Short Story by Roy Bentley: Sad-Proofing Through Oz

Composite image from The Wizard of Oz and an Eastern Kentucky funeralSad-Proofing

My brother doesn’t hear what I hear, the sound of a coal train going away from the hollow, leaving Neon to the south. TW is busy glad-handing Quiller Yontz, a stonecutter he wraps an arm around by a spray of chrysanthemums in the shape of a horseshoe, someone’s idea of humor since my father died by a stroke of bad luck. Thomas William Wolff, M.D., my older brother, is nodding at something Quiller says as if the world of limestone and sweat is always a work in progress. It’s his town, my brother, his river of light the rest of us are paying to go down, which makes the rest of us passengers if not cargo. I tell myself to picture something pleasing—like my boy Charlie who I took to see The Wizard of Oz last night. In movie light, Charlie had looked up at Dorothy Gale and Toto and the black-and-white-then-Technicolor-then-black-and-white-again world unfolding as he chomped away at his popcorn like any four-year-old.

There are bullies, usually men, who will stand in the parlor of a funeral home and speak in loud whispers that excuse everything. Adultery. Greed. Pettiness. Betrayal. Death. My brother TW Wolff is a bully who delivers babies; has for a decade now. He travels the hills, in all weather, and on horseback—he owns a car but says he gets places with a horse that cars can’t go. TW sees himself like that: a knight-errant hero hoisting himself into the saddle.

Heroes can be scary, too. When my brother looks in my direction, I lower my eyes from habit. He wears a vested suit, dark blue. The chain of his pocket watch and the fob fall against the blue as strands of gold not unlike the hair of Mother when she was young, and mine when I was a child. My brother’s hair is freshly cut. Bleached strings of cigarette smoke rise from the fingers of his hand. He looks back at Quiller. They lean in to what is being said by the circle of whisperers they’re part of by the gaudy horseshoe-spray of white flowers I suppose are mums.

Lipstick reds creep across the oriental rug in the parlor where I sit beside my older sister America. I call her Sissy or Sis. Our parents called her Merkie—America if she had faltered in some way. She’s broad-shouldered for a woman, my sister, and there is a tough patience to her even with her father in a coffin on a bier in the front of a room of flowers and standing men.

Merkie had been entrusted with my son after I was taken away to the sanitarium. Today, she has decided to leave him at the house with relatives from Whitesburg, saying that he’ll learn soon enough about death and dying. No one asked for my opinion, which is pretty normal.

The unreal man in the closed casket at the front of the room is my father too, but what I think and feel are beside the point since I’m on furlough from Eastern State for being crazy, or what TW gets to say is crazy. Three years is a long time to be gone from home, put away for something that might have gotten you thrown in jail for a year (if that) if you’d simply been born a man. A pissed-off woman scares people, it turns out. Scared people are dangerous people.

Our father burned to death in a field fire—I imagine he was cutting brush, working alone—but the details hadn’t been passed my way. I had never called Daddy anything but Daddy. I knew he doted on TW, what parent wouldn’t? But my brother called Daddy awful things behind his back. Mostly a sonofabitch—one quick word like a stake through the heart. He made no effort to meet Daddy even part of the way toward peace or to shoulder some portion of the guilt he asked our father to drag around after the death of our mother who insisted on carrying her last risky pregnancy to term when she had been told not to.

I don’t want to despair. And thoughts of my brother TW are little paths to despair.

I struggle again to retrieve the picture of my son Charlie at the Neon. It’s hard to do, but I’ve learned after hours of practice sitting alone. I may have always been suited to solitude to some degree, to flights of fancy and imagination, but what sparked my ability to conjure up the sounds of a creek or of a crow settling on a branch, was Daddy putting me in a closet and locking the door when he found out that I was pregnant by a married man.

The name of the game is: don’t look at anyone and try to decipher the meanings of words. Go for tone of voice and fill in your own meanings. I call it “sad-proofing.” Really, it’s an exercise in controlling the world’s ability to confuse or control. If the object of the exercise is to keep me from reacting to the cruelty around me, then I’m getting better. I’m “gaining skill,” as the doctor at Eastern State would call it. He would have two good-sized orderlies tie me to a chair, not tightly but secure, and then raise the chair over their heads and walk like litter bearers. He’d walk along to one side and rattle off questions like What are you thinking? What are you seeing? and ask that I close my eyes and picture a river in summertime and focus all my “reactive energy” on holding that scene in the mind.

At first the orderlies “floated” me like that for a few minutes, then for half an hour, and slowly I came to accept what was out my control. It frightened me at first. I begged them to stop. Once in a while they dropped me and I was bruised or forced to experience falling and not being able to catch yourself. But the doctor said that these exercises some might have termed torture would help, and they did. That’s the best thing I can say about my time at Eastern: I can mask wanting to react until I don’t even feel like I want to react anymore. The last sticking point seems to be if the picture in my mind is of my son Charlie and I can’t see him except as someone dissolving. It’s not hard not to react to that.

Of course the exercise is practiced differently in different settings. Say, in a closet. It turns out that if you don’t want to be present in the life you made for yourself or that others made for you, you can pass into a place of your own making. If you can’t, you hurt and strike out. Then of course they give you shock treatments and you forget everything for months at a time.

The exercise is like listening to the sound of a train passing when there is no train.

That’s what I’m doing as I sit staring at the oriental then at Daddy’s buffed-shiny coffin then at the smoke from the cigarettes in the hands of the men standing at the front of the room: getting control of a desire to get up and walk over to TW and hit him in the face and keep it up, ruining the flesh and the shadow of the man, until I draw blood or he falls lifeless on the floor.

Maybe Daddy knew how his son was and stayed out of his way. Maybe he knew about TW being a bully, and maybe he didn’t. Daddy hadn’t been all that loving himself.

My father had locked me in an upstairs closet with a slop jar of a thing to shit and piss in and only water (and not much of that) and then made me stay in there for three mostly-dark days, after which time I was let out and given a beating. I may have reminded Daddy of my mother to the extent that we had the same color hair and same mean temper, with or without provocation. I never knew what to make of either of them. My mother and father each lived off the fury of the other in a way that spoke to the world, and what it said wasn’t so much a set of words adding up to reasons for this or that but a feeling that, deep down, they nursed a grudge.

The men at the front of the parlor are taking seats like something is about to start.

TW is coming this way.

He casts his eyes on first this one then the next, stopping to pat a shoulder or arm, before he takes a seat beside Molly, his wife, who is seated next to America. When he sits, the music commences like the funeral director is taking his cues from TW, the King of Eastern Kentucky, and the rest of us had better get with it and do likewise or be prepared to face the consequences.

People tell me all the time, You’re so lucky to have a brother like TW. I think: Luck has nothing to do with it. I never say this out loud. What good would that do? And lots of folks have siblings they’re proud of or who love them enough not to close the car door on their hands. All those folks, though, would never last a day in Eastern: if they actually felt themselves being wheeled down a hall on a gurney after some mysterious treatment had just befallen them, they could probably handle the initial shock of it. People handle a lot of strange things. But the thing is, they don’t handle the total loss of control something like that announces. They just don’t. Because to handle that, you have to want to handle it. You need a reason to keep going. One overriding idea you’ll want to have in easy reach when you emerge from the fog of treatment.

And you can never, ever let go of that. Not even when you wake up the next day and feel a tenderness between your legs—down there—and know that something has happened to you.

Sure, I want free. I remember the first time I knew I wasn’t free. I was sitting in church with my father and mother and my older brother. The front of the church was brick and limestone. What I knew that they don’t tell you in school or even as part of the Sunday services is that my people had quarried the stone for that church. The cross on the stone was someone else’s contribution, but the limestone it was anchored to was a gift of the Wolff family. We weren’t the symbols of faith and redemption, sin and resurrection after death. We were the stone of Letcher County brought forth by living hands that bled from the work—or the men of the Wolff family were that stone. The women were the earth they tore it out of with their bare hands.

Of course my father’s hard, calloused hands allowed my brother’s hands to be soft.

Daddy invested everything in TW’s education so that no son of his had to dig stone.

I can think these things because I don’t say them out loud. I’d rather not have to think at all, which would be like driving a car in the hills before first light: you feel the road and hear the engine and the wheel is in your hands and no amount of luck of thinking makes what happens, happen. You make it happen. The headlights are on or off because you turn them on or leave them off. And without thinking. You, for sure, don’t think: I’m a Wolff and Wolffs are the ones who bring up the limestone that builds towns in the middle of nowhere. You just drive. Pretty soon you’re at a house where they have in hand the folding money and coins they exchange for something perishable. Eggs. Butter. Milk. Cheese. You don’t think about delivering what folks need that day and the next, you just do it. And, sooner or later, it’s who you are.

I’m not free. But I don’t dwell on it. With any luck I might get free at some point.

I might borrow back my canary-in-a-coal-mine yellow Model A Ford and head out for some exotic place in one of the directions of the Cross of Jesus Christ, Our Lord and Savior.

Someone who loves my brother—his wife Molly Wolff—is patting his leg then leaving her hand on his thigh. Someone who knows TW for who and what he is. Someone who has interceded on my behalf recently so that I might take my son to see The Wizard of Oz.

I can’t hear what she is saying, but I’m sure it has something to do with how he should behave toward someone weaker and less fortunate. For years, Molly has been a buffer between TW and the rest of Neon. She seems sure of what she’s doing. But she may never know what it’s like to be the focus of his controlling nature to the point where one life is taken from you and another handed back. So far, she appears to have no agenda other than to see that kindness prevail once in a while. I understand her trying to make being married to a powerful man, to this powerful man, something she doesn’t have to make excuses for. The funny thing is that loving my brother Thomas might be seen as aiding and abetting the part of us that nurtures fear to get what it wants. Maybe Molly is asking TW who sent the horseshoe of chrysanthemums and if referencing luck in that way is someone “trying to rub it in” with regard to Daddy’s accident. Whatever the answer, if that is what she’s asking, TW has made no effort to have it removed.

And if he wanted it gone, it would be gone.

A swath of flowers is at the head of a freshly-dug grave in the cemetery above the Junction, almost as many flowers as I recall seeing around the casket. I say “almost” because the horseshoe isn’t there. What I haven’t told you about TW is that even after standing up to resistance or disrespect, he practices standing up to the appearance of resistance or disrespect.

Obedience Harlow is standing to my right during the final remarks graveside. Beady, as she likes to be called, keeps looking up at first one then another man. She’s a few years younger than I am, and it’s clear that she’s on the prowl. “Hunting a man,” they used to call it and may still if things haven’t altered more than they appear to in the years I’ve been in the sanitarium.

When the preacher stops talking, Beady says, I like your dress, Abigail. Gray is your color. Then, most likely because I don’t speak right up, she adds: I’m sorry about your daddy.

Beady and I went to school together as far as she went. She dropped out before graduation. Married a miner. Divorced or he died—I can’t remember just then which is the case.

Beady has never been part of the better circle. Maybe, like most women her age, she hasn’t given up hopes of joining those ranks. She is dressed in a off-white dress that doesn’t hide her best features. Has on the sort of shoes that require thought to walk in, especially on a hill.

That’s something you can never understand if you haven’t been a child of privilege: not caring what others think but dressing and acting as if you do care. TW is an expert in matters like these. A veteran liar, some would say. Whoever sent the horseshoe of mums might say that.

I take Beady’s arm and say Thank you. Then I ask, Are you going to the house?

I’m talking a woman of a certain age now. Rejection staggers us, but we get up and go on. She looks for a moment as if she’s about to say yes or of course but stops herself, and then she asks if I think it’s all right if she comes. Like I could give permission. I tell her I’ll ask my brother and let go of her arm and start to walk over to where TW and Molly are standing.

I know to wait for TW to stop looking down into the open grave.

He looks into my face, and then I see he has actually been crying.

What is it? he asks in a taut voice that says he wants not to get upset more than is necessary. I recognize trying to hold yourself together. I say, Beady asked to come to the get-together, and then I point to her standing where I left her. But just now she’s talking to a man and seems occupied. Quiet and stillness fragrance the fall air over and around Daddy’s grave—or it may be the various perfumes mixing under cedars and pines that shade the family cemetery.

My brother wipes his eye and looks in Beady’s direction. In the light of the hillside her red hair glows more than I had noticed. She has a nice figure—for her age, as they say.

TW assumes whatever it is men assume about women like Beady, like me, and then speaks. Let me help you down the hill, he says and takes my arm. Molly is beside him. My sister-in-law is wearing the sort of sensible shoes that don’t call for the careful steps Beady’s shoes require. Molly smiles in my direction like I know something she isn’t saying because she doesn’t have to, and then the three of us walk down the hill to where the cars have been left.

I am afraid of my brother. I was afraid of my father, too. Each night I was in that closet, he would come to the door and listen. I would hear footsteps then breathing through the thin pine closet door. Daddy did what he could to keep me from knowing that he cared about whether I lived or died. With Daddy in the ground, the clock is ticking on my furlough.

I had feared him, my father, but heard him worrying certainty in those moments he stood listening. Cruel men rule over us, shaping a world we barely recognize. We take their hard or soft hands as Molly takes TW’s on the way down the hill.

We tell ourselves it’s to keep from falling and being seen as weak and less than beautiful.

Strength and beauty have nothing to do with it.

At Eastern there is an attendant named Butch. A colored man, Butch keeps to himself. An outsider among outsiders. Sometimes they send him to bring me to the day room or cart me here or there on the locked ward. And often enough that he seems to have gotten used to me or enough so that we speak. He doesn’t hold forth about the world, not like I’ve heard most men do, but he’ll report the time of day or where we are in the calendar year that I take for a small kindness. He may know that an outsider lives and dies on those kindnesses.

The last thing Butch said to me the day TW picked me up from the hospital stayed with me. Butch said, Watch yourself in the world, Miss Wolff,  like he knew better than I did what can be taken from you. And with little warning. Often by someone who didn’t need to act that way but did so because the opportunity presented itself. Butch is about as close to a protector as I have, but I won’t think too much about that today. I’ll just do what I’m told for now. Until I can see my way clear to get some distance. I know better than to think I’m Dorothy Gale and blessed with Hollywood good fortune, but I know a few things about men and their Emerald cities.

Read Roy Bentley’s short story “Blood Memory.”

Roy Bentley About Roy Bentley

Roy Bentley is the author of Boy in a Boat (University of Alabama Press), Any One Man (Bottom Dog Books), The Trouble with a Short Horse in Montana (White Pine Press), and Starlight Taxi (Lynx House Press). A new book, Walking with Eve in the Loved City, has been selected by Billy Collins as a finalist for the 2018 Miller Williams Poetry Prize and will be publlshed in the spring of 2018 by the University of Arkansas Press. Work from that collection has appeared in Shenandoah, Pleiades, Rattle, Blackbird, The Southern Review, and elsewhere.


  1. Kathleen S. Burgess says:

    “Cruel men rule over us, shaping a world we barely recognize.” Roy Bentley has captured the essential understanding of a woman currently without power as she suffers incarceration in an asylum. Soon WWII will uproot Americans.

    I look forward to the next installment in this struggle between members of the Wolff family in Neon, KY.

    • Roy Bentley says:

      Yes, this summer I hope to check in at the Wolff Hotel for a few days–it’s a tough place. Tough in the way only home can be. Thank you, Kathleen.

  2. Eric M. Martin says:

    “And thoughts of my brother TW are little paths to despair.” I really enjoy this idea, Roy – the idea that thoughts are paths and, by extension, emotions are places.

    This piece speaks eloquently to a set of complex situations, not the least complex being an attempt to acknowledge the uncontrollable nature of the mind (and its ever associative, ever connecting nature) while a battle is waged none-the-less to wrangle the mind, to control it somehow, at least to steer its energies.

    The veracity of the piece is impressive too. Weighty. Believable. Painfully believable.

Speak Your Mind