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Plastic Swans

Winter 2015/16
Plastic Swans

A Sinclair gas station sits empty at the only intersection for miles and miles. An hour south of Oklahoma City suburbs, with their tornado shelters and spongy lawns, a sherbet green brontosaurus perches above shattered windows and rotted shingles of a bait and tackle shop.

Slaughterville, Oklahoma is a town of four thousand people, many of them farmers or oil rig mechanics or retirees fond of the quiet country. It’s here in that my father Jayce grew up, where his parents Papa and Juddie, my Nanny and Papa, are settled and where they will die. Most of the county’s residents live in the tallgrass of plowed farmland or the cement of Norman and Moore, what most would picture when thinking of Oklahoma. But as you follow US-77 south along the Canadian river towards smaller towns like Noble or Slaughterville the trees multiply and evolve from boundary makers to boundaries of post oaks and thick-barked scratchy blackjack oaks. Segmented chaos follows in waves as you enter the thick of Slaughterville, where land is safeguarded by double barrels and worn down tires painted white with warnings and hung on posts between strings of barbed wire. Both my grandparents keep guns an arm’s reach from the recliners they sleep in.

There are two trailers and five pickup trucks within sight of the first turn in my grandparent’s driveway. Off to the right and tucked in a bend past the freshly broken tree line is a small, muddy trailer where the brothers live. In front of the house is another trailer, where Cynthia lives. The only permanent fixture on the land is a tin-roofed house made of two trailers split open and sutured together at the bellies. You can’t quite tell that it’s made out of trailers until you step up on the wrap around porch and run your hands down its sides. The siding feels like the inside of a shower stall, plastic molded into the texture of a million potentially carcinogenic bubbles suspended in time

The porch was constructed by Papa over a dozen years ago, gave him a heart attack before he was halfway through with it. He finished eventually, building the back porch up to the hot tub and building a bridge over Nanny’s koi ponds to edge of her gardens. Before the heart attack, before age caught up to him, Papa built these trailers into a redneck Oklahoman paradise. He awoke late in the mornings to work outside, trimming his silver beard and hair into the tight military cut of his past, tucking a white t-shirt into blue jeans. His simple, softly worn clothes were always complemented by a thin leather braided belt and a silver chain with a cross that sat against his sternum between the cotton and flesh. He still wears the cross and the white t-shirt each day, but unless he’s heading to church or into town to Walmart or Dollar General, the jeans are traded for plaid pajama bottoms or sweatpants.

In the front of the house on Dutton Road, there is a rocking bench in front of a self-installed bay window that seems a strange fiberglass luxury juxtaposed to the cheap tin framing of the original windows. Their cat Oreo sleeps there. He was driven out to Papa and Nanny’s land years ago when my dad was unable to housetrain him, and now he explores the mossy, thick undergrowth of the forest around the property and sleeps in the sun. A gracious alternative to living in a cramped apartment with four-year-old me that squeezed turds out of him with the force of my loving embrace. Nanny used to live in her garden beds, kneeling to plant hundreds of seeds and plants throughout the year, filling hummingbird feeders with red sugar water and arduously repainting small statues tucked in the sprawl of ivy. One of the small statues in the front yard is a representation of me, a ceramic hand-painted girl kneeling and gently nuzzling a cat. Her shirt changed color over the years, but the cat always stayed black and white. Neither of them has been repainted in so many wet and dry seasons that they’re chipped, showing the tax of age while still stuck in their small, young embrace.

The brothers live twenty or so feet into the trees in that muddy trailer, tucked into the growth enough to be ignored. They are conspirators in a life of deliberate animosity, unseen by guests and rarely seen by the benefactors that let them live on their land. The perimeter of the small cleared area where their trailer is parked is lined with belongings: a salvaged fridge, a truck on cinder blocks and a truck on wheels, shovels and rakes and instruments of destruction, small cabinets filled and covered with toolsThe brother’s limbs do the work that Papa and Nanny are used to, but they only keep the acreage clear enough to navigate. The care and color Nanny gave to the land is disappearing with her health, replaced with obligation, sweat, and garden beds filled with leaves. I don’t even know their names. Once, on Christmas, I watched them walk over to the house and haggle on a price for one of my Papa’s broken down trucks. $200 cash, a handshake, and they hauled the truck over to their cove

Council Creek Cemetery backs up to the north side of their land, visible through the trees behind the brother’s trailer. In front of the graveyard is Papa and Nanny’s church, a simple structure that looks more like a barn than a place of worship and revelry. Papa is the pastor-in-training and the one-man choir, a barrel-chested force of deep acapella that leads the usual ten or eleven churchgoers in long, mournful laments of sin and betrayal and joyous celebrations of golden bricked idealization. This is where they met Cynthia, a woman who found herself in one of Slaughterville’s only church pews one Sunday morning. She was a woman beaten down by addiction, a kind heart with hair and skin run thin first by alcohol, now by cigarettes and time. Soon after her first visit, she was parking her trailer in front of Papa and Nanny’s house.

Paul, the sixth and newest name on the Dutton road P.O box is so tall that he walks hunched under the six foot something ceilings of Papa and Nanny’s house. He sleeps in the sunroom on a foldout couch, and his feet hang off the end. It is unclear how Paul found his way to them, nobody talks about where he came from. It is clear though that he has been broken and bent around pain in his life like a car crashed laterally into a thick oak tree. He’s new to bachelordom, fighting an invasive cancer that started growing in his ear before crawling further into his lymph nodes and ear canal. The ear was removed sometime last Spring, the smallest of indentations around the ear patch showing the ditch where he had himself cut away.

There are whispers between Papa and Nanny’s friends and family that Paul sexually abused his own son but was never taken to trial. This knowledge metaphorically expands the perimeter of their few acres. My mom, PJ, refuses to bring my ten-year-old brother when we visit for Christmas because of this. She finally submits, under the strict rule that my brother never leaves her sight and Paul doesn’t come around. While the children play the rest of the family catches up, making shadowed glances towards the sliding sunroom doors. When we are sitting in the living room eating ham and potato casserole off of paper plates, Paul joins us; everybody in the room tightens and everyone’s eyes face any direction but his.

Like the brothers and Cynthia, Paul contributes to this strange, non-atomic family, earning his keep in whatever way he can. His body is weak despite its huge size so he spends his days off work washing dishes and cleaning, helping Papa and the brothers in the gardens. The space around him seems full of loss. You can feel it draped around him like a thick down comforter that seeps warmth from him instead of giving it, you can see it in the deep folds of flesh around his eyes, eyes that feel so inquisitive and old when they look at you that you can’t maintain contact without noticing a riled, animalistic survival instinct in them. It gives me chills to look into his eyes, he has the saddest eyes I’ve ever seen.

Paul puts in emotional labor by sharing his pain with Nanny as she suffers and sleeps in her armchair. Both of them vaguely absorb the soap operas or Fox News broadcasts constantly streaming from the television and medicate themselves however they see fit. Nanny takes handfuls of pills, so many that she has stopped dosing herself and lets Paul or Papa organize her pill boxes for her. Paul chain smokes while standing at the edge of the porch and reads the book of poetry that his wife published before she died, an entire section of it dedicated to their marriage, to the way that she so fully enveloped her life with his in a partnership made holy and eternal by the sanctity of a priest.I read this book of poetry on Christmas Day. After Nanny mentioned I studied English, he handed it to me, straight away. How intimate for a stranger to hold the most intimate tie someone has to their dead spouse. How painful, to feel him watch me as I read it, the thick, simple book of poetry.

Both Nanny and Paul live in a static way, where it seems they’ve forgotten to look for the future, only looking forward for the next moment of relief, the next pill, the next surgery, the next cigarette.

Papa fills his time. When he has more energy he wanders around the house and the land, helping Paul and the brothers in their slow attempt to stop time from eating away the gardens and ponds and keep the various trucks on their property running or almost running. He sits and talks with Cynthia, holds Nanny’s hand from his matching armchair. Sometimes he practices shooting his rifles in the open space past the gardens. Mostly, he sits in his armchair reading the Bible, practicing sermons or hymns he wants to use in his preaches, watching the 700 Club on the Christian Broadcasting network, or reading works found in the religious section of Walmart’s book section. Right now, he’s in the midst of The Devil’s Playbook.

This book is soft and supple from many readings. Each of the unbound corners upturns with a lovely frayed feel, especially the dog-eared top corner. It doesn’t smell like a book anymore, it is Old Spice, well water, decay, permeating sickly sweet women’s perfume, desperation for life, and most importantly, guidance to the various ways, the various plays that the Devil will use to slip into your life and pull you into thick, black, tarry pools of sin.

 

Stuck into the last few pages of The Devil’s Playbook is a bookmark Papa keeps in all his book. It reads:

*** WARNING *** WARNING *** WARNING***
JESUS IS COMING BACK TO TAKE CHRISTIANS WITH HIM TO HEAVEN WILL YOU BE READY TO GO OR WILL YOU BE LEFT BEHIND? IT’S NOT TOO LATE – YOU STILL HAVE TIME TO GET READY

Along with the bookmark, Papa carries his business card with him whenever he leaves the house. Next to a black and white portrait of a white and angelic Jesus lost in prayer, it says:

If we meet and you forget me, John Lineberger, you have lost nothing; But if you meet Jesus Christ and forget Him, you have lost everything Romans 6:23 Rev 3:30

 

 

kayci_lineberger_author_kansasThrough poetry and non-fiction, Kayci Lineberger writes emotional and analytical works regarding the human-animal bond, the influences between the natural world and the existence of the human race, and topics regarding intimacy and empathy. She has contributed to art and literature magazines Out of Hand and Kiosk, and is releasing her first poetry collection, A small moment that stuck in 2018.

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