Chapter Two

Lotta Kotznitzchuk leaned indolently on the sill of her bedroom window, her mind stirring vaguely as the vaguely stirring chintz curtains wafting on the aimless Prairie breeze. Across the street, the Despond Meadows Hardware and General store was doing no business in the barren heat. Her mind, too, was overheated and barren, and doing no business.

The musty odor of the sheets on the bed brought Olaf to mind--the snorting, sweaty, brief and inefficacious gesticulation that was his passion. There were times when she missed Olaf, though she seldom thought about him. There were times when she missed her husband, too, though she almost never thought about him. Thinking about how seldom she thought about these men brought them briefly to her attention. Her loins stirred, vaguely as the vaguely stirring chintz curtains, with the memory of spent winds of passion.

Her husband, Alf, had been a burly, hairy odiferous man. He was of the earth, earthly, and smelled of it. But his heart had betrayed him. It was a weak heart. But not so weak that it couldn't attack him and kill him, there by the woodpile, beside the chopping block, in the chill mist of a late October morning three years ago, when only he and the prairie gophers were stirring.

Her mind recoiled from the vision of those gophers, and she thought, briefly, of Olaf--a lean, bare-chested, damp-cabbage-smelling kind of man with a good heart but a weak memory. She considered, briefly, vaguely, his touching incompetence as a lover; she thought about how he kept walking into her clothes closet every time he wanted to go to the bathroom. She remembered, briefly, vaguely, the time he had suddenly broken off, in the very heat of their ill-coordinated fornication, to say, "Linseed oil. I need some linseed oil."

"Whatever for?" she had panted, taking advantage of the break to push her incontinent cat off the bed. "What would we be doing with linseed oil?"

"For the fence," he had said, leaping out of bed, slipping into his shirt and trousers and walking into her clothes closet. "I gotta paint that fence before the spring rains hit."

But the collision with the far wall in her clothes closet soon drove all thoughts of linseed oil from his mind, and he came back to bed. So the fence now sprawled forgotten, barren, and vulnerable to the spring rains. But the spring rains had never come.

Lotta looked to the sky, where a lone cloud was towering, now, engorged with empty threat and false promise. It reminded her, for reasons which escaped her, of her husband; of how his weak heart had rendered him unfit for active service in the army and elsewhere. The failure of his heart had denuded their marriage. There was an agreement between them that the storm winds of their passion must abate. It was an unspoken agreement, because all agreements with Alf were unspoken. Because Alf seldom spoke, and when he did it was to no purpose. "I think I'll go chop some wood," he would sometimes say, or "I'm gonna have to shoot them damn gophers pretty quick." But he never chopped any wood, or shot any gophers. His heart wasn't in it. Not until that fateful October morning by the woodpile.

He had appeared at her bedroom door with an axe and a rifle, while Bob (or was it Mike?) was slipping into his coveralls. Bob, or maybe it was Mike, stood frozen in pallid bewilderment as he stared into Alf's unspeaking eyes. But Alf did not look at either Mike or Bob. He had eyes only for Lotta, there in her fusty bed.

"Hey, come on, Alf," Bob said. "We can work this out like civilized people."

But Alf paid no attention to Mike. He spoke only to Lotta.

"I think I'll go chop some wood," he said. "And I'm gonna shoot them damn gophers."

And Lotta knew that, this time, he meant it. She had betrayed his heart, which had already betrayed him. And now he would have his unspoken vengeance.

She lay in a devastated torpor on the sheetless bed, Bob and Mike having stripped the sheets off, tied them together into a rope and climbed out the bedroom window. She listened to the three brief retorts of the rifle, and then the steady thunk-and-splinter of Alf chopping wood. She rose only when the sound of chopping stopped. She slipped into her house robe and out the back door, to where the woodpile was. The chill of the morning air raised goose bumps on her bare arms as she stood there looking at him, sprawled out by the chopping block, the axe still in his hand, the rifle leaning against the woodpile, and the prairie gophers already at him.

His heart had betrayed him. But all hearts betray us, sooner or later, she thought. Then she thought how deep that thought was. She sensed its depth as a precipice, a dark declivity rent open in the level playing field of her mind. And she retired from it, as she did from all things deep and dark. It was light she needed, and passionate heights.

She remembered the dark declivity of the grave they put him in, him and his broken heart--a black rent in the level field of the Despond Meadows Veterans Memorial Cemetery. The day had been clear, cold, blue and silent. Not for her that darkness, not for her that silent sky. She had stood that evening, as the sky darkened, atop the woodpile, in the slow swirl of the first winter snow, looking for the light in that whiteness, looking for the prospect of that height.

The memory of that deathly cold brought her back to herself, and to the barren heat that surrounded her and consumed her. A trickle of sweat flowed down between the pillows of her full breasts. She touched them, vaguely, thinking of how Olaf would sometimes bury his face between them, and then start sneezing because he was allergic to talcum powder. She thought of how she had never suckled, and now never would. Her breasts were full but barren. She thought of Olaf's wife, Ethel, whose breasts were insignificant little dugs, but who had given suck, even if only to little Egbert, the manic depressive, autistic, dyslexic, epileptic, spastic dwarf with two left hands, twisted legs and no feet.

A motion at the periphery of her vision caught the periphery of her attention. Her eyes and mind followed it to its source: a tatterdemalion International pickup, green, more or less, moving indolently up the vacancy of the street, pursued by a languid turbulence of dust. A green, more or less, International pickup. Olaf.

A slow surge of sensuality suffused Lotta's loins. Olaf's pickup. Strange, how she had just been thinking about him, since she so seldom did. She settled her forearms on the windowsill, leaning into the suggestion of a wind. The pickup rolled to a back-firing stop in front of the general store, and Olaf climbed out, head bent down against the beating glare of the sun. She could see only the brim of his hat, and he did not look up. Through the open window, she heard the heavy plod and squeal as he mounted the weathered step in front of the store, then the squeal and thud as he open and closed the unoiled door.

Olaf. Maybe he'd finally come to town for that linseed oil. And, perhaps, for other things. She dislodged the incontinent cat from the bed and locked it, mewling in protest, in the closet. A warm suggestion of wind swept her face as she resettled the sheets on the bed. She pounded the sweaty pillow into some semblance of fluff.

So intent was she on this unhabitual housework that she all but missed the heavy thud of a closing pickup door. A chill of incredulity flooded down over her as she moved to the window again, to see Olaf's green, more or less, International pickup swinging a languorous u-turn on the street and powering back the way it had come. The retort of its backfire was like a pistol discharging into her heart. Had Olaf forgotten her? Had he remembered the linseed oil?

Lotta looked desolate to the desolation of the stark blue prairie sky, with its single, towering cumulus of impotent promise.

To be continued ...

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