Breakfast with Sharp

Sharp shows up at the diner looking anxious, as always, and a little sleepier than usual.  It’s miserably wet outside and as he peels himself free of his jacket, droplets of rain scatter over the Formica table.  I glance down at the bowl of sugar packets the waitress left and remind myself as I have for ten years that I no longer sweeten my coffee.

“You have the girls this weekend?” I ask.  “You look exhausted.”

“All week.”

He bumps the table as he gets into the booth and my coffee splashes out of the mug.  He automatically reaches for too many napkins but I already have it covered.

“Relax,” I say. “You seem wound up.”

“Oh, well.”  He scratches his head. “Maybe I am.”

I consider waiting until after we eat to get to the thing on my mind, but I’m anxious to know, so I ask, “Did you read my story?”

He looks at me a moment, his expression a study of blankness, then silently picks up the menu and mulls it over with all the concentration of a man taking a test.  I know what he’ll order in the end, and when the waitress comes and he says pancakes and an egg and some grits with sausage gravy, too, I say nothing.

Sharp is a little meaty and red-headed and freckled.  And he’s balding some on top, but he isn’t hipster enough or self-conscious enough to shave his whole head the way a lot of guys do nowadays.  He keeps it old-fashioned barber short.  When it’s combed flat it’s not so bad, but he’s that guy who scratches his head when he’s tired or nervous or excited or thinking.  He scratches his head almost all the time and he does it until the hair sticks up like koala ears.  And then he looks like the goofiest bastard you ever saw.

He notices my silence. “You think I should’ve got the omelet instead, don’t you?”

“I don’t care what you get, Sharp.”

He shrugs.  I notice that his t-shirt is all bunched around his shoulders from pulling off the jacket.  If he were one of my girl friends, I would reach out and fix it, but ever since junior high I’ve been paranoid that anything that physical and intimate will seem like a pass. I know my guy friends now are smart enough to know I’m just gay, not a sex-starved maniac, but it’s just a weird holdover from earlier times.  Instead I say drily, “Your shirts all fucked up.”

“Oh.” He makes my coffee splash out twice more as he tries to fix it.  This time I let him mop up the mess.  He looks peeved. “Who do they make these little fucking booths for anyway?”

I glance out the window.  Even in the crappy weather, the sidewalk has lots of people on it.  The rain can’t empty a street in New York.  The east villagers are moving faster than normal, but they still got things to do.  The weather has greyed all the bright tops and scarves and the assortment of hats, but the taxis only look more vibrant.  They are cartoon cheery; blocks of cheddar coasting through the rain.

“Can’t we talk about your story after we eat?” Sharp says.

I give him a look.  His eyes are scotch brown, easily his best feature, and they usually register a cocktail of worry, concern and impatience.  They are intelligent eyes that carry a weighty sadness even when they’re laughing.  His eyes could make a mother out of anyone.  When we first were friends, I fell in love with him because of those eyes.  Or I thought I loved him. Maybe I just fell in love with wanting to make them happier eyes, which I now know is entirely impossible.  I even suspect he’d be a little less brilliant if he weren’t quite so troubled.  Anyway, Sharp’s not suicidal or anything, just a keeper of gloom.  But he’s really a funny guy, too.

“What’s that?” he says, his brows gathering like thunderclouds.

“What?”

“I asked if we could go over your story later and you give me this long look like you want to fuck me or kill me or spit in my face.”

I laugh at him, but I can feel my face burn with a blush.  “You’re an idiot,” I say. “But if I had to pick one, I think I’d happily spit in your ugly face.”

He scowls and starts opening too many sugar packets, dumping the contents into his coffee.  He grimaces when he takes the first sip.  “Too sweet.”

“I saw that coming.”

We have this thing between us, me and Sharp.  It’s like we could almost be lovers – in different skins, of course – or we could so easily be enemies.  We’d be the kind of former friends who hide in grocery store aisles from each other and when someone brought up the other one to us, we’d go home and get drunk and maybe draw pictures on napkins of people being decapitated.  We’d wake up and not remember drawing it, but we’d remember that someone had said, “You see Sharp anymore?”  And our hangover would be colossal.  It’s good that me and Sharp are friends, because us being enemies would be like cancer.

“So?”

“Yeah, Sharp, we can go over it later. I mean, I’ve waited this long.  I can wait ten more minutes.”

He looks like he wants to argue, to defend himself for dodging the topic for three weeks, but then the waitress is back and putting the plates down.  I see that this time he finally spots the mole on her arm and as his mouth turns down, I look away and hide a smile behind my coffee mug.  She stands back a little ways and puts her hands on her hips.

“Anything else, whiles I’m here?”

“We’re good,” I say for both of us.

She looks at me like she disagrees and her eyes roam the table dubiously.  Pointing to Sharp’s mug, she says, “I’ll come back and top you off.”

“No,” he says. “Thanks.”

I watch her back as she moves off, noticing she forgot to iron one of her sleeves.  One of them is perfect with a crease and everything and the other one looks like she dragged the uniform right out of the laundry hamper.

“You grossed out?” I ask with a smidge of pleasure.

“No.”  He flashes those scotch brown eyes at me.

Sharp doesn’t cut his pancakes, he saws at them like he’s clearing land westward.  He doesn’t spoon up his grits, he shovels them like Fred Flintstone working the quarry.  I eat my omelet in silence.

“You hear anything from that actress?” he asks with his mouth full.  “She still want you to edit that script of hers?”

“That’s what I’ve been doing the last two weeks.”

He shrugs.  “She seems like an idiot.”

“She is,” I agree. “But my fridge is full for once.”

He looks a little interested, then grimaces into his plate.

“In any event, I like editing almost as much as writing so it’s good.  Or good enough.”

The infuriating thing about Sharp is that he’s so opaque at times.  I like to be able to read people.  It makes me feel certain about my world.  When Sharp just gives you a glance, it could be anything.  Some people look at you and you know they’re hurt or irritated or just looking at you to be sure it was you who said their name.  With Sharp, he might be noticing for the first time that your eyes are a little close set or even finally figuring out that you’re not as clever as he thought you were. Or he might be seeing you have a booger.  That bastard would not tell you’ve had a booger until you were leaving a party and then he’d say, “Yeah, I noticed it an hour ago but you were flirting with that guy you’re into and I didn’t want to embarrass you.” I mean, a lot of people would not be friends with someone like Sharp.  Friends tell you about boogers, open flies, toilet paper stuck to your shoe.

He pushes his plate aside with a sour expression on his face.  He finished everything he ordered and now his stomach hurts.  This is how it goes.  Folding his arms and tucking his fingers into the pits, he says, “The story isn’t so bad, but you got that thing about the gift horse wrong.”

“What do you mean?”

“You say something like, ‘Never look a gift horse in the mouth unless you want to get bitten. Or unless you want to see a tangle of soldiers…'”

I finish up for him. “‘..Huddled in its stomach, which could be either erotic or disgusting, but I’m betting on the latter.’  What’s wrong with that? I thought it was kind of clever.”

He shakes his head. “But the gift horse thing and the Trojan horse thing aren’t the same thing.  You don’t look a gift horse in the mouth because that’s like checking out its teeth, like taking a gift but then judging its worth.  It’s rude.”

I bite my lip and push away my plate.  Feeling queasy, I reach for my coffee, but then take a drink of my water instead.  The water at this place is always cloudy, but I pretend not to notice anymore.

Sharp says, “The Trojan horse thing is where the ‘beware of Greeks bearing gifts’ thing comes from.  So, you can’t use that part.”

“But that’s the setup and all the back and forth between Ant and Nan comes from that thing.”

He shrugs in a way I think is kind of hateful.  Later, I’m sure I’ll decide it wasn’t.

He says, “Look, you asked me to read it.”

“But I wanted your opinion on the dialogue and things like the characters, not to pick apart some geeky detail like that.”

“Your whole story is built on you not knowing your shit, dipshit,” he says.  Irritated with me, his voice drops down into his chest.  When I used to be sort of in love with him, I found that deep tone arousing.  Even now it makes me feel a little funny.

“Well, maybe if I change that part and make it about something else…”

He is shaking his head, looking bored now and glancing over my shoulder.  In the long silence I land back into the moment, hearing again the murmur of other people talking, the clatter of knives and forks at work, the vague discharge of a pop song from the old jukebox in the front.  He leans forward, dropping his elbows on the table.  Instinctively, I lean in, too.

“The part about how they feel about each other is good,” he says.  “Except you don’t really let anyone know how Ant feels.  Seems a little slanted.”

“But that would make it like Nan knows how he feels.”

He rakes his hands through his hair and there it is, that stupid koala bear head.  This time I reach out and knock the ears down.  He stares at me in astonishment.

I try to pick up the thread again. “Ant is just one of those mysteries that Nan can’t figure out. I mean, that’s how some people are.  They never get together, they never have a happy ending.  You’re supposed to walk away from the story feeling really frustrated about all of that shit in life.”

He sits back, still looking a little shocked.  Folding his arms again, the scotch eyes are almost angry.  Anyway, they’re very dark now.  Coca-Cola dark.  “Well, if leaving them frustrated is what you wanted, then you nailed it.”

Two Baths

She was five when they lived on Darby Road.  The house was small, a brick rancher with yellow wood floors and green bathroom tiles.  In the afternoon before her father came home, her mother ran the bath until it was only a bit full.  Then she put her in the tepid water and washed her with a soapy cloth.  She was a daydreamer girl, mesmerized by the gentle touch, the wallpaper pattern of bird cages, the shadows of the pine needles slanting across the window sill.

“You got good and dirty today, little girl,” her mother never failed to say.  “Now let me check that belly button. Promise not to be ticklish this time.”  Their laughter made the dim little house seem bright.

Her mother’s hands were red and creased, the nails wide, plain ovals.  In winter, the skin was rough from carrying in the fire wood, chapped by the cold winds.  In summer, the skin was peanut butter brown and there were calluses from gardening.  Looking up at her mother from the bath water, she thought the tired eyes were beautiful.  They were brown back then, she would always remember.  Later, they silvered with age.

____________

Many years later, when she was a woman, she lived with her husband in an apartment in town.  The walls were white everywhere, and the floors a dim gold that refused to honey with washing.  It was a homely little place where each balcony faced another, exactly the same, across a square inner yard of tightly shorn grass.

His name was Andrew and she loved him very dearly.  He was a gentle person.  He taught her to do things he knew how to do, like change the engine oil, because she asked him how.  When she told him she was lonely in the apartment during the days, he got her a small dog they named Spook, because his birthday was Halloween.   The dog was a menace and it took her a long while to grow fond of it.  She never told Andrew, though, because it had been sweet of him to think of it.

When her husband got sick, they went to many doctors.  No one could cure him and in little time he went from golden to grey.  On a windy March evening, as he lay in the hospital, squeezing her hand, he whispered that he wished they were home together.  Despite its bone-colored walls and bare tables, he loved that place because it was theirs.  She took him out of the hospital that night, despite the protests of the doctors.

At the apartment, she made up his bed on the sofa.  She put the stacks of bills in a kitchen drawer so he wouldn’t see them.  Spook climbed up and curled beside him.  When he grew feverish and cold some hours later,  she drew a hot bath and she took his weight full against her as she helped him into the water.  Gently, she bathed his pale shoulders, the thin arms and neck.  She was glad when he closed his eyes because she was not able to stop the tears.

He smiled at her and stilled her hands.  He said, “Isn’t this bath full enough already, sugar?”   He was kind enough to want to make her laugh, so she pushed up a smile for him and gave his nose a tweak.

When she got to his feet, she heard a last sigh and he was gone.  Her knees and her back ached and she sank down to sit next to the tub.  She found his hand and held it in hers until the water and his skin grew cold.  Dawn was slanting through the apartment, a fragile light spilling into the hall.

Walnut House

Oscar Possum was nervous as he knocked on the oaken door at Walnut House, straightening his necktie and readjusting his spectacles for the umpteenth time that morning.  Behind him, a small army of fidgety mice were checking their cameras, testing mics and scanning their phones for emails and status updates.  They were all either too young, too arrogant or too stupid to be nervous about their assignment.  Some of them had even been too lazy to Google their subject.  At the back of the line, his brother Edgar was scribbling notes on a clipboard.  They exchanged a brief glance that told Oscar his sibling felt exactly the same way about the young rodents.

Had they but bothered, they would at least seem a bit interested, Oscar thought.  He glanced again over his shoulder and grimaced sourly.  “Stupid mice,” he thought.  Then he thought that might be speciesist and he got lost in a debate within himself about whether he had meant to impugn all mice or just the ones standing behind him on the branch.  He was starting to lose the argument and admit that, perhaps on some level, he did think mice were generally less intelligent than other creatures, when there was a distinct rustling from within Walnut House.

There was a long moment when they could hear the locks being turned on the inside of the door.  There were three deadbolts and it seemed that it took several tries to get them all to agree with one another.  He scowled at the crew and thankfully they came to life, hefting their cameras and raising the mic set to hover over the doorway.  At last there was a triumphant cry from within and the door swung wide.

Before them stood Little Alice Nuttle, wrapped from head to toe in a collection of old scarves and sweaters, her eyes obscured behind a pair of white, cat eye sunglasses.  “Oh, Oscar,” she said. “You look absolutely darling! Such a little gentleman!  Come in, come in!”

“Thank you, Miss Nuttle,” he said.

“Alice! Didn’t I tell you to call me Alice?”  She waved him inside, pretending dutifully not to notice the mice as they crowded into the foyer.  For their part, the smaller creatures were suddenly dumbfounded.  The once great manor nest of the Nuttle family was a complete disaster. There were chips in the daubing, holes in the upper chambers through which one could see the sky. And all too soon it became obvious there were mites in the carpets.  Despite the itch, they managed to keep the equipment trained on their hostess.

“Where’s Edgar?” she said, her tone suddenly frantic.  The other Possum brother crowded to the front and took her hand affectionately.  She gave him a girlish smile that belied her years.  “Oh, you boys look absolutely terrific! I mean it! I mean every word of it!”

She moved to the newel post at the bottom of the grand staircase, posing dramatically with one shapely ankle turned outward, her tail curling demurely over a shoulder.  “You know, mother darling was worried you’d be late, but I told her, I said, ‘Oscar and Edgar are very professional’. We once had a possum painter, years ago, you see, who was a bit too fond of bark beer, so you can imagine….”

From upstairs, there came a wavering but still quite authoritative cry, “Alice! Is that the boys? Tell them to come up!”

“Coming, mother darling!” Alice cried.

“What?”

“I said we’re coming, mother darling!” She glanced to left and right, “Isn’t it just so vulgar, all this shouting up and down stairs?”

As they climbed the steps, she explained some things to the mice.  “They call me Little Alice and they call mother Big Alice, but it has nothing to do with our size, you see. I mean, mother darling has gotten quite large with age, but then, so have I.”  She stopped and turned suddenly, “Although I have lost a stone since you were here in March, Oscar.  Didn’t you notice?”

Oscar politely said yes.  Alice gave his shoulder a flirtatious squeeze.  “You’re such a darling creature, Oscar darling.” She dropped her voice, “Mother wanted me to come down in a kaftan, so we had quite a fight.”

They made their way along the upper hall and into a room where two twin beds rose up from piles of debris like islands in a filthy backwater.  In one corner, a painting of an elegant squirrel lady leaned against the wall, a small hoard of chipmunks circling it and sniffing the newspapers on the floor.  Between the beds, a soup pot boiled on a hot plate.  Despite its general disarray, it was a sunny room and the mice took a moment to fiddle with the metering on the cameras.  Soon they had them adjusted.

On one of the beds, Big Alice Nuttle was sitting up in the covers, her hide loose with age, but her bearing quite energetic.  She blinked at the crew from behind a pair of horn-rimmed glasses that made her gaze curiously owl-like.  The mice were disconcerted for understandable reasons.

“Oscar, Edgar,” the older Nuttle said. “You’re early, aren’t you? I told Alice you’d be here early or on time, but she was nervous.”

Oscar gave her a little smile as Little Alice rushed to defend herself.

“I never said any such thing, mother darling,” she said, her nose revealing a scarlet blush. “It was you!”

The Possum brothers thought it wise to steer the mother and daughter away from an argument.  The taller one, Edgar, changed the subject. “I noticed you’ve cleared some things away from the base of the tree.”

“Oh, that was Larry,” the older squirrel said.  “He’s been coming over and working a little each day.”

Little Alice rolled her eyes, plopping down on the empty bed.  Leaning in to Oscar, she said just audibly enough for the mics, “Larry hasn’t done so much.  Most of that stuff blew away in the storm last week.”

Oscar smiled, “I did see him down there this morning, working on it.”

She adjusted her turban, glancing at her mother, “Well, he works at it now and again, but mostly he seems good at climbing up here around supper time.  That’s what his talent is – sniffing out supper.”

Oscar laughed, “Well, he is a mole.”

Big Alice said, “I can hear you, Alice.  I don’t know what you have against poor Larry.  Or any mole, for that matter.”  The older Nuttle tapped Edgar’s arm and sniggered, “I know what her problem is.  She’s in love with Larry.  That’s what the problem is there.”

Little Alice jumped up as though the bed was on fire.  “That isn’t true!” she said.  “Mother darling, you are absolutely out of your mind. I think you have Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever.  Oscar, Edgar, I think she has Rocky Mountain Spotted Fever. From the chipmunks.”

The cameraman wisely cut away to take in the small pets, one of which was at that moment pissing on the gilt-framed portrait of a younger Big Alice.  The old squirrel noticed it, too.  “Alice, look at what those chippies are doing?  Isn’t that a shame?”

“Don’t try and change the subject, mother darling,” Alice said.  She was warming up to her indignation more and more by the moment. “You’ve no right to say things like that in front of the boys.  You’re the one who’s in love with Larry! It’s you!”

Just then the mole stepped into the room.  He seemed quite nervous, curling his claws to scratch at his chest, but Big Alice seemed nonchalant about the awkwardness of the moment.  She motioned for him to come and have a seat on her bed.  “Larry, you want some boiled acorns?” she asked.  Turning to the mice, her spectacles flashed in the sunlight, causing the sound mouse to drop a stool in terror.  She appeared not to notice, saying only, “Larry always likes the way I do my acorns.”

The younger Nuttle left the room and, gesturing to the second camera mouse, Oscar followed her out.  They climbed to her room on the upper branches, where she began to scramble through a wardrobe.  “You okay, Alice?” Oscar asked.

“I can’t stand the way she makes such a fuss over that mole,” she said, her voice muffled inside the furniture.  “It’s absolutely humiliating.”  She emerged from the piles of old opera capes and carnival masks with a small bag of sliced bread.

“I’ve got to go feed the birds,” she said mournfully.  They followed her up the stairs.  As she tossed the bread out to a family of titmice who were slowly tearing apart the third floor of Walnut House to build their nest, she explained her sudden blue mood.

“I was very happy living in Washington Square Park,” she said.  “We have everything you could ever want in The Village.  Beatniks, poets, thinkers.  There was even a raccoon from overseas – royalty, I think – who wanted me to marry him.  But people don’t approve of such arrangements and anyway mother got sick after father left her, so I had to come back here.”

“You were a dancer back then, weren’t you?” Oscar prompted.

This memory cheered her up. “Oh, yes, I was!”

She rushed back down to her room and rummaged again in the wardrobe.  Oscar and the camera mouse followed closely.  In a moment, she cried out in excitement and held up a pair of small flags.  She motioned to the mouse, “Will you turn on that record player?  It would be absolutely darling of you, mouse dear. I’m sorry, I don’t know you’re name.”

The mouse somehow managed it and in a moment, a lively marching band seemed to be high-stepping it through the house.  Alice laughed like a school squirrel as she paraded back and forth for them, waving the flags and giving the camera come hither looks.  There was a cry from a far corner of the house as Big Alice heard the commotion.

“Is that you, Alice?” the trembling voice called.  “That’s it, Alice!  Now try a little tap.  You were always so good at dancing….”

Alice pretended not to hear over the marching band record. When her dance came to an end, she was flushed and laughing.  Rising awkwardly from what had attempted to be a split, she tossed aside the little flags.  “That was marvelous.”

Later that afternoon, Edgar brought some of the crew out onto the porch to catch up with the younger Nuttle.  She had changed into another outfit and was reading her horoscope through a large magnifying glass.  “Beware the Scorpion male,” she said ominously as they approached.  “You aren’t a Scorpion, are you, Edgar darling? What about Oscar? No, don’t tell me. I think I would die.” She peered at them through the glass and her eyes were as owl-like as her mothers had been earlier.  The camera mouse crossed his legs tightly.

Without waiting for a response, she sat aside the book and glanced out over the forest with a melancholy air.  “Winter’s coming,” she said.  The woods were windy that day, and the forest floor littered already with brown leaves.  “Such a sad place in the winter.”

“Oscar told me what you said to him earlier,” he said. “Ever think of going back to Washington Square?”

She shook her head, “Oh, no, Edgar darling. Who would take care of mother if I left?  There’s no one. The boys have abandoned her and father is somewhere in the Redwoods with that skunk.  I’m the only one left who cares.”

From inside the house, as though on cue, they could hear Big Alice calling out for her daughter.  For a moment the younger Nuttle seemed not to hear, staring out into the browning woods.  Then Big Alice tried again, “You’re going to miss the radio program, Alice! Don’t you want to have some ice cream and listen to the radio program?”

Ruefully, Alice Nuttle rose from her rotting chaise lounge and turned to peer into the dark hall of Walnut House.  She glanced back at Edgar Possum once more, tragically, before vanishing into the grand old nest.

The Farm Dream

When they found the land, it seemed the perfect compromise.  Benny longed for the country life of her childhood on a small West Virginia farm.  Mike wanted a place closer to his job in Bethesda.  On the Maryland land she could make the farm she’d always wanted and he would be able to get home by at least half past six.

Once it was decided, they packed the kids in the station wagon and took them to see the land.  A spring rain stopped just before they arrived, but the trees were good and soaked, their lines charcoal dark against tender green undergrowth.  Mike jumped out and untied the rusting metal gate, lifting it out of the grass and walking it open.  He was a squarish man in his late thirties who’d been growing thicker by the year, but in that moment he was almost dashing.  He got back in and drove them up to the crest of a hill.

The kids were wide-eyed and a little unsure of the plan.  In the way that a child will connect only some of the dots, the boy thought this meant leaving their toys at the current house.  He had a brief picture of how his mound of stuffed animals had looked just before he left his bedroom that morning.  He was pretty sure the fluffy green dragon he called Baby Jesus had been wearing a worried expression.  Pressing his lips together, he said nothing for a while.

Benny spread out a big piece of paper on the hood of the car to show the kids their scheme.  On it she and Mike had painstakingly drawn the footprint of the land and then they had drawn in the house they wanted to build, some outbuildings and garden paths.  The paper was fuzzy in spots from erasing thoughts, but they were so sure of the final outcome, Benny had started to color things in with marker.  With excitement she pointed first to the vegetable garden plot and then to the bridge they’d build for crossing the creek. The garden was rows of cloudy little tufts, some colored orange, some green, others yellows.  The bridge was a brown rectangle spanning a wavy band of blue.

The littlest girl noticed that they’d drawn a cat and two dogs standing in the front yard.  She smiled shyly, “It’s Sandy and Buster.”

“That’s right, Burpy,” Benny said, mussing her daughter’s fine blond hair.

“And Marmalade,” the boy said, fiercely defending the cat only he liked. “We’re not leaving her!” He turned away and scowled into the distance.

Benny and Mike gave each other a secretive smile.  They thought their boy was a bit peculiar.  At six he was something of the grumpy old man of the house, though at times he was as light and sweet as any child.  Mike picked him up and gave him some tickles along the ribs and soon he was giggling despite himself.

They turned back to the drawing on the car hood.  Chewing on a strand of her hair, their oldest leaned in closer.  “What’s the inside of the house look like?” she asked.

Benny took a rolled up magazine out of her big purse and opened it to a dog-eared page.  In vivid water color tones, there was a drawing of a farm house with a fancy glass door and a deep porch.  Just below it was an overhead view of the layout inside the house.

“We’re going to change the porch,” Benny said. “And make it a wrap around.”

The kids gathered closer.  She pointed out the big bonus room over the garage.  “I thought this would be a fun place to set up sleeping quarters if we wanted to have the aunts and uncles and cousins over for the holidays.  Wouldn’t it be fun if everyone could cozy in for Thanksgiving and no one had to drive home?”

Thinking of the book she was reading him at night, The Little House in the Big Woods, the little boy pictured snow on the ground and a Christmas tree strung with cranberries.  He forgot to worry about his stuffed animals. The little smile that tucked into his face made Benny’s heart skip.  Little Crosspatch was on board.  With surprisingly little fuss, they assigned the bedrooms and talked a little bit about what color they might paint the walls.

It was a perfect and beautiful day for the family; the magic of the dream pulled the children in as the last clouds rolled off.  Mike opened the back of the station wagon and took out a picnic basket they’d hidden under the car blanket.  Inside were sandwiches, bags of chips and bottles of juice.  The oldest pulled the crust off her bread and ate the rest slowly, laying on her back and staring dreamily out over the rolling hills.  Little Burpy took everything off her sandwich, closed it again, and ate just the mayonnaise and bread.  The boy eyed the abandoned ham and cheese jealously and was about to reach out and purloin it, when his father’s blunt-tipped fingers dropped from above, plucking up the discards.  He watched the food disappear into Mike’s mouth,  the whole of it in one bite, like a snake on the National Geographic show eating a mouse.  The thought made him momentarily lose his appetite, but soon enough the salty chips lured him back.

Benny watched her brood closely, happy they were behind she and Mike on the plan.  It was important that they all believe in this together.  This was the first thing she and Mike had cared as much about in a long time.  She’d forgotten the feel of being close.  The farm dream was going to save them.

It was hard to be in a marriage that was slipping loose from its tethers, harder still in a house with children.  There were nights when they cursed at one another in the kitchen, muzzling their rage into sharp whispers as not to wake the kids.  Falling asleep exhausted, holding each other, she’d woken with more headaches than she could count.  Yet the children still needed to be fought out of bed, coerced into their clothes, watched from the window until they disappeared into the black mouth of the school bus.  Then and only then could she settle enough to explore her feelings.  Usually by then she just wanted to be with Mike, to feel out where they stood, to see if he really had forgiven her the things she said in anger.  He was a good guy, a steady father.  She often felt like he deserved better than her, except when they were fighting – then he needed to be reminded of just how lucky he was to have her.

They had been working on it more this year, trying to make it better, since they found the oldest standing in the kitchen doorway late one night, her eyes saucer wide, spilling tears at the things she’d heard them say.   Some instinct in motherhood was much stronger than whatever vanity had spurred their argument.  In an instant, her anger at Mike had vanished and her only thought was to remove the white mask of horror from the girl’s face.

Benny stole a glance at her now.  A freckled strawberry girl about to become a woman, her Julie was by nature quiet and pale.  She fought herself not to project judgment in the girl’s silence.  Even before she had discovered the ugly underside of their marriage, Julie had been this internal.  She was at times ethereal.  Benny reached a hand out over the gingham blanket and smoothed the girl’s long auburn hair.  A pair of soft grey eyes looked up into hers, sparkling in the sunlight.

Gently, Benny admonished her, “Stop chewing your hair. It’s filled with germs.”

The girl shrugged and looked away.  Shortly after, they started to gather up the wrappers and bottles.  Mike suggested they walk the property line together, but Julie said she had a headache and wanted to stay in the car and read.  Clamping her mouth closed, Benny turned away, folding up the blanket.  Mike gave her arm a squeeze.

“She’s fine.”

The little ones were quick as lightning along the hills and through the forest of the property.  Benny and Mike had trouble keeping up with them.  They came to the creek and he helped each of them over before crossing himself, careful on the stones, arms out to keep his balance.

When they got back to the car, Julie was sitting on the hood, Indian style, chewing a strand of hair and reading a romance novel.  Mike was laughing as they approached, as Benny tried to answer the little boy’s string of questions.

“Of course Marmalade won’t drown in the brook.”

“What’s that?”

“The brook is another word for creek.”

“Why’d you call it that?”

Mike said, “Someone will gets tickles if he doesn’t button up.”

They climbed in the station wagon and Mike turned it around slowly, heedful of getting the tires mired in the soft Spring earth.  On the county road, they came to a bend from which he and Benny had long ago noticed one could see the land.  He stopped the car and pointed out the view to the kids.

“The house will be at the top of that hill.”

Benny felt her breath catch.  Every wish to make things work out, to erase the sour moments of the past – it was all possible on this farm.  The kids peered out the dusty side windows with their lips a little parted, eyes wide and bright.  It seemed they caught the dream, too.  She folded her hands in her lap and there they stayed all the way home, shaped in a silent prayer.

The Algebra Novel

Every morning in seventh grade math class, I opened my blue Trapper Keeper and sat the tip of my pencil to a fresh sheet of paper.  When the teacher began the class, I mentally checked out, returning to the novel I was writing in my head.

It was good stuff, too, all about two southern bell sisters trying to keep the plantation from falling apart.  These poor girls had a lot on their plate.  Between dodging deserters and remaking old ball gowns, it was pretty amazing they still had time to fall in love with sturdy bucks like tight-lipped, sun-bronzed Rafe Hyatt.  And don’t get me started on their older, wicked lady neighbor, the raven-haired Rebecca de Chastaine.  Pretending to be their friend even as she plotted to ensnare their lovers, make no mistake, she was nothing but trouble. With this heady stuff to tend to between 9:55 and 10:55 each school day, it is no wonder I had to repeat math in summer school that year.

Writing this novel in math class was the highlight of my day and what helped me not to miss quite as much school that year.  Never mind the occasional humiliation of being called on by our teacher, Mr. Shaylock, and having no clue where we were in class.  With his short sleeve button ups and messy 70s weatherman hair, he was a gentle nerd who barely maintained his class, so perhaps he didn’t mind the plump daydreamer doodling Marie Antoinette wigs on the margins of his notebook.  At least I wasn’t one of the trouble-makers, pinching girls’ asses through the cutouts in the orange plastic chairs. That man put up with a lot, but I doubt he went home and poured himself a Scotch on my account.

I was a committed craftsman back then, never missing a date on my inkless writing.  I got good at winding up a chapter an hour and I got excited on the bus each morning, deciding where I’d begin again.  I also did the hard research, checking out books on historic costume from the library and faithfully teaching myself to draw them.  I could tell the era of a redingote at a glance, and was not above sniffing in disapproval when a movie of the week placed a ball gown on Jane Seymour when clearly she would have worn a modest day dress.  Returning those much loved volumes of renderings to the library again and again that year, I’m sure the one clearly homosexual volunteer behind the desk was smirking knowingly under his handlebar mustache.  Yet all my work could not save me from my report cards. I blame it on the Reagan era that I wasn’t tested on the anatomy of pantaloons instead of converting fractions.  The arts must always suffer.

At that time my biggest writing influences were Gone With the Wind and my sister’s library of smutty historic novels.  I always saw the past through a misty red veil, never stopping to think about all the pots of shit-water under the beds.  Instead, I was taken with the clothes, see above, and by the time I got to middle-school I liked the sex scenes, too.  The women who wrote novels such as ‘Destiny’s Seduction’ or ‘Island Rapture’ were giants in their field. As with all great literature, I was taken with the power of even their simplest phrases.  Describe our hero’s thighs as both hot and strong and I was right there with him in the crashing waves, deflowered but defiant as over his gleaming shoulders my ancestral mansion was burned by pirates.  Oh, the places you will go in a really fine work of fiction.

By mid-year I was bold enough to tinker with the sexual foibles of my own characters.  I knew before I knew that I was not a fit for the hetero world of those novels. Neither a swarthy English hunk raised by Arabs nor a voluptuous preacher’s daughter sold into sex slavery on the high seas, I hewed my burgeoning sexuality to the wicked, older lady neighbor.  With her as my proxy, I could place myself in that world – and experience the catty thrill of being the only woman in the county still rich enough to nail my dress at the Christmas ball.  Dove grey silk with cherry red piping – don’t get me started.

Of course, I abhor violence and any form of chicanery, but through this towering beauty, Rebecca de Chastaine, I wielded a terrible power.  When we set our cap for the rugged Yankee captain the McClure sisters were hiding in their smoke house, it took only a snap of her fingers to have him brought to us.  Of course, the problem was that once she’d tied him down and laid out her plans for him in a flowery monologue, it was me who had to stand up with a boner when the bell rang.  Thank heaven for that Trapper Keeper.

Birthday Cake

When she had his company, Jo never wanted it, though he was a perfectly wonderful man.  He caught her not listening all the time and the look in his eyes made her feel like the worst kind of ass.  She’d double down, shutting away that inner landscape into which she so easily drifted, and pinch off an awkward apology.

She never wanted to be entirely alone, night on night; nor could she have imagined before the divorce the ice age of dawns, one on another, that came to gray her empty mornings.  In wanting solitude, she had simply imagined car rides with no date to keep; an afternoon of nosing through junk shops before sliding onto a diner stool at twilight for supper.  There would be no bolting her food to keep up, no conversation to keep or jokes to find the humor in.

He called her a year ago from a payphone in Washington.  It was muggy out at their place, but in the city it was cold and rainy.  His car had broken down again.  In the way that small calamities speak for big, terrible problems that go unheard, the busted car was the beginning of their end.  As she sat on the sofa, the phone to her ear, a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray on her lap, he unleashed a newlywed’s year of unhappiness. The commute was too much for him.  His work buddies were still sipping dripping wet cocktails while he was inching through traffic toward the dull outpost of their country life.  And he hated that the house needed more work than they had the time to tend.  At last he choked out the dreadful, truest thing: he hated that she didn’t really seem to want him there.  Jo remembered she’d been drifting away again; that brought her back around like a slap on the face.

“What was that?”

Over the extension she heard the rain on the concrete.  He said, “Seems like that to me.”

“I know,” she said.

There was a brief silence. “I’ll be honest, Jo. I’m scared.”

For a moment she wished they had a second car so she could go to him, but another part of her imagined the chilly ride back, the two of them huddled in the interior, trying to knit what they’d unraveled.  A chill tracked her spine as she pounded out her cigarette.  She felt a dreadful remorse, a pity for the two of them as heavy as the dead.  Staring into the shadows of the hall, she said, “Maybe I can borrow Becky’s car.  I could get there in an hour or so.”

“No,” he said.  “Don’t do that. I’ll stay with Mike.  He said I could use the sofa.”

Jo nodded.

“Maybe I’m just tired.  Look, I’ll call you tomorrow.”

They decided with little drama to drop the whole thing about two weeks later.  With no bickering to gum up the works, the paperwork resolved itself quickly.  He moved in with an old college buddy and she took back her maiden name.  The curious thing about their one year marriage was that it had carved contours in her life that seemed shallow but were hard to fill. The house was small, but its loneliness was as vast as caverns. When Christmas time came, she put up a tree so her sister would bring over the kids.  In taking out the decorations, she was struck with fresh, unexpected waves of despair.

It shook her enough to call her friend Becky.  They split a bottle of bourbon on her porch, a not so cold December Friday night, and Becky was good company.  “Well, you said you didn’t love him, but I bet you did just a little bit.  Maybe like a pet.”

That made Jo cry fresh tears even as she laughed.  Becky watched her for a moment with what counted as a shrug in her eyes.  “Look, I guess I just don’t think it’s that surprising you miss him at Christmas.  I miss my dad at Christmas and that was the meanest son of a bitch I ever knew.  Any other time of year, I could spit on his grave.  That’s why it’s such a shit holiday.”

“So what do I do?”

“You go in there and finish decorating that tree – I’ll help – and you get your family over and you just do Christmas.  What do you want, a blueprint? You never had to fake your way through a party before?”

In her own callow way, Becky got Jo through the holidays.  And once the tree came down, things seemed a little better again.  In January she watched Reagan’s inauguration on the television, while a girlfriend from the office worked blond dye into her hair. Seeing the color in the mirror, she lit a cigarette and said, “No. Let’s take it back.”

Her girlfriend talked her into letting it alone for a while.  That week a guy in the front office asked her out.  On Friday he took her to dinner and then over the state line for drinks and dancing.  It was a honky-tonk place and she hated the music, but the beers kept coming and he was a funny kind of guy, so she decided she was going to let the night cheer her up.  Somehow they got back to her place without wrecking the car.  He was so drunk he passed out on her couch.  She made him breakfast the next morning, but by then she didn’t find him that funny anymore.

“You’re not listening to me, are you?” he asked.

She looked up and saw a bit of egg stuck to the corner of his mouth.  For a moment, she poised to make an excuse, to spare his feelings.  Instead she shrugged. “No, I wasn’t.”

Her girlfriend at work told her on Monday that her date was going around saying she gave him a blow job on the way home from the roadhouse. She laughed until her stomach hurt.  The other woman looked at her like she was mad.  On the ride home she cried about it a little because it pissed her off: the lie he told, how quickly it got back to her.  That night, she bought a box of Clairol and took her hair back to brown.

At the end of March they were filling out quarterly reports when someone called and said they should turn on the radio. The president had been shot.  The whole staff gathered around the unit in the lobby and listened to the updates coming in.  When she got home, she sat in the kitchen and smoked while the oven heated up a frozen dinner.  As the house filled with the smell of salisbury steak, she wondered what the first lady might be doing.  It was hard to imagine her in a hospital room, all that coiffed perfection amid bedpans and bloody bandages.  It was easier to imagine her on a platform somewhere, a hair lollipop in a bright red wrapper.

Maybe old Nancy hadn’t gone to the hospital.  Maybe she was sitting in her room at the White House with a fox pelt around her shoulders, listening to reports come in from a little army of efficient secretaries.  Jo wondered if the president’s wife ever found herself drifting away during dinnertime chatter.  Ronny might reproach her in his ash and brown sugar voice.  She’d crank that shiny little smile, murmuring, “So then what did Khomeini say?”

He would look hurt.  “I wasn’t talking about that, Mommy.”

In April her birthday came and she said good-bye to her twenties over a coconut cake her sister made.  It was a little dry, but they washed it down with a sweet white wine from Kroger.  She woke up the next morning with a dry headache and remembered too late it was a work day.  Making the necessary apologies on the phone, she hopped in the shower and was heading across town ten minutes later.  Her hair wasn’t yet dry in back.  She pulled into the parking lot outside the office and then she sat in the car, staring at the light bouncing off all the windshields.  It was a bright, brisk, blinding morning.  A rain that came in the night had washed the new leaves clean.  It was a day that wanted nothing to do with nylons and bra straps.

She thought of the pink and white streamers her sister had taped up all over the little back porch last night, still twirling in the breeze today.  There was a big wedge of cake in the refrigerator.  She tried to remember if Alan had ever come to get his wind chimes out of the trees in the yard.  Thinking about their silver music made a sad lump press her throat.  Still, she wanted to know if they were hanging there, jangling, and she wanted more cake and to loll under the streamers, blissfully alone. Something was returning to her and she didn’t plan to miss its arrival.  She laughed like a fool all the way home and she never looked back.

Jon Can See Inside Your Head

Jon tells himself things about the inner world of other people.  He is sure they’re true.  Petty, unprovable, improbable by turns, and certainly not sweet, they are a great comfort.  Here are two of the most recent.

On Saturday, a silver-haired man passed him on the highway in a gleaming BMW convertible, rich people blue. The guy was wearing a baseball cap that Jon decided had been purchased already distressed.  There was something about the hat in addition to the convertible that made Jon think the driver saw himself as a Hollywood director type.  Jon decided that the man’s name was Peter.  His last name would definitely be something waspy, like Andrews, but perhaps wealthier sounding, like Ellison.

Glancing over at Pete Ellison through a smear of bird shit on his own car window,  Jon thought:  “I guess you park that where your self-worth should be.  Try working on a personal identity, instead of just being a cookie cutter of American success.”  That felt good for several seconds after.

Then on Tuesday his boss told him to go back to the drawing board on his latest project.  She stood over his desk with an expression of sympathy he decided could not be genuine.  There was something about her round face when she tried to appear kind that made her look like a Precious Moments figurine.  He watched her return to her office and decided that her walk could accurately only be called a waddle.

“Could you be any more threatened by me?” he thought.  “It’s really worth it to you to pay me overtime, just to lord your power over me?  Okay.  We’ll do it your way, duck ass.”

It goes on and on.  He knows everyone’s motives, everyone’s weakness, everyone’s terrible, terrible flaw.  It is a gift and a curse.  And a comfort.  It is a really dreadful comfort to poor Jon.

__________________

On Friday, he goes to see a band he likes in the city.  Standing in front of him during the show are a man and woman he instantly dislikes.  The woman has long blond hair that is trying to look stylish but really it is not quite there.  And the man is wearing one of those baseball caps like Pete Ellison wears.  Jon really hates that kind of hat.  In a knowing moment, he decides their names are Jen and Kyle.

Jen stands in front of Kyle and she looks back often to laugh about some joke they are sharing.  Kyle has an annoying way of bobbing his head back and worth to the beat.  A while later,  Jon sees that she is taking a picture on her phone of the guy in front of her, holding the phone up high to get what she’s after – the perfect capture of a bald spot in the stranger’s mullet.  Wrinkling up her nose in a grin, she shows the picture to Kyle and he really busts a gut over it.  Jon finds it quite distracting.

He watches their shenanigans with a sour twist to his mouth.  It seems really hateful of them to spend the concert picking on the stranger when they could be enjoying the music. He is all set to size them up, to truth out all of their wretchedness in a clever string of thoughts, when he remembers another concert, only a few months before.

At that concert, he stood behind two women who were wearing exactly the kind of jeans he hates.  These two women – Karen and Nancy, he decided – were the only ones standing in the seating arena.  They were gyrating slowly in sync to the opening band, each movement causing a curious buckle in the ass crack of their mom jeans.  It was happening right at his eye level, so he had to capture it on video. It was what anyone would have done.

Now at the second concert, he recalls that he had done pretty much the same thing as this Jen woman.  He pauses a moment, considers it from another angle. The two women, in choosing to stand and dance when no one else was standing, had sort of volunteered to be criticized.  The man with the bald spot seemed much more the victim, since he was not making himself conspicuous.  And there was something so brash about the way dumb old Jen held out the picture to stupid ugly Kyle, heedless of who else might see. At the other concert, he had passed his video to his friends quite discreetly. And even as they laughed over it, he glanced up guiltily to make sure the women did not look back and see.

He decides to concede a little bit that he is a hypocrite, in exchange for acknowledging that Kyle and Jen are much bigger assholes.  On the way out of the club, it happens that Jen winds up holding the door for him and, thinking fast, Jon decides that she is probably feeling bad for being such a jerk. Trying to do a stranger a kind to offset her bad karma, like a company buying clean air credits.  Cap and trade.  In a more perfect world, she would have got stuck holding the door for the guy with the mullet.