A Place for Ma
Georgie and me ain’t remember seein’ Pa cry after buryin’ Ma that day. We watched him from the window and crossed ourselves the way she taught us. On the forehead, across your chest and down to your belly. “Just the right thing to do for these sorts of things,” she’d said.
After he’d done it, Pa come back in and stomped snow against the rug. Told us that Ma was with God and our baby sister and that’s all he was gonna say about it.
Well, this didn’t sit right with Georgie. “But Pa,” he started, “Why’d you have to bury her in the cow field? Why couldn’t we bury her in a pine box in the churchyard with the baby?”
“Cuz God don’t make you pay to bury babies,” Pa said, warmin’ his hands by the fire. “Just those you’ve loved too long.”
It wasn’t until late that summer, right when the leaves were on that verge of turnin’ and the sun was getting’ real low in the sky, that Pa mentioned her again.
Georgie and me was out by the pond when we saw Ma’s sign. We ain’t believe it was real at first. That devil black fountain spurtin’ forth from the earth right where we’d lay Ma to rest. It was a huge oil geyser crestin’ over the oak trees in the meadow, scarin’ the cows who were mooin’ and moanin’ somethin’ awful.
Georgie and me ran as fast as we could to save ‘em, but the ground was already an ocean of dark oil just bleedin’ from the earth. Georgie hit me across the chest, stoppin’ me in my tracks as we watched the cows flutter, trying to get their bearings and fallin’ over onto their sides. They lay there floppin’ around, strugglin’ to catch their breath, their legs all twisted and broken and there weren’t a single goddamn thing we coulda done about it even if we wanted to.
That’s when I saw Ma. Her body floatin’ on top of it all as if she was just swimmin’ on her back. ‘Cept her skin was pullin’ away from her face like sheets of paper and her long, blonde hair was just strings and everythin’ ‘bout her was as black as the death that took her.
“Georgie!” I said, “It’s Ma!”
But Georgie didn’t look and by then you couldn’t even tell the black cows from the whites no more. “Georgie we gotta tell Pa,” I said. “Them cow’s our livelihood.” But Georgie just looked at me, his eyes all hollow like, hardly belivin’ what we was seein’.
Then Georgie nodded and we took off runnin’ to find Pa out in the fields. I turned ‘round, lookin’ behind me ‘fore we was too far gone and I swear I seen Ma wavin’ goodbye as the oil sucked her under its dark wave.
When we found ‘im, Pa already knew. He was just standin’ in the hay field starin’ at the sky. “Well I’ll be damned if that ain’t one way for my Laura Jean to get to heaven . . .”
I ain’t know why, but hearin’ Pa say Ma’s name like that again after so long made me wanna hold Georgie’s hand like I used to do when we were little kids. “Whadda we do now, Pa?” I asked, tryin’ to be brave.
“Do we call the government?” Georgie asked.
“Hell no!” Pa sputtered, whippin’ around and grabbin’ Georgie by the shoulders. Georgie’s head rocked as Pa shaked him straight. “Ain’t no suit gonna come out here and take what’s mine. This here,” he let Georgie go and pointed out towards the geyser, “this is a sign from your Ma.” He turned back ‘round and stared Georgie and me in the eyes. “God’s shined his face on us now, boys.”
Pa called Sheriff Barker cuz he said we needed someone with authority who’d be on our side. Sheriff come right out, his pot belly pokin’ out the ridge of his jeans. He nodded at us as he got outta his truck, folded his hands across his chest and said, “Goddamnit Henry, that’s a fuckin’ oil field you’ve got yourself there. God’s shining his face on ya now, ain’t he? You lucky bastard.” Pa smiled big like his teeth were made outta stars.
“Happens sometimes out this way, you know?” Sheriff said, noddin’ solemnly. “I seen it once or twice in my time, real rare for it to be this big though. Mmmhmm. Real rare.” Pa and Sheriff, both of ‘em just threw their heads back and laughed and laughed; laughed till it hurt is what it looked like.
“I think I know a man that’ll help ya out, Henry,” Sheriff said, wipin’ fat tears from his face. “Real honest fella. Name’s Abe, how bout that? Honest Abe. Ayup, le’me call and get him out here tomorrow.”
When Pa tucked us in that night he told us to make a list of everything we’d ever wanted cuz now we was gonna get it. Georgie and me, well, as soon as Pa turned out the lights, quick as lightnin’ we jumped outta bed, set on completin’ our money list that very same night.
Problem was we couldn’t think of anythin’.
Ma had always said we could do without and I guess we just learned how to live like that. All the same, the blank page stared at us, hauntin’ us in a way, so there at the top I wrote: A Place for Ma.
Georgie said that was dumb cuz Ma wasn’t out there floatin’ ‘round like some spaghetti noodle. I said, “Of course she ain’t, she got sucked under the oil! You seen it too! She needs a place to call her own again!”
Georgie said he ain’t seen nothin’ and stuck the whole paper in his dresser. “It was a stupid idea anyway,” he said slammin’ the drawer shut.
Next day the man named Abe showed up at our door wearin’ a god awful tan suit. Pa showed ‘im the oil field and, well, Abe couldn’t hardly believe it. He takes off his hat, holds it in his hands and runs his dark hands through his hair. “I ain’t never seen this much oil in one place,” Abe says. “God sure be smilin’ down on you now, Mr. Henry.”
Pa and Abe struck some sort of deal me and Georgie didn’t know the details ‘bout. All we knew is that Abe asked for an investment up front ‘fore he’d start work.
“Just your basic machinery startup funds,” he said. Pa agreed, not wantin’ to show his ignorance, not wantin’ to lose someone so deep in the game. Pa gave him all the money we got from last year’s cattle. It was all we had.
And Georgie, well Georgie knew it. He said, “We ain’t got nothin’ left now, Pa!”
But Pa said, “Why worry ‘bout a few pennies down the drain, boy, when you’ve got gold bars sittin’ in your bathtub?”
Next thing Georgie and me knows there’s big metal monsters set up out there in the field where the cows and Ma used to be and they started pullin’ oil from the ground. Pa, well, Pa would’ve jumped over the goddamn moon right then if he could’ve.
‘Course he should’ve know. Since few weeks later, Pa still ain’t got any money from Abe. He was growin’ uneasy but then, just ‘fore he got desperate, Abe come ‘round sproutin’ good news and sayin’ he be needin’ Pa to sign some papers.
“Nothin’ special,” Abe said. “Just your basic run o’ the mill oil drillin’ papers. You got a lot of oil out here, Mr. Henry. More than I first thought true.” Abe says, “I’d hate to see some fella show up and try and stake claim to it. Gotta protect what’s rightfully yours.”
Pa asked if he could have a day or two to read them papers over, not willin’ to admit he’d have to ask Georgie to help him since he ain’t so good with words. But Abe said no, said if Pa ain’t able to trust him then how the hell they gonna be partners?
Abe rolled up his sleeves and whistled a signal to his men to wrap it up and start movin’ out. Pa panicked, and signed the damn papers without even readin’ ‘em.
The next morning Abe was gone again.
“He left his machines though,” Pa said, tryin’ not to sound nervous. “They’re still pullin’ oil so that must mean he’ll be back. Must’ve been an emergency or somethin’. He’ll be back and give us our first monies, boys. Mark my words, that’s the way business is done, and Abe, he’s an honest man. Honest Abe.” He smiled and rumpled both our heads.
But a few months later and we ain’t see Abe no more. He sent a man with a sawed off shotgun to check on the machines. If you got too close he pointed it at you and cocked it back, lickin’ the space where his teeth should be and he told you to stay away cuz he ain’t afraid of spillin’ a little blood.
Pa finally got through to Abe a while after that. He threatened to bash his skull in if he ain’t got no first monies for us. And Abe, well, he just laughed.
Georgie and me, we heard it from the other room, comin’ all the way through the wire. Abe said the papers Pa’d signed were legal documents givin’ Abe complete ownership of our land and everythin’ that come up out of it. So there ain’t ever gonna be any money.
“But— ,” Pa’d said, not understandin’.
“You can have the land back, you red-necked honky. It ain’t worth nothin’,” Abe’d said. “Just your oil.”
Pa hung up the phone real quiet like. Settin’ it down like it weighed half a ton. Pa even called up Sheriff Barker, hopin’ to round up some justice, but no one round town seen ‘im. People say he just up and left, leavin’ all the coat hangers swingin’ in his closet.
One mornin’ Pa put two and two together. We wasn’t even out of bed yet when he come in our room, tuckin’ the butt of his pistol into the back of his jeans and said, “Be good boys, ya hear?” He kissed the top of Georgie and me’s head, noddin’ at somethin’ only he could see. ‘Fore we knew what was what a single shot echoed from behind the woodshed.
Ain’t long after we sold off land so we’d have money again. Seems like God’s face stopped shining down on us after that since the oil dried up just as soon as the paper ink did. Like turnin’ a switch off, those machines just stopped. Georgie said it was too small of an end for somethin’ so big. Said it wasn’t fair. But me? Well, I thought it ‘bout time for a small bit of quiet ‘round here.
We put Pa next to where Ma had been — should’ve been — and before Georgie left for college, we visited them one more time. We was standin’ in the silence, lookin’ out in the field of broken dreams, thinkin’ our own thoughts, watchin’ the new cattle we’d bought rumblin’ around, when Georgie turned to me and said, “I saw her that day, same as you. I thought that if I didn’t say it then it wouldn’t be real. She wouldn’t really be gone if I—”
“Ain’t no need to resurrect ghosts, Georgie.”
There was a silence as the years seeped into the earth the same way they’d come out.
“It’s different than it used to be,” Georgie said after a time and noddin’ towards the cattle. “But it sure is nice to see them home again.”
I nod. “Mmhmm. Say what you will, but I always did like it out here.”
Georgie reached and pulled somethin’ out from his back pocket. “I’ve always liked it too,” he said and unfolded a paper. He turned it and showed me. “More than I thought, I guess.”
I ain’t believe what my eyes were seein’. “You kept our money list all these years, Georgie?” I said.
Georgie nodded and read it over. Readin’ the one line that was on it, and then he ripped it into pieces. Clenching them tight in his fist, like he ain’t sure he wanted to do it; like he ain’t sure he was ready to let everythin’ go just yet.
So I put my hand on top of his. And then Georgie nodded, and we opened our hands together, letting all the pieces go. Lettin’ the wind take ‘em wherever it wanted.
Then we crossed ourselves.
It just seemed like the right thing to do.