THE MOTHS HAVE ALREADY BEEN HERE
©2017 Ken Finton
It is January 1962. Outside, winter’s icy breath heaves while little fingers of cold air find their way through the loose clapboards of the two-roomed hut. Inside, a man, a girl, and a young boy sit around a pot-bellied stove soaking up the warmth.
They hear a car door slam, then a pounding on the door, rhythmical like a carpenter’s hammer.
A large, graying man with three days growth of beard and hair growing far beyond his ears gets up to answer the door. “No,” the girl says. “It’s him again. Please, Daddy, don’t go to the door!”
A well-groomed man with a white shirt and dark tie steps inside the hut bringing the chill of winter with him. He leans against the wall, a soiled paper sack in his hands.
“Good morning, Mr. Taylor,” he says, his rat-like eyes darting around the room from comer to corner.
The girl stands up. Her face becomes taught, like a coil of rope suddenly spilled to tension. The man glances the room, his eyes roaming the squalid corners, smelling the slithering stale air. The window’s one solitary shaft of light is flashing on him, soon to be dimmed by the flow of darkness.
“I have a few more things,” the man starts to say.
“I hate you,” the girl screams. She runs into the other room and is swallowed by the darkness.
The man’s face drops. His falsified smile falls to the floor and he does not bother to pick it up. His hands tighten around the soiled paper sack as his eyes follow her running. It takes a while for him to regain presence of mind, but when it comes he is angry. “If this Is a token of your appreciation, Mr. Taylor…”
“She’s got her own feelings,” Holden Taylor says. “I can’t do anything about it.”
The man lays the sack beside the gap in the front door and steps outside.
Shivers of cold run through Holden Taylor’s back. His voice cracks with emotion. With anger? With humiliation? With gratitude? “Thank you, Mr. Adams.”
Adams shakes his well-groomed head and walks out into the fresh coldness of the outside air.
The girl is lying on the bed, her clothes soiled upon her youthful body. She looks unkempt but pretty––older than her sixteen years. Holden Taylor sits down beside his daughter and puts a gentle, work-knotted hand upon her bony shoulder. The smell of the damp mattress fumes in his nostrils. “Rose,” he says softly, “it won’t be like this much longer.”
“Won’t it,” she says, so softly that it shrieks.
“No, we’ll make out,” he says. “Just you wait and see. We just got to get back on our feet, that’s all.”
“They’re just rags,” she says, her eyes wide, the whiteness bulging. “They’re just filthy old rags that the Salvation Army wouldn’t even take.”
“Now, Rose,” her father says, “don’t take it that way, honey. Try and be grateful. It’s hard sometimes, but we’ve got to be grateful.”
“Grateful,” she mocks, lying down on the bed. Holden Taylor shuffles away. Rose closes her eyes. With sight blocked out, her father’s motions sound like the creaky, unsteady movements of a weak-kneed old man.
With her eyes shut, the light filtered through in violet shades. She tries to imagine how her father looked last July just before the layoff at the plant, but her father’s image was blotted away by the image of the drab factory brick with the barred windows, the large trucks backed against the loading platform, the sounds of clanking metals whipping through the windows. In her mind, she sees an image of the foreman stepping up behind her father, his white shirt blazing with the insolent brightness of authority. Around them, machines are grinding out the same song, the same refrain sung day after day without letup––tiresome, nerve-wracking, steel shattering machines that never stop. “Taylor,” the foreman says, his words swooping visibly from his mouth, “we won’t be needing you after Monday. I thought you ought to know.” The foreman smiles in Rose’s imagination, his teeth cutting in her head like tiger fangs.
Stamped upon the image of the foreman came an image of her mother and the house on Windsor Street, a fleeting glimpse at that December night just before Christmas…
“My God, it’s cold,” Holden Taylor said to his wife, flicking off the kitchen light. “Fifteen below.”
“And it is supposed to drop ten more degrees before morning,” his wife said.
The Taylor’s two-story frame house stood against the icy blasts––a shield of protection, their haven.
“Let’s go to bed, Honey,” Taylor said. “Hey, Rose,” he called up the steps, “is it warm enough up there?”
“It’s pretty cold, Daddy.”
“I’ll bring the heater up,” Taylor said. “Let Jimmy sleep with you. We’ll close the door to his room and shut off the heat.”
Holden Taylor plugged the heater in at the foot of Rose’s bed and little Jimmy climbed in beside her. Outside the mercury edged downward, like a snake worming deeper in its nest. They fell asleep to the rhythmic whirr of the heater fan. The coal furnace roared against the bitter cold.
And then it was warm. Rose dreamed that she was sitting on a stove when suddenly the stove began to warm up over the entire surface like a sheet of heated metal. For a while. it was pleasingly warm. Then the metal became hot and turned red. Rose could smell the burning and awakened screaming for the family against a wall of smoke. Awake, she threw back the covers and pulled Jimmy out of the bed. She stumbled toward the window, screaming for the family, but she could not hear her own voice over the roar of the burning wood. Her lungs began to burn and she tugged frantically at Jimmy’s arm, pulling hard toward the window. Her head began to swim and she was dreaming again, lying on a beach with the hotness of the sun pouring down upon her and Tommy’s loving fingers playing on her back. She was laughing and dizzy and all the world was a beach of sand and the ring of laughter. She could feel herself being dragged toward the water and said, “No, Tommy, not now,” but she was thrown into the icy water. It was fresh and cold and breathtaking. It felt good to be away from the sun, tucked away in the icy chill of cooling waters.
She awoke is a hospital. Her back felt very sore and hot. Her father stood in front of her. She could see his face and hear his words, but they sounded as though they had come from the stars, low and faint, from far away, like the voice of God might be.
“It’s all right now, Rose,” her father was saying.
“My back, Daddy. It hurts.”
“You’ll be all right,” he said. “Rest now and everything will be fine.”
“Everything will be Rosy,” she said. He smiled and whispered back, “Yes, Rose. Everything will be Rosy.”
Her memories of the earlier days in the hospital were sketchy as a badly exposed roll of film. Some parts were dim and unclear while others flamed forth with caustic brilliance. Her father stood by her bed with a glistening stream running from each eye.
“How badly is my back burned, Daddy?” she asked, “Will it leave scars?”
Tears were trickling down his cheek and running around his lip. She imagined that they tasted of salt.
“It’s nothing, Daddy,” she said. “What’s a few scars anyway? We’re lucky that we have only a few scars, aren’t we Daddy?”
“Oh, my God, Rose,” he said.
“Daddy,” she whispered. “Where is Mother?” She had known before she asked, though she was very calm as if she were talking about the weather.
Holden Taylor shook his graying head.
“And what about Jimmy and Richie?”
“Jimmy’s fine,” her father said.
Holden Taylor shook his head.
“Please, Daddy, I’d like to be alone,” she said. She held back the choking tightness that tore at her throat until he had stepped outside the ward.
* * *
Dismissal day finally came. It was a cold, gray sky day without color.
“We’re going home now,” Holden Taylor announced. He helped her into the battered 1947 Kaiser that looked as though it had fought the Korean war single-handed. Taylor had swapped his freezer for the Kaiser last November after the finance company took the other car.
“It’s not much,” her father continued, “but some of the folks around town got together and fixed us up with a place to stay until we get on our feet again.”
Holden Taylor closed the door and turned the key. “I just hope this thing starts,” he said.
The thick oil churned against the pan. The starter hummed a bit, then died out completely.
They walked back into the hospital from the parking lot. The phone booth in the hallway was open and Rose could hear every word.
“Hello, this is Holden Taylor. I’m out at the hospital, you know, and my car just won’t turn over. How much is a service charge? … Oh, it is?… Well, I just can’t spare that much cash right now… I wonder if I could charge it until… Oh, I see… No, I know you can’t… yes… All right then… Thanks anyway.”
They walked back out to the lot. Holden Taylor lifted the hood and took the breather from the carburetor. A man with a plaid cap pulled his car up behind them and gave them a shove. The engine sputtered twice, then started, and they were on their way.
“How long will it take to fix our house, Daddy, Rose asked as they rolled down the narrow streets towards the outskirts of the town.
Holden Taylor let his breath run out and pulled it back slowly. “I didn’t pay on the insurance, honey,” he said.
“Oh, Daddy, Rose cried, “why didn’t you tell me?”
“No use worrying you about things like that,” he said. “You’lI have enough anyhow with your mother gone.”
Rose sat in silence until they pulled up in front of a two-room hut that looked worse than anything had a right to look.
Her father pulled on her arm, but she screamed and stamped her feet on the torn rubber of the floorboard. “I won’t,” she said. “It’s a filthy hole. I won’t go in. I won’t!”
“But, Rose, Jimmy’s in there. It’s all we have right now.”
“Oh, Daddy, I just can’t.”
“Goddamn it, Rose, get out of the car,” her father said, softly.
One week later, a man came to the hut. Rose heard the pounding on the door, opened it half a crack and peeked through with one eye, keeping her face concealed in the dimness. The man stood outside, his hair shining like a film of oil spread to kill mosquito larvae. He forced the door open and stepped inside. Holden Taylor jumped up from his chair.
“It’s quite all right, Mr.Taylor, allow me to introduce myself. I’m Richard Adams. Quite a number of the good folks in our community have heard about your… misfortunes… and they’ve gotten together a few things that you’ll he able to use. I know you need clothing, food, pots and pans, and we’ve provided you with shelter. You need all sorts of everyday things, and I’ve taken the liberty of bringing some things out to you.”
“You’ve got something for us?”
“Of course,” Adams said. It’s the least I can do. After all, what are good neighbors but the one’s that help those in need.” Rose shied away to a corner and turned her face so that she would not be recognized.
“Would you help me bring these things in, Mr. Taylor?” Adams said. The way he pronounced Mr. Taylor turned Rose’s stomach.
The snow had drifted across the path that led to the driveway, seeping into Holden Taylor’s shoes, sticking to his pants leg, filling his cuffs. Adam’s new Chevrolet station wagon was loaded with sacks of clothes, cans, shoes and pans.
The door stood open and the hut cooled off with the gusts of cold air. Rose covered her shoulders with a blanket and put a tender hand on Jimmy’s head as the men piled the boxes in the center of the room.
“That’s it for now, Mr. Taylor,” Adams said, rubbing his hands together, wringing out imaginary germs. Lice? “I’ll bring some more in a day or so.”
He came regularly for the next two weeks bringing more of the–discarded sweaters, dresses too big, shoes with holes in the bottom and scuffed toes, old suits with cigarette burns and lapels six-feet wide, jars of homemade preserves with mold on top, month old eggs that smelled like the fumes from a chemical plant, cans of food without labels. This poured in regularly.
Yesterday, Rose met Tommy at Chive’s Drug Store. They sat back in a corner away from the others. It was very cold and the walk uptown had chilled her, even to the one filling in a molar on an otherwise perfect set of teeth. She saw Tommy gazing at her clothes when her eyes were turned, but he looked at the straw in his coke when she turned her eyes his way.
“What’s the matter?” she asked. “Is something wrong with me?”
“No, of course not,” he said. “What makes you think that?”
“You’re staring at my clothes.”
“I’m not either.”
“You don’t like my coat? Do you want to me to take it off? Do you want to my dress? Maybe that will look a little better to you. Or maybe it’s my back you want to see? That’s it, you want to see my scars.”
“Oh, stop it,” he said, “What’s the matter with you anyway?”
“It’s all changed, hasn’t it, Tommy.
“No,” he said, slowly, as though he weren’t sure himself.
“You don’t want anything to do with me.”
“Not if you keep on acting like some spoiled brat,” Tommy said in a burst of pent up anger. There are worse things than what you’ve been through, you know.”
“I know,” she said.
“What’s eating you, Rose?”
“I don’t want to talk about it. Not here.”
“Want to take a drive?”
“Yes, I’d like that,” she said.
He climbed out of the booth and walked out. She followed him obediently. She thought that all eyes trailed after her and I-knew-it-all-the-time smiles were hidden behind the dozens of youthful pouts.
It was their spot, their palace of memories, a pull-off to the side of a graveled road. She had seen it only in the night. It felt different in the glare of day, but everything looks different in the light. Tommy used to take her there frequently before the fire, back in the days when they had a date every Saturday night and Tommy wasn’t ashamed of being seen with her. She felt as though her respect had been burned away in the fire.
“Tommy, why isn’t it the same? Why does it have to to be different,” she wanted to say. Some things are communicated without words, with furtive glances sideways. “Keep the motor running,” she said as he reached toward the ignition switch. “It’s cold out here.”
They sat in silence.
“Remember the first time we came out here?” she asked.
“Sure,” he said. “It was the beginning.”
“And this is the ending,” she said. “Some little play without a plot. It all begins and ends in the same place.”
“Tell me about it, Rose,” he said. “Do I have to beg you?”
“There’s nothing to tell,” she said.
“There’s everything to tell. What is it? The way you have to live now? No money? What?”
“It makes a difference, Tommy.”
“The hell it does,” he said. I love you, Rose. I wish I could take you away, but we’re too young.”
“Let’s go back,” she said.
“Not until you tell me what’s eating you up inside.”
“Nothing but ashes,” she said. “Just ashes, that’s all. Everything is ashes.”
He said nothing.
“Do you know about ashes, Tommy? Ashes aren’t even remains. They’re just an alkaline powder that blows away with time. When you have ashes, you have nothing. I know an old woman who had her husband cremated and keeps his ashes in an old vase sitting on her piano. She thinks she has his remains, but she’s wrong. She has nothing but ashes and ashes are like space… nothing.”
Still, he said nothing.
“Look at my clothes,” she said. “They’re ashes. Things that are ready for the incinerator. Shoes with holes, maternity dresses, just like they expect I’ll be wearing one real soon. All we poor girls do, you know. The food they give us? Rotten eggs. What do they do with their trash? They give it to us, that’s what. I’m surprised that I don’t find cigarette butts and trash from somebody’s waste basket. The poor old Taylor family. ‘Hey, Mabel, let’s give them those cans of jelly that’s down in the cellar. The kids won’t touch them. All they have to do is scrape the mold off the top and it’s perfectly fine underneath.’”
She began to cry and he slipped his arm around her. She buried her face in the looseness of his open coat.
“And that’s not the worst of it, Tommy,” she sobbed. “Daddy has been taking all that stuff with smiles and a thank-you just as though they gave us a million dollars! I think he’s beginning to like it.”
She sobbed against his shoulder. His armpits smelled like deodorant.
Now the winds are howling like some ghost searching for his soul at midnight. The light cuts though into the hut where some semblance of order has been restored. Rose is mending a sweater and Jimmy is stoking the pot-bellied stove. Holden Taylor sits reading the newspaper.
The rap comes again to the door, the carpenter’s hammer, Mr. Adams of the smiling regiment and the putrified hair.
“Daddy,” Rose whispers, “don’t.”
Holden Taylor shuffles to the door, his weight creaking the floorboards, stirring up the smell of must and rot.
“Hello, Mr. Taylor,” Adams says. “I trust that everyone is in tip-top shape. You’ll never guess what I’ve got for you today. He turns and yells to someone outside. “Bring it in, boys.”
The door stands open, the wind freshening their senses with cold. Two men appear carrying a large chunk of yellowed enamel, a refrigerator.
“That’s it, boys,” Adams says. “Take it easy now. Sit it right there. That’s it, boys. That’s fine.”
He shuts the door. Holden Taylor runs his hand over the cold white metal. He feels the nicks in the enamel, then the chips where brown and gray primer shows through. Hc opens the door and looks inside. The box is stained from a hundred leftovers, he notices, but it will clean, he thinks.
“How’s that, Mr. Taylor,” Adams says. “You’ll really he able to use this, I know. It makes a man feel rather small when he thinks about how the community opens up its heart to the needy ones.”
Holden Taylor squats down on his knees and runs his hand under the refrigerator until he finds the cord. He tries to plug it in, but the prongs are bent the wrong way. He straightens them out and slips them easily into the socket, waiting for the purr of the motor.
He opens the door. The light is not on. He smells something burning in the motor. “Mr. Adams,” he says, “this refrigerator does not work.”
“Oh,” Adams says, “I hadn’t noticed.” The smile is still on his face––a chalky, plastered smile.
Rose speaks, her voice carrying above the wail of the wind. “If you really want to help us, Mr. Adams, help my father get a job.”
“I didn’t know you wanted to work, Mr. Taylor,” Adams says.
Holden Taylor stands with his head drooping, not answering.
“And you, young lady,” Adams says, turning to Rose. “You have no sense of respect. After all the things I’ve done…”
“Oh, yes, Mr. Adams,” Rose says. “All the things you’ve done. Take a look at me, Mr. Adams. I look like some lost refuge with all the clothes you’ve so generously provided.”
She walks over to the make-shift kitchen. “This pan,” she says, “has a hole in the bottom. It’s most useful. Of course, I must remember that you and the community have generously provided us with food.”
She picks up a jar of molded jelly from the food box and throws it at Adams’ feet. The glass breaks and splatters jelly on his shoe. “Molded jelly. Great for the digestive system. And now you bring us a refrigerator that doesn’t work. What are we supposed to do with it, Mr. Adams? Store our clothes in it? Keep the moths away? Oh, no, Mr. Adams, that wouldn’t help. The moths have already been here.”
She is speaking calmly, her voice a mere whisper that echoes far and deep.
Adams’ face is red, his eyes white with anger. “You piggish little hussie,” he says. “You ingrate…”
“Mr. Adams, says Holden Taylor, his voice unexpectedly piercing to the marrow of the bones. “That’s enough. There will be no more talk like that in my house. I think it’s better if you would leave now.”
Adams leaves with a wave of cold air. Holden Taylor steps over to his daughter puts his arm around her shoulder. “Now what good did that do us, honey?”
“I couldn’t stand it anymore, Daddy,” she sobs. “I just couldn’t stand it.”
“It’s all right,” Holden Taylor says.
“Oh, Daddy, I hate it all, Rose says, crying into his shoulder.
“I know you do, honey,” Holden Taylor says, rocking her back and forth. “All of us do.”
(originally written in 1963, revised 2017)
March 2, 1963
Ken H. Finton