Sweet Cotton by Sarah Joy Freese

The first time Clarence realised that he saw angel dust, he listened to the bells chiming at his daughter’s wedding. And then it wasn’t really at the wedding, so much as after the bridal vehicle had driven off to the honeymoon destination. Clarence tried not to think about what his only daughter would be doing on her honeymoon, and looked at the ground instead of at the SUV driving out of sight. The wedding had gone all right, considering that Clarence hadn’t planned to go in the first place. He hated pomp and circumstance, and he didn’t like that his daughter would be leaving him. Her then fiancé, Jeremy, had helped all summer with the haymaking, intentionally trying to make conversation with him. When Clarence made it clear to Jeremy that talking and working did not happen at the same time the boy caught on quickly. Jeremy would be a good husband and a good father should that time come, but that didn’t lessen Clarence’s anxiety.

His sister, Ruby, had convinced him that it was right to go to Gracie’s wedding. She didn’t do it with the usual, “You’ll regret this for the rest of your life speech." Instead, she stopped making her chocolate chip cookies.

Every Friday, Ruby came over with a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies for Gracie and Clarence, and towards the end for Jeremy-- to share. But once Clarence said that he had no intention of dressing up and going to some wedding just so Gracie would be taken away from him Ruby made a decision. She would be just as stubborn as Clarence and prove to him just how ridiculous his actions were. At first, Gracie tried to soften the blows by making her own chocolate chip cookies, despite her own hurt feelings about her father not going to the wedding. But, the first batch burnt and left a smell in the kitchen that didn’t quite leave until at least three days afterward.

It wasn’t so much the lack of chocolate chip cookies as the ritual. Clarence believed in tradition. Like Tevye and his daughters, Clarence knew himself and his duties. His job after the death of his wife, Emily, included raising Gracie, loving Ruby, and working on his chicken farm.

Clarence had not left his chicken farm in thirty-nine years. Every morning, he woke up before dawn, fed the chickens, and collected their eggs. Every afternoon, he sat out on the porch watching the chickens, mended the fences, and kept up with the farm. Every evening, he went back out to feed the chickens and to check for a second batch of eggs. He named all of his chickens, though he recognized the value of a hearty chicken dinner. Varilux was his favorite, named after his favorite pair of eyeglasses. Never had a pair of glasses fit him so well and helped him to see so clearly. Crystal, really.

A little girl had looked up at him right after he had left the building from his eye appointment. She must have been going in to get her new pair of glasses. She said, “I bet it feels good to see the world so clearly, huh, mister." He thought about that girl and what she had said the whole ride home. Maybe she was an angel. He never really believed in God and thought going to church to be only for those people who were especially unrighteous. Why waste half of a morning, when you could be out tilling the land. Yeah, yeah the day of rest and all of that. But, he never really liked resting. Only in the evening when Gracie had been his little angel, right after her mama had died, did Clarence engage in what one might call resting. Gracie would climb up into his lap, slip her finger in between the buttons of his shirt and rub her finger and thumb together on the material as a soothing action. Usually, both of them would be asleep sometime after the sun had set and he would wake up around midnight to carry her into her bed.

For a year, he couldn’t seem to face his own bed, so he would sleep in the chair at the foot of hers. He told himself and Ruby, the one time she had come over before he had had time to get up, that he needed to be there in case Gracie had nightmares. She needed a papa and a mama now, and he knew that he had to be both. He never resented her for this. His tears were the silent ones.

He thought that maybe he had seen some signs of angel dust around his farm, but who could really tell when you lived on a chicken farm? All of the white tufts of hair could have easily been angel dust as well as what they most likely were, moulted feathers from chickens. Again, he was not particularly religious, so angel dust was not the first thought he had after seeing such things. But, he damned sure knew that angel dust lay underneath the place where the car that now inhabited his lovely daughter as bride. When he bent down to inspect it further, he ignored the calls of his sister Ruby telling him that he should come back inside and have another cup of coffee and maybe a piece of pie before he left for home. Before today, he hadn’t been inside a church since his wife’s funeral, but, and here he reached over to touch the white, translucent material that shimmered just a bit in the moonlight, he thought about believing in miracles again.

He withdrew his hand, shocked a bit at the coolness. Or was it wet? Curiosity got the better of him, and he reached out to touch again. Nope, the temperature of the evanescent material cooled a good ten to fifteen degrees as compared to the pavement. He tried to pick some of it up, thinking he might be able to sift it through his hands like sand, but with the insufficient amount, and the unmanageably slippery texture, Clarence couldn’t get a good grasp on it. He thought it didn’t really want to be held.

Once upon a time, somewhat after Gracie’s tenth birthday, she stopped crawling into his lap before bedtime. He thought that maybe her spending the night at a few of her classmate’s houses might have caused this.
Never one to really push for affection, Clarence let it go, thinking that eventually she would come back to him. She never did.

Or at least, not in the way that he had expected. Rather, it seemed as if each time Gracie would spend time away from him, she would come back more and more like Emily, his deceased wife. Emily had those deep green eyes that could look at him across a room and know exactly what he was thinking. She never complained about housework or living on a farm, even though he had taken her away from the big city 'Toledo,' that is into a world so foreign to her that she never quite felt as if she were a part of it. Maybe the angel dust had started showing up when she married him and moved home. The kitchen always seemed to have a certain shine to it that it never really did when life only included Clarence and Ruby and Gracie. Even as a kid, growing up, he couldn’t recall the sparkles that would sometimes float through the kitchen unexpectedly. When Emily kissed him, he remembered feeling as if she had left a bit of cotton on his lips. Sweet cotton.

The day after the wedding, Gracie called him.
“Daddy, we were in an accident." Gracie started crying. He couldn’t remember her crying even when her mother had died. She sort of decided that it was unnecessary and that there were better things like petting the dog and catching the lightning bugs which needed more time. Oh, that’s not to say that she never experienced moments of grief, only that she just seemed to cope differently than most little girls.

As Clarence started to ask if they were okay, Gracie said that they were. Only the car was in the repair shop, and she felt disappointed that the beginning of her fairy-tale had started out with bad luck. Clarence said he didn’t think it was bad luck. And Gracie said that Jeremy had been an angel through the whole thing. And Clarence thought of Jeremy with wings, flipping and fluttering and flying. Twirling around the living room.
Shimmering like diamonds. Flying outside, higher and higher and higher, until a wind gust came and carried him away like cotton.

Outside, a chicken clucked.

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