I was married once to a boy named Buck whose family grew strawberries for a living. Their operation consisted of a single tractor, some splintery gray outbuildings filled with the most meager provisions of husbandry (hand tools, flimsy wooden crates stained a latent pink and brown, dark bottles half-filled with various poisons, seeds, a stack of emptied burlap bags), and the back-breaking labor of every member of the clan. They had a few old flat bed trucks that Buck’s father and uncles owned together and used interchangeably. There was one peeling white farmhouse sitting highest on their hill, which his grandmother still lived in then, and a series of single-wide trailers that housed all of her sons and their families. The only daughter had married and moved more than a day away.
I had known Buck all my life without paying much attention to him until the winter we both turned fifteen, when he began to save a seat for me on the bus that brought all of us country kids to school. His was an even longer ride than the hour I spent on the bus each way, so he had his seat both before I got on and after I got off. At first, he pretended to need help with his homework, which was a dead give-away since I knew he was about as smart as I was.
He was kind of silly and corny in a way that would grow on you after you got used to him and the sorts of things he thought were funny. After a while, I could predict his jokes as easily as the shirt he would choose to wear on any given day. He knew at least a million horrible knock-knock jokes:
Phillip my cup, I’m thirsty.
By the summer, we were spending most of our time together. We would ride our bikes down the long, dusty gravel road between his house and mine, turning off onto the broken paths that led to patches of berries strewn with limestone shards and other mysteries gradually weathering into the soil. In the cool of each morning, we would pedal toward those irregularly spaced pieces of ground that his people had altered by hand. They had made fences around their fields with the rocks they moved aside, or sometimes, as if energy or initiative had failed them, they had just made desultory piles along the edges.
We were checking the fruit for ripeness. The Strawberry Festival Committee handed out a fifty-dollar prize each year for the first crate of ripe berries brought to the fair grounds. They would snap your picture and run it in the local weekly on the front page. Our amative monitoring paid off. Buck and I won that year, beating his cousins by only an hour. I have saved the photo that shows his hand still holding a fat berry to my black and white lips, and I look at it once in a while to remind myself that all that exists in three dimensions must, by design, by definition, change.
My father was a cattle farmer with the herder’s disdain for the tillers of the field. He planted a little truck patch every year that he left for my mother and us kids to work on in the hot sun while he was away earning a factory wage or, later, working on heavy machinery, but that garden was just for our use. What we did not need we gave away to our neighbors and relatives.
Daddy was a hard worker, but he had realized early in his life that the sparse earth of the Ozark Plateau alone could not produce the standard of living that he wanted. In the way of the mountain people, though, he remained tied to the land by threads so slender that they were hardly visible but proved as strong as the spider’s web. So, Daddy turned his father’s cultivated fields back over to grasses and set cattle loose upon them to do what they could for him.
His own great-grandfather’s stone fences he replaced, with wire stretched taut between posts, and redistributed the rocks for other uses. He hauled the disassembled fences to the house and built patios, laid flower beds for my mother, and made a different huge pile out by the tree that the basketball goal was nailed to. Some of the better rocks—usually the ones with green moss growing on them—he sold to a contractor from Memphis who used them on fashionable rock-and-cedar suburban homes. I used to think Daddy was making his life doubly hard, since he worked all day and then had to take care of the farm and animals at night, but he never seemed to see it that way.
In those days, he would often shake his head in the evening, the day’s dirt running in long, winding rivulets down his arms and neck, and comment about my choice of boyfriends. When I think of my father now, this is most often how I picture him. He was a man inextricably tied to his place in the world but who desperately wanted to cut his children loose.
“Sister,” he said once dryly, in a voice so low that his weariness was implicit, using the pet name he had called me by since I was little, “Them people ain’t ever gonnna amount to anything. Why do you want to go and get all wound up with a Parry? Poor old Johnson has beat his brains out on them old rocks for thirty years, and his daddy for thirty years before that, and thirty more for his granddaddy. I’m tellin’ you, Sister, you have got to go to college and get you a degree and get the hell out of here. There ain’t nothin’ here for you, and Buck Parry will tie you down with some more of them ugly kids they make. Buck’s mom used to be a pretty girl, but look at her now, broke down like an old work horse that pushed one too many rows.”
“Well, Daddy,” I said matter-of-factly, silently rolling my eyes behind the broad curve of his back, “I have no intentions of making any babies for Buck Parry, and Buck won’t stay on that place and work for Johnson and Iris like people might think he will. He will go to college. He wants to be a weatherman so that he can send rain to farmers without ever having to be one.”
“I’ve raised an idiot who is gonna marry one. Buck Parry don’t have sense enough to come in out of the rain, much less brew it up and bring it to folks,” my daddy said laughing softly, in a strangely kind way. He removed his dirty cap with the feed store’s logo on the front and absently scratched his head, which he had always said helped him “think better.”
Where I’m from people do not coddle their kids with niceties in attempts to build positive self-images. They mostly work on toughening up their children’s skins for the long journey ahead. Years later, a psychologist with long fingernails, painted red, and about a ton of fake Native American jewelry worked for more than a year trying to get me to understand that this manner of parenting was largely responsible for my depression, self-injurious behavior, and lack of focus. I could only look at her, defenseless and not really expecting her to understand what was as alien as the sky to her, and say that without it I would be dead.
When we were seventeen, Buck and I graduated from high school together. We were both at the top of our class, co-valedictorians, and we both were supposed to give a little speech at the commencement exercises. Our accomplishments may have carried more weight if our class had been larger that twenty. Neither of us was very impressed with ourselves, but we knew what was expected of us.
Buck was so terrified to speak in front of other people that he said he was afraid he would faint, and he almost backed out of it altogether. Miss Regina Rhine, the spinster math teacher and our class sponsor, who pronounced her given name to rhyme with vagina, finally convinced Buck to make his talk when she promised him that he and I could stand up there together. I told him I would do it with him since I scarcely could have cared less one way or another. I just wanted the whole thing to be over so that we could exit stage left as soon as possible. We made it all right, I guess, with Buck holding my hand so tightly that my fingers turned white. Quite by accident, I glanced up and saw that Daddy had a hold on my mother’s arm that I was fleetingly afraid would cause her skin to bleed. He was staring at something on the floor.
My father only once more tried to talk me out of my relationship with Buck Parry. Resigned, he stayed away the day that Mom and I packed my tiny bundle of belongings for the move to Little Rock. Buck and I were enrolled in a college there for the summer term immediately following our graduation. Our joint speech was not two weeks gone before we were living together as adults in a city that could not have been stranger to us.
I smile sometimes now when I recall what a big town Little Rock felt like to us then. It was there that we discovered alcohol and pot and so many interesting people that we sometimes even forgot about each other, but only for brief periods. Every night we returned to our series of hampered downtown apartments, bearing both secrets that we never shared and an ironic intimacy that only youth will afford. I have only recently begun to understand that I was more familiar with him than with any man since and that I let him have so much more of my self than any other man will ever get.
He had other lovers right from the start. Like his corny jokes and wrinkled shirts, I could predict with the accuracy of a razor which young woman in our circle would be his next conquest. It is, after a fashion, funny that I always knew he had flings from time to time, and that never bothered me for some reason. What got to me was that he had no idea that another boy or man would want me. On some low level I always knew that the great trust he professed in me rested in his belief that he was the only one who could ever be generous enough to love me. He was secure in his knowledge of my stupendous, unfailing love, and he could have conceived of nothing less.
And it has lately, so many years hence, begun to dawn on me that it was not arduous labor that broke Buck’s mother, Iris, down. Her wane expression and listless bearing were not that of the toiling animal collapsed under its oppressive load. Hers was the startled, defenseless look of a child who has just had the wind knocked out her by an unexpected blow from behind.
I had yet to figure out any of this then, though, and our Little Rock years were happy even a little below the surface. I believed myself to be happy. Buck and I moved together several times around the city, exploring new spaces and depositing our latest plans on new counters and our houseplants on fresh rugs, casting our dreams out different windows. We were both restless, excited by a novel world, high, and perpetually ready for more. Each new apartment was a new beginning. We were so good at beginnings.
There was no manual work to do like we were used to, but our social life was full enough that it often became a burden, hard work in and of itself. We were bound by our parties and defined by our evolving circle of friends. Buck drank heavily, mostly whiskey, George Dickle and Wild Turkey straight out of the bottle.
Sometimes he would ask for a cold towel so that the floor tile in the bathroom would not leave impressions on his face to tell on him the following day. I would bring it to him neatly folded and cover him up with a quilt. Sometimes I would lie there beside him on the cool floor and hold his back. In the morning, I was the one who awoke with a spotted face, but such small things never bothered me then. I thought Buck was silly for worrying about them.
Buck was studying history by his second year at the university. The hard sciences required for meteorology had not been to his liking and had not, as he put it, captured his imagination. He said he had a gift for research and interpretation that made history easier for him, perhaps deceptively so, I think, since a history will contain what you need it to. Dead characters will play any role.
On good days, Buck, who had a natural flair for drama, would nurse a hangover and feel his way around in the past lives of other people, reanimating them at his will, tirelessly revising their lines, the particulars of their entrances and exits. More often, he slept late and spent the day methodically rolling joints and watching TV. Some mornings he missed completely, and I would wake him after lunch to remind him of his afternoon classes.
I had taken up anthropology in a kind of lethargic manner. What I really wanted to do was read long poems by strong women and introspective men and take care of Buck. I was good at being with him, and I loved some of the things he did for me. He could be sweet when he wanted to, and he could forever make me laugh.
He was especially good at doing exaggerated hillbilly accents. One day that I recall with particular clarity we were headed back into the mountains to see our folks and got behind this clattering old pickup truck that seemed to be held together with baling wire, cow shit, and dipstick rags. The man driving it had an amazingly long ponytail that only managed to control a portion of his hair, which was standing out wildly in all directions. Strands of it broke free and trailed out the open window. There was an ice chest between him and the woman on the passenger side, and he almost went off the road trying to get something out of it, a beer from what I could see. He’d had his blinker going for about ten minutes and was driving slowly, as if he and the woman were trying to find a particular place on the left side. Buck was growing impatient with them. The road was curvy, steep, and there was no way to get around.
Suddenly, the old boy laid on the brakes and turned off at a little greasy spoon (the kind with a jukebox that is pure country, except for Lynard Skynard and Stairway to Heaven, and plastic orange booths mended with silver tape), throwing dust when he hit the parking lot. Apparently, they had found what they were looking for. Buck stuck his head out the window and, in his best good old redneck voice yelled, “Yeah, pull on over there, Bubba Roy, and get that little lady a chili dog!”
I have not completely stopped laughing about that yet. Both the man and the woman gave Buck the finger and spit thick, brown ropes of tobacco on the ground. I’ll tell you, we like to have died.
Buck did a few other things that kept me wanting him in the manner to which he had become accustomed. Every Friday, he would bring me flowers. It became a ritual the way he would ring the doorbell and wait for me to open it. He would hold the tumbling bouquet, most often white lilies or wildflowers, in front of his face, his floral features spilling like a splotch of sunlight into the hallway of a prison.
Once, he brought a bottle of champagne, too, and a quart of ripe strawberries, and I cried until he was angry and kissing me hard on the mouth. I knew it was pointless to try to tell him that my crying was not of sadness but from a sense of loss he could not distinguish. My tears always aroused his anger and his lust, rendered him less domesticated. Not until after it was all over, when I was standing at the bathroom basin cleaning myself and filling a vase at the same time, did I see the purple bite rising like a ragged plum on my left shoulder. My neck hurt where he had held it in his hands, but all my pain was content. He was a matchless lay.
I drenched the berries in fizz and brought them to our bed. I offered him the fattest, reddest one. He chewed it lazily and absently scratched his balls, staring into the ceiling like an astronomer confined to the indoors. I waited for him to speak and sucked the wine off a berry before I bit into it. I remember I was thinking that Johnson and Iris grew better ones when he turned and looked at me. I knew from the way he rested his head in his hand and propped up on one elbow that this would be no ordinary conversation. He kept running his long fingers through his sandy hair as if to coax the right words out of his own mouth. A couple of times his lips moved without a sound coming out. His free hand seemed to be trembling the way it did the night we stood before our town and spoke together.
“I am going to graduate school in Boston,” he said. “I have already been accepted for next fall. I didn’t want to say anything until I was sure that it was going to happen.”
“Yeah, you know, Paul Revere, Tea Party, and that guy you read who didn’t want to pay his taxes,” he replied. “What was his name? Thorough?”
“Close enough,” I said. I suddenly felt my nakedness grow larger and reached for my clothes, cast off carelessly at the foot of the bed. I spilled champagne on the carpet and left it there to seep in deeper. “I’m a little behind,” I went on, fumbling with the buttons on my dress.
“A little behind what, Ruth?” he asked and settled back on his pillow. He took a long, hard draw on his Camel, letting the ashes fall against the sheets. His penis rested flaccidly against his thigh, and he made no attempt to cover it. His smoke rose like an impregnable spirit and lingered above his head in ethereal gray vapors. I was momentarily afraid they might respire, gather strength, and devour us both. He had told me nothing.
“Well, for one thing, I won’t be ready to graduate for at least another year, so I can’t go with you right away.”
“Sure you can. We gotta get married anyhow before I go, ‘cause Daddy says he won’t sign the car over in my name until we do, and I can’t be going to Boston with no car,” he said decidedly. “This is my chance to get out of this hole and leave these old ways behind, and they won’t hold a spot for me if I don’t go next fall. Besides, I need you to go with me. I can’t stand the thought of you not being there. You have got to go, too. You can get back in school up there.”
And it was just as simple as that. Cut and dried. He was going to school, and I was going with him. We were getting married. It was expected.
I went through the motions of hastily planning a wedding around Buck’s agenda, agreeing to whatever my mother thought would be lovely, appropriate. Our preacher friend from high school would perform the ceremony. My only sister would sing. We would have lilies, a tall white cake, pink punch with sherbet, nuts, handmade mints and invitations, gold bands, and no veil. I chose a wreath of daisies for my head instead. My dress was creamy-colored gauze that fell just above my ankles. Another girl might have chosen it for a tea party.
I remember so little of my first wedding day, so little of my life for years thereafter. My mother’s laughter comes back to me as the tractable tinkling of the miniature chimes that hung at her kitchen window. She waved to me and gave me the soft curve of her smile as my new husband drove us away in his newly-acquired automobile. I recall something about the heaviness of my hands. They could be lifted neither in protest nor in farewell, but I know that my face was shining, smiling for everyone to see. That would have been important.
Only my father remains clear, constant in a sea of swirling images, faces fading off in long streaks of varying light, as at the beginning or end of dreams, or as if captured by a falling camera. He had known Parry men as far back as Buck’s grandfather, and he alone sensed my smoldering desperation and lent it voice. He relinquished me at the end of the aisle in tears, and he whispered in my ear, even as he knew what was being done, “Sister, you don’t have to do this.”
That night in the motel room Buck was so whiskey drunk that he could not get an erection and he turned his back to me. I lay beside him in the dark and knew him by the slump of his shoulder, by the sourness of the breath from the body within. There in the honeymoon suite, the abstemious skin of my childhood began to split and peel away, a process that took five more years in a cold one-room apartment on Peterborough Street in Boston (during which time I was exceedingly careful that Buck did not give me any babies) to complete. I felt it first in my leaden fingertips.
When I left him for good, Buck told everyone that I was crazy, and I learned that defending your own sanity is a hard lesson in self-repudiation. Eventually, I wore my madness like a shield. Only the brave would dare to come closer to me. Buck, though, bounced right back from his professed heartbreak, quickly incorporating the history of mental illness into his program of study. I could still do something for him.
Before a month was out, he was openly fucking someone I knew, Caitlin, a woman cast off by one of Buck’s fellow graduate students. She had been wrangling with herself for months because her guy had simply married someone else, and she had never lost anything that she really wanted before. I had known all along that she would be the one after me, the one who could endure. She had long black hair, a trust fund, and a name for her bong.
I used to sneak around with Buck behind her back for a couple of years after our divorce, just for fun and so that I could remember what I hated about him. He could still make me laugh, and it was better than being his wife. My psychologist called this a transition period, which is exactly what it was. When I met someone else, I quit returning Buck’s phone calls and heard about him only through our mothers for more than ten years.
Then, one night I saw Buck at a Little Rock restaurant. I knew that he was in town to give a lecture about primary source evidence of depression and suicide in the South after the Civil War (no shit!), but I had willingly made no effort to contact him. He was no feasible stranger or friend to me
He was still with Caitlin, though I would not have known her without him. I hear she has two Parry sons. She was heavier and so weary about the eyes. I tried to imagine that same look in my own eyes and momentarily lost my breath. Buck ordered a glass of whiskey, and then another, and another, and I saw her gently lay her fingers against his wrist. I watched them throughout their dinner, aptly predicting that he would order a steak, fries, a baked potato on the side, and two desserts. Buck has always doubled up on the sweets and starches since he was a little kid.
I tried to feel something other than happiness. I wanted to grieve for my youth and for the girl I used to be, but my gladness would not subside. An almost unwelcome, uncharitable joy spread through my belly, like the delightful burn of culinary peppers or the relief you feel when you learn that it was no one you cared about who died in the accident.
Buck did not see me. He would not have been looking for a sharp, sparse woman with closely cropped hair as much gray as blonde these days. He would not recognize my directness as acceptance, my confidence as forgiveness.
We have a history, though, Buck and I, a story about lives that have passed, a manner in which we have influenced each other eternally. A marriage never really ends. So, I sent a tall glass of champagne drowning a single strawberry to his table, and I lifted my water glass to him as he scoured the room, his gaze at last resting upon a woman he once thought he knew. He ran his long fingers through his hair. The faintest smile traced his mouth. There was the slightest tremble to hands.
(photo by Amanda Waits)