Our mom weighed seven-hundred pounds when we were still from Mississippi, shelling purple hulls dad brought home from the watermelon man. We asked him about watermelons and he said, “Yeah, they’re still making.” Mom closed the purple lid on her portable couch-grill and hamburger grease poured down into the plastic dish.
“Next year,” said dad. And always: “Come help me out under the shed.”
My brother Romney was taught early to water the dogs and spray around the fence so he wouldn’t have to ride too close with the mower. Dad wanted us to be ready, for when he was gone. Taught me how to wear the big apron and use the workbench. Sharpen the lawnmower blade on the bench grinder.
“Hold this up,” he said. Sweat beading down his nose. “Help me.” I lifted dog boxes the most. He fastened the bolts, hammered the cement nails, drilled through tin paneling and I promise that sort of drilling isn’t the quiet kind.
Inside, mom grilled chicken with the couch-grill. She did everything in the living room. Except the dishes. Sometimes everyone else did the dishes.
“It’ll be hell getting her to the bathroom,” dad would say. At the time, bathroom was only an excuse for us to leave.
Across the road, a clown living in a circus tent walked the tight rope between two knotted pines, juggled Siamese cats, built fires and hosted Monday night football get-togethers. His yard always smelled like smoke, his smoke always drifted westward into our yard. Our bahia yard, when it didn’t smell like smoke, tasted of pine sap and hot mud. Something like body odor always floated up from the furrow between our front steps and the screen door.
Inside, when mom could work up the energy to get to the refrigerator, she would pop open a cylinder of crescents, fill them with whole milk and spread them with burnt marshmallow cream and butter until it sticks when mouths are full. Our tongues still melt, said Romney.
And the other day, dad came home from a hard day of what he calls picking roses to clean up the mess mom makes. He took photographs of her obesity for submission to the Copiah-Lincoln CC Alumni Directory.
Once, the clown across the road tried to teach us the fundamentals of juggling live animals. “The claw-ee-er, the better,” he honked.
“I’d rather beat a bush,” Romney said. He was the sayer of things. So we went to the national forest and cut down an oak, us and the clown and a flashlight, stacked the logs and in a month they were dry enough for burning.
He invited dad to a limb-burning, who was happy to come by and have a drink, and mom, who couldn’t get up anyway, she was so busy poring over new recipes to try with her portable couch-grill.
By now, her skin must be grafted to the couch. Scissors might work, or the same scalpel they use to cut away warts and cancer spots.
“You know any good jokes?” dad asked the clown across the fire. It cracks the loudest when he speaks, sometimes so loud that he has to repeat himself. And that’s anywhere, not just out behind a clown’s tent, in the pine trees.
Romney always got nervous when dad spoke. When dad asked a question, Romney scratched the dry-eczema on the side of his head. Or he’d look down and to the right a little, but that could’ve been his fascination with dirt, or trimming.
The clown, sitting atop a red rodeo barrel-turned-sideways, rubbed his blistered hands together while he was thinking. He never looked like much of a clown, to be honest. His cheeks were still red where circus-paint stuck the hardest. “I can tell you a train just passed by,” he said. Sniff. And he told us why: “I can see its tracks.”
And sure enough, the tracks were still there. Nothing would ever wash those away. They stretched out into the empty woods, empty dark, weeds wrapping over their cracked ties and disintegrated ballasts. When we were kids I asked Romney where he thought they went. Some place special, he had said.
Scary? I asked.
His answer: Anything must be better than this.
Dad burped. That meant he was having a good time. “What about you?” he said, kicking the tracks with his unsingeable steel-toe boots, looking towards me, just me, with sunken, glassy eyes. But I never knew any good jokes, not like the clown.
Mom taught us to keep a better track of time, and it was getting late. I looked at Romney, and he looked down at the dirt, or the trimmings, the earth being so splotchy and inconsiderate, these days. Being late is the sort of thing that’s never funny, not with dimly lit photographs or marshmallow-melted desert waiting, that is, if we’re lucky. Dad told the clown I’d be happy to join the circus one day. Get out of this place.
The clown, he watched the fire, wiggled his ears, and when the rusty squeak sounded over the tracks he perked up. A handcar pumped out of the dark, riderless, and settled on the tracks. The clown offered Romney a cigar and they lit up. Then they jumped the handcar and rode out into the dark. I heard Romney cough, never being much of a smoker, and that was that.
Mom still bakes crescents, sends hugs and kisses, like there’s some hope left. Dad doesn’t keep dogs much, anymore. Takes photographs when he can, of mom, the unused tent, the smoke that still rises in ribbons and creeps into our yard, the tracks that seem to fade a little more every day, and that’s why—he says—he takes so many pictures of us and everything else.
Garrett Ashley lives in Hattiesburg and was once a student at The University of Southern Mississippi. He hopes to get into a writing program soon. His work has appeared at Pank, Word Riot, decomP, and Pear Noir!, among others. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.