Compassion

Terry Engel
Featured Image: From “Mendocino Variations” © Margo Moss 2020

I woke this morning, a Sunday, to the news that Miller Williams had died from Alzheimer’s; he was eighty-five and hadn’t made a public appearance in years. He was the de facto poet laureate of Arkansas when, nineteen years ago, he read a poem at Bill Clinton’s second inauguration. At the time I was in my early fifties, which feels very young to me now, and a recognized expert on the Civil War battles of Arkansas. We met about that time, briefly, at a regional conference in Little Rock, but I was in the history sessions and he was in the literature, and even after his reading, I was one of a couple hundred academics waiting in line for him to sign my copy of his book.

As I stand in my bathroom, shaving and thinking about Miller and Lucinda, my dog Bonnie lies just outside the bathroom door, cutting her eyes up at me. The dog makes me think about a Williams poem called “Listen.” In the poem the speaker throws snowballs for his dog to catch, but the balls falling apart confuse the dog. He calls the dog back, but the dog keeps wanting to hunt for the ball. At the end of the poem he writes,

That was this morning. I’m sure she’s
forgotten.
I’ve had some trouble putting it out of my
mind.

My dog is a border collie with an expressive face, but she can be moody. She would welcome a disappearing snowball. I think she would welcome anything beyond the mundane routine of life with me. The dog is frustrated, which I can relate to but am unwilling or unable to do much about, for either of us.

It feels like snow, but I don’t think it will happen today. Outside my window the leaves on the trees that mark the property line between my house and my neighbor have fallen. Our lots are built on a steep hill that slopes to the back, so when I notice the teenage girl sneaking down the side yard toward her basement window, it feels like I am looking down from a second story. She’s barefooted and wearing bright fleece pajama bottoms and a white tank top. She picks her way carefully on the frosted ground strewn with pine needles, stops at the window and taps. The basement window opens from the inside, and a skinny, shirtless boy leans out, grabs her arms, and pulls her to the windowsill. She balances there a moment, tugs at her pajama bottoms, and disappears inside. Some sleeping bags or blankets are strewn on the floor. The boy leans out and looks both ways, but just before he closes the window he glances up at my house, and his eyes widen when he sees me.

“I see you boy,” I yell. Bonnie jerks to attention and runs toward the front of the house, barking.

The boy just laughs and closes the window. I watch for a few minutes, thinking about the foresight the builder had to install frosted glass, but nothing else happens and I go back to shaving. Bonnie trips back into the bedroom and flops to the floor, cutting her eyes up at me in that disgusted look.

The boy’s chest and neck were tattooed and his arms were covered from shoulder to wrist with what my students call a sleeve. From where I stood, it looked like a box of crayons melted and ran down his neck and chest and arms. I think for a moment, happily, of what that graffiti will look like when he reaches my age, when his flesh has shrunk away from his skin, leaving his wrinkled illustrations faded like a crumpled comic left out in the sun too long. Thinking about the boy and girl together makes me a little sick.

The girl’s been driving for a year or so, and the level of drama outside her house feels like high school. One night she had a party. I stood on my front porch in the dark and watched the boys in their pickup trucks posturing—they rumbled up and down the street in over-powered four-wheel drives, revving their engines and cranking out bass-heavy music with rap lyrics. A carload of girls burned rubber down the street, yelling “rich bitches” and giving the finger to some girls laughing in the front yard. I think the Razorbacks were playing that weekend.

This is not what it sounds like. I’m not that guy you read about in the paper every so often. Besides history, I’m a decent amateur astronomer. My telescope, an Orion SkyQuest XX14i, looks like it could launch missiles. It’s hell to set up, so on dark nights I’m out there in the yard for the duration, drinking coffee, Bonnie stretched out beside me. My street is a dead end that crests a ridge that looks out over my small town. Church steeples, the courthouse and bank, and the high school and college football stadium lights, rise above an ocean of trees. After midnight, owls call back and forth from the open woodlands that extend beyond my little neighborhood. Sometimes coyotes howl up and down the valley. The railroad switches out cars down at the Champion particleboard mill. Railcar axles squeal and the cars crash together when they couple. The diesel locomotive on the switching engine throbs. The tires on the eighteen wheelers running out on the interstate whine, and I imagine the drivers encapsulated in a cocoon of light and sound, far removed from my world.

There have been a few nights, well after midnight, when I’ve watched a big pickup idle up the street, lights off, and pull into the driveway of the abandoned house across the street. The engine shuts down and in the quiet Bonnie’s ears perk and she’ll growl, so I put my hand on her head to reassure her. Then somebody walks down the driveway—I can sometimes follow the glow of a cigarette—crosses my neighbor’s yard, and climbs into that same basement window.

I finish shaving and go into the kitchen. As I watch the coffee drip into the glass carafe, I ponder my obligation to my next-door neighbor. Randy sells used cars and RVs, he’s lived there several years, and that’s about all I know about the man. I don’t know how many children he has. At least four seem to rotate through there. Women come and go too, and I don’t know which kid belongs to which woman. The house will be dark for nights at a time, and then he’ll unload a four-wheeler off a trailer and set his kids riding through his yard, none of them wearing helmets. He’ll set up a tent and have kids camping out back, or erect an above-ground pool, and six months later the tent will be collapsed under a winter ice storm, and the pool will thicken with pond scum and croaking bullfrogs.

We’ve waved at one another, but I can’t say that Randy even knows my name. But this daughter thing, her sneaking boys into the house, bothers me. She looks too clean for tattoo guy. Maybe I’m just a fool, but I also know that girls make poor choices when it comes to boys. Randy’s not a good father; he’s not paying attention.

The question is, if I were Randy, would I want to know if my daughter was opening her bedroom window at night? Would I have wanted to know myself, a long time ago, when it was my daughter and my house? Would I want to know now, wherever my daughter is?

~

Another time, years after that first time I met him—I was nearing retirement—I heard Miller Williams read the poem “Listen.” He was close to eighty when he visited my school, a shaky old man reading in a voice meant for a more intimate occasion than a crowded lecture hall. He was attended throughout the visit by a grad student, a beautiful blonde girl one-third his age, a girl with that clean, earthy look you see in a Volkswagen commercial. I imagined she had chosen the MFA program in Fayetteville because Miller Williams could make words turn simple moments in time into grand meditations on life. Williams leaned on the girl’s arm while she turned pages in his book, shaking his head until she found the next one he wanted to read. She repeated questions from the audience to him at the Q&A, and listened to his responses with a look of devotion. Some of my colleagues whispered jokes with sexual innuendo and smirked at the girl’s literary gold-digging, but I dismissed all of that. She came to the University of Arkansas to be a poet, I knew, and she found a father.

When Williams signed my copy of Some Jazz a While, the girl took the book from me and, asking my name, opened it to the title page and held it open. She spoke my name to Williams, and after he’d scrawled my name and his name and the date with a fading Sharpie and nodded at my thanks, she returned my book with a smile and looked past me to the next person in line. I tried to think of something to say, something that would make me stand out from the line of groupies behind me.

“I really like your poems about your daughter,” I said. He nodded, but I wasn’t sure that he really heard. The line pressed behind me, annoyed poetry lovers, each one thinking desperately of something to say to Williams to stand out from the others.

The girl’s expression broke for a second. I felt like I had disappointed her. I’m sure she was sick of hearing about Lucinda.

“I just meant I’ve got a daughter too, like you’ve got Lucinda.”

She smiled brightly and pushed the book at me, then looked past me again, already smiling at the next person taking my place.

I took my book and shuffled away from the signing table, thinking about another Williams’ poem. “Compassion” ends with the line, “You do not know what wars are going on down there where the spirit meets the bone.” Maybe the girl would find that page the next time Williams did a reading.

~

Bonnie looks at me with hope when I go into the office and pull down Some Jazz a While. The book is on the shelf next to my own books, a four-volume series on the Trans-Mississippi battles of the Civil War. For a moment there, the dog thought I had been going for the leash and my cane, prompting a circle dance beside the front door. But it’s cold and my hip and knees hurt and I’m feeling my seventy years. I sit down with the book in my office and stare out the window at the blank expression of Randy’s house. The frosted window is closed, and the upstairs windows are blinded and curtained. Bonnie climbs up on the love seat across the room and expels a drawn-out sigh. The house is quiet except for the low hum of a refrigerator running in the kitchen. I try to ignore both the dog and the house across the way and flip through the pages of the book, but I can’t shake whatever I’m feeling.

I push myself out of the chair and shuffle over to the stereo that my wife and I bought when we were first married. I find the album Car Wheels on a Gravel Road, Lucinda Williams’ first album to garner real attention. She was Arkansas’s best kept secret for years, with a voice built for roadhouse bars and a string of gritty songs about hard-luck musicians and the white trash South. But she had a good relationship with her father. Before he got really bad, they did a show, him reading and her singing. Lucinda’s lyrics, like her father’s, were simple words about complex lives. Williams once said his poetry and Lucinda’s lyrics had “dirt under the fingernails.” I put on the record and go back to my chair and take up Williams’ book and let the music play—songs about Lake Charles, Louisiana; Rosedale, Mississippi; Angola Prison—more to cover up the humming of the refrigerator and the dog’s sighs than anything else.

When the title song of the album comes on, Lucinda’s lyrics carry me back to my childhood, where I think I’ve been heading since I turned on NPR this morning and heard about Miller Williams dying.

When I was a boy, I had an older sister who ran with a much older man, a real bastard. Looking at my mother’s pictures, I don’t think he was even a big guy, but he felt big to me. He worked oil fields and made good money, and my mother and sister and I were Grapes of Wrath poor. I guess the money looked pretty good to Clarice, who was more like an aunt to me than a sister. Buddy got her pregnant when she was fifteen, and by the time she was twenty-four, she’d had half a dozen kids who were more like cousins to me than nieces and nephews.

Things were okay when Buddy was working, especially when he was working in Oklahoma or Texas. He kept Clarice and the kids in a two-room house in the country about a mile from me and my mother. When he was gone, she’d walk the kids over to our house and hitchhike into town and buy groceries and see her friends, something Buddy didn’t allow. When he came back he’d have money and he’d make a show of pulling out a wad of cash and flashing it around for Clarice and me and Momma to see, but before he could pay bills or buy groceries, he’d go into town for a few days, blow it all drinking and gambling, and invariably come home angry, having heard someone say he saw Clarice in town at the grocery store or the laundromat or the dime store.

It sounds like one of those Southern memoirs everyone is writing now, a bestseller about alcoholic and abusive parents, and how the writer overcame a miserable childhood to win a Pulitzer and a chair at a creative writing program. But Clarice didn’t live long enough to write it, and I didn’t think it was my story to tell, though there were nights when I was ten and twelve and Clarice would sneak out the back window of her house and come through the woods dragging and carrying her kids, having heard Buddy crash his car outside and hammer on the door, drunk and cursing, or drunk and crying. He called Clarice “Bitch” and “Little Momma,” sometimes “Whore” and “Sweet-baby,” depending on how drunk he was and his mood. He could be mean or pathetic, and neither looks good on a drunk.

Momma and I would hide the kids and Clarice, though our house was too small to do any real good, and wait, hoping Buddy wouldn’t find us. I remember hiding in my bedroom with my nieces and nephews, listening to him curse and shake the house with his stomping, throw things at my mother, who’d stand her ground and curse back and sometimes take the first licks for Clarice, who sooner or later would come out and take on Buddy herself, holding a butcher knife or a claw hammer if she could get to one, but usually just lying curled on the floor while he kicked her and drug her by the hair and slammed her into the walls. I’d cry and curse and piss my pants and think about what I would do if I only had a gun, if I had another hundred pounds and five years, if I had half the courage of my sister or mother. Some nights I would drop the kids out my own back window and lead them into the woods and we’d wait until morning, listening for Buddy’s car to rattle back toward town or the oil fields. Some nights he’d spend his anger and wind up curled in a ball on the floor, alternately begging for forgiveness and cursing his bad luck to have a whore for a wife and a bitch of a mother-in-law and little snot-nosed shits for kids, with Clarice holding him, crying and shushing him like he was a child frightened by thunder.

On those nights I’d stand against the wall and try not to cry. I’d think about how if something like that ever happened to a daughter of mine, how I’d kill him.

That’s what I think about, with Miller’s book in my lap, Lucinda’s music in my ears, a despondent dog on the love seat, and the blank house next door returning my stare. The day stretches out before me.

~

Sometime later in the day Bonnie starts up and runs to the front, barking, her long toenails scratching and tapping on the hardwood floor. The room is in shadow and the light is fading outside. I go to the window and catch sight of the girl and the boy slipping across the street and toward the abandoned house. At least she’s wearing fur-lined boots and a jacket now.

The house across the street from me has been empty for two years. It’s a two-story antebellum style, white, with a little room that sticks out of the top like the lantern room of a lighthouse. I went up there one time when it was being built. I had to climb a ladder and go through a trap door, but once inside the room was all windows, and because the house is built on the highest ridge in town, I could see seven counties on a clear day—that’s what the guy who owned the house told me. His dreams were bigger than his checking account, and so a couple of banks have been fighting over who owns the house for a while now.

I walked up there one day in the fall. It was a pretty day, with the leaves changing and my knees feeling good for once and Bonnie thrilled to be outside walking. The house is falling down. The second floor has a wide balcony but no railings, and the white columns that were supposed to tie together the whole antebellum theme never made it. The cheap siding is disintegrating with the weather, while green algae creeps up the sides from the rain splash. The inside of the house has been gutted: copper wiring and pipes ripped out of the walls, light fixtures, even electrical plugs and switches and the plumbing fixtures, stolen by desperate people for what it could bring at the salvage yard.

The walls were covered in graffiti, the rooms littered with beer cans and cigarette butts, and there were burned candle stubs and playing cards scattered across the floor. It smelled like human feces and urine. I’ve heard that the local high school kids call the place the “haunted house.” It’s hidden from the road by scrubby cedar and stunted blackjack oak and there’s no yard, just waist-high grass that turns brown in the summer, like you’d see in a cow pasture. The driveway winds through trees, so the only way to notice what’s going on is to watch cars going in and out of the drive.

After a while the pickup coasts down the driveway and past my house and the girl’s house. I can’t tell if she is in the truck or not, but I wait and never see her walk back to her house.

Bonnie looks at me expectantly, then walks into the den and climbs up on the couch and lays her head on a pillow and cuts her eyes over at me. I sit down and stare out the front window at the empty driveway.

~

When you are seventy memories fly at you like flies swarming a picnic. They are impossible to catch and hold, let alone kill. You would think that lived experience, especially the big things—the experiences that you claim you will never forget for the rest of your life, no matter how long you live—would remain fixed in your mind. I was in my forties when my wife and I finally had a daughter, April. I remember holding her moments after she was born, with my head swelling and my eyes leaking. In that moment I thought I would always remember the texture of her skin, the pierce of her cry, the solid weight of her body, the pressure building in my heart like a plane on takeoff.  Memories, we think, should be concrete, like the diagrams of a 150-year-old battle, with dates and sharp lines and indelible colors marking troop movements and skirmishes and military objectives. But daughters grow old and the demands of life continue to build and one day you realize that you don’t remember what it felt like to hold her little girl hand in the parking lot or the smell of her hair fresh out of the bathtub or the maddening joy/frustration of a simple walk down the street that should take only ten minutes and serve the double function of getting your wife off your back because she “hasn’t had one moment to herself all day,” as well as clear the head for another go at writing that tricky chapter on the consequences of the battle of Pea Ridge, Arkansas, only to endure a series of starts and stops, picking of dandelion bouquets and sorting of rocks, idle questions about God and the world he made, and silly songs. The ten-minute walk ends up taking an hour, and by the time you get back to your desk the writing trail has gone cold and your wife is still mad and your daughter needs a snack and that loose step on the stairs is still loose and on it goes.

Holding a child close to your chest raises your body temperature; you feel your core rise and flow out to the child, to warm and protect her. You know that intellectually, and you know it emotionally, because you’ve experienced it. But what you don’t feel anymore, can’t really remember, is the muscle memory of holding a child, with her body snuggling in ever closer, and feeling that heat flow from your body to hers. It has been too many years, and you often took it for granted when you bothered to reflect on it at all, or worse, so many of those times you were distracted by the thought that you should be doing something else, something more productive. Preparing a lecture, writing a chapter on a Civil War book that no one will ever read, grading papers, serving on a committee, going to yet another conference.

One day you’re holding your infant daughter and thinking of all the things you need to do instead, and the next you’re grading papers in the audience of her choral performance, and then you’re pausing in your typing, pretending interest in her latest artwork or school essay on the similarities between Percy Jackson and The Odyssey. A little later you notice she no longer pauses at the study door; she passes without speaking and goes into the bedroom to talk things over with your wife—the bedroom where your wife spends her late afternoons and evenings after work while you’re secluded in your study, typing away—and you wonder what they’re talking about. When you say something to your daughter everything is “fine” and then she darts up the stairs to her room. You pick up on little things that you aren’t directly involved in or consulted on: the constantly shifting composition of ninth grade friendships, the wrong style of hair or clothes, slammed bedroom doors, slammed car doors, awkward teenage bodies growing in all the wrong ways—periods, acne, braces, gangly teenage boys with pimples showing up at your door, and then later the teenagers learn to drive and she’s out the door with only the briefest of introductions or explanation of plans for the evening, and you look at your wife and she turns and goes back to her bedroom without a word.

You write four books of carefully researched history and get tenure, but no one stands in line to have their copies signed, and no one ever says that your books changed their lives. Reviewers spend about as much time with your books as other historians have spent with the Trans-Mississippi battles of the Civil War, which is to say very little time at all.

And then your daughter starts college—not the college you teach at—and not long after that your wife comes into the study one day and says, “Well really, why should we pretend any longer?” And you nod because you’ve felt it coming for a long time and you can’t make an argument for continuing the pretense. And as you suddenly realize your wife is still beautiful and you haven’t thought about it lately, you find out she doesn’t want the house; she hasn’t wanted it for years, you find out. She’s asked her company for a transfer to Memphis, where she plans to get an apartment and friends and who knows, maybe a boyfriend who lives in the twenty-first century and doesn’t care about the Civil War, or tenure, or the stars in the sky that you look at through your telescope. You’re sixty years old and it feels like you’re starting over. Or maybe not starting over; you’re just over.

You buy a dog for company and settle into a quiet life of teaching and staring through the telescope late at night. You get excited when, one morning at four a.m., you view five planets simultaneously in the southwestern sky. Mercury, Venus, Saturn, Mars, and Jupiter, visible in a wide arc low above the horizon. You want to tell someone, but there’s no one to tell.

You have a friend in the history department at your daughter’s college, which is small enough that it’s easy to know almost everyone, and he tells you that he hears your daughter is hanging out at the rock-climbing gym in town and camping at Jamestown Crag, a climbing spot you hear kids from your school talking about. You can guess about the people she is climbing with based on the slackers lazing through your own classes: muscular girls in tank tops and flannel shirts; barely articulate boys with baby beards and long hair pulled back in ponytails; and you think about those long afternoons and weekend nights camped out at Jamestown, where everyone goes to climb, and you imagine the beer and pot, and wonder in whose tent she sleeps at night, and you hope she’s making good choices, but you’ll never really know because she doesn’t come home anymore, and when she does, finally, a year before graduation, it’s just to tell you she’s found a job teaching rock climbing in Utah, and she’s moving there with a guy who sits in the car listening to music, not bothering to even come inside, and you hope he is a good man but you know there will never be a way for you to know. He could turn out to be a man like Buddy, a man who uses your daughter’s ponytail to slam her head against the wall, and there is no way that you could ever know, no way to save her soul, because she has moved on and become someone you don’t really know anymore.

You think all of this, and then you stand up slowly, nearly losing your balance until the cane gives you something to lean on.

Bonnie explodes off of the couch, and she dances and twirls, nearly knocking me down twice as I ease toward the door. It takes a couple of minutes to get the dog’s leash fastened to her collar, she’s that excited, whining and wagging her stump of a tail. I scold her to make her sit. She gives me a look of betrayal and I instantly regret it, but still struggle with the leash. I make her sit before I will open the door, and sit again when she tries to push past me out the door. On the porch, the air is brisk and I start to go back for my jacket, but Bonnie is pulling me toward the steps and it’s easier to follow than to try and pull her back. It occurs to me that her momentum is a good thing, that without her pulling me across the yard I might not have the courage to continue.

The grass is frozen and crunches under my house shoes. The wind is picking up and I realize that it is snowing, tiny random flakes that are too small to float. Rather, they are driven by the wind—a spitting snow we used to call it. I reach Randy’s driveway and look at the cars parked there. There’s a big white SUV, and I think that’s what Randy is driving now. I think about what to tell him. I wonder what someone could have told me years before, when there was still time to save April—or save myself. As I knock on the door, I realize that I don’t know what I’ll say. I can hear footsteps inside the house and see shadows approaching through the frosted glass lining the wooden door. Bonnie sits beside me, a picture of patient expectation now that something interesting is finally happening. My mind is full of thoughts that can’t be let go of, but neither can they be held for very long, like a snowball that breaks apart when you try to get your mouth around it.


Terry Engel lives in Arkansas and teaches writing at a small liberal arts university. He has also worked as a lineman building high voltage powerlines, as well as a supervisor in various forest products industries. His work has appeared in Dreamers, Adelaide, Sixfold, Open City, Cave Region Review, Georgetown Review, Buffalo Spree, Cream City Review, and Mississippi Review. His fiction has also earned an honorable mention for the Pushcart Prize. His first novel, Natchez at Sunset, will be available late spring of 2021 from Adelaide Books.