Post Road Magazine #25

The Stages of Civility

Teri Carter

On a Sunday in summer 2004, I call my mother's husband to tell him I'll be coming for a visit. "It'll be quick," I say, "just a couple of days. I signed up for summer school, so I need to get back for that."

Wade is excited about the visit and says as much, but he ignores my school comment. He thinks I'm too old, at almost forty, to be getting some degree. Plus we're still awkward, unsure of who we are to each other in these two years since my mother died. He says, "Bring that husband with you."

I say, "Not this time. Somebody has to work."

"Well kiddo, it's a good thing you're comin' because I've got a surprise. And maybe you can talk your brothers into stoppin' by, too. I swear I never see nobody on this farm."

"You might see Chuck while I'm there, but not Butchie. I'm sure of that." Butchie and I have not spoken in more than a year. Last time we talked, he wanted to borrow money to make his truck payment, and I said no, then spoke my mind. I should have given the money and kept my mind to myself. That's what our mother would have said. "So what's the surprise?" I say to Wade. "I'm not big on surprises. I'd rather come prepared."

"You'll see. You'll see when you get here."

The day I go home, I'm up before dawn and by noon I've flown from Minneapolis to St. Louis, rented a car, and driven the 120 miles south. The same 120 miles I've always driven, but this time the miles feel different, like they're clicking in reverse. Twenty years they were married, yet I can't recall Wade and I having a single conversation without her, and the closer I get to home the farther away I feel, like I'm checking a task off of my to do list.

Look after Wade, my mother had said.


At the last mile marker, my rental car eases off the blacktop of County Road 213, and I hear the slow crunch of Wade's gravel driveway. I honk the horn twice, like we do in these parts, to announce myself, and park under the familiar shade of three pecan trees. When I open the car door, the cold of the air-conditioning drains out and I suddenly feel overdressed in what Wade would call my city clothes, jeans and a black t-shirt, unfit and unprepared for Southeast Missouri summer.

Wade shuffles his size fourteen work-boots out and across the gravel driveway and scoots on ahead. He grins big and waves for me to follow. "Hey kid. Thought you'd never get here. I got somebody out here you need to meet!"

Somebody? He heads off toward the old red barn, his steps faster than I've seen in recent years, his movement fluid and easy. Before he gets to the barn he stops as if he's forgotten something and calls back to the house for his beagle mutt, Buddy. "Come on boy!" he yells. "Come on, now!" Buddy does not come. Wade calls again. No Buddy. Wade walks on. I turn and spot the dog's freckled face, flat to the ground underneath the front porch. I try clapping my hands and calling him in a high pitch, my happy voice, but that doesn't work either. Buddy doesn't budge. When I turn around, I see Wade has already made the turn into the barn and disappeared.

The barn floor is strewn with fresh hay that feels like a crunchy cushion underneath my slick-bottomed shoes. I inch my way in, careful to keep my eyes on the ground, careful not to step in a hole, or on a misplaced shovel or fork or rake or hoe. When I reach Wade, he's standing like pride itself next to a tall, chestnut-colored mare. A fine white stripe separates her long-lashed, bulging brown eyes. She pokes her head out and over a metal gate and lifts her nose in my direction.

"Oh my god," I say, reaching up. "You always said you wouldn't have a horse." I cup the mare's nose in my hands and rub. She nuzzles.

Wade says, "Meet Tess. Well, Tess is her name, but I call her Babe." He used to call my mother Babe. I lean in closer and pull her nose down so I can touch her forehead with mine. Wade reaches down and picks up a handful of hay to lure her away. "Come on here, Babe. Come on now." She digs her lips and teeth into Wade's hay-filled hand. My mother had wanted a horse and he'd said no. A firm no. "That's my girl," he coos, "that's my Babe."

We leave Tess—Babe—in the barn, and I follow Wade to the house. He seems to be in a hurry. Before we reach the screen door, a dirt-covered Buddy scrambles out from underneath the front porch and waddles up to say hello. I squat down to pet him. As usual, he rolls over on his back, all four legs stiff in the air. "Hey boy. Did you forget who I am?" Buddy wriggles upside down on a dirt patch next to driveway as I rub the underside of his chest and say, "You're getting so fat!"

"He's a little hog, all right," Wade says, holding the back door open for me. "By-damn if he don't gobble up his food like there's no tomorrow. Plus, I think he's been goin' up the road there to the Enderle's old place and gettin' whatever scraps they throw out."

Inside, my mother's kitchen looks the same, cluttered and dark, even with the strong, late-morning sunshine. Unopened mail litters one end of the table. The ceiling fan whirs above. Coffee brews in its same spot on the counter by the sink. Wade pours two cups. We take our places at the table, and I feel my mother's empty chair, like a fixed pillar, between us.

I ask for details about Tess, for the story. Wade tells me she's about twenty years old and that he picked her up cheap from a farmer he knows from the co-op. "I've had her a few weeks now. She's a good old girl. With Babe and Buddy and this house, I might need to get me some old nigger hand to help around here."

"Wade," I say, my tone warning, scolding. He chuckles. He likes to use the word "nigger" with me, like he's testing me, trying to see if I'm still a southerner, trying to see if I'm still one of them. I feel like I'm on stage and he's given me my cue. I remain silent. My silence holds my ground.

"Nah, shoot," he says, finally. "I don't need no help," and he makes a fist and uses his knuckles to rub my arm, up and down, up and down, like a washboard. It burns, but I don't complain.

"I thought you said you'd never get a horse, that horses are a waste of good money."

He waves me off with both hands. "Not this old girl. Babe, she'll earn her keep and keep me company here in my old age. I'm hoping Butchie and Chuck and their wives will come out here more, come visit, maybe go to church on a Sunday, cook us dinner, help out around here, ride the horse."

"Good luck with that," I say, understanding why they don't come, wondering if he's already called them, if they're already on their way.

The cuckoo clock above the kitchen sink reads four o'clock. We've been sipping coffee and wiping our brows and fanning ourselves with unopened mail for a good two hours. When I mention I'll be staying in town at the Drury Lodge, I scan Wade's face for clues he's upset. I see nothing, but I'm unsure and afraid to say more.

I stand up, reach for my purse. "I guess I should get going." Wade follows me out the door like he's as ready for me to go as I am. The screen slams behind us.

"You comin' down for breakfast tomorrow?" he says. "I think Butchie and Chuck both said they might stop by."

"You know Butchie won't want to see me. Chuck and Jennifer said when they told him I would be in town this week, that maybe we could get together and barbeque, he'd said, 'You can have her!' That's a direct quote, I think."

"Got-damned bastards," Wade says. He's gone back into the house and is standing like a guard in the doorway, talking through the screen. "You come down tomorrow. Brothers or not, we'll saddle up old Babe and take her for a ride."

The next morning I wake before six, and outside you can see the steam in the air, like the whole place is already baking. The minute I pull in Wade's driveway, Buddy pops out to say hello, but once he figures out I haven't got any food for him, he slinks back underneath the porch. I find Wade in his spot at the kitchen table. Without him having to ask, I cook up a big breakfast: sausage patties, eggs, toast, sweet buns, juice. While I wash up, Wade looks longingly out the screen door and tells me it's probably too hot to ride Babe. Instead, we wait. We sit in the kitchen and drink another pot of coffee and wait to see if either of my brothers will show up. I ask about the neighbors and Wade fills me in on town gossip. He tells me stories he's heard about my brothers and their wives. I talk about the classes I'll be taking in summer school and into the fall semester. We both nod and feign interest. Eventually, quiet filters over us. No one stops by. We sip and sip our coffee. The ceiling fan whirs. After two days of this routine, I rinse out my coffee cup for the last time and wave goodbye. Check.

Back home in Minneapolis, summer slides by, and I'm well into fall and the routine days of a full load of classes when Chuck's wife, Jennifer, calls. "Wade wanted me to let you know he's in the hospital," she says. "He's okay, but he's having a triple bypass tomorrow."

"Did he have a heart attack?"

"Stress test. He was already at the hospital. They took him right off the treadmill and admitted him."

"How long will he be in there?"

"At least a few days. They boot you out pretty quick, I think, even for a bypass."

I think of the farm, the animals. "Are you guys going to be able to take care of Tess and Buddy?"

"Oh my God, that poor horse! He finally got rid of her about two weeks ago. You should have seen her hooves." She tsk-tsks.


"Wade had no business, no business, getting that horse. You know how cheap he is! And horses need a lot of care. Anyway, he said she didn't seem 'right' one day and he had to call the vet to come out. Apparently the guy had a fit when he saw her, which pissed Wade off. Told Wade she was depressed, to which Wade said, 'Depressed?! She's a got-damned horse!'" My stomach sinks. This is not the Wade I saw last time I was home,

but I recognize him. "You said her hooves. What was wrong with her hooves?"

Jennifer's voice shoots up an octave. I've never heard her this incensed. "Basically splitting and rotting from the inside from standing in that damned muddy stall all the time, not to mention how hot and stuffy it was in there. I'm surprised she didn't suffocate to death. Plus horses are social animals, you know, and she just lived in that stall, all by herself, all summer. Made me sick, I'm telling you."

"I thought you guys took the kids down there to ride her all the time." She forces a laugh. "Are you joking? He kept saying she wasn't ready

to ride yet. All he'd let the kids do was pat her on the head and feed her carrots, and you know that kept them interested for about a week." "That sounds about right."

Jennifer sighs, deep, long sighs. "Well, my god, I felt sorry for her. Poor horse. Thankfully the vet knew some guy who wanted her and he begged Wade to let the guy take her. Else she'd probably be dead by now."

I'm so angry, trying to sound calm. "She's better off."

"To tell you the truth, I'm surprised he didn't keep her out of spite. You know how he is."

I do know, I think. I know how he is. I know how we all are. How uncaring and distant we can be, yet still keep up pretenses that all is well, like it's been bred and nurtured in us. Not that we all got along so great before our mother died, but we were more civil then, more in the habit of biting our tongues and appearing, on the outside at least, to get along. By now, my brothers would have come to see me. By now, we'd have sat around that kitchen table, thinking of stuff to say. I was tired of seeming to get along. I could have loaned Butchie that money he'd asked for, but I didn't want to. I said no. My mother would have said to be civil, to give him the money and to keep quiet about it. But I'd wanted to prove some point, and now I can't recall what the point was.

Jennifer calls to tell me Wade came through the surgery. He goes home to the farm. All seems well. A week later, however, he spikes a fever and a staph infection lands him right back in the hospital. Jennifer calls again, and this time tells me I should come home. Come home and help.

"Help do what?" I say.

"Help, I don't know. Talk to his doctors. Visit him. Keep him company. He's going to be in the hospital awhile now," she says. "They removed the staples in his chest but for now they have to leave it open."

"Leave his chest open?"

"That, and he's on high dose antibiotics until the infection is completely gone. They'll stitch him back up and send him home when he's cured. He's in pretty bad shape, and we all have to work." She emphasizes the word work and I suddenly hear what she's saying. She's saying, You're a stay-at-home wife who's going back to school. She's saying, School is not the same as having a job. She's saying, Shut up, and get down here, and do your fucking part.

That night I don't sleep. The next morning I book my airline ticket and begrudgingly let my professors know I'll be gone for a week. Family emergency.

When I land in St. Louis, I discover the airline has lost my luggage. Carrying only my purse, I rent the usual car and drive the two hours south, arriving after it's good and dark. Minutes before closing time, I'm buying basic toiletries at the beauty supply store across the street from Drury Lodge. The clerk behind the counter is listening to talk radio. She turns up the volume when the Rush Limbaugh Show comes on. He's praising President Bush for doing the job in Iraq and ranting about the Mexico border issue. I set my basket on the counter and while the clerk rings me up, she says with a sweet sigh, "Don't you just love Rush?" This might be my hometown, but it is also Rush Limbaugh's and I know better than to speak against him. I pretend to dig for something in the bottom of my purse. She says, "Thank God for our Rush! He's got them liberal democrats by the balls, he does. He should run for president, then we wouldn't have all these problems with the Mexicans taking over our country. Tell me I should learn to speak Spanish. Shoot-fire, I say! Speak Spanish. When hell freezes over!"

I hand her my credit card.

When I check into the Drury Lodge, Martha, the desk clerk, welcomes me back and assures me she'll call the minute my luggage arrives. In my room, I take a cold shower and crawl naked into the cheap, scratchy sheets. My nonsmoking room smells like smoke. I think about asking to move, but fall asleep before I can decide if it's worth it.

The next day at the hospital, I'm still wearing the clothes I traveled in—a light sweater that feels too heavy, and jeans. I see that Wade's chest is, in fact, split open and stuffed with thick mounds of white gauze. He is happy to see me but in a foul mood. An African-American nurse is working that week's morning shift and he swears she's trying to kill him. "That nigger bitch is got-damned worthless!" he yells, not bothering to wait until she's out of earshot.

"Wade!" I say. "Shit. Enough."

Our first words to each other: nigger and got-damned and shit.

He keeps on. He's not teasing this time, not looking to play some game with me. "She's the only one of the whole lot not doin' her gotdamned job. All them other nurses are great, I'm tellin' you. This one ought to have her black nigger ass fired!"

"Maybe it would help if you stopped calling her names," I say. "Jesus fucking Christ."

"Don't you take the lord's name!"

Not fifteen minutes later, I'm sitting in the chair by his bed reading a People magazine when I hear him mutter, "Worthless got-damned nigger." I look up to see the nurse walking down the hall and I slap the magazine closed. Wade pretends to ignore me. I say, "Hey. Hey, you. If she's not trying to kill you yet, she will pretty soon if you don't knock it off."

Wade starts to laugh. "Don't make me laugh. It hurts."

"I'm not kidding. If she doesn't kill you, I'm thinkin' maybe I might." He smiles big and says, "Oh, nigger, nigger, nigger, nigger."

To prove I'm not playing, I put down my magazine and grab a thick novel out of my bag, something I'm supposed to be reading for school, and a notebook and pen. Wade rolls his eyes.

When he finally nods off I go back to the Drury Lodge, where my luggage has finally arrived, and see that Jennifer has left a message that Wade's neighbors, the Enderles, are looking after Buddy. I feel a pang in my stomach. Buddy. I'd forgotten all about Buddy.

That night I hole up in my room, smoke-stench and all, and watch CNN and eat fast food, a Burger King chicken sandwich and fries. I read my novel and, following the study guide, take notes. Before I go to sleep, I tuck my cell phone next to my pillow, in case the hospital or my brothers call, only to realize I've already been here twenty-four hours and have yet to hear from anyone. Except Jennifer. I keep the phone there anyway.

Lying alone in the dark, I hear businessmen talking in the hall outside my room about some deal, and I recall hearing Maya Angelou speak on campus a few nights before I left for this trip. "Used to be," she'd said in her slow-timbred voice, "when someone told a joke about blacks or Mexicans or Catholics at some dinner party, I would show my disapproval with my silence. Didn't want to rock the boat. Didn't want to make a scene. Didn't want to call attention. But now (her voice had thundered with the 'now'), now I turn on my heel and take up my pocketbook and my wrap and out the door I go! Even if I'm the guest of honor!" The audience laughed.

I feel like a guest with no honor. It's hard to come home because it's hard to keep my mouth shut anymore, too hard to play nice and keep the peace. I've still not seen nor spoken to Butchie or Chuck, and I understand as I lie here in my hometown hotel, in my stinking rented room, that we've all disconnected. And I don't have the skills, or even the desire, to reconnect us.

As the week goes on, the antibiotics stave off the infection and Wade's doctors schedule a time to close his chest. I call my brothers to tell them when I'll be leaving. They don't answer. I leave voicemails for both. At night, I turn my phone to silent and leave it in my purse, but even that is some kind of act because I check the phone first thing to see if I've missed their calls.

For the next few days, I sit in the hospital room with Wade. His mood has lightened a bit more each day, but the minute the African-American nurse comes on duty he goes back to spitting out his racial epithets, then looks at me and grins, like he's won. I've given up saying anything, as anything I might say just eggs him on. That evening I follow the nurse to the desk to apologize for his behavior, but she lays her hand gently on my arm and says, "That's real sweet of you, but sugar, I've been at this job and at this hospital goin' on some thirty years, and I can tell you he's not even the worst of them." I say I'm sorry anyway. She says, "He'll be home in a few days."

Back in Wade's room, he nods off and I sort my anger and embarrassment methodically, like you might sort socks in the laundry. I'm so angry I'm numb. I watch him sleep—his cotton-packed chest exposed and vulnerable—and all I can think about is how hateful and selfish and cruel he can be. How hateful and selfish and cruel I feel when I'm around him, when I'm around any of them. I think of Tess—Babe—of her rotting hooves, suffocating and alone, out in the barn. Of Buddy, the dog, cowering, day after day after day, under the front porch. I look at Wade one last time. His chest rises and falls. I sneak out of the hospital without saying goodbye.

The next morning I rise too early. It's not even light. I shower, dress, and pack. I pay my bill at the front desk, and the clerk says, "Come back soon!" I toss my luggage in the back seat of the car and start driving.

Twenty minutes later, I ease off County Road 213 onto Wade's gravel driveway. I park under the three pecan trees and stop myself before I honk the horn.

I tug at the back screen and try the main door, hoping—hoping for what? The handle is stiff and cold, unyielding. I let the screen door rest against my backside while I cup both hands to my face and peek through the door's small window. I'm surprised by how still it is, how empty, how empty and closed up and like some stranger's house.

I sink down onto the concrete step and peer out over Wade's fields, his endless acres of open land, and instinctively I call for the dog. "Buddy! Here boy!" When Buddy doesn't come, I peek under porch. He's not there. "Buddy!" I yell. "Buddy!" I call for him over and over and hear nothing, nothing but my own voice. I want to leave, need to leave, need to get on the road and out of town. I keep checking my watch. I even stand a few times and make for my car, but then I sink right back down and stay put. I stay put, but no matter. Buddy never comes.

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