Missouri Oak

Missouri Oak

by Andrew James Rush


The sidewalk was screaming at me.

The San Francisco sun beat down on the city in the early morning bustle of that summer day in an unusually hostile way, but the children with their oversized chalk playing on the sidewalk near my stoop seemed to be spared its rage, as if they were under a completely different sun. Heat and squeals of glee bounced off of the chalk covered sidewalk at me and ricocheted off the walls of the houses and little shops, turning the whole street into an unending violent shriek.

I was still drunk and hadn't slept. Smoking cigarettes on the stoop, a battle raged in my head. I needed to be sober enough to get through security at the airport, but it would be worse to end up on the other side of the detox tremors. I was in a state and I knew it. Better just to keep a steady level of liquor in me. I snuck another glug from the flask in my pocket when the kids weren't looking.

At the airport, I stood in line for the security checkpoint sweating whiskey, and I worried that they might not let me through. I would make sure to speak very slowly, so as not to slur my words. I held myself steady with sheer willpower, my body close to collapse. I was suddenly overcome with the sensation of not really being there, half in a dream, focusing on my breathing. You can't die if you're still breathing. Intense vertigo. Wait, did I already go through security? Where were my shoes? Yes, on the conveyor belt. I needed a drink. I vaguely remembered ditching my empty flask in a trash can outside the terminal, but there was an Irish themed bar just beyond the security checkpoint.

Now I'm sitting on a barstool next to a retired insurance salesman with a half a Bloody Mary in my hand and he's talking about baseball. I don't really know anything about baseball, so I smile and nod while the warmth in my belly trickles into my veins and carries the glow of life back to my limbs and my face. He asks why I'm going to KC, and I tell him it's for my mother's funeral. He offers condolences. I tell him it's okay, she was already dead to me. I order another Bloody. They are unseasoned and uninspired, with only a hint of Worcestershire. But there's plenty of vodka in them, so who cares? I hear the announcement. My plane is boarding. I suck down the boozy tomato juice and get brain freeze from the icy mixture.

I had a window seat on the plane, and I compulsively wiped away a greasy smear on the tiny window from my unwashed hair and face with the sleeve of my hoodie, only to press my face against it again as I watched the desert beneath go on forever and ever. I ordered another Bloody Mary and wiped the smear away again. I don't know how many Bloody Mary's I ordered or how many times I wiped away the grease smear before the flight attendant said she couldn't serve me another one. I understood, I told her. Some people couldn't handle their booze. They ruin it for the rest of us, I said. I forced a smile and pressed my face against the glass again and hoped I'd been convincing. I wasn't an alcoholic. My mother was an alcoholic. I was on my way to a funeral.

People drink on the way to funerals.

And then I was standing in the driveway of my dad's place in Independence, just outside Kansas City.

The air out there was different. Older. The same air people were breathing when Harry Truman dropped the bomb. His home was less than a block from my dad's place, with a big American flag hanging over the porch and a plaque next to the door. The sun was high and it was hotter and angrier than in San Francisco. Kids chased each other with squirt guns. Squealing. Under a different sun.

I found the door unlocked, and my dad fast asleep in the living room with a half empty beer between his legs, and a burnt down cigarette butt clinging to his lips. So I spent the afternoon quietly trying to get comfortable on the couch that clearly belonged to Brewster, an abnormally large bloodhound that my dad seemed to be able to communicate with better than he ever could with any human. Brewster hated me. I didn't belong there, or at least, not on his couch.

I helped myself to a beer from the fridge and thought about my mom while my dad snored on his La-Z-Boy and Brewster glared at me from the floor. She died sober. Nobody saw that coming. Or maybe she didn't. It was a single car accident on a gravel road that she'd driven a thousand times. Her car left the road and plowed through a fence into an old oak tree she had started painting with oil on canvas in her final months. I could hear her voice, excited and stuttering on the phone a few days before she died as she told me about it. How had she gotten my number? She was painting again. Her speech fluttered around the topic, sailing off on tangents, circling around, coming back. Was she on meth? Her mind never returned to normal after meth, and I could never tell.

You couldn't tell with her anymore you know.

I thought about the last time I saw her, five years earlier. My dad and I had gone to pick her up from jail in some shit town in Kansas. She'd been arrested for vagrancy, living in a tent along the Kansas river with Larry, the skeletal meth cook she left my dad for. When the police came, Larry had jumped into the river to get away, and was never seen again. He went under the water and didn't come back up. It had been a rainy spring, and the river was higher than usual, the current stronger. He was presumed dead.

We were to take her back to the river to collect her belongings. On the way there she had pleaded with my dad to stop at a liquor store where he bought her a two dollar pint of vodka which she quickly polished off in three chugs. She was emotional and crazed, in turns crying, raging against the police who had "killed" her lover, doting on me, her "beautiful, smart boy," and excitedly telling me how she was painting again. She was always painting again. She smelled like death from an ugly, black infection on her foot where she'd shot up with a dirty needle, and her hands and face were smeared with soot, or paint, or grease.

When we had arrived at the river she had frantically rummaged through her belongings; scattered piles of filthy clothes, rusty pans and other cooking vessels, empty cans of beans and chili, and just a nonsensical collection of things like children's toys, cracked china, and outdated and broken electronics she had found while "mucking," which was her term for dumpster diving. And there had been a small stack of "paintings.” Pieces of sun bleached lumber and torn construction paper smeared with charcoal and food dye. Her eyes lit up and she ran to me with them, tears streaming down her face as she blurted out descriptions and titles for them, desperately seeking my approval. I had tried to hide my disgust, but more than ever, I had wanted her to disappear. To be gone. To never have been.

I looked up from the couch in my dad's living room at the painting of our old farm above the mantle. It was detailed and textured, and the colors and lines captured everything about it. The isolation and the familiarity, the homeyness and the history. The old windmill I climbed as a child, and the barn where I learned how to work as a young man. And my mother's signature at the bottom, dated 1994.

It was perfect.

And then I remembered the following winter after she painted that, one frigid night when my dad had woken me up from a dream and told me to get dressed. We were taking my mom to the hospital. She was catatonic and trembling, her wide open eyes darting around in her head, looking at everything, seeing nothing. Words spilled out of her mouth in bursts of nonsense. Nouns and adjectives and verbs tumbled over each other. My dad had carried her to the car in the frosty pre dawn air and I followed behind, the frozen earth crunchy beneath my feet. I would remember that night as the end of her life, and the beginning of a long nightmare that I only escaped by fleeing to San Francisco, as far away as I could get.

My dad woke up sometime just before sunset and he offered me a beer while opening one for himself. We talked for a while like two men who barely know each other. About weather. How was it in San Francisco? Was it always warm? Were there palm trees? I asked about his wife. She was fine. She was upstairs. Took a few too many goofy pills. She liked to watch the boob tube in bed. Her kids were fine. They were at their grandma's. Jason had just gotten out of jail again. Tim was going to court for a DUI. They couldn't get in too much trouble at their grandma's unless they stole the boat again and took it out on the lake. My grandma was fine. She had had a scare and gone to the hospital in March, but they got her on medication now. My brother was fine. A little trouble with the wife. Uncle Robert was fine. And on and on like that.

We drank beer and smoked cigarettes until he thought it was about time to go check on Jaclyn upstairs. Good night. There's blankets in the closet in the washroom. The funeral is at two o'clock. We need to leave by eleven.

I sat and stared at the TV. I didn't know what was on. My vision was blurring, growing dark around the edges.

My skin was hot.

My face was hot.

My breath was hot.

That night I slept, but I didn't sleep. Images and vignettes of memories tumbled through the dark at me. I saw my mom walking home across the farm from one of her midnight walks under a full October moon, leaves crunching beneath her feet, as she hummed "Forever Young" lightly to herself, in her black leather cloak with the black velvet hood over her black dress, clutching her bag of paints, her sketchpad, a camera around her neck. She saw me lying there. Sweet boy! Then I was in my first apartment in Caulfield, Missouri, where I had lived after high school. She was with Larry. He smoked cigarettes on my couch with his tattered shirt unbuttoned, revealing his hairless chest and his bony ribs. His greasy blonde hair hung like straw over his sunken eyes as he nodded along while my mom talked. My dad was a good man. He was just *simple,* that's all. He didn't understand her, didn't support her art. But Larry took care of her now. And she needed a hundred bucks, but she'd pay it back. She was good for it, Larry added.

Then I saw her on the riverbank. - I saw a demon on the riverbank. - Wailing. Ripping across the muddy ground like a tiny storm. A cyclone of refuse and debris and tattered black clothing whipped around her. I heard the sidewalk screaming. I heard the children squealing. I heard the oak tree swinging gently in a quiet breeze, and I felt the child in me falling, now forever falling, into an emptiness that has no bottom.

Now the sun is really beating on me, pouring in through the big picture window in the living room. Someone has thrown a blanket over me and it's hot. My mouth feels like I had been chewing on kitty litter. My neck makes a creaking sound like a rusty door as I try to lift my head. My arms are trembling. I smell bacon frying, and my dad comes out of the kitchen with two beers. He extends one toward me. Unless it's too early, he says. It's a funeral, I say, and I take it. When he turns around I pound it all down.

In the kitchen, I finally saw Jaclyn. She was sitting at the tiny table in the middle of the kitchen with a pile of pop culture magazines and a giant insulated mug with a straw sticking out of it, all crowded together with two plates of over easy eggs, bacon, toast, and home fried potatoes. My dad was dutifully frying up the last of the bacon, assembling his plate, with the ever present burned down cigarette butt clinging to his lips. I checked the fridge. No more beer.

Jaclyn started telling me about my flight. She bet it was long. She bet there was turbulence. At least the weather was good. There were probably crying babies. Crying babies were the worst. Her kids never cried. She had a trick for that. A little benadryl in their apple juice. Just a tiny bit. Children are really sensitive to it. And on and on like that, and I picked at my breakfast while my stomach spun around like it was panicking.

There was no more beer, and I just didn't know what. But I remembered Jaclyn's pills, and I excused myself to the bathroom and snuck into the master bedroom upstairs. Pill poppers were so predictable, so lazy. They couldn't be hard to get to. The drugs would be within reach of the bed. It took me all of ten seconds to find her stash. Dozens of prescription bottles. SOMA, lorazepam, Norcos, percocet, vicodin, tramadol, and a bunch of regular stuff that wouldn't get you high. I took a SOMA and a lorazepam and five percocets and chewed them up on the spot. Then I saw the adderall and chewed up a couple of those for good measure. They were sweet, almost like candy compared to the bitterness of the others.

I showered and brushed my long hair and my beard, and put on my only suit, which didn't quite fit. I was looking a bit like my dad, Jaclyn said, and it was true. More truthfully, I looked exactly like my dad. I always had. I remembered when he was the same age I was then. I would have been almost ten.

I looked like I was wearing my dad as a suit that was too big for me.

In the truck, my dad and Jaclyn bickered and smoked, and my dad stopped for beer. Thank christ. Then my dad and I drank beer while he drove and they bickered and smoked some more. About directions. 71 highway will be a nightmare. B highway will be too slow. Jaclyn thought I'd like to drive past the old farm. My dad thought we didn't have time. I sat in the middle and smoked and tried to listen to the CD player. The Eagles. CCR I loathe CCR. Neil Young. I turn it up and they stop bickering while Neil tells us about big birds flying across the sky, and then Bob Dylan comes on and it's "Forever Young," They started bickering again, but I wasn't there anymore. My mom was sitting on my bed with her guitar, showing me the chords, singing the words.

We drove past the farm.

Welp, there it is, my dad says. Yep. There it is, I say, but I don't look. I look, but I don't see it.

We drove quietly for another hour, just endless fields of corn and soybeans and fescue, and my dad would interrupt the silence every once in a while to comment on what the farmers were doing, and how he would have done things differently. Then we went through a little town with a gas station and a grocery store, and a little further out, past a few more fields, stood a large white building with painted aluminum siding. There was a big cross above the front entrance and a sign that said First Baptist Church of whatever the town was, and we parked in the big gravel parking lot and sat for a long minute before anybody got out.

There were some people dressed in black at the entrance and I recognized them. Uncle Robert. Aunt Joe. My grandpa Terry, who was my mom's father. He held his arms out for a hug and started crying as I approached. He was faking it. I'd never seen him cry, and I was sure he was faking it, but I hugged him anyway. His body felt old and fragile.

I was sweating through my suit, and the pills were barely holding me together. The sun raged from the sky and I felt woozy. Everyone was talking at me, telling me about my mom. How she was in heaven now. The sun raged from the sky and I was evaporating. They were standing still and I was vaporizing under the sun.

The sun was raging from the sky, but they were under a completely different sun, and I forced myself away and went inside.

I hadn't been inside a church in over a decade, and every bit of it was familiar and unwelcoming. The pews, the altar, the crosses on everything, the weird felt tapestries with trite bible verses printed on them, and the organ playing soft and sad in the background against the white noise of fifty people murmuring about my mom, about me, about my dad and his wife, and on and on like that.

There was no casket. She had been cremated, and her urn sat on a cheap foldout table in front of the podium with a bunch of photographs of her. There was one of her and my dad in front of the old cream colored '72 Buick sedan in my grandparents' driveway. Her in a white wedding gown, and my dad in a brown polyester tuxedo. It was the only photo I knew of my dad without a beard, and he looked exactly the way I had looked at twenty-one. My mom wasn't showing, but she was pregnant with me, and she was smiling a kind of Mona Lisa smile. I'd seen that picture a thousand times, but I'd never noticed that smile. I looked closer. There was fear in that smile. And sorrow. Sacrifice. My dad looked proud and happy, but she was watching her dreams slip away. Traded for a husband and a child.

Then it started and there were some songs and the fat preacher with the push broom mustache told some stories about my mom and how she came to the church five years ago seeking a way out of addiction and then god helped her. She loved Jesus so much and she was in heaven with him now. She didn't suffer in the accident because Jesus was with her, and on and on like that, but I wasn't there anymore.

I was kicking down the door to my parents bedroom on the farm where my mom had the barrel of my dad's shotgun in her mouth, and I rushed in and tore it from her hands and then she screamed. She was tired of the world and tired of my dad and tired of me. Hate and alcohol vapor seethed from her pores, and the vein in her forehead pulsed. I was never going to amount to anything, just like my dad. She knew me better than anyone, and I was a fraud. I would never be a rock star! The words spewed out of her mouth like vomit. She grabbed a handful of her nightgown and beat her chest with her fist. She was the artist in the family. I was just a wannabe, a hanger on. I was nothing. I was really my father's son. I wasn't her son. Her skin was red and her chin was flecked with spittle and my arms trembled as I raised the barrel of the gun at her, only half aware that I was doing it and frightened of myself because I was. I looked down the barrel of the gun at her and I saw her eyes, and they were open. For a brief second I saw her eyes and there was a glimmer of hope, of a way out. She wanted me to do it. She wanted that beautiful tragedy, that perfect ending. But instead I lowered the barrel and I took the gun to my room, and I locked the door and listened to Nirvana on my headphones loud enough not to hear anything that happened in the next room and I told myself that she didn't matter to me anymore. I didn't care anymore.

And then it was over and the preacher asked everybody to leave except for immediate family. We stood in a circle with him and he said a prayer, and then he asked if anybody wanted to say anything.

Now I'm standing in this circle with my family and I'm speaking, but I don't know what I'm saying. I'm just listening to myself speak, and I'm telling everyone how I want to forgive her but I can't, and I lied to her on the phone when I said I did, and I'm sure she knew it. She knew that I didn't forgive her and it wasn't an accident. It couldn't be an accident because she told me about the oak tree, and she knows that I don't forgive her and she's dead and now I'm crying. I think I'm crying. There are tears on my face but I don't feel anything inside. I'm empty inside. My insides are torn out, and I don't feel anything, and I don't forgive her, and I'm saying all of this, and they're all looking at me, and I stop.

***

A little boy sat in the passenger's seat while his mother drove and he searched through the big canvas bag full of cassette tapes. The Band? Dan Fogelberg? Not Bruce Springsteen. Bob Dylan, that's the one. He popped it in and she immediately started singing along, and she knew all the words. "Johnny's in the basement mixing up the medicine and I'm on the pavement singing 'bout the government!" She drummed her fingers on the beige colored steering wheel and he laughed, not because it was funny, but because he was entertained. The sun was high and the fields were lush and green. You could almost hear the photosynthesis chugging along with the old cream colored Buick as it coasted down the highway like a big land boat. The plants were gobbling up the delicious sunlight in that early spring day. Getting while the getting was good.

He played with his little plastic dinosaur, making it roar as it roamed the tan landscape of the bench seat between himself and his mother, and she laid down the rules. They were not going to tell his dad that he’d skipped school, and if anyone at the museum asked, he would say he was homeschooled, and this was an educational trip. It really was, after all, but it would also be fun! Afterward they would get ice cream, and on Monday he would tell his teacher he'd had a tummy ache.

They were in the city now, and Bob was telling them about a leopard skin pillbox hat, and they took the exit off the highway and into the plaza district. She pointed out the fountains as the Buick chugged through the dense traffic. Kansas City had more fountains per capita than any city outside of Rome. Per capita means "for each person," she added. Oh, he said. He had imagined fountains were like little mountains with water spewing out of the tops of them, but they were much more interesting than that, and each one was unique.

They pulled into the parking lot of the Nelson-Atkins museum of art and the engine chugged a few more times after she turned it off with her key and they got out. She came around to the passenger’s side of the car and wiped something off of his cheek with her thumb. It was cool and mild out, but he could feel the heat from the engine as we walked past its front grill and toward the entrance. Those are shuttlecocks she said, pointing to the famous front lawn of the museum, and the little boy saw the giant white tops of them leaning askew as if they'd been dropped by some enormous person, and he imagined high striped socks and short shorts plunging down out of the clouds.

He needed to be quiet inside, like a library. They toured through the Asian art wing and the old Greek statues and the renaissance paintings. The museum bustled quietly; respect and sophistication hung thick in the air as adults quietly murmured big words to each other. They made their way to the Monet exhibit, and dominating the exhibit was a giant, three paneled painting of water lilies that stretched across a huge wall in the back. From far away, it clearly depicted a rich, living scene, but the closer they got to it, the images started to break down until it was abstract strokes of color. Green and cream and gold, blue and yellow and white.

Monet had been almost completely blind when he painted this, she told the boy, and his hands were so feeble he had to tie his paintbrush to his fingers, wrapping his whole hand in strips of torn cloth. The little boy stood close to the central panel and wondered how on earth the artist could have known what it would look like from far away as he swished and dabbed his bound hand against the canvas with his broad brush.

***

I took the L train back to the Castro station from the airport, and I walked the two blocks to my house, still in my suit, as the afternoon sun poured down on me, warming my face. The few hours of sleep I'd gotten on the plane had refreshed me a bit, and I felt a little steadier than I had in days. The children near my stoop were squealing and chasing each other, thumping their little feet over the chalk drawings of flowers and trees, tagging each other. You're it! No, you're it! I was on home base!

I walked up the stairs of my stoop and discovered a large, flat, square package wrapped in brown paper leaning on my door with my name and address on it. The return address was my grandmother's, and the postmark was a week old. I picked it up and sat on the steps and tore the paper off, revealing a canvas.

It was the oak tree.

Gone were the solid lines of the old farm, replaced now with broad swishes and dabs of color. Green and cream and gold. Blue and yellow and white. If I focused on any one part of it, the image broke down, but taken as a whole, it captured everything about that tree, lush and full on a beautiful spring day, the amorphous yellow sun high in the sky behind it, feeding it. You could almost hear the photosynthesis chugging away as it swung gently in a quiet breeze.

Tucked behind the canvas was a small, handwritten note.


Dearest Rewster, my sweet boy,

I hope one day you'll forgive me for the things I did and the way I was. I'm not sure I'll ever forgive myself. It takes time, they say, but we have that now. I've been clean and sober for five years today! I didn't have your address, but your grandmother promised she'd make sure you get the painting. I call it "Missouri Oak."

I'm so proud of you living in San Francisco! You used to talk about living there one day when we would listen to the Beatles together and talk about the sixties. I'm sure it's a little different now. Maybe one day you can tell me about it!

Please take care of yourself, and I hope you'll call. I love you so much!

Your mom.


Now I'm sitting in the bright sun on my stoop with this canvas in my hands and the letter by my side on the steps, and there's a gust of wind as the fog pushes over the top of Twin Peaks, and the letter flies away, sailing and fluttering down 18th street, and I hear the sidewalk and it's singing now. The children squeal with glee, and their squeals bounce off of the walls of the houses and shops, up into the bright sky, up, up, among the swishes and dabs of cream and blue.


 

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