pantomime that he encountered often outside the market. His mind had not yet had time to react morally to what the boy was doing.

     "I - I," the stricken grandmother stammered. Blood whooshed in her ears. The muscles along her neck jumped, and Reverend Goodall dropped from view. She couldn’t see the small crowd gathering in the parking lot, pointing at the boy. All she saw was Nathan, his pants down around his ankles, his fist moving up and down to beat the band. 

     "Stop that this instant!" she bellowed. Her voice boomed, carrying across the parking lot, drawing more attention than before. "You stop that this instant, you demon!"

     Nathan leered in her general direction, a stupid smile on his face. Drool hung from the corner of his mouth. He had no intentions of stopping.

     "Perhaps we need the police," the reverend suggested, but Lois hadn’t heard him. She was already hurtling towards the boy at a full gallop, arms outstretched as if she wished to get hold of the child’s neck and squeeze the life out of him.

     "You have no sign from God!" she screamed. Her grasping hands reached him first. She clutched his shirt collar in both fists and lifted him from the carousel. Nathan wouldn’t let go of himself now out of fear, like someone hit with an electrical charge that renders voluntary movement impossible. A horrible squeal came from him, unnatural and inhuman.

"Stop that! Stop that!" she chanted over and over, shaking the boy by the collar until it appeared the pale head might come loose and roll away into the parking lot. "You have no sign from God.  You are a filthy, stupid, worthless moron," she hissed.  "You are a no-good demon from hell!"

     Nathan now lay curled in a ball on the sidewalk.  Lois’ hulking body leaned over him. She began striking him with her heavy fists. The boy tucked his hands instinctively between his legs; he drew up his knees in a fetal position. His backside was scraped and bleeding. The crowd drew closer. Someone cheered on the old woman. Someone else suggested the reverend intervene. Lois might have killed the boy had the reverend not stepped in. He wrestled with her massive arms until they released the boy.  He used his leverage to pull her up and away from the bleeding child. 

     "Leave me be," she screamed, growing hoarse now. "Leave me to teach this lunatic a lesson!"

     The reverend used every ounce of strength to restrain her.  He grunted under her assault.

      "Stop this, woman!"  He bellowed.  "Stop this you foul woman!  He’s only a child.  He’s your own flesh and blood, for God’s sake."

     Lois heard his words. They pierced the center of her brain like a hot fever. Her arms dropped to her sides and her hands opened, limply.

     Reverend Goodall let her go. He pulled Nathan from the sidewalk and helped get his pants up. The crowd moved closer, pressing in to get a better look. Lois was halfway home before anyone noticed she was gone.

     "The roots are deep and the tree is strong," she muttered to herself, marching down the street with long, heavy strides. "The roots are deep and we’re dancing with angels,” she mumbled hysterically.  

     She did not go inside when she reached the house. Instead, she went around to Ezra’s tool shed. There she took up his axe. She carried it to her garden, but the blade merely glanced off the dense trunk. She nearly slipped on a mound of withered pecans with the next swing.

     "The roots are deep," she shouted. Afternoon sunlight danced off the pecan leaves like a thousand tiny angels dancing on little green clouds. She took aim again. The axe barely took a bite off the bark. She dropped it and went back to the shed where she took up a chainsaw.  She cradled it in her arms like a child. Back at the tree, it snarled to life with one quick pull of the rope.

     "The tree is strong," she screamed over the buzz of the machine.

 

     The sheriff and a social services worker found her in the backyard.  They called Ezra at work, and he came right home. She was lying next to the felled tree, sobbing. She was clutching the trunk as if it were an old friend going on a long journey. When the sheriff asked her to get to her feet, Lois only muttered, "My pecans have the weevils." It wasn’t until then that they realized she couldn’t move. The tree laid, an unmovable weight, across her legs.

     "What have you gone and done, mother?" Ezra mumbled when he first saw her.

     Lois rested her head on a mound of pecans and her fierce eyes rolled up to the sky. She looked far away and extended the index finger of her one free hand. A small bright insect had landed on the fingernail. She trained her eyes on the ladybug and gazed in wonder. She moved her lips as if to speak to it, but the beetle parted its shell and flitted away. 

     “I’ve had my sign,” Lois whispered to Ezra instead. “I’ve been invited to dance with the angels.”


 

© 2005 Neal Dorenbosch

 

Neal Dorenbosch lives in southern Utah with his wife, seven-year-old daughter and a three-legged Great Dane named Buddha. Once a mediocre Golden Gloves boxer, Neal eventually discovered beer a less painful way of achieving altered states of consciousness. His fiction is forthcoming or has mysteriously appeared in places like The Pittsburgh Review, Southern Ocean Review, Collected Stories, The Dead Mule, The Blue Moon Review, Literary Potpourri, Lily, The Crucible, Fiction Warehouse and the Southern Cross Review. His work has been published internationally as well as in the U.S.

sndoren@msn.com