A Room Apart
Outside the house where Saul grew up, I practice my smile in our Mini Cooper’s rear view mirror. Too false, squeeze the cheeks. Squint the eyes more, if that’s possible. After a minute, I quit, thinking whatever, she’s not gonna like me, even if I’m an altar boy.
She has an indoor porch covered with screens. Out in the pasture a cow’s munching some grass and whipping its tail around, indolent in the hot autumn day. A calf runs underneath its belly trying to bite an udder, but the mother shakes herself and chases the youngster off. Casting a shadow over them is a wooden barn, not freshly red but dark green and black like moss on stone, looking so waterlogged I expect it to shiver. Shadowing the crop fields is a tall metal grain silo—Saul taught me a little farm vocabulary before we left. A rock road stretches itself to the highway. Ireland, Indiana. This is where Saul grew up.
“Tsu, get up here!” Saul beckons from the porch steps. He sounds like a hick already, the country’s broken back into him so fast. He rings the doorbell a couple times and scrapes his loafers on a wire mat. Another one above it, white and cottony, says Welcome Home in sewn-on letters. There’s a little angel flying in the corner. “That’s where my brothers dipped themselves in tar.” Saul points out a little culvert besides a smaller barn. I can’t remember if he’s told me that story or not.
The door opens, and a strong scent of aged wool hits me. I hold my breath as I see a little old lady with wispy, curly grey hair and dainty glasses answer. She wears a frumpy, plain mauve sweater above a pair of jeans. She looks up and laughs when she sees Saul.
“There’s my youngest boy!” Her arms quiver as she holds them up, and Saul squats a little to hug his mother. They catch up: how are you. I’m doing good. Did you bring some souvenirs from Colorado? Ernie—Carl’s boy—loved the postcard of the plateau. Verna has an old lady’s voice, wobbling and trailing off. Its warmth irritates me. Saul lets go, and I face Saul’s mother for the first time.
“Mom, this is my husband,” he says. Takes him long enough to introduce me.
She catches her smile before it falls off, and so graciously holds a hand out. “I’m Verna. Pleasure to meet you … Teesu, is it?”
“It’s pronounced shoe. Nice to meet you, too.” I smile and shake her hand.
She beckons us in. She and Saul talk about the drive, that long fourteen hour drive. The only memorable detail was Saul slugging me on the shoulder because I asked him to make a bet how long Verna would go before calling me his friend. I take a look around the house. It looks like we entered some anteroom. There’s a crucifix on the wall. Ceramic magi sitting with baby Jesus on the mantelpiece. A doily drapes around a piece of crochet, this one saying do not let your hearts be troubled, trust in God. Saul tried to convince me his mom was a more relaxed Christian.
“Shannon and Gary have moved into a new house,” Verna says.
“Oh really, by the Bechers?”
“No, up more, by the Grundhoefers.”
“Oh.” Saul nods his head knowingly. I’m confused. We used street signs where I grew up. The only neighbor I ever met was the dealer on the street trying to get my dad hooked on heroin. Something clucks, and I glimpse into another room, a little wooden cuckoo withdrawing into its clock. The cuckoo clock is made of a light brown, unpainted wood.
“We got that from a Deutsch farmer we hosted,” Verna says. “It’s from der Schwarzwald.”
“Mom, quit speaking German.”
“So ein mist,” she mutters. “Well, he’s got his Japanese.”
“Let me see your computer,” Saul interrupts her. Verna leads Saul through the kitchen, where I can smell bacon sizzling. He mouths an apology before he disappears through the doorway. A little later I can hear shrill whispering but don’t bother making any of it out.
When the whispering subsides, I walk in and see Verna watching corn cook in a saucepan on the stove. A tray of lasagna heats in the oven, and some rolls cool down on a yellow plate on the counter. It’s been so long since I cooked. I get mad when my mouth starts watering and gnaw my fingernails to calm myself.
“Do you want me to help?” I ask. “I can fix up a nice salad or butter those rolls.”
“It’s fine, honey, I like cooking dinner.”
We can hear Saul cursing in the nearby office, quiet as he is. A chair scoots out, and he walks back into the kitchen.
“You been downloading anything, Mom?”
“What do you mean, downloading?”
“D’you ever click anything that looked shady?”
“Shady? I don’t know. Just get my computer working already.”
Saul rubs his hand over his eyes. “Well, you got a virus. It’ll take me a while to fix it.”
“You have the whole night. Dinner’s almost ready. Take a seat.”
Saul slides a chair out and plops himself there, one arm resting on the table. The golden bands on our fingers glint under the kitchen light. I take my time sitting down, setting a napkin and some silverware next to my plate.
“So what were you two talking about?” Saul asks.
Verna mutters something in German and checks the calendar on the cabinet. He looks at me, and I shrug.
“Nothing? Well, Tsu, tell Mom about Indy! You’re from there, and we’ve been up there for the state fair. Go on, Tsu,” he says. I want to knock his grin off.
“I grew up in Indy,” I begin. “My parents adopted me. From China. Not Japan.”
“Is that right?” Verna says. “Dear, I didn’t even realize.”
The corn sizzles in the pan, and Verna rushes over to that.
“Well, Tsu, it isn’t the city here, but we’re comfortable,” Verna says. “Suzanne’s old room is warm, but if you get too hot there’s a fan near her bed.”
“We’re sleeping in your sister’s room?” I ask Saul. He pulls his hairy arm off the table, and his head bows down. We always sleep together. I like that hairy arm over my chest, it feels like a shield against the dark, and he’s hot as a furnace. I swear he glows sometimes, just real dim like a scented candle with an almost burnt out wick but still emanating a comforting light.
“He’s sleeping in his old room.” Verna says.
Saul didn’t tell me this. He said she let his brothers sleep with their wives all the time. He’s a liar, and she’s a cranky, wrinkled, Bible-hugging …
“Ridiculous,” I say.
“Tsu.” He reaches for my hand, but I move it away.
“It is not ridiculous! I can ask this at least!” The corn sizzles again, but Verna can’t care less. Her rheumatic hands steady themselves on the handle of the oven, and she’s mustering all five foot four of her at me.
“You can’t possibly think that,” I shoot back. “Your own son—”
“Has made his decisions. But he still respects this house.”
“I could care less what you boys do in your house, in mine you—”
“Enough!” Saul shouts. “Mom, I’m sure that corn’s cooked by now, and Tsu, you’re gonna stab yourself, watch your hand.”
It almost nicked a sharp bread knife on the table. I pull my hand away, and Verna sets the rolls before retrieving the corn.
The lasagna finishes later, and Verna sets it and a salad next to the corn and rolls. She grabs tongs and stirs the salad then dashes a portion of spinach leaves, tomatoes, and olives onto her plate. I’m eating away at a roll. Saul ladles some lasagna onto his plate, efficiently, like it’s a familiar routine. He adds parmesan onto his serving and forks it into his mouth, too fast like he used to. I had taught him to enjoy his meal more slowly. He’s never enjoyed my cooking that voraciously. Everyone finishes a serving and starts on the next.
“This is delicious, Mom.”
“Thank you.” She waits for me to say something. I enjoy the roll melting in my mouth.
“It’s good,” I say.
“You boys are lucky,” she says, sawing her roll into even smaller squares. “I haven’t cooked lasagna since your dad and I’s anniversary.”
“Oh, hey!” Saul kicks his chair back a little, like his idea’s so great it’ll bowl him over. “Tell Tsu some stories about Dad, in World War II. I love those stories!”
“What do you know about Saul’s dad, Tsu?”
“Not much,” I say. I don’t really care to learn much.
“I told you he was in the war, right? That he was a spy?” Saul says. He might have, might have not. I hate how Saul pretends he’s told me all his family lore. We’re always busy going to the movies, having friends over, taking trips to New York or California or London. But I’m sure now he doesn’t share all that with his mom in their phone talks.
“He wasn’t a spy, Saul,” Verna chastises him. “Elmer knew perfect German. He spoke it as a child, like only a few in this area could at that time.” She grabs a cob, saws it back and forth along a stick of butter, and takes a delicate bite. “So when he was in Germany serving as a soldier, sometimes his commander sent him and a few others to listen in on Nazi meetings.”
“Like a spy,” Saul says.
“One time, he was by himself, squatting under a window listening on one of these meetings when one of the Germans said ‘halt!’ and Elmer heard a rifle click.” Verna puts her corn down and rests her chin on her interlaced fingers. “He hightailed it out of there, across an open field. Didn’t look back once until he was back with his squad. The next day, his commander took him to the field. ‘Do you know what you ran across?’ the commander asked. Elmer said no. ‘You ran across a minefield.’ the commander said. ‘You ran all the way across, and not once did you hit a mine.’”
They look my way for my reaction to the war tale. I reach in for another role.
“I’ll tell you what Elmer told me, many, many times,” Verna says. “There are no atheists in foxholes, Tsu. When someone could get blown up any second, everyone needs a God.”
I flex my fingers, wondering how much more she’ll hate me when I say this next thing on my mind.
“Doubt there’s many Catholics on Sunday mornings, either,” I say. Saul munches loudly on his corn while Verna’s knife scrapes her plate. I scoop some lasagna onto my plate, and slurp up the noodles. The saucy flavor warms me up, and I lick the parmesan off my teeth. “Delicious dinner,” I say. Verna pushes her plate away.
“I’m full, and tired. I’ll be in the living room.”
Before she walks out, Verna puts a hand on the doorframe, stopping for a breather. Saul gets up and offers his arm, but she waves it away. The cuckoo clock clucks again.
“You’re right,” she says. “There aren’t many Catholics on Sunday mornings. Not nowadays.”
She continues on, and her son frowns after her. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him go to church.
After dinner, Saul decides to clean the dishes. I loiter around the kitchen, snatching looks at the corner of the room, wondering if Verna’s asleep, even this late in the evening. When I hear the TV humming, I sneak up to Saul putting dishes in a sink half-filled with soapy water. While he scrubs a plate, I wrap my arms around his waist, putting my bulging jeans zipper between his butt pockets.
“Hey,” I slither in his ear, “I was thinking, she put us both on the second floor, and she’ll probably nod off to sleep down here any time. So, say later in the night, I sneak into your room, and we uh,” I clench his hips and sway like we’re slow dancing, “bring a little sin in here.”
Saul straightens up and shakes my hands off. He turns around, his face a sober gargoyle, which means he’s livid.
“Oh, I just mean cuddling and stuff.”
“Saul, your mother’s tyrannical. We haven’t even held hands, it’s like she’s pretending we’re just two bros.”
“My mom’s house, my mom’s rules.” Saul turns away to scrub a bowl but I jostle him at his side.
“I can’t believe you put up with this. You’re not mad at all.”
“Of course I am!” He slams his rag into the sink. He’s heaving, huffing, blowing, a wolf caged up in its own disciplined rigidity. Loosening his fists, he wipes his hands with the towel, the suds slipping off and splattering the countertop. Then he picks up a plate and starts washing it, lathering dish detergent, then grabbing the spray hose and rinsing. He dries it spotless and sets it on the rag. I try to grab his hand to calm us down, but he snatches it away.
“You can dry the rest.” He tosses the towel to me, hands me a cup. A wooly scent settles in, and I notice Verna on a chair in the anteroom, staring hard and cold at her family’s pictures on the wall. Saul doesn’t notice.
After we clean the dishes, I look around the anteroom. Verna snoozes lightly on her chair, her head lightly tilted over. I see some paintings of a farm by a mountain, more stitched Bible quotes: trust in God, stay away from evil, don’t take it up the butt, stuff like that. On one of those tack boards where kids pin their school ribbons, I notice a picture of Saul in an old photo, colored yet saturated. He’s a short, bucktoothed, bowl-cut kid standing in front of a cow, shaking hands with a thick armed, beer-gut blessed man dressed in a suit without a tie and a cowboy hat handing Saul a pink ribbon. Saul used to do 4-H. That’s right. He talked about how all his siblings won for livestock rearing so many times. When he started he was so crappy at it, but he and his dad worked on heifer after steer each year until finally, that picture. There’s another one of him, with all nine of his siblings, and his dad and Verna. He grew up here. He wasn’t born as a sexy poker player in Colorado, working a well-paying IT job that now supports us.
“He had the damnedest eyes.”
I jump. Verna’s got a nasty talent for sneaking.
“You mean the judge in the picture?”
“Yes. Saul’s father.”
She walks outside. I look at Saul’s iridescent eyes set on his father until following Verna.
Dusk falling, the fields waver in the breeze, dark and unsettling like a murder of crows will fly out cawing any second. I find Verna on the edge of one field, one foot propped on what looks like a metal pogo stick. She stakes it down then draws it back up, and a cord of clotted soil slips out from a crevice in the bottom tube. As I walk up to her, she kneels down to grab it.
“Where’s Saul?” she asks from the ground.
“He’s out talking to his brother somewhere,” I say.
“They got a lot of catching up to do.”
She pops the cord into a small zip-up bag, then drops that bag in a plastic bucket. Verna then stares at the soil in the earth. Or nothing. Or everything. I don’t know. Her face is a tangled up ball of yarn, with some thoughts like string crossing over itself, all obscure.
“What are you doing?”
“Measuring the soil.”
As we walk, inch really, me carrying her bucket and pogo stick for her, she goes into a long explanation about farming science: different soil types, soil tools (“Soil probe,” she tells me the name of her stick), proper seed dispersal, crops that cycle back and forth, planning around market demands and government regulations (“Die Commies”), machinery care, and problems with the EPA. I’m stupefied.
“Aren’t you a little old for this?” I ask her, though I’ve noticed she doesn’t shake as much outside. She pulls out a dirty rag and wipes her forehead off.
“It’s good exercise.”
“Don’t learn any of this growing up in a city.” We stop at another patch of soil.
“Saul and you should visit more.”
Verna next uses her rag to clean out the crevice’s inside, wiping away every speck of dirt. Her wrinkles wrinkle more, and she points her shoulder at me. I crack my wrists and change my tone.
“I know we didn’t look good in the kitchen,” I begin. “But Saul and I are happy. We go to the movies, we visit plateaus, buy groceries together. We have our jokes. We have friends over for dinner. All of us celebrated someone’s birthday last week with some cake. It was a hill, with a four and a zero tumbling down the side.”
“I know. Saul told me on the phone.”
“So you understand then. What making us sleep in separate rooms, what that’s saying.”
Verna stakes her probe in the ground and steadies the tool, not quite cemented in the loose soil. The tool’s rusty with one bent handlebar, like it’s been bought at a flea market. I’ll wait until the fleas finish eating it up. I’ll wait until they eat her up, to get an answer out of her, whether it’s some Bible quote or disgust disguised as parental concern. Verna leans forward on her probe like it’s a walker, staring into the setting sun, as if she’s daring it to hang in the sky a little longer.
“Saul’s father never did forgive the fact that Saul was gay,” she said. “Lot of unfinished business between them. Now there’s all that and six feet of earth between them. So Saul and I, we’ve made our peace. He’s gay and I’m Catholic.”
“You won’t make this one concession?”
“I won’t do anything that’ll stop me from seeing Elmer again.” Her fingers drum the handle. She talks slowly, not one to smash through her thoughts like a train. “I suggest you leave it, Tsu. I’ve made a lot of concessions, already. And he wishes you would, too. That’s what was pushing his buttons in the kitchen, in case you didn’t notice.”
“So this is Catholicism for you? What about treating others the way you’d want to be treated, or respect thy neighbor?”
“We could quote the Bible all day, won’t get us nowhere.” Her back straightens, as if pride could pad her spine up. I can’t think of anything to say back, because that sounds like something I would say. She holds out the probe. “Want to measure the soil?”
The sun moves before either of us do. Then I grab the tool and set a foot on one bar like it’s a shovel then press down. The tool’s surprisingly heavy, and I wonder how she carried it so long. We try it a couple more times and my soil fails to get up, until we finally get a decent cord of soil. Looks like a turd. I watch it roll out of the probe, flopping like a calf just birthed. I walk Verna back home, taking our time, not reaching the house until nearly sunset.
While Verna heads to the living room to rest, I go to the office and watch Saul work on Verna’s computer. It’s a Windows 1991, an old thing. Strips of paper are taped around the screen with typed passwords like Stuttgart and Rosie. Saul’s madly keying lines of code into a white window, occasionally switching windows to a website with instructions, long enough to shrink the scrollbar to a tiny square.
“I’m almost done,” he says. “Just hope it works.”
It’s a wonder his wrists aren’t sore yet. They probably will be when we get back home, and he feels freer to complain about it.
“Saul,” I say.
Above the computer, on a book shelf, is a picture of him as a kid, smiling with his mom and dad. Here he wears glasses like Saul has, with two rims, one on top and another bridging the nose. He has his eyes.
Later, we’re all in the living room. Saul turns on a surprisingly modern widescreen TV from Fox to MSNBC for a second. There’s an opinion columnist spouting. She requests that conservatives, or a bunch of old, white, stubborn religious fanatics, homophobes, misogynists, racists as she calls them, to either get with it or move along. The TV shows more images of picketers at a gay person’s funeral. Some of them toothsome, shredded shirts, signs with crude lettering spray painted onto them. Verna isn’t shaking so hard now. Her eyes are drooping, like she’s bored with the rhetoric being fed to her. Her couch looks too big for her.
“Turn the television off,” she asks quietly. Saul presses the remote, and we sit in the living room, under Jesus’s feet.
“Alright, it’s time for bed for this feller,” Saul announces. He pushes off the couch, walks over to Verna, and kisses her good night on the forehead. He walks past my way and stands a little away from me. He knows how we normally say good night, when we’re at home.
“Good night, Tsu.” Saul walks away upstairs. The cuckoo clock clucks. Verna swirls her glass of water, the ice chinking together.
“Isn’t it past your bedtime?” she grumbles. It takes a while before I can pick myself up and go to bed, leaving my tempests with her on the couch with her.
After midnight, I’m lying in Suzanne’s old twin-sized bed. I look at the door cracked open. There’s a faint light coming from a candle inside Saul’s room, the only luminescence in the dark. He did say he used to sleep with a nightlight when living here, but that was years ago. I shrug the blankets off, and the corner falls to the floor, right above where Verna’s sleeping. I wonder what she thinks about at night, after turning off the TV that’s just shown her a new world wanting to spin on without her, more and more people on it waiting for the crooked-back, spasmodic hag to join her husband, for all the Vernas to pass on.
The door creaks open, and Saul sneaks in. Slowly, like a monolith, the monolith I love, he comes to me, caresses my forehead and lightly kisses it. I look up, wanting more so badly. He just smiles at me, caresses my hair, and leaves.
On the way back to Colorado the next day, I notice something in the Mini Cooper’s backseat, underneath that gaudy magi display Verna insisted Saul keep. It’s the picture of Saul in front of his cow with his dad. Maybe that’s not all she’ll will to Saul.
“I’m sorry, too. You don’t have to visit anymore, if you want. I just wanted you to meet her once, before—”
“It’s alright,” I say. The sun blazes across his frown. “I can come back. Learn a little more about your mom.”
Alit by the afternoon blaze, his eyes pay homage to his father. Those eyes. A room where both Verna and I stand.
Brodie Gress is a graduate of the Creative Writing class Spring 2014 from the University of Evansville. He has published fiction and poetry in Forces Literary Journal, Polaris Literary Magazine, and the Ohio River Review and received Writer of the Year from the Department of Creative Writing upon graduating. He served as a Peace Corps volunteer in Cambodia and is currently freelance writing in southern Indiana. He hopes to sooner or later enter an M.F.A. graduate program and then pursue a PhD to continue his writing studies. His work often focuses on the lives of gay men in rural Indiana.