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The characters and events in this book are ﬁctitious. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is coincidental and not intended by the author.
© 2013, Text by David Rhodes All rights reserved. Except for brief quotations in critical articles or reviews, no part of this book may be reproduced in any manner without prior written permission from the publisher: Milkweed Editions, 1011 Washington Avenue South, Suite 300, Minneapolis, Minnesota 55415. (800) 520-6455 www.milkweed.org Published 2013 by Milkweed Editions Printed in Canada Cover design by Christian Fuenfhausen Cover photos © Shutterstock Author photo by Edna Rhodes 13 14 15 16 17 5 4 3 2 1 First Edition Milkweed Editions, an independent nonproﬁt publisher, gratefully acknowledges sustaining support from the Bush Foundation; the Patrick and Aimee Butler Foundation; the Dougherty Family Foundation; the Jerome Foundation; the Lindquist & Vennum Foundation; the McKnight Foundation; the voters of Minnesota through a Minnesota State Arts Board Operating Support grant, thanks to a legislative appropriation from the arts and cultural heritage fund; the National Endowment for the Arts; the Target Foundation; and other generous contributions from foundations, corporations, and individuals. For a full listing of Milkweed Editions supporters, please visit www.milkweed.org.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Rhodes, David, 1946Jewelweed : a novel / David Rhodes. — 1st ed. p. cm. ISBN 978-1-57131-100-9 (hardcover : acid-free paper) — ISBN 978-1-57131-106-1 (pbk. : acid-free paper) — ISBN 978-1-57131-883-1 (ebook) I. Title. PS3568.H55J49 2013 813'.54—dc23 2012027827 Milkweed Editions is committed to ecological stewardship. We strive to align our book production practices with this principle, and to reduce the impact of our operations in the environment. We are a member of the Green Press Initiative, a nonproﬁt coalition of publishers, manufacturers, and authors working to protect the world’s endangered forests and conserve natural resources. Jewelweed was printed on acid-free 100% postconsumer-waste paper by Friesens Corporation.
hen the New Age is at leisure to Pronounce; all will be set right . . . & the Daughters of Memory shall become the Daughters of Inspiration. —William Blake, Milton: A Poem
The Taste of Joy
blinding thunderstorm in central Nebraska thinned trafﬁc along Interstate 80. A few semis moved through the downpour, their dimmed headlights reﬂecting from the watery road. Rain blew against trailer sides and black wiper blades whipped frantically across windshields, accompanied by the sound of water thrown from tires against wheel wells and the undersides of trailers. In the sky, crackling networks of energy ignited air bombs, exploding the dark open space with brief crinkled light. Nate Bookchester needed to reach Omaha before daylight. After unloading he’d continue to Des Moines, then on to Moline. Never taking his eyes from the barely visible line between the road surface and the more darkly colored shoulder, he steered the hood of the Kenworth into the storm. Passing time seemed shadowy, suspended in the glow of fog lights. The rain ﬁnally let up, and the CD player in the dashboard ended its story—an audiobook checked out of the Grange Library. He dialed down the speed of the wiper blades. A few wrinkled lines of lightning lit the sky, and the opened space seemed clean and bright. A cowboy with Colorado plates sped by on the left, spraying water, winking top lights, and pulling back into the right-hand lane. Red taillights bled in and out of veins of rainwater. Nate listened for several minutes to drivers jawing about the government, then turned the radio off, shut down the interior lights, and drove on in the dark. A highway patrol car sat in the median turnaround between the eastbound and westbound lanes, red and blue warning lights silently ﬂashing. Nate’s son would soon have a parole hearing, and the thought made the muscles in Nate’s neck tighten. This would be Blake’s third review, 3
and based on the earlier two, Nate was pessimistic about his chances of getting out. The justice system seemed to resist letting anyone go after it had gotten hold of them. Or at least it seemed that way to Nate. Prisons were made like ﬁshhooks: easy to get in, hard to get out. Without prisoners there would be no need for prisons, and a whole lot of folks—some of them very well paid—would be out of work. So before paroling anyone, the Department of Corrections set up hoops to jump through, and Blake had never been a cooperative jumper. Nate took the last Omaha exit, stopped at a deserted stoplight on the overpass, and headed north. His worries about Blake had become so familiar that he often did not allow the habitual thoughts to begin their circular march through his mind, refused to let the words congeal, and simply endured the anxious sorrow without accompaniment. Three loading docks stood empty at the back of the Omaha warehouse; Nate backed into the middle one. The overhead opened and a buzzer sounded as the trailer touched rail. He climbed out of the cab into a warm, drizzling mist. Inside the building, he signed the bottom sheet on the clipboard, unclasped the door irons, and stood aside as the forklift operator navigated inside, guiding the long iron prongs under the pallets. The bathrooms on the other side of the building were in exceptionally good order. Nate washed, shaved, and changed clothes. He tried to leave the room as clean as he’d found it and shoved his dirty clothes into a bag. Just outside, the candy machine along the wall had cluster bars. He almost bought one, but settled for a paper cup of weak coffee. After the trailer was unloaded, he asked the operator where he could ﬁnd a decent place to eat. “Heading east, not many open this early. If you don’t mind driving, there’s one maybe ﬁve, six miles out of town.” “What’s the name?” “Margo’s. It doesn’t look like much, but they’ve got good food.” The sun was just coming up and Nate drove directly into it, ignoring the lower gears and shifting quickly through the upper ones. Designed to pull between sixty and eighty thousand pounds, the diesel hardly worked enough to keep the radiator warm with an empty trailer, and the sides rattled and banged over the road. Nate found the restaurant painted robin’s-egg blue and sitting on the
edge of a cornﬁeld, next to an elevator and a grain dryer. He pulled into the mostly deserted lot and climbed out of the cab. As his right foot touched the tarmac and his leg absorbed all of his two hundred pounds, his whole body winced. Circling the tractor several times until he could walk with more dignity, he noticed again that the pavement was dry. This part of the country had not seen any weather at all. I’m old too soon, he thought. Inside the small building, an old woman with a pencil poking out of her hair sat near the cash register reading from a newspaper, and a young man in coveralls—maybe a mechanic or a janitor—drank from a thick white mug at the counter. There were four large tables, all empty, and two smaller ones by the front windows. Nate sat at the counter, three stools away from the young man in coveralls. The woman came over and with a wrinkled smile held out a menu. The warmth in her tired eyes seemed genuine, and Nate was grateful for it. “What’s this Breakfast Pie?” he asked. “Oh, you’ll like that,” she said. “It’s the same as the Dinner Pie—only with two eggs.” “I’ll take it.” “Coffee?” “Do you have hot chocolate?” “Of course.” “I’ll have one.” Nate looked around the little restaurant and could ﬁnd nothing to fasten his attention to. He tried harder, failed, and the muscles in his neck tightened like knots along a new rope. Blake was in prison. Over ten years, the last three in that Lockbridge hellhole. They called it a supermax. Couldn’t stay out of trouble in the Waupun prison. Said it wasn’t his fault. Never is, never was. After his mother left, nothing could be done. She had a way with him and took it with her when she ran off. Blake was only four then. He was a good kid, just impulsive, easily tempted, more easily hurt. Everything was personal, it seemed. As a boy, he brought injured animals home and tried to restore them to health; if he failed he would tear apart his room, a favorite shirt, or something else he cared about. He always made friends with kids who didn’t have other friends; later, they were the ones who invariably got into
The Taste of Joy
trouble, and out of loyalty he wouldn’t give them up. He was good at sports, nice looking, smart enough to get by without trying hard. Loved taking physical risks, but overly timid in other areas. He couldn’t just let things happen. When someone pushed him—even if they didn’t mean to—he pushed back too hard. And if he was walking next to someone else who got pushed, he pushed back for them. He riled easily, Nate thought, because he was always struggling with the shame of his mother running off, always staring at the door his mother had closed in his mind. And in school, of course, shame was unavoidable. Children were reminded of their place. Older kids picked on younger kids. Lectures in front of class, stand up, sit down, wait here, go there, stay after school, do extra homework, call your parents, tell them to come get you. Blake was in trouble all the time. And now Blake didn’t want Nate to visit him in prison anymore. He said it was humiliating for them both. After coming to see him for over ten years, the only way to talk to him was through letters. Blake had been in prison so long that when Nate remembered him he pictured him as an infant. “Careful,” the waitress said, setting the cup of hot chocolate in front of him. “It comes hot out of the machine.” Nate sipped the foamy liquid and set it aside. It was too hot. After high school Blake moved to Red Plain, and after several years there he began running around with that Workhouse girl. She was trouble. Dart, they called her, a bad sign. Bad family. Cute as a brown button, but if Blake had just stayed away from her he wouldn’t be in prison now. She was the reason. He was unprepared for anyone like her. Her own father had been in prison for beating her mother; after he died, same story with the stepfather. Drug addicts, both of them. Dart’s sister had committed suicide. Bottom-feeders, the whole lot. Blake and Dart lived together in a hole-in-the-wall too small to turn around in. She was his ﬁrst. He worked at the foundry, made fair money; she worked in the cement plant. Blake raced motorcycles and she came to watch. She was always with him. He was red-wild about her and defended her even when he didn’t need to. He started arguments over nothing, turned the smallest things into big things, and imagined he was being tested by God. Talking to him was like trying to walk through wild
blackberry vines without getting stuck. Then he got busted for selling drugs and it was her fault. They called it trafﬁcking. Nate was rubbing the back of his neck when his Breakfast Pie arrived in a deep blue ceramic dish. Curling blades of steam rose from cracks in the top. He poked his fork in, pried open a piece of crust, and released an eruption of scalding air. Was everything in this place too hot? Freeing a small piece from the dish, he held it in midair, watched steam curl around the fork, and slid it between his teeth. Anticipating the heat, he didn’t close his lower jaw until his tongue informed him of an acceptable temperature. The taste moved into the corners of his mouth and his feature-detectors identiﬁed separate ﬂavors: the crust, as he suspected, was mostly seasoned bread crumbs and mild white cheddar; the mashedpotato base held vegetables and ham, the binding savor owing most of its character to marjoram and thyme. On the edge of Nate’s consciousness a cheerful nostalgia began conversing with the new taste about establishing residency. The rumors of merriment drove out the former resident, worry, leaving in its place lighter, almost-buoyant thoughts. He took a drink of cocoa. All too soon, the cheerful nostalgia faded, and the former resident moved back in. He ate another forkful. Chopped scallions, sharp cheddar cheese, peppers, and diced tomato were added to the list of identiﬁable ingredients. He was now in egg territory, and the yolk formed a mutual partnership with marjoram. His mouth became saturated with the taste. Once again, a pleasant mood settled inside him. After another bite the restaurant seemed a friendly, almost-familiar place. His thoughts seemed to glow, as if blushing from inner contentment. Such easily won peace rarely visited Nate, and he tried to prolong it, draw it out, attach it to more-permanent things so it would linger. The knots in his neck loosened as though unseen ﬁngers had solved the mystery of physical stress and freed him from its grip. His breathing came easily. His shoulders, elbows, wrists, and ﬁngers moved in a painless ﬂuid manner. The Breakfast Pie was nearly gone. “More hot chocolate?” asked the old woman.
The Taste of Joy
“Nope,” said Nate, and grinned as if she were an old friend. “How’s the pie?” “First-rate,” he said. “Good,” she said, and the lines around her eyes narrowed into tributaries leading through the rest of her face. In response, Nate’s face expanded its welcome further. He knew her, it seemed. Morning light beamed through the front windows in broad bold shafts, and he took a deep breath. Memories of his childhood opened in his mind and he pored over them, looking for some explanation of how the taste had acquired such appealing and vigorous associations. Not wanting to leave, he ordered a cup of coffee. He slowly sipped the hot liquid to the bottom of the white mug, though it had neither the strength nor the character he desired in coffee. He knew a man in Missouri who roasted his own beans, and even the thought of returning there and buying some ﬁlled Nate with an unexpected and delighted expectancy. He checked the clock on the wall, left a tip, and paid for the meal at the register. In the lot, he walked around the truck several times, inspecting the tires for loose treads. There was a drip line on the asphalt where the last of the Nebraska rainwater had run down the sides of the trailer. The geometric straightness of the water-mark seemed extraordinary. He climbed into the cab, pulled the door closed, and relaxed for several more minutes inside the fading remnant of the taste. His hand moved to start the engine, changed its mind, and he climbed down to the asphalt, remembering to let his weight onto his left leg. Inside the restaurant, he reseated himself at the counter, smiled self-consciously at the waitress, and ordered another Breakfast Pie. She scribbled several words onto her pad and carried it back to the cook. When she returned, her glance lingered on Nate longer than usual, and he explained, “The taste reminded me of something I can’t quite remember. It must be from my childhood.” Listening in, the young man in coveralls said, “You should rinse out your mouth with something. That way the next taste of it will be fresh. The ﬁrst taste counts the most.” Nate remembered that twenty or thirty years ago people in small restaurants, taverns, and grocery stores thought nothing of making a stranger’s business their own. If you wandered into their area you were
open game. That didn’t happen much anymore, at least not near major highways. People usually kept to themselves now, hid behind their clothes and faces. “Maybe it’s something he shouldn’t remember,” said the woman. “Don’t think so,” said the man in coveralls, who appeared to be about Blake’s age. “He wants another one.” Nate grimaced self-consciously. “I know, drink some whiskey ﬁrst,” the young man said. “Clear your taste buds.” “We don’t have a liquor license,” said the woman. “But we might have some cooking wine in back. Would that work?” “Lemon sherbet would be better,” said Nate. The woman went back into the kitchen and returned with the cook—a thin leathery man wearing a brown apron over a clean white shirt and black denim pants. Nate thought he looked as if he might be married to the woman, or if he wasn’t, should be. He set a small dish of lemon sherbet on the counter. “Swallow it slow,” he said in a suggestive way. Nate did. “Is it working?” asked the cook. “I think so.” “What did you drink with your meals as a child?” asked the woman. “It could make a difference.” “The folks gave us milk. I didn’t like it and neither did my sister, but the folks thought it was good for us.” “You’d better have a glass of milk, then.” “Did your parents drink milk?” asked the cook. “No. They just wanted us to.” “My parents were the same way.” “Where you from?” asked the young man. “Southwest Wisconsin,” said Nate. “The Ocooch?” “Right in the middle of it,” said Nate. “You been there?” “Used to have family there. It’s a unique area. Hill country with a lot of open timber, different from everything else around it. Good ﬂy ﬁshing. They call it the Driftless Region.” “I think I can smell it,” said the waitress.
The Taste of Joy
“I’ll see if the pie’s ready,” said the cook. “It’s not that important,” said Nate, embarrassed about the attention. “There aren’t many good feelings left in this world,” said the young man. “He’s right,” said the woman. “We don’t want the good Lord to think we’re not paying attention.” “Here we are,” said the cook, carrying a steaming red dish. He set it in front of Nate. “Wait,” said the old woman, “let me get you that glass of milk.” Nate picked up a fork. The other three moved away, as if to allow more privacy to maneuver around in his remembrances. Nate took a bite, waited as his tongue explored the texture. And then, at the place where the marjoram announced its distinctive presence, he drank from the glass of milk. Triumph glowed in his face. “I have it,” he said, setting down the fork. “Tell us,” said the young man, and they came in closer. “I saw this spot of yellow-gold light and it led me to a shade of green. The colors came together and then I could see a pattern. It was the carpet in my grandparents’ house in Slippery Slopes, Wisconsin—in the room just before you stepped into the kitchen. But that’s not the memory. It’s just related to it.” “What is it?” “Beulah.” “That’s an old-fashioned name. Who is she?” “My cousin, Beulah Pinebrook. We called her Bee. Sometimes when the folks would go out at night Bee would come over and stay with my sister and me. She often brought a meat pie with her, made with mashed potatoes and sharp cheddar cheese, the way our grandmother always made them. If she didn’t bring one, she’d make it. They tasted something like this.” “It’s an old recipe,” said the cook. “I thought the world of her. She was four years older than me. After we ate, she’d turn off the television and tune in one of those old radio programs, the ones with dark voices and easy-to-imagine stories. Radio dramas, she called them. My sister and I would turn out all the lights and
sometimes I’d sit so close to Bee I could smell her. I was never as happy as when I was with her. And I never understood this before now, but that’s the reason I listen to audiobooks in the truck.” “Where is she now?” “She lives in Red Plain, I think, ever since her mother’s stroke. At least that’s what I heard.” “How long since you’ve seen her?” “Twenty years, probably more.” “You haven’t seen your cousin in twenty years?” “No, I haven’t.” “Families are what we have to fall back on in hard times,” said the woman. “Some, maybe,” said Nate. “My family was the kind you fell away from.” “You’ve got to go see her,” said the cook. “That’s what this means.” “Of course,” said the young man. “You must go see her.” At that moment the front door opened and four people came in and sat down at one of the tables. Nate left money on the counter and returned to his truck. Inside the cab, he started the diesel and thought about Bee. Though his recollections of her were shamefully dated, their vitality remained astonishingly vigorous. He could picture her standing before him, and his heart beat with enthusiasm. Among his other memories, she stood out like a single red ﬂag in a yard of drying army blankets. There was a bang on the cab door and Nate opened it. Below, standing on the asphalt in her white and gray uniform, the old woman looked up at him. “Did I forget something?” he asked. “No,” she said, and turned away from him several degrees. “I probably shouldn’t say this, but I don’t think you should look for your cousin Beulah.” “Why not?” “Leave the past alone.”
The Taste of Joy
As a young man, David Rhodes worked in fields, hospitals, and factories across Iowa. After receiving an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he published three acclaimed novels: The Last Fair Deal Going Down (1972), The Easter House (1974), and Rock Island Line (1975). In 1976, a motorcycle accident left him partially paralyzed. In 2008, Rhodes returned to the literary scene with Driftless, a novel that was hailed as “the best work of fiction to come out of the Midwest in many years” (Alan Cheuse). Following the publication of Driftless, Rhodes was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2010, to support the writing of Jewelweed. He lives with his wife, Edna, in Wisconsin.
ORDER NOW IndieBound Amazon
Jewelweed is distributed to the trade by Publishers Group West
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