Note: The following excerpt has been used with the permission of a former client and/or the publisher. Please note that I can adjust my prose style for a particular genre, and the following is not intended to represent my full range of styles or the number of genres I consider. For nonfiction, the level of complexity can be adjusted depending on client preference.
The first thing I remember in life is watching my father and grandfather build our house. I was three years old. Strange, isnít it – not to remember anything at all before the age of three?
I was standing with Mama and Grandma and Lily on a February morning under the broad, blue Nebraska sky. All around us were empty fields that would soon fill up with tall, green cornstalks.
A few tears ran down Mamaís cheeks. I had no idea why she was crying. Grandma led Lily, my sister, off to the side and sat on a tree stump. I was thinking that Grandma was taking Lily aside because Mama was crying. Lily was only one year old, but she shuffled through the dirt without falling down. I remember that clearly – Grandma taking Lilyís hand, Lily stirring up the dry dust as she walked to the tree stump. Grandma picked up Lily, put her on her lap, and began singing a hymn, and I remember the words floating through that sun-washed Nebraska morning.Come home, come home,
Papa and Grandpa were standing on boards high off the ground, hammering and sawing.
"What are they doing?" I asked Mama.
Mama brushed away the tears from her cheeks and smiled. "They're framing the house."
"It's giving a house its bones."
I looked at that skeleton of a house, at the yellow pine bones growing taller, at the arms that would become bedrooms, at the legs that would become the dining room and parlor.
We watched Papa and Grandpa framing every day. At lunch, we ate hard-boiled eggs, chicken salad sandwiches, and iced tea. I don't remember ever seeing Mama prepare the food because I don't remember where we were living while the house was going up. Mama said we lived in a rented house in the city of Lincoln, but that's not in my memory. My life seems to have started with the building of our house on the farm.
After lunch one day, Grandpa took a bottle from beneath the seat of our pick-up truck. He raised the bottle high, took a sip of dark brown liquid, and then screwed the cap back on the bottle.
"Sip." I said, holding out my hands. "Sip."
"No, Nathan," he told me, putting one knee on the ground and staring into my eyes. "That's whiskey. It's not for young folks like you." He gave me a wink and patted me on the shoulder. His white hair, never combed, hung down to his shoulders. Grandpa was skinny, and I imagined that he had yellow pine bones beneath his skin.
He walked back to the house, which was still just a skeleton, and picked up a hammer. He turned around and looked at me, his hair tousled by a slight breeze. "Remember, Nathan," he told me, "this house will be your house, too."
Mama sighed and frowned.
"Hush, you silly old fool," Grandma told him. "Of course it's going to be Nathan's house. He doesn't need to be told that."
Grandpa said nothing more. He climbed up a ladder and gave me another wink. It occurred to me that before Grandpa had said what he did, maybe the house wasn't going to be mine, too. But he had said it, and I felt good.
In the days that followed, Papa and Grandpa gave the house its skin. They nailed wooden clapboards to the frame and then painted them with long, even strokes. From then on, the work progressed more rapidly. They hung doors, put in windows. Inside, they nailed up sheet rock, varnished the hardwood floors, and installed cabinets. Papa wired the house for electricity, and Grandpa put in the plumbing.
"It's a fine house, Calvin," Mama declared the day they finished.
But Papa wasn't paying any attention. He was scratching lines in the dirt with a long stick.
"Calvin, what are you doing?" Mama asked.
"Nothing," Papa said absentmindedly, dropping his stick. "Yes, it's a fine house." Papa paused. "It's a house where a family could be happy."
Mama didn't say anything else. At the mention of the word "happy," she had turned away. I remember thinking to myself that some people weren't interested in being happy, people like Mama.
Papa scooped up Lily, who giggled because Papa rubbed his unshaven chin against her smooth cheek. Grandpa was over by the truck, taking a sip of whiskey. He winked at me. I tried to wink back, but all I could do was blink.
It was a good day. Papa and Grandpa had built a good house – just the two of them – and it had plenty of room for everybody. For me.
It was going to be my house, too.
Seven Years Later
Mama was in the kitchen, slicing carrots and potatoes for beef stew. She was crying – she always cried more in April – but no one ever asked her why. I felt that everyone else, except for Lily perhaps, knew why Mama cried, but for some reason it wasn't something we were supposed to talk about. I would no more have asked Grandma why Mama cried than I would have asked her why Grandpa, seven years earlier, had said that our house was being built for me, too. Many things can be said with words, but even more things can be said with silences. Things like don't ask questions – this doesn't concern you.
Perhaps that's the best way to describe my family: people who had secrets, people who occasionally slipped into dark places that shunned the light. I once asked Mama to tell me about the day I was born. She had bent down and said, "Nathan, your shoe's untied. Lace it up and then go out and play." When I asked her a second time, she pretended not to hear me. Now, years later, Mama was crying, but I wasn't going to ask why.
I walked onto the front porch and saw Papa kneeling in the dirt about twenty yards from the first row of spring corn. It was late afternoon, and the sun was throwing shadows on the ground, the kind that say finish your business, because the day isn't going to last much longer. Papa was drawing in the dirt with a stick.
"What's that?" I asked Papa, looking down at the lines he had scrawled in the earth.
A smile crossed his face, but he didn't look up. For the moment, his whole world seemed to exist in the dust in front of his knees. "Nathan," he said, "look at this and tell me what you see."
I didn't see an awful lot, that's for sure, but Papa did, so I tried to use my imagination. "A camel," I said. "I see a camel."
Papa laughed, shook his head, and rubbed his unshaven chin. Papa hated shaving even more than going to church. "It's a boat on the ocean," he said with a heavy sigh. "Those are storm clouds behind the boat."
Papa looked up, grinning.
"Are you sure you see a camel?" he asked.
He again passed his hands over the stubble on his chin. Then he looked back at the ground and twisted his head so that he could see his picture from a different angle.
"Is it a good camel?" he asked.
"I don't know what you mean."
"Does it really look like a camel, or are you just saying that because it looks like nothing at all?"
"No, it really looks like a camel." That was a lie. Papa's drawing didn't look like anything, except maybe a road map with a lot of crisscrossing lines. But I didn't want to hurt Papa's feelings. Ever since I could remember, Papa had been drawing pictures in the dirt. He always messed them up, though, as if afraid they would come to life.
Papa stared at the ground and then said, "You know, I think I see a camel, too. Yep. Plain as day now that I look at it from the side."
"They say a camel is a ship of the desert," I said, trying to make Papa feel better. "Maybe you drew a boat after all."
"Maybe I did."
Finish your business, because the day isn't going to last much longer.
"It's getting late," I told Papa. "I'm going down to Jonah's before it gets dark."
"Okay," Papa said, lifting his hand in a fainthearted wave. He was still absorbed in his boat-turned-camel.
I walked toward the dirt road, which was narrow and cut through an ocean of cornstalks. Grandpa was standing at the edge of the road, gazing into the deep blue sky.
"What are you looking at, Grandpa?"
"Nothing . . . yet."
"What are you gonna be looking at later?"
"The moon. I'm waiting for it to rise."
"Oh. See ya later, Grandpa."
"Don't be late for supper, Jake," he said, still looking up into the moonless blue sky.
For the past two years, Grandpa had called me Jake. Jake was his brother, who had died over twenty years ago. Grandma said that Grandpa was getting senile. "That means his brain has retired," she said. "It happens to a lot of folks Grandpa's age. It makes them forgetful. Sometimes they do unusual things."
That was certainly true. Sometimes they waited for the moon to rise.
I walked the half-mile to Jonah's house, which was also surrounded by an ocean of corn. Jonah's father was the local preacher, but he was also a farmer. Jonah's dad, Ezekiel Rigg, often said that spreading the good news of God's kingdom was a noble enterprise, but growing corn was the enterprise that helped him pay bills and put food on the table. Jonah was sitting by the side of the road, waiting for me.
"What took you so long?" he asked. "I've been sitting here for twenty minutes."
"I had to look at Papa's camel. And Grandpa was waiting for the moon to rise."
"Oh." Jonah didn't need any explanations. He knew Papa liked to draw in the dirt. He also knew that Grandpa's brain had retired. Whenever Jonah came to our farm, Grandpa thought he was a traveling Bible salesman named Silas Green.
Jonah and I threw pebbles from the road into the cornfield. It was a contest to see who could throw the farthest. We couldn't see exactly where the pebbles landed, but we could tell who won by the sound of the rocks slicing through the long, drooping leaves on the cornstalks. Jonah had the stronger right arm and usually won. If he happened to lose, however, Jonah would kick up some dust and say "damn." He wasn't a boy given to swearing, but he thought he needed to say "damn" once in awhile. He said he had to show other kids that a preacher's son wasn't all that holy.
After the contest, we picked a couple of ears of corn and peeled away strands of corn silk threaded through the hard white kernels.
"What's the first thing you remember in life?" I asked Jonah.
"I remember Pop giving a sermon one Sunday. He told the congregation about this dream he had where angels were flying around the throne of God. He must have talked for an hour about how angels do God's will and constantly sing his praises."
"How old were you?"
"About one and a half. Maybe two."
I peeled the last strand of silk from the ear I was holding and wrapped it around my index finger. The silk was golden and made me think of angels' hair. In paintings I had seen, their hair was sometimes yellow, but mostly golden. "Do you believe in angels?" I asked.
"I've never seen any, but I suppose they might exist. I don't really spend much time thinking about angels."
The shadows were getting longer, darker. The first star had burned its way into the early evening sky.
Finish your business. The day is almost over.
"Tell me, Jonah – why can't I remember anything about my life before the age of three? Most kids can remember something, anything – a face, a picture, a few words somebody said. I can't remember anything at all."
"I think maybe your parents bought you from gypsies," Jonah replied.
"Yeah, like the ones in the carnival coming in the summer. Carnivals always have gypsies."
"Are you making this up, Jonah?"
"No. I read that gypsies travel a lot. In wagons. Sometimes they sell their children."
"I don't know. The magazine I read on gypsies didn't explain that."
We were silent for a few minutes. A hawk wheeled lazily overhead, probably looking for a field mouse. Three more stars had appeared. Streaks of purple and crimson trailed upward into the sky from where the sun was sinking into the ocean of corn.
"Do you really think I'm a gypsy?" I asked.
Jonah closed his eyes, deep in thought. He wrinkled his brow as if about to say something serious or profound. "You have dark hair," he said. "Your mom, dad, and Lily all have red hair."
"That's true enough, but why can't I remember being a gypsy? I don't remember seeing any wagons or carnivals or women dancing around with tambourines. Wouldn't I remember something from the time before they sold me?"
Jonah shook his head sideways matter-of-factly. "Not necessarily. Being sold would have been a traumatic event." He emphasized the word "traumatic" and drew it out: traw-mat-ic.
"What's that mean?"
"People block out traumatic events – events too painful to remember."
The crimson trail had disappeared from the sky. Night was quickly spreading across Nebraska.
You're finished. Go home. The day is over.
"I gotta go," I told Jonah as I started down the road. "I'll think about all this."
"It could have happened," he said.
* * *
A few fireflies hovered over the road. I stopped and looked around me. I thought maybe someone was following me. The wind picked up a little and swept the fireflies away.
Do you want to find out the truth, Nathan?
"Who's there?" I called.
But I was alone on the road. The wind was my only companion.
Do you want to know what happened to you?
The wind said nothing else, and I kept walking. That's when I noticed the moon hanging low in the sky. I wondered if Grandpa had waited by the road long enough to see it rise.
Slowly, I raised my hand, thinking that somehow I could touch the full, golden moon that seemed to sit on the corn. This was an impulse I had frequently. It was a silly thing, of course – trying to touch the moon – but I tried anyway. I didn't know why.
I continued on home.
Back home, Mama had stopped crying. She was stirring the stew pot on the stove.
"Did I ever have a traumatic event?" I asked her.
"What makes you ask such a strange question, Nathan?"
"Just wondering, that's all."
She removed the wooden spoon from the pot and placed it on a ceramic tile sitting on the stove. "Everybody has traumatic events happen to them at some time or other," she said. "Everybody." She had a faraway look in her eyes as she answered. I thought maybe she was remembering some traumatic event.Upstairs in my room, I thought about what Jonah had told me. Maybe he was right. Maybe I was really a gypsy. Jonah was a grade ahead of me in school. He was smart, the kind of smart that had enabled him to memorize the first three chapters of the Bible. He wasn't a Bible salesman, but he could do that.
Maybe I was a gypsy. Maybe.
It could have happened.
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