HSR Home HSR Archives Submissions Contributors
Past Editors Contact Us Commentary on HSR Hamilton Stone Editions Home Our Books
Hamilton Stone Review #33
Meredith Sue Willis, Fiction Editor
Hoarding: A Story
In the last years before her death, Zilla’s mother had become a hoarder. Always a lover of objects – furniture, clothes, radios, televisions, dishes – now those objects owned her three small rooms. With Nathan dead for five years, his places were the first to become crowded with additions. His old green chair was stacked with so many newly bought pillows you had to throw four or five onto the floor before you could actually sit in it. Rose’s clothes had multiplied so fast in the past years that she mocked herself: “I don’t have to go to Bloomingdale’s or Macy’s – I can shop right here,” - laughing at the piles of still tagged sweaters, gorgeous leather boots in rich colors – black, brown, deep purple - down coats for weather ranging from mild, light in weight and color, to frigid, heavy and hooded, lined with dark soft fur. Dishes overflowed the cupboards and rose like abandoned ancient buildings on counter tops, every day dishes of many colors, inherited gold rimmed crystal kept for her heirs.
“I can’t even get into the kitchen,” Zilla would complain, stepping over piles of newspapers, trying not to topple towers of cd’s – desperate to help her mother clear out some space. Rose insisted that she was clearing things out, and there was a time when ten or twelve large black plastic bags had been stuffed and lay on the floor like dead beasts, waiting to be picked up, as if for burial, Zilla thought. By Good Will, Rose informed her haughtily; she had already made the arrangements. “No, you can’t help me,” Rose responded to Zilla’s begging offers. “I don’t want anyone telling me what to do,” she’d shout. “I’m doing it, slowly, each day a little more.” She would ease her daughter out the door, or find a way to end a conversation on the phone.
No real progress was ever made, and eventually Zilla began to see her mother only at her own apartment or at a local restaurant. On a cold or rainy day, when she’d shop in the supermarket for Rose’s groceries, she would hand over the plastic bags in the doorway without going inside. She could have negotiated the narrow hallway path between large plastic boxes with their tight fitting blue covers and cloudy white plastic misting their chaotic interiors. But Zilla had lost all heart to witness. She handed the groceries to her mother quickly and returned to her own larger, carefully designed home a few blocks away. There, the only material reminder of it all were three menorahs Rose had insisted she take, three for her, three for her brother Mikey. And when Mikey died those three had gone to Michael, Anthony’s and Zilla’s son.
Rose felt disdain for any aspect of religion. Four of the menorahs had been bought only because they were on sale. The other two had belonged to her own religious mother and mother-in-law, so she could hardly have thrown them away. She never lit them, disparaging the holiday that “celebrated war and death” even more furiously than she disparaged Christmas – with its “disgusting commercialism, fairy tales about dates of birth of the Jewish carpenter and revolutionary preacher turned by meshugena fanatics into the god of Christianity with its centuries of Jew hating.” The tree itself, decorated every year in Zilla’s and Anthony’s home with lovely arrangements of white lights and delicate ornaments, some of them saved from Anthony’s childhood Christmases, was a source of silent contempt or outright mockery. “Has the Christ child been born yet?” Rose would say with a hearty patronizing laugh each Christmas morning when she arrived for brunch, but then sit down with apparently real pleasure to open her gifts.
Each year, they continued to pile them up for her, one from Anthony, one from Zilla, eventually one from each of Zilla’s children and grandchildren who had all been taught the value of reciprocal giving, especially from the very young. Home-made clay bowls and framed crayon drawings, then more objects – scarves, socks, vases, earrings, purses, sweaters. Finally, unwilling to contribute to the piles of unused belongings, they began to give her seasonal plants and flowers instead, one year a colorful shiny shopping bag filled with breads, jams and chocolates which at least would eventually be consumed.
When she died, Rose’s apartment felt like a warehouse. The work of dismantling and sorting took weeks. None of her family took much. Boxes and boxes were packed with scant attention and sent off to various organizations serving the poor.
But even after many years, the six menorahs remained, all six now lit up every Hanukah in Zilla’s and Anthony’s living-room, sometimes in Michael’s home. All six lit over the eight days to mark (Zilla always reminded Michael’s children before they broke into their secular Hanukah songs) the miracle of light: in history, and in their own individual lives, the possibility of light – pushing back darkness, like morning sun and moonlight softening the sorrows of night.
Despite times of visible light, darkness had encroached on Zilla’s life for two years now, pervading her moods, dominating the language of her poems until she stopped writing them. Her most recent drawings were done in heavy charcoal, the only color used for contrast, or a suggestion of three dimensional perspective in a dark blue. She’d worn down so many of her pencils in this color she’d finally bought twenty of them, all the same “midnight blue,” sharpened and kept near her studio chair in a matching dark blue glass so she could reach them easily to draw, or write the draft of a poem, or since she had begun to avoid drawing or writing at all, to sketch meaningless lines and circles while trying to sound attentive to someone on the phone.
For months, no sketches; no notes for a future poem. Her mind - or brain - was filled so tightly and chaotically with images and words, at times she could hardly move. She sat in her chair, or lay in her bed, and she worried, or tried to talk herself out of worrying, breathing deeply and rhythmically to calm her anger or staunch her seemingly never ending tears. She worried about Michael’s moods, which were often grim and which he refused to describe in anything like comforting detail. She worried about Naima, her daughter-in-law whom Zilla loved like the daughter she’d never had but who seemed angry at her lately, short and critical with her about everything - how she treated the children, how often or how rarely she visited, even how she dressed or wore her hair. “Do you really like the brown dye you’re using?” Naima had asked the other day. “Yes,” Zilla had answered warily, “or why would I use it?” “But why do you like it?” Naima had pressed, her criticism as obvious to Zilla as the deep red wool sweater draped over Naima’s turned back.
Her voice filled Zilla’s head, joined the other voices that for months had rendered her nearly immobile, and when did it start? She added that question to the pile of ringing questions. She sat. She lay down. She did her housework, which cheered her temporarily - sorting dirty clothes, dark from white, organizing coats by season and color in a long neglected closet, cooking elaborate and delicious meals for herself and Anthony. But all her domestic efforts were mere placations, relieving distractions until she could safely go back to her bed. Her bedtime, around nine or ten o’clock since she and Anthony had begun to move into their late sixties, became eight o’clock, then seven - earlier and earlier so that with television noise or a compelling mystery to read, soft lamplight, the thick white down quilt that now provided more solace than drawings or poetry, she could, as the old song went, relax her mind. The best comfort of all was Anthony’s beloved body, thigh touching thigh, her foot over his foot, her hand reaching over to stroke his now sparse white hair. She sank into the warm quilt, the soft light, the uncrowded small room, its contours and furnishings so familiar: two paintings of pale interiors, dusty pinks, blues and greys, and two photographs of their grown children, each in one side of a silver frame, in the same place on her bedside table for years. All this could magnetize her into a perfect stillness, a luxurious inner blankness and calm. I love you Anthony, she’d whisper before they finally turned off the lamp light and called it a night. He’d turn toward her back, reach his arms around her flannel pajama top and murmur, I love you too, Zilla. Dozing and waking, thoughts and feelings continued to dim, as if, like the huge blankets her mother sometimes threw over her piles of random belongings to hide them from an intruding eye, Zilla was covering her own brain-rooms with half sleep, a thick blanket falling slowly over the tangled mess.
Once, this calm stillness had come after writing or drawing, especially when she began to work on the language or lines after the sketch or first draft was done. Polishing words. Shading surfaces and planes. Now, she relished the interior darkness, the very dark she had once urged her mother to relinquish was now her own.
“You always see the dark side,” she had admonished Rose many times. “You have a wonderful family. You have unusual strength for someone your age. You have your books and you still love to read – and you have good eyesight – all you need are simple drug store reading glasses while all your friends are having cataract surgery! Your have your health!” Zilla remembered her shouts, anger fueled by her own ill health, for she had gone through two bouts of breast cancer while her mother still lived. Years later, cancer returned to her stomach, but by then Rose was long dead.
By now, Zilla’s scarred flat chest was familiar to her, no longer upsetting. She could look at herself, stroke her protruding ribs, massage the old scars that could still send sharp pains through her, as damaged tissue shifted and pulled - “ for life most likely,” Anthony would say in a pragmatic, knowledgeable tone, quoting the surgeon. She had grown accustomed to her body’s flat, almost child like shape.
But she missed her breasts. Not her breasts themselves exactly, but their central place in her sexuality. She was sixty-nine, experiencing all the usual debilitations and insults of an aging body, faulty memory, diminished hearing, aching limbs. Yet, unlike some of her friends who claimed to have finished with desire, hating their sagging breasts, even, at times expressing envy of her for having gotten rid of them, she felt attacked, at times, by desire. It was sudden, powerful, and trapped as if by thick steel walls from expression, not only in real life with Anthony, but in her ordinary interactions with men or women she might once have incorporated into her fantasies of love making, a pleasure almost as strong as the pleasure of actually being touched and touching in return. Suddenly it came, in the presence of someone she knew, or as a feeling of longing unattached to anything, signaled by heat, even a small orgasmic beating, out of nowhere it seemed, as if her body simply insisted on it, like a sneeze, or a yawn.
But desire for actual love making stopped at the narrow crowded hallway of her mind. No place to move. Boxed. Shoved under waves of worries and long past grief so deep even she, who had always navigated those waters with well known courage, pulled back into solitude. She would not call it depression – perhaps because of the stretches when life seemed ordinary again, slipped out of sadness and fear of death, filled up with short lived pleasures, even moments of extraordinary happiness. She was not depressed, if her adolescent bouts of paralysis had been depression. This was something else, she was sure, and she had no name for it at all.
Unlike her breasts, she did not miss the two thirds of her stomach the kind Dr. Chang had removed so skillfully, giving her fair warning: “I have removed part of your core,” he had said, hands pushed into the deep pockets of his white jacket, dark sympathetic eyes not wavering from her own. “It will take time for you to recover your self.”
How strange, she had thought, for this medical scientist who had removed with such precision and confidence, he felt almost certain, the cancer in her stomach – though it would be five full years, he told her (she never stopped counting) until he would use the word “cure,” – how strange for him to speak to her in the language of the yoga class, of various meditation practices; “her core,” he had said numerous times, instructing her about diet and exercise, issuing gentle warnings about her mental state as well. “Don’t make any important decisions,” he told her, “not for at least two years.” She’d had eight clear cat scans. She needed six more, another three years, before it was over for good. But that phrase made no sense, she knew. She’d had cancer three times. Why not a fourth?
“We’re all getting old, we’ll all break down in some way,” Anthony would say, and recently she had begun to feel comforted, to be included in the human collective, not singled our for some mysterious reason for pain. For years she had covered herself, protecting herself even from his long trusted touch, with soft undershirts of cotton and silk. She still wore them beneath her flannel pajama tops, but one night she let him reach across to her scarred chest while he was caressing her back. No sexual feeling accompanied this touch, but it gave a brief, quiet pleasure, and in the midst of that small exquisite moment she recalled an old, discarded piece of writing - Sex, Color and Words, she had called it, exploring the connections between these – core - her doctor might have called it – parts of herself.
She turned beneath the thick quilt, hoping for a path to cut through the piles of thoughts and feelings, fears and losses, worst of all, the flashes of memory too vivid and powerful to allow in even for a moment.
For when they did come, and they always did, she’d begin to sob, not merely cry, but sob in loud lament – as if it were happening now, happening again – the long hours of unconsciousness, waking in pain so severe she could not move her own body, the days and nights of morphine induced sleep, feeding tubes, a mouth so dry she’d come to comprehend in her flesh the idea of literally dying of thirst. Then the chemotherapy, the radiation, the nausea, blood tests, black and blue marks all over her arms as her veins began to resist the insertion of intravenous needles, her dependence on Anthony, on Michael and Naima, on her friends. She wished she could be like her mother, refusing all help - dependency, her absolute need of them, in some ways the worst part of all.
She collected the feelings and memories from years past, piled them high next to current anxieties - about Anthony’s aging, Michael’s moods, her grandson’s temper tantrums, Naima’s criticisms, a close friend who had not called in days, rejections of her poems. Thank goodness she had never submitted – hateful word – her drawings to any gallery, those blue-black interiors and portraits, the black and blue shapes that filled up forty or fifty pads. They were all piled neatly in their own small book case, each one labeled by date. Just as her journals, filled with early drafts of poems and their less poetic origins, were labeled. Just as her shelves of poetry books were strictly alphabetized – she could lay her hand on a desired book in a swift minute. Just as she organized and rearranged her closets, folding and refolding sheets, throwing out old frayed pillow cases and blankets, sweaters unworn for years, nearly new shoes and boots her aging feet could no longer fit into comfortably. She would never hoard like her mother. She had sworn this.
And so she knew. She was a hoarder, if in a different realm. And how she would begin to work her way through the piles of old belongings and strange new purchases, ancient memories and new anxieties, how she would make a clear path back to – back to her self – if that self still existed at all – she could not yet ---
She used the conditional adverb – yet- trying to preserve a slender portion of hope. Yet: on one hand this, yet on the other . . . ; yet – not yet, not now, but at some moment in a possible future, possibly even soon. Not yet. She lingered on the phrase finding unexpected relief in the realization that like her mother, she was a hoarder, for it was still true for her that naming a thing in words, or recreating it in an image, gave her the deepest security she had ever known.
The morning after she named herself, her vision shifted to a slightly different angle, as if she had altered the position of her torso in the water while swimming, turning from back to side. It wasn’t a dramatic shift. No one could call it a sea change. It might last no longer than a day, perhaps only a few hours. But it was long enough to make a large drawing of her mother’s living room from memory, black garbage bags, barely identifiable piles of belongings, dark charcoal edges, blue-black planes. Then she began a poem about her darkened bedroom, feeling suffused with the unique relief not felt in many months as she described its opaque shades, thick curtains, the small pillows and tissue boxes she stacked each night against the clocks and the television cable box, blocking the glaring red and shrill green digital numbers, shutting out the light.
It was back in those days when I lived in anxiety, traveling from doctor’s office to doctor’s office in a city that had become too active for me.
My eyes blinked open at 4:45 a.m. and I started breathing deeply through my nostrils. I held my breath for eight counts in a place near my belly button, then exhaled. I imagined bad cells leaving my body, traveling down from my uterus to my pubis to my thighs, to my knees, then down down down through my feet and deep into the ground. I started over and repeated this action for twenty minutes, oxygen bloating my belly like a balloon, my tongue gently grazing the back of my front teeth, my mouth set in a forced smile. My husband snored steadily beside me. Outside, early morning 3rd Avenue traffic made its usual racket.
But there had been nothing usual about my test results – “Complex hyperplasia with atypia.” Atypia, as in atypical, as in not usual, as in not normal, as in abnormal, as in a less than common occurrence, as in watch out, pay attention, as in what exactly was my position regarding childbearing. And it wasn’t a significant relief that these atypical cells were found in an “endometrial background of simple hyperplasia without atypia” because Western medicine focuses on treating the worst cells – namely, the cells with atypia and therefore my anxiety level was directly associated with these particular cells. I wondered how many of them there were.
I fell asleep and woke up again at 7 a.m. to the sound of the alarm. The noise outside was louder. If only I could stay asleep all morning, but allegiance to my new routine prevented any such luxury. I dragged myself to the refrigerator and extricated from it newly-discovered breakfast items – thin slivers of smoked salmon, broccoli (a cruciferous vegetable) left over from the previous night’s dinner, two tablespoons of yoghurt, one teaspoon of Udo’s Choice Oil Blend. “Cruciferous,” such a strange descriptor for a vegetable – the second shelf of the refrigerator kept permanently full of them by my husband – cauliflower and broccoli and green cabbage and red cabbage – a proliferation of colorful veggies – live, raw ammunition to help me wage war against my own errant body. I supplemented this with the obligatory dose of synthetic progesterone that Dr. Stern insisted I ingest.
I ate, took the elevator downstairs and rushed towards the subway – would I be late for work again? A new sense of guilt washed over me, not about being late for work but rather for worrying about being late for work – I wasn’t supposed to rush, I wasn’t supposed to worry and this was the hardest part of all. I had been worrying about nameless things for years and now, just when I had something concrete and focused to worry about, I was being denied the pleasure. I continued to worry about not worrying as I dodged pedestrians on the busy sidewalks.
Once on the train, I squeezed myself between two overweight women. I immediately felt uncomfortable, overwhelmed, dwarfed – I regretted my decision, but felt too embarrassed to get up. The truth is that I had started acquiring a new horror of fat and what it represented – the ingestion of toxic, artificial, processed foods full of sugar and simple carbohydrates and other killer substances. I looked at the bloated feet of the woman to my right and the way her toes seemed to bulge out of her pumps and I shuddered. As I exited at 59th street, a young Hispanic woman struggled to get her stroller up the stairs. A businessman came to her aid, the stroller tipped in one direction for a terrifying few seconds, the toddler’s eyes big as saucers.
I looked away. I could no longer look at pregnant women, babies, toddlers, even young children for that matter without being overtaken by confusion. When did the cells of my womb decide to assert themselves, changing from simple to complex, from active to very active, to hyperactive? What combination of factors informed this decision – work stress, age, genetics? It was all far more mysterious than the layers of decisions that had already been hovering over me for years: whether or not to have a child, whether or not to adopt. I scratched a little itch on my left arm.
It was 8:44 already and my first meeting of the day was starting at 9:00. Two avenues and three streets to go, I told myself, walking evenly and trying to stay calm. “Don’t stress out.” OK so the rushing was stressful but the not rushing was equally stressful – who was I fooling? I could see the whole string of consequences drawing themselves out one by one – nasty looks from my manager, decisions about announcing myself (as late) to the people on the conference call, or not announcing myself at all and remaining incognito, or waiting 15 minutes and contributing some well-timed comment that made it seem like I had been there all along. Meanwhile deep breathing was the answer. I picked up my pace slightly and started breathing deeply – inhale and hold for six steps, exhale and hold for six steps.
I finally reached my building, rode the elevator to the 32nd floor, rushed past three rows of identical cubicles with bobbing heads, and walked into Team Room 3208 four minutes late. My colleagues Anna and Raj nodded in relief. Thankfully my manager Meredith was not there.
Three back-to-back meetings later, a colleague pried open a large container of almonds and I helped myself to one, two, three, and then more and more nuts. Where was my self control? I slid the container away from me, smiled, then rushed to the cafeteria where I secured a large and virtuous salad of chickpeas, beets, and cabbage. People commented on my healthy lunch and I allowed myself to feel some pride. But just thirty minutes later, the little itch on my arm had intensified and spread under my pullover. I felt like I was on fire.
I ran to the ladies room, unraveled my scarf, pulled down the front of the pullover and looked in the mirror. Oh my God! There was something deep red in the V of my neck – almost as crimson as my pullover. There were a few women from Accounting in the washroom area. I felt connected to these women somehow although I didn’t even know their names. I recognized them as women who shared my biorhythm – yes – a primal connection. “Wow – have you ever seen anything like this?” I asked a tall woman next to me.
“Are you wearing something new?” she asked, “Maybe it’s your scarf.” She picked up the end of it and felt the fabric – “Nice.”
“My scarf?” I said. This was my favorite Italian silk scarf, bought on last year’s trip to Venice. “I don’t think so, it’s real Venetian silk,” I responded, “and I wear it all the time.”
“Oh I love Venice,” the tall woman responded, “the open spaces, the gondolas, well, everything except the stench.”
Another older woman chimed in, “Laundry detergent – using something different, dear?” Hm – I used only environmentally safe detergent.
“Oh no,” a third person threw in; I could smell her cheap lavender perfume. “It’s something you ate – definitely.” Food – now this was a sensitive subject.
I lined up the potential culprits, last night’s midnight pistachios – coming to think of it, hadn’t I felt an itch on my neck right before bed? Or was it the almonds? It must have been the nuts. Now that I was depriving myself of sugar and carbs I was indulging in nuts – perhaps it was not the pistachios or the almonds per se, but rather, all of these together – a vast proliferation of nuts, bombarding my already delicate organism. Or maybe it was the nuts reacting with the synthetic progesterone, an organic vs. synthetic warfare going on and erupting at skin level. Should I call Dr. Stern? No, Benadryl would do the trick. It was 1:45 and my next meeting was at 2:00. Did I have time to run to the pharmacy or should I spend three minutes round trip going back to my cubicle and checking my purse? I rushed to the other side of the office, rummaged through my bottomless purse and found a small crumpled card of tablets. “Benadryl” I said to myself triumphantly. Expiration date: Feb 8. 2014.
“Hey Anna, think these are OK?” I asked, peering over my cubicle wall into hers.
“Oh yeah, these chemicals are indestructible,” she replied. “You OK?”
“Yeah thanks.” Satisfied, I picked up my notebook and headed over to the boardroom for a long-awaited workshop on interviewing techniques.
About twenty people were gathered there and a slide was being projected with the words: “The Effective Interview: Ten Easy Steps.”
“Please excuse my rash,” I said to the roomful of people, trying to be light-hearted as my fingers lingered over my itching neck. I sat in an available seat next to Meredith who was speaking with the presenters from Zeniada Consulting. Without hesitating, she rose from her seat, nodded to the visitors and moved to the other side of the conference room. Everyone laughed nervously and I felt my body temperature rise. Meredith was petite and delicate with pale rosy Irish skin, the kind that immediately registers any kind of upset in varying degrees of red, the kind that bothers me in just about anyone other than an adolescent. How dare she behave this way, I thought to myself. How dare she run away without at least appearing to care? Usually I would brood over something like this, wonder what I had done wrong, but the itch was getting worse and I was becoming increasingly uncomfortable and something made me pick up my notebook and move, yes, move right over to where she was sitting. She looked at me startled, frightened, while I scratched my ears and scalp – my ears had started throbbing. And unbelievably, she moved again, voiceless, swift, like a trapped animal. I followed her again and sat in the chair next to her. Someone said in a forcefully cheerful voice, “musical chairs,” and the words felt wrong, inappropriate. The consultants, who had started introducing themselves awkwardly paused.
“No problem. We can wait until everyone is settled in.”
But Meredith moved again and soon, as though in some kind of terrible amusement park game, we started chasing each other around the large oval conference table. In what seemed like the far distance, I heard comments: “Oh my God!” “Watch out!” and someone coughing nervously. Suddenly words spilled out of my mouth – “I’m going to catch you Meredith, I’m going to catch you,” and then – the vendors and all those people waiting for their workshop on the subtle art of interviewing, all those people (men mostly) in gray and blue and black somehow turned into big blurs of muted color, their suits and ties swirling around me like an ominous cocoon. What was I doing? Was I crazy? Did I want to lose my job? My face had started burning as though I had a raging fever and I wanted to open the windows but there were no windows in the conference room and even if there had been, they would have been sealed. And I felt the heat inside me, coursing through my whole body – was it just the rash, the running or was it something else too? I needed to breathe, I needed to stop but I just couldn’t – for the first time in seven years, I had my boss cornered and it felt good. I kept running and so did she, and sweat started pouring down my face. As I ran, I became aware of a growing wall of sound – occasional disconnected words reaching my ears – “contagious” “crazy” “security” – Ah ! They were all afraid of me, of my rash, of catching something unknown and they were afraid of me because I was breaking all their petty little bureaucratic rules, I was messing up their meeting, destroying the agenda, running amok and worst of all, publicly humiliating my manager! Some people were so scared that they had risen from their chairs and were lining the sides of the room, backs to the walls; a few had even escaped the room. When I realized this I immediately felt satisfied and proud in a strange way and so I kept running around the table, my hair free from its restraints, flying along with me. I kept running long after Meredith had slumped exhausted into a sofa near the door. And then somehow, someone stuck an arm in my path and it broke my momentum and I had to slow down, and I slowed down until people’s contorted faces came back into focus and I saw the large mirror at the far end of the room.
I walked over to the mirror with its cheesy gilded frame and I looked into it and let out a piercing scream. Could this be me? No wonder everyone was acting so strange. My face looked like an enormous bruised red vegetable with large raised welts forming some sort of pattern like primitive markings. My eyes and mouth were fierce slits fighting to stay surfaced in the inflamed ball that was my head. My sweat-soaked hair clung to this ball suggesting an uncomfortable mix of vegetable and hair. The only other exposed part of my body, my hands, were equally terrifying – swollen like balloons and extremely painful. I turned them around and saw splotches of deep red on my palms. Stigmata? I wondered, stunned. I stood there quietly, and felt the burning inside me, felt it grow with the force of an unstoppable energy and I realized what was fueling it and I was shocked. I turned to face the room. “This is a terrible place and you all might as well be dead!” I screamed at the horrified onlookers and stormed out.
Adam "Bucho" Rodenberger
Sure, we’d shared a joint or two, maybe three, but he knew my policy; I didn’t snort or poke anything. I was strict about that, immovable. There was no argument you could lay against it that would change my mind. And he knew that. We’d talked about it at length.
But still he offered. I’d been known to do the same at a point in my life. It’s just common courtesy to share the spoils. It’s a pleasantry, it’s user politics, it’s polite. There wasn’t anything malicious in the offer; not with me then as with him now. Still I declined as he fumbled his palsied fingers through the pockets of his jeans, slapped an unsober hand across the folds of his jacket in the hopes of giving me something for my troubles. In the hopes that maybe he’d earn back a little something for the hassle of my carrying him home yet again.
We’d fallen into a weirdly comfortable recurring dance. I was used to the situation – him drunk or mind-spun on something new I’d never heard of – and sucked it up. That was what I was supposed to do after all, right? I couldn’t let him stumble through the midnight streets on his own.
Still he fumbled, his fingers sliding across the fabric of his windbreaker, zip-zip-zipping in the twilight’s black as he searched for a way to appease me. I kept shrugging him off.
It’s fine, don’t worry.
I’m good, thanks.
Nope, not my thing, bud. You know this.
I admired his persistence until he accidentally emptied the contents of his jacket pocket out onto the concrete between us. Several little baggies lay strewn about around our feet. I couldn’t see the color of the powdered contents, but I knew. I was smart enough to know that I should’ve grabbed them up and tossed them in the next trash can we passed.
“Uh-oh,” he said, childlike, as he bent over to grab them. I watched as his fingers scraped against the bags, clutched at the nothing air, watched him repeat this process until I finally scooped them up myself in one motion and pocketed them.
“C’mon,” I muttered, smiling as I held him against my body and dragged us both toward his apartment. Every cab I’d signaled had looked us up and down and driven off without an explanation. Not that one was needed as I could only imagine what we looked like: two drunks, one a hundred times worse than the other. I would’ve left us to rot on the sidewalk too. I couldn’t be mad at them the same way I couldn’t be mad at him, and lord knows I’d tried to find the anger.
The cement of the sidewalks seemed to sparkle up at us, moonlight glinting off the shiny elements buried within as my head stayed bent ever downward, his arm draped over the back of my neck. Even now he stood a foot taller, a thing I’d never come to grapple with properly.
The air stank; night time trash runs from the closed down restaurants, the piss-stained brick walls wet from those that couldn’t wait, a menagerie of things that could only mean “city.” The smell was thick, coated the inside of my nose and throat with every labored breath as I helped move his body along.
His arm hung limp around my neck, fell, swinging across my chest with each step. I could smell the cologne he’d bathed himself in before he left the apartment. I could smell the remnants of dinner hanging from the filaments of his beard. I could smell his apology leaking out of every pore.
Where are your keys? I asked him, hoping he was still sober enough to answer.
Puhcket, he slurred, pointing to his pants.
I sighed and looked up. Black rooftops lined the skyline. A few windows remained lit here and there, but we scuttled our way through the mostly dark, relying on the mental muscle memory of our youth and all the times I’d come to visit. Even if he passed out on me, I’d recognize the door. A heavy wooden thing painted brightest red was impossible to miss in any neighborhood.
You know those times. The ones that drag on well into the hours of the best kind of storytelling, the ones where magic or tragedy happens and is never forgotten. Like time has slowed down and allowed you safe and unmolested passage to wherever it is you need to be. This was one of those times. We would’ve been easy marks for anyone paying attention.
If I didn’t know better, I’d say the moon stopped the world on our behalf. But that’s pretty ridiculous, even for me.
I remember the first time I found him spun out and deep in the junk, the tie-off still knotted around his arm as he slumped uncomfortably against the wall. His eyes had rolled up into the back of his head and his tongue lolled out the side of his mouth. In that moment, it was like God had taken His hand and hollowed me out, removed everything good from my life and left me holding on to an emotion so deep that it couldn’t be named.
His skin was pale and clammy to the touch, but he was just barely breathing. One could have been forgiven for thinking he was dead. Perhaps that unnamed feeling was my belief that he was already gone. Maybe it was that I knew he was already on his way and there wasn’t much I could do to stop his plummet down.
I paced around his apartment before finally deciding against calling the cops and instead called a hotline for assistance. He didn’t need to be arrested, he needed help. I removed the tourniquet and laid him out on his bed, put cold compresses on his skin to cool him down, waited.
Those were the longest hours of my life, sitting there watching his body spasm in fevered narco-dreams. I’d run my hand through his hair and shush him like he was a toddler terrified of the night. I doubt this was his first time with the drug, but it was lucky I was there to see it rather than have it linger below the surface of our relationship like a black secret.
When he finally woke, I was sitting in the chair next to his bed staring at him. Not in anger or disappointment, not judging or silently incriminating him, just waiting for him to open his eyes, hoping they would open, feeling lucky when they did. I realized in that moment that my perception of luck had been wrong.
Luck isn’t winning the lottery or hanging a colored rabbit’s foot from a keychain. It isn’t the phone call that leads to the perfect job or some other great windfall. Luck is the unseen thing, it is the dark ‘what-could-have-been’ that our lives narrowly missed. It’s the tragedy we didn’t experience, the pain not inflicted. It is the black cloud we can’t acknowledge because, somehow, we pass right by its existence unscathed and untouched, unknowing.
The red door appeared. It wasn’t hard to see, visible from nearly two city blocks away and lit up like a heavenly stage, haloed by a flickering halogen. I asked him for his keys again and got silence. He had gone heavy against me, passed out. I tried to think of him as an infant as I adjusted my grip and used my free hand to dig through his pocket. I thought I was just at a weird angle, but then I realized why he had such a problem digging through his own pockets earlier. What kind of a man wears skinny jeans at his age?
Eventually, I fished the keys out and tried the most tarnished one. It’s a small win in a situation like this to choose correctly the first time. My arm was beginning to ache from holding him up.
The door opened and I corralled us inside, letting it shut and lock behind me automatically. I looked up at the stairs and sighed, thankful that the elevator was close by and in good working order. The thought of how long it would take to carry him up four flights was not one I wanted to dwell on.
A button pushed, a bell dinged, the doors slid open and we made our way up in a mirrored box bathed in piss-yellow light. I don’t know why he stayed here when there were so many other places in the city with better amenities in better neighborhoods. I mean, I know why, I just don’t understand the refusal to make it happen. The kid had so much potential for greater things and I’d never been able to change his mind on any of them.
However, after the first time I found him junked up, it was relatively difficult to convince him that I needed a key to his place. Not to intrude, but in case he found himself in a bad spot again or if I found I couldn’t get a hold of him. He put up a fight when I asked for one, but I like to think he understood where I was coming from without having to explain it fully.
I dragged him through the hallway to his apartment. The dimly lit hallway made me feel small and powerless. I’d always hated the way it looked at night, as if there were things hidden in the dark corners ready to pounce. I’m not a fearful man, so maybe I was just projecting my own boogeymen into the space.
Soon I carried him over the threshold of his doorway into a dark room, moonlight spilling in through the oversized windows. I locked the door behind us and carried him through the darkness to his bed on the far side of the studio room. We sat and I managed to rid him of his jacket before laying him down to take off his shoes.
I turned on a lamp and looked around the apartment. I could see that it was messier than usual. Newspapers, food-caked paper plates, mugs full of water gone gray from ash and half-smoked cigarettes, fire-charred spoons. Not pretty but not unexpected either.
I spent an hour tidying up, knowing it wouldn’t do much good. The mess would find itself spread out across the already small studio apartment again anyway, but I was awake and it needed to be done. A quick trip around the room and I’d gathered up all the dishes and silverware that lay strewn about, placing them in the sink. Most of the papers I put neatly into a separate pile next to his battered recliner near the window. Beer bottles and other tossable glassware got put into an old grocery bag that sat on the kitchen counter.
I dumped the liquid from all the cups and mugs in the sink and proceeded to clean the dishes, knowing he wouldn’t wake no matter how much noise I made. He was deep in it now and I needed to do something to take my mind off him, otherwise I would’ve sat there and watched over him like a mother hen all night long.
Once done, I put the dishes away and took the trash and recycling out to the dumpster chute in the hallway. I could hear it all rattle and clang down the metal tubing before landing loudly at the bottom, some of the glass shattering upon impact.
I came back to the apartment and checked the compress on his head. It was dry now, so I removed it, soaked it again and placed it back upon his hot forehead as he slept. The night outside was slowly fading into sunrise, but not fully for another hour. Instinctively, and not because I really wanted any, I brewed up a pot of coffee and let the smell permeate the room. While it percolated, I cleaned his bathroom, equally as filthy as the rest of his place. I didn’t understand the lack of cleanliness in a bathroom of this size. It would have taken him ten minutes tops to give it a good once over.
The coffee finished brewing. I poured myself a cup and sat in the recliner, staring over at his sleeping frame. I remembered the packets and pulled them out of my pocket. All were identical, tiny see-through baggies tagged with different, colored logos. I’d seen my fair share of them over the years: “Coma” spelled out in black, “Nightmare” in sharp greys, “Slowburn” in green, the image of a little yellow devil with a pitchfork. The drugs came in all kinds of names depending on the strength or type of high you were looking for. I found it ridiculous the first time I saw it, but he had explained it all to me once and I now saw the benefit. A way for dealers to let people know who the stuff was coming from and what to expect from the high. Clever, really, as much as I hated to admit it.
I put the baggies on the night stand, sipped my coffee, and then set the mug down beside them. This particular batch of powder had been marked up in smudged, muddled violet lettering. Bad print job, I guess. Couldn’t make out anything from the smeared image. I sighed and turned back to watching his chest rise and fall in the dark. At some point, I fell asleep, but I don’t remember seeing the sun rise at all.
A light hand shook me awake. My eyes opened up to brilliant sunlight filling the room, reflecting off the dim white walls brightly. Once my vision cleared, I could see the grime on the walls that the dark had kept hidden. Jared stood beside my chair looking down at me, confused. He sipped from a cup of coffee. I smiled up at him and rubbed the sleep out of my eyes. “Morning,” I mumbled.
“I don’t remember calling you last night.”
I shook my head. “You didn’t. Artie did.” Artie was the bartender at Jared’s favorite haunt. He and I had been classmates in high school. Neither friends nor enemies, we both knew of the other’s existence back then. It was Artie who had tipped me off to Jared’s substance use. He called and said “Your son is passed out in one of my booths with a syringe stuck in his thigh.” His friends had apparently left him there unceremoniously. He made it a point to call me frequently now when Jared came through and was already looking a little dodgy, which I appreciated having been down that road myself in my younger years.
“You cleaned,” he said, sweeping his hand around the room.
“A little,” I replied, smiling. I grabbed my coffee cup from the nightstand, noticed the baggies missing from the night before, and stood up, stretching a bit from the awkward sleep. We both sipped at the same time.
“Hungry?” he asked, motioning towards the kitchen. “I don’t have much, but I can make you a little something if you’re peckish.”
We moved towards the kitchen area and he began cooking some bacon while readying up a batch of whisked, peppered eggs. I sat on the lone bar stool and watched him work. So different to see him function during the sober times, like he was a completely different person devoid of the drug, which sounds obvious, but still. There was a shine to his eyes, a completeness that disappeared when he went under. I hated seeing that vacant look. As many times as we’d found ourselves in this kind of situation, that look never got any easier to handle.
My stomach growled as the room filled with the smell of sizzling meat. His mother and I had talked extensively about this weird dynamic we seemed to find ourselves in. On the one hand, it was better that we knew what he was into. On the other, we wondered if we were simply enabling him every time we came to his inebriated rescue.
“So I made a promise to your mother,” I said over the sizzling pan. “One that’s going to be incredibly hard for me to keep.”
He began lifting the bacon out of the pan and placing it all on a paper towel-covered plate. “Yeah? What’s that?”
I chewed on the inside of my cheek, an old habit I’d picked up when trying to quit smoking years ago. It was hard to start this kind of conversation and I would’ve preferred that his mother had joined me, purely to help pick up the speech when I would inevitably fumble it. Jared’s drug use had always made her queasy, though, so I doubt she would’ve been able to wait for him to wake before laying into him. I watched as he poured the eggs into the grease-filled pan.
“I put on a better show of it than your mother does, but this has been a hard thing for us, watching you spiral down into whatever this addiction may be. It makes her incredibly nervous to watch you go frail. Me too, I suppose, but I can deal with it better.”
Jared turned to look at me, spatula hanging at his side. I turned my eyes down, staring at the counter top. One look and I could already see that he knew what was coming. I think we both knew it would happen sooner than later, but now was that time.
“What I’m trying to say is…we won’t be coming to get you any more when you pass out at Artie’s. Or anywhere else, for that matter. We love the hell out of you, but we simply can’t abide by it much longer. Since we first found out three years ago, we’ve been withering a little inside with every new instance, hoping that ‘this will be the last time’ or ‘he’s done with this now.’ But that hasn’t been the case and your habits are chipping away at everything we have left within us.”
He turned back to the pan, remained silent as he pushed the eggs around with the spatula. I sipped from my coffee again, now cold, and waited. I wondered how many other parents I knew or had known throughout my lifetime had found themselves in this exact same situation. How many of those swept this under the rug of conversation to preserve what little pride they had left in their kids? It was something we all wanted to desperately hold on to, maybe gripping too tight and strangling it in the process.
Jared turned the burner off and grabbed two paper plates off the top of the fridge. He slid some eggs on each and garnished the plates with bacon. We ate in silence for a bit. I didn’t like to push him with the deep conversations. Even as a child, I’d speechify something and let him mull it over and then return to me with questions. I thought it best to let him process it all before speaking again. I cleaned my plate, but his hunger seemed to have diminished as he left the majority of the eggs untouched.
He stared down at the counter top, his arms propping up him and his eyes darting across its surface as if waiting for it to give him some kind of answer. “This some kind of weird tough love you’re giving me?” he finally asked through pursed lips. “If so, it seems pretty hypocritical.”
“No tough love. Not from me, not from your mother. But hypocritical?”
“Yeah. You told me about your days of partying. I’ve told you everything about mine.”
“Not everything, but I get your point. And no, I kept my substance use hidden away from my parents. And I stopped, so there’s that. Your mother and I aren’t telling you to stop, though I would highly recommend it and your mother would love to see it. We’re simply telling you that we won’t be on call to pick you back up from a hard night out on the town any more. If you want to actively seek some kind of counseling or rehab, we’re behind you one hundred percent. You’re an adult now, so we can’t really make you do anything you don’t want to do, just letting you know where we stand. Man to man, face to face. Father to son.”
He nodded his head, accepting the words but maybe not the entirety of the meaning yet. He poked around at his eggs again and then tossed the plate into the trash, eggs uneaten, then took another sip of coffee. His eyes met mine over the rim of the mug and we stared each other down.
“Got plans for the day?” he asked, setting his mug back down on the counter.
I shook my head. “Not really. Might mow the lawn, do some gardening. Super exciting stuff per usual.”
A tiny smile played across his face. He dug into his pockets and dug out the three packets of powder, tossing them onto the counter between us. “This is everything I have left.”
Taking two of the packets, one in each hand, he emptied them out in the sink and washed the powder down the drain before rinsing out the baggies themselves. He through the empties onto the counter and picked up the third and looked at it with some consideration.
“I don’t have money for rehab,” he said, sighing.
“If you’re serious about it, we’ll figure it out. You let me worry about that.”
“And if I end up falling back into it after?”
“We’ll figure that out too. But most facilities provide some good education on helping you prevent a relapse, so there’s that. Nothing is set in stone except for the end result if you stay on this particular path.”
“I guess you and mom have done some research on your own, huh?”
I nodded and took another sip of coffee. “We’ve done a little looking around, yeah.”
He swung the lone baggie in the air, the plastic making a fnip-fnip-fnip noise with each swing. Like a pendulum, it seemed to hypnotize him there in the tiny kitchen. It seemed like I had made some strange kind of progress, but it was also hard to tell. It felt, and pardon the pun, like we’d moved the needle a bit, which was better than nothing.
“You haven’t dumped that last one out yet,” I said, nodding at the baggie in his hand. “What’s stopping you?”
He shook his head and gave me a strange look. “I’m not sure. Almost like I want this to be the last one I do before giving it all up.”
I winced. “Really bad idea, champ. You’ve had a good sleep. Better to finish off the day clear-headed and try to finish off your week the same way. Then another week. Then another. So on and so on.”
He carried the baggie into the larger room and sat on the bed. He pulled out his cigar box of paraphernalia and opened it, reaching in for a clean spoon, a needle, a lighter, and a rubber tie-off. He placed them all on the bed beside him and just stared down at the collection. I took a seat in the chair feeling like it was the night before all over again except I feared I would see how it started.
The longing in his eyes made my stomach turn. That he wanted to cook up so early in the morning made me nauseated. I wondered just how deep his affinity for the junk actually was and nearly grabbed it all to throw out the window purely to make a point.
But I sat in silence and watched him run his fingers over the rubber tubing. He picked up the spoon in one hand and the needle in another, twirling them between his fingers like a drummer before putting them both back in the box. He did the same thing with the lighter and the tubing, shut the lid, and held it out to me.
I put my coffee down and stood up to receive it. “And that?” I asked, pointing towards the baggie still on the bed beside him.
“That too,” he said without hesitation. He picked it up and took it to the sink, emptying it down the drain with the others. He ran the water and turned on the disposal, its metal blades chopping up the remnants and sending them ever downward.
He turned to look at me. “What now?”
I sighed. “Now…we take a drive and see what we can get figured out. This isn’t gonna be fun for you.”
“I don’t imagine it will be, no.”
We left the apartment and shuffled down the stairs. I tried to keep my excitement contained. It was a small victory, hopefully one of a hundred others that might lie ahead of us, but it would suffice today. We stepped out into the sunlight of the afternoon and looked around.
“How did we get home last night? Did you drive?” he asked.
“Took a cab to the bar and then hoofed it back here while carrying you,” I said, shrugging. “You’ve put on weight.”
He laughed. “Yeah. I’m sure that’s how the body of an addict works.”
I waved him off. “It’s okay. I’ll have you mow your mother’s yard. Make you sweat it all out before the sun disappears this evening. You know how much I hate mowing anyway.”
The leak was right over the kitchen sink. Kind of convenient, but my husband said that was too good to last. He was right; the next big storm we had to put buckets and pots in five different places. Brian got the phone book out and called the roofers. Eddie showed up the next day.
This was right before Abby was born. Eddie took one look at me and started talking about his sister. “She just had a baby,” he said. “Natural childbirth. If I was a woman, I’d want all the drugs I could get.”
That was how I looked at it, but the doctor made me feel like an unfit mother when I asked about epidurals. Eddie kept going. “Her husband was really into it, too, ” he said. “He was all gung ho. In the delivery room she called him every name in the book.”
“Good for her,” I said. My husband is not the gung ho type. But I wasn’t especially looking forward to my due date. “I try to have an open mind,” I said. “But there’s a point where you can’t turn back. That’s the thing.”
Eddie nodded. “Transition,” he said. “Yeah. That’s what happened to my sister. Once you get there, there’s no going back.” He had been leaning against the counter, but he pushed himself away and looked around, as if remembering why he was there. “I should get a look at your roof,” he said. “Can you come outside for a minute?” I followed him to the side of the house, and he asked me to hold the ladder for him. By that point-- I was nine months, pretty big and it was hot-- nobody was asking me for any favors. Some people made an extra effort to hold the door or offer me a seat. Strangers asked when the baby was due, tried to touch my stomach.
The ladder was weatherbeaten, a soft splintery grey, it shuddered beneath Eddie’s weight with every step. Once he got to the roof, Eddie called down: “I didn’t bring anybody because this sounded like a little job. Do you mind sticking around for a few minutes?”
“No!” I said, louder. “I don’t mind!” There was sweat breaking out on my scalp, running down my face and neck, my back. After a few minutes Eddie came halfway down the ladder and asked me to hand him some tools. “They’re in that bag down there, by your feet,” he called, coming halfway down to grasp them. He went back and forth, up and down, talking all the time. Mostly he talked about his sister, shaking his head over the more gruesome aspects of her labor. Stitches. Forceps. When he came down for the last time he looked right at me and said “I guess I shouldn’t be saying all this to you, before your first baby comes.”
“I’d rather know,” I said. “I hate to have anything hidden from me. I want the truth.”
“Me too,” he said. “Let me write you an estimate. This looks like a day job.”
“When can you come back?”
“I could do it tomorrow. I could even start today. Not going to take long.”
“Let me call Brian,” I said. “This is kind of his territory.”
Eddie pulled a notepad out of his back pocket and a stubby little pencil. “Okay,” he said. He bent his head and began scribbling on the pad.
I went into the kitchen to call Brian. “He thinks it’s a day job, and it doesn’t sound too bad.”
“Let me talk to him.” Brian said. I put the phone down and leaned out the back door: “Want to talk to Brian?”
Eddie looked up from his calculations and nodded. He came inside and I pointed to the phone on the counter. Finally I wandered out, because it felt weird standing there while he was talking to Brian on the phone. But I could hear him just as well from the next room. “Okay,” he said. “Good-bye.” When he put the phone down I went back into the kitchen.
“Do you want me to start now?” he asked. “Your husband is ready to go.”
“Sure,” I said.
“I’ve got to get some things from the truck,” he said.
“Okay,” I said. Eddie nodded and went out the front door. It was noon; I started making lunch. When he came back through the kitchen, I asked if he wanted a sandwich.
“Thanks,” Eddie said. He sat at the kitchen table. After a while I noticed that he was good looking, almost like someone in the movies. It had taken me a while to notice this, the same way that it takes you a while to notice that it’s gotten dark out and you need to turn on the lights.
“What do you want to drink?” I asked him. “All I have is orange juice and beer.”
“Orange juice sounds good,” he said. I felt kind of embarrassed about the beer. I poured two glasses of orange juice and sat down next to him.
“It’s funny,” he said. “My mother used to smoke and drink when she was pregnant.”
“Everyone did,” I said
“She wasn’t wild or anything. But she’d have a cocktail with my dad, or with company.”
“I think that was pretty routine,” I said. “People didn’t know it was bad for them.” I was wondering how so many people could have been so dumb, but I didn’t say this. We ate our sandwiches.
Eddie drained the last of his glass and exhaled. “Well, I was a blue baby,” he said. “But it didn’t last. I was okay after that.”
That night I dreamed about Eddie. He was a blue baby. Not gasping and purple, not even born yet. Just blue like the ocean under a cloudless sky, drifting in his mother’s misty waters.
In high school my best girlfriend and I had a thing about roofers. The light bleached their hair so they were all blond, their arms and chests glinting gold and brown in the sun. They traveled in packs, wearing bandannas and heavy Timberland boots. For some reason, their boots were usually unlaced. You saw them driving all over town, Led Zeppelin tumbling through the open windows of their pick ups. They were mostly young, and usually stoned; always climbing in and out of their trucks and into somebody’s yard, or into the Wawa market for hoagies and cigarettes. We observed them with the rigor of anthropologists in the field; noting their traits and habits, comparing them to related but inferior species of boys (yard guys, painters, the asshole jocks at school) while keeping a certain distance, trying to go unnoticed ourselves. We made a joke of this, but when they passed us on the road or looked at us in the Wawa we were overcome.
In high school you can’t believe things will ever really change, your body, your life. Everything goes so slow, that’s part of being young. But then it all speeds up. One morning I looked down at my hips, patterned with faint rows of s-shaped lines like the tracks left by water running over sand. This was right after I got pregnant with Abby. Barely a month. I wasn’t even showing. But there was a slight pressure in my breasts, as if each held a small weight.
The patch job held on the roof until two days after Abby’s first birthday. Brian didn’t want to let it go; he called the roofing company again. When Eddie turned up there were still streamers hanging from the kitchen ceiling. Abby had screamed and clapped her hands when we lit the candles on her cake.
“Wow,” he said. “That was a whole year ago.” He grinned at Abby, who was hiding behind me, clutching my hips. “Hi there.”
Abby screamed into the backs of my legs. Screaming was her new favorite thing. Happy screaming. She was thrilled she could make so much noise.
I started talking about the leak and how we still hoped we wouldn’t need the whole roof done. Eddie nodded while I was talking. “You never know,” he said philosophically. He stepped around me and peered down at Abby. “Can I pick her up?” he asked.
“Okay,” I said. He scooped her up and said “You’re about a year younger than my niece.”
“She loves people,” I said, watching Abby laugh in his arms.
“A people person,” Eddie said. “That’s good.”
He put the baby down and went out to work on the roof. After a while I put a sun hat on Abby and poured a glass of lemonade. I put Abby on my hip and took the lemonade outside. It had rained overnight. The muggy air smelled like wet earth. Eddie came down the ladder and drank the lemonade. He steadied the glass on a ladder rung and made funny faces at Abby.
“She likes you,” I said.
“I bet she likes everyone.”
“We’re going to have lunch in a few minutes,” I said. “Do you want a sandwich?”
“Sure,” Eddie said.
“We’ll be in the kitchen,” I told him. “Come on, Abby.”
Abby was pulling pots out of the cabinet when Eddie came back in to the kitchen. “You know,” he said. “I can’t quite find the source of that leak. I can keep looking, but it might turn out that you need a lot more work than last year.”
I cleared my throat. “I guess you should talk to Brian,” I said. “Just because it sounds like it could cost a lot of money.”
“It depends,” he said. He sat down and put his hand out to Abby. She crawled over and he pulled her up. “I’ll try to find a way to do it cheap.” He bounced Abby on his knee and she screamed with joy. We laughed. “Nothing wrong with her lungs,” Eddie said. “When does your husband get home from work?”
“About six,” I said.
“I’ll come back then.” He timed it just right; at six I heard Brian’s car in the driveway and Eddie’s truck coming in just behind. They stood out in the front yard, talking. I was nursing Abby in the living room and the sound of Brian’s voice drifted through the screen door. Brian sounded eager, like he did talking sports with the guys on the street. He always talked more when we were around other people.
When Abby was done, I carried her outside. Eddie was getting in his truck. Brian took Abby from me, still talking. Eddie waved as he backed out of the driveway. “He’s coming back next Monday,” Brian said. “He thinks we can still fix it without getting a whole new roof.” Abby made peek-a-boo eyes over Brian's shoulder.
On Monday the weather was mild and we ate on the porch. Eddie didn’t finish the job that afternoon. He was back early the next morning, knocking at the kitchen door. When I got there, he said “I’ll try to finish today.”
“Okay,” I said. Eddie backed away from the door but then stopped. “You know,” he said, “most people don’t give me lunch.”
“Well, you don‘t have to eat it,” I said. For some reason I was annoyed.
Eddie looked surprised; then he laughed. “Nothing comes out right,” he said. “What I mean is, I appreciate lunch. But I’m meeting a friend today. So don’t worry about making a sandwich for me.”
“No problem,” I said. He went outside.
We must have been asleep for a while when Eddie got back to the house. Nursing does that to you. The shades were drawn; Abby and I were slumped on the couch in the dark. I heard Eddie’s voice before I came to. “Excuse me,” he said. I opened my eyes. Eddie was standing in the doorway of the living room. He said “Excuse me” again. Then he backed out of the room. “Naptime,” I whispered to Abby.
After I settled Abby in the crib I walked outdoors. “Do you want something to drink?” I asked Eddie. I could barely see him up there on the roof because of the way the sun hit. He looked over the edge and then he came down the ladder, very swift and graceful, like Fred Astaire or somebody. “Thanks,” he said.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. I went to the kitchen to pour a glass of lemonade. Then I brought it outdoors. Eddie came down from the roof. “Thanks,” he said. He took a long drink. “I’m sorry I interrupted you in there, before.”
“It’s okay.” Eddie climbed back up the ladder, and I went into the house. Because it was so hot I went out with water a little while later. “Thanks,” Eddie called down from the roof. “I’m kind of stuck here, though. Can you get the hammer that’s down there? I dropped it.”
“Sure,” I said.
“Do you mind bringing it up here?” he asked.
I shook my head. “I don’t think so,” I said. “I don’t think that’s a good idea.”
“The ladder is really steady,” he said. “Look, it’s wired to the gutter.”
“I’m sure it’s totally safe,” I said. “But I’m afraid of heights. I mean, I’m really afraid.”
Eddie eased himself off the roof and down the ladder. Something that I couldn’t see rolled out of place and clanged into the gutter. Eddie came all the way down the ladder, swift and graceful like before. “I’m sorry,” I said. “But I’ve always been afraid of heights.”
“That’s too bad,” he said. “It’s nice up there, you can see all the hills and the woods, into the city and everything.”
I admitted there were things I couldn’t do because of heights. I was still holding his glass. “Would you like this now that you’re down here?” I asked.
“Thanks,” he said, and he drank it down all at once. I took the glass back.
“You know,” he said. “I’ll tell you what. I’ll take you up there.”
“Oh, I don’t think so.”
“No, come on.” he said. “You’ll be fine, I won’t let you fall. Don’t you trust me?” Eddie smiled. He was standing very close. I must have said all right, and put the glass down, because he stepped aside. “You go up first,” he said. I gripped the ladder and went up, one step at a time, pausing every time with both feet on each rung. I couldn’t look up or down, just at the rung straight ahead of me.
“There you go,” he said. “You’re fine.” But when we got to the top I froze. “This is the bad part, I think,” I said. My voice was forced and shaky.
“No,” he said. “This is the fun part. Can’t you see the city?”
“I don’t just now,” I said. I was terrified. Sure that if I looked up or down I would jump. That was the weird thing about my fear of heights, it made me feel more like jumping than hanging on.
“I’ve got you,” he said. He was leaning against me, his chest against my shoulders. “I’m going to give you a push and you’ll go right up on the roof. There’s a flat place up there.”
I didn’t say anything. I was afraid I’d start shaking even worse or do something crazy. “Here we go,” Eddie said, and I felt myself lifted onto the roof. He climbed up behind me. “Just like that,” he murmured, his mouth close to my ear. Then he laughed. “Maybe you could see the city if you opened your eyes.”
I did. Eddie was right. The city was right there.
“How is that?” he asked.
“It’s nice,” I said. “But I’m still a little scared.”
“Don’t be scared,” he said. I kneeled on the roof, Eddie just behind me. He leaned forward to keep me steady. The city was straight ahead, the hills and the woods on either side. I knew the view went all the way around us, but I didn’t turn around to look. I was still a little afraid.
“This is nice,” I admitted. “But now I’m scared to go back down.”
“I’ve got you,” he said. “You don’t have to do anything right now.”
Eddie was gone just before Brian got home. I carried Abby down the front walk to meet him. She screamed with joy when her father got out of the car. He put his arms out to take her from me.
For Patty Lenz
Anne Leigh Parrish
(also published at S/tick)
Bree had female complaint. Bad periods, I mean this girl could really bleed. Started at age eleven, would probably be pushing sixty when she quit, lots and lots of Advil on board, not to mention all the Kotex she could run through in that wretched week a month. And the pain, can you imagine?
Her doctor told her she had a fibroid. She stared at him over her raised knees. A non-cancerous growth, he said. Completely harmless. Except that it caused excessive bleeding, which is why she tended to be anemic, and why her periods were so agonizing. She missed work because of them. Her boss was not very sympathetic. He suspected her of malingering.
The doctor looked at her over his bifocals, assessing her in some way that wasn’t purely medical. He suggested an ultrasound to get a better look at the thing. The procedure was explained.
The ultrasound required that her bladder be full. Really full. About to burst full. Bree considered downing a bunch of beer and thought that might not be wise. She drank four glasses of water during the course of one hour, then drove to the clinic where the procedure would be performed. She signed in, hopping lightly from one foot to another to keep from peeing in her pants. The receptionist was unmoved. She was no doubt quite accustomed to women walking on tiptoes, knees together, with gritted teeth and tense faces.
The bed Bree lay in was remarkably comfortable. It was wide, and the head lifted at the press of a button. Her grandmother had a bed like that in her home, for which she’d paid a handsome price. She was very fond of elevating her feet because her ankles tended to swell. Bree was unsure whether this particular bed also had a foot lift. She was about to ask, when the ultrasound technician inserted the probe between Bree’s legs and focused hard on the screen.
He was silent as he worked, though his gaze grew more and more alarmed. Bree tried to remain calm. The technician excused himself for a moment, told Bree she could use the bathroom if she needed to, and that he’d be right back. Bree scurried from the table and walked, bent over, to the adjacent room. She was on the toilet a good forty-five seconds. When she was empty at last, her sense of alarm rose up again. What had the technician seen that upset him so?
When she returned, the technician and her doctor were seated together before the monitor, looking at the images frozen there. The doctor asked Bree to take a seat on the bed for the time being.
“I have no explanation for this, but your fibroid has the face of the Virgin Mary,” he said.
“Get out,” Bree said, weak with relief that her plight was not at all serious.
“I’m telling you the truth. You have received a remarkable and mysterious blessing.”
The doctor turned the monitor around so that Bree could view the image for herself. It was the Virgin, all right, head bent, expression demur, halo charmingly titled.
“Is the baby Jesus there with her?” Bree asked. She still wasn’t able to take any of this seriously.
The doctor appeared stunned by her question. He told the technician to re-insert the probe and take more pictures.
“But I just emptied my bladder,” Bree said. The doctor didn’t care. Even without the pressure of all that urine, an image of Jesus – if it were truly there – would come through clearly.
And, it did.
The doctor crossed himself, and then said he wasn’t a religious man. Bree was witness to a conversion. Miracle upon miracle, in that tiny room.
“What about the fibroid? It is a fibroid, right?” Bree asked.
“No doubt about it. A most glorious, special fibroid.”
“I still want it removed,” Bree said.
“You can’t be serious! You’ve been handed a miracle, and you wish to destroy it?”
The technician was glaring at her now, too.
“Hey, guys, take a chill pill,” Bree said. “Let’s not forget that this is my body we’re talking about here. Plus, it hurts like hell. I want the damn thing out.”
The doctor shook his head sadly.
The trouble with women, he said, is that they didn’t understand that simply to be a woman is to be supremely blessed.
“You are givers of life. You are duty-bound to preserve it,” he said.
“It’s a fucking fibroid!”
Bree swung her legs from the table. She told the two men in the room to give her a moment to dress. Then she met the doctor back in his office to further discuss the situation.
The doctor implored her to reconsider.
No way. She wanted it gone.
He could not support that decision.
Then she’d find a doctor who would.
How could he make her see that she was in the hands of something larger?
There was nothing larger, or more important.
“If you were a woman, you’d understand,” Bree said
She left him sitting at his desk, clearly in a state of woe.
The doctor she found to rid her of her affliction was pleasant, efficient, and said that it was very refreshing to meet a young woman who knew her own mind.
“The world needs more like you,” he said.
Bree couldn’t agree more.
Afterwards, she never had a moment’s regret about doing away with Virgin Mary and the baby Jesus, who had, for some insane reason, decided to make a home in her womb.
The town was like any other town. I'd seen them on the road and I'd seen them in the movies. It had a main street with a bar, a diner, a pizzeria and a general store, a gas station at one end and a little hotel at the other. I checked into the hotel at noon, unpacked and went out to eat.
The diner was pretty crowded. I found a place at the counter and had a big lunch. No one paid any attention to me. I was just a body taking up space. Afterwards I walked from one end of the town to the other. It took me less than two minutes. There were a few parallel streets with modest houses but mostly this was farm country, the land running flat out to the horizon. At the edge of town, behind the gas station, I saw a football field where the high school team was practicing. I walked over and sat down in the stands. A coach's assistant must have thought I was a scout because he came over and sat down next to me. "Good afternoon," he said. I nodded and smiled. "You come down to look at Bobby Brown?" he said.
"I'm just passing through," I said. "I don't have anything to do with this."
He looked at me wisely, as though he understood whatever reasons I might have to conceal my identity. "OK," he said. "We'll leave it at that."
He went back to the sidelines and consulted with the coach and they both looked back at me. It made me feel a little awkward. I didn't want to get anyone's hopes up. Pretty soon the players were looking in my direction too. I sat there for a few more minutes and then got up to leave. The assistant came over to me again. "You from State, or what?" he said.
I laughed. "I'm not from anywhere. I told you, I'm just passing through. Which one is Bobby Brown?"
"The quarterback," he said, seeming to take me at my word.
"Well, I wish him luck," I said.
"He don't need it. He's got the stats."
"Sure," I said.
I went back to the hotel. Pretty soon it was time to eat again so I went back to the diner. While I was eating a bunch of kids came in. I recognized Bobby Brown among them. He looked at me and nudged a friend and the friend looked at me too. There were three of them, clearly from the football team, with three girls, all of them cheerleader types. They squeezed into a booth and made a lot of noise but no one seemed to mind.
I waited until Bobby had finished eating and then caught his eye to let him know that I wanted to talk to him. I went outside and he came out right after me. "What's up?" he said.
"You're Bobby Brown, right?"
"I'm Sam Hill," I said. We shook hands. "I'm not a scout," I said. "I'm an old friend of your mother's."
"Betty Brown. That's her name, isn't it?"
"Well, yeah." He looked a little disappointed. He must have been looking forward to being scouted.
"Can we walk over to your house? I'd like to say hello."
"Where do you know her from?"
"It's a long story."
They lived in town, in one of the pretty houses with a neat lawn and white picket fence, a tree with a swing and a bed of flowers. "You got any brothers or sisters?" I asked him.
"No, there's just my mom and me. Does she know you're coming?"
"It's a surprise," I said.
Bobby was a good-looking boy, about 6'3" with broad shoulders and blond hair, and I could see him in the NFL one day if he got the breaks and had the poise. I was big too. We stood eye to eye. Betty, on the other hand, was a tiny woman.
He opened the door and we went inside. It was a little dark. Bobby called out and his mother came into the room. Her face fell when she saw me but whatever it was she was thinking she held it in.
"Hello, Betty." I said.
She nodded but didn't say a word. Bobby looked at us expectantly.
"So what are you doing with yourself these days?" I said.
When she didn't answer, Bobby answered for her, as if he was the parent and she was the child. "She teaches," he said.
"That's right, I forgot," I said.
"What are you doing here?" she finally said.
"Just passing through."
"How did you find me?"
"It's a long story."
"Can I get you something to drink?" Bobby said.
"Coffee would be fine."
I could see that Betty wasn't too happy about all this. When Bobby went into the kitchen she said, "God damn you!"
"Hey, I just wanted to say hello. And to see Bobby too."
"Well, now you've seen us. Why don't you go."
I sat down and made myself comfortable. "I though we'd catch up on old times."
Bobby came back with the coffee. "You want some too?" he asked his mother.
"No," she said, and he must have seen that she was upset. He sat down and watched us. I could see that he wanted to say something but was holding himself back. Being a star quarterback built up your self-confidence, like knowing karate. He wasn't afraid of me and would be quick to protect his mother. The room was cluttered but neat. They had a kitchen counter opening onto a small dining area just off the living room and must have had a couple of bedrooms in the back. Betty finally sat down too. She was still attractive, a little wiry but nice and trim on the whole. However, if I'd seen her in the street I wouldn't have given her a second look.
"How long are you going to be here?" she said to me.
"Just a few days."
With Bobby there, there wasn't much more I could say, aside from making small talk, to which Betty wasn't responsive, so I finished my coffee and said, "I'll come by tomorrow. What time do you finish teaching? Maybe we can have a bite to eat. I saw a steakhouse up the road."
"I'm busy tomorrow."
"What about the evening?"
I could see that she didn't want to lie in Bobby's presence by pretending that she had something special to do at night, or to give him cause for concern regarding myself, so she said, "OK, I'll meet you there at seven. Frank's Steakhouse."
We said goodbye cordially enough. Bobby shook my hand. I walked back to the hotel. It was a pleasant evening, just getting dark now with a nice smell in the air and everything quiet as people began settling in for the night. In a few windows I saw the glow of television screens. On the main street there was a little more movement but not too much. It was like this all over America, days winding down and people settling in. In the cities there was more action of course. Things came alive in the night. That's when people began to live.
I told the girl at the front desk that I'd been visiting with the Browns and that got her gabbing away, especially about Bobby, mentioning his girlfriend who lived on one of the big farms and how brainy she was and how Bobby was waiting for his scholarship so they could get married and go to the state university together, and Betty bringing him up alone and that man who had deserted her back east. I could see that everyone knew everyone's business out here.
"Aren't they a little young to be getting married?" I said.
"They've been together since they were kids," she said. "They just can't wait."
"What do the parents think about it?"
"It don't matter what they think. Kids do what they want."
I watched some TV too, up in my room. The hotel must have been half empty and they didn't have too many rooms either. It was more like a boarding house though you didn't get any meals. All the rugs were a little threadbare and some of the walls were lumpy.
The next morning I drove out into the countryside. The farms all looked pretty big. Bobby's girlfriend was called Patty Jensen so I asked for the Jensen place and found it easily enough. She would be at school of course and so would Bobby. The house was about a mile in from the highway. I could see that they raised cattle. I didn't know too much about these things so I didn't know if you'd call the place a ranch or a farm though I saw some cowboy types in a jeep. A woman answered the door. I thought for a moment she might have been the housekeeper but she turned out to be Patty's mother. I told her who I was and why I was really there. She didn't believe me at first but I convinced her without much trouble and she invited me in. They had a sprawling ranch-style house with an enormous living room. "Mr. Jensen will be in soon," she said. I wondered how big the family was and if they had farm hands or ranch hands living in the house or maybe in a bunkhouse as in the movies I'd seen.
When Mr. Jensen came in we all sat down and had a long talk. Mr. Jensen didn't believe me either at first so I had to convince him too. He was a lanky type with his hair just starting to go gray. Mrs. Jensen was sort of dumpy, a housefrau who stuffed herself with pastries. She listened attentively in a characteristic way with her head cocked slightly to one side. Mr. Jensen got a little restless after he caught the drift of what I was saying.
"So what do you want from me?" he said
"Well, since this concerns Patty too, I think we should all sit down together. I mean with Betty and Bobby. Do you have any other children?"
"Two boys," Mr. Jensen said.
"Fourteen and ten."
"I'm having dinner with Betty tonight. Why don't we make it tomorrow night."
He must have been a little perplexed but we left it at that. I got back in time for lunch. The diner was crowded again and I wondered where all the people were coming from. None of them looked like farm types and the town wouldn't have been supplying all this clientele. Later, of course, the high school kids would be coming in. I figured I'd see Bobby again if I waited but I didn't know what Betty had told him after I'd left so I preferred not to see him just yet. I went back to the hotel and talked to the girl at the front desk for a while. Then I made some phone calls from my room and drifted off to sleep. I woke up at four and had some coffee from the machine downstairs. There wasn't much to do inside or outside the hotel and I didn't see any other guests. People just came and went, I supposed. I walked to the other end of town. Down at the football field the team was practicing again but I stayed put and watched them from a distance. The gas station attendant sidled over to me and said, "This is going to be the best team we ever had."
"When does the season start?" I said.
"Home or away?"
"Maybe I'll stick around and watch them play."
"You do that."
I watched them a while longer and then walked back. I was beginning to recognize certain faces in the street, idle types who were always hanging around with toothpicks in their mouths. They were beginning to recognize me too and sometimes tipped their hats or just nodded in a friendly sort of way. I figured that by now everyone knew about my connection to Betty.
Mr. Jensen came in in a pickup truck and nodded at me too. When I looked into the diner a couple of state troopers were sitting at the counter though I didn't see their car outside. There was a long rail at the curb so I got to thinking that it might have been used as a hitching post in another age. I had plenty of time until my dinner date with Betty. I looked forward to it. I hadn't seen her in so many years. Mr. Jensen came out of the general store with some cans of paint on a hand truck. Then he went back inside and came out with some steel cable. The state troopers came out too and he talked to them for a few minutes before driving off. The bank was across the street but it was closed. I got some money out of the machine. There was also a liquor store and a locksmith there. I bought a newspaper in a little tobacco shop next to the locksmith. It was a local paper so I looked for something about the football team and found a big spread about the start of the season and a picture of Bobby in his helmet and shoulder pads.
I was impatient now, and getting hungry. It was six-fifteen. I got my car and drove out to Frank's, which was just a few minutes out of town. It was isolated in a kind of grove with an unpaved parking lot and a big neon sign. I figured I'd have a few drinks at the bar before going into the dining room. It was pretty crowded with a lot of movement all around and loud music playing. I had a couple of shots of rye and went outside for some air. At a little before seven Betty showed up. I let her go in without showing myself and then went in after her. I came up behind her and tapped her on the shoulder. She jumped a little. "Hey," I said.
We found a table and sat down. The music coming in from the bar was still pretty loud. It was a rough-and-tumble kind of place and everyone seemed to be having a good time.
"Remember De Grasso's?" I said.
"I don't want to remember anything," Betty said.
"You want something to drink?"
"Just tell me what you want."
We both took our steaks medium-well with the baked potato. I got some beer. Betty had a diet coke.
"Not bad," I said. "Do you ever eat here?"
"Cut the crap, will you. What do you want from me?"
"I was out at the Jensen place today. I talked to Patty's folks."
"No, I don't."
"We're all going to meet over there tomorrow night."
"To talk over the situation."
She didn't believe me either. She kept shaking her head. When we finished eating we drove back to town in our separate cars. There was no question of getting back together, though I wouldn't have minded for a night or two, as long as there were no strings attached. But I could see that anything in that department was very far from her mind. She harbored resentments.
I got a good night's sleep and had a big breakfast in the diner. It was less crowded than usual. Afterwards I took my regular walk from one end of town to the other. Stores were just starting to open up. I had a feeling Betty wasn't going to tell Bobby who I was. I wasn't going to tell him either. She must have known that. There was a lot at stake for her too. Bobby's whole life was going to change. So was the girl's.
Bobby wasn't my son of course. She'd been pregnant when I met her and pregnant when I left her. I knew the father. That's why I had the money. The father was dead now and I'd had a lot to do with that. You could say I'd killed him. All this had nothing to do with Bobby and Betty. It was the way things had turned out.
I had another day to kill. There was nothing really here for me. I'd take care of my business and move on. After lunch I saw Patty with her cheerleader friends. I could see she had her own car. I waited near it for a while and when she came back alone I said, "Hello, Patty.
"Who are you?" she said.
"Betty Brown's friend. We're meeting tonight. Did anyone tell you?"
"Sort of. What for?"
"I've got some money for Bobby."
"What do you mean?" Now she was interested.
"A lot of money."
"That's not important."
"I don't believe you."
"You'll see. It'll make a difference if you marry him, don't you think?"
She looked at me suspiciously. According to the girl at the front desk she had a head on her shoulders. She looked more like a beauty queen to me, with one of those warm, open corn-fed country faces.
"If you see Bobby before tonight," I said to her, "don't tell him. We have a lot to talk about."
"I tell him everything."
"This is different," I said.
"I'm not going to see him anyway. He's at practice and I'm going home now."
"That's good," I said.
Talking to Patty gave me a lift. It's always that way with pretty girls. She drove off like a veteran driver and didn't look back.
I got to the bank just before it closed and checked to see if the money had arrived. The teller's eyes popped when he saw the figure. Then he whistled and said, "That sure is a lot of money." I supposed you could get away with that kind of talk out here in the sticks, though I'd seen big-city tellers act worse. I told him to make out a cashier's check to Bobby Brown. I was sure this was going to get out before I was through the door. He took it into the manager's office for a signature and the manager came right out and said, "Well, isn't this someone's lucky day. I was wondering what that was all about." He was all smiles and couldn't stand still. "Are you from one of those TV shows?"
"It's a private matter," I said. That sobered him up. He went back to his office with the teller and then the teller came out and handed me the check. "Have a nice day," he said with a wink.
I bought a newspaper and read it standing in the shade in front of the locksmith's place. This was a city paper so there was some national news. I had the check in the breast pocket of my jacket, folded in half. People drifted into the liquor store and came out with bottles in paper bags. There must have been a lot of drinking among the hired hands. That's how it always was. Some of them were unshaven and mean-looking and wore ten gallon hats as in the movies. These would be the villains, I thought. I contemplated picking out some western duds in the general store so that I would blend in more, maybe a checkered shirt and one of those hats, though I'd skip the boots. There were some men sitting in front of the general store half asleep. They all had toothpicks in their mouths. A few empty beer cans were lying on the ground. They were also rough-looking, but older than the hired hands. I could see myself, in another life, settling down in a place like this. I'd be a rancher myself and have a pretty wife and there'd be cattle rustlers for sure and maybe a crooked sheriff. Instead I was a purveyor of gifts, as though serving a kind of penance.
When Betty and I had been together back east, before Bobby was born, she'd been teaching in a pretty rough neighborhood and I'd drop her off in the morning and pick her up in the afternoon. Then she quit the teaching and not long after that I left her. People thought the kid was mine. The father wasn't in the picture anymore. I'd met her through him and I knew where he was. I figured he owed her something, running out on her like that, and we had some words. I threatened him in fact and that was why he left the city and about a year later I heard about the accident and figured it wouldn't have happened if he'd stayed put and I was to blame for his running. That's when I found out about the money. A lawyer sent a letter to Betty that got forwarded to me and I took it upon myself to locate her. He must have felt guilty after all.
You're probably thinking that this is another one of those rags to riches stories you hear about once in a great while. Well, it isn't that exactly. It's kind of the reverse.
I got out to the Jensen place at eight in the evening. Betty and Bobby were already there. They were all sitting around a kind of coffee table in the living room and Mrs. Jensen was running back and forth with food and drinks. I didn't know if this was ordinary hospitality or if they'd just decided to eat before I arrived. Mr. Jensen stood up when I came into the living room and shook hands with me. Bobby and Patty were sitting on one of the sofa and didn't seem too interested in the proceedings. Patty was feeding him crackers with one of the spreads smeared on it and he was snapping them up like a trained seal. Betty was looking at me in a narrow-eyed way. Mr. Jensen cleared his throat and said, "I think we should begin. Let's hear this gentleman out now." He was being very solemn about everything.
"You all more or less know," I said, "that Bobby has come into a large sum of money, as well as other assets, I should add." Mrs. Jensen now cocked her head and edged toward us to listen better, holding a tray. "I have the check here." I held it up, still folded in half. I don't think any of them was breathing and even the most talkative among them wouldn't have dreamed of saying a word, as though talking now would break some magical spell. "But there are some conditions."
"What conditions?" Betty said quickly. That broke the spell right away.
I took out a letter as if to read. "Could I trouble you for a glass of water?" I said to Mrs. Jensen."
She almost ran into the kitchen. I waited. In the meantime I smiled at Betty and nodded at Bobby. Mr. Jensen was restless again, fidgeting in his chair. Mrs. Jensen came back with the glass of water on her tray. I drank it and nodded at Mrs. Jensen. "Where was I? OK, listen carefully."
I read the conditions one by one, looking up for emphasis after each paragraph. There were five in all. The first one said that Bobby wasn't to marry until he was twenty-one. That got a very visible reaction and I could see that Patty was about to burst into tears. I said, "That doesn't mean you can't be together." I was going to say "live together" but I was afraid Mr. Jensen wouldn't like that. Betty looked indignant. Bobby looked confused.
"What's the sense of that?" Betty said.
"It's self-explanatory, I think," I said.
"You don't know my daughter," Mr. Jensen said.
"It isn't my condition," I said. "I'm just the messenger."
They sat back to listen to the rest. When I was finished they realized that things weren't so bad after all. Aside from having to wait three years or so to marry Patty, which the parents probably wanted anyway, there was nothing there that Bobby and his mother couldn't live with: how to invest the money, what endowments to make, and other financial provisions.
Betty said, "Are there other heirs?"
"Not that I know of."
"Where did he get all that money?"
"He inherited it too as far as I know."
"Well, isn't that something," Betty said.
Mr. Jensen didn't say a word. He must have been thinking very hard. Bobby and Patty were holding hands, very tightly, as though they had been listening to tragic news. The thought must have been at least in Betty's mind that once they got their hands on the money they could do whatever they wanted, so I explained to her that if Bobby violated any of the conditions all his assets would be seized. Only Bobby had to sign the papers. He'd just turned eighteen. He looked around the room and said, "Me and Patty have to talk about this." He took her hand and led her out of the room. They were gone for nearly half an hour. I don't know who convinced whom but when they came back, Bobby signed on the dotted line, so I handed him the check. He looked at it and blinked a few times. Then Patty looked at it and then Betty. Mr. Jensen didn't move and Mrs. Jensen stretched her neck in Bobby's direction as though that would help her see what was written there though of course Patty knew now too.
"Wasn't that easy?" I said.
"What about the other assets?" Betty said.
I handed her a copy of the will and another letter. "It's all laid out there."
They all studied the will and the letter for about a quarter of an hour, pausing only to look at one another or to look at me. Apparently, they were satisfied, because they were all nodding when they finished.
"Is that it then?" Betty said.
"I reckon it is," I said.
She walked me to my car after I said goodbye to everyone. I suppose that in light of the circumstances her anger at me had abated somewhat. It was a whole new ballgame as the saying went.
"How did you get control of the money?" she said.
"I didn't. There's an executor. I just helped him find you."
"That was very good of you."
"Well, I figured I owed you at least that much."
"I appreciate it."
Then I drove away. The rest of the story is like hundreds of others you've read. Bobby got his scholarship to State but never married Patty. She dropped out of school and started hanging around with the wrong people, dying of an overdose a few years later. Betty got married but was swindled out of most of Bobby's money by her husband. Bobby himself never made the pros. He bought a gas station somewhere and maybe another property or two with what was left of the money, married, divorced and let himself go, tipping the scales at nearly three hundred pounds before he was thirty. All these people were ordinary in every way. Not all of us are made to be rich. It's a special talent, you can say. I just acted as a go-between, between people and their dreams. Like I said, I was just passing through.
The pickup truck my Grandad, Hack Atkinson, was driving was a lot of shades of green with some rust rubbed in. I shared my side of the seat with two large dogs one slick and black and one covered in dried mud. Tilly and Oscar. They hung their heads out the window and I was getting rained in the face with dog slobber. I pushed them over and hung my head out in front of theirs. They got my long hair in their eyes and that made them sneeze all over me. I gave the window back to them and moved over close to Hack.
He and Grandma Anna were my Dad’s “people.” They raised my Daddy and two more sons and one daughter in the small house wrapped around with fields of cotton everywhere you looked. Grandview, West Texas. I was twelve years old, and I was about to spend a summer learning about love, betrayal, kindness, forgiveness, painful dying, cheating God if you have to, and the way things are done in Texas.
Hack had been bald as long as I could remember, but it didn’t matter because his face was tan, his brown forearms strong as he drove the rutted road. He was tall and broad shouldered, his eyes were blue and he grinned and shook his head almost every time he looked at me. Like now. “What?”
He looked at the dogs having their way with most of my part of the seat.
“Nothin’.” Then he laughed the way my Daddy laughs, shaking and smiling with no sound coming out. “Honey Girl, I gotta stop up here at the next farm and talk to our neighbor Pete McDowell. Won’t be long, you can come along. I’ll let you make the dogs stay in the truck to get even with ‘em, okay?”
I got out of the truck and, like always, smelled Texas. I might as well have been on a different planet from where I was growing up at the foot of the red rock canyons of New Mexico. Texas smelled wet with green things. The rich black soil was soil not dirt. The animals lived close to the houses and there was the smell of cow barns , pig sties, horses, manure, tractor oil and almost always something cooking coming from the kitchens. There were screened in porches at every house to keep mosquitoes as big as hummingbirds out, where at night the men smoked cigars, cigarettes, or chewed tobacco and smelled like it. Whiskey too, sometimes. The women smelled of cotton clothes that had been hung in the sunshine, warm biscuits, talcum powder and sometimes baby throw-up.
“Well, look who’s here, Pete! Hack and his redheaded grandaughter. Got that red hair from Hack’s sister, Molly, didn’t ‘ya?”
“Yes, Ma’am, nobody can figure out where else it came from.” I handed her the still warm apple pie Grandma Anna had sent that the dogs had nearly stepped in getting to their window. There was a lot of offering of lemonade and cookies and fussing over how much I had grown since last time, then Mrs. McDowell left to go visit her son in the hospital and I sat down with Hack and Mr. McDowell on the screened-in porch. A striped Mama cat and two kittens came scrambling up the porch steps. There was a dish towel drying on my flowered worn porch seat and the kittens and I started playing tug-of-war.
“How is Tommy, Pete?”
“Doctors say it’s T.B., tuberculosis. He’s just a boy, Hack, hasn’t seen his sixteenth birthday yet. He’s the only son we got, ‘ya know. Mary lost three babies, and the one that lived gets this.”
Mr. McDowell looked like his whole body was full of tears he wouldn’t cry.
“The doctor and hospital bills are so high and us farmers we never have no savings, you know how it is, just when you have a good year with plenty of rain, the next year there might be almost no rain, or boweevils or too damned much rain that drowns yer’ just seeded crop. Why the hell are we farmers, Hack? This was a good year, but Mary and me, I guess our hearts were just not in it. I didn’t hire the help I should have hired, I just…”
He waved an arm at his half dead fields.
“I’ve been like a man that didn’t know what a man has to get up and do, anymore, like I was half crazy. Mary, she cries all the time. We milked our cows, fed the cows and pigs and horses, but the crops…Tommy, is our only livin’ child. How ‘ya gonna think of anythin’ else?”
“Hell, you can’t,” Hack said. “Me, I got crops comin’ in faster than I can keep up with.”
I thought that was a plain mean thing for Hack to say, right now, and shot him my meanest look, the one I used on my little brothers sometimes. Then, I saw Hack pull a small whiskey bottle out from under his Levi jacket. And it was still daylight. Grandma Anna would….
“Get us two glasses, would ‘ya Pete? Or, we can just pass this back and forth.”
Pete looked like he had been wanting to do just that for a long time now, and said, “Skip the glasses. No womenfolk around, now are there?” Then he looked over at me. I pretended to be way interested in the kitten war I was playing and laughed real loud like I never paid attention to grownup talk.
Hack said, “My problem is the piss poor help I got. I gotta bring in the rest of my crop in the next few days or lose it. But, hell, none of them know how to drive a bailing truck piled high with cotton without turning it over. None of them can drive a tractor worth a damn, they’re gonna kill somebody with it, and I am running myself plumb ragged trying to teach them when there just ain’t no time to give lessons to fools, ‘ya know?”
The bottle passed back and forth and Pete started to relax like a sprung-tight wire uncoiling.
Tilly and Oscar hung out the truck window looking mournful, there was the soft, sleepy sound of bees buzzing around a sweet smelling honeysuckle vine that climbed the porch.
“Hell yes, I know. We get the negroes to pick it, but they don’t know how to do all else it takes. Ya’ need trained men. Our Tommy, he knew how to do a grown man’s work when he was thirteen. And loved it. Him and his older cousins always brought mine in, but this year….” Pete looked away from Hack and swiped his worn-thin blue sleeve across his eyes. He rocked his body slowly back and forth like he had been doing that for months. I could imagine him alone out here at night doubling over and wailing out a sound that would break your heart.
I got plain silly and loud playing with the kittens while I watched Hack and Pete pass the whiskey. The kittens had a game, climbing up my jeans, then leaping off onto their mama’s back.
“Hack,” Pete said, straightening, “my crop is past savin’. I will be at your place tomorrow with as many trained hands as you need.”
“Ah no, you got too much on your plate as it is.” Hack stood, reached out the bottle to Pete, “Here, keep this and we’ll get off your porch and quit botherin’ you.”
Pete ignored the whiskey and grabbed Hack’s arm. “Hack, I need….“ Those two words filled his eyes. He took a deep, shaky breath. “ I need to get up at the crack of dawn like I used to, work my ass off like I used to. Maybe be able to sleep. It’d be a favor to me.”
“God knows, I could sure as hell use a man like you. One cousin would be all I’d need. I’ll pay a fair wage to the young man, and you and me will work out what’s right. Okay!” Hack grinned, hugged Pete man style, big arm hooked around his neck, a bear sized pat on the back then a handshake. “Thank you, Pete. Thank you. See ‘ya in the mornin’.”
Back in the pickup truck, Hack shifted gears and bumped onto the dirt road. The dogs took their rightful places, eyes squeezed closed against the wind, slobber flying. There was no sound for a long while except the truck bouncing and spitting up a dust cloud. “You just helped your friend and made him think he was helping you.”
“Honey girl, sometimes a man needs his pride put back and his mind off things he can’t do nothin’ about. Remember that when you get married.”
I didn’t tell him I was never getting married. I just leaned over and kissed his sunburned cheek.
When we walked in the door of Hack and Anna’s farmhouse, there were more women than I had ever seen in my grandmother’s kitchen. My red haired great Aunt Molly was there and some women I recognized but whose names I could not remember, all clustered around a woman named Louise. “What’s goin’ on, Anna?” Hack asked.
My grandmother said to Louise, ignoring Hack. “We’ll have a gathering. Here, tomorrow, three o’clock.” All the women said, “Three o’clock,” formed around Louise and walked out together.
We, my grandmother Hack and I, ate a silent dinner. Questions filled the air like flying crows but no one said a word. I went to bed in a feather bed that was deep enough and soft enough to swallow me. Usually, I loved that bed. Beautifully ironed and much mended embroidered pillow cases, handmade quilts I had watched being made other summers here in Texas Quilter’s circles where the women talked without men and I got to listen to “woman talk” about recipes and what to do for a colicky baby. Soft voices, busy hands, all of it so soft I sometimes fell asleep.
Now, it was like this farmhouse had been hit by lightning. I could hear Hack and Anna talking through the wood walls, but could not hear their words. I would wake up and they were still talking. Toss and turn, trying to imagine what was wrong, and they were still talking.
Next morning I woke up at dawn. Grandma Anna was up cooking breakfast for Hack. I never realized that she cooked for me again when I finally woke up. Maybe twelve years old is when you come out of your own cocoon, blink and look around. Back home, I knew things, had experienced things I would never even dream of telling my Texas grandparents. Back home was another life. Texas was where everything went right. Where grandparents didn’t know about bad things. It was me being loved lavishly. No little brothers. But right now I wanted my little brothers.
“What you doin’ up so early, child?”
I could see Pete and Hack and a dark haired cousin were already out in the fields.
Pete slapped his arms around himself, a man ready to go to work in the cold dawn. “Pete looks happy,” I said.
“Men need their work.”
“Hack made sure he had that,” I said. I never called Hack Grandpa Hack. Neither did my little brothers when it came their turn to be here.
There was a knock on the kitchen door. A young black woman, bandana tied around her head, huge brown eyes red from crying, said, “Sorry to come to your door so early Miz Anna, but I gotta get back home to Mama. Here’s the Paregoric you gived me to try . It helped some, eased her a little, but she got the consumption or whatever it is that’s just eatin’ her up from the inside, she be dyin’, we all knows that, but Holy Jesus, we can’t stand the sufferin’ she’s havin’ to go through to get to the Lord. You never heard such screams…”
Hack suddenly stood behind the girl, his tall frame and straw hat blazing with color in the morning dawn. He reached out and touched her shoulder. She jumped and whirled around. “Oh! Mr. Hack! You scairt me bad.”
“Sorry. Sorry. Didn’t meant to. Lizzy, stay right here girl, I gotta go to the barn for a minute. Got somethin’ I think might help your Mama.”
Grandma Anna took the girl in her arms and let her heavy sobs fall against her own small body. She held her tight, patted and crooned, patted and crooned. I could smell the sausage burning and moved the heavy black iron skillet off the flame.
“Here, Lizzy.” Hack touched her shoulder again. Chill air was coming in through the half open door. All the girl had on was a sleeveless cotton dress. I wanted to run and get her a jacket or one of Hack’s big flannel shirts I loved to put on. Hack turned her around, gently. “It’s horse medicine,” he said. “Go easy with how much you give her.”
“Horse medicine?” Lizzy straightened, stared at Hack.
“Yeah, when I couldn’t stand to shoot Champion, you remember Champion, don’t you?”
“Sure I do, Mr. Hack, you had him since before I was borned, and he just died last year.”
My brothers and I had all ridden on the broad back of the huge, sweet, golden-colored horse since we were babies, Hack holding us on.
“Well, the vet told me this would help him die without the awful pain. It’s strong. Strong enough for a horse. But in real small doses it will, uh, help your Mama too. Okay?”
Lizzy and Hack looked at each other a long time. “Thank you, Mr. Hack. No God worth his salt wants to see the goodest woman on this earth die in the kinda pain she be in. Small doses.”
“Small doses,” Hack said and put the bottle in Lizzy’s hand.
We all three watched Lizzy leave, hugging her arms around her thin body, holding the bottle close to her chest. Hack looked at me and laid a big hand on top of my head. It felt like a kind of christening. Then he walked away out to the fields where his friend Pete was doing a man’s work.
At three o’clock that afternoon, my great Aunt Molly, Grandma Anna, Louise and three other women arrived. Their menfolk came too, including the man I heard his friends call Bert, but there was a power around what was about to happen at my grandmother’s table that hurled the men out the front door. They stood around shoulder to shoulder for a while, looking inside someone’s truck engine, then like a flock of birds with one mind took off to gather at Harry’s café to wait for what was going to happen.
The kitchen was hot now and smelled of old wood, fried sausage and fried chicken from all the years, but also of the weight of a heavy decision about to be made. Sorrow and fear has its own smell. Anger was the lightning I had felt yesterday.
The women looked at me. “She can stay,” Grandma Anna said, “if it’s alright with you, Louise. She’s twelve years old. Twelve and a half, really. A few of us here were married at sixteen. I don’t want her to do that blind as a bat to the reality of things.” I didn’t tell them I was never getting married. .
I was given a chair and tried to make myself invisible. Everyone sat down. Cold sweetea, which in Texas was one word, was poured into glasses that did not match. The wood fan whirling over our heads and some buzzing cicadas were the only sounds for a long, long time.
“I was not a child when I met Bert,” Louise said. “I had two years of college, I was going to be a teacher. I first saw him at a train station in my hometown in Virginia. He was coming home from the war. My girlfriends and I spent that summer greeting the men that were on their way home. His train dumped a bunch of the troops off and had no room for more of them until the next morning. Bert was sitting on a bench, bent over, palms touching each other, then not touching. Touching and not touching, like praying and giving up praying. I could not imagine what he must have seen in the war.”
Louise spoke slowly and softly like touching the memory of that day was touching a fragile old photograph.
“I sat down beside him and said ‘Hi.’ He stared at me like I was something he had never seen before or an angel who had decided to fold her wings and sit down on his bench. He just kept looking at me. His face and eyes had so many layers in them, like too many lives had been lived in that one body, his eyes were young and old at the same time. Then he went back to doing that thing he had been doing. Palms together, palms apart, and ignored me. His hands were graceful, strong hands with long fingers. I wished I could close them in mine.
“I left and talked to some other soldiers and sailors, but I came back to him. ‘Want some coffee, soldier? We have good coffee and sweet rolls for the troops.“
Louise was pretty. Light brown hair tied at the back of her neck with a pink ribbon, strands escaping around her face. Big gray eyes like soft gray flannel. And she did not talk Texas. She talked like a teacher. Folded newspapers fanned sweating bosoms, but no one said a word.
“I fell hard for him, with him saying nothing at all. The soul behind those eyes of his just grabbed mine like it had been waiting for him to take it. When he finally talked to me I knew he was not an educated man. Not at all the husband I, or my parents, had in mind for me. But, I had seen white shirts and tweed jackets and starched souls all over campus. I had never seen eyes that held what Bert’s held in my life.
“We drank coffee and finally talked, him with his Texas accent. He told me in broken pieces about what he had seen in the war and how unprepared for it he was, and how home was, and how much he missed it. We talked all night. Bottom line… I married him and moved to where home was for him. Here. I became a Texas farmer’s wife. And loved it. Love the people who are so real and kind and loved Bert and hoped we would have kids and raise them right here.
“Now, I find out he’s had an affair with a dimestore clerk. An eighteen year old dimestore clerk!”
No one said anything. Louise tore her newspaper fan into little pieces that fell in a pile on the table.
Finally, Aunt Molly said, “Well, men got peckers for a brain. They just follow it around like a banty rooster. Can’t hep themseves.”
Louise let out a kind of cry, yelp, laugh, sob, and looked up at the ceiling fan. “Oh, Aunt Molly, leave it to you to boil it down.”
The women were sweating. The kitchen was hot from the weather and from so much pain.
“It feels like treason,” Louise said. “Like betraying your own country and not giving a damn. I almost feel like a mail order bride he brought to a country I learned to love and then he…just goes off and…”
“This is your home no matter what.” Grandma Anna said. “There is no explainin’ men sometimes. Bert loves you, I know he does, but he messed up bad. We will help you pack everythin’ in your house that is his and send him packin’ if that’s what you decide, but this is your home.” She laid a wrinkled hand over Louise’s.
Louise said, “Wait,” like she hadn’t even heard Grandma Anna. “The treason…” she looked at each woman…”the treason is to the country that became me and Bert. You love someone, make love that feels like you disappear into each other, eat across from them, want to have their babies, you wrap yourselves into the country the two of you have become. You fly a flag only you can see. And then….” Tears fell on her hands.
After a while she looked up and asked in a barely to be heard voice, “Is she very pretty?”
“Oh hell no!” Aunt Molly said. “Red lipstick past her real lips, blue eye shadow so thick she can hardly blink.”
The other women looked at Molly. “You went to see her?”
“Well, I needed me some…some….”
Louise said, “You don’t need to lie, Molly. She’s only eighteen and probably as fresh and pretty as- oh, God, what the hell am I supposed to do?”
My back tingled with tension. I thought real love stories always had happy endings. Mama and Daddy fought sometimes and could talk right past each other and walk right past each other and Mama wouldn’t buy the beautiful blue velvet beret I wanted her to buy so bad because ’Your Daddy wouldn’t like it’ and that is why I was never getting married. And now, Louise was crumbling up newspaper and crying on her own hands because Bert had walked out on their country.
A quiet woman who seemed curled inside herself, had salt and pepper gray hair and kept her hands clutched together, spoke up. “Louise, let me say one thing you can think about. If you make him leave and you start gettin’ lonely, you might start makin’ him up in your mind into someone he ain’t never been. Like Mr. Perfect, you shoulda’ done better by so he didn’t cheat, and that is a dead wrong thing to do.
“He cheated without you ever doin’ nothin’ wrong to him. If you take him back you will have to forgive him, but at least you will be lookin’ at the real man, up close and personal. If you leave him or keep him, don’t make this your fault and twist yourself into someone who is scared all the time that you are gonna lose him again. Or miss a man that never was.”
Louise stared a long time at the woman who didn’t wear a wedding band.
“Thank you, Ellie, I can imagine myself doing all of that. Either way it goes. And I don’t know where it’s going. I can see myself doing everything you just said, because right now, I feel as lost as I have ever felt in my life.”
“Me,” another woman said, “I love just ironin’ my husband’s shirts sometimes. I picture him out in the field workin’ hard in a shirt I ironed, or pumpin’ water with no damned shirt on at all, and my knees can fairly buckle thinkin’ about him. I don’t know what I’d do in your shoes, Louise, truly I don’t. I’m crazy about my Leo, but marriage ain’t perfect, it’s no picnic, no matter how you cut it. And, I can tell you, my eyes have looked at a specially good lookin’ guy a few times, too. Don’t mean nothin’. And that girl, she has a hungry heart, Mama died, Daddy’s an alcoholic, all she knows she has to give is sex and I think she may have been passin’ it around. She’s gone after more than one husband in this town. And, maybe caught a few that no wife knew about. Until now. Can’t believe she had the guts to call you.
“Betrayal,” Louise said, looking up at the spinning fan. “Betrayal wrecks everything. Like a tornado. You can’t put things back together again. We’d never be stronger than a cracked plate.”
“Oh hell, girl, “ Aunt Molly said, “If that was true nobody would still be married. When they don’t listen to you, that feels like betrayin’, when they take all you do for granted, like three meals a day and takin’ care of their kids and workin’ right beside them they don’t even count as more than nothin’, that feels like betrayin’. When they roll over in bed when you feel like lovin’ and they fall asleep snorin’ that feels like betrayin’, too, doesn’t it? They’re just men. But we love ‘em and need ‘em and they love and need us, too. You went to college, none of us here did, but if you married a college professor and stayed in Virginia, you’d still be married to a man. Marry an Eskimo, and you’d still be married to a man. You love Bert. Bert loves you. He messed up bad. Leave him or don’t. But don’t keep thinkin’ what you’re thinkin’ about no cracked plate.”
A large woman with hair as red as mine and more freckles than I have, stood up out of her chair, pounded her fist on the table hard and yelled, “Tell him to go to hell!”
Her glass of sweetea went flying and skidded across the wood floor. No one even glanced at it.
“Throw things, kick him in the nuts if ‘ya got to. Rant and rave and keep him up all night, night after night, for weeks if ‘ya need to. Let it all out! Your feelin’s are about to take the roof off this house right now! Even though you’re still talkin’ soft and civil like. We’ll all be here for you, tomorrow and tomorrow. Go home with Bert tonight. If we don’t hear gunshots or see your house on fire, we’ll just wait. We love you. Whatever you decide, we’ll help.”
“We love you, Louise,” was said round the table as the women folded their fans.
I knew the clerk at the dimestore was about to be hit with what I called “a blue eyed stare down.” Never mind if some of those eyes were brown, this would be “a blue eyed stare down.” My other grandmother, Suzie, told me the ladies had done that for her when a woman named Audrey was trying to steal Grandpa Willard. That “stare down” hadn’t worked, Audrey ended up marrying Grandpa Willard. From that point on Suzie never called her anything but Jezebel.
Every woman here, and a few more for good measure, would go in the dimestore one at a time over the next few days, stand in front of the clerk and say nothing. When she said “Can I help you?” all they would say is, “I don’t think so, Missy,” fold their arms and keep staring. It would be enough to make the poor girl want to call the sheriff for help even though all he would find was a woman with her arms folded staring at a clerk. The Mafia couldn’t have done it better. She would be sent down river in a canoe named Jezebel.
Louise said, “You know Bert and the guys are all over at the café. Call over there and tell Bert to go on home. I don’t know if I will kill him or not. That’s his problem.”
The next morning, Grandma Anna made my late breakfast and never mentioned the gathering. I could see Pete and Hack and the handsome, dark haired cousin working in the fields.
Lizzy came to the back door later that day to tell us her mother had “gone to the Lord, real peaceful like, the night before.” Grandma helped me figure out what I had that I could wear to the funeral.
Two weeks later, Grandma Anna and Hack had a big outdoor barbeque, both Bert and Louise and Pete and his wife Mary and their still frail son, and all the young cousins and what seemed like the whole darned county came. There were guitars, ukeleles, harmonicas and a lot of foot stomping dancing. Louise wore a white cotton dress that whirled around her brown legs. She had a large white flower pinned behind her ear, her hair flowed out like a gypsy’s and Bert pulled her to him, his head bent down to hers, when the music got slow.
I sat on the grass between Tilly and a cleaned up Oscar. I wore a pale yellow dress I brought to wear when Grandma Anna took me to her tent revival meetings.
There he was, the dark haired cousin I had been watching in the fields.
“I can’t dance.”
“Okay, time for you to learn.”
The whole night was a whirl of music and stars, fried chicken and potato salad and a tall, tan boy who looked down at me like I was a pretty girl.
I still wasn’t sure I ever wanted to get married.