Red Barn People
Mephias died this morning.
I knew something was amiss when I heard the screen door snap
shut like a gunshot against Roland’s house next door,
followed by the thundering footsteps of Jennagirl stomping
the loose boards on the side porch of my mother’s house. She
was dressed in a pair of wrinkled grey trousers, held up
with one suspender that caused them to sag, giving the
resemblance of two, thin elephant legs tromping towards me.
Her breasts were unloosed beneath one of Roland’s
undershirts, and her sunburned feet were bare, and wet from
the dewy grass.
“Come quickly, Lil.” Her boyish face so resembled her older
brother’s that it startled me to an upright position,
causing me to drop a full cup of unused coffee grounds onto
the unswept floor.
“Roland’s in a bad sort of way.” Jennagirl wasn’t one for
emotion. Her cheeks were flushed and she kept wringing her
hands like an old oil rag. Her blue, keen eyes looked past
the spilt coffee grounds, to an uncertain place on the
floor, and welled with tears. She swallowed hard, and forced
out the words, as her deep voice cracked. “Mephias is gone.
He’s gone, Lil. Roland can’t take much more of this losing
business. I think this is the last straw so to speak.”
I picked up the grounds. Jennagirl broke from her place and
knelt to help me. She touched my hand. “Say you’ll come. He
hasn’t moved none since sunup, and you know I’m no good at
We stood. I placed the cup of Maxwell coffee, now three
quarters full, on the counter, and pressed a tender,
sisterly hand to her shoulder. “I’ll come straightaway.”
Jennagirl gave a single nod, the same way policemen do when
you apologize and say you won’t break the law again. She
dashed off as quickly as she came, leaving me in a dreary
silence. The clock on the wall kept beat, as if urging me to
hurry. The calendar on the wall glared back at me. Another
day had come and gone. May 2nd wasn’t even crossed off and
May 3rd sprang in like a leaky summer-hose. I crossed
yesterday off with the red pencil, the tip dull and flayed,
and recalled an article I read yesterday in the Eaton Brook
Times, written by a fellow who supposedly slept the entire
first five months of 1938 away. He remarked that this year
was the shortest one yet for him, and I believed him,
noticing too that the months were sweeping by, as if I,
somehow, was asleep right along with him.
My hand lifted and pulled out one of the forty-eight
hairpins from my dry, brown hair. The curl came unfurled in
my hand, like a morning glory opening in the dawn. What
would Roland think if I came still in hairpins, an unwashed
face without a lick of rouge, and wearing my ragged
housedress? Would he notice?
Out of the kitchen window over the sink, I held a clear view
to Roland’s house, a rustic mishmash of rooms on two floors.
I say Roland’s, but it was always his Uncle Martin’s house
to me, even though he and Aunt Clara met their demise in an
automobile accident last winter. Ice had been the devil’s
hand that December eve. The automobile sustained minor
damage when it was forced into a gully, but the particulars,
how Uncle Martin and Aunt Clara perished, as the other car
collided with theirs, were spared from the readers of the
Eaton Brook Times. It had hardly been spoken of since.
Another spoiled event was Jennagirl’s words for it. The car
with its broken headlight, sitting in the drive, was the
only careless reminder and even that had been cleaned over,
and nearly forgotten, by everyone but me.
With a basket of day-old corn bread and a jar of milk, I
traversed the well-worn path between our houses, the same
path I took at least two times a day, rain or sun, cold or
hot, since I was fifteen and hired on by Uncle Martin to
keep house for Aunt Clara when she was first with child. She
had lost that one and all the subsequent faceless babes, now
interred in the red soil behind the old red barn. Uncle
Martin, who had come to be like a father to me, kept me on
to help with Aunt Clara’s declining health all these years.
The job paid well, and now at thirty, with pale palms
brought on by the use of harsh cleansers, and cracked nails
from scrubbing floors and porcelain, it has become a way of
life. Even in their absence the rhythm of my work continues,
as I take care of the house like they never perished.
The darkness beyond the screened-door transported me to a
long lost Sunday ten years ago when I had first met Roland.
He was fifteen and I twenty. I could recall hearing the
terrible, exasperated weeping coming from inside, and
believed Aunt Clara had lost another child. I learned she’d
lost her only sister instead, Roland’s mother. Never having
a sibling, I tried to know her pain and grief. I attempted
to compare it to the cast-iron-weight I felt when I lost
both my father and grandfather to the Great War. But Aunt
Clara said nothing could replace a sister. I assumed my own
mother would’ve agreed, having lost her sister to the fever
before I was born, if she could talk to me from inside the
ghostly place her mind now dwells.
day Roland and Jennagirl came to live at Uncle Martin’s had
started out as a typical summer day, one with the smell of
ripe peaches in the air from the trees lining the farm. At
the time, I had kept my hair curled and stylish, and I wore
pretty dresses to do housework. Crossing the lawn between
our houses was an occasion for me. Especially, since I have
always been bound to care for mother, and rarely left the
years ago, when I stepped inside the house in the early
morning, I found a handsome boy with a natural swath of
curls piled on top of his head like a haystack, but trimmed
short at the collar, sitting beside the empty fireplace. His
blue eyes, like the summer sky that broke through the white,
ocean-freight clouds, looked up at me for the first time
through glass tears. He was holding Mephias, just a toddling
pup then; his black and white coat still silky from his city
living. Sitting beside Roland was a boyish girl of thirteen.
Her arms were sunburned, as if she had been living on Uncle
Martin’s farm her entire life. Her hair was short, tangled
and pushed back from her dirt and tear stained face. She
held nothing in her arms—not a childhood doll, or dog like
Roland, or even the hand of her aunt or uncle — no,
Jennagirl, as she had been introduced to me that day, needed
no one in her grief. And she would grow up in front of my
eyes never needing anyone. Maybe when she stood at the base
of her parents’ gravestones, through the storm, three days
prior, a bitter specter appeared to her, telling her, now
that had Death exacted its toll, she’d never have another
soul to depend on.
the time Uncle Martin had finished explaining the horrid
circumstance by which both Roland and Jennagirl had come to
live permanently with he and Aunt Clara, the standup clock
in the corner rung eleven. And while they had come to live
there with a deep sense of joylessness, a newfound color and
lightness had awoken in mine. Those early days return to me
as my happiest memories. The silent exchanges with Roland
when I would hand him his pressed laundry, or the subtle way
Jennagirl would invite me over for cards in the evening to
pass the lonesome hours away. Each day I would perform my
chores, cater to their meals, their necessities, perfecting
each motion I made, every act with delight. But time and
despair have a way of swallowing up the light, and so as the
years rolled by, like the scenes from a window on a fast
moving train, we’ve grown complacent to each other’s
rhythms, the newness having run out ages ago.
The screen door swung shut behind me, as I entered their
kitchen, old and faded like the dress I was wearing. The
smell of musty cherry tobacco was still present in the air,
locked away in the halls and rooms, despite the fact Uncle
Martin’s pipe laid dormant nearly six months. My nose caught
the distinct scent of cigarette smoke, and after I placed my
basket on the cluttered table, I followed its trail to the
front door, where Jennagirl lingered, smoking a hand rolled
ciggie, always superstitious she might burn the house down
to come inside.
“Does he know I’m here?”
shook her head. “Go on up. He’s decent.”
“He’s got a farm to tend to, and chickens to feed.”
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