In the attic bedroom of the white farmhouse, I lay on my side and looked out the window at the cover crops and pitch pines. I was 17, and I was waiting as I did most Saturday nights for the men to appear in the field—the sons, nephews, and cousins of the farmer next door. They wore ball caps and four-dollar T-shirts tucked into Wrangler or Rustler jeans. Most of them smoked while they worked, and I watched as white clouds rose around their heads, watched the motion of hands to mouths, watched them bend and lift and haul away. My hands were blistered from pulling and pushing father’s lawn mower up and down the slope of our front yard. My parents had purchased the house for a steal because of the slope, which was so steep it forced one to walk sideways to keep upright. Mowing it was no joke. When I placed my hands together between my knees the blisters burned. My hands were always cold, and my mother would say “cold hands, warm heart” and that it was some kind of Irish wisdom. Each time shed say it as if it were the first time she told me.
All summer I’d been working at Kmart and spending my paychecks on meditation classes at the Appalachian Dharma Center, which was really just a closet-sized room deep in a dentist’s office. Five people could fit on their Persian rug, where we each sat in sweat pants and loose T-shirts and crossed our legs. Our instructor was a retired computer programmer named Linda Bowman. I’d learned all sorts of powerful visualization techniques from Linda, and I used them when I watched the men working from my window. This night I stared as usual until I got a mental snapshot of the men working the field and their bodies bowed over long-handled instruments. The ground looked soft, and the pines tossed in the wind. And then I closed my eyes and did a special breath and in they came—waves of sons and nephews and cousins washing into my room, their sweaty brows and unshaven faces transposed, one mouth morphing into another. In they poured through my window, rolling over the sill and down to the gold-brown carpet of my bedroom floor, where they separated and grew life-sized. In the light from the window their unclothed bodies glowed orange like a hand on a bulb. They stood at the foot of my bed with bright edges and blurry centers like the images I used to see as a child whenever I’d press my fingers into my eyelids and wild yellow animals would stare back at me.
Downstairs my parents watched TV, and I could hear every word of a Perry Mason rerun. The commercials were even louder and broke my focus. The men lost their glow and gave way to sesame-seed buns and waxy cups of soda brimming with box ice. Then fast food flickered between thoughts of school and work. There was the lady in my checkout line from earlier that day who’d shoved three greeting cards inside each other and only paid for one; I’d pretended not to notice as I rang her up. There was my locker combination—the code spinning in my head and my hand with its chipped pink polish turning it: 32 left, 6 right, 26 left. Then I was taking a shower with my mother. We were both younger, and in the fluorescent light our skin looked tanner than it actually was. The floor kept coming away under my feet—an unraveling paint job. I smelled chlorine and knew we were at the church fitness center with its old indoor pool and ancient pool ladders that had come unbolted just past the bottom rungs. I felt nearly asleep, but I could see myself helping my mother in the kitchen. Dipping chicken breasts in buttermilk then rolling them in plates of sifted flour, salt, and pepper. Linda said these kind of thoughts would happen and to keep going back to the original idea—the breath, the color, the mantra, or, in my case, the men.
But when I came back to my men, they were leaving. Their bodies folded up like backward somersaults and floated slow and shrinking out the window and across the field. It was dark by then, and I couldn’t see much past the neighbor’s barn. The sky was cloudless with specks of blue stars, and the night insects were making their noises. I thought about the field mice in the cover crops. Their black eyes and brown bodies running through the rows of clover, eating and shitting everywhere. And then a new image came into focus. It was me turning to steam, turning to a cloud of smoke, leaving the lips of one older farmhand and floating up among the treetops.