My father loaned money to my uncles for a logging business. They never paid him back. When I was little it wasn’t much I understood about the loan but we’d visit the mill sometimes where big trees were brought in on trucks, longleaf pines trimmed up, branches stripped off. They used chains and tractors to haul them up on the logger with its mechanism of pulleys and hooks, the clank and screech of rusty gears, then the high wheeling swing of a log. In the blue diesel mist and cough, I saw the biggest round cutting blade with teeth like a dragon’s teeth. It’s what I thought of when my teacher told us a story about a dragon.
We were studying medieval times and magical beasts like unicorns and dragons, sea monsters on old maps, the legend of Tristan with a nick in his sword for the dragon he killed for his uncle Mark. I wasn’t so sure about uncles and so I had a clue about how the story would end, pledges and lies, a black not a white sail on the horizon.
The best part about going to the sawmill was the sawdust pile. There was one big mountain of sawdust way on the back of the lumberyard, a mountain with high multiple peaks, rust orange, dark brown in places, and black rotten inside. You know wood can rot, my father said, and told me the true story of a child climbing [End Page 135]
an old sawdust pile. It caved in and smothered her. But he let me and my sister play on the new pile, sweet sawdust of pine, not like dust you’d have on your furniture, but bits and curls of wood where the saw blade chewed longways down the logs. We shook it from our hair and socks and pockets. Sawdust is lighter than beach sand which is gritty and packs down. You can’t make sand castles with sawdust but you can slide or roll down from a sawdust mountain and tumble softly to the bottom.
In the mill office my dad and my uncles talked, joked around, and smoked cigarettes. You could hear my dad’s laugh for a mile. He was a good storyteller. He’d come out with a handshake and a check in his pocket— only for interest, I heard them say; they’d pay down the principal when debts for equipment were clear. Sometimes the check was good, sometimes bad. I got bits and pieces of the story, how my dad wanted to help my uncles, because he could, with money he’d saved when he was in the war. They were my mother’s brothers. Family, he’d say. That’s when I learned about family and money.
They were taking in big money on the accounts and bought fancy cars—a white Buick, a red Thunderbird. Then a timber company from out of state moved in on them and bought up tracts of land for the trees. They clear-cut to raw stumps, then sold it off to developers. My uncles were smart and put their houses in the names of their wives, and lost everything else. Everything.
Those were hard times for my father. He ruminated about it, sipping his coffee, making grocery lists [End Page 136] from the specials in the Thursday paper. He ruminated about what went wrong, the premature elation of cash in their pockets, the good times, the big cars.
He liked to watch his daughters sliding, tumbling down the mountain of sawdust, the simple soft pleasure of yielding to gravity, while gravity was a physical thing, not a worry about the way things were working out in the world. He’d tell us how growing up as a boy he’d found an orange in the toe of a sock laid on the hearth of a Christmas fire— an exotic thing, a bright bitter sweetness.
I learned that hope is a kind of denial, white lies you tell to yourself to be the kind of person you can look in the mirror at, lies you wouldn’t believe unless you yourself were good and hopeful enough to believe in the word of a man. [End Page 137]
Idris Anderson’s first collection of poems, Mrs. Ramsay’s Knee, was selected by Harold Bloom for the May Swenson Poetry Award. She won a Pushcart Prize in 2010 and a special mention in the 2012 Pushcart anthology. Her poems have appeared in AGNI, The Hudson Review, and The Nation. She recently won the first Arts & Letters Prime award. She was born and grew up in Charleston, South Carolina, and moved to the San Francisco area almost two decades ago.