The Clay Man

Baker’s Pick
Laurie Seidler


When Chase came back the dirt was so thick on him he looked like a ghost. Mom spent the evening picking burrs from his hair. It dried in a frizzy halo pitted where she’d cut out the tangles too bad to unwind.

“You look demented,” I said and Mom shushed me. I wasn’t wrong, just saying what she didn’t want to hear. Chase grinned and shook his head slowly to make the halo bow and wave like a sea-creature in a slow current.

That night she locked the door but he got out anyway and slept on the lawn.

He was 15 then. He’d been gone three weeks and worried Mom skinny. She’d known he was off in the woods and he’d stayed away before, but never that long. She sat up in the armchair by the window waiting.

Mostly he was ordinary. Walls made him crazy, though, and certain noises. Some lights did too. Fluorescents buzzed, he said, and gave him headaches. He couldn’t stay in a store for more than a few minutes without bolting. He’d need to run then, run hard, to a quiet place up in the hills.

Two rails of low mountains cupped our valley and came together, about five miles to the south of the house, in a high wooded ridge. He’d take me there with him sometimes. In winter, the mist wrapped you in a web of cold silver drops. In summer, the heat burned the hills yellow and the air hung heavy with dust. It was beautiful, but unnerving too, wide open and bright on the peaks and dark among the trees. It made my stomach ache to be so alone, so far from home.

Chase needed it though. Some days you could see the want growing in him. He’d get a tight chiseled look like he was reining himself in and his eyes would wander. When he left, finally, he would be like wire thrumming. After, the tension would be out of him. He’d meet your eyes and talk to you and there’d be an easiness in him for a while.

Mom understood, although she’d grown up in the city. Living in an apartment was like living in a warren, comforting and close, she said. Chase squeezed his eyes shut at that and squirmed.

“All those people,” he said. “All that noise.”

She smiled. “Different strokes,” she said and rested a finger lightly on his arm. “Different strokes for different folks.”

She moved us out here after Dad died, took the money from the insurance and bought a house on the outskirts of an old mining town skirted by national forest.

“Breathing room,” she said. “A place to start over.”

Chase was nine then and I was seven. I remember driving up on the coast road, Mom pale with missing Dad, Chase hanging out the window grinning.

“Hold him, for Christ’s sake,” she shouted and I tugged at his sweatshirt, anchoring him with my scant weight. When he sat back his hair was stiff and twisted, rimed with salt, and his cheeks were glowing. Mom shook her head and half-smiled at the wind-swept look of him.

Dad never really understood Chase’s ways, didn’t have it in him to let Chase be Chase. He came from a long line of doctors and lawyers, my father, and he had a fixed notion of how a boy, his in particular, should act. They were both pig-headed and they clashed.

Dad kept on Chase, kept after him to do better in school, to stop fidgeting, stop whining. Once he tried to make Chase wear a tie to an office party. He must have known from the start that the effort was doomed; Chase couldn’t stand anything around his neck and, anyway, would have been hard-pressed to keep still in the crowd. But that night Dad was determined that we would be a normal family. He must have pictured us, dressed in our best and smiling shyly, passing under the admiring eyes of his co-workers.

Dad ended up sitting on Chase, pinning his arms, working the crumpled tie into a double knot. When he rose, sweaty but triumphant, Chase gagged and threw up at his feet. Mom reached down and swiftly, silently, slit the tie with her pinking shears.

Part of me was angry with Dad. Part of me was proud. He could have sagged then but he straightened. He smoothed his shirt, shrugged into his neatly pressed jacket and left.

Mom wiped Chase’s mouth and I cleaned up the sick. We sat on the floor with Chase panting between us. Mom closed her eyes and leaned her head against the sofa.

“You couldn’t give him that one little thing, could you?” she said tiredly, then touched his arm to take away the sting of the words.

“I hate him,” Chase said.

“It’s just, he was expecting someone else. He forgets you’re not him.”

“What’s that supposed to mean?” he said.

“It means we’re a disappointment,” I said. “You’re you and I’m a girl.”

“That’s crap,” Chase said.

Mom frowned and gave him a warning look. “Chase. Language.”

He looked chagrined, briefly, then something in the moment struck him as funny. Mom and I got swept up in it too and shook with laughter. Chase took the pieces of tie, cut them into scraps and threw them in the air like confetti. Mom sat with snippets of blue and gold in her hair wiping her eyes.

Dad came back for her then. He’d walked around the block a few times and cooled off. Mom got a neighbor to stay with us. We opened all the windows and Chase was quiet for the rest of the night.

Mom thought that moving into the country would make it easier for Chase, that the quiet would soothe him. When you stepped outside our house you heard trees bending in the wind and birds calling instead of traffic. The school down the street was less crowded than our old one and the teachers, less harried, were more willing to take his idiosyncrasies in stride.

But having the wild in plain view was a temptation Chase hadn’t known before. His disappearances grew in frequency and stretched into overnights. He grew more feral as he got more comfortable in his skin. It seemed, the happier he was the further behind he left us.

Mom did what she could to keep him. She bargained: homeschooling in the mornings and afternoons off if he’d stay close and sleep indoors where she could check on him. And he tried for her, he did. He stayed until he was stretched so thin it was hard to watch. She’d break then, stuff his pack with sandwiches and warm clothes and stand, resigned, by the door.

“Go on,” she’d say. “Remember the way back.”

He’d beam, grab the pack and run.

“Not much for good-byes, that one,” she’d remark and I’d wrap my arms around her. She’d squeeze me hard.

That three-week stint was a milestone of a sort, although we didn’t know it at the time. His wandering takes him further afield now, along paths and twisting waterways that we can scarcely find on a map. He returns each time with new scars and tiny precious gifts: shells and carvings, delicately beaded moccasins. He sits on the sofa, smelling of wood-smoke and lets Mom smooth his wild hair.

“It’s good to be home,” he says, and his voice cracks with disuse.
pencil

Laurie Seidler lives in San Jose, CA. She is the editor at VerbSap.com and recently has had stories accepted online by The Shore Magazine, In Posse Review and Hobart Pulp, among others. E-mail: Laurie_Seidler[at]email.com.

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