creative nonfiction by Jessie van Eerden
Blessing for Homecoming
Untouched, I think of salt blocks for deer. Trace minerals and molasses in ten-pound cubes that men around here put out between the whitetails’ water source and their bedding in the young briers. To lure game, they say. But I know, for some, it’s only a kindness. Sometimes, a hunter sits still in the tree stand with no rifle, thermos unlidded. Watches a fawn falter then recover, a mother’s rough nudge at the flank, soft mouths hovering at the salt then taking part. Tender version of himself a specter of black coffee steam in the dawn air. Then I think of bucks in velvet, wild buck rub against the sapling in rut season, doe in heat bleating. I need a walk.
It’s October, a Saturday evening with cold crisp light. At the river, high-schoolers pose in taffeta and tuxes in front of gold-leaf sycamores and broken benches. Must be Homecoming. One pair catches my eye, their two sets of parents ready with cameras. The girl stands under a near-done apple tree and looks cold in capped sleeves. Corsage of a white rose dyed blue on its tips rhymes with her frosted blond tips on dark strands unsecured by her French twist. The boy—in matching boutonniere, cummerbund a loose approximation of her yellow chiffon, jacket boxy and big—does not touch her. Inches away, his adolescent body utters something out loud to hers in a frequency only she can hear. These two will not be crowned king and queen. He takes her hand for the last few photos at his mother’s request. He takes her arm, of his own volition, and helps her climb the running board of his dad’s diesel pickup, and they drive off toward the school gym.
I am with the mothers then, and the sweet rot of the apples fallen to the ground, and the fathers with hands in their jeans pockets, not holding their wives. We stand there regarding the high-schoolers’ heads through the truck’s back window, the girl’s updo further escaping its bobby pins. The five of us an odd ensemble of witness. One of the mothers holds up a hand to wave and holds it there, like a clergyman speaking a blessing. May the poison ivy rash like raw meat, and the pink calamine lotion smeared over leg stubble you couldn’t shave, not show up in the photos. May your cheap shoes bloom no sore on your heel.
How many years later now, since the man who was once my husband left, do I sometimes recognize in the mirror a self that heard his voice in the other room, like a soft scare of rabbits—his hand stoking the woodstove with a dry stick of pine—and walk through the door expecting him there? Yet this moment just after the photoshoot, in a body unheld, alert in all the October air and standing with these others also separate, each in plaid shirt and unbecoming slacks and sweaters, and one mother thinking how her child once ran home to her voice calling out like a wood thrush—this moment yields a sweetness all its own. As if, alongside the mother with her hand still in midair, I am permitted to bless them. As if, alongside the hunter, I can sit, the hunter who more often takes aim, kills, guts and skins and handles the meat of a buck in full embrace, but who this time only watches the yearling breathe, the stubbled hide of its body so coarse and beautiful a container, and wishes for its life to keep intact for all that will come, for all that is uncontainable. Taste salt and sweet molasses, sweet one, bed down in briers too young to be thorned.
And then we are leaving, evening having come on full and our faces dusky. Then there are bats in the trees above where we were standing. There are leaves dead and bright and apples left for the deer.
Blessing for the Demolition Derby
May no gas tank blow, no face burn like a lamb shank. May the scrap metal prices come back down to keep crashable cars under a hundred, or at least one-fifty. May Jack, with whom your brother is roofing houses this summer as you clerk at the feed store when you are both on break between college terms, make it to the last heat in his Chrysler Imperial, and the loudspeaker speak his name. May your brother cheer—your brother who smells of asphalt and sun beside you in the stands and who, years later, will tell you he doesn’t remember going with you to the Friday night derby at the Valley District Fair, watching that first Chevy Impala crumple like a soda can. And if a tank does blow, may it char only one side of the body, mostly arm and thigh, as it happened for the boy from your high school in the Terra Alta derby you did not witness, when he couldn’t get the belt unfastened. May the face be chastened but uncooked.
After the Crown Victoria loses a fender in the third heat and they call an intermission so the dust can clear, like a temporary truce in war when both sides could gather in their dead at dawn in a strange sad peace to let people hold all that they’d broken—and just before you go check out the concessions—may each dazed man rise slowly from the driver seat to sit in the car door window sheared of its glass with a horsehair brush, taking stock of his smash-up damage so far. At first halved, with legs inside the car’s crushed metal, may each grow whole as he crawls out of the window so tenderly as if into someone’s arms, as if a child gathered up with his hope enormous and his ideas dragging behind him where he toddled the road lined with tractor parts and bachelor’s buttons. May they emerge this way, like dead bodies resurrected, if indeed bodies get resurrected with all the same tattoos and Skid Row muscle shirts and feathered hair, their skin a shade paler but it’s probably just the glaring arena lights. May you remember this brief unlikely scene however many times in your life you’ll need to believe that impossible tenderness in the midst of destruction is what saves us. Then you turn with your money to the snow cone stand near the bleachers, and the revving starts up the next heat.
May the Fire Department chicken dinner still be going on after this is over, and the sky stay clear for the ox roast tomorrow and for the tractor pull and the mud bog and the Tilt-a-Whirl. May one of the menstruating girls outside the Parish House Food and Clothing Bank, with a sweatshirt tied around her waist, waiting in line, not for stale pastry, not for a canned good or a garbage bag of clothes with white things pit-stained and pretty things pilled, but for a box of Kotex after there’s been a tampon drive—may she win the fair’s pageant this year. May the loudspeaker speak her name along with Jack’s over the ruckus of metal on metal. And when another Impala gives up its ghost and the blue-raspberry snow cones you got for your brother and yourself turn your tongues blue, tongues so ice cold they burn, may you drink all the juice pooled in the bottom tip of the cone at the end, the nothing-like-fruit, all indigo dye and corn syrup. May you survey the arena, under the halo of lights, and take in each face through the windshield absent of its glass, faces eerie now and more naked, and linger there till the final heat.
Jessie van Eerden is the author of three novels, Glorybound, My Radio Radio, and Call It Horses, as well as the portrait essay collection The Long Weeping. Her work has appeared in Best American Spiritual Writing, Gulf Coast, AGNI, and other venues. She teaches creative writing at Hollins University and serves as nonfiction editor for Orison Books.