1986

He was closer to his mother when he was a boy.  The father could not put him to sleep; only she, the soft love of her soft voice reading.  As she spoke the stories, he forgot to be afraid of shadows.  He found the enchantment of other worlds: a cabin in the prairie with a china lady on the mantle; a little island out over Canada where the roads were red and the gables green.

The boysome, bounding bravery of others did not come easily to him.  His voice was gentle, his brown eyes shadowed.  Early on in his childhood, he found a dread of school.  Other children sensed something about him was different.  The questions in their faces humiliated him and when they found the words that fit, if clumsily, their savagery cleaved him from any sense of belonging.  The world at school was terrible to him.  Had he been able to disappear into it, had he a talent for that, he might have slipped through the years less scathed.

In his fear, he was friendless, except that he had his mother.  She forgave him his fears, by and large, even if she couldn’t pry the cause of them from him.  It made sense that she understood him.  She was a nervous wreck herself: afraid of spiders, big open spaces and stairwells.  In their little ranch house with the yellow walls and the low ceilings, they were safe for a long while.  Then she began to fear crossing the bridge between the house and town.  It began to imprison them.

Throne Room

My favorite indoor place as a kid was the dark basement of our ranch house.  The faux wood paneling was littered with paint-by-numbers of flying ducks and macrame owls that perched on limbs of driftwood.  Above there was ceiling tile, stained rustily in places from water leaks.  The floors were institutional linoleum tiles, beige and avocado, coming up in places.  There was a huge brown sectional, decorated with a zig-zagged afghan, and a large wooden console with a convex piece of glass through which I escaped into other, far more delightful worlds.  In decorating terms, today this fairly hum-drum 80s TV room would make the most popular coffee house on any street in Brooklyn.  There may even have been a complicated Turkish coffee carafe wedged between dusty fondue pots on the top shelf of the laundry room.  Let us agree this is true because it might as well be.
tangina textThis underground level of the house, at times forgotten by my parents judging by the overflowing hampers in front of the washer and dryer, was all the inside world I needed or wanted.  As soon as I woke each morning of summer, I made myself a Tupperware bowl of cereal and headed carefully down the steps.  Ensconced on the sectional, I disappeared for hours into reruns of The Andy Griffith Show and Rhoda.  The latter informed my inner strong Jewish woman, the former mystified me, as I didn’t crack the Don Knots code until I was in my thirties.  Maybe I didn’t understand how this uptight deputy wound up as the neckerchief-wearing landlord to my favorite goofball trio on Three’s Company.

My eldest sister, Moo, was strictly a reader through the long days of summer; the middle child, Bird, never settled at home for long.  She often trotted off to visit neighbor ladies who smoked mentholated cigarettes while watching The Price is Right in darkened little living rooms.  Mom thought Bird didn’t love us sufficiently; I was thankful to have no challengers for my sacred territory.

By the age of ten, I was treating the basement as a sort of apartment all of my own.  It was true that the rest of the family piled in for evening TV viewing, but during the sleepy morning and humid afternoon hours, I was blessedly alone.  Sometimes I heard a pair of feet thumping overhead, then the door at the top of the steps would whine open about a foot.

“Paul, you down there?”

“Yes, mother.”

“Are you going to go outside and get some fresh air today or just lay around in your underwear again?”

“The latter, mother.”

“Your sisters are going to walk to the pool…”

“Mother, may I watch my stories in peace?”

A resentful pause; then an all-too-familiar bait.

“Do you want a fried bologna sandwich?”

“Very well, mother, if you insist.”

“If you don’t…”

“No, I do. I’ll be up in a minute.”

I took special care of that part of the house.  We didn’t have central air and the screens of our storm windows were always in some state of disrepair, so that all summer long there was what we called a fly problem.  At eleven o’clock, when the boring game shows began to air, I’d gather up plastic tumblers of Coke with dead flies floating in the syrupy backwash.  After I marched upstairs with them, I’d come back down with a butler’s whisk, a dust rag and a bottle of Liquid Gold.  Polishing the wagon-wheel end table until you could see your face in the spokes, I’d air my grievances over the condition of the place to my dream-mother, television’s own Barbara Eden.

“Can you believe how this swine live, Jeannie?”

Unfurling herself from the plush brown depths of the sectional with a kittenish yawn, she’d shake out her pink balloon slacks and give me a sympathetic eye roll. “I know what you mean, Sheffield. I woke up this morning with Cheetos in my ponytail. These people are pigs.”

I never asked her to use her magic to clean the place.  Not only would it have been rude to task a guest with the housework, I felt even then that the expectation of women to keep a tidy home was a sign of man’s centuries-long tyranny over the eyeshadow and wrap-dress sex. Ideologically speaking, my heart was in the right place.  Besides, something about my daily act of martyrdom was as pleasing to my senses as the smell of lemon when I mopped up Kool-Aid spills from the steps.

There was a corner in the back of the basement where a piece of the sectional that hadn’t fit had been stuffed. It created a sort of banquet against an accent wall of marbly streaked mirror.  The space struck me as sophisticated and somehow West Coast. Here I gave exclusive interviews to a then-young Barbara Walters, who my real mother had an unarticulated dislike for and whom, conversely, I had decided to worship.  Besides which, she rubbed elbows with the elite of the entertainment and political worlds. It was hard to downplay the panache of a woman who could cozy up in a taupe living room with a sticky-lipped Lonnie Anderson one week, then sit down in the Rose Garden to talk hostages with Reagan the next.  Between such engagements, she liked to catch up with me to discuss my latest, often gender-bending roles.

“Mr. Miller, tell us why you chose to star in this Of Human Bondage redux?”

Still a little high on Barbara’s effusive descriptions of my seaside estate in the opening, it took me a moment to focus on the question.  On screen, it would appear to be a satellite delay, despite the fact we were curled up together side by side in the sunny breakfast nook of my pool house.

“Oh, Barbara, so formal! Call me Paul or Sheffield or Destiny, please.”

“Alright, Destiny. But to the question…”

Here is where I knew the producers wanted me to ‘go thoughtful’ while they ‘zoomed in for a close-up’.  I also knew from past experience and from the sting in my left eye that I could squeeze out about two full sentences before the tears came.

“Well, Barbara, I had seen Of Human Bondage on WTTG out of Washington last Sunday afternoon when that hail storm cancelled our family run to Tastee Freeze, and I immediately thought, ‘Here it is. This is it. The role I was meant to play.'”

“The role you were meant to play,” Barbara repeated, nodding significantly. “But taking on a character that Bette Davis made famous…that would have to be daunting.”

“I never take on a project lightly, Barbara. And I called Bette to make sure I had her blessing.”

“Did you really?”

“Yes I did. It was important to me.”

“Destiny, what did film legend Bette Davis say to you when you called her Park Avenue condominium with brass wet bar and doorman service?”

“Well, Barbara…” And here came the tears, because of course. “I’m sorry…”

One of the boom operators slipped a Kleenex into my hand, barely detectable in the final edit, and I gifted him with the merest smile.  A rugged blond with a drooping mustache, he preferred to boom operate in faded denim cutoffs and a snug-fitting cinnabar t-shirt, emblazoned with ‘California Dreamin’ in juicy bubble letters.  I say preferred, but for all I knew, it may have been Barbara’s mandated uniform. Come to think of it, all the men on her crew wore the same outfit, even Hank, who clearly would have been more comfortable and less alarming in baggy coveralls.

“Barbara, Bette was very supportive. I’ll just say that.”

“Why so mysterious, Destiny?”

But I would never say and that was why Barbara always described me as ‘enigmatic’ and ‘unwatchable’.

When I was eleven, my parents put the house on the market and started building a new home on the other side of town. As the sprawl of our everyday lives began to sift into boxes and boxes became piles on the back of pickup trucks, I took pains to defend my basement wonderland. I lobbied that we pack it last, as it was after all the TV room and laundry, but the result was that the rest of them used it all the more.  Unable to explore my world of make believe in front of that particular audience, I found that I had few chances left to say a proper good-bye to this last stronghold of childhood fancies.  Then came a morning when my burly uncles clattered down the stairs to take out the sectional in pieces.  I had hidden my favorite accessory behind the interview banquet and rushed to grab it before they returned from the truck.

When I pushed my arm down between the cushions, my fingers brushed the chilly neck of a splatter-glazed bottle.  It was where my other Barbara lived, my Jeannie-mother, when she wasn’t reclining on the chocolate velour cushions, agreeing with me that perhaps Mash’s Charles Emerson Winchester III wouldn’t be such a jerk if Hawkeye wasn’t such a slob.  I stroked the bottle once more, wishing every wish could be true, all at once, a madly delightful escape out of the world of a misunderstood gay kid in the 80s and into the bottle, a round room with Technicolored pillows, swags of chiffon, and mad-cap adventures that returned to a familiar safe place every twenty-odd minutes.  Hearing the men open the basement door, the deep rumble of their voices as they shared a dirty-sounding laugh, I climbed up onto the back of the banquet, pushed aside a ceiling tile, and tucked the bottle away from sight.  It hurt to leave her there – my soft, blond mother, our dreams and adventures, our laughter – but the future loomed mysteriously, threateningly, and I felt somehow she wouldn’t survive out there in its bright glare.

In defiance of the changes I didn’t want and of the sweating brutes who called my mother sister, I sank Indian fashion into the center of the last piece of the sectional and folded my arms.  They thought it was funny to carry the piece out with me on it rather than to wheedle me into moving. And I thought it was funny, too, but not for the same reason.  It simply pleased me in a bittersweet way to be carried out of my kingdom on a throne.  A star deserves no less.

The Skies Over Bethlehem

He had a dream last night that left him floating all the morning in a surreal fog.  In the dream, he was looking through the woods for a persimmon tree he’d once found but lost.  That much he recognized; that tree had been on his mind recently.  His mother took him to it once when he was a boy and she’d said the fruit was only good when it was nice and fully ripe.

“Otherwise, it’ll turn your mouth inside out.”

He’d been thinking of his mother, too.  It happened like this a lot in the autumn.  They’d last seen her on a brittle Sunday afternoon of a long lost November.  The woman who disappeared just before his tenth birthday had worn a warm coat and a knit scarf of mixed greens and oranges.  Her scuffed boots had been brown like her hair.   She waved before climbing into the station wagon.  The man behind the steering wheel stared straight ahead, his thick glasses glinting so that his eyes could not be seen.  She winked at him as they backed into the drive, that familiar wink that was meant to say everything would turn out fine.  It wasn’t convincing this time around.  He and his sisters lifted their hands and waved as the dusty car vanished down the pale drive.

___________

In the dream, he came to a clearing in the woods and he stood there and turned around and round, peering into the forest, trying to spot the tree.  Then suddenly, in the way of dreams, he was no longer alone.  Stretched out in the clearing, lit by a stream of heavenly light, was a woman giving birth.  Her shoulders and her belly and her knees under the nightdress were a range of mountains.  The damp brown hair snaking through the wild onion was a black spring that began and ended with her.  He started at the sight of her, but she only smiled at him through her labored breathing.  It was a pained, mysterious smile, a bittersweet smile that was a little afraid.  She wasn’t his mother, but she had her smile.

“They say you forget the pain,” she said.

He crouched beside her in the wild onions and the hand that reached out to comfort her was pale and dimpled and small.  He hadn’t known until then that he was a child in this dream.  She took his wrist painfully.

“But you won’t be forever,” she said. “None of us are forever.”

“Please, let me go.”

She looked into his eyes for a long while.  He could not decide the color of hers.  They shone like the tops of lakes on days when the sun hasn’t broke through, but it might just.  Her gaze was a moving storm.   Finally, she released his wrist and he took his hand back.  He’d not got to comfort her, after all.

In the next moment, she was gone.  The clearing seemed to be growing smaller around him.  When he looked at his feet, the wild onion had become pine needles.  Soon, the forest was overhead again and the sky had changed to a deep, smoky violet.  It wasn’t the real color of a night sky, but the color of night skies in children’s books.  No, more than that, he decided; it was the exact color of a sky they had painted.

____________

His mother had agreed to help with the Christmas pageant at church.  She felt that it was her turn and perhaps she wanted a little something to help fill the long autumn nights.  She corralled each of them into the station wagon, Tuesday and Thursday nights for weeks, stopping along the way to pick up the Clatterbuck girl and then, a little farther on, the Willard twins.  The other kids lived close enough to the church to walk.  They were always there on the porch waiting when they pulled up in front, because his mother had never been on time to anything.   When she got the heavy paneled door unlocked, she’d reach along the inside wall for the switch to the vestibule.  Then one of the older boys would feel his way half way down the basement steps to flip the breakers for the knave.  It had been wired late and funny.

When the lights came up, the red plush cushions on the pews jumped out first, then the dark green carpet running up the twin aisles. The alter looked bare without the Sunday flowers.  The big room was cold at first, but the huge old oil furnace would quickly warm the place.  Coats and hats went into a graceless pile on a pew at the back.

His mother got them started on lines and in a half hour, another woman came to help out.  She brought a few kids with her, too, and she played the piano in the choir loft and helped with the singing bits.  His mother was in over her head, her slightly stunned face confessed, but she laughed a lot as she tried her best.  That was all she could do.

Close to the pageant, she had one of her breakdowns at home.  It was on the carport, while she tried to finish the backdrop to the nativity scene.  It was hard to paint the skies over Bethlehem with the wind kicking at the corners of the cloth.  The coffee tins she tried using weren’t heavy enough.  She tried prying up some stones from the garden.  By the time she spilled the paint, she was a nervous wreck.

“Goddam it!” she yelled. “It’s tomorrow.  Can’t the world give me a fucking break?”

He watched her for a moment through the screen door and waited for the nervous giggles that her breakdowns always caused.  This time they didn’t come, which was a blessing.  They always infuriated her, even though she knew it was involuntary. He pushed open the door and came to crouch beside her.

“I’ll help, Mommy,” he said.

“It’s too purple anyway,” she said.  Her face looked older than it needed to look under the yellowy overhead light.  The doubt and the anger and the suffering in her eyes was something he couldn’t quite understand.  They would get the skies over Bethlehem painted in time.  But her misery would vanish and come again and again. It was the way of things.  He felt the feelings with her and for her, even when they made no sense.

He took up the brush and began to smear the spill back and forth, filling in more and more of the white canvas.  Because there was so much, it spread far and quickly.  She sat beside him, her face in her hands, but her frown beginning to fade.  After a moment, she found another brush in her caddy and she crawled to the other side of the cloth.

“Just pour some on,” he advised. “It works good that way.”

Soon they met in the middle of a vast, plummy sky and laughing, they held up palms of the exact same shade.

“We should have started here and worked out,” she said ruefully.  But the crisis had passed again.

Go Out, Go Out

“Go out,” she said.  His protector, his champion. Old Granny: mother of none; keeper of all. He glanced up at her over the faded cloth of the table, watching her peel a potato, the sharp edge of the blade coming up soft against her thumb, over and over again, never going farther than the peel.  The brown petals of skin fell into an enamel pan on her lap.

“Go out and find me something to fix with these taters.”

His heart skipped once in his chest, a pang that drew his hand up to touch the spot.  He glanced away from her, thinking two thoughts at once.  Where had he put his boots? And: if Baizie came to supper, she’d tell about what happened at the creek.

“You left them by the door,” she said.

He rose, moving heavily to take up the boots.  His feet took their place in the familiar leather, pushing air up his pant legs, an earthy breath that smelled like him and animal and uncounted weeks of working in the sun and the rain, sliding on muddy hillsides, crackling the floor of the forest.

When he was little, Daddy took him hunting.  It was a foggy morning, warm and cool colliding.  When the first shot met its mark, he was sent into the trees to find the squirrel.  The soft fur was warm in his hands, the animal holdings it heat, though its breath was stolen for good.  It hurt him to think of the little thing dying. He put it in the crook of his arm and walked back slowly, gentle like he was holding a baby.

“Put it there,” his father said.

When he didn’t want to let it go, the man who was almost a stranger, if as much to himself as his son, turned away with darkening eyes.  He fished a cigarette out of his pocket and smoked it slowly, squinting into the depth of the forest. Then he shifted the weight of his gun, peered through the sights, and lifted it again to kill another squirrel.

“That ought to keep your hands full,” he said, his voice a coarse rasp, like the shovel scraping the stove when they took out the ashes. And he chuckled with the cigarette in his lips, though maybe he hadn’t meant to sound cruel.

It had been a long time since that morning in the forest, though the memory came back at queer moments. He could see his feet, small as they were then, landing carefully in the leaves underneath as he walked to get the second squirrel. When he cozied it next to the first one, he saw the cradle of his arm was filled with blood.  When they got home, Granny eyed the stain, cocked her head at an angle.

“Did you like hunting with your Daddy?”

He shook his head, then thought better of it. Maybe Daddy would mind.

“It was okay.”

But when he looked over at his father, the man was pulling off his socks with eyes seeing another room.  As was the case most often, his father was there and not there.  Like the dead squirrel giving off warmth, yet no longer in the world of living things.

“Well, take Casper’s coat, the long grey one on my door, and get me some eggs,” Granny said. “And when you get back, go out and run around a while, till you’re good and tired.”

She knew he was tangled up inside better than he knew it himself.

________________________

He shook off the memory of that day and stepped out into the spring evening.  A breeze was stirring the forsythia, yellow arms waving with joy that he did not feel in his own heart.  He dug a cigarette out of his shirt pocket and smoked it slowly as the light shifted, the sky over the meadow turning violet and lemonade.

When he came back into the house later, carrying a hen with a broken neck, Granny was pouring water and broth over beans for soaking.  She had the ham hock sizzling in a skillet with some onions and grease from the morning bacon.  She glanced up at him.

“Put her on the table,” she said. “So I can clean her.”

As she took the bird in hand, she told him about a peddler who used to come around with catfish and trout for sale.  He’d heard the story before, but it calmed him when she talked about the past.  “The best catfish you ever saw.  He was a born fisher, that one. Tall.  He always walked a little bent in the middle, like to bring himself down closer to the rest of us.  Kind of a gentleman type, like Ray Burke at the grocery store.  The pinkest cheeks, pinker than a bride’s bouquet.”

She shrugged, “He smelled like hair tonic and, if you got real close, like booze. I guess he liked to take a nip now and again. Maybe that’s what made him so mild and gentle.  Never cut in when you were talking, always asked what you thought you wanted to pay.”

“He fell on hard times, came one day to sell me watermelon.  Said he’d lost his luck for fishing.  His hands shook so bad, I guess I knew what I had to do. So I gave him a little whisky, put him to bed in the barn, and sat out under the biggest moon you ever saw and ate a whole watermelon instead of dinner.  Figured that squared us up.”

Her laughter came up out of her like the sound of a hundred eggs cracking. It was like that when she was happy: breakfast for everyone and some more left over just in case.  They were quiet for a while, she pulling feathers slow, ignoring the little fluffs that clung to her hands.  Then, as he though to take off his boots again and bent forward to do it, she looked across at him with soft eyes.

“Baizie stopped me in the yard this morning. She’d come up through the woods so quick, she could hardly catch her breath.”

He felt himself freeze slowly, like the pond come winter, the cold starting at his head, taking his heart and slowly covering every inch of him.  He was probably grey like ice, he thought.  If you threw a stone at him now, he’d crack into shards. The stone would sink out of sight.

“When I was your age, there was a boy I loved. He was prettier than most girls. Curls all over his head, light brown that turned to gold the first day of haying.  I watched him like a hawk, every minute, wished he’d look up and find me looking. Wished he’d know what was in my heart. And terrified lest he figured it out, too.”

Granny was done with stripping the hen.  She grabbed up her knife and took off the head, drawing it away from the neck with the side of the blade.  She dropped the bird into a bowl to let it bleed out.  Then she went to the tap and washed her hands.

He felt a cramp in his side, realized he was still bent forward with one boot half off his foot.  He shook it off abruptly, as if it offended him, as if it were a bee or a horse fly.  “What’d Baizie tell you?”

Granny smiled as she moved a cloth over her hands.  “Baizie said a lot of things, most of them ugly.  But when she was done, I reckon all I heard was that you were in love.  Not that she ever used that word.”

“She’ll tell everyone.”

“Not after what I said back to her.”

He frowned, unable to read her.

“Aren’t you upset with me?”

“No.”

“Aren’t you disgusted? Ashamed?”

“I think maybe you are.”

He lowered his eyes to the floor.

“But you shouldn’t be,” she said. “I’ve known men and women just like you.  Plenty of them. Don’t despise your nature, boy. Just know it as best you can. Measure it for itself, not against the world.  Keep yourself safe, travel wise, but never hate yourself.”

He licked his lips. “He wants us to leave together. But I told him I couldn’t leave you alone. You took me and Daddy in when we didn’t have no place to go. You’re my only friend in the world. We need each other.”

“You told this boy that?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“And what’d he say?”

“He cried. If his folks hear what Baizie’s got to say, they’ll kill him themselves. You know how Sunder is, Granny. I think he would.”

She nodded.

“I took you and your father in because you needed me, not because I needed you.  I love you, boy, of course I do.  But that was then. This is now.”

“Granny-“

“Find your young man and you two go find someplace else.”

He stared at her for a long while, hoping he’d never forget her face, the creases around her eyes, the silver cloud of hair her braids could never wrangle.  “Is it time?”

“Go out, boy. Go out.”

Ash

Bury me in the deep snow.  Lay my ashes where the sun and the wind will uncover me.  The same breeze that carries the yellow dust of the goldenrod will unwind my grey remains and send them whirling into eternity.  All cares will be long gone as I drift to rest on tomato leaves and bicycle wheels, clinging to the pores of bricks, then sailing far out over green rivers.  As ash, I will never grow weary on my travels.  Some fine particles of me will be swallowed by mud, never to take to air again until the earth is turned by hands not yet formed.

Image

When they come to the base of the tree, my friends will remove their gloves and use their fingers to make a hole in the snow.  The cold will needle their knuckles. They’ll pause now and again to make fists and kindergarten turkeys of their fingers, opening and closing their hands to bring blood to the tips.  Finally they will pour in the ash and cover it over, quickly, lest the flirtatious gale of a winter morning should send me off sooner than I would like.

Their boots will make a soft crunch as they wend their way back through the field, to the small line of cars parked along the fence.  Black coats and white snow.  If we are lucky, there will be scarves of color to remind us that life is for the living: turquoise and yellow.  A breathtaking flash of carmine, flying like a rampart against the sky, would be a joyful sight.

In the weeks before the melt, I would hear the ice loosen at noon and tighten at dusk.  The tree above me, holding out her long, lovely bones to the sky, would say nothing.  Yet we would be friends for all those days and long after the spring breeze came to lead me on my next adventure.

Missouri

The kids were drowsy by the time the sunset painted the big sky over Missouri orange and fuchsia.  All day long they’d found things to quarrel about.  Most often Julie and Crosspatch sided together against Burpy.  This was the usual way.  They accused her of letting her snot drip just to gross them out.  Burpy was singing terrible on purpose, they crowed, while the culprit screeched the Prince song playing on her Walkman.

“She doesn’t even have to hear herself!” Julie complained bitterly.

It was mean of them to make such a fuss about her snot; Burpy was still getting over a cold.  But Benny had to suppress a smile about the singing.  Her little tow head did have the worst singing voice.  Now they were in the home stretch of their long westward haul and the silence in the car was a blessing.

Benny glanced over her shoulder at her brood.  Julie was nose deep in a book and Burpy was sleeping.  Crosspatch was looking out the window.  His round chocolate eyes rolled to match her gaze.  He’d be asleep in minutes, she guessed, if the others stayed quiet.  She gave him a little smile and he smiled back.  She put a finger up to her lips and he let his head roll to his shoulder, his eyes returning to the rainbow sherbet sky.

It was dark when they reached their hotel on the outskirts of the city, a row of rooms hunkered low on an acre of balding grass.  Each door was turquoise.  Weeds grew along the fence around the pool and on the gate a rusted sign read ‘Watch Your Children’.  Mike stopped the car in front of the office and Benny watched him cross to the door with a heavy heart.  He looked thicker than ever yet somehow very small.  He carried himself like a man older than his years.  She felt her heart agitate in her chest and she took a few breaths to chase off her sense of panic.

It was hard to see her husband so whittled.  He was a strong person.  Never missed work, never broke promises.  By Friday night he was dead on his feet, but on Saturday morning he was up first, making batter for the silver dollar pancakes the kids loved so much.  This past week had been terrible for him.  When their eyes met, his held something she’d never seen in them before.  The hazel was clouded, the whites shot with red.  His mouth was broken and could not muster a smile.

She felt a hand on her shoulder and found Julie sitting forward, watching Mike through the window of the office.  He stood at the counter talking to a woman in a yellow smock.  He pulled his checkbook out of the back pocket of his trousers.  Julie was her eldest child, the one most like her father.  She had his sharp eyes, his high forehead and his steady ways. The girl looked worried, so Benny gave her hand a pat.

“It’ll be okay,” she said. “Your father.”

Julie nodded.

They didn’t wake the two little ones while they unloaded the luggage.  Mike made sure he took the big suitcase out himself.  The handle was broken and had to be carried a special way.  There were a lot of things like that in their life: hinges that needed babying, appliances that needed a tap before they’d run.  He had a knack for all that sort of managing and if it bothered him, he never said.  He didn’t like to complain.

After all the suitcases and grocery store bags with kid clothes in them were on the beds, they opened the side doors as quietly as they could.  Benny lifted Crosspatch out of the back seat while Mike reached in from the other side and got Burpy.  She was damp with sweat and smelled like a chocolate candy bar. Julie stood outside the room, hugging herself because the night was chilly.  Under strings of wind-blown hair, her eyes roamed the parking lot gravely.  In the distance, cars and tractors hummed along the highway.  A lot of people were still heading places.

Her mother mussed her hair, said, “Come on in.  We’ve got everything.”

____________

Earlier that year, Mike’s father had come to live with them.  The two of them were cut from different cloths, people who knew them liked to say.  Mike was good at figuring things.  He worked in Washington, drafting contracts for the FDA.  In a picture he’d sent home years ago, he sat with overflowing ‘out’ and ‘in’ boxes to one side of him.  A coffee cup with a dried drip on the handle held down a stack of paperwork in the foreground.  Behind him, in soft focus, a secretary in a green dress was shifting the blinds.  His eyes were lost behind a glare on his thick glasses, but his smile told them he was happy.  On the back of the photo he’d written, “Hey, folks, they’re keeping me busy.”

Jarl thought that life looked like hell.  He couldn’t imagine being in an office all day.  He’d spent his years out in the sunshine, growing peanuts and sometimes watermelon, hooking catfish out of the river and selling the yield.  There were a lot of families, black and white and bronze, along the shaggy county roads and not one wife could resist his bright eyes or his tall tales.  The sweet melons he brought, the bags of waffle-shelled peanuts and the strings of fish, they wound up in just about every kitchen there around.  Some of  the money came home to his wife and his two boys, but most of it went into the till at the Knotty Pine bar in midtown.  It was a simpler life than the one his son lived, there was no doubt, but he never gave his liver much rest.  It got worse after his wife died.  By the time he came to live with his son’s family, he was worn pretty thin.

Mike brought his father into their home because it was the right thing to do, but sharing space was hard, especially with a soul who came by happiness the hard way.  It didn’t take them long to figure out things ran smoother when Jarl was drinking.  If he was dry, he was sullen; his gaze threatened frost bite if you crossed him.  When he drank, his drawl went soft and lazy like a daydream.  The frost melted and his eyes bloomed cornflower over his rosy cheeks.  He puttered in the kitchen, making a split pea soup that left you homesick for the next bowl.  He prowled the garden, leaning on his cane and turning over the tomatoes to check the other side.

The girls found in the old man the thing his customers had seen.  They saw the sparkle of his eyes, liked the silly way he told stories.  Crosspatch could not warm to his grandfather.  He had given up his room when Jarl came to stay.  Crosspatch was a funny little boy, whimsical by turns, but older than his seven years.  His chocolate eyes carried a lot of worries.

Crosspatch had always kept his little green bedroom tidy.  Every toy had a proper place.  The bed was made as soon as he got up each morning.  When Jarl took the room, he made it his own.  The bed was left a tangle and the nightstand was piled with the tissues into which he emptied his sinuses through all his fitful nights.  Crosspatch stormed through the room once a week, angrily jamming the dried tissues into the waste basket, yanking at the quilt until the bed looked like his again.

“You’re different, aren’t you?” Jarl would say.

He squinted ruefully at the child and Crosspatch knew there was an insult in the question, though he couldn’t figure it out exactly.  He could find no love for the old man.

Benny felt sorry for her father in law.  From the window in the dining room, she saw him out in the yard sometimes, the wind molding his loose clothes to his frame, revealing the wreck of his once manly figure.  His watery eyes carried many regrets, even when they were stormy and cold.  His sun-spotted hands, open on his lap when he dozed, seemed too empty.  She wondered how much he missed his fields and his fishing rods.  In their house, he was tended to so that no harm could befall him, but Benny sensed his was not such a great life.  He was just killing time now and he knew it as well as anyone else.

____________

Last Sunday morning, they woke to a heavy frost.  The cars in the driveway were silvered over, the grass white sugar crusted.  A sparkling sun promised to melt the dew, yet it seemed like the kind of day to stay in out of the wind.  Mike and the kids piled up in front of the television to watch an old black and white movie on channel five.  Benny took refuge in the kitchen, phoning her sister and riffling through her recipe box.  She tossed out magazine clippings ruthlessly, in one her moods suddenly to be rid of dead weight.  After about an hour, her neck got stiff from clamping the receiver between ear and shoulder.  When an argument in the family room erupted, she took it as an excuse to say goodbye and hang up.

Burpy had tried to tap dance like the lady in the movie and when the dog joined in, circling her and barking, the other two revolted.  Jeering loudly, Julie and Crosspatch had finally succeeded in booing their sister off her imagined stage.  She and the dog had retreated to a corner, from where they were casting vengeful glances when Benny stepped into the room.  Crosspatch was still riled up.

“It is very rude to make noise when other people are watching TV!” he said.

Burpy was so mad she pulled her twin ponytails until they hurt.  “I hate you!”

One glance at Mike showed her why he had not intervened yet.  She gave his arm a shake,  “Wake up and come help me feed the animals.”

When they got back in from the barn, Mike’s dad had started to make up a batch of lima beans, sizzling up a fatty cut of bacon before opening one of their canning jars into the pot.  One look at his glowing cheeks told them he was in a soft mood.  He’d been nursing his bottle in his room all morning.  The movie had ended or else the children had tired of it.  The television set was off, the curved glass reflecting back a view of the room, aglow in chilly autumn sunlight.  Benny headed to their room to lie down and read for a while.  Mike went to find the kids.

They were all together, the upsets of the morning forgotten, laying together on the bed they had shared since Jarl moved in with them.  As Mike came to the door, Crosspatch was telling one of his stories and the girls were pretending to sleep.  In a grave voice, Mike said, “I see little people who need to be tickled.”

Julie rolled on her side with a groan and Burpy followed suit. Crosspatch kept to his storytelling, but a grin betrayed him.  He heard his father.  Mike loved tickling the kids.  He liked to announce it first, then to close in for the attack.  He wouldn’t believe anyone who said it wasn’t as fun for the tickled as it was for the tickler.  That afternoon, he was merciless. Armpits, bellies, knees.  He knew where to get a giggle from each one of them.

Benny was the first to smell something burning on the stove.  She bolted past the door to the kids’ room.  Mike rolled off the bed and barreled after her.  They found Jarl on the kitchen floor.  His face was a lurid violet.  Mike knelt beside him and called his name and shook him, his voice rising, growing sharp, breaking.  Benny was on the phone instantly, but by the time the paramedics came, there was nothing they could do.  The blood receded from his cheeks, taking his whiskey bloom with it, leaving his eyes as pale and distant as the skies over his old home place.  It was impossible to shield the children from seeing.  There was no time to think in all the confusion.  The girls were sobbing in the family room, as confused as they were sad.  Crosspatch just stared, unable to find tears.

____________

It was ten before they got settled in the hotel room.  It was too late to go out for food, so Mike and Benny poured over the yellow pages, shoulder to shoulder, looking for a pizza place that delivered.  In the soft glow of  a single lamp, the cheap little room felt close and safe.  One forgot the smell of mildew that had first greeted them.  For tonight and tomorrow night, this would have to be home, until the funeral was over and they made the trip they had just made in reverse.

The children were murmuring softly to each other, piled on the other bed, waiting for their bath.  Despite the long dusty ride, Benny still smelled a little like her morning shower.  The warmth of her was a comfort and he was awash suddenly in gratitude.  He’d been shaken, beaten and stunned since last Sunday.  In a moment, all he still had came back to him.  The little voices. The shampoo on Benny’s hair. Her hopeful smile, the sad watchful eyes. The four homely walls that stood against the wind to keep them warm.  He could still be happy, he could find it again.  Just not now.  It wasn’t time yet, he sensed as an animal knows things, but the reminder that life would wait for him left him trembling with humility and thanksgiving.  He did not realize he’d grabbed hold of her, that he was clinging to her and crying into her hair.  The children had gathered around, their little hands patting his arm in comfort.  Let them hold him, he thought, as he had held them all.

The Bad Ankle

George could remember exactly when he busted the bone – or tore the muscle, or sprained the whole damned thing.  The thing was that he would not see a doctor about it, so there was no telling the exact malady.  But it happened at the vowel renewal of friends, of that much he was sure.  It was when the DJ started playing all the old music that always made him dance.  The thin dress shoes had been protesting, pinching at his ankles, the angel hair laces creaking like a ship going down.  When the twist that botched it happened, he bit his tongue and waited for the right moment to ease off the floor. Later he stood outside the club house, his breath floating on the January air like banners of spider web, and he checked his emails in the compulsive way he had, waiting for the ache to subside.  He had been dancing hard, dancing to feel the ecstasy of being just limbs moving to sound, dancing to forget his grief.  It had been working, too.

As the months passed, the ache came and went, never quite leaving.  Getting out of bed in the middle of the night was bad; he hobbled down the steps to the bathroom like a much older man.  He didn’t feel forty when the ankle was acting on him.  He didn’t know any older age to feel, but he supposed this might be what ancient felt like.  It seemed to mirror his grief.  Three months.  Five months. Eight.  The year was spinning forward, separating him from the night that he got the call.

His mother, her voice small, said, “Your father passed. The girls are on their way over.”

“We’ll be over as soon as possible.”

His husband was already up, shaking open a sweater, fishing a stray shoe out from under the hall bench.  It was the night before Thanksgiving.  In the car ride over, they got into a curious argument, for reasons George supposed were his fault but could not later remember.  He turned the car around, saying he would take his husband home, he would go to the others alone.  And then he was crying and babbling an apology and turning the car around yet again.  They made it to his folks house about fifteen minutes later.

The months since that distant, cold night had been an awakening for George.  He found himself by turns numb or overly sensitive.  He took up little projects, but abandoned them quickly.  He cried often.  He learned to lean on people.  He learned to be glad to need others and gladder to have them.  Yet there was a heavy stone in his heart and another on his chest when he woke in the night.  In those moments, he was aware of an utter loneliness.  And he knew it was not just his own.  He knew it to be the loneliness everyone had, whether they could feel it or not.

He saw it in old men pushing shopping carts at the grocery store. It was plain on the faces of children eating ice cream in the sunshine.  It did not negate the joys of life, it could not erase pleasure.  It stood beside all that was sunshine and all that was shadow.  It was in everything, behind laughter and music and soft chatter.  He knew now in his soul that to a one, every man, woman and child he saw was going to die.  It was strange, but he could not talk about it easily.  It might be mistaken for depression or morbidity.  Instead he took it as a kind of beauty, albeit a beauty that made his gaze climb over roofs and trees to find the sky.

When the summer came, he reveled in the sunshine.  He went to the beach and took to the waves with childish delight.  He talked with friends late into the nights, drinking Scotch and now and again smoking cigarettes.  He took pictures of rotting barns and for a while he took up baking.   There was much to do in business and at home.  He got used to the new view of things.  This was what life had become.

Now and then he imagined that he was gravely ill, that a cancer was creeping inside of him, changing his cells, chewing him up treacherously, as it had his father.  And two aunts.  And two uncles.  It took only a sore muscle, a stiff neck to bring on the fear. Then he had to talk himself down from panic.  He never stopped to imagine the ankle was anything deadly.  It was mostly a nuisance.  It came and it went.

One day he decided to go through some old boxes from childhood.  In one he found a baseball and he could think of no reason he possessed it.  He knew it was not his.  Then one day a week after, he remembered that it belonged to a boy he was briefly friends with as a kid.  He was a hero-like blond named Bobby who had an older brother with a congenital heart defect who died when he was only thirteen.  George then remembered a night when Bobby stayed over.  He had not thought of it in years.  For some reason, that night he had decided to scare the other boy.  Perhaps he was a little jealous of Bobby, who knew all about fishing, football and fast cars, who was the kind of boy a boy was supposed to be.  Or maybe it was a thoughtless kind of mischief.   As they were drifting off to sleep, he heard himself say into the darkness, “Sometimes I think of that door in the basement and how rotted it is near the lock.”

Bobby was slow to respond. “Why?”

“Oh, it just seems like if a robber or a killer wanted to bust in, they could get in pretty easily.”

It surprised him then – as it did on recalling it later – that it was so easy to spook the boy.  In an instant the brash, brave one was transformed into merely a weeping child.  The fear he had thought to conjure had taken hold.

“I’m scared,” Bobby sobbed.

George had felt immediate remorse.  It was something he had never imagined, that he could have the power to cause someone else so much worry and grief.  Hastily, he made to fix what he had done.

“Oh, I was just messing around with you…”

“I saw the door, George. I know what you mean. It is awful rotted out.”

“But we have a security system,” George lied.  It was a stroke of genius.

Bobby was instantly relieved, “Really?”

“Oh yeah.” George said, “An alarm would go off if someone opened any of the doors.”

Bobby had been calmed and was soon sleeping, but George lay awake for hours, sure that if there was a monster to worry about, it was in himself.  He learned that night how easy it was to be cruel and how awful it made him feel.  But it was not the last time he was cruel.  Pride and ego make a person petty and unkind by turns, and George found it plagued him all his life.  Finding the baseball and remembering that long ago night caused him nightmares through late July and into August.

Mostly he was a kind man, doing much for others, generous with time or money, which ever was needed – yet the child who saw the monster in himself never quite vanished beneath the thickening layers of manhood that time wrought.  The year his father died, he found his soul laid bare.  Now and again that child looked back at him through mirrors.  The face belonged to the man, dripping with a splash of cold water, but the tear-reddened eyes were the boys.  Wide, worried and lost, they knew all about the loneliness.

Autumn came and began to copper the hills.  The last crickets played late into the nights.  In window wells and along the eaves, the last of the moths and of the leaves huddled in the cold.  George woke at three one morning and struggled up on the damned ankle.  It was no more or less sore than normal.  He winced as he made his way down the stairs.  On the third step to the bottom, the ankle gave out and he clawed at the air for balance, but as he fell forward, his head struck the hall table hard and he was out.  He opened his eyes briefly, later, and his husband’s face was above him, white and drawn, his lips moving with words George could not hear.  His last thoughts were an odd assortment.  They were these:

I love you, handsome.

What was the loneliness? Something about children at an ice cream stand…

The door will hold.

And then he noticed that the pain that had been in the bad ankle was now in his head, and in a way it was all over, but yet he didn’t feel any of it so much anymore.  He knew he was leaving and as he looked up at his husband’s face, he wanted to say something to calm the fear he saw there.  He wanted to say the thing about the door, how they were really quite safe after all, but he could not because then, quite peacefully, he was going through it.