Dale knows the route by heart--Illinois 33, angling across farmland to Mattoon, where I-57 stretches north to Chicago. "I can drive it with my eyes closed," he tells his wife, Cassie.
"Don't do that," she says. "I want you back in one piece."
They're outside in the garden where the morning air is still and humid. White butterflies flit over the cabbage plants. "Pretty things," Dale says.
"Pests," says Cassie. "They lay those eggs."
The caterpillars eat the cabbage leaves. Cassie intends to dust the plants this morning while the wind is calm. Then she'll stake the pole beans--the Kentucky Wonders--and till up the patch where the last lettuce has gone to seed, work the soil until it's loose and fine, and then set out some more tomato plants. The first ones, the Better Boys, are growing nicely, the sucker leaves between the main stems and the branches ready to be pinched.
"I could stay and help you," Dale says. Already the sun is full up, burning the dew off the bean plants. Cassie's glasses have slipped down her nose. She waves her hand through a cloud of gnats.
"No, you go on," she says. "Cesar's going to send over one of his hijos."
Cesar Delgado owns a chain of Mexican restaurants across the midwest, and he and Dale have fallen into the habit of doing favors for each other. Dale's janitorial service cleans Mi Rancherito every night, and often he drives one of Cesar's workers to Chicago to catch a flight to Mexico. Even though Dale suspects that these young men--his hijos, Cesar calls them--are in the country illegally, he can't resist helping them. They carry their belongings in cardboard boxes wrapped with duct tape. They hold the boxes on their legs and either bow their heads or keep their eyes focused straight ahead on the road stretching out before them. Dale can barely stand to look at them--they seem so frightened, so shy--so he usually watches the countryside go by: in spring, the rich black loam of the freshly plowed fields; in winter, the snow dusting the cornstalk stubble, the tree lines off in the distance, their bare branches scant whiskers against the gray sky.
Today, instead of catching I-57 to Chicago, he's stopping in Mattoon to see his birth mother. Her name is Frankie Spears, and she lives, according to the private investigator's report, at 313 S. Walnut. Dale has written the address on a slip of paper--as if he could ever forget it--and tucked it into the pocket of his jeans.
"I don't know what I'll say," he tells Cassie. "This Frankie Spears. How do I even start?"
Cassie stoops and untangles the green tendrils of a bean plant.
"Take it slow," she says. "Be nice. You don't know her story."
Dale looks out over the garden, coming in full now with corn and beans and tomatoes and cucumbers. He looks at the rosebushes in bloom along the fence--the King's Ransom and Joseph's Coat--and he thinks he knows the good things around him: this garden, these roses, this place he stands in now with Cassie. When he keeps his eyes on what's close to him, he knows exactly who he is. It should satisfy him, he thinks. It should be enough, but he can't stop wondering about all he doesn't know, everything that happened long ago, when he first came into the world. He keeps imagining the moment when he'll look Frankie Spears in the eye. Will he be able to say it--be able to tell her he's her son--or will he be as mute as Cesar's hijos, clutching their cardboard boxes, traveling without permission through a foreign land?
That's what it's been like for him all the years he's known he was adopted. He's felt like an outsider, a stranger, someone whose passage through life has depended on secrecy and the graces of others.
The couple who adopted him, both dead now, cut out all the references to his birth parents from the adoption papers so when he started looking for his story all he saw was a collection of holes.
"Maybe I won't say anything," he tells Cassie. "Maybe I'll just take a good look at her and then walk away."
"You won't do that," Cassie says.
"How do you know what I'll do?"
"You can't be mean. Not even if you try."
Dale knows that's what drew her to him. Her first husband used to beat on her. He broke her arm once. He dislocated her shoulder. Dale knows all about this, and it amazes him that she's survived it all and can be so full of goodwill. His entire life is sometimes a wonder to him, such a miracle it seems that the two of them found each other. He comes home from work and eases into bed beside her, thankful for the feel of her legs against his, for the gentle rise and fall of her breathing. Sometimes he wakes toward morning and finds her leaning over him, touching his face, his arm, his chest--touching him ever so lightly. "Go back to sleep, baby," he tells her. "I'm here." She falls asleep, holding fiercely to him.
Sometimes he's afraid to come home, afraid to be the person she needs. He cleans the public library, and then he picks out a magazine, National Geographic or Scientific American or Smithsonian. He likes to sit there in the dead of night, the only noise the hum of the fluorescent lights overhead, just sit there and try to get his head around something he's never known.
Now, in the garden, he's tempted to ask Cassie to go with him to Mattoon, but before he can speak, she says, "Day's wasting. I guess we both better get to what we have to do."
"Are you sure you can handle all this?" he says. "Even with Cesar's hijo?"
"Don't worry about me, mister." She gathers her hair into a ponytail, wrapping it tight with a rubber band. "I'm a tough old dame."
Frankie Spears's house is near the train yard, where the air smells of cinders and the freight cars clang and squeal as their couplings join. Dale parks his truck in the shade of a maple tree and listens to the leaves rattle about in the breeze that's rising. There's a set of wind chimes on Frankie Spears's porch, the kind with thin cylinders that make a delicate tinkling, and Dale closes his eyes a moment and thinks how pretty the sound is, how cheery. Then it stops. He opens his eyes and sees that the strings of the chimes have tangled and now the cylinders are wound into a clump that sways, leaden and mute.
The house itself is old and worn, its roof and siding streaked with cinder dust. Pieces of concrete have crumbled away from the porch steps. There's something about the disrepair that appeals to Dale, that makes Frankie Spears seem needy to him. For a moment, he revels in the power he has over her. The choice is his. He could knock on her door, or he could leave her alone--at least this time. He could drive away, imagining her in her house going about her business, not knowing that he controls every single day of the rest of her life.
But he can't drive away. He can't imagine facing Cassie with the news. "That's just cruel," he can hear her saying. "That's not like you."
So he gets out of his truck and walks up to Frankie Spears's house. He imagines everything he could do to make it respectable again, all the repairs. He could break those concrete steps away and pour new ones. He could rent a pressure washer and spray the dust from the siding. He could put new shingles on the roof. He steps onto the porch, reaches up to the wind chimes, and starts to untangle their strings.
"You think you own the place?" He turns and sees her watching him through the screen door, a small woman in blue jeans and a western shirt with fake pearl snaps and white fringe along the sleeves. She pushes the screen door open and steps onto the porch. She holds her hand in front of her, and then lets it drop slowly to her side. Dale sees her fingers trembling. "You're Thomas," she says, and her voice is low and flat. "The boy I had to let go."
The one thing Dale hasn't planned on is this, and it brings an ache to his throat. "Yes, ma'am." He lets his fingers slip from the wind chimes. "I guess I am."
She puts her hands on her hips and lifts her chin. "Well, now that you found me, I suppose you think I owe you the whole kit and caboodle. That's what you want, isn't it? All the goods on me and your daddy and how this all shook out?"
For a minute, he thinks it: take a good, hard look and then walk away. But there's something about her eyes--they're like his--set deep in her face and wide apart, the sort of eyes people can't help being drawn to.
"Yes, ma'am," he says. "I reckon that's what I want."
She goes to the screen door and motions him in with a wave of her hand. He imagines he's just a kid and she's shooing him in from some sort of monkeyshines. "You better come in," she says. "It's complicated."
The house, inside, is modest and spotless. It isn't much--the little knickknacks, the simple furniture--but everything is shipshape. Newspapers are folded and tucked neatly into a magazine rack next to a reclining chair. A white lace runner lies trim along the length of the coffee table. And there are angel figurines everywhere--some glass, some ceramic; there's even one that someone crocheted. Dale prefers to imagine that it wasn't Frankie herself, but someone who knows how much she loves angels, someone who crocheted this special angel just for her.
"You've got a lot of doodads," he says.
"Once the secret's out what you like," Frankie says, "you can't stop people. Christmas, birthdays, Mother's Day." She's waving her arm about as if she's just walked into a mess of cobwebs and is frantic to shed them. Finally, she bows her head. She rests a finger on the scalloped edge of an angel's wing. "Well, you know what I mean."
Dale wants to feel angry, wants to believe he has the right because this woman, his mother, can so easily acknowledge the life that by her choice hasn't included him. But at the same time he can't help thinking about Cassie and what she told him once when he asked her why she stayed with her first husband as long as she did. She said, "I'll tell you what it's like when someone's beating on you. You get through it, and you think, well, I'm still here. But you're not really. You've lost another little piece of who you were. You never come out the same. You've never even known me, not the way I was back before all that. Living makes us strangers, Dale, even to ourselves. We can't help it."
He watches as Frankie lets her finger move from the angel's wing to its face, its hands, and he imagines her petting each one of the figurines. He wonders whether she ever touched him with such tenderness. Did she hold him after he was born? Count his fingers and toes?
"They're nice," he says.
Frankie turns her head to look at him, and he sees how thankful she is for his compliment. "I call them my itty-pretties," she says in a shy voice, and Dale suspects she's never told this to anyone.
He wants to walk away then, take this one gift with him, this single moment of intimacy. Then Frankie says, "Let me tell it all to you before I lose my nerve." And all Dale can do is listen.
His father, she tells him, is dead, murdered some years back, long after he left her. "He was a handsome man just like you. Had him a hot head and a smart mouth. Someone finally shut it for him. Good riddance."
Dale feels as if she's slapped him. "What was his name?" he says, thinking that if she says that much, she'll recall whatever was good between them.
"Raymond," says Frankie. "His name was Raymond."
She says this with no emotion at all, and Dale is surprised to feel ashamed. He realizes that he can't begin to know what they lived through, or how his coming into the world affected them.
"Do you have a picture?" he says.
Frankie raises her hand and lays it against his cheek. "Oh, honey," she says. "Why don't you leave good enough alone? His name was Raymond. Raymond Spears."
The front door opens, then, and a black man steps inside. His hair is in dreadlocks, their ropes wilting over his forehead. His light skin is the color of the house's dirty siding. A patch of reddish freckles dusts his nose and cheeks. He stands for a long moment, studying Dale, his hand on the doorknob.
"Arthur," Frankie finally says, "are your shoes clean? Don't be bringing no slop in here."
"Aw, Mama," Arthur says.
"Don't you 'Aw Mama' me."
Dale suddenly feels he has no right to be in this home.
"I just had to come by," he says to Frankie. "You know, to say hello."
Frankie grabs his arm, takes him by his wrist. "You stay a little longer." Her eyes are open even wider, pleading. "Arthur just came by to fix my sink. Got me a sink that runs slow. He won't be but a jiffy."
The fringe from her sleeve tickles his arm, and Dale thinks it's the most wonderful thing he's ever felt--maddening, too, almost real but not quite. He will carry the sensation away with him, feel it on his arm all the way home, and a good while after.
"No, I have to go now," he says. Gently, he eases his arm from Frankie's grip.
"Will you come back?" she says, with such urgency that it sickens him. This isn't what he wanted at all. He imagined some happy reunion, not listening to Cassie when she told him he should be prepared for anything.
He thinks that he could tell her, yes, I'll come back, but glances over at Arthur, who is squinting at him, his head cocked to one side. He knows that Frankie meant it when she told him the story was complicated.
"I can't promise you that," he says.
"Well," she says, her gaze falling, "you know where I am."
"Yes," he says, "I know."
He turns then and brushes past Arthur, pushing the screen door open and stepping out onto the porch.
A train is going through, and Dale sits in his truck a good while, watching the boxcars flash by. His adoptive father could memorize the cars' serial numbers and rattle them off in sequence after the train had disappeared. He had a photographic memory, a trick that for a while had delighted Dale. Then it had grown tiresome, a nuisance even. All those numbers and never a word about Dale's real mother and father--not a squeak, not even when he asked.
Over the noise of the boxcars, Dale hears the slap of Frankie's screen door against its frame and marvels that he's able to pick out the sound, that it's registered with him when he wasn't even listening for it. This must be what it's like for a mother who hears her baby make the slightest whimper--some sort of radar that draws them together. All this time--nearly 35 years--he's been only 70 miles away from Frankie Spears, and now here she is opening the door and getting into his truck.
She hands him a snapshot, a square photograph with scalloped edges and the date stamped on the side: July 1967. "That's your daddy," she says. "That's Raymond Spears."
The man in the snapshot is black. He leans against a car, an old Chevy Impala. He wears bell-bottomed blue jeans and a muscle shirt, even though his arms are scrawny. He smirks, and Dale can see a meanness in his face: that smirk, the tilt of his head, the "don't fuck with me" look he's giving whoever is snapping the picture.
Dale can't begin to count the times he's dreamed about him, wondered about him, made up stories in his head. For a while, when he was a kid, he imagined that his father was a rich man. He dreamed up a lawyer or a doctor. Once, after seeing the governor on TV, Dale got the idea that he looked like him. Why not, he thought. Why couldn't he be his son?
"That can't be my father," he says now to Frankie Spears.
"That's exactly what he said. He said"--Frankie gruffs up her voice--"'I ain't daddy to that boy. I don't know who you been whoring around with, but if you don't get shed of that baby, I'll kill you and him both.' That's why I had to let you go. You never knew your daddy, but take it from me, he would have done what he said. That's the truth."
Maybe she's lying. Maybe Raymond Spears was right about her whoring around with a white man. Maybe she did that and then she made up her story, told it so many times she started to believe it. Or maybe it's true. One night in the public library Dale read an article about genetics and how sometimes the dominant genes would only slightly influence the embryo and a baby from a white woman and a black man could come out barely marked with African-American features. He looks at his face in the rearview mirror and doesn't find a trace of Raymond Spears. Here, at what he's intended to be the moment of discovery, he's only found more mystery.
"Did you ever regret it?" he says to Frankie. He's watching the boxcars now, thinking about the way his adoptive father would just stare and stare, his brain filling up with impression after impression. "Giving me up, I mean?"
"I always wondered."
"But you weren't sorry?"
"I did what I thought I had to, what I thought was best. I had to let you go to save you. You understand, don't you?"
Dale likes the notion of this noble sacrifice, this tragic separation, but at the same time he knows the opposite may be true--that when he was born he was the sign of his mother's sin, something to be put away, left to the world and the life strangers would give him.
He wants to tell Frankie it's all right, whatever the truth is, but he can't say the words. He remembers once, after Cassie had told him about the way her ex-husband beat her, she said, "I'm lucky. I told it all to you, all the shit, and you still love me." He wishes he could do the same favor for Frankie Spears, but he can't, even though her longing is obvious, her need to be forgiven. They sit there, mother and son. The freight train has passed, and Dale feels the cruel intent silence can carry.
He tries to give the snapshot back to her, but already she's pushing open the truck door and stepping out. She turns back to him. "You keep it," she says, and Dale hears the edge in her voice, the anger. "That's your daddy," she says. Then she slams the door shut and stands there, hands on her hips. She stares at him, daring him to say it's not true, shaming him into starting the truck and driving away.
At home, Cassie's in the garden pinching suckers from the Better Boys. It's nearly noon, and her bare arms and legs are shiny with sweat. One of Cesar Delgado's hijos is staking the pole beans. He's built the skeleton of a house in the garden: sets of crossing poles as braces, other poles laid into the crotches to form a ridge. He's looped strands of baling twine over the ridge and staked them on each side to form an A-frame. Now he's training the vines up the twine, and Dale thinks of how soon this will be a house of green, the palmlike leaves of the Kentucky Wonders bushing out and then setting beans.
By that time, Cesar Delgado's hijo will have gone home to Mexico, and another boy will have taken his place. "I'd keep them all if I could," Cesar told Dale once, "but their mothers won't let me. They want their hijos back. You know, la familia."
Dale figures Cesar Delgado keeps his hijos moving from restaurant to restaurant and then finally back to Mexico so they'll always be one step ahead of the immigration officials. How can they catch someone after he's gone?
The boy in the garden has long brown fingers. He weaves the bean vines around the twine with great care, crouching in the soft dirt, coaxing the vines, his arms rising as if they're weightless. Watching him, Dale thinks of all the times he's awakened to Cassie's delicate touch, and he's surprised to understand something he never could have imagined before his trip to Mattoon. He remembers the way Cassie's fingers tremble, and he knows that when she touches him like that--with such wonder and doubt--as if she can't believe he's really there, it's not because she trusts so much in his goodness but because something has broken inside him and she's trying to feel the fragments hidden beneath muscle and flesh.
One night he read an article about a forensic anthropologist who identified murder victims or people who had died in airplane crashes by studying their remains. The structure of people's bones changed under stress, he said, so that everything about the way a person had lived left clear markings on their skeletons: Cesar Delgado's hijo crouching, his fingers plucking up the bean vines; Cassie kneeling by the tomato plants; Dale taking quick steps toward her, each foot coming down heel first on the hard ground.
His shadow falls over her, and she says, "You came back."
It's clear that she's feared this moment, this moment when she wouldn't know how their lives would go on. Dale wishes they could see the story their living writes on their bones so they could always know exactly who they are.
He tells her about Frankie Spears and her house by the train yard. He describes the broken steps, the cinder-streaked siding, the wind chimes, the angel figurines. He doesn't mention that Frankie calls them her "itty pretties," and he doesn't say a word about Arthur. He doesn't tell her about Raymond Spears, who may or may not be his father.
Dale gets down on his knees beside Cassie and helps her pinch the suckers from the Better Boys. The shoots are tender, their leaves small and sparse. How harmless they look, Dale thinks, but he knows how they suck energy from the plant, how they have to be picked off in order for the Better Boys to set more tomatoes--bigger tomatoes, shiny red and full of juice.
"So how do you feel?" Cassie says. "Are you still you?"
When Frankie showed him Raymond Spears's photo, he felt all strange to himself, still feels that way and knows he will the rest of his life. He's not sure whether he's being selfish, keeping it for himself, or whether he's trying to protect Cassie from those times when she might find herself looking at him, wondering who he is and how she ever came to wrap her life up with his.
"I'm all right," he says. "Who else would I be?"
He tears away a sucker shoot. Cesar Delgado's hijo is singing to himself, a soulful melody in Spanish, words that Dale can't understand. The boy sings softly, but still Dale can make out the rise and fall of his voice. Mi corazon, mi corazon, Dale hears, and he thinks of the sound of the wind chimes on Frankie Spears's porch, so pretty before they tangled. They left such a haunting echo in their silence. Now he imagines that the boy's song is a song of yearning, a song someone will sing when he's far from home, wondering whether he'll ever return, a song for everything lost in a land where he feels frightened and alone.
Dale grabs a Better Boy by its stem and pulls it from the ground. The white tendrils of roots as pale as flesh dangle from the dirt clumped at the stem's base. He knows it's crazy, but he couldn't resist. This, he tells himself, is what love is--this longing beyond words, this madness that leads people over the edge of right thinking, leaves them falling and falling. Anything for Cassie to look at him now, for her to say, "What's wrong with you? Have you lost your mind?" Maybe he can tell her then. Maybe he can start to say how much he hurts. He'll tell her how often when he's alone, cleaning Mi Rancherito or the public library, he rants and raves, shouts horrible things about his mother and father and the people who adopted him. He weeps while the vacuum roars, he lets his voice vanish in the noise. He'll tell her all of this, every bit of it--all his misery.
But she's not watching. She's turned to look at the boy, singing as he weaves the bean vines up the strands of baling twine. Her face is as beautiful as Dale has ever seen it. She's looking at the boy with such love, such a sweet, angelic gaze. And Dale's thankful for that. For now, as foolish as he feels, kneeling in the garden, the ruined Better Boy in his hand, it's enough. He wants to believe it's the way Frankie Spears looked at him when she first held him in her arms, far back in time, when none of this was going to happen--when they were, for that instant, mother and son.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Russ Ando.