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Night in Palmyra, Missouri

The night settled down in the old house in Palmyra with a sigh. My dad set us kids up in a bedroom on the second floor. The wood spoke in pinched tones under his feet as he descended the stairs and entered the living room. I could tell when the people downstairs stood and sat by the sound of the floor beneath their feet. The soft murmur of their voices came up through the register next to the bed. The floor made a series of squeaks when someone pushed Rayford West, who everyone in my mom’s family called Uncle Ray, across the room in his wheelchair.

Cerebral palsy trapped Uncle Ray in that wheelchair. It kept him from doing many things, such as becoming completely free of his parents. But he was a good man, and good to me. I remember being excited to see him. While I couldn’t understand much of what he said, I did get that he liked me. That was important to me, even as a little kid.

My parents, Ray, and his parents talked for what seemed a long time. Mostly, my dad talked. He started and went on for long periods. But he was always holding forth on some subject. Many years later, I learned for myself that when you lecture other people you don’t really have to converse with them. My dad was never really a converser.

The bed squeaked when my brother or I moved on it. I had never slept on a bed like it. A thin-ish mattress covered metal springs that I could almost feel through the mattress. I liked the hobnail‌ bedspread—it reminded me of the one my grandmother had in her house in Kansas City. My brother had fallen asleep soon after dad closed the door. His sleeping sounds echoed up against the high ceiling. I listened to the people below as long as I could, the conversation and my dad’s voice became tinny and louder until I fell over the edge into sleep.

Sometime in the night, I woke and could not sleep. I think the silence of the house stirred me. Unlike our house on Stateline Road in Kansas City, which always had the noise of the busy street filtering through it, no traffic sounds disturbed the still air in the West’s house. The town, it seemed, went all the way to sleep. The light of a streetlamp fell through the window in the room, the lace sheers folded in blue-white and the shadows of the heavier curtains long on the floor.

I don’t know how long I laid there but it seemed to be a while. The voices no longer came up through the register. I looked at the bottom of the door, which I could see in the streetlamp and the light in the hallway was out.

My brother was dead asleep. He sometimes muttered, and now he said unintelligible phrases from time to time. In between, I could hear my dad snoring somewhere in the house, the sound distant. It was more of a feel than a noise, as if the air in the house reached a kind of stasis that my dad’s snoring rippled.

As slowly and quietly as I could, I sat up and turned on the bed, which made little twitters and squeaks. I put a foot on the floor and tested it to see if the wood would make any noise. Satisfied that it didn’t, I put the other foot down. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, but I felt a sense of discovery as I took one slow step and then another.

I moved toward the window, stopping in my tracks if the floor made any noise. Every step made a wooden squeak, like only old hardwood floors can. I pulled back the curtains and parted the sheers. The window had the ripples and waves of old, hand-made glass, with a few microscopic transparent bubbles along one wave of the uneven glass.

The streetlamp was bright and hung on the side of the house to one side of the window, it’s mercury blue light illuminating the house and the street below. I stood there for a long time, melancholy and homesick. The empty street scene below was so lonely, it made me feel a vacancy in myself. I would not feel better going home. The life I lead there was filled with all kinds of chaos and struggle—mom against dad, dad against mom, sibling against sibling. The Wests’ was a strange place, and I like it because it was so unlike where I came from.

At the same time, I could not fathom the quiet—a whole town asleep at the same time. The houses across the street were dark, not even a porch light on. No cars passed. The night was completely quiet, something I had never encountered, even on our family camping trips. On those trips there was always the rush of a stream or sigh of wind in the trees. Tree frogs and whippoorwills peopled the night. But here, it was just quiet, not even wind.

I don’t know how long I stood there, but my feet were getting cold on the hardwood floor. When the church bells struck midnight, it startled me. I had never heard bells at night and had no way to interpret them. The Wests, I look back now, must have lived very close to the church, or the sound of the bells was so foreign to me they seemed a lot louder than they were.

I also look back and understand that we had come to Palmyra to visit Uncle Ray but didn’t actually spend much time with him. What I remember more from that trip is our visit to Hannibal, where we toured the Mark Twain boyhood house and saw the Mississippi from the bluff above. We toured the Mark Twain Cave, where the guide asked us to stand still with our hands about a foot in front of our faces. He turned off the light. The darkness was terrifying.

The undercurrents of family strife weaved through the trip. My dad tried to get through the day as fast as he could. He tolerated us on these kinds of trips more than he enjoyed the new things he saw. Mom herded the four of us siblings from place to place. We disagreed with each other, as siblings stuck in cars on trips are wont to do, and mom tried to keep a lid on it all. My dad moaned about the price of lunch, resentful that someone was sticking it to the tourists.

I don’t remember how old I was or even the outside of the West’s house or the street it was on. Of the Wests, I remember that Ray’s dad wore a tie and his mom, who was a quiet woman, wide in the waist, wore a mid-calf length calico dress and substantial shoes. I recall a snippet from dinner. The six of us—mom, dad, and siblings—sat with Mr. West and Uncle Ray at a table in the dining room. Mrs. West brought us food, baked chicken and mashed potatoes with gravy. But once she set the platters on the table, she went to eat alone in the kitchen. I didn’t understand that, but one of my mom’s brothers reports that this was her practice. She never joined her guests at the dining room table.

That’s all I remember of Ray West. I wonder if we were good guests in the Wests’ house. I wonder if Uncle Ray enjoyed the visit, as I don’t recollect even one image of him. But that’s the way Ray was for me as I was growing up. He projected a presence more than a figure.

Years later, I see that Uncle Ray only inhabited my life until I was 10 or 11. I really didn’t miss him when he faded from my family experience. It’s only now that I begin thinking deeply about him and what he meant to me. I wonder what happened to Ray West and that he lived a happy life. He deserved happiness.

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