Into the Silence

      Delia and I been friends over fifteen years, since we were 'bout ten years old. Her aunt and uncle, that raised her, brought her to Bentwood right after the window manufactury opened.
      My Mom and Dad being drunk most of the time, they managed to piss off near everyone in town, including me. That bit about "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" don't always hold, though, 'cause most of the town extended their dislike of my parents to me, and didn't want their kids having nothing to do with "that Rob Sonners boy."
      Delia's folks, the Roberts', were fine and straight and got along with ever'body -- including Delia, least as far as anybody did. Delia didn't fight with anyone at all. She just didn't seem to notice most people. Delia was what the old folks called Fey -- she lived in a different world than most of us.
      She was the only girl my age near as tall as me. Most boys my age weren't near as tall as me, for that matter. She was thin -- graceful-thin, not stick-thin. With her cream-white triangle face and the big black eyes in it, and her short wispy-cut shiny black hair, and her long fine hands, she shoulda been remarked on anywhere she went. But she was so still and quiet and "elsewhere" all the time, folk just give up and pretty much ignored her existing.
      I wasn't just tall, I was set up big, and I usually had a lot of chores to do with my muscles so I was filling out faster than most boys my age. I was handsome enough in the face. Even when I didn't move fast enough at home, I never got bruised where it showed, or got my nose broke or my teeth chipped, like Timmy Alison did until nobody could ignore it any longer and Hank Alison went to AA on probation.
      But I just learned too well to keep myself quiet and not noticed for the wallpaper. It got to be a habit wherever I was. I was colored mouse-brown too - my hair and my eyes were both just a plain ashy-brown that nobody ever made no better word for, and my skin was permanent tanned all year. Mom, when she was feeling affectionate, called me "my little Mouse." And when she was being sarcastic, or angry, she called me that, too -- "my little Mouse."
      I had another reason for keeping quiet, too, as time went on. The older I got the more I read, and the more I read the more words I knew the meaning of that I didn't know the sound of, 'cause no one who spoke to me much spoke like that. I had to be careful with Mom and Dad not to talk above myself, and I had to be careful with more educated folks not to make myself look silly by pronouncing things wrong, so like I said I mostly kept myself quiet.
      Delia and I got along like two chipmunks from the same nest. We were out in the woods together anytime someone didn't chain us to a piece of furniture indoors. I taught Delia how to make a mouth harp out of a blade of grass. She taught me how to watch ants. I knew all that stuff about the different castes, and how they lay down trails, how they milk aphids and how they make war, long before Ms. Humford taught it in biology class like we should be amazed at what she was telling us.
      There wasn't any sex business between us, even after her shirt began to pooch out and I started to notice. Truth be told, there never was much sex business between me and any of the girls in town. The ones I'd take a hankering to, wouldn't even talk to me. The ones willing to run with 'that Sonners boy', I didn't find much in their company to get me excited.
      I think we kept each other sane, and human. Other people aren't so sure. Delia talked to me more than to anyone else in the world, and I think she said about twenty words a month to me. I'm a lot more comfortable with that than the average sort of person is.
      Mr. Dodges, the music teacher, went on for quite a bit once about the importances of the pauses in music, the silences. I really just about split trying not to laugh 'cause of how much he did talk, about silence. I knew all that even before I met Delia. I'd spent as much time in the woods as I could since I could get out there.
      Maybe that's why Delia and I got along so well. I always thought it was a good joke, the way people were all worried because Delia didn't use as many words as they did -- when she used fifty times more kinds of silence than they knew.
      Did you ever think, if people put the same amount of sweat into learning what the other guy knows, as they put into teaching the other guy what they know, we'd end up with the same result without half the fuss?
      Anyway, even as close as Delia and I was, I had no more idea where she disappeared to for months on end than anyone else in the world.
      It started when she was 19, just after her uncle died in that factory fire, and her aunt right after that rammed her auto straight into a tree, in what probably could of been an accident, just like everybody said.
      Delia'd been living at home still. Most kids did, 'less they went off to a real college or got a bee in their bonnet to try city life. I was still living at home, and going to the Vo Tech, studying to make a trade of my carpentry. It woulda made a lot of talk if'n I'd moved out, and 'sides, things had settled down some since I'd come into my full growth.
      The day after her Mom's funeral, the Roberts' house was empty, and no word with anyone where Delia'd gone.
      For awhile everybody thought she was gone for good, pulled up stakes and left 'cause she had no more family to tie her here. But I always did expect her back, and back she came. Acting just the same the hour after she got back as she did the hour before she left, and just as talkative.
      She'd do that, 'bout half a dozen times over the next eight years, and no more explanation any of those times. Got to where people took it for granted. Geese fly north, then south; Delia comes and goes; Delia ain't quite as predictable as the geese, but close enough for comfort.
      She'd just gotten back from one of those gones the day before. I was so glad to have her back I wasn't saying a word about nothing. For about the third time in nine years she wanted to go to the Wrangler Inn, so we went. She'd never even come there when I was playing guitar backup with some visiting band. I wasn't playing tonight. But we went.
      The Wrangler Inn aingt nothing but a big old shed out at the edge of town, by the highway, that's been gutted out and fixed up a little t'be the nearest to a nightspot Bentwood has. There's taverns in town, but the Wrangler Inn is where you go if you want to dance.
      There's a short bar at one end, where you can order three kinds of beer, three kinds of wine, coffee or sody-pop. Bill Mitchell's never even applied for a liquor license. He says beer drunks and wine drunks are enough to handle.
      There's a small kitchen tucked away in the corner, where you can get hamburgers and french fries. For variety, you can even get a cheeseburger.
      The rest of the place is open, with scrapwood tables and folding chairs, and a lot of clear hardwood floor. There's a gap between that hardwood floor and the cement foundation, filled with rubber tires. Makes the Inn a fine place for foot-stomping music.
      Right in the middle of the open floor is a raised plywood stage, just about big enough for six men and a wash-tub bass if they all like each other enough. Sometimes, like tonight, there was just one musician playing.
      He was a new guy, never seen him around before. He played an instrument I never seen before, either, looked like it was copied out of one of those children's-book illustrations of a little goat-footed cutie playing and dancing. Pan-pipes, I think they're called. He sat up there in a red-checked flannel shirt and blue jeans, legs crossed and bare feet sticking out all aw-shucks, blowing on them reeds like myths-alive.
      And he did play.
      Now I don't compare trucks or dogs with other fellas, and I don't get too hung up on whether girls think I look most like Robert Redford, or some other guy does. But I do get envious of some things. Like the way that boy could play. Reminded me of the fella in that song, won a gold fiddle off the devil. This guy could make you smell sunrise and taste winter. He coulda made a preacher howl and a drunk turn saint. That boy could flat-out play.
      And Delia -- Delia listened to me play, a lot. She liked to listen to me play. She had even sat through three hours of my rehearsing Cripple Creek, and hadn't busted my boxwood over my head. Delia was a warm and encouraging audience.
      But she was listening to this boy like he was blueberry pancakes and she'd been on a forty mile hike before breakfast. More'n that. She was listening like a pagan priest who'd already spent one eternity in Hell, being told he had one last chance of Heaven 'cause Jesus just been born.
      He wasn't even some poor pitiful stick you should be glad for him he at least has his music. He had the legs of a track star and the shoulders of a running back; the fella was as well set up as me, and I get a lot of respect on any playing field. I'da called him a wuss on his looks, if it weren't for the twinkle in his eye and the strength of his jaw. He had a face looked like it been carved to show the rest of us the perfect curve of brow, blade of nose, bow of mouth. His hair was blond and thick and curly and you just knew women squealed for a chance to comb through it with their fingers. Women seem to have this thing about hair. Mine being just kind of mousebrown and, well, there, I don't get much of a chance to develop an understanding of this thing.
      And I had to just sit there and listen, and watch Delia listening. He wasn't playing no foot-stomping music, he was playin sit there and listen, and all around us folks was taking it, and no hollering 'bout it.
      There was no sex in what the piper was telling Delia with his music. That wasn't what I was jealous of. What was between Delia and me was woven into the silences between us. And that's where he was talking to her. His music was going right into those silences and filling 'em up.
      I could even catch part of it, as it went by.
      He was showing her a road, and it led across paths made out of stars, and through waterfalls of worlds, into the middle of suns and out in an explosion of colors I will never see with my eyes, and couldn't have seen with my mind 'cept I was riding on Delia's coattails.
      And he showed her her own mom and dad. They looked like I thought elves should look, and they were pulling stars down out of the sky and juggling 'em and laughing.
      Delia did leave the Wrangler Inn with me when the music ended. On the way out the door, she reached for my hand, and held it tight and warm. We left my pickup truck in the parking lot and walked straight through the woods to Jefferson's Hill. We sat side by side for hours. She let me lay my head against her breasts and cry my heart out, then when I had come back into my own silence we sat there with each other and watched the stars wheel. After a few hours, she turned and kissed me, warm and sweet, the first and the last time. I stood up and walked down the hill.
      I had to turn around and watch. I saw them together, silhouetted against the stars in the light of the strong full moon. He had shed his aw-shucks getup. His broad shoulders shone bare in the moonlight and his head was thrown back so his goat-horns stood up against the sky. Big cloven hooves stomped the ground with every flex of his shaggy legs, like the trees themselves shifting round and getting ready to dance.
      Delia stood tall and still as ever, but her face was done with quiet. It blazed with joy, and her laugh rang out wild and singing, full of birds and rivers and wind-rustle, like a spirit of nature calling to its kind.
      Then they ran. Oh, how they ran. They ran down that hill like whitewater river and the salmon leaping in it, like deer bounding along being low-flying swallows, like wildfire tongueing its way from branch to branch, like two squirrels tumbling all over each other. They were playing and leaping and laughing and running all together, and at some point they disappeared. They didn't go into or under or around anything. They'd gone where you and I can only go in dreams, and the ground there always shifts under us, but it's steady for them, 'cause they own it.
      And I went home.
      Nobody connected Delia going away with the piper that came through. Delia was always going away, and him -- well, other folks had a different reaction to him than I did.
      The next day I asked Dave Morrow, that I remembered being there and he usually was anyway, what he thought of that piper. He got real hmm-haw and shy-faced, and finally said, "Well, Rob, tell you true, I didn't pay me much attention to the music. I got to thinking bout the state my life was in, and the way my drinking was going, and all, and I up and decided to leave. I started going back to them AA meetings and I think I'm gonna stick with it this time."
      And he has. He got him a new job and a new house, and Twyla Higgens married him a year ago. They got a baby on the way and Dave walks around looking happy as a sheep got into the alfalfa pasture.
      I asked Tom Atkins a few days later what he thought of that piper, and he got real excited and dragged me up to that loft of his.
      Now Tom is the only thing like a real artist we got in Bentwood, but he'd done nothing for six months now 'cept mope around in the Wrangler Inn and wherever else he could soak up beer. I'd hung with him at his place many a time, but all he did was moan that he couldn't paint.
      Even before he turned on the lights, I knew things had changed. For the first time in six months, his apartment smelled like turpentine and oil. And he was babbling a mile a minute.
      "Rob, the music didn't even register with me. I'm sorry. Sitting there that night, I suddenly began to see again. I could see pictures inside my head. I could see pictures everywhere I looked! I had to run straight home and paint!"
      I looked around. It had only been three days, but ten pictures stood around the walls. One was a portrait of old Mrs. Connell, sitting at her regular table with her regular glass of beer, looking all of ninety, big and floppy with her support hose drooping down around her ankles and her lipstick leaking out in channels through her pancake makeup.
      And she's got a twinkle in her eye, and it isn't her that's ridiculous, it's all the rest of us, all of a sudden -- and why did we ever think she came to the Wrangler Inn all these years, but to watch all us adorable little sillies and be amused by our antics?
      There were several other portraits, but none of me, thank God.
      He'd done some scenes around town, and it plumb amazed me that he saw that little hollow down by the crick exactly the way I saw it, like a scene out of Wind in the Willows; then there were other scenes, I was plumb amazed that I'd never seen them that way.
      And there were some scenes I recognized from the piper's music -- a great sunny hillside, though with no goat-men; an open glen in a tall, thick woods, with enchantment singing in the light and line of it, but with no elves; seals cavorting on a beach, a human emotion and laughter in their play.
      "I'm sorry I can't tell you anything about that musician," Tom said, but his eyes were going back to the easel with his current work -- those seals. I left him to it. I went to the diner where Mrs. Connell spent most of her days, but it seemed she up and went on a tour of Europe, and we haven't seen her back yet, either.
      I really don't want to think about where Mrs. Connell might be 'sides Europe, thank you.
      As I was leaving the diner, Bill Brent what owns the hardware store looked up from his ham sandwich and grinned at me. "You been downright sociable last few days, Rob. Might even get you to the Grange dance this weekend, for once?" "Sure," I said. "Why not?"
      People still think Delia will be back some day, though she's been away three years now. I'm the only one knows she's gone for good. I'm not sure what she's up to, but it feels like she's wonderful busy at it.
      II'm pretty busy these days myself. Seems Junie Brent didn't remember any old stories 'bout Rob Sonners, but she was powerful interested in hearing about carpentry. And she's still interested in hearing 'bout it, now that I'm building us a house.
      I still take my guitar up to the top of Jefferson's Hill, sometimes, to play the old tunes Delia used to like. I'm not trying to summon her to my side. I don't believe I ever could, like he did.
      I'm just saying Hello.


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