by Marcia Bradley
They parked the rental car near the yard where dogs no longer barked. Beyond was an expanse of prairie that backed up to nothing. It was the nothingness Loretta remembered. Bunkhouse to the right. The rabbit hutches, empty, the chicken wire door on one askew. Loretta’s stare darted to the rusty nail that jutted from a barren raised vegetable bed. Her father’s presence never absent, his eyes upon her every move, even now.
“Well, a last look,” Loretta said to her husband. She took strong steps in her Western boots—part of the uniform she still adhered to back east in the city. Her dark red hair breezed over the shoulders of her corduroy blazer; she played with a loose button in one pocket. A bitter day had welcomed them. Earth-encrusted snow lingered. Not spring yet on the prairie. Probably for the best. Warmth wouldn’t help. Loretta headed to the backdoor of the house. Pushed it open.
“So, this is it?” Clarke asked. He scanned the perimeter, checking for what he wasn’t sure, at watch none the less.
Loretta’s shoulders twitched. It was hard to be here. The ranch’s silence as uncomfortable as a playlist of wolf howls and fox moans. Empty, yet there was a stench she recognized.
“Yes,” she said. “This is it. William and Mama’s house.”
Loretta walked a few feet into the kitchen. Mama’s domain. She glanced at the double-gauge standing guard by the door. It belonged to her father, William. She wouldn’t touch it. Never again. His oilskin slicker hung idle on a nearby hook. His black western hat sneered at her from the shelf above.
“You don’t spread democracy with the barrel of a gun,” Loretta grumbled and hurried past the sink towards the pot belly stove. The elderly scent of onions and bacon was burnt into the walls of the musty room. She wished she’d brought Lysol except it didn’t matter. They weren’t staying.
“That a quote?” Clarke asked from a few feet behind.
“Yes. A great woman. Blunt. White House press corps. It sure sucks.”
“Being smart. People want their women nice.”
“Yep, got it.” Clarke shook his head, said no more. She’d let him come with, after discussions about how her being alone was fraught. With what? They weren’t certain.
Loretta ran a finger along the edge of the oak kitchen table, her burgundy nails foreign in these parts. She might well have been in a furniture store where it was preordained that nothing would be chosen. Clarke sat on the edge of a bench at the table, took off his blue Mets cap, and scratched at his forehead. Loretta knew her lawyer husband was trying his best to appear calm, but he was uncomfortable; she was sure he felt same as when a client called him to a home where something unpardonable had happened.
“Sorry,” she offered. “This place. So very—” She didn’t want him to see the past locked within her eyes. She couldn’t help it. She felt William in the room, the man who scoffed venom at her, his huge self ready to take the kitchen’s center stage and make another irrational demand. She crossed her arms same as when young, nervous and scared.
“Don’t be sorry,” Clarke said. The anxiety in this house resided ceiling to the warped linoleum floor. She owed no apologies.
“Right.” At the foot of the stairs that led to her childhood bedroom, Loretta stopped, slapped her hands on her Levi’s, and swung around on her boot heels. The sight of the kitchen mottled her skin with itches and childhood memories. The framed certificate from the state hung on the wall next to the picture of Jesus preaching the beatitudes. William in his I’m-in-charge chair at the far end of the table. William’s hand on the green ledger the day he told her he’d kept a log. How he’d flipped from page to page. His finger trailing down the columns doing his calculating, a mental math of his own peculiar divination.
“Yep, got a record of what you owe us. Every single dime we spent,” he’d announced when she was seventeen begging for eighteen’s arrival.
She heard him plain as yesterday.
“You’ve got a debt to settle. Lots of days’ work owed. Interest due, too.”
“What?” her voice had taken on a teen’s incredulous tone, her throat gagged, no words ready for that sort of attack. It wasn’t a surprise that William would chain her to the ranch, mentor her to meanness as he’d done with his dogs. To have kept a log—an insidious sin.
Loretta remembered Mama in her chair by the pot belly stove. The stained pink-green-red apron tight around her middle—how her chest heaved—her brow dotted with perspiration after kitchen work. Mama’s tired feet, the flesh of her legs thick and layered upon layer until she had no ankles at all.
“You didn’t think you’d be goin’ anywhere did you, daughter?” The slick undertow of Mama’s voice drifted to her. “You be needed here. By my side.”
Loretta again felt the cringe in her heart, how her breath had gasped away, oxygen stolen from her that morning when William told her she’d be in charge of the residents, that he’d mapped out her future.
“Need help?” Clarke asked from the table. Loretta knew he was afraid for her, fearful that perhaps it had been a bad idea to make this journey back to the house of her childhood.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got this,” she said.
Loretta stared to her right, to the front room with the red horsehair couch and chair where William had wooed the parents of bad girls who were in fact good, wonderful, freedom loving young women, girls who’d done nothing except be teens who yearned for fun, kissed boys, maybe drank a beer or uttered some weak blasphemy. Young women whose parents William enticed with lectures about sinnery and learning right behavior.
“No contact with the outside world for 60 days,” he’d tell them.
“What?” It was usually mothers who were shocked by this.
“That’s fine. We understand.” The fathers too quick to agree.
William taunted the residents. They grew as pale as the translucent sadness in their souls. He made them tie their hair back claiming unbanded hair led to a loose and reckless life. Ordered them to wear long denim skirts and blue Stop Foolish Sinnery t-shirts. Sent them to the roadside stand to sell fluffy pure bunnies to passersby for Easter dinners. In later years, Loretta learned he’d ordered select young residents to kneel before him and ‘do what sinners do.’
Every girl was a sinner to William.
“Stay here. I’ve got to get something.” Loretta said with her hand on the banister. She couldn’t reveal more, her childhood room not to be shared.
“You sure I shouldn’t go with? In case?”
Loretta headed upstairs to the room with the door that Mama had often locked with a key. The bedroom where Mama plodded inside wearing worn old man slippers bought discount at the Walmart in town. She’d wiped Loretta’s wounds with a ragged cloth wet only with water. Not clean, questionable tenderness.
Loretta twisted the knob. She opened the door.
The room was unchanged. Her lonesome twin bed. A few white blouses on hangers in the closet. Loretta touched the dresser and pulled out the top drawer. Inside, her forbidden-to-wear brown Rolling Stones t-shirt folded on top a Stop Foolish Sinnery version from William’s private label.
“Well, that should go up in flames,” she said and reached beneath both. Found the relic she’d left behind—a very dried out bag of Twizzlers she’d snuck into the house that final summer. The licorice her proof she’d once been a teenager with a teen’s yearnings, not every moment a dread.
She took a couple steps to the ladderback chair painted with bluebells, some yellow, that had been the grandmother’s she’d never known. She stopped before the makeshift desk she’d built with nails and plywood and two-by-fours. There was joy to recall in this room where she used to read and write and stare at far-off mountains and the skies above. She leaned close to the window in hopes of sighting a pronghorn antelope galloping across the land. Wished for a flight of Peregrine falcons overhead. Almost knocked on the glass to let the prairie, her prairie, know she’d returned.
“I’m here,” she said.
A cloud surfed by—far aloft in the big blue sky.
“I’m going to save you.” She waved to the quiet world outside. “Or at least give you a chance.” She meant the chance she’d not had.
Loretta reached beneath the desk. Her fingers felt left. Further to the right she found the manila envelope taped to the underside. Her treasures hidden still. Her fingers tingled—a chill of relief pulsed when she held it to her chest.
She sat on her bed. Dust flew. The scratchy army blanket smelled of tired mothballs. The butterscotch-colored envelope which had meant everything to her awaited. She flipped it over. Her hand caressed the flap—her fingers touched the golden clasp. Such a secret pleasure it had once been to open it, to know the contents belonged to her, that the bits of paper, the notes within, were hers alone.
“Mine,” she said and dropped onto her side, knees bent to her chest. Loretta rested her head on the near-flat childhood pillow. Let her hair fall in front of her eyes. With the envelope tight in her grasp, her breaths came quick, could be asthma, or rapid cycling, anxieties she knew too well, her arms hugged tighter, her eyes checked corners of the room. When she was a young girl, she’d listened for the slow pound of William’s feet on the stairs, scared he’d lock her in the hall closet. Would he take the light bulb again? Leave her with the bucket, the mop that smelled of Pine Sol, in the dark overnight?
“One, two, three,” she counted the way she’d learned in therapy or was it meditation. “Are you safe?” she asked herself. “Yes.” “Is there danger?” She knew there wasn’t. Clarke was downstairs. She’d found what she came for.
The light outside genuflected. Daytime preparing for evening. She felt okay. A sort of almost happiness. Not delight. Not revenge. The finality of her plan was soon to come. List-counting repeated itself. Things not to forget. A couple items she needed from the kitchen. She was almost finished. Loretta perched on the edge of the bed and unclasped the flap on the back of the manila envelope with care. Poured the contents onto the army blanket. Ripped pieces of paper settled around her. Names of books she would read again. Quotes she’d collected from authors and from Ms. Lott, the teacher who saved her. She found sketches, too, by her best friend, Elsie—of falcons, of mountains in the distance, and of teen Loretta sitting on a tree stump with a book in her hand.
She carried the ladderback chair downstairs. Quiet fortitude despite how William and Mama’s sad house exhausted her.
“That comin’ with us?” Clarke asked eager to assist in any small way.
“I’d like to take it home.”
“It’s nice.” Clarke set it by the door. His Mets cap alone on the table. Such an odd sight in this house on the prairie.
“Thank you.” Her gratitude covered much more.
“No need.” He touched her hand on way to grab his hat. “I’ll put the chair in the car. Get everything ready.”
Each bit of paper had been returned to the manila envelope. She slipped it into her old satchel with accordion folds that expanded when opened—the leather case she bought from the thrift store on 72nd Street years ago.
“Here, try these,” the white-haired storekeeper had offered her two small gold keys tied together with string and said, “It’s been waiting for you.”
The leather satchel that locked traveled everywhere with her. In it was the file the local lawyer had sent. No will, no money to speak of. She’d received the original bill of sale and the deed to this house. The letter after the government closed The Home for Wayward Girls. Mama’s death certificate. William’s. Loretta slid her manila envelope in beside the others.
She walked towards the counter. Pulled at the handle of a drawer. It was stuck, the old wood having swollen and dried and grown comfortably closed. She opened the cabinet above and saw stacked plain bowls, cups, small milk glasses. The percolator with its weathered cord stuck in a corner. William had hit her with it, slammed it into her wrist, the burn marks another remnant from her youth. Loretta shut the cabinet door.
The drawer gave way the second time she tugged at it. Inside was a black Bic pen beside a blue one. Near three rubber bands. Behind, she found what she wanted. The ledger. The accounting log in which William had itemized what she’d cost them: baby food, toddler clothes, meals, so many meals, soap, a puffy jacket, a used backpack.
Loretta took quiet steps to the pot belly stove. Mama’s place. To the old chair where Mama rested her feet and instructed residents to “get that pot clean or else.” Mama’s tired pink-green-red checked apron slumped from a nail in the wall.
She hesitated. Her hand lifted to the scarf that covered the scar on her neck. She reached towards the apron. It felt wrong; intrusive. Like she was a child opening a mother’s purse. A space she wasn’t allowed to explore. Her hand slipped deep into the apron’s pockets. The rest of the buttons were there. Her mother had rescued them. She’d gathered them, stored them in her pocket. Had Mama saved those for her? Mama had parroted William always except here were the buttons. Loretta’s buttons. Maybe that was the best Mama could do.
She took a final glance towards the stairs, to the bedroom in which her neck hadn’t been given the chance to truly heal, through the kitchen where her father had ripped her white cotton blouse, where those buttons flew, where he’d flung her into a chair to sit near naked in her Sears catalogue bra. She was as unsure then as now of what grave sin she had committed.
But Mama had rescued those buttons.
Loretta stored her satchel on the backseat of the silver car. Left the ledger on the hood. Clarke pulled on work gloves, relieved to have something to do. He opened the trunk. Inside were six gas cans he’d filled at the Flying J near town.
“Don’t worry. I’ve got this,” he told her.
“I’ll do it, too. I need to,” she said. Loretta picked up a container.
“You sure?” Clarke asked in line behind the red canisters.
“Yep. Got to.”
“Okay. And then we are outta here.” He followed her lead. They trudged left then right pouring gas along the foundation of wood buildings so decrepit they might appreciate the cremation. They headed towards the office at the rear of the bunkhouse where residents used to cower and cry until forced to bend to William’s demands.
Loretta reached into her left pocket for the box of Diamond wood matches from the Family Market where they had stopped for supplies, bottles of water, and to-go coffees on the way to the ranch. Inside her right pocket, her fingers played with the small white buttons she’d rescued from her mother’s pink-green-red apron. Uncertainties reminisced sadly in her head. Mama might as well be standing in the kitchen doorway. A well-worn dish towel thrown over her shoulder, the incongruities of her mothering a garden of prickly thistles.
“Hey, you,” Clarke called from the path. Loretta remembered residents in wraparound denim skirts that fell below their knees, sweaters tied tight, cold hands shoved under their armpits for warmth. She saw herself sneaking to the bunkhouse in the dark, the girls huddled cross-legged on the floor around her, the trust when they listened to her warnings about wolves beyond the prairie, the joy when she stood with them at night and each chose their own star in the somber sky.
She heard a series of clunks.
Clarke tossed the last gas cans into a vegetable bed.
“The task at hand,” Loretta said but didn’t move.
The darkness had not quite fully descended. Clarke wouldn’t hurry her.
“I’m doin’ this part,” Loretta told him. She turned her eyes to his, gave him her tender smile tinged with her ingrained understanding that a person can only be happy if they’ve known pain.
“You okay?” he asked because it was important to him.
“I think so.” Being okay came in stages for her. At any given moment Loretta felt assured. The next as if the whites of William’s eyes leered near hers, a tree limb in his hand ready to slam into her body.
“You don’t have to be.”
“I know. Thanks for reminding me. Except,” she stared into the distance, towards the highest mountaintop barely visible, such a beckoning spirit in the almost night sky, “this is important.”
“Yes, it is.”
“My devoir. You know?”
Their eyes roamed west to east, surveyed the dilapidated remains of the ranch that had never thrived.
“Something that must be acted upon. I know.”
“No choice,” she said. “Gotta be done.”
Loretta grabbed the ledger and walked closer to the house. Her hair a precious mess from the earlier breeze. Dirt stuck to her heels. The prairie quiet.
“Best time for a fire,” she announced.
She inhaled deep. Felt both weak and as strong as the mythological warrior she’d envied as a teen who’d said that women have a single choice—to conquer or die. The voice of William returned. The mean large man who ripped open her white blouse and accused “you some kind of whore?” his wet breath spewing onto her face. At this moment, on the land where she’d been born, tears creeked down her face and trickled into the pretty bronze and gold scarf that covered the rarely exposed, never properly healed scar that zigzagged across her neck.
“It’s over,” she told the big sky above. “I’m done here. You don’t own me.”
Loretta pulled out a match. Yet didn’t move. Saw Mama at the kitchen door.
If only William hadn’t signaled mean Bull. William’s lead dog, the Rottweiler whose growl was a crescendo of fierceness. Bull had leapt at Loretta, his teeth ready to dig into her skin. She had not meant to shoot. Did not want to hear the far too simple-frightening-horrible pop a rifle makes, the sound so quick it is impossible to gauge the maiming nor anticipate the shrewd killingness contained within one bullet.
“Pop!” Followed by a small “whoosh.”
“Pop!” Which did no justice to the ammunition’s ability to do harm.
“Pop,” and “whoosh!”
Over before begun.
She saw Mama’s face. Her sagging eyes wider than ever. Blood streamed onto the porch stairs. Mama grabbed the railing. More blood. A stagger.
“Run, Loretta,” littlest resident Crystal yelled.
“Go Loretta girl, go,” her best friend Elsie screamed.
But Loretta didn’t run. She lowered the rifle. Set it on the ground. Watched her mother. Blood gushed from her thigh. Mama teetered before she fell. The towel slumped off her shoulder. Mama waved her arm same as batting away a gnat. Her eyes caught Loretta’s and her mouth muttered, “Go.”
Many years past since that word had stumbled from her mother’s mouth. Not quite audible however easy enough for a daughter to understand. Her mother muttered or did she yell, “Go.”
“Don’t try it,” William shouted. Him always the presence that overpowered. The man who thought he owned her. “I’ll get you girl, you know I will.”
Loretta caught his words, a hard bash to her chest, his cold eyes as powerful as the rifle.
“Go Loretta girl, go,” Elsie screamed from within his grasp. He’d tightened his grip on her friend. Elsie leaned far forward as a bound girl was able.
Loretta’s gaze remained on Mama who had muttered, “Go.”
Loretta lit the Diamond match. Held it in the air. A small golden flame in the almost night of day. She threw it at William and Mama’s house. Fire leapt and soared. She lit another and tossed it into a vegetable bed, the one with the nail, where she’d stomped her boot on the wood, so sure-footed she’d not heard William’s approach that awful night so long ago. Into the fire went the ledger he’d kept. Next, she ripped off the scarf that hid the scar he’d caused. Flung it into the wood bed and watched the fire coil its edges until the scarf shriveled and was gone.
“Loretta—” Clarke called to her.
She needed another minute. She had to see the house, the bunny hutches, and the vegetable beds burn. And finally, the bunkhouse. The prison where girls were sent to live. Where their families left them to learn how very sinnerly they were.
“They were not,” she called out. “They were not sinners. Not them. Not me. Not any of us.”
Flames jostled begging her eyes’ attention.
“I know.” Loretta paused to watch the fire shudder and drift. The hint of her mother’s love her inheritance. “I know this is the real beginning.”
The horizon line was no longer beyond her reach. Soon, the instant would come when the setting sun bid goodnight to earth.
“Look!” She pointed to the darkening sky.
Clarke stood next to her.
“It’s Venus. The evening star.” Loretta began to whistle, something he had never before heard her do.
“I see it,” he said.
“That one’s mine,” she announced. The treaty of her past, present, and future at last ratified.
“They’re coming.” Loretta heard the sirens of the fire brigade approaching. She scanned the nearby road.
“It was set. They’ll handle it,” Clarke told her.
“And—” Loretta said, sweating, knowing she’d found some semblance of relief.
Loretta lodged her eyes on the beyond, the nothingness.
“A new prairie will grow.”
Marcia Bradley, MFA, Sarah Lawrence College, 2017, writes fiction and creative nonfiction. In 2019, she received a Bronx Council on the Arts/BRIO award for fiction for her story Englewood set on the South Side of Chicago near where she grew up. The story explores how mothers survive violence in their lives. Marcia began writing about Englewood thanks to the mentorship of Professor E. Frankel while studying literature at Antioch University in Los Angles. This became her thesis in graduate studies at Sarah Lawrence where the celebrated and generous author Joan Silber was her adviser. A piece from her current novel-in-progress, Wayward, was chosen to be performed by the FAU Theatre Lab.
She has been published in Drunk Monkeys Literature + Film, Electica, Two Hawks Quarterly Magazine, in Hippocampus Magazine, received an honorable mention from Glimmer Train, and her memoir essay about her brother was published in The Capital Gazette. Marcia has attended writing conferences and retreats including Community of Writers, Writers in Paradise at Eckerd College, and a residency at Ragdale in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Marcia teaches the art of writing novels and memoirs as a member of the faculty of The Writing Institute at Sarah Lawrence College. She also teaches in a creative writing program for New York area high school students sponsored by Sarah Lawrence College, the Yonkers School District, and the Greater New York Chapter of the Fulbright Association. Marcia has two incredible daughters and lives in the Bronx. She is completing her novel about women, social justice, and the right to seek freedom no matter the cost.
Marcia is available for book and manuscript developmental editing, private teaching, seminars, and talks about the craft of good writing.
This story took my breath away. Gritty, raw, and human. I read it yesterday and have been thinking about it since. Marcia is a beautiful writer, with turns of phrase that create both a visual and emotional picture. Reading Devoir, I felt as though I was watching a movie, with the added benefit of understanding the protagonist’s heart and mind.
Also, I learned a new word – devoir. Had to look it up.
So much of Loretta’s life in so few words and new visual of burning down the house is forever more with me. This is example of fearless writing from which I will learn.
Wow. Gut-punchingly powerful story.
Devoir by Marcia Bradley was a great read. Character description and development in that short story made me feel I was there physically and emotionally.
What a great little story, Loretta’s whole life in a few paragraphs. I’ll definitely be looking for more of Marcia’s writing.
You’ve taken a phrase, “burning down the house” and turned it into a sensory experience that will stick with me for a long time. Throughout, I thought, “this is fearless writing.” Thank you.