The Millwright

Jennifer A. Howard

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By the time Tom Mantela’s three girls turned thirteen, they had been crocheting afghans for years, passing hundreds of snowy winter afternoons rainbowed round the radiator, knotting long strands of yarn into pretty four-inch squares while their father worked in the garage.

Catherine was the youngest—born three days after Louise and a week later than Adelaide—but she was in charge of the yarn. She shopped at garage sales on Saturdays and second-hand stores after school with the slim coins their father left for her on the coffee table. They could never afford full skeins of the alpacas and Himalayan silks in the cubbies at the yarn shop in town, so the girls made do with the scratchy acrylics and tight kitchen cottons in colors popular decades before they were born: asparagus and mustard and pumpkin, sometimes all three variegated into a single repeating strand. Catherine would come home and tumble balls of yarn onto the maple floors where her sisters sat cross-legged and waiting.

Louise took care of the design. She determined the pattern of the individual squares that they would later assemble into full pieces. She started with a short chain that she hooked into a circle and built outward in rings, her intricate series of knots only later emerging as petals or snowflakes. The alchemy of her weaving transformed these circles into squares somewhere half-way through their construction as she adjusted the height of some stitches to grow into corners, others to hold tight against the middle to form straight edges. But Catherine and Addy could quickly follow Louise’s patterns, reaching blindly behind them for the next ball of yarn, the color invariably being just right in the bigger scheme of the finished afghan. Fluorescent orange bordered by the grey-blue of their father’s eyes, and theirs, may not have been a choice they would have made in a more brightly lit room, but they trusted in their chance selections to make something magic.

Addy let them know when they were done. When they had as many squares as they needed—sometimes hundreds if they were small—Addy would announce, “Enough!” and the other girls would finish off what was in their hands. Addy weaved the pieces together into long strips and that eventually became an afghan. With a needle, she sewed in the ends, cutting off loose strands and tossing them into the sun-tea jar where they would gather until the spring when the girls would scatter them in the yard for the birds to use in their nests.

Tom’s daughters knew they used only the yarn of dead women. Knitters never sold their yarn or gave it away. They saved it for life, to be used for something known or unknown, to be disposed of by family only when the knitter was gone. The girls had begun with laundry baskets full of the yarn of their own mothers, all gone longer than any of them could remember, all three women extant only in the warp of woolen mistakes the girls had made teaching themselves to crochet. They mourned their mothers in their first awkward rectangles that grew wider with each row. Even now, their technique was unusual. They held their hooks downward like pencils, and the yarn wrapped strangely around the fingers of their off-hands, a system Louise had discovered for keeping the fiber just taut enough. Were any one of their mothers around, she could have showed them how one loop over the pinky could accomplish the same, but their father hadn’t known how to work yarn. He hadn’t known how to show them the simplest way to do things.

Their blankets stacked upon the three twin beds in the room they shared, and on the pull-out couch in the living room where their father slept. They were layered in neat piles and draped over desks. It wasn’t until every seat in their drafty house was covered, even the oak chairs that circled the kitchen table, that their father suggested they give some away. The girls were not attached to the afghans themselves so much as they found comfort in the way they worked together, quietly and without eye contact, and so they agreed.

Their creations went out into the world, dragged through thistles and milkweed on the way to their nearest neighbors, crumpled into plastic grocery bags and hauled onto the school bus for their sixth-grade teacher and the janitors and the ladies who served them lunch. They were boxed up and loaded into the back of their dad’s truck to be dropped at the Red Cross when he went into town for groceries. Where the blankets threaded themselves from these starting points, the girls had no idea.

∗    ∗    ∗

The girls asked their father to tell them stories about their mothers.

“Which one of them did you love best?” they would say. “Who was the most beautiful?”

He told them how their mothers loved to sing. “They hummed like power lines,” he told them. “They cooed like pigeons.”

The girls went through their father’s record collection and asked, “Did they like this one? Was this theirs?” He chose one for them—The Carpenters, or the soundtrack from Oliver—never sure just what would be a true answer but knowing his daughters would try to sing along, adding awkward harmonies even when there was only one voice.

He had none of their mothers’ records, no clothes or hairbrushes or books. No forgotten jewelry or letters explaining where they had gone. Only their yarn and their hooks. They hadn’t even left him with any patterns for the girls. Catherine and Louise and Adelaide had never seen photographs of their mothers, but each one knew from Tom that she was the young image of her mother on her very best, most beautiful day.

Tom didn’t know if their mothers had really liked to sing. He only said so because what he wanted was his girls dancing like chickens in his living room, pop bottles and remote controls their microphones as they filled his house with happy noise.

∗    ∗    ∗

One January evening, the girls bundled themselves up and headed over to the neighbor’s homemade ice rink. The Johnsons’ oldest son Owen played left wing on the travel hockey team and his mom had leveled and fenced off a large section of their yard so he could practice. The girls left their dirty white figure skates at home, sliding in their boots along the icy road even before they got to the rink. They hoped to find the ice empty for a game of statues or ice gymnastics, but Owen was there, all of fourteen and warmed only by a complex layering of long and short-sleeved t-shirts that brought a more complicated color to the girls’ already red cheeks.

They would have snuck back off into the darkness, found themselves some other place to wander, if they hadn’t activated the Johnson’s motion-sensitive garage light. It wasn’t that Owen was a stranger. They took the school bus together. They went to his mother when forced to sell chocolate bars for band. They’d attended his little brother’s birthday parties, years ago, before the boys began preferring video games to company. They’d used his bathroom. But on the walk over, they hadn’t even imagined he would be here, in his own backyard. They would have backed down the drive if they could have done so unnoticed, but at the flash of light, Owen turned his feet and stopped hard, ice spraying off his blades.

It was Catherine who led her sisters onto the rink. She was the one who opened the gate before them and closed it behind. She pulled Owen’s other stick out of the snow and pushed herself off on one boot toward the puck at the boy’s feet.

Her sisters followed, and Owen found himself skating backwards like a defenseman, the puck protected in the curve of his stick. Catherine slapped at the ice, the crack of wood calling her sisters to action. The girls spread out, around and behind him, so that soon enough he could keep only two of them in his line of sight at any given moment. Louise was at his back while Catherine charged, and Addy covered his escape route. Owen, unsure of the game, slid to a stop and pushed the puck Catherine’s way.

With that, Addy pronounced them all bored and the three of them shoved off toward the snow, though Catherine lagged behind her sisters.

On the walk home, they met their father’s car coming the other way, looking for them. He pulled to the side of the road and rolled down the window. “Get in,” he told them.

The girls piled in. The car wasn’t yet warm, but they were out of the wind. “Where were you?” Tom asked.

“We were just walking,” Catherine said. “We skated a little.”

“Where? With the Johnson kid?”

Louise said yes, with Owen, but when their father realized she meant the older boy, he turned off the radio. “No,” he said. “You don’t go there anymore.”

Till now he had let the girls roam. They’d ridden their bikes down dirt roads toward the corn maze or as far as Willow Hill Farms for sunflowers or to play with the dogs. He’d watched them head away from the house toward Myron’s Corner and into the woods. But now they would have to stop going just anywhere. Tonight, after they had left, Tom had found a new small box with cursive lettering in the bathroom drawer. He sat on the edge of the tub and wondered at the frailness of the cardboard in his hands, so thin and glossy, no protection at all for what it held. He’d known this was coming. He had even thought he was prepared for the conversation they would have, about biology, about milestones. But to see that his daughters had gone shopping without him left him needing them home. Tom had gotten into his car to go find them, and even before he realized they had been at a boy’s house, he had decided it was time he established a curfew.

Catherine turned the radio back on, annoyed, but Addy told her father, “Why would we? He’s no fun anyway.”

∗    ∗    ∗

Their mothers were not as far away as the girls thought; that is, they were not in heaven at all, like their father had told them, but only on the other side of the central/eastern time zone line in Bark River. When the girls were watching Oprah at five, their mothers were watching it at the exact same time on the exact same channel, except that to them it was only four. The sun set a whole hour earlier for the mothers; even if they got it back in the morning, they spent one more hour of their waking moments in darkness than their daughters. The mothers had not died. They had left Tom alone with his daughters, three baby girls who never really belonged to them to begin with.

∗    ∗    ∗

The snow that fell over the next few weeks piled higher and higher around the Mantela house. They knew from the tracks when raccoons had sniffed at their garbage cans or when a family of deer had cut through their yard. The girls continued to crochet, refilling the spaces left when they had cleared the house of blankets. Before, their circle of yarnwork had comforted Tom, but it now seemed to keep him outside. No matter where he stood in the living room when he came in to tell the girls something or to turn on the news, one of his daughters had her back to him.

Though they still looked like girls, thin and narrow like noodles, they seemed to have grown-up secrets that Tom could not even conceptualize. Instead of asking them what they were thinking, he tried to track their movements throughout the house by noting what had been touched or moved. He would see the milk drunk down further in the jug or a disposable razor tossed in the bathroom trash can and map his girls’ days backwards from there. But once they left home for school, he would lose them. Their parallel tracks disappeared at the bottom of the driveway. Worse were the signs of what came toward his house. Tom, home from work late one night, found footprints nearly big as his own on the porch, toe-to-toe with the small imprint of girl boots.

They still played cards with him after dinner and told him about school, gossip so specific he had no idea what it meant. More and more it was them tending to him, packing him a lunch or turning off the TV when he fell asleep in front of it. But the space between them felt bigger. He tried to ask other fathers, “When did your daughter stop needing you?” The men at the mill didn’t understand his question, but their girls all had mothers. Just by going to work, it seemed, these other men were doing the only thing they figured they could.

Tom wondered why the girls had stopped asking about their own mothers just when they might most need to be told. Tom had told the girls their mothers were dead only because he didn’t want them to feel abandoned. He couldn’t tell them the real story. Mostly because he didn’t know.

∗    ∗    ∗

Tom had started apprenticing at the mill the summer after graduation. He came home one day, at eighteen, to find his mom leaning her head out of the doorway of his parents’ bedroom. “Shh,” she said, and she took his wrist and pulled him inside and pointed. Three babies wrapped in homespun blankets no bigger than pillowcases.

The three newborns were sleeping, lined up like pickles on her bed. Tom hadn’t been able to explain, but his mother had already fallen in love with their fragile fingernails, with the idea of girls in her house, and did not ask. She bought diapers and formula and taught Tom how to hold their wobbly necks steady. She helped him with the babies until Tom had saved up enough of a down payment to move the girls, toddlers by then, to their own little house outside town.

Eighteen-year-old Tom hadn’t known where their mothers had gone, and he didn’t look for them. Instead, he took his babies in without questions. He named the girls after women in movies and he built them a crib big enough for all three together. He murmured half-remembered nursery rhymes and tried to hold on to what images of their mothers he still had left. But Tom really only remembered their faces lit by flames, their shoulders wrapped in thick, rugged yarns and their barefoot toes buried in sand. Though he tried, he couldn’t even imagine them in the daylight.

The bonfires he and his high school friends used to have out at Fuller Park were always accompanied by a Led Zeppelin II cassette on somebody’s boom box. They refused to let the radio play Journey or the Footloose soundtrack, not that the radio could have picked up a signal this far from town anyway. This crew still wore jeans from the previous decade, flared somewhat, rather than rolled and tucked like the kids whose parents made sure they sat for senior photos. But like everybody from the cheerleaders to the marching band, they drank their beer from cans and their wine coolers out of two-liter bottles and drove their parents’ second-best cars—dented Chevettes and rusty Escorts—to get where they were going. In this case, down to the beach, where Tom and the other boys in jean jackets argued over the shape of the perfect fire. Whatever they ended up with, a pyramid or a square, there was never want for smoke in anybody’s eyes.

Though most of these nights were alike, Tom replayed one in his head like a favorite movie since even before he knew about the babies. It happened early in the summer, when Lake Michigan was still too cold for swimming, and everybody stuck close to the circle. The fire lent shadows to faces, making them all look sadder than they actually were, for they were content under a night full of stars and no place better to go and a sweet buzz that they knew even then could be escalated or lost, but never maintained.

Tom, tall and stooped, dark hair winging out under a Tigers hat, smoked a cigarette at the picnic table, away from the crowd. He didn’t imagine that this trio of girls—strangers to him—had decided out loud to see what they could make happen. They just tossed the butts of bummed cigarettes onto the logs and shook their hair to the woozy guitar. Between songs their fine hair hung straight down their backs to end in flimsy arrows pointing toward the embroidered back pockets of their jeans. They didn’t so much choose Tom, as end up with him by default, he figured. He was merely the last boy standing after everybody else had passed out or paired off and headed elsewhere. They needed more firewood, they’d told him, and he’d abandoned his picnic table for the woods.

He broke thick branches over his knee and got the fire going strong again and they told him how warm they were in the light he had stirred up. Tom was quiet, but they didn’t seem to need him to speak yes or no. When he sat down on one of the fallen logs, a hand brushed his hat off his head, and he never knew, either then or in retrospect, just whose fingers first looped themselves through the spaces of her too-long sweater sleeves to reach for him. Soon, he, all of them, were netted in the yarn, shawls tangled around ankles and elbows, tying the four of them together even as primary knots came unloosed and they all unraveled on the sand. The batteries in the boom box died leisurely, lyrics half an octave lower for slow minutes until there was only the sound of the waves retreating back into the lake and the crackle and rustle of the fire dying down.

Even now, when his girls were out, Tom played Livin’ Lovin’ Maid through speakers twenty years old and four feet tall, the wood veneer sides hidden by the long arms of spider plants and climbing ferns with nowhere up to go.

∗    ∗    ∗

The mothers now were still beautiful, though they tried to live as if they were not. They pulled their hair back in low ponytails and wore flat shoes. All three women dealt blackjack, sometimes red dog, at the Potawatomi casino, and while smiling may have garnered better tips, they preferred to work quietly, eyes down. They played by the house rules now, acting only in response to the cards, and they let the jingling slot machines and the chalky cigarette smells content them against the world outside. Time moved quickly for them where they had buried themselves in the casino, and they never had to worry they were making bad choices because there were no choices to be made.

∗    ∗    ∗

A sunny February Saturday took the Mantelas into town. While Catherine and Louise and Adelaide sledded in the park, Tom was ice fishing out on the lake. He had no shack. He wouldn’t be here long, only until the girls got tired and cold and then they’d head back home. He had an ice auger in his car, but he settled his stump next to a hole already drilled and abandoned. The lake was uneven, frozen in moments of motion, like small mountains formed by the collision of tectonic plates. Yellow leaves were trapped beneath inches of ice, ancient photographs behind glass. He dropped in his line.

Across the water, the girls climbed the small hill at the edge of the park, towing their blue and yellow and purple plastic sleds behind them. Most of the other kids were younger than them, parents curling up behind their children on birch toboggans. The girls were too far away and small for Tom to keep track of. He would pick them out of the crowd by the colors of their sweaters and then lose them again. He scraped a circle of snow off the ice with his boot and felt the weight of the winter around him like syrup.

Tom had four small perch in the bucket next to him when he saw two of his girls running toward him in the distance. They must have tired of sledding and were coming to get him. He watched them as he began to pack up his gear. Louise and Addy. He wondered where Catherine was. They didn’t appear to be far away, but even as they ran and ran, they never seemed to get closer, as if he sat on the horizon itself, unreachable. He couldn’t hear them yelling for him, but when Louise fell and Addy didn’t stop to help her up, he dropped his tackle box and ran toward them.

Addy collided with him but he caught her under her arms so that she swung in the air instead of crumpling onto the frozen lake. “Owen’s hurt,” she said, and she turned around and ran back the way she came from.

Tom followed. He saw Catherine kneeling under the swings beside the boy on the ground. Catherine’s mittens and the snow around her were wet with blood from Owen’s head.

∗    ∗    ∗

The mothers hadn’t known they were pregnant for long weeks after they might have. They had never thought to mark their calendars with little stars, and they were too young to have developed a sense that something was missing from the rhythm of their days. Rather, they all felt tired together, and they avoided the hallway past the school’s cafeteria, its greasy smells turning them in other directions. They noted the fullness of each other’s faces before they saw their own softening in mirrors and store windows. Once they understood what their bodies were doing, they stopped going to bonfires. They stayed home with their yarns, and together they built trousseaus of tiny blankets for the babies to take with them wherever it was they went next.

∗    ∗    ∗

At the hospital, Tom and the girls waited to hear about Owen. When the boy’s mother—Susan, she said—finally came out to the waiting room, she told them he would be okay. He had hit his head, he was cut, but they’d stitched up his wound and he was conscious.

“Boys, you don’t think you have to worry about,” she said. The girls moved over to make room for Susan on the row of plastic chairs. “You don’t even think they need you sometimes.” Tom sat next to her and held a box of tissues in his lap. When her hand shook a little, he held it steady for her with his own.

The girls told Owen’s mother it was an accident, that they hadn’t done anything. A game of tag, and that Addy hadn’t meant to trip him. She and Louise had held the scarf across his path only to slow him down, he was faster than they were. They hadn’t meant for him to fall against the metal pole. They should have just let him outrun Catherine, they said.

Catherine said she would have caught him.

∗    ∗    ∗

Though there would be more winter to come, the next day came warm, and the snow was melting by afternoon. Tom sat on his porch steps. The sun felt tentative on his face, a visitor just starting to make the trip home. He had moved the girls out here, inland, when they were little, away from the dangers of town and the lake and bonfires, to protect them. But today, from his porch, he could see the edges of their property in all directions, buffered by only a couple of acres of apple trees, of open grass and dirt trails. He sat on the steps and imagined the girls’ mothers living somewhere hot, somewhere in a city. He thought they had left because they had better things to do. Now he wondered if they had already understood. That children go out into the world and that you cannot know just where. That their hearts will break and that they will be hurt and they will hurt people and that the minute they are born you have already handed them over. His girls would leave him, and sooner than he wanted, in a house full of empty spaces and unworked yarn.

Inside, the girls were choosing a blanket for Owen. They found one, pine green and grassy, the work tighter than some of their others, more solid. They would walk it down to him at home, perhaps leave it on the porch with a note. They were on their way out when Addy stopped. “She needs one too,” she told them, and the girls turned back. They pulled an afghan off their father’s bed, an early creation, sloppy and chaotic, but grown soft over time and washings. Their own hair was woven accidentally into the stitches, caught on hooks and threaded parallel to the yarn. It was their father’s favorite, the one his arms wrapped around in his sleep. Catherine and Addy folded it gently and Louise added it to the bag with Owen’s blanket so they could give it to his mother.

The snow in the yard was disappearing in large patches, and Tom could see the world was still there, just where he’d left it in the fall. Everything he’d failed to take care of before winter revealed itself. Leaves he hadn’t raked waited just where he’d left them. He saw tools he’d neglected to put away and mail he’d dropped on the walk back from the road. All of it was damp now, plastered to the ground. Water ran down the sunshined driveway and away from his house in rivulets, in thin sheets.

He would clean up the yard another time. He would go with the girls, walk over there with them, to make sure Owen was all right, to see Susan. It felt like spring. He opened the door to call his girls out to the porch to show them the wet, brown grass, but they were already on their way outside, their boots laced up tight and ready for mud.


ART: Paul Ferragut, Leo Katunaric, Stefanie Schneider

FICTION: Bridget Apfeld, Jennifer A. Howard, Laura Schadler

NONFICTION: Joy Katz, Shena McAuliffe, Kate Partridge, Rob Schlegel

POETRY: Dan Beachy-Quick, Carrie Fountain, Jules Gibbs, Alen Hamza, H. L. Hix, Anna Maria Hong, Krzysztof Jaworski, Thomas Kane, Eric Kocher, Jennifer MacKenzie, Andrew Nance, Paul Otremba, Kate Partridge, Beth Woodcome Platow, Catie Rosemurgy, Claire Sylvester Smith, Lesley Yalen

ET CETERA: Glenn Shaheen’s
“POET The Game”

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