Mama and Papa are alive and young, and even her childhood
petsdogs, cats, rabbits, birdsare alive.
Time means nothing. It is 1932 again.
Ethel figures she must be going to die soon because
her life is passing before her eyes, not in a flash
but in a series of epic dreams.
Shes standing on the bank of Love Hollow Creek,
mesmerized by the rippling silver water, forgetting
for a moment about the discomfort of her unfamiliar
and clingy bathing suit. A weeping willow drips down
around her. A fat frog leaps into the water. Papas
sinewy arms reach for her. His shirt is off, and his
torso is white as chalk, but his forearms are the color
of brick, like his face. The muscles and veins bulge
with every casual movement and bulge hugely now as he
When you hit the water, beat your arms and
legs like the devils after you.
And shes in the air, then in the water. Sinking,
sinking. Flailing madly. Gulping water, swallowing a
Jesus Bug. She screams, Ma!, in her head,
but its Papa who pulls her out, reaches down through
the water like God and saves her. He carries her to
the creek bank and stands over her with water glistening
on his white shoulders, his denim trousers dark and
plastered to his thighs, and he frowns down at her as
she coughs and cries.
Mama, who was down the creek a ways with Ellie,
comes hustling over the mud and rocks best she can,
a short woman with tree-stump legs and arms like clubs.
What happened? What happened, Carl? Ellie
stumbles and falls in the mud, and Mama sweeps her up
I was teaching her to swim, Eve, Papa
Mama bends to Ethel, slaps her narrow back to help
her clear her lungs. Shes near drowned,
Cry baby is all she is.
Shut up, Carl. Ill throw you in myself.
Fine with me. Hot day. I can swim. I aint
no crybaby. Papa glares at Ethel.
Let me get hold of you and youll be
Papa smiles, seems nice again. That a promise
or a threat, woman?
Ellie gently takes hold of a tangle of Ethels
wet hair and just holds it, is careful not to pull it.
From somewhere outside this reality recaptured in sleep,
Ethels chest aches, tears well up, to be touched
again by little Ellie Poor homely little
buck-toothed, chinless Ellie, everyone whisperedwho
grew up and married a soldier, then a police man, then
a cowboy, then a blackjack dealer, and who has moved
farther and farther westLouisville, then St. Louis,
then Amarillo, then Las Vegas. Now Ellie lives in Oregon,
with six dogs and a little backyard turned into a dog
cemetery. Ethel has never seen it, but Ellie has sent
pictures. Men cheat but dogs only die, Ellie
has said on the phone long distance. I have come
to prefer burials to divorces.
Ethel wants to return to her dream now, to 1932 to
tell Ellie never to marry, never to move off, that no
good will come
of any of it. I know the future, she could
tell her little sister. I have been there, and
Im back to tell you that getting married is not
the way to have love. Or at least not the way to keep
it. It fades in the drudgery of the field and the barn
and the kitchen, fades in the light of black-and-white
TV shows. . . . Stay with me. I love you, Ellie. I love
you, sister, the way no man ever will. . . . A man,
sister, is . . . of . . . limited . . . use.
She drifts back and forth between dream and the world,
between past and present, and somewhere in there, she
thinks somebody is sick, maybe herselftoo many
hotdogs at the county fair on a hot August day. She
hears feverish moans, muffled as they come from . .
. the fog of a dream or memory . . . through the wall,
through the rattling winter window on the wind of some
Then Ethel cant help remembering who she used
to be, guilt and longing mingled like gasoline and rain
water. Decades ago she felt the fever and the weakness
and the power. Many girls, prissy girls in knee socks,
said terrible things about her. She wore tight skirts
and stuffed her bra with tissues. A cute girl. A wild
girl, they thought, but not really. Bud was the only
one she let . . . . The other kids called her Ethel
High Octane. Ethel burns, they said.
All through school there were two Ethels. Her, Ethel
Willy, and a dull, plain girl, Ethel White. They sat
side by side in classes because they were assigned seats
alphabetically. Ethel Regular, the kids
said straight faced. Thentheir faces blooming
into silly grinsthey chorused, Ethel High
Ethel, a girl-woman, awakes when the breeze carries
to her through her open window the sound of a mans
involuntary moan, and she gets out of bed and kneels
on the wood floor in front of the window to peer out
at nothing in the moonlight except the apple trees and
the one dogwood and the silhouettes of the hills beyond.
This is true spring, not some frozen March of the future.
The moon a perfect circle. The smell of apples. Pas
snores come through the wall. Then Mamas snores,
even louder than Pas.
Then she hears Ellies sigh and again the moan
of the soldier boy who told Pa hed rather kill
Japs than Germans but guesses its not up to him.
Tall and lean, like Bud. Wavy dark-blond hair, a smile
like Clark Gables. Ellie is luckylucky and
Hidden in the shadows of the apple grove Ellie is
learning the secrets that Ethel only recently learned
herself in Buds truck with the wooden side rails,
the wooden gear-shift knob. The wood floor makes her
knees ache. Suddenly, a chill blows through the open
window, the spring smells mingle with that of . . .
an old furnace . . . .
This is a world that was and now is again, a world
of objects and smells and tastes and sounds and touchesoh,
now she wakes with the tingling she used to wake with
lying next to Bud sixty years ago.
Ethel feels Bud, his rough beard on her cheek, his
calloused hands, his rigid flesh.
She awakes breathless, and as the present world materializes
around her and the floating sensation of her dream dissipates
and her sagging flesh pulls her into the mattress and
makes it difficult to sit up, she tastes cotton and
copper and cant fight the urge to spit.
So she does. A glob of herself plops to the floor,
full of DNA that scientists can use to recreate her
in a thousand yearsBud used to watch those crime
shows. She falls back into the mattress, telling herself
she will have to clean up her nastiness later, hopes
scientists of the future will let her rest in peace.