Babette Fraser Hale


Fiction and Editing

Drouth was recognized by Best American Short Stories, 2015 as one of the Other Distinguished Stories published in 2014. It was published by Southwest Review in vol.99, no.3. Please click this link to order it. Or click the button to read it now.

Silences

(Winner of the 2011 Meyerson Prize from Southwest Review, published in vol.96, no. 4)

Alys appears on the front porch at a little after seven. A soft fog clings to low places in the field between her and the caliche road. She can’t see the road, but she’ll hear it when the pickups begin to carom past on the way to work, wheels squirting gravel at the bottom of the hill.

For the moment, though, all is a purity of silence. Not even the birds are singing. With the sack of seed under her arm, she steps into the damp grass.  

In the beginning, the absence of the city’s constant mechanical growl bothered her. Didn’t people always say that in the country, whispering? It’s so quiet. What was that weird noise?

But, normally, it isn’t quiet at all, not with the hum and chortle of birds during all but the hottest hours of the day. And especially after dark, when there’s no bustle of human activity to obscure the fusion of night voices, frogs, crickets, the feline purr of a screech owl. She has learned to find the moments when the chorus stills vaguely ominous, suggestive of a creature passing whose presence puts every chirping, chirring organism on alert.

Alys fills each feeder to its brim. She likes the look of generosity--an extravagance, Dale tells her, and it’s true, since raccoons come along in the night and strip whatever’s left. She enjoys imagining the birds’ pleasure, though, to find such amplitude in a place where previously there had been only rough Dallis grass and the everlasting briars. She smiles as she makes her way back to the house and breathes in the last moments of quiet. Soon Eric will be up, ignoring her pleas to eat breakfast.

Dale? Well, Dale is somewhere, the barn probably. He will expect strawberries, out of season, for his cereal. She sliced them last night, sprinkled them with sugar, noticing as the juices began to ooze how each slice resembled sections of a tiny, bleeding heart.

 Later that morning she heads to town for supplies, the daily chore. They usually need something--milk or snacks, if nothing else--but the main objective is conversation. Ritualized conversation, the kind that can make shopping such a comforting experience. The proprietor will ask her by name if they’ve had any rain out at their place. Alys will say no, not yet, but tomorrow looks better. And she will inquire whether the toddler granddaughter scurrying among the vegetable bins is feeling better after her cold last week. Connection. Connection unburdened by too much actual knowledge.

At the deli counter, waiting for her usual order--Black Forest ham, Havarti cheese, pitted green olives--Alys startles at a sudden eruption of laughter. It’s the coffee drinkers, a group of men gathered in front of a display carousel containing nails and screws. The store keeps a pot going there all day, with powdered creamer and paper-slip sweeteners and what look like little cocktail straws, for stirring.

She can pick out Dale’s resonant voice. She doesn’t pretend to understand how this rural community operates. Maybe telling jokes is how you sell garden and construction tools. Dale has never sold anything before that you could hold in your hands, certainly not hardware, but he has learned a lot about renovation over the past couple of months and they need the income.

In truth, she’s relieved to have him away from the house for part of the day. The place is much too small for the competing egos of her son and husband. Dale has always been so sweet to her. It’s difficult to admit, even to herself, how sick she is of his constant need to appear self-confidant when what’s underneath is as soft and squishy as the insides of the black beetle she stepped on ten minutes ago, climbing out of the car. 

Always he must be right and Eric wrong, no matter the subject, until the tension in the house becomes as unavoidable as the smell of a mouse, decaying in the walls. Not now, though. Now, Eric’s back in school, a sophomore whose brains should put him at the top of the class even though he appears to have acquired an allergy to homework. At least, she never sees him doing any.

Alys, smiling thanks, reaches up to collect her food, neatly packaged in white paper. The town is a paragon of order, grass clipped, streets bare of trash. By dawn the day after the summer festival, the grounds of the square where people ate funnel cake and cotton candy and drank syrupy grape drinks or beer, looked as pristine as if no one had walked there in weeks. It’s the German heritage, Dale told her, a matter of pride in taking care of things that he clearly admires.

She consults her list. What’s next? Dairy. Paper towels. Bananas, if they’re not overripe.

The day before, Eric brought home his first friend at this new school. The boy was quiet, nice-looking and polite, and they spent a couple of hours fussing with the old four-wheeler Eric had unearthed in the barn, beneath a spidery tarp.

As a boy, Dale had flipped that very machine on the bank of the stock tank, after which his father forbade him to ride it. The vehicle had been sitting, forgotten, for more than thirty years. You can use it, he told Eric, if you can get it running again.

A potentially dangerous project of his own, just what a boy needs.

***

Full moon. Brighter than he likes. He’ll have to be careful. Eric knows the sightlines from his parents’ bedroom in every direction. The woods cluster around the yard in a semi-circle. Lots of cover. His heartbeat is the loudest thing he hears as he slides open his window, steps out onto the sloping metal roof of the porch. Sometimes he just sits out here and smokes weed, shines a flashlight into the field behind the house, hoping for a wolf, maybe, to be pierced motionless by the light. Or, a bear would be great. Does this fucking nowhere even have animals like that? Or anything worth seeing? He knows there are feral hogs. He’s heard his dad curse them for the deep furrows they make rooting under the trees. If he could get his hands on a gun, he’d kill one. He’d squeeze the trigger slowly, watch the hog plop over. Like Grand Theft Auto, but soundless. Oh, except for the gun going off. He has never heard or seen a real gun fired.

He grabs the rope he’s fastened to the bed’s frame and lets himself down the roof slope on his belly until his feet find the porch rail, and he drops easily from there onto the soft soil of the flower bed his mom’s been working on. He scuffs over his footprints so it looks like an animal was digging. Bo, maybe, except Bo doesn’t dig. He wishes Bo could come with him, but the dog sleeps in the parents’ room. Too risky.

In six seconds, he reaches the stand of cedar and hardwoods that lines both banks of the creek and he can turn on his flashlight. He knows there are snakes but he doesn’t worry. He asked for snake boots for his birthday and got them, even though most of the snaky grasses had been cleared. He plods along in them now, secure up to his knees, feet cushioned in thick, comfortable socks.

He has discovered that he can hike along the creek for several miles in each direction. There is almost no water on account of the drought and when there is, one bank or the other provides enough open space for passage. The woods amaze him, fallen trees or living straight trunks draped with spider webs that give way suddenly into moonlit glades. In Houston, he’d never seen a forest, except for parts of Memorial Park, and his mom would never let him go there alone.

He keeps expecting something astonishing to appear, in the center of a clearing, maybe, silvery gray in the moonlight--a big buck, or wolf or a mountain lion, even. There’ve been cougar sightings nearby, and he can hear the coyotes howling in the night.

He pictures what he would do if one of them, fangs dripping with saliva, suddenly launched itself at him from behind a tree, like the trolls do in Oblivion...He drops into a crouch as he moves and it seems that the shadows take on the contours of the  monsters that populate that game, congregating now in the darkness around him. Even though he knows he’s pretending, his heart beats faster. His muscles tense. His hand finds his knife--a boy in the country should have a knife, his dad told his mom--a machete would be better, though, a long, sharp blade. He’ll try for that at the store. His dad is so fucking ashamed that he’ll get him almost anything he wants, as long as Mom isn’t around. Dickhead.

***

Saturday morning, the week before Halloween. At the sound of the 4-wheeler, Alys looks up in time to see Eric disappearing down the gravel track with Scott, his friend, perched behind. He’s gone most of the time, now, the black clothes from Houston replaced with a vintage version of urban cool, white t-shirt, sleeves rolled up; black high tops, low slung jeans with no belt, retro hair slicked back. A peer group of two, he and Scott. She wonders what the other kids think. Eric used to care about that.

His room has become disconcertingly neat, as well, like no one lives there. “You don’t need to clean it, Mom. I’ve got it.”

Who expects a fifteen-year-old to act so responsibly? She should be grateful, but instead her skin tingles with alarm. He should be messy, mercurial, even angry in the brooding way he has been ever since they came here. No, he shouldn’t. Is she insane? She loves the calm, the peace of his absence.

Her happiest moments, in fact, come when both of them are elsewhere. Dale and Eric--the people she loves best in the world, her world, shrunken now to the circumference of their demands. The feeling is not acceptable, she knows. Only a shallow person, a bad person, would feel that way.

In truth, however, she’d rather be where she is right now, on her knees by the porch, wrist deep in the lovingly amended, rich-smelling soil as she sets out the pansies, the dianthus, she hopes will brighten the coming, bleak winter.

It’s the social season in Houston, at least one charity event each night if you’ve a mind to take it on. Does she miss that? Not really. She misses the challenge of working on them, though, the committee politics, the trouble-shooting. Dale used to say that her job was surprisingly similar to his, although she could always hear the condescension in his words. Well, he was right about the relative significance. It wasn’t her work that ruined their lives when things went wrong, was it?

Her fingers probe the earth around the hole she’s dug, loosening its perimeter so the roots can penetrate easily. She rarely wears gloves to garden. Her nails will crack, but she doesn’t care. Who’s going to see them? Besides, she likes the way the soil feels, the smell of fertility and hope that surrounds her as she slips the small plant into its place, presses the earth down around it, moves on to the next.

Eric’s midterm grades were disastrous. In Houston, he’d always received A’s and B’s; now they lodge among the lower C’s, with a D in Spanish, of all things. The boy’s hurting, however he shrugs off her efforts to help. Grades aren’t her bailiwick, though. It’s Dale’s job to hand out praise or correction. Besides, Eric doesn’t listen to her. He can be looking right at her and he won’t hear a word.

The evening they got the report, Dale sat there in his chair staring at it while his face darkened and the veins in his neck stood out. Her shoulders tensed in expectation that he would come leaping up, bellowing for his son who, flouting the usual ritual, wasn’t even in the room. The occasion required a swift, clear father’s response. Instead, Dale had done nothing. Just sat and stared at the card until the blood retreated from his face. The reality is he has no stroke. He left his authority in Houston, alongside the life he demolished.

She rocks back on her haunches, for the moment oblivious to the beauty around her, deaf to the whispers of dicky-birds, to the notes of a cardinal’s repeating call.

The slanting amber light of fall is sad. That’s all. It makes her sad.

***

The word comes just after four in the afternoon while Dale is washing his hands and thinking about that first delicious gulp of cold beer. The hearing in the civil case is set for the following week. He will have to appear in person, and the attorneys want to go over a couple of things beforehand. A couple of things. No biggie, that’s meant to convey, but the actuality can be as encompassing as sky.

He doesn’t tell Alys right away. Dinners are bad enough lately without a load of useless speculation, every piece of it scudding across the surface of his dishonor.

He pours a second beer and sits at the kitchen table, where they take their meals. The kitchen is no bigger than the pantry of the house in Houston where they lived until last spring. He has complicated feelings about the physical aspect of the change. Familiarity is part of it. His parents had done well, but that hadn’t seemed to require the supersizing that his own peers consider basic. This room feels right to him. Its height, width seem natural. He had admired the high ceilings and openness of the rooms in Houston, but the truth is, he always felt a bit unmoored, like he might find himself some night bouncing untethered against the ceiling.

The downscaling seems--is--appropriate, too.

He believes he has allowed no one to see the full scope of his desperation. Any sign of confusion or uncertainty and the fragile triangle of his small family will fragment. He’s sure of this disintegration at the same time as part of him denies the possibility as too dramatic. He opposes drama in all forms. He trusts...except he can no longer trust...the certainty of his judgment which has led him so far away from where he was and thought he would always be.

In silence at the old fashioned stove, Alys is giving the pot of vegetable soup a final stir before ladling it out into bowls, which she will set on the table beside plates of cheese and bread. Eric drifts in. No one says a word.

When they begin the meal, she retreats to the porch with a glass of wine. Usually she’ll eat with them, at least, but the net is the same. She won’t say a word to him until they’re in bed. Sex? Forget it. Twice since they got here, each time after she was fluidly pliable with drink and they coupled furtively in the reddish dark behind his eyelids. He couldn’t bear to see her eyes. He passes his hand across his forehead and reaches for his wine.

Eric, across from him, keeps his head down, slurping up soup in the noisy way Alys always corrects. Dale starts to say something, but the words die in his throat. When Eric pulls the whole half gallon of chocolate ice cream out of the freezer and heads for the stairs, Dale just looks away. Who is he to tell anyone what to do?

***

Two o’clock in the morning and Eric’s heart is racing. He’s been looking forward to tonight for weeks. They’re going to flashlight some deer. Illegal as hell, but so what? Deer season is about to open and when that happens Scott says you never see the fuckers. You should go before. Right before. Tonight. Scott is getting his grandfather’s gun.

How? Eric asked.

Dude, he sleeps like a fucking dead man. Not a problem.

Scott isn’t like Eric’s friends back in Houston. He wouldn’t fit in with any of the groups. Not jock, not goth, not nerd. One of the things Eric likes about him, here, is that he’s unpredictable, not like these other guys who can’t talk about anything but beer and sex. They don’t have a football team. Not even six-man. How do you get that? Eric misses football. He likes to hit. He likes to feel his shoulder take a guy in the ribs, drive him down into the grass. He doesn’t even mind the pain. Lacrosse, too. Motherfuckers here never heard of lacrosse. He stumbles. His boot catches on a root. Shit. He didn’t expect it to be so dark. Without a moon, it’s a lot harder than usual to move along the creek. He’s probably spooking every deer for ten miles.

Scott gets irritable when he has to wait. Eric doesn’t like irritable when it’s aimed in his direction. But he doesn’t have far to go by the waterway, longer by the road. Man, the creek is so fucking perfect. They can dig in on a mud flat inside the nature preserve that owns the land, and any buck or hog or fucking unicorn for that matter will be dinner. Skin it, section it. Scott says his dad taught him how before he split. Scott lives with his grandparents, both of them so Deutsch you expect sieg heil instead of hello. Not fair, he catches himself. Scott’s Oma is really nice, she makes great cookies and she’s not stingy with them either. She fixes these sloppy great sandwiches when they go off on a Saturday, too, on black bread with thick cheese and sausage and homemade sweet pickle relish. Have yourselves some fun, boys, she tells them on the way out.

He told Scott once that he thought he was lucky to have a grandmother like that. Scott went silent for a moment and then he spat on the ground, a honking oyster. I’m like you, bro. Stuck here. Nobody fucking asked me, did they?

Eric checks the glowing dial on his watch. 2:17. Perfect. He’s seen tracks along the creek, down the woodland trails. Deer wear a path, just like people do. The prints of their hooves show their weight, their size, how fast they’re moving. This creek is a fucking deer interstate, you think there’d be a coyote at least behind every tree, just waiting for sweet hot bleeding meat to wander past. Not that fucking vegetarian shit his mom dished out for dinner tonight. How does she expect him and his dad to stand it? Not that his dad would say anything. His dad’s a bitch now, no good to any of them. Screw him.

***

Dale turns over and looks at the clock. Two-thirty. Alys is sleeping the sleep of the pure of heart, on her back, mouth open, breathing softly. He walks over to a window and opens it. The air is cool and sweet, not cold, and Saturday is Halloween. What will they do? Their first Halloween here and he doesn’t have clue one what the local customs are. Alys will know if there’s something at the school. They should all go, in costume. Dressed like the people they used to be. Hah. He’d wear his white spread-collar, striped custom shirt, pin-striped suit. Alys can wear her Jimmy Choo’s and that black silk dress with the green pashmina that matches her eyes. Eric can wear his old football jersey.

The taste in Dale’s mouth is freshly sour. It’s a dark night and completely silent except for Alice’s untroubled breathing. How have we come to this? He asks himself for the one-thousandth time. How did it happen?

But as he stands by the open window with the breeze riffling the hairs on his chest, the answer that comes to him is different from what he usually hears. It’s saying that it doesn’t matter. That this isn’t so bad, really, when you think of what might have happened. That this is, in fact, enough, and he will be satisfied with it, if only they don’t throw his ass in jail next week. If only they give him time, the rest of his life, to pay them back. The thought goes out from him into the night and he realizes then with mild surprise that he’s praying.

***

Scott’s not sitting on the log at the mud flat when Eric gets there and, at first, Eric’s pleased. He shines his light around the log and gives it a kick in case of scorpions, then plops down and pulls out some weed. He’s a little nervous. He’s never shot a gun and he wishes he’d had some practice. He’s heard shotguns kick pretty hard. They’re not good for deer, either, he read, not even with buckshot in them. A rifle is better. But Scott’s grandfather has a shotgun, a ten-gauge, and that’s the only option.

He draws in a lungful of smoke, holds it. He kind of likes weed for the way it smoothes things out. He’d had some back in Houston, but not like regular or anything. Scott, two years older, has other stuff, too, and hints at the crazy goodness of it--like walking on the moon, he says--but Eric’s resisting. Eric still wants to play sports--if he can find a fucking sport in this dump. Track, maybe, in the spring. Track might be good.

He hears some rustling in the underbrush and half turns to greet his friend, but nothing’s there. No human thing, anyway. He looks for the telltale flash of green retina, the height will tell him what it is, but he sees nothing and the sound doesn’t repeat. He takes a big hit of weed, sucks it way down.

He misses Ree, his girlfriend until the news about his father came out. If he were here now with Ree, he’d have his arm around her, her softness up close against him. Fuck her parents, anyway. He kills the roach, slips it in his pocket for another time. Yes, he’s definitely nervous. He should go find out what’s keeping Scott. No point in sitting on this wet log all night.

***

Alys tools along in the truck, with the windows open and the air lifting the hair at the sides of her face so she feels a trilling of youth. A beautiful morning. She won’t let the image of Eric’s dark circles at breakfast get her down. She swears she smelled marijuana on his clothes when she popped them in the wash, but she’s never seen any sign before. Has she been missing something? He didn’t so much as grunt before he shuffled off to catch the bus, shoulders slumped like he was expecting punishment for something he’d done. She shrugs off the direction this thought leads, and concentrates on the yellow and gold and russet in the trees that arch over the road. It’s positively weird how her spirits levitate these days just about as abruptly as they droop. Maybe she’s going into the change. Oh, Christ. Not yet. Please.

She pulls up next to the ice machine at the store, the only empty spot in the parking lot. Dale’s not working this morning. Instead, he’s back at the place, fixing fence. He wants hamburgers for lunch, so she’ll check out the meat. The store got its delivery yesterday. A perk of the rural lifestyle, you know when the bread comes in, the vegetables, the milk, the cookies she sneaks in the afternoons.

Two women, wider than she is, crowd the aisle, murmuring, and they don’t even look at her as she slides past them, heading toward the meat case. Their faces have that puckered look you see when somebody has died. A local dignitary, she thinks. There are a lot of retirees in the area, and people are always dying. The funeral notice will be sitting on the counter by the cash register, right next to the packaged brownies and mini-pecan pies. You have to be careful not to set your sweaty milk carton on it.

She is surprised to find whole wheat buns on the bottom shelf of the bakery section. They inspire her. She’ll cook the burgers on the charcoal grill, serve them thick and rare. Now if only there’s a tomato ripe enough to have some taste.

The checkout counter is deserted when she sets her basket on it. Donelle and another woman whose name Alys doesn’t know are making sandwiches a few feet away, preparing for the noonday rush.

“You hear about the Schmidts this morning?” Donelle says, coming toward the register, wiping her hands. The woman’s normally cheerful face is somber as she picks up the first package.

Alys, still tasting the possibilities of a better than average lunch, half smiles. How many hundred Schmidts would there be in this area? “No, I didn’t. What happened?”

Donelle runs the buns through the scanner, picks up the onions and puts them on the scale. “They got killed. Right there in the house last night, not far from you.”

Alys’s hand freezes halfway into her purse. She knows those people.

“They got the boy who did it, too,” Donelle is saying. “The Schmidts’ grandson. That Scott boy? Haven’t I seen your son in here with him, the two of them together?”

Alys can’t find the breath to speak, at first. “My God. What happened? I mean--”

“Shotgun. The boy admitted it right out to the police.”

“But...but why? Why would he do that?”

Donelle shrugs, drops the last onion into a plastic sack and knots the handles so they form a loop. “You want this on your ticket?”

----