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The Day the Past Died
Jefferson Harper said his first harsh words to his mother when she began to tear down the photographs of his father from the walls. The newly widowed Bailey Harper insisted her late husband’s eyes followed her in the pictures when she crossed the room, and she was sick of the dead looming around when he did that enough alive. When Jefferson disinterred the frames from a cardboard box in the attic, he replaced all the photos in their original spots, so when he discovered the following morning they were missing once more he confronted his mother. She told him to look outside, where the Harper boy found twenty-seven individual burial spots for each picture, paired with their own unique headstones.
The second instance he ever spoke harsh with her, she had picked up smoking, filling the house with the sweet odor of tobacco that set the younger brother Jed in an asthmatic fit. If it weren’t for the staunch Harper belief against hospitals, Jed would have ended up in intensive care; instead, for the eight hours of the night little Jed kept his head fully in a freezer. Jefferson sat his mother down for an intervention to reprimand her atypical grieving. To show him up, Bailey Harper forced upon herself a mournful fever that left her bedridden for two weeks. The door to her room remained locked for those three-hundred-thirty-six hours until Jefferson bludgeoned himself inward. Upon opening the door a humongous cloud of tobacco smoke released itself and hovered overhead the entire village for the next three days.
In those sunless afternoons Bailey sat herself on the rocking chair of her porch and puffed away. Jefferson was so fed up that he took a knee to his dear mother and told her to get it together. When she passed him a simple glance and blew smoke directly into his face, the son rose and gave her one crisp slap across the face. Stubborn like his father, Jefferson was never an apologetic boy and shook off what he just did in attempt to justify his action. He scolded her in the exact way he’d observe his father do, until Bailey Harper began to well with tears that flooded her cheeks.
“It’s just, I always had your father,” she told him, “And now he’s not here anymore, and I’m alone for the first time.”
Jefferson consoled she was never going to be alone as long as she had him and Jed. That evening he guided his mother into the yard and took shovels to the ground, where the mother-son pair dug up each and every one of his father’s photographs, and replaced them on the wall. During, the eldest daughter Caroline ambled into the den, where Jefferson was placing a frame on the mantelpiece, and barked that this household carried itself like a prolonged funeral procession. The resulting uproar sounded so loudly it personified into a gust of wind that threw open every door and window in the house, stirring Charlotte awake from her bed. Bailey, who more-or-less despised her youngest daughter as she caught her late husband once peeping down the maturing child’s shirt, commanded Charlotte back to her room with such a stern voice that it personified into a gust of wind that threw shut Charlotte’s bedroom door behind her. Almost as headstrong as her brother, Caroline persisted in arguing until her mother said she go set the table for dinner. And, always obedient to her parents, Caroline grumbled into the kitchen.
When the sun returned to the Missourian town, the Harper boys returned to work at the wheat and rye fields. Bailey insisted she obtain a job now that Jackson Harper couldn’t provide, but Jefferson waved off the idea with no more than a shake of the head. Ten-year-old Jed had never worked a day in the fields prior, but his older brother, and present man-of-the-house brought him into the trade and taught him how to be a wise salesman. An adorable physiognomy attracted all new clientele in the village, and Jefferson decided to expand what empty acres they had into planting soybean seeds. Because the Harpers were so adamant against handouts, the townsfolk had no form of sharing their condolences for the fallen father, so for the next few weeks they bought intensively off the Harpers’ stand in the guise of free market.
When Caroline’s suitor, the boy Jackson Harper had personally picked out for her, announced he was off to the military, it seemed everyone lauded him with praise. The joy that came with finally having someone in that small town to have pride in erased all grievances left over Mr. Harper. Each year it seemed a new graduate would announce his going off to join the forces. And each year the same acclaim came, because if there was something that the town loved more than themselves, it was their country. Caroline Harper soon became the girl every girl desired to be, and the Harpers received their overnight fame. Albeit his distaste for his sister, soon Jefferson had Caroline replace Jed at the flea market, and this brought in sufficient finances for the next week.
The Harpers were flourishing. Although they lived in solitude several miles away from the village, they became a household name. Many expected the surname to slowly die out once the respectable Jackson Harper passed away. Never had there been a more mournful funeral, never had more residents attended any other singular event. He was the model of every true patriot: a war veteran who was discharged penniless and made his way through life with his own bare hands. He loved his family, and he loved his country, is how the Reverend Cotten described him. Never had there ever been a more admirable narrative.
Following the funeral in an attempt to keep brotherly control over his little sister, Jefferson would bribe Charlotte with material goods to save her from turning into their rebellious sister. Anything from dresses to jewelry to trinkets and toys, Charlotte became even the more showered with items when the Harpers garnered the slightest bit of profit. She never asked for any of it. Jefferson would simply hand her a gift and tell her to stay good. Charlotte, a developing synesthetic, every time she saw the word sex soon began to smell the odor of moldy cheese. It was because once Jefferson caught their sister Caroline at midnight amidst the fields, necking and feeling with a boy from town. Until then Jefferson would have sworn he knew his sister would never be that kind of girl. So he beckoned his father who ran out with a pistol to scare off the kid, and up until Jackson’s death a year later Caroline didn’t speak a word. No one spoke of the incident because no one wanted it to spread, and also on a regular basis Caroline had been seeing the soon-to-be soldier that her father chose for her. It was when they lowered Jackson Harper’s casket into the earth that Caroline announced to everyone that it’s nice she could finally talk again.
Because the Harpers did not own a single clock, nor had they any clue of the invention whatsoever, little Jed still believed every day to be the day that his father died, swearing that no time had passed since, despite the rising and setting of the sun. He’d go to bed and awake donning the same black polo and pants, and when he wasn’t working, he was wailing. Bailey Harper, so accustomed to the women’s work she spent her life busying, contracted attuned deafness that tuned out the reality around her. Proclaiming Jed’s constant sobs sounded like the color green, Charlotte took her resulting migraine and hid herself in her closet, blanketing herself with her many clothes to block out the sound.
One dawn, when her wardrobe found itself beyond capacity, Charlotte followed her siblings into town with the intent to deliver her unwanted clothes on the doorsteps of folks she knew needed them. Jefferson swiftly rejected the idea, and said if anything, they were going to sell her hand-me-downs for ten bucks apiece, not hand them off to a bunch of freeloaders.
In mid-October the town held a parade to bid farewell to the boy Caroline was destined to marry. And it was to seem so when he took a knee and held out a ring and soon Caroline’s future was set in stone and the village’s cheers could be heard all the way into Oklahoma. Everyone swore he’d be the next Jackson Harper, and that Caroline was the luckiest girl on this side of the Mississippi.
Winter arrived without warning the next day. As soon as it hit, the Harpers found themselves in a deep poverty, and when their water was shut off used Jed’s tears to fill their baths and bottles. When Jefferson reprimanded his little brother to man up, Jed never shed another tear in his entire life. Bailey Harper, in the promise of solitude, pulled out a lone cigarette and smoked it, cognizant the family was doomed.
Then the next morning, while the boys were deep in the fields, Bailey Harper answered a knock to the front door she assumed to be a gentleman caller for Charlotte. On their doorway stood a man, shaggy in rags, a rucksack thrown across his shoulder and barefoot, promising he was a gypsy from up North and he had a special once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for the lucky lady today. Never had a Harper seen an Arab before; they only heard tales of their innate wickedness, how they mingled with those loony Yankees and disturbed the fine idea of what it meant to be American. At the outset stunned, Bailey told the gypsy she’d listen to the sales pitch from the porch. Then Caroline descended the steps and noticed the guest, telling her mother to let the man inside and that she’d fetch him some iced tea. He sincerely thanked the girl for her kind gesture, as no one else in town would let him through their doors.
Other than the shade of his skin the second characteristic Bailey Harper noted of the stranger was his eyes. They pierced with such a penetrating silver it was as if diamonds were buried just below his corneas. Then the gypsy reached far into his satchel and pulled out a clock, and in the palm of his hands displayed the gadget to the Harper women. He explained the inner mechanisms of such a technology and how it could keep the time, from day to hour to minute to second.
“Why would I need to know the time,” Bailey Harper said, “It’s not as if things ever change anyway.”
But Caroline was far more interested than her mother at the clock. The gypsy said they decorate every shelf of every home in New England, and subsequently offered a sales pitch so convincing that Bailey Harper, with no money to purchase it, offered him to stay for dinner as a tradeoff. An hour later Jefferson and Jed climbed up the porch to find their front door hanging open, to which Jefferson grumbled and locked it behind him. He found Charlotte sitting legs-crossed, sipping on iced tea on the staircase, and she told him they had a visitor and that he was in the kitchen where mama had kicked her out.
The instantaneous moment Jefferson discovered a brown-skinned man in his house he first feigned politeness, but dragged his mother by the sleeves into the next room. Bailey Harper showed him the clock to which he swiftly rejected. She remarked that isn’t it fascinating that those two little hands always move forward, never back.
“The interesting thing,” Jefferson told her, “Is that time always comes back in a circle.” Then he insinuated it was all some diabolical conspiracy of Caroline’s, and what does she know about that Arab stranger, he’s lively to rob them blind when they’re all asleep. Despite Jefferson’s protests the dinner continued just as planned.
At the table when Charlotte commented that the gypsy’s eyes appeared as gems, her mother scoffed at the innocent flirt, but he explained that indeed, beneath his eyeballs were two eight karat diamonds. Upon birth he exited the womb completely blind, and his mother gave him away to a trio of Syrian merchants who swore at night they never saw him sleep a blink; he would simply gaze dumbstruck at the stars in an attempt to connect the dots. No one sincerely worried for the infant’s ailment because each collectively agreed that the life of a blind man was endless slumber. Yet one dawn a shopkeeper awoke to find the child’s eyes clear as sea and bright as sun, that he assumed from staring so much so long at the night sky, two stars found their way into the baby’s skull. Little were they aware that during the earliest hours of the morning, a sheep deeply in need of a trim nestled on top of the child’s head, whose wool cleaned off the dust fogging his eyes, revealing they had been two diamonds in the rough all along. Stricken by poverty the men settled on cracking the baby’s head open and selling his eyes for gold, so one night the only woman amongst the group took him and fled to New England.
Every one of the Harpers but Jefferson was so enthralled in the gypsy’s tale that each sat jaw agape at the man. Bailey invited the stranger to remain a guest in her household as long as he may need, which stirred such an arousal in Jefferson that Charlotte claimed she heard the whistle of a kettle the millisecond before her brother spouted off his rebuffs.
“Every word Jefferson says is red as a plum,” she announced. Charlotte, a castaway from maternal love, was the easiest to fall victim to the stranger’s spell. She sought adoration so desperately she’d listen to any word of any man who’d bother to speak to her. And when the gypsy tiptoed into Charlotte’s room to deliver the first clock, he discovered her drowning in her own clothes. She said she was wailing because she had so many clothes it overwhelmed her, so the stranger whispered to her a secret he learned when vagrant in New Jersey. So she did as told and took sacks of hand-me-downs to plant very carefully in the soil outside, and in the morning a towering tree would resume the plot. Like apples or pears or bananas, these trees sprouted articles of clothing from its leaves. Believing in the innate goodness of humanity Charlotte encouraged the townsfolk to each steal a piece themselves to plant in their yards, so those who need clothes the most could easily pick them like fruit. When Jefferson realized what was happening he tried uprooting the trees and eradicating them from the land with his pickup. He told Charlotte that people should work for these clothes, not receive free handouts.
“People who have clothes don’t need more clothes, yet they’re always buying them,” Charlotte told him, “People who have clothes should help people who don’t. That way one person doesn’t have three full closets and another half a one.”
Soon the town was filled to capacity with clothing trees. It became such an eighth wonder that national publications were traveling in and out to profile the hamlet. And although this village-wide popularity brought upon the Harpers a sudden boost in funds, Jefferson could not be satisfied. He thought it a cheat, like finding a loophole in the Bible.
With all this attention circling Charlotte’s program, Bailey Harper could take refuge in her solitude. She let the dishes remain dirty, the rugs remain dusty, the clothes remain muddy, the food remain uncooked. It was as if, from sitting on hard wooden chairs her entire life, someone finally introduced her to a cushion. Out of all things she even uttered a pleasantry to Charlotte, complimenting her dress, the first weaponless words to her daughter for years. And this was thanks to the gypsy man, who imbued something in Bailey Harper that she could not quite pin down.
When the house dirtied enough and not one of the kids bothered themselves with it, Jefferson chose instead to scold his mother for the carelessness to her duties. He explained that in order to function we must always live up to our roles, or else it’d all fall to chaos. His mother answered that he didn’t have the ability to comprehend.
“You see, my whole life I’ve been a daughter, then a wife, then a mother. I’m exhausted and I think it’s about damn time I become familiar with myself,” she said.
It was when the cellar transformed into one massive dust bunny that Jed trekked down to tidy it. But Jefferson, so set on his mother’s motherly duties, stopped his brother in his tracks. He figured he could still salvage his little brother, too youthful to comprehend, so he resolved to stow him away. He thought the problem to be the new Arab stranger with diamond eyes, rather than a preexisting condition alive since conception. So into Charlotte’s closet tiny Jed went, now empty and spacious with a few wire hangers that flittered like a mobile.
Then everything fell apart when Caroline announced that she was pregnant. All Bailey Harper responded was with a smoke and a cackle, rocking back on her chair. Jed couldn’t hear the news locked away in his closet, and Charlotte thought her sister’s proclamation sounded like the color black. It was Jefferson who blew his cap and for the first time in his life felt out of control. For a bit he danced in circles, spewing random, incomprehensible nothings into outer space. He retreated to the fields and thrust his way past the wheat and rye and soybeans, and then Caroline chased after him. Whose baby is it, was his first inquiry. When she confessed it to be her betrothed’s, he forbade to believe her, said considering a girl like her that child could be one of millions’. Then she began to cry.
“It’s just so unfair. When I told him everything, the next day he enlisted in the army. And then he proposed. So he gets to tie me down with a ring on my finger and put on this façade as if he’s being there for the child. Instead he runs off to the forces and deserts me, so that I stay here alone while everyone calls me a s**t and he’s praised for being father-of-the-year and sacrificing his life for the flag. Do you actually think I want this? He gets to have two mutually exclusive things at once. It’s so unfair.”
“You brought this upon yourself,” is what Jefferson responded.
“Hell, you’ll never understand anything.”
What Jefferson did understand appeared to him that night like a wisp of the past. That sort of past that dangles there like all past, and it caused such a disturbance that the winter air rose fifty degrees. Jefferson couldn’t sleep that night so he reclined on the porch and watched the still fields. When he entered the house the first sight he saw was the ghost of Jackson Harper. His father hung there, having turned over every picture of himself to the wall. Jefferson called out to him, but Jackson Harper simply shook his head with a look on his face: dissatisfaction, maybe sadness, downcast, but most of all disappointment. It was far too much for his son to withstand, and before Jefferson could splutter a sorry, father, Jackson Harper’s spirit vanished, and so did Caroline.
No one imagined where the Harper girl got to except the gypsy, who told everyone she awoke in a bed somewhere up North, probably Boston or Philadelphia or the Big Apple. With the ghost of his father invading him like a poltergeist, Jefferson went mad and smashed each clock in the household and boarded up every window and door so no Harper could get out, and so the gypsy man couldn’t get in. Only Jed in the closet saw what was next, saw the stranger try to enter the house and fail, and then sprout two dove wings and ascend into the sky without a word.