What Needs to Be Done
March 1, 2002
It would never be enough
by Rusty Barnes
sat on my mother-in-law's fieldstone porch and snapped green beans into a huge silver bowl. The canning took Ma longer these days. As a dutiful daughter-in-law, I was there to help, no matter what Robbie thought of me anymore. I hinted at our problems sometimes, but Ma just passed it off as something that I should have known before we'd suffered the thrown rice. Robbie drank, Pop had drunk his way into the grave, and Ma suffered it all, canned her veggies, watched her shows, would bury her children with that same stoic look, mouth working in words only she and God could hear.
'Derry,' she said, 'he'll give it a rest. My boy knows firsthand what drink can do.' She leaned off the porch and spat a trail of tobacco juice into the mums. Her unsteady fingers were clasped in her lap, vein-large and brown, caught stiff with arthritis, she said.
'I know.' I said it the way I was supposed to say it, with a catch in my voice. 'It's just been so long.'
I couldn't wait to leave, but I spent my days there doing what had to be done, making sure that Ma and her younger boys, Jimmy and my Purl, were fine. The boys didn't need it. They were sixteen and nineteen, rawboned and clumsy the way farm boys are. They felt as awkward as I did, this town woman married to their brother. They knew I'd been born to do something other than stick patiently by their sweaty brother and his tedium: alcohol and oats, hay and mastitis. I thought so too and everyone unfortunately knew it. Robbie certainly did - he'd stopped paying attention to me about a year after we had first gotten married. When he started buying a fifth a day.
'Boys probably need help in the barn,' Ma said. 'They should have been able to bale the north field.' She said it as if there were still a south field, as if they would make money when the barn still held most of last year's bales. She made to get up from her perch on the toolbox, but slowly. We'd been snapping beans for a couple hours.
'I'll go,' I said, 'Don't get up, Ma.' I thought of Purly in the dry air and barn-must, wanting a drink of cool water. He looked nothing like Robbie. He had ideas though, and Robbie had drowned his last one years ago.
'So you will,' she said. 'Only woman I ever knew who baled hay as much as you was my ma. And she had to.' I flicked a glance at her, wondering what was behind that tiny knowing smirk on her tobacco-brown lips.
'We all have things we have to do, Ma.' I turned back and threw the last few beans into the pot at her feet. 'And some of us never get to do them.' I glanced back once more as I walked away, and I could see all those beautiful yellow flowers, heavy with brown spit dripping onto the ground.
Jimmy was fiddling with the elevator, attaching the belts to the tractor engine. He had a plastic milk jug of water at his feet. I picked it up and he leaned over me. 'Funny, Derry. Even when I'm so damn thirsty I could spit dust you never bring me water in the loft.'
'Grow up, Jim.'
'I could drink a whole gallon of water right now, I bet, and never come up for air.' He looked me over once, as if I was a tool that needed fixing. He returned to the belts, and I took the fifteen-foot ladder into the loft as if I did it every day, which I did. He yelled after me, over the engine noise. 'It'll be at least a half hour before this wagon's finished.'
Purl had laid the blanket out already, wisps of hay stuck to his hairless chest. As I loosened his jeans, it wagged at me like a finger, an accusation I could never answer to anyone's satisfaction but my own.
'Derry,' he said, 'I've been waiting.' And I felt for him, and thought of Robbie, every time. The wrongness seemed right; every time I swore not to do it again for all its rightness. Yet it continued to happen and I continued to know that I should stop it. But I had been a dutiful wife, daughter-in-law, sister-in-law, and now I had done something for me. The family, the world, could go to hell. I'd gone from girl to wife with no transition. No days of going buck-wild in the way the boys could. Purly just wanted me, and he didn't care how or when or who was around or how much he'd had to drink or whether he would be able to get to the liquor store before it closed. I could feel Purly's throbbing pulse beneath my lips, his life, a life that included me.
When we eventually caught up with the bales spewing forth from the elevator, I went down the ladder backward, a sweet ache between my thighs, and saw Robbie had come home, his pickup parked, hood up already, and a mess of beer cans strewn in the dirt drive.
'Boys,' Robbie said. He barely looked my way.
'Hi baby,' I said, smelling the whiskey as I walked toward him, the odor like a second skin. I leaned up to kiss him and I felt him tremble like a flower as I caught his lower lip between my teeth. He pulled away, and I could feel their eyes hot on my back. I knew that even if Ma or Robbie never found out about Purly and me, if I pretended love like a schoolgirl and never told them a thing, if I continued on with the way things were done, it would never be enough.
Thirty years of snapping beans, of lying placid and pretending joy while drunken Robbie poked away at me occasionally in the dead of night, thirty years of chaff in my hair and beard-rash on my cheeks, a fell row of farm children and the knowledge of my deliberate choices creased forever in my forehead, I reached for Robbie's hand, and I saw Purly tense, and I stopped.
Ma stood cross-armed by the rusted fence, mumbling to herself. She didn't look my way; instead, she looked at Jimmy and Purl, who were behind us, pushing and slapping at each other. 'Hi brother,' Jimmy said. He stiffened and pushed his hands into his back pockets. Purly looked away at the sidehill. I knew then that neither Ma nor Jimmy, Robbie nor even sweet Purl, would understand that I was doing what needed to be done.
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