Hamilton Stone Review #18
Tracks in the Snow
As she coaxed the aging station wagon up and around the last switchback, Tina used her left eye to watch the heat gauge and her right to stay clear of the sheer drop off the mountainside. It had rained recently and the slick mud added to the treachery of the road that winter snow would soon make impassable. Nervously, she straightened the wheel and allowed herself a glimpse of the town nestled in the valley below – perfect Americana – tiny houses clustered around a white church steeple pointing to heaven and away from the clear cut hills.
The road ended at a driveway that led to a cabin with log walls thicker than any castle’s. It seemed bigger than she remembered, as if it had expanded to accommodate its mythic status in her life. A plume of smoke rose above the ramshackle kitchen attached to the north end of the house and drifted out over the skinny trees,
The first to see her was Nate, waving from the front porch amidst a crowd of hungry goats, the feed pan held high above his head like a captured flag. He didn’t seem surprised. At the Farm people came and went with the seasons.
She found Tom and Ellie in the kitchen, pouring newly made dandelion wine into shiny brown bottles. Everyone else, she heard, was at the State Fair selling pottery and preserves.
"How was the harvest?"
Tom shrugged, shoulders thinner than last year. "Five pumpkins, some zucchini and a dozen mutant potatoes. We’re lousy farmers. Maybe it’s the altitude.”
It was a relief to find that her bed in the far corner of the loft – a secluded spot in a house where privacy was scarce – was recently vacated by a psychologist who had returned to his practice in Connecticut.
At dinner – her favorite meal of spoon bread baked in the belly of the wood burning stove – she met Rashad, a newcomer who reminded her of an artist friend from high school, who lived on one of the roughest “hold-out” blocks in East Harlem and was so gentle that Tina often wondered what would become of him. Rashad was there at Ellie’s invitation - they could ask anyone they wanted to, as long as the population stayed below twenty. Tina found herself telling him how the thing she’d missed most during her stay in the city was the sweet taste of well-water, how it came up colder than snowmelt, laced with the sweet smell of earth. “I bet you didn’t miss lugging those heavy buckets into the house,” he said.
“Not a bad way to build up your arm muscles,” she replied, prompting him to squeeze her arm under the bulky wool sweater and nod appreciatively. She liked his lack of hesitation. The Farm was a place where people didn’t need permission to climb out of their heads.
Routine soon pulled her back in. Chop wood, draw water, take walks, stoke fires, read and play the guitar before bed. Nate stayed in his room, working on his third book of poems and Tina knew better than to attempt conversation until he lost that disoriented look. Ellie and Tom also kept to themselves, showing up for meals and working nonstop in the painting studio they built last year. Rashad played his flute in the afternoons, making her wish she had brought her classical guitar back from New York, instead of the steel string.
When she left last spring, having barely gotten into the rhythm of country life, she told herself that she needed to earn some money, to make more of a contribution to the larder and pay her share of the bills. But what she really craved was the kind of intimacy that wasn’t available – at least not to her – on the Farm. While up north, she had played a few guitar-bar gigs and had a fling with a banjo player named Marshall, whose music she hated but whose body she loved.
She had stayed at Virginia’s upper West Side apartment, usually rented out when V was at the Farm but currently empty and waiting for new tenants to arrive from Italy. The beige walls and brown shutters gave the apartment the feel of a bear’s den, even on the sunniest of days. Tina kept telling herself she would call this friend or that, but sleeping in a heated space was such a luxury that she found herself dozing until mid-afternoon and spending her evenings reading the wonderfully trashy magazines she found in the bathroom.
Late at night, when there was nothing good on TV, she took a voyeuristic pleasure in exploring V’s city persona. She would never have guessed that her friend, who she was accustomed to seeing in ugly rubber boots and unwashed jeans so stiff they could have stood up on their own, actually possessed a closet full of designer clothes and stocked enough perfume to inundate a brothel.
Tina knew that most of her New York friends found it annoying when she talked about missing the smell of wood smoke or expounded on the virtues of mountains versus sky scrapers. She didn’t mind that they thought she’d gone off the deep end but it hurt her when they assumed she’d given up on living in the country and was looking for an excuse to move back to the city.
After the new tenants arrived she slept on as many couches as she could, working for temp agencies and saving up as much money as she could. She played with the idea of getting her own place and going to community college, maybe training as an x-ray technician, but nothing came of it. Three months later, feeling more empty and uncertain than ever, she returned to the Farm. West Virginia had a hold on her that Manhattan never would.
At dusk on her third day back, she gathered her courage and overnight gear. Two miles later, deep in the woods, a sliver of moon disappeared behind a cloud. She turned off her flashlight and burrowed as deeply as she could into the sleeping bag. Bears or no bears, she would stick it out until morning – no tent, no fire – a simple but scary initiation she inflicted on herself every time she returned to the Farm. As she floated uneasily towards sleep, the night sounds were magnified by a factor of ten, especially the rustling of leaves, snake-like, on the forest floor.
I’ve spent the morning playing cards with a friend in the basement boiler room and now I’m climbing the steep, dark stairs that lead to the frigid rooms of my childhood. The familiar numbness returns – I feel it moving upward from my toes – threatening to reach my heart. The kitchen is in chaos. Rice and flour are mixed with silverware and sugar in a big mess on the floor. Clothes have been thrown from open suitcases; pots and dishes, once neatly packed, are strewn everywhere. My father stands in the middle of the room, looking confused, as if someone else had done this.
Near the window I spot my backpack, filled with school supplies and homework, ready for the trip to the new apartment.
"Everything's broken. Mom will have a fit."
He picks up a broken plate and puts it back in the cabinet. As if this will fix things. He seems calm, but I know what’s under the surface. One word or wrong movement and his anger will break free from the muscles in his neck, attacking with a storm of words. Part of me wants this to happen, is more frightened of the price he pays for keeping silent.
The front door opens. My mother’s face is resolute, lower lip bitten back to stem the panic. "You were supposed to go out for the day, that was our agreement. Tina, go downstairs and wait for me, now!"
She turns to my father. “I have to leave – we both know you’ll never stand on your own two feet if I stay.”
He looks from her to me, and the question in his eyes is unmistakable. Strange that a moment ago I didn’t know I had a choice, but now – in one instant – I’ve made one. I go to my room and starts unpacking.
"What do you think you're doing?"
"It's okay Mom. You need to get out of here – you have to. But I want to stay, at least for a while."
Close to dawn Tina crawled out of the sleeping bag and into a world dusted white with powder. She lit the alcohol stove and waited for the water to boil, throwing in a handful of grounds from a Starbucks bag. She was preoccupied, uncertain if she wanted to pull the dream back into consciousness. Which was why it took her so long to notice the tracks carved in the snow outside her tent. At first she thought they belonged to a dog but then came the realization that a wolf had bypassed her sleeping body in the night. Frozen moments in a life on the move, she thought, now hasty to get moving herself, burning her tongue as she hastily sipped the hot coffee. Packing up her gear, she shivered, not so much from the cold as from imagining what might have happened.
On Saturday night Frank showed up with his guitar, ready to drink red wine with Nate and whoever else was available. Frank kept dairy cows and had shown them how to make cheese with the milk they bought from him. Every few months Nate would ask Frank to slaughter one of their hogs. He said it was because Frank knew how to do this humanely, but Tina thought that the killing part of being close to nature was more than Nate, or any of them, could handle.
When Frank asked Tina and Rashad to jam with him, she pulled out her Guild and then left the room like she always did, letting him indulge his habit of secretly re-tuning her strings, adding that special twang he loved. She felt it was the least she could do for a man who sang a version of Barbra Allen that was passed to him by his granddad and when you listened you’re your eyes closed could take you back a hundred years.
After Rashad played a flute solo to Red River Valley that made Tina’s eyes sting, she heard Frank ask Nate, "Have you heard about the wolf?"
Nate shook his head.
"Elwood lost a calf yesterday," Frank went on. "If I was you I wouldn't go far without a rifle. Least not 'til we take care of it."
Rashad looked up. "If you put some food out do you think it would leave the cattle alone?"
Frank found this funny. "Do city folk leave their TVs on the porch to keep the thieves away?"
Long after the party ended Tina lay awake in the loft. The campsite where she had seen the tracks was close to Frank's spread. He'd shoot the wolf in a heartbeat. Too bad, but there wasn’t much she could do about it.
On a rare sunny afternoon in November Sol and Rosalie made it up the mountain on snow tires and good luck. "We sold everything except the kiln," said Sol. Tina helped Rosalie unload the few remaining pots from her truck, hoping she’d be invited to keep Rosalie company in the potting shed, where she loved to watch her friend’s slurry-covered fingers shaping delicate vases and indestructible dishes out of spinning lumps of clay.
By the following week all of the Farm's residents had returned from the Fair, most of them richer than when they left, none of them looking at retirement anytime soon. When everyone was home, Nate called a meeting, something they didn't do very often. The Farm had no philosophical creed or formal rules, which is why it had taken them forever to decide to buy a new washing machine.
"Frank tells me he and Elwood are tracking a wolf. They want permission to follow it onto our land."
"We put up that no hunting sign for a reason," said Sol.
Nate looked uncomfortable. "Yeah, I know, but Frank’s good word is the only reason the folks living on this mountain put up with us. Maybe we should cooperate."
"By letting them kill an endangered species on our land!" These words, Tina’s first ever at a family meeting, flew out of her mouth like angry bees from a hive. Then everybody was speaking at once. She watched their mouths moving but she’d stopped listening. The talk was circling round and round, while at any moment the wolf’s fate would be settled by a well aimed bullet.
When Tina was sure the house was asleep, she grabbed her backpack and headed for the kitchen and then the barn. It took her a while, but she found what she needed, left there by the previous owner. The moon backlit the trees, illuminating the path so it seemed like she was treading on a light beam through the forest.
She set the alarm on her wristwatch and dozed fitfully, rising before dawn to open the tent flap. At first light she saw the wolf’s silhouette, high on the ridge. The hamburger she had hung from a tree branch that night looked frozen and unappetizing and she felt foolish to have thought it would work as bait.
She glanced back up the slope. No wolf paced the horizon. The rope felt like it was burning a line on the palm of her hand. Her timing had to be just right.
As soon as he entered the clearing, she pulled the cord. The sharp clang of the trap springing shut startled him into a moment of stillness and then he was off, running towards the trees. “Go away!” she continued to scream, “go away!,” although she knew he was already gone. A thought lingered in the air, thank you. She wasn’t sure who it belonged to.
"You'll never see that wolf again." No telling how long Rashad had been standing there, a rifle crooked under his arm. "Don’t be shocked. I had the same idea is all."
They walked back to the farm in silence.
I’m in my apartment on Prince Street in the Village, drinking orange juice and vodka to put myself to sleep after being fired from another dreary dead-end job. The phone rings. It’s the brother of a friend – we met once at a party, made chit chat but didn’t really connect.
“I’m flying,” he said, “and there’s no place to land.”
This is the part where I’m supposed to shine him on, too preoccupied with my own crisis to deal with his. This is when I’m supposed to tell him to call his brother if he needs someone to talk him down. Instead I ask him to hold the phone while I pour a refill. We’ talk all night - me listening as he pours the bad trip out of his system, stopping him every once in a while to remind him that there are chemicals not demons in his brain and they will wear off and he’ll be fine.
One more night he remains on the planet.
One last gift from the wolf.
She decided she would stay on at the Farm. She wanted to experience all four seasons in a row, not chopped up by the culture shock of trips to the city and back. She wanted to plant peas and be there at harvest time so she could add them to a simmering chicken curry on the finicky stove. And she was intrigued by the quiet that she shared with Rashad, the new language developing between them.
As I remember, I tried to tell myself it was just a day-trip, requiring only a stop at the ATM for an extra twenty. Since I knew where we were going, it was pointless to look for a map. Besides, I took pride in knowing how to travel light, and until then I’d gotten away with it.
“You look great,” Steve said.
I clutched the bouquet I’d bought at Whole Foods, yellow chrysanthemums and a few white carnations with some greenery.
“You’re still blonde,” he said, grinning.
I thought about his old jokes about bottle blondes, and tried not to wince. “You do too,” I said. He looked like a doctor in a TV commercial: straight-backed, smiling, sleek and silver. Marriage agreed with him. I always knew it would.
He was in town for a conference. He’d phoned to suggest we get together and visit both sets of parents. In fact, we were visiting their graves: they themselves were long gone.
Of course they weren’t in the same cemetery. His were in Beth Israel, mine in Calvary. I hadn’t been to Beth Israel for at least ten years though I passed it on the regular visits I made to what I thought of as my cemetery.
“Rock-scissors-paper for who goes first?” he’d said.
I shook my head. “Yours first.”
I was surprised again at how shiny the black granite headstone was, how imposing. Off to one side, a privet had grown around and over a small bench where once we might have sat. I wondered at the decision of the landscaping crew, which had pruned the hedge flat so that the bench occupied a neat, snug niche.
His parents had bought two extra plots: for Steve and his wife, though he’d had no wife when the plots were purchased. I’d wondered if he’d use them, come so far for this, and if he did, would I know?
My parents had done the same as his. I’d have the luxury of sprawling sideways across both plots, like a woman sleeping alone in a double bed.
Steve reached into his pocket and pulled out a stone, white and smooth as an egg. He placed it on the headstone. He pulled out another, and handed it to me: carnelian. I held it in my palm and rubbed it with my thumb. “Beautiful,” I said, then set it next to his. I stared at the two stones together, and my eyes filled with tears. I hoped he’d think my tears were for his parents or my own.
I waited while he read from a little blue book.
Not long afterwards, we stood at my parents’ grave. I didn’t blame them now, any more than I blamed his. We’d been adults. I set the bouquet at the foot of the stone. “I don’t say prayers here,” I said, though he hadn’t asked. I counted to one hundred, and pretended it was reverential silence.
Waiting for him today, I’d felt the same rising anticipation I’d had before my first visit to the cemetery, as though I’d expected my father to be sitting there, reading a paper, a lit cigarette hanging from his mouth, with a glass of beer going flat and warm beside him, and though interrupted, he’d be glad to see me. By the time my mother died, I knew better, made the visits from love and duty.
We stood in front of my steps.
“Are you sure you’ll be all right?” he asked.
“Sure,” I said. It was the right, the only answer.
“Well, then,” he said and kissed me on the cheek. He squeezed my arm just above the elbow.
I wondered if he was thinking about the bandage the phlebotomist had left. He hadn’t asked me about it, or about anything else significant.
“Take care,” he said.
He might as well have said, “Have a nice day.”
Then he got back into his rental car. Before he pulled away, I called out to him, wishing I could instead ask the question I’d been sucking like a lozenge.
The wind blew away his inconsequential answer, and he was gone. I fumbled with my keys, grateful it was only the deadbolt I had to unlock. There’d be a cairn formed over the years if all the visitors to a grave left a stone. And if care-takers removed each little stone, what did they do with it, what could anyone do with a stone?
From her bed Kennedy can hear the thud-thud-thud of a suitcase sliding down the stairs, little bombs exploding in her back and stomach. Five-thirty burns dully from her alarm clock as she wonders which of her parents is leaving for good. She swings her feet over the bed, and there is a knock on her door, a whisper. Kennedy doesn't answer, afraid of her own voice in the pink-dark dusk.
“Kennedy.” The head of Kennedy mother slides through the crack. Her hair is pulled back, braided neatly, like she wears it at the hospital, mouth long and tight, her body clothed in shades of gray. “Great aunt Teresa passed away last night. I have to fly out to Dallas for the funeral.”
Kennedy knows one ticket to Dallas is practical, two an unaffordable luxury. But she hopes her mother at least considered it, finding the money for two, maybe pulling an extra couple of shifts at the hospital where she works as a nurse, so that Kennedy was not left behind.
“Does Dad know?” Kennedy can smell the light touch of perfume where her mother has dabbed her wrist, her neck. She moves slightly as her mother’s weight finds the edge of the bed. Up close, Kennedy notes that the big blue shiner on her mother’s cheek has shrunk and faded to the size and color of a raisin during the night. Although a crazy at the hospital broke her mother’s reading glasses, bruised her face, when she tried to give him his medications last week, Kennedy wonders if her relatives in Dallas will believe this story. Just because her father has a drinking problem, she likes to point out to the familial naysayers, doesn’t mean he hits them. Although it does seem to mean he can’t hold a steady job and moves through the house sometimes like shadows, the pupils of his eyes fixed on something not in any room, any corner, any doorway.
“I'll be back Monday afternoon,” her mother continues. “You should have plenty to eat. I told the neighbors you and your father will be on your own, so they’ll be checking in on you. I’ll give you money in case you need to get anything else, but don’t tell your father you have it.”
Kennedy watches as her mother opens her wallet, pulls out two twenties, and presses them into her pajama pocket. Her mother stands up suddenly as Kennedy's father looms outside the room.
“Ready to go?”
The length of him appears in the doorway, his arm leaning into the frame. His hair, at eight-thirty in the morning, is already disheveled. Long strands fall in front of his face from where he has parted it on the side. Or maybe he has not bothered to comb it. He is wearing the same plaid shirt, dark brown corduroys, and hush puppies he always wears on the weekends, so much so that Kennedy sometimes sees them in her dreams, a ghost milling about without head or hands.
“The shuttle should be here any minute.” Kennedy's mother pecks cheek and moves business-like past her father downstairs. Kennedy tries not to look at the money in her pocket. It would be like her father to find it and spend it on booze. Spare change in the couch, on the bathroom counter, the washing machine, disappeared and reappeared in his pocket and, she thought, it never went nowhere good.
“I can drive you, Isabel,” he says to her mother but does not turn toward her. Kennedy's mother is a series of sounds, bumps and swishes in the living room, and when Kennedy and her father make it there she is wearing her turquoise parka with the faux fur-lined hood and her croqueted white scarf.
“I'll call you when I get there,” she says to both, looking at neither, knotting her scarf.
Although neither Kennedy nor her father had been on their best behavior the past year, Kennedy didn't think they were bad people. But if they were patients battling a long bout of illness, she reasoned, it seemed that their mother had given up on their care.
Kennedy's father clicks the porch light on and moves her mother’s luggage to the front steps. A white van appears in the driveway, its headlights beaming through the bay window into the living room, and Kennedy watches her mother, a blur of blue and white, disappear into it.
“We need to finish cleaning the garage,” Kennedy says as her father sinks into the couch, his knees bobbing like a couple of buoys. Her mother had left a list, and the garage was on it. Last weekend she had goaded them into donating some things for the hospital yard sale. Kennedy had parted with a few old bats from her little league days in Boston; her father had parted with a bicycle he hadn't ridden since they moved. Her mother also had decided at that time that a more thorough cleaning of the garage was needed. But after ten minutes of going through rusty tools and mismatched nails, Kennedy had snuck inside and watched a rerun of “Back to the Future” on the movie channel. Her parents’ voices had swum through the garage like a swarm of bees that suddenly turned into dogs before the garage door slammed, and her mother returned alone.
“Later, Kennedy,” her father answers, sliding lower into the couch, his hands on either side of his head. “I'm tired.”
“You just got up.” She heads toward the garage door. “If you don't help me, I’ll just throw out whatever I want, okay?”
“Jesus, you're just like your mother,” he pouts, standing up slowly and following. “You know that”
“Is that supposed to be a compliment?” Kennedy questions, flicking the light to the garage.
“I'll let you decide, how's that?” he smirks, and then punches her arm softly in apology. Mountains of mess, boxes of books and trinkets and tools from when they moved last year, stood before them. It was strange, Kennedy thought, to bring all this stuff here and decide it was not needed, but their departure from Boston to Lowell was spurious, quick, based on what her mother termed her father’s “fresh start” at a smaller college and his textbook project but sounded more like him being let go from UMass. Kennedy’s father taught physics, engineering, theories of movement. But it was hard, she thought, to understand why he did the things he did, what inner workings spurred him to action or inaction.
After a cup of coffee, Kennedy’s father brings in the portable radio and sets it to a station he thinks Kennedy will like, tolerating “all that garbage,” as he likes to call it. Little does he know she has secretly taken his Rachmaninoff records to her room after school and listened to the dense, packed progressions, trying to understand his love for the difficult.
“I can't believe we didn't donate these.” Kennedy's father holds up a pair of roller-skates. Last year, when they were still living in Boston, Kennedy’s mother bought them roller-skates, and they skated over by the Charles River on Sunday mornings. “Where the hell did we think we were going to skate here?”
“If we clean out the garage, we can turn it into a skating rink.” Kennedy sits on the steps and pushes her feet in the broken black leather skates, spins a pink wheel with her pointer and middle fingers.
“If we clean out garage, we’re putting the Volvo in it.” Kennedy’s father watches her glide across the floor, hands on his hips, before sitting and stuffing his feet into his. He grabs her hands, and they spin in a circle. “Now, how do you compute the speed we're spinning?”
“I don't know.”
“We've gone over this one before. You've forgotten all the lessons we did?”
“I don't know--does it have something to do with the centripetal or gravitational force?”
“Both. No wonder you're doing so poorly at school.” He jerks them to a stop and moves toward the stairs. “I’ll show you.”
“Where are you going?”
“Pen and paper, Kennedy.” He bends over, his flannel stretching over his growing pauch, to remove his skates. When he comes back, Kennedy is immersed in a box of mismatched gardening gloves. Last year, Kennedy and her father would do problems all the time at home, and she even got into the high school program at MIT. But there was no comparable program at Lowell High. And the times he does sit down with her now are like this-- his breath smells sweet and pungent, and Kennedy wonder where he’s hidden his whiskey.
He becomes engrossed in the problem, sitting cross-legged in the middle of the garage. He weaves the fingers of his left hand in and out of the crown of his hair, scrunching his eyebrows. Kennedy thinks about the tweed jacket he wears to his Tuesday and Thursday night classes, the way he tries to button it in vain these days over his stomach, the tails beginning to flair out. He pulls some chalk out of a box on the floor and continues the equation in concrete with his tight scrawl.
“You want some lunch?” she asks him after the clock chimes eleven. She has created two piles of boxes for the Salvation Army, but the unexamined, Kennedy thinks, seems larger than ever before.
“Not hungry,” he answers, looking up from clouds of chalky numbers. “You can make yourself something if you’d like.”
“Are you coming in with me?”
“Yeah,” he replies. "In fact, I might lie down for a few minutes. I've got a little headache.”
Kennedy considers eating her lunch on the bed beside him while he naps but decides it is too intrusive, especially if he really does have a headache. She takes her lunch to her room, listening from her bed to the sounds of his movement next door. Kennedy bites into the grilled tomato and cheese sandwich, the gooey white cheese and a tomato sliding out the other end. But she’s suddenly tired from all the cleaning and lies back, closing her eyes. When she wakes up, it’s well into evening, the room semi-dark, everything shades of gray like a black and white film. She’s starving and quickly finishes the cold, congealed sandwich. Kennedy hears her father moving slowly in the hallway, heavy on one step, light on the other, the floor moaning and creaking under the Oriental rug.
“Kennedy?” He knocks at the slightly opened door. “I’m going to the store. You need anything?”
“Can I come?” she asks. He weaves slightly in the doorway, his expression hidden.
“I’m just getting…some Maalox. Do you want any chips or anything?”
“I’d like to look at the magazines,” she lies. Their glossy pages and soft, velvety boys had ceased to interest her years ago, but she knew her father did not know this.
“All right.” He turned, not waiting. “I’ll warm up the truck.”
Kennedy's mother had taken all the keys to the Volvo. The only other vehicle they owned was an early-eighties Ford F-150. Her father had traded in the Rabbit for it when they moved, anticipating hauling firewood and home-improvement projects. So far, the truck had broken down a lot in the parking lot of Middlesex Community College, where he taught two nights a week while writing a college textbook for Addison-Wesley Longman. Therefore, they tried not to use it much, only in emergencies.
Booze was her father’s such emergency. Kennedy knew they had plenty of medications stocked away under the sink, as well as her mother's herbal teas for gastrointestinal distress. She pondered arguing with him, but she knew he’d think of another excuse—and another—so she hurried out to the rumbling, shaky truck before he pulled away.
He had changed to one of his corduroy sports jackets and sat staring ahead in the truck. It seemed to Kennedy that he never liked to look at anyone directly after he’d been drinking. Although perhaps he thought he could hide the smell of drinking through his colognes and mouthwash, he could never hide that glassy-eyed deadness that drowned his eyes after a couple of drinks. He threw the shift stick into gear slowly, methodically, and slowly backed out of the driveway.
Kennedy believed her father had driven drunk before. Many, many times. Although he’d never gotten a ticket, it seemed evident to her when he got home late from his evening class that he hadn’t been in student conferences. Kennedy’s father turns on the radio and found a station he’d thought she’d like, but her eyes, her attention, are glued to the road, looking for the cutout deer that would suddenly spring up in the middle of it or the wily possums that zippered across the back road to town.
Kennedy watches as they drive past the nearest drug store, traveling for ten minutes longer until they were close to the college where her father taught. He pulls up in front of the Walgreen’s but does not turn off the truck.
“Do you mind going in, Kennedy, and getting something for me?” He asks, staring straight ahead. “I’ve got a bit of a tummy ache right now, and if I move I might make it worse.”
“What do you want exactly?” She asks. “Something for gas, diarrhea?”
“A little bit of everything, I guess,” he answers, pulling out his wallet and handing her a ten. “And get yourself some magazines and whatever else you want.”
Kennedy takes the money and walks through the lighted glass entrance, turning left and then crouching behind the counter. She can see the truck pull away before she hurries through the aisles searching for medication, determined to get back outside before her father returns. She picks some sort of antidiarrheal, antigas, antiheartburn concoction and grabs a Tiger Beat magazine before heading to the counter. The lady at register is a wrinkled stick, a coat of skin too big for its bones. She scans the Tiger Beat over several times before the bar code catches and then has trouble slipping it into the plastic bag. Still, Kennedy manages to get out of the store just as the Ford is pulling back up.
“Where’d you go?” she asks, feeling underneath her seat for a bottle-shaped brown paper bag as she places the things on the floor.
“I thought I was going to need to use the bathroom,” he explains. “So I drove over to the McDonald’s over there.”
“The Walgreen’s probably has a bathroom,” Kennedy points out.
“I didn’t think of that,” he responds slowly. “I suppose you’re right.”
He pulls out of the drugstore parking lot, slowly moving down the back road to their house.
“Kennedy, do you like school better?” he asks, coughing into his jacket arm.
“It's okay,” she answers. Kennedy had not wanted to move; the kids here were different than her friends in Boston. They laughed at her clothes even though they were the ones three years behind fashion. “I'm going to school, if that's what you mean.”
The first couple months of ninth grade Kennedy skipped a lot. Her English class was reading books she had already read last year at her old school, She didn’t have any friends, so she just stopped going. She splashed through the creeks in the woods near their house instead, laid in the grass and read Walden.
“That's good, Ken,” he answers. “If you don't like it here, use your education to get you out of here. Don't be like those morons I teach at Middlesex. Let your adversity make you stronger. I mean, for goodness sake, I'm so tired of teaching such basic concepts, stuff you were doing when you were eleven. I never thought I'd be doing this, that's for sure.”
Kennedy pulls the Tiger Beat of its bag and flips through the pages, at peach-fuzzed boys with Chicklet smiles, wondering what she saw in them last year. She is still absorbed in a quiz about “how much of a flirt you?” when she feels the truck shudder violently to the right. The magazine flies from her hands, suspended midair before slapping against the dashboard. The truck dips and then bounces up before crashing into what looks like a wooden dresser in the middle of the field. Little balls of fur spring away into the fields before Kennedy realizes her father has run over a rabbit hutch.
“Shit,” he mumbles, his knuckles white, firm on the wheel. She can count every hair on his finger. “Jesus Christ. Are you all right, Ken?”
“Yeah.” She puts her hand on the door to open it, but he grabs her other arm.
“No, don't,” he answers, his eyes staring through the windshield. “Get over here.”
“Switch seats. Come on.” He is already pulling Kennedy toward him as he tries to slide under her. The truck has a big bench seat, but they are still practically lying on top of each other before Kennedy grabs the steering wheel and swings her legs under it. When she is righted, she notices the door of the old farmhouse on whose property they rest is open, a squat man in a baseball cap making his way toward the truck.
Kennedy’s father climbs out of the passenger side and meets the old man in front of the truck. Through the windshield she can see her father mouth teaching my daughter to drive and terribly sorry before he heads toward the driver’s side door.
“Come out, Ken.” His hand is on the handle. She is now crying. “It's okay.”
Kennedy tumbles out as her father slides into the driver's seat, slowly backing up the truck. The hutch is flat and splintered now, and she can see the carcasses of rabbits lying about, killed by the impact. The farmer, an older man with a face the color of a pencil eraser and toothpaste white hair, adjusts his red baseball cap and overalls before he bends down and touches the rabbits lying in the grass with his first two fingers, as if he’s taking their pulse. They look like stuffed animals except for the bloody ones, and Kennedy wonders if he had named them.
Her father stands beside his arm on Kennedy's shoulder, which makes her cry harder.
“It was a possum, I think,” her father explains, coughing again into his corduroy sleeve. Kennedy wonders whether he is smelling his breath. “She couldn't control the truck after that first swerve.”
The man stands up and nods, looking at Kennedy, then her father. He holds a piece of busted wood in his hand, patting it against his palm in thought, looking back at the road.
“I'll need your address,” he says finally, spitting something on the ground. To Kennedy, he looks like he wants to say more, but he doesn't. “So I can come pick up the money.”
“I can drop it by here Monday, no problem,” Kennedy's father offers. “I just need to get to the bank.”
“I'd prefer to pick up it.” The man pulls out a little spiral pad and a grease pencil. “I'm sure you understand.”
Kennedy's father recites his name and address, and the farmer carefully records it onto his pad, along with the license plate of the truck.
“I appreciate not getting the police involved.” Her father pushes his hair behind his ear. “My daughter’s devastated enough as it is.”
“I'm sorry,” she stutters, as if on cue, although she is not sure what she has to be sorry about. The farmer looks at her, squeezing his right eye as if looking at a melon, before looking back to her father
“Don't worry yourself, missy. Things happen.” He drops the plank of wood onto the ground with the others. “Kept 'em for my grandchildren, the rabbits.”
“So Monday morning,” Kennedy's father repeats, nodding. “Before noon. I'll write you a check...or cash, Mr. Wilkins.”
Mr. Wilkins, the farmer, nods. Then he becomes smaller in the headlights as Kennedy's father backs onto the road.
“I thought that old guy was going to have a heart attack,” he mumbles, jerking the truck into first gear. “Five-hundred dollars for that hutch and rabbits. Where am I going to get that kind of money?”
Kennedy doesn’t speak. She wonders if whatever it is in her that needs to cry out, to yell, is still back in that field, amid the blood and innards of rabbits. She picks up her magazine from the floor, smooths its cover.
“I'm sorry, Ken.” He punches her shoulder softly. “You know you had to do that, right? Take one for the team? Take one for the Dixons? We always walk it off, huh?”
“You don't have to pretend,” she answers finally. “I know you've been drinking all day.”
Not surprisingly, Kennedy's father has nothing to say to that.
It is understood between them that no one tells Kennedy’s mother, that her father will get the money for the hutch and rabbits somehow and give it to Mr. Wilson before she gets home on Monday, and it will be as if nothing ever happened.
“I've got an idea, Ken.” Her father stands in the doorway of the kitchen Sunday morning while she eats breakfast. “I've going to offer the old man the truck. It's worth five hundred bucks, easy. And we'll get that stinking hulk off our hands.”
She chews a spoonful of Capn Crunch, listening to the food explode in her mouth, instead of answering.
“What do you say?” He sits down across from her in his undershirt, lifting his leg and scratching his hamstring in the process. “Your mom and I can share the Volvo with our schedules. Come on, I know you're upset. Once Farmer Joe comes and goes tomorrow, that'll be the end of it.”
“Rabbit killer,” Kennedy mumbles.
“Enough.” He slams his coffee cup down on the table so hard it leaks onto his fist. “It's over now. I was tired. It won't happen again.”
“Rabbit killer drunk.” Kennedy stands up, turns her half-eaten bowl of cereal onto the floor. The milk splashes up on her leg, but she resists the urge to wipe it off as she walks toward the back door.
“Young lady, you'd better clean that up.” Her father stands. “Now.”
“Hell, I'm just going to tell Mom you did it,” she says. They glare at each other before Kennedy’s father looks back at his coffee mug, sticky hand. “Seems to work for you.”
Kennedy spends the day in the woods, walking through paths so narrow she must walk sideways, through weeds as high as her knees. She wonders if she could just live here, eating berries, killing rabbits. Or maybe she could hitch to Boston, live in the basement of one of her friends’ houses, sneaking in late at night and out early in the morning.
But when it gets dark, she’s cold. She thinks of her jacket at home, a cupboard full of bread, peanut butter. Maybe when she is fifteen in a few months she will leave for good. It will be warmer then, for sure. And it should be her father who leaves, anyway, not her. When she gets back to the house, he has, although the truck is there. She wonders whether he looks for her, something else. She shuts the door of her room tightly and slides on her headphones in the dark. She secretly hopes he falls into a ditch, hits his head. But at some point, she can see a light flick on and off underneath her door, and she falls asleep disappointed.
It's almost noon on Monday, and Mr. Wilson hasn't come. Kennedy’s mother will arrive from the airport soon. Kennedy's father moves from the couch to the bay window, twirling the key ring for the truck around his finger. He's showered and put on a new shirt, an oxford he wears to classes, combed his hair back. All morning he's been cleaning, wiping down the counters, vacuuming. He did similar things the first few months after the family moved to Lowell, helping Kennedy's mother with the dishes, mowing the grass. Kennedy had tried, too, going out for the field hockey team, the French club. And she thought maybe it could work here, the three of them. Her mother bought rosemary bushes for the garden. A smart move, Kennedy later concurred, since she discovered they withstood all manner of neglect.
The door rattles with a firm knock, knock, knock, and Kennedy's father springs up from the sofa.
“Howdy, Mr. Wilson.” He opens the door and Mr. Wilson kicks each leg slowly through the threshold of the doorway, hands in his pockets, as if the house if booby-trapped.
“You've got some money for me, I believe?” Mr. Wilson's eyes make a slow sweep of the living room before finding the floor.
“Uh, actually, I've got something better.” Kennedy's father holds out the keys to the Ford. “This truck has been so unlucky for us. But I bet it's worth at least five hundred, parts or whole.”
“Lemmee get this straight—you're gonna give me your truck?”
“Yes.” Kennedy's father rubs the back of his neck. There is silence in the room while the Mr. Wilson mulls the offer. Kennedy can smell him, grain and soap. Like a grandfather. She wonders if he washed his face, shaved before he came over.
“What if I tell you I don't want your truck or your money?” he finally answers.
“Well, I would have to say that was mighty generous of you.” Kennedy's father smiles, his face relaxes into curves and smoothnesss.
“Well, you see, the way I reckon...I don't believe this young lady was driving the truck. I think you were."
Kennedy's father opens his mouth, but the man continues. “My vision ain’t what it used to be, but I believe I saw you in the driver's seat, Mr. Dixon, when I was looking out the window of my house.”
“Sir, why would I blame my daughter for crashing the truck?” Kennedy's father's arms spring from his sides, point towards the ceiling in what Kennedy deems offense. “If anything, I would take the blame for her.”
“Well, if that's true, Mr. Dixon, then I say you let your girl work at my farm for a couple of months, helping me build another hutch, helping out with the rabbits and other things.” Mr. Wilson takes off his cap and scratches his head with it. “A couple hours a week, she could pay for the damage in no time.”
The farmer looks at Kennedy, and Kennedy looks at her father.
“Maybe we both could come.” Kennedy's father nods at her. “Four hands are better than two. What do you say, Kennedy?”
Kennedy does not answer right away. All night she thought about riding her bike over to Mr. Wilson’s, explaining the situation, having her father taken to jail. She wants the course of their lives to be righted back to what it was, and simply doing nothing will not change their force, momentum.
“I’m not going.” Kennedy doesn't look at her father, but she can hear his fists clenching and unclenching. Her stomach hurts. She feels like she has heaved something into a well and is still waiting for it to hit bottom.
“Kennedy,” her father begins. “I'm your father, and I say you're doing this.”
“Make me.” Kennedy shrugs and, before he can answer, bolts out the door. Her head fills with the sound of her blood pumping, leaves crunching under her feet. She does not turn to see whether he comes after her. She does not stop until she is winded, about halfway up the back road to town. She bends over to catch her breath when she hears tires and engine on the road behind her. She turns slightly, recognizes Mr. Wilkins's truck kicking up dust. There is nowhere to duck, to hide, so she waits for him to pull up ahead of her on the roadside before running toward the truck and climbing in.
The cab smells like oranges. Kennedy notices the rinds on the seat between them, a knife on the dashboard. Kennedy and Mr. Wilkins crowd toward the sides of the cab, away from something, watching the straight road, the absence of things ahead.
“Don't take me home,” Kennedy says finally. “I'll help you with the hutch. I don't mind.”
“You ever built a hutch before?” Mr. Wilkins asks Kennedy, smoothing the hair on the top of his head, replacing his cap. “I reckon you haven’t. Don't worry. It ain’t no hard job.”
At the farm they begin to pull the boards out of the truck bed and lay them by the mound of the old hutch. Mr. Wilkins fits two boards together and shows Kennedy where to hammer. She hammers two, three times, when she notices flutters of movement all around them. Then she sees them: the surviving rabbits have returned, tentatively, watching them build the new hutch.
“This one’s gonna be stronger.” Mr. Wilkins pulls on the boards Kennedy has just hammered to prove a point. He has rolled up his sleeves, and she can see the loose skin swing under his biceps where he’s lost muscle, vitality, over the years. “This one’s going to withstand a hurricane.”
She nods, hammering harder, hoping he’s right.
Color of Sky
The first thing he noticed was the color of the sky. It was green when he and Shiela left her sister’s wedding shower in Parkersburg. Now the sky was charcoal gray, the clouds, low slung hammocks, and hard rain slanted in the west. Clint tore up a gravel road, right angles from the storm, and dints of stone were pinging his undercarriage. The radio blipped in and out, and Sheila stared over his left shoulder. “That doesn’t look so good,” she said.
He couldn’t remember the call number for the weather channel. He asked her to find it, and through crackles and fissures of music and voice he hoped to hit pavement soon.
“I don’t see why we shouldn’t move in together. It would save us a lot of money.” Sheila’s upturned nose glistened in the afternoon dark as the Doppler weather report could be heard.
Clint and Sheila had been talking about moving in together for over a week now. They had just celebrated their six month anniversary, but Clint wanted to keep both apartments. Having a second apartment meant that they could gain momentary distance from each other and it created sparks to their intimacy. Nothing could be taken for granted.
“Taken for granted?”
“Well, you know what I mean.” He played with the cigarette lighter even though he didn’t smoke. He was glad to be driving an old car, a ’75 Monte Carlo. Its size and heft gave him security as dry cornstalks floated above the stretch of gravel and whipped along the windshield. Clint loved Shiela but sharing an apartment led to marriage, family, and settling in Iowa. After next semester, Clint planned on going west to LA for the summer to become a gaffer, a personal assistant, whatever it takes so that he can get into the TV business. He wanted to be a writer. Sheila was like her Parkersburg sister—deep ties to the area. She visited Sis and Mom at least once a week—often twice. But Shiela’s lease was up at the end of the Fall and she didn’t want to sign on for another year.
“I just thought—” She looked away, sadness filling her voice.
He wanted to reach for her hand but turned up the radio instead. Funnel clouds were spotted and Doppler said there was rotation. A tornado had touched, west of Cedar Falls on Highway 20. “That’s not far from here,” he said. The report advised people to get to their basements.
“Shit. We can’t go back to my sis’s,” Sheila said. “We should have just stayed there.”
He didn’t want to. He figured he could beat the storm home to Cedar Falls.
Now, there was just open road ahead, shallow ditches running parallel, and flecks of white and yellow floating with heavy wind. “There’s a house. We’re going to have to take cover.”
The Monte barreled up a driveway, dust and dirt clouding through the floorboards. It had some holes that needed patching up. A dark barked and the air sounded of bees. “Come on.” He reached for her hand and they ran to a white frame house with a wrap around porch. They knocked but no answer. Clint swore.
“This is Iowa, right?” Shiela opened the door and entered. Clint wondered what the hell she was doing, but this was an emergency, she said. We’ll seek shelter in the basement and leave a note when we’re done.
The house smelled of spaghetti. Somebody left in the middle of cooking. The Formica table was set and a carafe of ice-tea was in the center. Bright pastel curtains draped the windows and a warmth filled Clint. They lingered there for a long moment, and then Sheila directed Clint downstairs. “You know the biggest mistake people make when they go to the basement for a storm? They don’t take shoes. A tornado hits, glass everywhere, and folks can’t climb out of their basements. Always take shoes.”
Clint loved how Sheila was so practical.
The basement was unfinished and smelled of mildew. There were some windows to the left, but they huddled in the pantry between the two sides of the basement. There there were no windows. Above them could be heard the roar of a distant train.
Canned peaches surrounded them and rattled. The bright almost molten liquid would not be shaken. Sheila huddled next to Clint and he rubbed her shoulder, inhaling her strawberry hair. “I hope it’s not an F-5,” she said.
He kissed her neck. “We should make sure to leave a note, thanking them,” he said, but he didn’t have a pen. She didn’t either.
Ten, fifteen, twenty minutes passed. Some tornadoes take an hour, depending on how fast they move, fifteen to sixty miles an hour, Sheila said. And then she opened a jar of peaches. “I get hungry when I’m nervous.”
“I like to make love when I’m nervous.”
“Have a peach.”
Clint laughed and then she dropped a slice in his mouth, the sticky juice pooling at his chin. And then they kissed some and ate peaches. A train now thudded outside and they were very quiet.
An hour later, they climbed from the basement. The family hadn’t returned. Sheila hoped they were all right and scribbled a note with a pen she found by the phone and left five dollars on the table for the peaches. “I was hungry. They were great,” she scrawled.
Outside the sky was no longer green but dotted with flecks of yellow and white—insulation, Sheila said. “From homes.” Clint was impressed with how much she knew about twisters. The Monte was fine. So was the frame house, except for a few tiles missing from the roof. A tree across the way was broken in two and parts of the fence post were gone. Ribs of branches were everywhere and a torn S pattern snaked through the cornfield. To the east the sky was dark. “I guess we can’t drive home, yet,” he said.
“Let’s go west,” she said.
“No. I think I’d like to stay here.” He reached for her hand. It was still sticky with peaches. They sat on the hood of the car and waited.
The Dead Know Nothing
“Grandma Rivka died last night,” my wife told me over the phone. She was calling from Fort Lauderdale. Kathy’s tone was subdued. Her grandmother was 101 years old. She had gone into the hospital for congestive heart failure in mid-December and then suffered a stroke while she lay in bed. She had sunk into a coma but then partially recovered; she had been semi-alert but could neither move nor speak. Her only son, Leon, my father-in-law, himself in his seventies, flew down from Boston to be with her, and one by one, her five granddaughters went down to help out, too. My wife Kathy was the last. Fortunately, she had stayed behind in Virginia to help me orchestrate our daughter’s sixth birthday party. The holidays were already disrupting our normal routine, the gift-giving, the school vacations and office parties, the difficulties of finding babysitters. We both work for federal agencies in the District. Meanwhile, two of Kathy’s sisters sat with Grandma in the nursing home to which she had been removed for hospice care. She’d signed a living will, and it was just a matter of time. Finally, Kathy went down just after Christmas. She and her father and her sister Phyllis were there when Grandma Rivka finally died.
“You saw her before she died?”
“I’m sure she recognized me. One eye was open and it took me in. We told her we were going out for dinner and we’d be back after a while. She died while we were gone. She was the perfect hostess all the way to the end.” I could see her, the deep oriental wisdom of her slanting almond eyes, full of peace and reassurance, the fluffy white hair, pure and fine as whipped white cotton candy, the dabs of color on her face, rouge and lipstick on the ancient craggy features giving her an almost comical aspect, like the bright greasepaint colors on a clown. At over a hundred her teeth were still strong, yellowed like a rodent’s but her own.
I always felt a special warmth for Grandma Rivka. She’d seen a lot in her life. She’d lived through pogroms in Czarist Russia, been separated from her parents for years when they emigrated to America before her, leaving her in the care of a tavern-owner they knew. She’d crossed the Atlantic in steerage with two younger brothers to look after. She hadn’t had the luxury of a formal education; she had to help her mother instead. So she educated herself. Basic reading and math skills but also business savvy. With her husband Jacob she had run a grocery in Brighton for years, and after he died she continued to run it by herself until she was in her seventies and had been mugged on the streets a few times. Then she’d moved to Florida. That was almost thirty years before.
“So what’s the game plan?” I asked.
“The funeral’s Friday, in Brookline.” This was Wednesday morning. Jewish-style, she was being buried quickly, without ostentation.
“Do you want us to come?”
“I know my father would love to see Sarah and Jack. Everybody would. But of course they’d understand if you didn’t come.”
“We’ll come,” I said. I resolved to attend the funeral. It became an idee fixe, a mental obsession. I promised myself we would be there at the funeral on Friday.
Grandma Rivka and her husband had been Socialists early on and had not paid much attention to religion. After the revolution in 1917 they almost went back to Russia. Leon’s wife, Rozzie, whose father was an Orthodox rabbi, always held their lack of religion against her in-laws. Rozzie lit candles every Friday night, said prayers over bread and wine, and she vowed to send her grandson to yeshiva.
Rozzie was always jealous of Rivka, too, because of the attention Leon paid her. He was an exemplary son who displayed a devotion none of her children showed her. Anyway, there was all of that baggage to consider, too, in attending the funeral. On one side of the aisle it was bound to be strict and formal, while on the other only a polite nod to the forms. Nobody had given any thought to it; nobody wanted to think that far ahead. We’re all amateurs when it comes to death. Nobody wanted to think about burying her before she was dead, irrationally hoping she’d somehow survive.
I packed a couple of suitcases, sorting through the kids’ dresser drawers and our closets for enough clothing for three days. Then, feeling the time weigh heavy on my hands, I took Sarah and Jack to the movies, a feature-length cartoon about dinosaurs. We bought a big box of popcorn and a giant-size orange soda and took our places in the whisper-laced theater. At six, Sarah understood Grandma was dead, and though she was fond of her, she lost all concern she might have had in the enchantment of the movie. It was not clear to me what Jack understood. Does a three-year old comprehend the implications of death, what extinction really means? We sat there in the cozy dark, Jack on my lap, Sarah leaning against me, my arm around her shoulders.
We ate dinner in a brightly-lit fast food restaurant, which also provided a comfort zone, a buffer between me and ultimate reality. Yes, you hear about mass murders at McDonalds, but something about the sterile brightness of those places gives you a sense of security. The kids got little junk toys with their meals, and they ate hungrily. By the time we got home, they were sound asleep, and I carried them in to their beds.
We piled into the car before dawn Thursday morning. The kids grumbled all the way, still sleepy. I wanted to avoid the rush hour traffic around Washington, and by leaving while it was still dark, the kids could sleep a few hours on the road before waking up with their endless demands. In fact, it wasn’t until we were north of Baltimore that I noticed the clouds. Big, lazy thunderheads floated ominously overhead like black beards erupting from the heavens with the dawn light. It was cold out, a frigid chill that penetrated right through your clothes and made your fingers stiff and clumsy, your feet hard and tingly. The bare trees along the interstate, already stained white from a previous storm, offered no hope in their austere outstretched arms.
I had the radio tuned to a modern rock station that was playing the top 100 songs of the year. It was a DC station, and we lost the signal somewhere around Havre de Grace, by the Susquehanna River, in the middle of a song by a group called Smashing Pumpkins. I turned the dial looking for another music station and ran into the weather report. A blizzard was headed up the east coast with a couple of feet of snow expected to be dumped on New England. The wind blew the little Toyota around as we crossed the Tydings Bridge, and I had my first intimations of how powerful the storm might become. The ruthlessness of nature in full force. The gray waters of the Susquehanna rippled ominously below us, and off in the distance, like some giant toy in some low budget Godzilla movie, an Amtrak train was going by on another bridge. The train! I thought. Why didn’t we take the train? Or why didn’t we fly?
Traffic was backed up at the toll booths. It made me impatient. Rush hour commuters/holiday travelers. How many others were trying to get to a funeral? Near the Delaware border we passed a monastery called Our Lady of the Highways, and I felt like David fleeing from Saul as I tried to outrace the storm, beat it to Boston.
But the first flakes didn’t start to fall until we were on the New Jersey turnpike, that bleakest of interstates. It slithered along the road in front of us, undulant and elusive as a snake and just as deadly. My heart rose up in my throat and a sort of doomed panic set in. But I was determined to make Boston. Besides, what choice did I have?
The kids were restless and hungry, and I tried to ignore their pleas for food, put them off as long as I could. Fortunately I’d packed some cheese and crackers and bananas, which kept them satisfied until we reached Wilmington.
“Dad, I’m hungry. I want something to eat.”
“In a little while, honey.”
“But I’m hungry now!” I looked over at Sarah in the seat beside me. She had that look in her eyes that children get, full of a conviction of injustice that will not be ignored. Jack was in the car seat in the back, squirming and making inarticulate noises of impatience. Sarah looks a lot like her mother, sharp, arrowy nose, straight dark hair, brown eyes. Her long, lean, pliant body makes me think of a pipe cleaner stick figure twisted into severe angles and sharp corners. It added to the sharpness of her demands. Jack’s chubby and his eyes are blue and his hair is fair and curly, more like me. Even his nose is a puttydab afterthought. A little more laid-back, like most second children.
“I’m hungry, Dad!” Sarah insisted.
Jack took up his older sister’s cry.
“Hungry! Hungry” he chanted. “Hungry! Hungry!”
“In just a little bit! The restaurant’s just up ahead. I’ll let you know when we get there. It won’t be long!”
“Oh look, Sarah. You’ve got him chanting now!”
“He chants what you say.”
“Chance is a dog!” Jack announced from the backseat, and I had to laugh. He thought I was talking about an animal in a Disney movie he watched over and over again at home. Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey. Incredible journey, indeed.
“I’m thirsty, too!” Sarah whined, and Jack took up the cry.
“It won’t be much longer!”
Finally, somewhere south of the Meadowlands we pulled off to get some gas and vending machine snacks. The snow was whirling around in little white tornados, and the gas station attendant’s face was red from the cold. It blew right through you.
“That idiot on the weather station said we’d have light rain. Just look at this.” He gestured out the kiosk window with blunt fingers numbed by the cold. The forecasters always made good scapegoats in nasty weather. If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will. Abraham Lincoln said that. You can find the asshole in anybody. I said that.
“I heard there was a blizzard coming across New England from Buffalo.”
“Figures.” He sounded disgusted.
I paid him for ten dollars worth of gas and turned back to Sarah and Jack. They were trying to decide what kind of junk to get out of the machines. Pretzels or chips. A couple of guys were huddled around a newspaper machine near the cash register. They made me think of a couple of hobos huddled around a blazing trash barrel for warmth, passing a bottle between themselves. They held cigarettes; smoke dribbled out of their nostrils. They both wore cheap-looking flannel jackets and stocking caps, and they spoke in that wiseass Jersey accent.
“I think Michael Jackson’s guilty as hell. Just look at the guy. I’ve known he was a queer since Thriller.”
“I think he’s being blackmailed. I think he was just dumb. I mean, he was so public with this children’s stuff, playing at the Super Bowl and all that. He’d be insane to have sex with those kids.”
“He probably thought he was safe at his ranch. Fairyland or whatever he calls it.”
“I mean, his handlers wouldn’t allow it. You know what I’m saying? They’d say, ‘Michael, you wanna make it with a little boy? Here, let me arrange it for you,’ and they’d hire a male prostitute. I don’t think it’s so odd for wealthy people to hire prostitutes. Getting into a relationship just makes them vulnerable to lawsuits.”
I steered the kids away from the sex talk and back into the car, filled it up and eased back onto the interstate. The storm began to pick up. Circling New York City, in the distance I could make out the ghostly insubstantial shapes of the skyscrapers, vague shadowy forms seen through the mist and snow. They made me think of gravestones in a cemetery.
I squinted into the storm. It was getting hard to see, and I turned on the headlights. Sarah knew she’d stumbled onto a taboo subject back in the filling station, and I saw her sink into her private thoughts. How futile it is to try and shield children from sex and death! Why do we do it? Why do we try? I remember when I was a kid about Sarah’s age, my parents hid from me the fact that our pet cat had been run over by a car. “Where’s Jeff?” I’d say, remembering I hadn’t seen him for days. ““He’s just outside,” they said. “He’ll be back.” They didn’t tell me for years what really happened.
The snow was thick and swirling all around us now, and I hunched over the steering wheel, staring straight ahead. After a while I started getting fidgety and turned the radio back on, looking for an alternative rock station, but all I could find was mushy soft rock (Rock ‘n’ Roll Lite) and oldies. I wanted to hear U2 or the Lemonheads, Nirvana or Big Audio Dynamite. I wondered if my taste for youth rock was a kind of denial. Did I think I was still twenty years old or something? That I could make time stand still?
The farther north we got, the more blanketed the ground was with the snow, and the harder it was coming down. I felt like I was in a cocoon of white. The separating lines in the highways were obliterated. The bare trees leaned in the wind. Somehow this seemed like what death must be like, this hazy whiteness.
In the pit of my stomach I felt sick, the scared kind of sick. The radio had long since gone to the audio equivalent of freezing rain, an edgy static noise that was nevertheless more reassuring than silence. The windows were fogging and I crept along in second gear, feeling my heart seize up on me whenever some idiot passed me. I had to roll down the window and wipe off the ice that formed on the windshield like a cataract; it was coming too fast for the defroster, and the windshield wipers only smeared it across the glass. Traffic signs loomed up out of the fog, unexpected and frightening.
Ahead of us, a Ford Mustang spun around twice and came to rest against a guardrail. Briefly, I considered stopping to help, a kind of reflexive fantasy; I knew I couldn’t risk it, not with the children to think of. Or was this cowardice? I’d call the police when I had a chance, I told myself. The police would help them. By then we were past them and there was no turning back. A tow truck with whirling red and yellow lights came lumbering past us down the shoulder of the road. Were they looking for somebody in particular? Maybe they’d help the people in the Mustang. There were scores of cars to choose from, travelers stranded by the side of the road.
Finally, a little south of Hartford, I gave up. I conceded that we were not going to make it to Boston. We just could not go on. The drifts were glacial and a lot of the roads were closed. Abandoned cars littered the roadsides. If we got stuck, how would I ever bring a 3-year old and a six-year old to safety? Jack did not even have gloves. We stopped at a Howard Johnson’s.
But what really did me in was losing control of the car at thirty-five miles an hour and skidding at least a hundred feet with that giddy sense of helplessness and surrender you get riding the bumper cars at a carnival. We narrowly missed a pickup truck that was stranded at the side of the road. I expected at any moment to just roll over into a ditch, my kids’ lives on my head. At last we hit a dry patch of pavement and the treads got a grip. My arms were shaking and sweat poured down my face. I got off the road as soon as I was able. Howard Johnson’s never looked so good to me before!
We parked the car in an empty space and trudged with our suitcase through the snow into Howard Johnson’s and rented a room. I called Kathy and told her what had happened, and she said we were going to miss the funeral. It was going to be early the next day and brief because of the weather. There wasn’t going to be any shivah, either. None of Grandma’s people wanted to do it, not her son Leon or any of her other relatives. Rozzie was not insisting. We’d all just drive home to Virginia together Saturday. The storm would be history by then. I could tell Kathy was taking it pretty hard.
The kids were excited by the cozy little motel room. We looked at television for a while, and then we went to the dining room for something to eat, the first real meal we’d had all day. I was exhausted, and I snapped at Sarah for pushing her little brother into the snow in her exuberance. The punishment far outweighed the crime, but I was too miserable to be repentant.
We sat down in a booth and ordered burgers and French fries. We talked about Kathy and Grandma Rivka. No, we wouldn’t see her any more. Yes, she was dead. At an adjacent booth, a woman a few years older than I, who had also obviously been stranded by the storm, turned to listen, and finally she came over and asked if she could join us. Extreme weather conditions have a way of removing inhibitions.
She was a heavy woman, and she wore tight jeans that made her stomach stick out unflatteringly. A face that looked battered by the weather, dull red hair that was probably dyed. Not a temptation under any circumstances.
She said she had overheard us talking about Grandma Rivka’s death, and she told us about her father’s death. Her mother went into serious denial for five years, setting a place at the table for her husband every morning and evening, answering his mail for him, keeping his accounts active, talking about him as if he were alive, as if he had just stepped out and would be home any minute.
“Finally I couldn’t stand it any longer. ‘Ma!,’ I said. ‘He’s dead! Just quit this! It’s silly! It’s silly and it’s wrong!’
“She looked at me crossly and said, ‘Bite your tongue! He’ll be back home any minute now! You wait and see!’
“Anyway, my mom was diabetic, and one day, five years after my dad’s death, she called me on the phone and said, ‘Sharon, I’m going to die today. I was wondering if you’d like to come see me.’
“I was like, oh no, not this again, but I said, ‘Oh, you’re not feeling well? Let me make some arrangements and I’ll be right over.’
“Well, sure enough, I went over there and she died. She just smiled at me and closed her eyes and died. The thing is she hadn’t taken her insulin for several days, so it was kind of a suicide. She’d finally given up the pretense about Dad.”
I shook my head in disbelief. Sarah and Jack had finished their food by now and were anxious to get back to the room and go to bed. I said good night to our guest and herded the kids back to the room. What a strange story. What contradictory feelings about death! And what a way to reconcile yourself to it!
The storm had pretty much stopped by now, though there wasn’t any question about trying to make it to Boston. We had completely run out of steam. Given up. And all at once, the futility of the whole day’s efforts came over me in a rush, and I blamed it all on Grandma Rivka. This was all her fault!
“God damn her!” I shouted suddenly, startling Sarah and Jack. “God damn that old woman! Christ! These old people just drag your life down! They just drain you and drain you, and then they die and leave you!” It was guilt for giving up and frustration at not having made it to the funeral that made me say it, but the guilt that followed was automatic. Shit, she was just a sweet helpless old lady and had always been so kind to me and everybody else, and here I was insulting her memory. I had never felt so low and mean in my life. But then a sense of calm came over me just as swiftly, settling in like ultimate resignation to dim, immutable destiny. She wouldn’t miss me there anyway, would she? She was dead. When you’re dead, you cease to care.