Iowa Writes

JANE BANNING
Chaff (part 1)


         Jack sat in the back of the taxi alone, smelling horse shit and hay bales through open windows.  He was finally home: jet to puddle-jumper to Willard's cab, the only taxi service in the county.  They'd bumped down the washboard roads, gravel dust thick in Jack's throat. 
        His parents waited inside the house, everything ready, everything wrong.
        A year ago, it'd been so right.         
        He'd met Paul at a sultry summer party and he turned, overnight, from cynical loner to lover, all fizz and sizzle.  It was still a boozy blur the next morning, and Paul had been up and out of Jack's place before sunrise.  But Jack called him the following day, the next and the next.  He promised no pressure, just coffee, just lunch, please come.  Paul, coltishly, circled.  Jack waited for a scared twitch of an eyelid, for Paul was a knee-jiggling type, with a full-throated, galloping laugh and black eyelashes.  Jack stilled. He loosened his hold, and Paul slowly calmed down.  They shared the same wine glass, fingers touching.  They murmured, forehead to forehead, about their small differences, their eyes soft and unfocused.  Jack's hands and Paul's: the sturdy and the frail, the hardy and the smooth side by side on the bed.

         Jack sat in the back of the taxi alone, smelling horse shit and hay bales through open windows.  He was finally home: jet to puddle-jumper to Willard's cab, the only taxi service in the county.  They'd bumped down the washboard roads, gravel dust thick in Jack's throat. 
        His parents waited inside the house, everything ready, everything wrong.
        A year ago, it'd been so right.         
        He'd met Paul at a sultry summer party and he turned, overnight, from cynical loner to lover, all fizz and sizzle.  It was still a boozy blur the next morning, and Paul had been up and out of Jack's place before sunrise.  But Jack called him the following day, the next and the next.  He promised no pressure, just coffee, just lunch, please come.  Paul, coltishly, circled.  Jack waited for a scared twitch of an eyelid, for Paul was a knee-jiggling type, with a full-throated, galloping laugh and black eyelashes.  Jack stilled. He loosened his hold, and Paul slowly calmed down.  They shared the same wine glass, fingers touching.  They murmured, forehead to forehead, about their small differences, their eyes soft and unfocused.  Jack's hands and Paul's: the sturdy and the frail, the hardy and the smooth side by side on the bed.               
        Jack bloomed that fall, as the red and orange leaves fell.  He felt juicier, bigger than his own skin.  People offered him seats on the bus, waved him on at stop signs, held doors open.  One crisp evening, snuggled in bed, he said to Paul, "I still can't believe it happened to me."
        "What happened?" Paul asked.
        "I found you.  I want to integrate you into everything in my life."
        "You want to bus me somewhere?  Like in the 1960's?" Paul blinked twice, coquettishly, intentionally dense.
        Jack lay on his back and laughed till tears ran into his ears, then said, low, "It's time.  Come home with me.  I want you to meet my parents."     
        So they visited the farm that winter, both of them nauseous and giddy with tension.  Jack and Pop took Paul on a tour of the dairy.  They walked the fence lines together, faces raw, hands numb, looking for holes to patch come spring.  Mom cooked up Salisbury steak and mashed potatoes pooled with butter and paprika.  They ate the heavy wheat bread that she'd kneaded and punched down with her own blunt fingers.  She showed Paul all of Jack's baby pictures.
        One morning while Paul slept late, she said to Jack, "It's so sweet that you have such a nice friend."
        "I think they like you," Jack told Paul on their last night of the visit.  Paul was washing his hands again; they'd been in the haymow and the corncrib and the pig nursery.
        "God, I hope so," he said, scrubbing.
        In the late winter, snow pocked with cigarette butts and grit, Paul moved his few boxes into Jack's apartment.  The bedroom grew rumpled and ripe.  They lolled in morning breath and sticky bodies and warm-cognac kisses.  Paul hung a single silver-framed photo of his mother among Jack's messy wall of pictures of Mom, Pop and the mélange of cousins and babies — pictures of everyone crowded up together, robust and smiling, against the sunny, red side of the barn.   
        In the early spring Jack went back home again, alone.  He and Mom and Pop ate pork roast with gravy and fresh asparagus.  They sat at the table — rhubarb pie, blushing and oozing, in front of them.  He told them, then, about his feelings for Paul, about his feelings for boys all along, ever since he'd been a young teen alone with his unexpected yearnings and questions.  He kept talking into their quietness and into the darkening evening.  He talked and he knew, without looking, that their faces turned duskier, a little sadder.  He stopped; picked at the dry crumbs of bread scattered over the table.  He waited.  After a pink-cheeked silence, Jack's mother tapped ten fingers with a "Well!" on the tabletop.  "This just takes the cake, Jack," and she folded her napkin once, twice, done, and set it aside.  Pop cleared his throat hard, and got up from the table. 
        Jack kneaded his hairline, dinner rushing through his guts too fast.  His mother refused his help with the dishes, so he went up to bed.
        He left the next morning.  His mother's hug reached only halfway around his back.  Pop gave him a nod goodbye, then stumped out to the shed, old shoulders rounded under his overalls.
        Jack mulled, sleeplessly, as the days lengthened into late spring.  Phone calls to home ended tersely, neither Mom nor Pop asking about Paul.
        "What's wrong with you?" Paul asked.  "You kept me awake with your tossing and turning."
        "They can't do it: you and me."
        "Who can't?"  Paul crossed his arms.  "Your parents?  Oh, that business."  Paul raised one eyebrow.  "Not even with a nice, midwestern ceremony, with all the trimmings?  Ever thought about it?"
        Jack folded his hands under his chin and stared at Paul.
        "You'd do that?" he asked.
        "Sure.  Why ever not?"
        Jack slept better that night, and woke whistling.  They'd have a ceremony at the farm, surrounded by simple cricket song and blackbirds.  It could make everything so right.
        So Jack made the call, pleaded with Mom and Pop to pull against old, hardened furrows.  He paced the house, phone in hand, voice calm and even, just like they'd expect of him.  He shamelessly rambled about memories of watching thunderstorms from the porch swing — the three of them tucked up together, dry under the eaves while rain pounded the dust into mud.  He talked about how his life had been shaped by watching the clouds of dirt blowing up and into the sky while he was safe inside the cab of the tractor with Pop.  They relented at last.  They offered Jack the farmhouse for the wedding, held out on work-roughened palms, hard-won and dry as chaff.
***

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About Iowa Writes

Since 2006, Iowa Writes has featured the work of Iowa-identified writers (whether they have Iowa roots or live here now) and work published by Iowa journals and publishers on The Daily Palette. Iowa Writes features poetry, fiction, or nonfiction twice a week on the Palette.

In November of 2008, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated Iowa City, Iowa, the world's third City of Literature, making the community part of the UNESCO Creative Cities Network.

Iowa City has joined Edinburgh, Scotland and Melbourne, Australia as UNESCO Cities of Literature.

Find out more about submitting by contacting iowa-writes@uiowa.edu


JANE BANNING

Jane Banning was born and raised in Iowa and received a BS from Iowa State University and a MSSW from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She has received honorable mentions in the 2008 Micro Fiction Contest and the 2009 Glass Woman Prize Contest, and a semi-finalist designation in the 2012 Flash Fiction Chronicles Contest.  Her work has appeared in the University of Iowa's Daily Palette, Six Sentences, Long Story Short, Boston Literary Magazine, and Fiction365, among others.  She lives in Wisconsin and is working on her first novel, "Silo".

Chaff will appear on the Daily Palette in two parts. Don't miss part 2 on tomorrow's page!

This page was first displayed
on June 28, 2013

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