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House of God
Tom Foley wasn’t one to sit around unless he was waiting for Sally. They had married two years ago and he swore to himself in the heat and the dirt that he’d been waiting for her ever since. She was young and fickle and not the kind of woman a working man needed, he thought; she was too thin and pale to keep for long. Sally had no family to speak of; all of the men had run off to find their fortune or a woman or an ocean. Her father’s ramshackle farm had been a nice exchange, he supposed, and after all he was a Christian man, he couldn’t just let that little girl go without no family. In town, in the sink of beer and stale smoke, the men of Oneida spilled across the bars to laugh about the Foley kid. Joe Richards told sloppy stories about the Foley woman. “That boy’s mother was one of the finest I’ve seen,” he slurred. “Too bad she gone off before I got a chance. Gone with them big eyes and nothin’ left but sqealin’ kids and that old hog man of hers.” He eyed the girl behind the bar. She shrugged, “Tom found himself a pretty bride anyways.”
“Don’t make no difference. Kid was always a little off, am I right boys?”
Tom wasn’t a big man, not the kind that towered over things or looked down. He was a bit like the rabbits down in the garden: lean and hungry and the color of dry dirt. At thirty-nine he was caught somewhere in that mangy space between fifteen and twenty. His hair was sandy brown and more the earth’s than his own. He was stained from years spent in this dust bowl, this dry forsaken plot way off highway fifty nine. Somewhere a couple miles east of there the church’s clapboards hung loose and rotting, the white paint streaked, peeling.
Tom waited on the porch in his Sunday finest: that old confederate uniform with the holes in the elbows and, if you looked hard enough, the bullet holes in the right knee. The red dirt from the fields caked his skin, deep in the cracks that ran down from his eyes to his chin, still rough, he thought, but he never could grow a beard so what the hell. He didn’t see the point of polishing and shaving and trimming anymore. Twenty miles out and no address, the grimy coyotes were the closest he came to company. The grass had grown between the pebbles of the driveway and it’d been two years since he’d borrowed Sally’s brother’s ‘33 Ford for the wedding. She had worn her mother’s dress, the yellowed one with the ruffles all round the collar (and a little on the wrists). Tom thought she looked like a doll, like his mother in photographs. You’d never have known how old he was, but she coulda been fifteen, he thought. Honest to god, she coulda been.
When Tom was young he went to mass on Sundays. His mother would wear her pink dress and sun hat, worn and patched but he liked them all the same. She would hold his hand, her cool fingers wrapped around his sweaty paw and herding him with her wide, swinging hips. Inside, in the dust of the pews he could slip into the contours of her shadow, that familiar darkness dogging her stride. The preacher’s voice was nasally, guiding him to God’s path and heady dreams as the Brooks family, Sally’s family, rocked quietly in the back pew. They told him his mother was no good after that. Joe Richards said that she’d left like one of those “city girls” who loved whomever they pleased all over town. Tom knew better. His mother had told him that he was a good boy and “good children came from the pure vessels of their lovin’ mothers”.
He didn’t have time for church anymore, he thought. Not even on Sundays, no sir. No working man could afford to spend hours like that these days. Sally’s fields were his holy house now. He would work them the only way he knew. Some wanted to get out. Not Tom. I’ll be here till they take me, by God.
Sally was a translucent kind of girl, too delicate for any real substance. Before she married she had dreamed of getting out to the coast. There with the gulls and the swells she would be somebody, not just “the Brooks girl who lost her daddy”, because pity wasn’t worth anything when it anchored you to Oneida. She had always been pretty, and that was promising, but she didn’t enjoy the processions to church, to that empty place where her mother cried and the preached patted her head and the small of her back and told her if she was lucky she’d find “a nice God-fearin’ man to keep you”. This must have been her downfall. You just couldn’t send a girl like that out into the world, they had said. Then they whispered, “might end up like them city hussies, run off like the Foley woman.”
After Tom she didn’t need to dream. The farm had consumed him and she had consented. He plowed and plowed and dug into the earth until he was painted red, the dried clay mixing with his sweat as he knelt in the rows. From the loft in the barn Sally would watch him, trace the rusty streams rolling down his temples. She watched his ritual. He would pray and then jolt upward as though shocked by some invisible current, arms spread and weeping as he jerked back across the fields to the porch, to that rotting step to sit and glower at the barn, at her insolence and impurity, at her “Godlessness”. He prayed for her, and kept her.
Tom dug his fingernails into the dirt around his boot where the rubber had cracked. That woman, sneakin’, hidin’, ain’t no type of wife for a good man. He hammered the splinters of the front porch with his first. “Sal you git down here!” She could sit up there all day, he thought, perched on her throne in the loft, on dusty bales from her father’s last cut. It hadn’t been long, he thought, since that goddamn kid broke into the barn, better lock it next time. Who knows what kids’ll do these days. Snoopin. Roamin’ with no good mothers to look after ‘em. They weren’t like Tom. No sir. A proper Christian family, that’s what his was, he thought. From the Goddamn pure vessel of my mother.
Tom leaned his head back, cracked lips parted to the heavens. “Sally if you can’t git yerself right down here I’ll do it for you. What do ya got to hide from yer own man?” He scratched the sparse spot on the top of his skull. “I’ll ‘pologize, Sal.” Thinks she can spend all day up there dilly dallyin’. I knowed she wasn’t fit for a farm, not hard work.
The barn door creaked. The dry air pushed it towards the dark opening where the cows used to chew and sleep and lactate before they dried up. Tom could almost see the steps to the loft from the porch, the wood rotting and sagging in the center. He’d promised Sally’s brother that’d be fixed, along with the rest of it, before the honeymoon. He laughed. Well there wasn’t no goddamn honeymoon, he thought. What’d she expect? “I aint Goddamn prince, for Christ’s sake, Sal. All I’m askin’ is yous be faithful.” In my book a wife’s supposed to care for a husband. In Tom’s book when women went off to somewhere, to who-knows-where, people git to talkin’, ‘specially with them sin-seeking eyes that Sally had.
Tom stood on the top stair of the barn. “Sal, really, common down. I aint gonna git mad but the lord aint gonna wait forever.”
No he wasn’t, Tom thought. Wasn’t gonna wait for no prince charming to come and whisk this one away. No sir. Sally Brooks was staying here.
The girl lay slumped in the corner on the hay bales. The sun played in through the window across her yellow curls and the dark red stains on her chest. The flies were already starting to whisper, sharing the morning’s news. At least the girl had been reasonable about it, she wasn’t one for making a fuss. Sally’s head fell crooked, too far over to one shoulder. But as Tom brushed the dust from her forehead she could have been dreaming, staring out eternally to his holy house in the fields.