AFTER GOD LEFT
Frank Wilson decided to cook some oatmeal for his supper. Why not? At his age, he could eat whatever he damn well pleased. Truth be told, his stomach wasn’t what it used to be, and it had been acting up ever since his encounter with that newcomer, Geoffrey . . . Geoffrey . . . No matter his surname, not worth trying to remember. He didn’t know why he let the man upset him.
“Now, Franklin, you know as well as I do why you’ve taken a disliking to that man.” Edith had been in her grave for fifteen years, but she still hung out in the kitchen, ever ready to tell him where he’d gone wrong.
He’d eat in his den, that’s what. He poured some cream on his oatmeal, never mind his damn cholesterol. The thought of his doctor, and the feeling that Edith was glaring behind him, inspired him to throw some chocolate chips on top before he headed for his leather easy chair.
He was halfway through his supper before he could admit that Edith was right. As was too often the case. The Geoffrey fellow reminded him of himself, or of the man he’d been in his day. Except that Frank had been for bringing Spring Valley up to date, modern, and the new man was for taking the town backwards. Either way, the two of them were do-gooders, thinking they knew what was best.
The difference was that Frank had finally learned his lesson. Spring Valley wasn’t about to be changed. It would plod along its own mulish path, ready to give you a kick with a hind leg if you thought otherwise.
He put his empty bowl and cooking pot in the sink, told the hovering Edith that he’d wash them in the morning, and went upstairs. Where he lay straight and flat on his side of the bed, and made order of his tomorrow. Frank watched himself as he would move around the gardens and paint the front steps and, if he was up to it, fix the drain spout. If he planned until he was weary, he could sleep without dreaming, without seeing beyond his house and yard. Sharp on the edge of his mind were thoughts of who he might have been and what he might have done if he had not married, if he had not come back to Spring Valley. His order began at that fear’s edge of naming the ifs.
He had begun planning his retirement from the insurance business in Philadelphia when he decided he would move back to his hometown. Edith had wanted to settle in Delaware, near their daughter. But she’d been after him for thirty years to make peace with his father, so the next time she brought up that subject he agreed with her.
“You’re right,” Frank said. “He’s not going to be around that much longer, and I’ll regret it if we don’t patch things up now. A few years in Spring Valley, and then we’ll move wherever you want.”
He thought it best to give her a week or two before he told her that his grandfather’s house had come up for sale, and that they’d be moving east sooner than she expected. He’d checked out the commute. He could drive—I-95 was a straight shot—or he could catch the train that ran between New York and Philadelphia. All in all, it had seemed like a good decision at the time.
He had intended to spend his weekends fishing and golfing. But after they were settled in and his gardens were planted, he began to see what Spring Valley needed with eyes he had brought from the outside world. He had a vision then of how the town and its men could be.
Frank had been mayor for two terms but had not yet accomplished all that he’d set out to do. He had been up for re-election, with his head full of plans for the next two years. And then those plans had all withered and blown away one Saturday morning at the barbershop.
When he stopped in that morning for a trim, most of the chairs along the wall had been occupied by men waiting for a shave or a gossip, holding newspapers up near their faces to keep the talk from turning womanly. Then a man over by the window had made a remark, not meaning anything ugly by it, just joshing about how the mayor‘s father was walking the streets saying the town didn’t need any more of an uppity mayor who’d gone to college.
Frank’s father still held a sore spot in his heart. When the barber turned him around to face the mirror and give his blessing to the trim, that heart sickness came up into Frank’s eyes and changed his vision. He didn’t see anyone in the mirror that he recognized. He paid his two dollars, walked out of the shop, and saw his father clomping along the sidewalk in his fishing boots. He was flicking his dentures in and out of his mouth and talking loud to the trees about his son. Clomp, “uppity”, clomp, “college,” clomp, “idiot,” with the false teeth rattling like a skeleton’s jaw.
Frank walked back to his own yard and never let his thoughts drift toward the town again. As soon as his car was in the garage at night, he changed into his overalls and knelt in his gardens. Sunday mornings he drove Edith to church and himself out of the valley to play golf.
After he retired, he took Wednesdays for his sabbaths and left the town to fish in a lake beyond the hills. He went alone.
Unless the neighbor-boys’ ball landed in his tomatoes. Then he asked if they wanted to go fishing on Wednesday. Beyond the ridge, memories of the outside world came back to him and he became a storyteller, a teacher. He laughed and told the boys stories about the life he lived outside, about the golf tournaments he’d won and the country he’d seen on his travels. He talked to them about how they should help their mother more and gave them advice about school, all mixed up with how to set the hook when a fish bites.
“I was a psychology major myself,” he told them. “Remember, boys, there’s no better preparation for business. Doesn’t matter what you do in this life, you’re going to have to deal with people.”
On some Wednesdays when he fished alone, with only his past self for company, he thought about the girl Edith had been. He lay on the lake shore and felt strong and lazy again, and thought of bringing her with him. He imagined dipping his fingers into the cool edges of the lake and drawing her youth on her face until it shone, and then carrying her off into the woods.
He had asked her once. He’d made up his mind before he reached the ridge that he would not look down into the valley, but just keep his eyes on the winding road and walk straight into the house and ask her.
But she had said that he must be getting old, or maybe sick, because he knew that Wednesday was her prayer group day and that the Lord’s work came first.
The lake-smile that had traveled all that way on his face turned quiet, and his eyes lost their distance. He went to the garage to change his clothes. He put away his tackle and floated the pickerel not needed for supper in coffins of water for the freezer. That had been the end of such dreams.
Frank knew God had left the town long ago, without leaving behind any work for the women to do. And He was’t coming back, that was the plain fact. No matter that he had learned not to believe in God, the town had believed in God and that meant God had been there. Even the men had believed. Because they had needed God more than the women had.
When God had been there, the hills had been His hills, men’s hills, set on the earth to contain God’s people and to protect them. The hills had touched God’s sky, a strong sky that had kept the men upright and tall, had kept them from being sucked into the rich, giving earth of the valley.
The hills had never been breached when God was there, for the men then were heroes who went over the hills to fight the enemy. They had had order, then, and a reason to die. Even if they lay in the churchyard circling the oldest oak tree, an obelisk nearby marked their earth-covered bodies, and another monument marked where a famous speech about freedom was given, and another the house of a signer of the Declaration.
But after God left, the monuments stood lonely, and there were only the closing, circling hills, and a random sky that parched, or flooded, or ravaged the streets with lightening.
Frank never told his wife God was gone. There wasn’t a man in town who didn’t know the hills didn’t reach to God anymore. And not one of them so cowardly as to tell a wife the sky was empty, a loss they had each borne in silence after that night when they had all felt the cold rise up out of their guts and never come back to them warmed by a Protecting Father.
Young as he’d been that Halloween night—still in his teens—he’d tried to warn the men. He had seen them going toward the train station with their shotguns carried low and strong. He had gone out into the middle of the street and tried to tell them that it was just the radio. That it wasn’t real, but just a made-up story about the Martians landing over in Grover’s Mill.
But they had pushed him aside with their gun barrels. The invaders would never get through the hills, they said. “The British didn’t get through and, by God, the Martians aren’t going to get through. We’ll turn them back at the station.”
He had watched them coming home in the chill of near-dawn, had seen them dark under the pale sky, their guns lifeless and drooping. A laugh had started deep in his belly for their cold night on the tracks scaring away nothing but voices that had come through the air. But their necks had been so bent, so vulnerable, that his laughter had twisted down into fear, and he had looked up for heaven. The first time he had done that since he was a little kid.
Back then Frank could look up and find God with a white beard and white robes sitting on a gold throne straight up above the Presbyterian church steeple, looking down at the valley and smiling. He remembered how he had creased his eyes nearly shut and stretched his mouth open until God had shone out of the sun, or the moon, and had sat there as clear as anything.
He’d grown out of such childish beliefs more than a year before, and had expected he’d soon grow out of the loneliness that followed. But then the silent men had walked past his window—a crowd of them, each man somehow made lonely by the night—and the sky above the steeple was empty.
Tears started in Frank’s eyes at the old, old memory. Tears he’d thought had dried up long ago. Out of habit, he reached across to Edith’s side of the bed. But his hand found only the smooth, cold sheet.
He got out of bed, fumbled for his slippers, and made his way downstairs, holding onto the handrail, as he’d had to do of late. He filled a bowl with chocolate ice cream, added some caramel sauce, then some peanuts, and sat down at the kitchen table. He didn’t smile, didn’t want to encourage Edith that much, but he did look toward her chair.
With graduate degrees in vocal performance from Indiana University and in business from Columbia University, Carol Roan has sung in the television premiere of a Ned Rorem opera and has testified about gold trading before the CFTC. Several of the stories from her collection have been published in literary journals; others, as yet unpublished have won awards, including a fellowship to Summer Seminars Russia, where she studied with Gina Ochsner. More information about Carol’s meandering career is available at www.carolroan.com.