In the beginning lush San Diego was the Garden of Eden. At the end, when the tall steel gates closed behind them, Nelda said, “Let the Great Serpent have that dreadful place.” She was a riveter. Her husband Miles was a welder. Consolidated Aircraft had terminated their jobs at the end of World War II.
They agreed, “No work, no money. With two kids to feed, that’s hell.”
Miles was happy driving their ’40 Packard east to New Mexico. He smiled and smoked four packs of Lucky Strikes. “From Eden back to the high-plains desert,” he said as they crossed the state line into New Mexico.
With borrowed money, the couple, now in their thirties, bought a 120-acre farm southeast of Clovis. Nelda told her sister Christine, “Here people are friendly, back there,” she pointed west, “not so much.”
Nelda blew her nose. Then again, twice into the same Kleenex, until it dripped. She dropped it on the sandy soil of the farm. “For the sparrows,” she said. As teenagers Nelda and Miles enjoyed the sand dunes behind Cannon Air Force Base, just a few miles down a dirt road. Now they returned and played like children, yelling, rolling, throwing sand.
Not Eden, but home, where their families lived.
In the hot, dry, dusty summers of the 1950s Nelda wore a bullring through her nose. That’s what she called the dust filter for hay fever. Ramsey, their oldest son, never understood the term. Both he and his mother had hay fever, but neither was allergic to hay. Dr. Martin gave them a long list of allergens: rag weed, house dust, cat dander, cocoa…
At family celebrations Miles made banana nut ice cream in an old wooden bucket. He used thick yellow cream from their one cow. The kids had to dump salt on the ice and turn the crank. When cranking got hard and Miles had to take over, the kids knew the sugar feast was almost ready. When Miles pulled out the wooden spatula, the ice cream had to cling to it. If it dripped, Ramsey and Derrick, the two oldest siblings, had to start over with the cranking.
Nelda loved to make angel food cake with bits of canned pineapple stuck into the stark white frosting. R&D Enterprises (the name Ramsey and Derrick gave their secret club, to which only they had membership) sent a handwritten requisition to Nelda Cake Enterprises: “Please sending your starving sons a dozen devil’s food cakes.”
She wrote back with red ink in a very fine cursive, “Not now. Too many allergies. Your loving, protective mother.”
When a dust devil would dance across the wheat fields, Derrick and Ramsey would imagine that the Devil’s ghost was near and would throw rocks at it, fantasizing that the ghostly whirlwind would transform the dust into cocoa-soaked icing for devil’s food cake.
Once, when a spray plane flew over, saturating the fields with DDT, the kids threw rocks at the plane. They called the poisonous stuff Devil’s Drink.
Miles tried to ignore the bullring, but Nelda’s symptoms worsened, so they moved off the farm into Clovis. They traded the 120-acre farm for Hillcrest Skateland, a huge, run-down military Quonset hut bought from Cannon Air Force Base. Rust poured in through the rivet holes at the top. Mice and bullsnakes crawled through holes in the floor. The maple skating surface was full of splinters that had to be sanded out so Miles and his sons could coat it with polyurethane. Miles and Nelda were proud of their mom-and-pop operation.
They dressed Scarlett and Tobin, the two youngest siblings born back on the farm, in matching uniforms. In a decade they won gold medals in dance-skating at the Southwest Skating Championships. Nelda and Miles held silver medals for judging roller-skate competitions. Even so, they were still poor and had to buy rental skates from pawn shops. Miles would often buy the kids trinkets: spinning tops, yo-yo’s, poo-poo cushions.
Behind the counter at Skateland, Miles hobnobbed with floor managers, usually air force personnel from Cannon Air Base. The jet jockeys, most of whom had never been in a jet, helped keep the peace on the rink floor. Sometimes Miles had to intervene among rowdies who were creating chaos on the rink floor. Occasionally he used his fists to punch out drunks, leaving them bloody on the floor. He told the floor managers that was cowboy justice. From that moment on the airmen called him Cowboy Miles.
Nelda was talking to a corporal from New Jersey, “You’re from back east, right?” To her, “east” meant New Jersey, New York. “East” was vague, not like “west,” which in her imagination had clear boundaries. To the airmen Miles and Nelda were their parents away from home, so they brought the Kleemans gifts: stones from the Hudson River, a bird feather from the top of the Empire State Building, a splinter from Bill Hayley’s busted guitar. When Nelda called the gifts imports, the airmen died laughing. “I’m joking,” she said, but they didn’t believe her.
Nelda and Miles had never eaten pizza until a corporal made them one. Its crust was thick, loaded with mozzarella, jalapenos, green peppers, onions, pepperoni, sausage. Belly full, Miles took out a cigarette, smoked one, then two, then three, while he dreamed about visiting Italy. Nelda was happy to eat pizza in Clovis at the new Pizza Hut.
Miles smoked a pack a day. In the car he smoked—in the winter, with the windows up.
“Miles, you should stop smoking,” said Nelda.
“I know, I know.”
“But you keep saying that.”
“I know, I know.”
These conversations went on for years until Nelda developed breast cancer and Miles decided to smoke outdoors—not in the car, not in the house on Vixen Street (where there were no foxes, only coyotes hungry for garbage).
Nelda told her kids, “If you can’t say something nice or uplifting, don’t say anything at all.” When Dr. Neff told her she had breast cancer, she was terrified but told the family that it was only a small spot that could be surgically removed.
It was. It worked. For a while.
A year later the breast cancer returned and metastasized to her lungs.
Miles tightened his belly, trying to suppress the truth that he couldn’t bear to face. To distract himself from the inevitable, he spent more time at used car lots. “He drives but never buys,” said Wilbur, a new salesman. Then, when he was bored looking at used cars, Miles would meet up with Ozias, the peanut farmer, and Digger, the house painter, at Cook’s Truck Center Restaurant for breakfast. He told Nelda it was so she wouldn’t have to cook so much. She knew better than to believe him. She knew guilt was eating him up.
Very late one Sunday night Nelda was almost asleep when she saw the curtain move. “Miles, Miles,” she punched him in the side, “the Holy Spirit is here. I feel it.” She pointed to the trembling curtain hanging in front of a closed window and began to shake as if she were freezing.
Miles flicked on the light, rubbed the sleep out of his eyes, and peered at the trembling curtain, “I’ll be damned!”
“Why are you swearing? This is a holy moment and you’re swearing?”
“You’re right…right. Lord Jesus…”
“Miles, we should pray more. I’m, you know…”
Miles kissed his wife, told her how much he loved her. He pulled the Bible off the bedside table and opened it up to one of their favorite passages, the 23rd Psalm, “The Lord is my shepherd…He maketh me to lie down in green pastures…I shall not want…still waters…” Miles was getting drowsy, but the lines kept rolling off his tongue. Soon Nelda quit shaking and fell back asleep.
The next morning Nelda felt shy about her revelation, although she would never call it that. Maybe it was just a dream? Maybe the Devil was deceiving her? She knew—although she never said it aloud—that she was dying.
Miles said, “That was the Holy Spirit assuring you that you’re going to live.”
“Or it was Jesus coming to help me cross over.”
“Heaven, I hope.”
Miles knew she would go to Heaven. He would probably go to Hell for poisoning Nelda with secondary smoke, a phrase he had just learned from KICA radio. When she asked him why he smoked, he offered several reasons—although he knew they were excuses—habit, something to do with my hands, enjoy the taste, other men do it. When Miles took up puffing at age fourteen, he did not know the addictive effects of tobacco, but in the past few years Reynolds Tobacco Company had been sued. So had Phillip Morris.
Miles, now in his seventies, had grown softer as he aged. He had been a hard man to live with, fond of using his belt on his children when they were young. Nelda told the kids that Miles’s dad, Robert, had used a chain on him. The belt was a sure sign that Miles was becoming kinder.
Late one October Miles’s ulcers were burning inside his belly even though it was loaded with Tums, so he went home and left Nelda to close up Skateland. When she walked in the front door at midnight, she heard him weeping in the bedroom. She sat down on the living room couch, stunned by what she was hearing. “Be still,” she said to her heart, “be still.” She thanked God for the gift of tears.
Nelda kept a red leather-bound diary. In one entry she wrote, “Dear Nelda, time is shorter than you think. You have cancer. So what? You’ve grabbed life by the horns. You don’t have long to make up your mind. Want to travel? No. Want to do something earth-shaking? No. I guess you were not cut out to be world famous.”
She tried to remember a passage from II Corinthians and wrote in her journal, “Wherever we go, we carry death with us in our body, the death that Jesus died, that in this body also life may reveal itself. Wherever we live, we are continually surrendered to the hands of death.”
The contradictions in the passage bothered her, but the next morning she told Miles that she was doing fine, really fine.
“I’m grateful,” said Miles, but he didn’t ask Nelda how she knew that she was fine.
The next day Nelda wrote a letter to Ramsey, who was away at a university: “Today I feel almost good. I have had a rough time for the last two weeks. I cough so much my chest hurts. Got a shot of cortisone. Stopped most of the pain and coughing. Hopefully the chemo I’m on is slowly but surely being successful. I have a small nodule on my chest that is diminishing in size. I didn’t think I could write this because my medications make my handwriting shaky. Sorry. I have told you all my troubles. Please write, Ramsey, pretty please.”
Ramsey pulled his black ’55 Mercury into the driveway, honked his horn, hopped out, ran into the house, hugged his mother. She began to cry. “Don’t cry Mom.”
“Not crying. Allergies.” She tossed a drenched Kleenex into an empty coffee can sitting on the kitchen counter. “Ramsey, what are you doing here? I asked you to write.”
“I know, but, well, I didn’t know about the chemo.” He dumped a stack of papers and books on the kitchen table.
“I’ve told you before about my treatment. Why do you keep forgetting? Sit down. A bit of angel food cake is left. Want it? It’s up next to Miles’s doughnuts.”
“No. Chocolate, devil’s food, something filled with cocoa. I forget…not sure why I forget. Study, marital troubles, I don’t know…”
“You and Bev are getting along?”
“Mmm, sorta. Maybe. I don’t know.”
“You’re becoming a professor, aren’t you? You can’t keep saying that you don’t know.”
“This conversation is going in circles,” said Nelda. “Hey,” she smiled, “let’s trade compliments.”
They went out to the backyard and sat at the picnic table that Miles had built for Nelda. She poured them both a cup of coffee. Ramsey knew the routine, so he started immediately: “You are kind, gentle, and loving.”
Nelda, “You are intellectual, truthful, and direct.”
They both knew the ritual. Now it was time to trade criticisms.
Ramsey, “You sugar-coat your pain, secretly you are furious with all of us, some days you hate us.”
“That’s not true.”
“The ritual, Mom, it requires you to listen. Remember?”
“I remember, but you keep forgetting,” said Nelda. “Anyway, it’s your turn to listen. You tell the truth when it’s convenient. Your words are so direct that they are painful, and I wish you’d cut the irony; it’s such bullshit!”
Tears were welling up in their eyes when they heard the horn honk. Miles had picked up the other siblings from the Lubbock airport. When the four of them walked in, Nelda scurried to the bathroom to put out fresh towels. Ramsey grabbed his books and hauled them to the basement.
Miles, Derrick, Tobin and Scarlett walked in, looked at each other as if through a fog. What just happened here?
Nelda wrote a penciled note to the doctor, “No heroic measures. Let me die, please.”
The medical records say, “Nelda Kleeman: well-developed, obese, fair-skinned, white female, age 64, in severe distress, miserable, moaning with every breath, died peacefully on March 4, 1985, 3:12 a.m., Central Standard Time, with rib fractures and metastatic carcinoma of the breasts after she was given a heavy dose of morphine.”
After Nelda’s death, her grown-up kids found writings stashed in a closet where Miles couldn’t find them. She kept a leatherbound journal. Black. In it she recorded a few dreams:
December: I’m out on a lonely road in the country. Lots of cars, many people. Miles is there. They all leave. I am left alone. No way home. More long, lonely dark roads. There’s music. Sounds like a sad, lonely, howling dog. I love that music. That’s how I feel.
January: Inside a large wooden fence around a big carnival. Strong men. Fat ladies. Dwarves. People with two heads. Miles goes in first. I go into the tent, but all my family are gone. I sit on bleachers, try to find them. But no one is there. I weep and howl. Wake up crying.
February: Women are curing beef in creamy looking mud. One woman says it’s a spice. I lift it up. The mud drips like gravy, so I bite off a large chunk. I chew, swallow, vomit. People are leaving. All that is left is me and another large chunk of mud-cured beef.
March: Climbing across catwalks above cattle. Really dangerous, big horns. Below the catwalk, all is black, dark. Feels like Hell. Instead of finding my way out I cross more and more, a maze of catwalks. I’m alone, really alone.
At Nelda’s funeral Brother Buntline talked about her kindness and joy, her relationship to Jesus, how much the kids in her third-grade class loved her, how hard she had worked to learn elementary Spanish. The congregation sang, Just as I Am. Miles, ridden with guilt and wallowing in sorrow, didn’t bother to tell Buntline that Nelda hated the hymn. She felt it was a way of coercing folks to walk down the aisle and give their lives to the Lord.
Over fifty people attended the funeral. The pallbearers were friends of Miles: Jigg Jackson, Digger O’Dell, Milford Hangtree, Wendell Bohannon, Melvin Doolittle, and Ozias Abraham. When Ozias, large and always on the edge of a stroke, tripped and fell, the casket tumbled to the ground. Barbara, one of Nelda’s sisters, fell onto the casket and began to wail. She clawed the oak casket like a cat. Nelda’s two brothers had to carry her to a Sunday School classroom where Dr. Neff gave her a sedative.
When the funeral procession arrived at the freshly dug grave at High Plains Cemetery, they found the dirt heaped up and covered with Astroturf. Ramsey pulled it back and said, “Let the people see the dirt.”
The undertaker, Mr. Bilford Greenwood, said, “Wherever two or three of you Christians gather, that’s enough to outnumber the dead woman, who has now quit breathing. We are all trying to make sense of her early death. So I suggest that you share some stories about Nelda.”
For an hour people stood at the graveside telling stories. A Black woman said she was the only white woman in Clovis to invite her into her home for coffee. A Hispanic woman said she was impressed at how hard Nelda worked to learn Spanish. A poor person, an unbeliever, was grateful for the angel food cakes that Nelda made for her family at Christmas.
When Larry, Nelda’s oldest brother, heard these stories, he bawled like a newborn calf and said how much he loved her. Arlevia, one of Nelda’s sisters, knew it was all a lie, that all Larry wanted was Nelda’s painting of a famous Indian chief. He knew it was worth a mint.
After the burial Miles tightened his belly and tried hard not to cry. He said to himself, “Nelda’s gone.” He lit up a cigarette, then two more, and looked up at the clear sky, said to God, “I’m finished.”
After Nelda’s death Miles lived alone for two years and gave up smoking. He wore sunglasses, sometimes chewed on an old cigar that he didn’t light. “Won’t hurt me, will it?” He used to make demands, but now questions riddled his soul. He prayed for forgiveness, but never felt forgiven. Even though he was a Methodist, not a Catholic, he prayed to the Virgin Mary, Nelda, even Buddha, whom he had read about in Reader’s Digest.
One morning at Cook’s Restaurant the sons saw him gazing at a waitress’s breasts and suggested that he might want to date her. “Never,” he said, “Nelda was a saint.”
“Even a saint would want you to remarry,” said the boys, “besides, you may be old but you’re horny.”
“You are so full of shit,” he said. “Maybe I’ll I consider it?”
He never did. Instead, he spent time with Scarlett’s daughters. Miles bought a trampoline for Mildred and built a rickshaw for Alice using a pattern he found in Popular Mechanics. He pulled both girls in the rickshaw. The neighbors teased him, said he looked like a Chinaman. He said he didn’t care, that he admired men from China who had built the railroad.
Later he told Digger O’Dell, “The girls are enjoying their lives, but I’m not enjoying mine.”
Digger wept and wept.
Miles thought the tears were for Nelda, but they were for Miles.
For two years Miles was in agony. He missed Nelda. Guilt racked his soul. He thought he had the flu. It wouldn’t go away, so he went to see Dr. Shipman, who surprised him by saying he should get X-rays. Shipman said he saw a shadow on one lung and sent Miles to the Methodist Hospital in Lubbock. Miles had gone to the hospital with Nelda, but he’d never been hospitalized.
The siblings went to Clovis to pick up a bathrobe, toothpaste, pajamas, and stomach ulcer medicine. In the cupboard, they found a single stale doughnut. “Where’s the other doughnut?” someone asked. “Doughnuts get lonely without a mate.”
A big discussion happened on the ride from Clovis to Lubbock. Was it a doughnut or a spudnut? Did Miles eat anything other than banana nut ice cream and doughnuts? Was a doughnut just disgusting food or a symbol of eternity?
The doctor wanted to keep Miles overnight to check for pneumonia and to run more tests. Meanwhile, the siblings gathered at Sundown, Texas, the boys confident their dad was fine. Scarlett, though, couldn’t quit crying, “He’s going to die. I know it, I’ve seen it.”
Derrick and Tobin tried to console her, “Sis, you’re borrowing trouble. We already have enough.”
Three in the morning, a nurse from Lubbock Methodist Hospital calls, says Miles is in trouble. Derrick, Tobin, and Scarlett race ahead in Derrick’s white Corvette. Ramsey and his family lag behind, stop on the highway, almost turn around. Then Ramsey imagines the universe utters a big sigh and whispers that Miles has just died.
Ramsey’s family arrives at the hospital half an hour later. The surgeon comes, says Miles has cancer in one lung. He will need to operate but is sure the operation will be successful.
When Miles comes out from under the anesthetic, he says he knows you can’t catch cancer, but he’s sure he caught it from Nelda. The siblings insist that cancer is not like a cold; you can’t catch it.
The surgery is successful, but Miles dies of cardiac arrest on the operating table at 3 a.m., November 22, 1988.
The siblings agree, “Miles wants to be with Nelda, and nothing is going to stop him.” He’s trying to borrow her saintly influence to be with her in Heaven, although he’d felt that for what he’d done to Nelda, he deserved to be tortured for eternity.
Where is Miles now?
God only knows.
The preceding story is a fictionalized memoir. I have changed the names for several reasons. For one thing, we four siblings disagree about the details of events and their interpretations. One sibling thinks that Miles’s smoking had nothing to do with Nelda’s death. Another thinks it had everything to do with her death. Another sibling thinks there were several factors: diet, genetics, lifestyle. Did Miles feel guilty? Some say yes. Some say no. Did Nelda ever express to anyone what she felt? Some say yes. Some say no.
The ethics were and are complex. A parent asks that an opinion be kept a secret. After he or she dies, is it ethical to make it public? Some of the medical records are redacted by the doctor with a black line. What’s beneath the blackout? Should I reveal what I see, or imagine?
We siblings are all in our seventies. Thirty years have passed since our parents’ deaths, and our memories are less than perfect. Sometimes photos and dreams color our memories. Did that happen? Or do we only remember a photo, video, or story told by a sibling?
As the author, I don’t always know exactly what happened, so I fill in the blanks with what I imagine. But my imagination is informed by memory. How accurate is it? How do I negotiate the differences among dream, photo, video, family gossip, and medical record? I try to keep the one separate from the other, but events melt into one another. Who said that: Derrick? Tobin? Scarlett? Ramsey? How do we know what we know? Are we guessing? Remembering? Imagining? Bullshitting?
After Miles’ death we four siblings, along with a few of our spouses, spent ten days together at the Kleeman home giving away things (black plastic bags filled with John Deer hats, Roswell Skating Rink hats, canned goods, toilet paper, old clothes, silverware), dividing up things (turquoise jewelry, shirts, boots, belts, Nelda’s china, Miles’ tools). The garage was full of stuff. Some asked why we didn’t sell the stuff. No, we said, it should be given away to friends of our parents.
Even though there were lots of tears and few minor arguments, we made and stuck to agreements. On the drive back to Santa Fe my wife and I saw a herd of pronghorns. We stopped, gazed, talked, imagined, then decided to have a second child. Why? Because my wife thought, after witnessing how well we four siblings worked out the issues among us, with very little conflict, that we should have a second child.
Originally published in Canadian Notes & Queries, Winter, 2022.