So Great A Distance
Cicadas were screaming in the late summer heat all around us. The trees echoed with their calls, and the burning wind carried the noise all around us. A thunder storm was gathering together across the plains. The clouds jostled and crowded each other, piling ever higher on the horizon. From everywhere, and ever more strongly with every wind, came the smells of baking grains in the sunshine. Some from the wheat fields beyond the trees and some from the bruised meadow grass where we lay.
The tall seed laden grasses swayed back and forth, making a quiet hiss as their dry stems and leaves brushed against each other. Everything was hot enough to melt under the afternoon sun, even the ground we lay on radiated heat against our cotton summer shirts. Thunder rumbled low in the distance as we watched the thunderhead form.
I was ten years old. I’d be eleven come school season. Blake turned thirteen the month before. We were neighbors, but more than that really. He lived with his grandparents on their farm, the back fields of their land met the back fields of ours. We had been together our whole lives, my Momma had been friends with his Momma before she got mixed up in the city, had a baby and sent him away. She said she owed it to the woman his Momma used to be to help look after him and to check in on him from time to time. So I had always known him. His grandparents retired and sold off their stock and part of their land. They were old and tired, so he spent most of his time with us on my Daddy’s farm.
Blake and I were absolute best friends. Closer than siblings. I loved him just as much as my own self. We’d always been together, as long as there had been a me there had been an us. And there always would be. Or at least that’s what my ignorant child mind believed.
Lightning reached out from the cloud in the far distance. It was spectacular, branching out like tree roots in the sky and clouds. It was a long while before the thunder reached our ears. The bugs around us sensed the coming weather and heightened their calls to an ever louder frenzy before they would be silenced.
“Gracie?” Blake rolled his head on his arms, looking in my direction.
“Yeah?” I answered, my eyes locked on the thundercloud in case in should miss any of that beautiful lightning.
“School’s starting in two weeks.” He said passively. I nodded. School was okay, but the less talk about its impending arrival the better. “Gracie try not to be too emotional, but I didn’t tell you that I have to leave here.”
He paused a minute, tucked his hands farther under this head and looked up at the sky. “Gramma’s real sick, the doctors say she wont make it through the winter. Grampa is sending me to my aunt’s in New York for the school season so I wont be in their way.”
I rolled over and thought about it a minute, my head rested on a fist. I chewed my lip and flicked pieces of grass stems over Blake’s head with my free hand. The ones that hit him stuck to the sheen of sweat on his face and neck. “You mean New York, Missouri? That’s only a few miles from here.”
“Quit doin' that, Grace!” He said in one of his new teenage temperamental tones as he pushed my hand down and swiped my pile of ammunition. “No, not Missouri. I mean New York state. Just outside New York City. Some place called Millwood.”
“That’s like five hundred miles away!” I shouted. Tears started pooling in my eyes at the thought of it. It made no difference that it was much farther than five hundred miles, it still felt like the whole blackness of space.
“God, you are a pain some times. I swear. Stop crying. Its only for the school year, Grampa says he’ll need me around next summer and that Auntie will send me home on the plane the last day of school. Its only a few months.”
I didn’t mean to, but I started bawling. It wasn’t intentional, there was just something about the way he so easily combined the words “just” and “months”. Blake sat up and looked at me a minute. I tried not to look at him, there was nothing less cool than crying like a little girl, especially when you are a little girl and spend all your time trying to seem tough. His face scrunched up and he seemed like he might just shove me into the ground and storm off like he had recently been in the habit of doing whenever I annoyed him.
The advancing winds from the storm raced across the flat land and first hit the trees and then our meadow of grass and finally dashed against us. I was trying to calm myself, and keep my hair out of my wet mouth as the wind flipped it around. I finally looked up, once I was a little more self contained. His eyes started to soften a little.
“Don’t worry Gracie-Bug, we’ll always be together in the end. I promise.” He almost had to shout because the wind was so strong. It whipped the tall grassed around our waists as he helped me stand up. His clumsy child hands wiped tears off my face with the bottom of his stained white shirt and gave me a quick merciful hug. “Run on home now, we’ll both barely make it to our houses before this storm hits.” He shoved me in the right direction, and took off alone the opposite way.
My holey Keds scuffled in the limestone gravel of the tractor yard as I raced towards the house. Daddy was standing on the back stoop watching the storm as it threw itself across the whole sky, he waited for me. A heavy wall of rain moving faster than I was passed the barns and equipment and myself and raced away past the house. I was glad for the rain; I was so wet no one could tell I had tears on my face.
Momma was cooking dinner for us as always. Her swollen pregnant belly rested against the counter while she stirred up some corn bread batter. Aunt Sissy, Daddy's sister, curled a lip at me through the living doorway while she worked on a crochet square. Her mind wasn't all right, and she hated us, under that black mop of frizzy hair and graying eyebrows. My tongue pushed past my lips of its own volition, because if he'd been there that's what Blake would do. My fork chased peas and carrots around my plate that whole meal. Nothing wanted to get in my mouth, and I certainly didn't want it there. It seemed the world was much stronger than my ignorance had ever thought to imagine it.
It was that fall that I learned what distance really encompassed. I'd always thought the only thing that ever gave distance any relevance anyway was the time it took to journey the space between two points. But I'd soon learn otherwise. All the space between, all the time to travel it, meant nothing for the obstacles along the way. Blake never did come home. Just like he'd never been intended to be brought home. The doctor's were right about his Gramma. She died two months later, something went wrong and she bled inside until her lungs filled right up. She looked pasty and transparent, her bony hands looking heavy and thick crossed across the pink dress she wore in the casket. Some how Blake wasn't there. No one was there, really. Except other old people waiting their turn in the slow shuffling line from the parlor door to the old man sitting beside the casket. Each peered down at their old friends. As if reaching the sickening realization of their braver counterpart who'd taken the great plunge before them, wondering what their own jumps would look like in the end.
Blake's Grampa had been more distraught than anyone imagined. It broke his heart, and his mind. We all wondered for a long while if he'd manage that place on his own. Just one old man living on the income of his leased out fields. Daddy mulled it over around mouthfuls of food. Momma whispered in hushed tones into the telephone about it. I sat in the field where Blake should be and looked at the old place, wishing it'd look alive again, and not just a hazing gray thing in a clump of overgrown trees.
Letters had bled from my mailbox like a river at first.
“Dear Blake, When are you coming home? I miss you.”
“Dear Blake, come home for Christmas, Momma says we can get you at the airport. I miss you.”
“Dear Blake, Tammy Hill says you're never coming home, so I kicked her. She doesn't know anything. I miss you.”
“Dear Blake, There was a tornado in Colton, I saw the funnel from your front porch. Come home. I miss you.”
The same letter over and over. A vast army of written words marching into a void. Tiny ticker-tape pieces of my soul slowly wasted on the passing breeze.
Eventually that clump of trees that marked the edge of my tiny farm world, that tiny harbor that anchored Blake to me, broke free. The state was forced to step in and take his Grampa to a home for old people. He slipped on ice on the porch and no one found him for a whole day and a half. After a couple years the county collected the farm for the taxes that eventually built up against it. It was all so simple and sterile. No discussions, no talk, no warning. Grampa was gone, the place was lonely for him, and then suddenly it wasn't even his anymore anyway.
I remember that day just as well as when Blake told me about New York. Hope died then. Two winters later, standing in the middle of the long dirt road in front of that old low-rise hip-roofed house that needed more paint than any geriatric couple could ever put on it. Hope died. Wind whipped up loose flecks of frozen dirt and flung them at me and the group of bidders that'd come to try to buy the little eighty acres and falling-in house. My arms folded across my chest and I scowled at them the way only a thirteen year old girl can. Momma sat in the car while the baby brother slept in his seat. Daddy stood in the middle of the group and waited for the war to begin.
And I despised them all for what they didn't know. Didn't matter who bought the place. Blake wouldn't ever come back to it. I wished and prayed he'd surprise us all and drive across the country from that far off land of cities and broken dreams and claim what I knew should have been his. Not matter how hard I looked down the road not a single vehicle was produced. Those people all stood there under the hazelnut tree in the yard, entirely unaware of the nights I'd climbed its branches and let myself in the bedroom window it grew beside. Or how there was once a tire swing that hung for half a summer on a braid of baling twine just above their heads. And how we'd snuck and laughed just to collect enough of it, and find an old tire in the rubbish heap out back. Or how I'd burned my finger sliding down it and Blake had snuck inside his Gramma's bathroom and gotten me a bandaid. Beyond the quite hush of bidders talking there was a silence brought on by winter. The tree was leafless and dead in the winter. The house was falling in. The upstairs bedroom was empty. And just like Blake the swing was long gone.
“He's never coming home.” I pouted that night at the dinner table.
“Likely not, Gracie.” Daddy said, reading the paper with the baby on his knee and waiting for Momma to mash potatoes, indifferent to the importance it held for me.
“I hate him.” I whispered with finality.
Momma sat the last dish on the table and looked as though she might have words with me, but instead she sat in her chair and cleared her throat. “Write him another letter, Honey. It'll make you feel better.”
I didn't want to write another darn letter. I didn't want to ask again for a phone number that was too expensive to call. I didn't want the space between us. I hadn't asked for any of it. But it ate my insides out like a cavity just the same. “I don't want to feel better. He doesn't write back, not once. He's so gone he's... I just hate him. The liar. ”
Daddy didn't win the house. Some big farm twenty miles away did. They razed that old white house that summer. It's peeling paint and crooked shutters and my dreams burned with it. Occasionally my hand turned to the pen and I'd bleed out a few lines for the letter carrier to take away.
“Dear Blake, I hate you for leaving me. They took your Grampa away and burned the house. I wish you'd come home, you should have saved it.”
“Dear Blake, They grew sorgum on your Grampa's land. They don't know what they're doing. Come home.”
It was a stemming tide, a dying.
How many times his birthday passed I couldn't count. I stopped remembering Christmases where we wrote letters to Santa and ate as much cookies as we made for him. I stopped thinking about how we'd pick him up Easter Sunday, early in the morning, and take him to church with us. Me in a lace-trimmed yellow dress, and him in a suit and tie that matched Daddy's. I forgot how his voice sounded when it promised we'd be best friends until we died. We weren't friends, and we weren't dead either. Your mind will remind you of things for a lifetime. But I learned to forget him when I was awake. Dillon Firth helped me forget, he taught me a different kind of love. Something furious and intense, like a sparkler lit up on a summer night. It was fast and greedy and gratifying to love someone I didn't know. High school sports and projects ate up my time. There was no distance between myself and anything then. It was all in arms reach. For a long while it was all raised under my fingertips like braille. And I completely forgot about Blake and the girl who loved him for a little while.
Death is a funny distance. You can hold the hand of a dead person and still not cross the space between you. I thought about that in college. That horrible sinking finality that is imposed on you without any permission or warning. The first person I wanted was the same I never could find.
“Dear Blake, Dillon broke up with me. Momma died. I don't miss you like I did. But I miss my friend. I wish you'd visit home. After college I'll have a real job and life, far away from here. I hope you're happy wherever you are.” Final words into the dark.
College seemed eternal at the time, but looking back it was so short. And it ended unexpectedly, right along with every single one of my plans.
Song birds seemed to shout over each other in the trees and bushes. Cars sped and slowed and honked. People came and went from my building. The big double doors clanged and belched students into the flowering spring day on and endless interval. I sat in the wide window of my dorm room and held a phone to my ear that had been buzzing only seconds before.
“Your Daddy's shot hisself.” The voice stated flatly. Because we shouldn't be surprised. We knew it was coming. Momma dead with a cancer you can't even see, so many months of trying to swim through a life that just doesn't feel right because everything you see and even the air that touches you tells you it's all wrong. Daddy hated that cancer. And then more months passed and he hated everything else, too. Even us. So we should have known.
But I was surprised, anyway.
“Your brother's here, now. He doesn't know. I can't keep him and you're an adult now, so you best come home and get him.” Aunt Sissy didn't like kids. She probably couldn't have kept any even if they were hers, anyway.
That was the day I remembered. Nine years after that stormy summer day, I remembered everything about Blake. Everything I'd forbid myself to really think about, all the stuff I'd hid away while forcing myself to focus on the hurt. Those memories came back hard just then. I'd turned on the radio just as I started out on that two hour drive back to the dusty old farm road and I heard Blake singing. Music I didn't listen to, it was just a passing station on the dial. There's not a reason on the planet I ought to have known what he sounded like, but I just did, before the radio announcer even said his name, I knew him.
“Storms fly through still make me miss you. Grace. I'll come back again, Grace. I'll come when you really need, Grace.” He sang at me. All the time between those two points, between me in that over-heating, beat up, Ford and that stormy night melted away.
He was the new big thing. Maybe not just a one hit wonder, but an actual artist, they said. That old announcer talked like he was catching me up. Oh how hard Blake had worked his whole life to reach his goal of being a singer. All the loss he'd faced. But he'd never given up, no.
But then I wondered all the way home when exactly he'd decide I reached a point of really needing him. Or how on earth he'd justify writing an entire song for that ill-kept promise, instead of picking up a phone. Little it mattered. I had a brother to raise. An aunt to see to. And a second funeral to arrange. Turns out the distance between childhood and adulthood was one hundred miles. Two hours away.
I grew up knowing work. But nothing like these years. Our county bled farms like soldiers bled life at Normandy. Families who raised crops their whole lives couldn't make it. Men with strong sons working day and night weren't making it. And I was just me. With a tween brother and crazy aunt.
There was no time anymore. And so maybe there was no distance, I guess that's how the years melted away. The distance between our childhood home and a shelter for women was never further than two coins rubbing together. So my head hung, and my feet trod, and I worked.
Sissy's long buried.
My brother grew up what feels like ages ago. He graduated and joined the military and shipped off to some God forsaken foreign land last year. I write him, and he writes back. So simple. So hollow when he's so terribly missed. But I love him for those letters.
There's a new kind of no-time now, no distance between then and now these days. All the things that are too far away to touch are always so close I can't hide from them anymore. And all the things I should have been reaching for, I pushed too far away to see. There's been no new loves. No children of my own, yet. No family or parents, no interest in friends, and now no baby brother. Just work. Eight years of work to keep from starving. To make this farm that hardly fed us when we were kids feed us still. I've been laying here in this field for hours, this same place between a starry eyed girl and a growing up boy and a woman who's so bent up inside she doesn't dare listen to the radio in case it should haunt her. All that time is crammed between those two points so hazy and thick it makes my brain feel like pudding. The tree line is gone now, that big farm twenty miles over dug it out more than a decade past. There's no clouds piling up on the horizon. No flashing mazes of lightning and thunder that shakes my bones. It's fall and the field's been sheered short by the combine, so only my hair blows in the wind. The sun is trying to slip below the horizon, like a sleepy blinking eye. Now it's just me and this place and all its memories to stalk me.
And this letter that came yesterday.
“Gracie, I've always missed you, I'm sorry I never wrote. I'm coming home in a few days time. I still love you.”
No. There's no storm on the horizon. No chorus of cicadas or press of summer heat. But there's truck lights in the drive... There's a shadow walking up from the yard...
And there's a voice I've journeyed a great distance to hear.