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  • 11. Rhoda

    By David Vann

    David Vann’s extraordinary collection Legend of a Suicide, winner of the Grace Paley Prize, is being published in paperback this week by Harper Perennial.
    Its stories draw on Vann’s own life to trace a portrait of a family wracked and shattered by one member’s violent end—an event only implied by this unsettling,
    wire-tense story.

    When I first saw my stepmother, I thought she was winking at me. I winked back. But she only frowned, and her right eyelid never lifted. She was wearing a yellow wedding dress, with no veil or train, and had turned to see me just as I was passing the front row of pews, carrying the wedding rings on a small velvet pillow. I don’t believe I so much as glanced at my father. I saw only this new woman whom my father had hidden away until now from everyone, who had dark, dark hair, pale skin, and a dropped eyelid that, on closer view, made her terribly beautiful.

    My new stepmother, Rhoda, untied the ring for my father with thin white fingers. I looked up again at that blank eye, drawn to it—it was open slightly—and realized too late that she was watching me. Her other eye was brown and shiny. She laughed out loud, right there in the middle of the service in front of everyone, at the same moment that she was slipping my father’s ring onto his finger. Her laughter startled all of us, but especially my father, who looked around as though it had come from somewhere else in the church. His mouth opened slightly as he looked up, and for the first time in my life, I saw him frightened.

    At the reception, Rhoda ate carefully, cutting her food into tiny squares. She knew she was being watched. Our tables were set on my father’s lawn, along the edge of which ran a small walnut orchard with a creek and two mountainsides of brush in the background; there was plenty to view, but everyone looked only at Rhoda. And the moment she excused herself and walked into the house—to use the bathroom, we assumed—my grandmother opened fire.

    “It’s too bad your mother can’t be here today,” she said to me, wedged as I was between her and my father, with no hope of escape. Though Rhoda’s parents hadn’t come to the reception or even the wedding, her older sister was sitting directly across from us. “I don’t know why he couldn’t have stayed with your mother,” my grandmother went on. “Did you know this Rhoda’s only twenty-four years old?”

    “Margaret, this is not the place,” my grandfather broke in.

    “Oh, I’m not saying anything. It’s just that we’ve always liked his mother so.”

    “Margaret?” His voice rose on this, and he put his hand over hers on the table.

    “Can I get you more of anything, Mom?” my father asked. He wasn’t looking at Rhoda’s sister.

    “She’s essentially one-eyed,” my grandmother whispered to my grandfather, loud enough so we all could hear.

    “Jesus,” my father said.

    “That’s okay,” Rhoda’s sister said. “We know it’s meant well. It’s just the situation that’s awkward, is all.“

    “That’s right,” my grandmother chimed in. “That’s what I was trying to say.”

    “She’s coming,” I whispered.

    Rhoda gave us all a careful looking-over as she sat down. “You’ve been talking about me, haven’t you?”

    “Well, of course,” my grandmother said, smiling. “You’re the bride.”


    My father and Rhoda didn’t have a honeymoon. They had me for the weekend instead, and they gave me presents. This was a form of bribery, perhaps.

    I was on the porch, watching the sun go down between two mountains, the air warm and dry. I could hear the sucking noises of quail in the bushes. The guests had all left, and the only sign that remained of the wedding was the smoldering hibachi.

    “Happy Wedding!” my father and Rhoda both sang out as they stepped onto the porch.

    Rhoda gave me a Walkman. I must have looked a little stunned, because she frowned again. I wasn’t used to expensive presents. Then my father handed me my first gun, a .30-.30 carbine for deer.

    “Try it out,” he said. “There’s a gray squirrel up there.” He pointed to the large oak in front of us.

    I had seen the squirrel, too—about twenty feet up. I could have hit it with a Wiffle ball.

    “It isn’t loaded,” I said.

    “There’s a shell in the chamber. Just pull back the hammer.”

    I pulled back the hammer and aimed at that squirrel. He was eating something, turning it over and over in his hands, with spindly black fingers, his gray cheeks pink now in the light and rippling as he munched, one eye looking right at me. I pulled the trigger and saw a chunk of meat fly from him like a small red bird. He seemed to explode. There was the sound of rain through the trees as bits of him fell back to earth.

    “You got him,” Rhoda said.

    That evening, we drove into town, to Rhoda’s parents’ house, and I met Rhoda’s mother. She sat on a barstool chain-smoking and drinking the whole time we were there. She had a dog about the same length as a squirrel, but shaved and fattened, with a smashed face and angry little eyes; the thing hid under her stool growling so loudly it was hard for us to hear each other. Every now and then, Rhoda’s mother would yell, “Shut up, Prune!” and stretch her leg down to kick it. The dog would run across the kitchen, toenails clicking and slipping on the linoleum, then run back, spitting a little as it breathed.

    Rhoda’s mother told me, in a smoker’s rasp, “You’re a good kid, aren’t you.”

    Rhoda’s father had invited my father back to his gun room, where he had a fair collection, he had said, of shotguns and pistols.

    “How are you, Mom?” Rhoda asked at some point far into the conversation. It sounded as if she hadn’t talked with her mother for a while.

    “Your bastard father wants to leave me.”

    There was a long and ugly pause before Rhoda spoke. “You know that’s not true, Mom. That’s never been true.”

    “Okay. Things were never better, then.” She took another swallow from her drink. “But you just got married again. Off to good times, right?” Rhoda’s mother poured herself another drink and looked at me. “So what do you like to do.”

    She breathed smoke out her mouth into her nose. Her slacks were pink, and she had hooked her slippers under the bottom rung of the barstool. Her little dog was staring at my shins.

    “I don’t,” I said.

    She laughed, then coughed, then looked at me suspiciously. I had meant to say, “I don’t know,” but had lost the final word somewhere.

    “He’s only twelve, Mom,” Rhoda was saying.

    “He’s a good kid.” Her mother winked at me, then ground out her cigarette in an ashtray. “Hey, Billy!” she yelled down the hallway. “What’s so damn interesting about those guns? Come and meet the kid.”

    She poured herself another.

    “Dad loves you,” Rhoda said.

    “Open your eyes, Rhoda.” Her mother stared at her. “Ha,” she said and laughed, then began coughing again. “You always have been much too pretty, Rhoda. It’s not good to show up your mother.” She looked at me and winked. “Don’t think I don’t know what I’m about.”

    Rhoda’s father came in walking slowly, looking short and wide-chested beside my father. “I think you’ve probably had enough,” he said to his wife.

    She winked at me again and downed her glass.

    Rhoda’s father didn’t look so much angry as embarrassed and unsure. He rubbed his hand lightly over his balding head.

    “What did you think of Dad’s collection?” Rhoda asked my father. She was standing closer to me now, away from her mother. I could see the fine, soft hair along her neck.

    “It’s really something. Not every day you see a collection like that.”

    “Please, Sharlene. Not in front of his son,” Rhoda’s father said.

    “It’s okay, Daddy,” Rhoda said, stepping toward him now. “We’re not staying long anyway.”

    “Are you talking to me about shame?” Rhoda’s mother asked with her back to all of us. “Is the man who won’t be seen with his own wife in public talking to me about shame?” Prune started growling. He knew something was up, and he was crazy with it. “The man who will slink around with twats half his age?”

    Rhoda’s mother swiveled on her stool and pointed at her husband. “Get out of my way, Rhoda,” she said, because now Rhoda was between them.

    Rhoda’s father put up his hands in apology, then walked back alone down the hallway.

    “Coward!” she yelled.


    Later that night, as I listened to Rhoda weeping and my father comforting her, I wondered whether tears came out of her blank eye. The wall separating our rooms was thin, and I could hear everything: their sharp breaths, her weeping again, and Rhoda
    telling my father she loved him. The strangeness of it is what I remember.

    The next day, Rhoda asked me to join her at the piano. I told her I didn’t know how to play, and she said it didn’t matter. So I sat beside her.

    “Close your eyes,” she said.

    “Are yours closed?”

    “Yes,” she said. “Though my right eye never closes all the way.”

    “Can you see through it?”

    “Yes. Always.”

    I closed my eyes.

    “Put your hands up to the keys,” she said. “Just listen carefully and let your fingers play.”

    We sat for a few minutes in silence. The space between us thickened and rolled in and out.

    Her first note echoed down low. She played more notes, and they took up places in the air.

    “This is great,” I said.

    “Listen,” she whispered.

    I listened until her notes all around me could have been my own, and soon a few of them were’ They didn’t sound half bad: a disjointed song that all fit together because her breath was so close to my own.

    I don’t know how long our playing went on, but I do know that I wanted it never to end and yet it ended somehow and my father clapped from somewhere behind us, a sound disagreeably sharp and loud.


    “What’s she like, this Rhoda?” my mother wanted to know. She was cutting the fat off chicken breasts.

    “She’s nice,” I said.

    “What else?”

    I poked at the strings of lumpy yellow fat set to one side of the cutting board. “She’s funny,” I said.


    “Yeah. And I don’t think she’s afraid of anyone. Except her mother, of course.”

    My mother laughed. Then she ruffled my hair.

    “Oops,” she said. “Sorry about that.” And she grabbed a dish towel to wipe away the chicken fat. “Is she pretty?” My mother’s voice quieted on this.

    “No, she’s deformed,” I said, and my mother laughed again.

    That entire week, I looked forward to when I would play piano again with Rhoda, but the moment I arrived at my father’s place Friday night, I was hustled into his car and he and Rhoda and I were rushing to her parents’ house. Her mother had called.

    “What does she mean?” Rhoda kept asking. She had her coat on and both hands clenched between her knees.

    “It’s okay,” my father said over and over, after each thing she said. “I’m sure it’s going to be okay.”

    But when we got to her parents’ house, neither Rhoda nor my father could open the door. They knocked and knocked and there was no answer, only the sound of Prune growling, but neither of them would just turn the handle and open it.

    So I did, finally. I let it swing wide.

    “Come on in,” Rhoda’s mother yelled. “Billy, why don’t you answer the door?”

    “Daddy?” Rhoda asked.

    Rhoda’s father came padding down the hallway in sheepskin slippers. “Is something wrong, Rhoda?”

    Rhoda turned back to my father. “I’m sorry,” she said. “Take me home, okay?”

    “Well that was dumb,” my father said as we got back into the car. Rhoda didn’t say anything. She just drew her coat around her and stared at the road. I fiddled with the ashtray on the armrest of my door. I pulled all the gum wrappers out, then stuffed them back in. I swung the metal cover open and shut a million times.

    “Cut the crap, Roy,” my father finally said. He gunned the motor to let me know this threat was real.

    When we turrned onto the gravel driveway and saw blackberry bushes lining both sides, the red bridge ahead in the lights, he asked, “What exactly did she say?”

    “I’m not making things up, Jim.”

    “So what did she say?”

    Rhoda twisted around and readjusted her seat belt. “She said, ‘I love you, Rhoda. Everything is perfect here. Why don’t you bring the Happy Campers over for a drink?”

    “There’s no call for that, Rhoda.”

    “Don’t be an idiot, Jim,” she said very quietly.

    My father looked in the rearview to see if I had heard that. I had no idea what to do, so I gave him the thumbs-up.


    “She’s going to kill him,” Rhoda said matter-of-factly at breakfast. She looked calmly into my father’s annoyance, his anger and fear. “Are you ready for that, Jim?”

    An hour later, I failed my after-breakfast oral-hygiene exam.

    “Numbers six and eleven still need work,” said my father the dentist. “And your gums are bleeding again. You know what that means.”

    “Where’s Rhoda?” I asked.

    “I don’t know,” he said. He looked over his shoulder as if he expected her to be right behind him. When he called her name, there was no answer. When he looked through each room, there was no one.


    Rhoda in the walnut orchard that afternoon piecing together her thousand-piece puzzle, wearing one of her great-grandmother’s long, pale-blue dresses, a sun hat, and dainty lace-up boots, never looked back to where my father sat utterly lost on the porch steps. He didn’t understand her. He had no idea how to comfort her.

    “Nothing has even gone wrong yet,” he said to me.

    Rhoda had walked far into the orchard, almost to the creek, before setting up her card table and folding chair. She was facing the valley, her left side to us. Wild mustard and baby’s breath grew all around her. Spider threads floating in the air above her head caught the sun, then disappeared.

    “She’s just going to stay out there,” my father said. “No waste! No word to me, not even a glance. As if any of whatever it is is any of my fault.”

    How still Rhoda was made her unreal. Only the occasional slight movement of her hand fitting a piece into place.

    “She wasn’t like this before,” my father said. “This isn’t the woman I married.”

    I looked at him then.

    “I didn’t mean that,” he said.

    I sat beside my father on the porch until the sun fell lower and my being there with him didn’t seem to mean anything anymore. Then I walked through the orchard to Rhoda.

    The air was still hot. There were small, clear drops of perspiration where Rhoda’s dark hair had been pulled back from her forehead, moisture also along the top of her upper lip and along the curving lines of her neck.

    “You’re watching me, Roy.”

    If I had touched her neck, what would she have done? Pushed my hand away, laughed at me, smiled? That afternoon, I knew Rhoda could do anything. She could vanish. Just walk down toward the creek in her long dress, follow it, and not return, her history known to us then only in postcards or in dreams. Nothing was holding her.

    “Is your father also watching me?” she asked.


    “Is he on the porch steps, with his hands hanging off his knees?”

    “Yes,” I said. “Are you going to leave us?”

    Rhoda looked up at me then and smiled. she looked young, much younger than my father. “Of course not,” she said. “Don’t think that.”


    All Sunday morning, Rhoda followed at a distance. She was wearing jeans, a T-shirt, and a baseball cap, but I imagined the was still wearing her great-grandmother’s dress, her face hidden by her sun hat as she climbed the narrow ribbon of fire road along each ridge.

    My father walked beside me carrying his .22 for quail. I could hear the shells in his pocket. Uneasy, he kept looking back at Rhoda, a quarter of a mile behind us, and soon began muttering.

    “I don’t know about all this,” he said to himself over and over in his many ways as we rose past the calls of gray squirrels and flickers. There had been a light rain overnight. I remember how strong the dove grass smelled, bitter in my nostrils and throat. I looked up suddenly from the bright ground and everything pulled together, all the strands of cloud and blue air, as if there were a huge drain in the center of the sky that sucked it all up.

    “About what?” I finally asked.

    “Everything,” he said, shaking his head.

    “She’s not going to leave,” I said.

    My father squinted, looking out over the brush on either side distrustfully. “I wish I could believe that.”

    “You can,” I said. “She told me she wouldn’t.”

    My father stopped hiking and looked at me then as if I were someone entirely new to him. “She told you?”


    “But why?”

    “I asked her.”

    My father gazed back at Rhoda. She was holding the front of her dress to keep it from the ground, clutching her book in one hand, floating gradually up toward us.

    “Rhoda,” my father said. He was reminding himself, perhaps. After the next rise, the brush thinned out and we entered the valleys at the top, where the mountains joined. Pin-striped white oak and clearings of pearly, blue-green dove grass. We could hear the feathers of kestrels as they slanted past on the wind.

    “Have you ever seen one of those up close?” my father asked.

    “No,” I said.

    He stared into the sky for a long time, then took aim with the .22 at one that was hovering a few hundred feet away. When he fired, the slim wings seemed to falter a moment, but I could have simply imagined it, because there was no fall.

    Rhoda coming toward us, clear of the brush, had taken off her sun hat and with her one clear eye was staring up at the bird.

    My father put another shell in the chamber and waited for the kestrel to slide by at closer range. Rhoda walked up behind him and put her white fingers on the back of his neck. When the bird did come, its head to the side, beak open and feathers ruffling, I saw Rhoda close her one eye that would. I saw her neck arch back, whipping through the air, and wings rise from her. I heard the shot and screamed.

    My father jumped sideways from me and swung the barrel around until it pointed at my chest. This was only instinct, he would explain later. I had startled him.

    But Rhoda came toward me, held my face in her hands and pulled it close to her own, wanting to know. “What’s going on in there?” she asked. She pulled me so close I saw into her shuttered eye, the light-brown edge curving and perfect against the white, its landscape bottomless, its center blocked from view.


    From the collection Legend of a Suicide, © 2008, 2010 by David Vann.

    Have a look at the amazing reception for Legend of a Suicide at his website, here.

    • http://shortshortstoryproject.blogspot.com/ jerry

      That was a great piece!

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