Gully Riordan Marks the Twain


Well, that day after the storm I sat in my grandfather’s old rocker of bent hickory branch, smoking the fagged ends of cheroot he left in the Chase Brothers coffee can. Coming up to smoke his remembrance of months, he placed the can beside the left runner of the chair a long time ago, between stiff and stacked back copies of Time and Life . Escaping the demands of the day, I sat and rocked and rocked and rocked and knew it was not the way a young woman should spend her day.

But I was old enough, damn it all.  Graduated from high school and not yet finding a job, I looked at the browning corners of the shadows in the attic sitting room. The full-length mirror that dressed my family’s women for marriage was haunted with cob webs and dust. In it, I saw now my breasts breaking small through my blouse like the mild humps that moles make on the front lawn every spring. My hips blooming out as I sat had just begun to take on the shape that defies what I read about in my geometry books. My hair – well, everyone says it’s my mamas, but I know Mama’s is much curlier, and blacker than mine, or was in the black and white photos I saw of it before it went all grey. Then there’s my face – letting go of girlhood a few messy periods ago…

But that’s not what I was looking at when it happened. Rather, my attention was struck by the long-haired tabby, a midget lion playing at thrones and kingdoms at the edge of the lawn with a ground squirrel and, for all that, wringing all the mercy out of play by grabbing the little critter be the neck, letting it loose, running it down, bringing it back, letting it loose, running it down, etc. and by the ever loving God wanting to kill it, but having too much fun with the imperfections of the act to reach any sort of conclusion.

I listened to the leftover winds – last night’s cyclone had struck and killed a few families east of town. It was late spring and June was a fine combination of cool mornings, clear sunlight and postcard clouds gathering for sunset council. The winds only put it all in motion. As for those poor families – there were two of them that died in the whirlwind. They found a newborn boy from the one family half a county away, hanging from a strand of barbed wire slung around a fence post, and from the other family a girl my age was done through with a pitchfork, flung and nailed with the tines to a billboard on the interstate. The rest, so I heard, died peacefully beneath the rubble of their possessions.

They were living on those farms that aren’t really farms but just government excuses for spending money with a trailer home tacked on – well, that’s what my papa and uncles argued about anyway when they’d be out on the porch cracking cans of Hamm’s and smoking Old Golds between slices of spiced up summer sausage and bland brick cheese. My mama and my aunts would be in the kitchen cooking up the casserole dinner and cooking down the strawberry and peach preserves. That was summer. In winter no one went on the porch except after a good meal to breathe in deep a thimble of Chartreuse and a night’s worth of Wisconsin winter.

The women in my family are always pretending not to care that the men would make the porch their headquarters every evening after the field work and the livestock were taken care of, but they only pretended. None of them married above, and only a few beneath themselves. But all of them cared more than they would say that the men had a different talk when they weren’t around. They didn’t seem to care that I was around.

My papa – he’d been a rodeo clown and a tree farmer, and before that he’d been a writer and a tender soul. But that was long ago before I was born. Now, between artificial inseminations and midnight calvings, he took odd newspaper jobs in town, coming home late, jagged and reaching for a beer, waiting and wondering about the next story. That’s what he told me once, anyway.

“Gilly, don’t ever get it into your head that writing is any sort of life,” he said, blurred and swaying a can of Hamm’s before his face like it was specter he had complete control of. “Because I tell you, it’s better just to live off the reality you got than to try to make new ones. The real one is trouble enough.”

Papa calls me Gilly, Gills, Gillycuddy, or Gully, depending on his mood, but my full name is Gillian Imelda Riordan – named for a grandmother’s grandmother, although the men grumbled at my christening and the women waved their fly swatters and doilies in jovial dismissal. The men said it wasn’t Christian “and it sure as shit wasn’t Catholic!” But the women said if it was good enough for scandals past, it was good enough for them. Either way, the priest didn’t put up much of a fight. He was glad to have a baptism at all, given the way things went around here.

My grandmother Willamette, who they all called “Billy,” died some time shortly before I was born. Coming home from a homecoming dance, my mama sat me down with a cup of teat and told me with a laugh that Billy said, “If you ever have a child, sweet, I’d just as soon ask for a recount.” (Billy had her doubts about my mother’s ability to bring a child to term, but that’s another story. Billy softened a bit when she met my papa, of course, but she maintained her doubts like the interest in a forgotten bank account…).  

Well, today, Billy would probably be frowning in her native Birmingham, Alabama way at Poppa – we call my grandfather Poppa (compare Poppa and Papa, the slight inflection to distinguish grandfathers from fathers). Shrugging his shoulders with aggressive futility, Poppa wandered onto the lawn this late June morning with a shovel in his hand. He’d been making a good account of garlic scapes in the garden behind the house. Now he was looking for some wild onions among the weeds to flank the pepper plots.

The cat was done playing and had just hunkered down in the tall green at the edge of the lawn. The sinister angle of his tail told me the pussy meant to take care of business. It settled down for some good blood and guts, and was at the vanishing point among the timothy, clover and wild alfalfa when my grandfather caught a glance of him. Poppa hates cats and I don’t blame him. He’s got enough of them in the cow barn, always waiting for the milk pail to spill or the grain sack to go slack in the jaw….

The tabby’s golden pelt glowing among the spangled crevasses of light that shook through the branched shadows of the oak overhead. Poppa stopped short. The cat looked up at the last minute and scattered its graceful movements, Poppa giving chase around the back of the house. That’s when it happened. In fact, he already around by the tool shed down by the creek, well out of ear shot when it happened.

The cyclone didn’t hit us – the land too hilly and broken up by lack of glaciers around here to have much truck with that sort of thing. But we still got the winds, and so did the old red oak in the front yard, over in the corner where the two county roads met.

It was an intersection that most people would say defined the country way of things: mostly quiet, except around harvest time when the farmers in the area, including Papa and my uncles, would keep the dirt and dust jockeying for the upper hand  as they passed through with tractors hauling hay carts, grain trucks, gravity wagons, and whatever else.  

And those winds! – I counted the shingles from our roof that lie across the yard, like wood chips from a chainsaw. But more than the house, the corner oak took it on the chin.

That’s the reason it happened.

I was rocking in grandma’s chair and watching the cat and Poppa chasing, and the view from the attic window didn’t give me much, but it gave me enough to see the car blazing like Ezekiel’s wheely-gigged chariot cresting the hill and coming down the road. And I don’t know – maybe it was the rumbling engine or the belching muffler. Either way, the vehicle was one of those new Hot Wheels for adults, rumbling and cherry red and full of fury. And it was the fury, if you ask me, that trembled the roots of the oak, already holding on for dear life from the winds the night before. That rumble and spit and pure malice of the thing put the poor oak over the edge. And the driver. Well, to add disaster to disruption, he didn’t see the stop sign soon enough.

Not that I blame him: the posted face of red was hidden deep in the cluster of honeysuckle and goldenrod. Only the S and the tail of the P were visible. The county was supposed to mow the roadside every two months, but things being as they are, we’d not seen any mowers since last Thanksgiving. And of course, when they come through, they never stop.

So the car, squat and violent, came rumbling up and over and down – and the oak, arms upraised, gave a short sigh which let me know it simply gave up all hope, shivered, shook and came shrieking down.

I read once about the twain in history – the Titanic and that chunk of ice, that Greek fellow and his mother-lover, that brother meeting, face to bloody face, his brother at the edge of a bayonet at Gettysburg. Well, this was nothing like that but there was something of that to it.

The car screamed to a stop and only at the last moment saw the oak come tumbling on down, trunk, branches, robin and jay nests, and all. At the last moment except one, the driver scurried spastic from the car, just like that ground squirrel wiggling loose from the cat’s shadow.

The oak made a total mess of the car – all spavined like a plow horse, right down the middle. I thought that the driver ought not to be alive. But I couldn’t tell with the fiery violence which consumed car and oak in a genuine Arbor Day bonfire.

That’s when everyone came running, Poppa foremost, dead cat hanging by its tail in one hand and shovel with blade glinting a slight and dark moistness in the other.  

But the driver had survived. He – a young college fellow, dressed in tweed and khaki, something professorial and something princely, sat in the middle of the county road – County X, by official maps – his legs wide open, shoulders hunched as if in child labor, his face squished into disbelief, looking like a high school quarterback who lost the Super Bowl.

At this point, I was standing up, face pressed to the attic window. Perhaps it was the wind or the curlicues of smoke stealing away from his Dodge Super Something, but at that point, even from this distance, I could see his eyes lit upon the window pane, and although I knew he couldn’t see me – the sun was shining bright and angular in its usual late-morning way, blinding the window with pure blue and cloud and June forgetfulness – but I could swear his eyes mellowed, ignoring the fire that encouraged the wind and the earth that swallowed the grey water Uncle Larry was pouring from his five-gallon grain bucket onto what remained of the poor fellow’s automobile.

Whether it was the young man’s eyes, the dead shudder of the oak or the June swallowed up in that moment – whatever it was, it hit me like a swallow taking its measure of a barn eave. As I looked away from what happened, I happened to catch my image in the haunted mirror’s solicitude. There I saw my girlhood passing with the same sort of pleasing grief that one might see the proper victim of a holocaust.


  1. Churchill says

    I didn’t finish it, but what a story.

  2. Then you missed out.

    That was absolutely great JOB. Marvelous, marvelous story. Makes me wish I knew the characters. Great writing. Thanks for posting it.

  3. Churchill says

    Anyway, I don’t want to see the trees.

  4. Very gripping and evocative, JOB. I want to read more.

    • But that would force me to think about turning my town into a novel.


      • Oh, dear, not that. Nothing good ever came of that.

        • Yeah, but Faulkner didn’t have to move because most people didn’t like him anyway.

          I happen to enjoy my anonymity – not to mention the warm welcome I presently enjoy around the extended dinner table…


          • Lansing Priest says


            Great stuff. I agree; keep going.

            –“My papa – he’d been a rodeo clown and a tree farmer, and before that he’d been a writer and a tender soul.”

            I never knew you longed to be a rodeo clown. Or is it that you have always seen yourself that way?

            I’m pretty sure that because you thew in that “tender soul” bit you don’t have to worry about anyone thinking you are in any way writing about autobiographically.

  5. Wow.

  6. Who, me?

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