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.
It began with the car ride home, the leaden silence that clung to them, unshakable, through the weekend. They had disagreed before. This was different. It was as if each knew they were implacable, opposed to the stance of the other in some meaningful way.
In the past, one or the other of them found themselves petty, licked their lips, took a breath, and began the stilted process of talking them back from the brink. Together.
This was not the way of it that weekend.
If George had wanted to make it right, he could have done so. His charm was winning. He was gifted with words.
And Sam had simple candor that was likely better than charisma or gilded phrases. He might have said, with his dark brandy eyes focused on the road, “I was wrong. This is your decision. I’m sorry.”
That would have put the thaw on them.
George would have come at it more cautiously, as was his wont, edging at the thing with words that made neither of them at fault. Perhaps he might have even cast himself in the golden and violet shades of the noble and misunderstood. He was good at that; a revisionist of his own immediate history. Although he was not without humility, sincerity. He would have come around at the end, sighing in disgust with himself.
“You know what? It doesn’t matter. I was an ass not to ask you yesterday, when I might have done. Maybe we can stay for part of the week, if we call them up tonight and let them know.”
But neither of them followed the usual path of reconciliation this time. George did not disrobe his truth slowly, crown and cloak giving way, layer by layer, to thin socks with holes in the toes. Sam did not set the ice to melting with his guileless warmth.
They sat side by side in the car as it carried them out of the mountains, the naked forests of winter to left and right casting spider web reflections on the glass. Once Sam reached out as if to find music on the dash, but his hand dropped back into his lap.
When they got home, they carried in the luggage, turning on lights as they moved from front to back. They were not giving each other the silent treatment. They were simply opting not to discuss the disagreement.
“Did you want me to throw away the rest of that cake? You said it was no good.”
“I won’t if you don’t think I should. Or I can offer it to Mrs. Jaffee.”
And later, as they crawled warily into bed, Sam said, “It’ll be good to sleep.”
George said, “Yes.”
They kissed good night.
It was not like their pattern to let a quarrel go unexplored. They had always picked them apart carefully, leaving no meat on the bones of malcontent. It brought tears like a hateful onion, opened up forgotten hurts; then gently they brought it round to what it was, reducing the thing until it was sweeter, understandable. And it ended with them lying in each others arms, still like after their first orgasm together, a long ago afternoon in a park, staring up into a white sky, listening to birds calling out with hearts bursting.
They didn’t like to argue. Raised each in houses where emotions either paralyzed or polarized, where the eruptions were volcanic and corrosive, they had a distaste for conflict. Yet in the face of this new thing – this passive, dispassionate response to one another – it seemed that they had either lost something or gained something.
Had the years given them the gift of allowing or had it numbed them to caring passionately? And wasn’t caring passionately often so wrapped up in ego and prejudice? How often had they competed to be simply right? How often had that slow, cumbersome journey back to peace proven that to them? Perhaps finally the thing had been found – a blessed acceptance of profound opposition.
Yet on Monday morning, as they hustled to be ready for work, Sam said, “If you want to leave on Thursday instead, we can call and have them move the reservation.”
And George heaved a sigh. “It isn’t really about when we leave, but more about the fact that you might have said last week, before I put the room on my card.”
It wasn’t exactly a relief to find themselves getting heated on the ride into town, yet it felt a little more like home than the silence.
“We are imperfect,” Sam said.
And George nodded. “That we are.”
In the last year of his life, the boy tried again and again to put his parents back together again. It became his imperative, circling his thoughts before bed like a carousel and dropping into his mind the moment he woke to turn and turn through the day. Their separation was nothing new to him, but he worried that without him, his father would be lonely.
“We ought to all go back to the beach together,” he said to his father one day. They were driving the river road to the grocery store in town. The floor of the forest to the left was littered red and brown; on the right were openings in the thinning underbrush where the river shone, slipping along with a warm gold sparkle that belied her cold autumn underbelly.
“Wouldn’t that be fun?” he said.
“You’d get pretty tired,” his father answered. “But we’ll see what the doctors say.”
“We should do it soon, while I still can.”
His father kept his eyes on the road, but his adams apple dipped and rose again as he swallowed. It took him a moment to say anything more. “Well, we’ll see.”
“But it would have to be all of us.”
“Well, your mother and Johnny…”
“Oh, why him? Couldn’t it be just us?”
His father had to hit the brakes because a deer had stepped into the road. She was a delicate thing and she looked up at them before she passed. When they started forward, his father changed the subject to something else, asked the boy to help him remember what they needed at the store.
Shortly after that, when the autumn days had further shortened and after they’d had one light sugary snow, he tried another way. Late one night after his father had gone to sleep, he flipped open the laptop on the table in the kitchen, entered the password, and began to compose a letter. It took him a while to get it right, but he was smiling as he did it, proud of his cunning. When he was done, he sent it to the printer in the basement office. He’d picked a font that looked like cursive handwriting because it was pretty and seemed like something his mother might like.
In the kitchen, he mixed a little mustard and water and dabbed it on the edge of the printed letter, but it wasn’t brown enough, so he added ground ginger from the spice rack. Then he added some paprika and it seemed right. With a basting brush, he yellowed the page, front and back, and then blotted it dry with a paper towel. He practiced his mother’s signature several times on a piece of paper he pulled from the printer and, when it was just right, he signed the mustard stained letter. He balled up the page and smoothed it again and then he folded it twice and tucked it in a book from the living room shelf.
He left the book on the kitchen counter and went to bed satisfied with his work. The next morning, he felt heavy in his legs and arms. His mother would have reminded him that sleep was more important for him now than ever.
When it was obvious his father had not looked at the book left for his discovery, the boy brought it with him to the kitchen table and pretended to glance through it as he ate his cereal. His father was returning emails on the laptop, lost in thought.
“Oh, what’s this?” the boy said, lifting the page out of the book and shaking it open. It wanted to stick together.
His father glanced up for only a moment. “Whatever it is, it smells like food.”
“Why, it’s a letter from Mom. To you. It’s dated a year ago, almost to the date.”
His father looked at him steadily. “You always did talk funny, pumpkin.”
“But, Dad, you should read it.” He filled his mouth with cereal and put the letter down on the keyboard before his father.
Instead, his father studied him a while longer, his eyes slowly filling with tears. The boy felt the food in his mouth turn to tasteless mush. He frowned into the bowl in front of him.
“I read it already,” his father said. “You left it up on the computer.”
He wanted to protest and would happily have lied, but one outraged glance at his father told him he’d never win this one. Instead, he went on the offensive, something he’d learned from both of his parents, in early days.
“You won’t even try to patch things up!” he yelled, getting up from his chair. “It’s disgusting how lazy you both are about….” He fumbled for the right word. “Love!”
“We’re not lazy about….that.”
His father smiled at him, “Your mother would never use a phrase like ‘a deep well of misunderstanding’. Nor would she have said she was sorry for meeting Johnny, because they love each other a lot. She knows I wouldn’t want her to feel bad about that. But I give you props for trying.”
All of his steam was spent and the boy stood looking at the ground for only a moment more before he folded himself back in front of his cereal. They sat in silence for a while, the man tapping at the keys in front of him and the boy eating his breakfast. Outside, a fox wandered into the yard, sniffed the air, and vanished into the woods. Neither of them saw it, deep as they were in their own thoughts.
“Do you want to know how I made the paper look old?”
He could talk about anything with his mother. She was an easy kind of person, with a quiet way of entering the room and dark, thoughtful eyes that turned green when she cried. They walked in the park near her house one Sunday just before Valentine’s Day, covered from top to bottom in big fluffy clothes to keep the cold off. Still, the northers coming over the lake set icy fingertips to their noses and to the cracks where sleeves met gloves.
“Is Johnny going to do something nice for you for Valentine’s?” he asked through his scarf.
“I think we’ll go out to dinner.”
“You should ask Dad to come, too.”
She glanced away, something about her eyes like a funny kind of grin. “I don’t think so, little man.”
“We’re all a little lonely now and again. But your father is clever and kind and one day he’ll find someone.”
He stopped on the path with a snow covered fountain behind him. To his mother, the bowl of the fountain, split in two by the boy’s shoulders, looked like wide, immaculate wings. It took her breath from her. She almost felt like she’d black out, but she took breaths, many of them, slow and steady.
“What if I made it my last wish?” he said. “That you guys get back together.”
“Oh, honey,” she murmured. She knelt in front of him and pulled him around until the fountain bowl became itself again, the wings a vanished illusion. “You can’t ever use power like that over someone else. Your father and I would want anything for you, but not for you to think you could make other people do what they can’t to make you happy. That’s not what real happiness is about. I bet you know that.”
He studied her a moment, his eyes black with thought. He nodded. After a moment they walked on through the grey morning. Slowly, he asked her a question she found it impossible to answer.
“Is it hard to know that all your life lessons for me won’t come to anything? I mean, that you won’t get to see how I turn out?”
He didn’t mean to be cruel; like each of his parents, he wanted to know things better. If he were older, trained as they were in subtleties, he’d work delicate, as if with a scalpel. But with the bluntness of children, he opened this line of thought with hatchet brutality. She walked on with no answer, holding his hand tight. Breathing.
In June, they took him to the beach. Johnny would join them later, he was told, but for a while it would just be the three of them.
“Like it’s always supposed to have been,” he said in the car as they drove south. They did not respond to him, though they exchanged a bittersweet kind of smile.
“Will we make a fire on the beach at night?” he asked.
“Will the Millers be there this year?”
“I think so,” his mother said.
He looked out between their seats, at the changing landscape outside the car. Whenever they got close to the beach, he noticed how the trees all turned to pines, tall and slender, and how below them, the bushes were waxy and large, blooming purple and pink this time of the year. The mini mall near their place looked the same as ever when they got to town. Everything was painted dull shades of grey and tan here, but it never felt gloomy to him.
It didn’t take long to make up the beds and wipe down the kitchen. Someone came a few times a year in the winter to clean, so the place never had a year’s neglect.
His mother hadn’t seen the house in two summers. She stood beside the silk palm tree near the patio doors and shook her head. “I can’t believe I ever wanted one of these.”
“It’s pretty, isn’t it?”
She shook her head again, “I don’t like fake things like that anymore.”
At that moment his father put the ice chest on the counter with a loud thump and he and his mother started. Her hand flew to her throat, an elegant little compulsion, her son noticed, though the fright was ordinary.
“You’re beautiful, mommy.”
She smiled at him and then went to help put away the groceries with his father. He sat out on the patio and watched them through the glass until the sun shifted and all that he could see was himself, staring back from under the brim of a hat. His face was white and the eyes dark all around now. Sometimes he thought he looked like a Halloween mask more than an eleven year old boy. He turned his gaze to the other houses, all crowded so near each other one never saw the water until they walked down to where the grass met the sand.
When the Millers arrived a couple days later, they changed the atmosphere of the street. The four older boys and the two girls, the round blond twins, were all equally vivacious in one way or another. Their father had a loud kind of voice and spoke in an accent his mother said was Bostonian. Mrs. Miller was from Kentucky. Everything hard about her husband’s way of talking was soft in hers, but she was as bold and brass as the rest of her brood. One could hear them the moment they rolled out of their SUV.
His father glanced down over the balcony rail at the family and said drily, “Here comes the entertainment.”
“Mike,” his mother said, smiling into the folds of the newspaper.
The boy watched them all the time, catching these little moments that felt like the old days. How could they be so comfortable together, such natural friends, yet still not want to live together? That day, as the Millers chattered their way across the path to their house, he said angrily, “We don’t need Johnny here.”
“Hey now,” his father said.
His mother smiled peacefully, “You love Johnny. He’s a good person and you know it.”
There was no answering that, so he left them and went into the house. But the dim living room made him feel trapped and it made him feel sad. He descended the carpeted staircase slowly and left the house by the front door.
Mrs. Miller had come back out with three of her boys to get more things out of the car. She was giving orders in that sweet, thick accent of hers. “Bryce, don’t scratch those skis. Your daddy will have a shit fit. Where’s my other pair of sunglasses? They were on the dash and now they’re gone. Get that bottle under the seat. This car looks like white trash has been living in it.”
She turned then and saw him standing half in the shadow of his house and half in the blinding brightness. He could tell she thought she saw a Halloween mask, too, because she lifted a hand to her throat just as his mother had done when the ice chest crashed onto the counter.
“Oh, my lord,” she mouthed without thinking. Then she pulled her sunglasses down over her eyes, though they were tangled in her windswept blond hair. He’d seen her eyes filling with tears before the dark lenses dropped over them. A kind smile bloomed on her tanned face.
“Come here, sugar booger!” she said to him, but she crossed the distance instead. She knelt down and gave him a big hug, like she hadn’t done since he was younger and smaller.
“You’re getting tall,” she said, her voice thick and rusty.
He knew she felt sorry for him, something his folks were careful not to show around him. It felt both a little nice and yet deeply sad. It was hard for him to smile back at her, though she was as bright and cheerful as a row of sunflowers preening in the light.
“When did you all get in?” she asked.
“Thursday,” he said.
“Well, your mamma said everyone was going to come this time. That’s wonderful, now isn’t it?”
He almost said it would be better if Johnny didn’t come, but he mumbled something else, something about looking forward to getting into the pool. It wasn’t fair to be mean about Johnny, and it wouldn’t have been loyal to do it in front of Mrs. Miller. She gave him another hug.
“I don’t have to tell you to wear sun screen,” she said. Then she paused. Later that night, drinking wine with another mother, she’d say, “Honey, I felt terrible. I only meant because of sunburn, but then I thought he probably thought I meant cancer.” Though they were sitting in her kitchen alone, all the kids down the street getting ice cream with their fathers, she whispered the last word the way her mother used to do the ‘n’ word.
When Johnny came, he brought with him his big spirit, his kind smile, his battered guitar. He played for everyone down by the fire, many nights, and he was as good with the kids as any of the fathers. He wove his usual spell and the boy found himself both comforted by the presence of the other man and saddened by his own words and thoughts against him in days before.
The four of them made up a happy house for two weeks, everyone doing their best to get along. Even when the boy started to feel more and more exhausted from play, when it got to where he couldn’t stand the sun so much anymore, spirits remained cheerful in the tall, skinny house with the grey shingles all over. Everyone had agreed, ten months ago, when the final option fell through due to the rarity of his illness, to make it a year of happiness and harmony.
He had been the only one to resist, so determined to reset things to where they had been before the twin tragedies of the divorce and the illness.
One night in the orange light of the fire circle, he watched his father sitting just a little by himself, away from Johnny and from his mother, who sat so close to her husband she could feel the vibrations of the strings as he played. The couple was beautiful in that light, and brave and sad, too, all which the boy could see plainly, wizened by his own fate. His father was each of these things, too, but still the boy saw him as alone, unsheltered and a little forgotten, at least by his mother.
For a moment he felt an old anger rise in him and the gaze he cast her was almost dark, but just as quickly it faded and things were as they had been a moment before. The two men and the woman, brave and golden and sad each, doing all they had in their power to do. There was just enough space between his father and his mother for him to sit and so he rose up slowly, his body heavy, heavy, and he filled the gap between them. Now the four of them made a row at the fireside, completed, with the ocean before them, dark and blue in the moonlight, brushing the sand, a soft percussion under Johnny’s cheerful strumming.
When he drew out the plans for the new cabin, a charcoal square on a brown paper bag, she watched with only mild interest from over her coffee mug. He marked a slanted line at the front and said, “There’s your front door.”
Then he drew another slanted line at the back, near the corner, and he said, “That’s the back one.”
She smiled at the way he said it. He seemed to think the front door was hers alone, because it was there for the things only she cared about: Sunday calls and parlor chairs; clean tea towels and soda bread sliced fine. The back door was for both of them, because through it they would each come and go, sunrise and sunset, hauling and dragging the weight of their chores, now and then stepping light because the chickens were laying again or because the summer rain had been kind.
Over his head, while he drew, she watched the twilight turn the glass on their wedding sampler pink and gold. Behind the pastel glare, their names were joined in needlepoint. William R. Hale and Cecily Myers Hale. There were flowers at each corner, orange and yellow and blue. After her mother had grown thin and pale, near to the end, she leaned against her pillows, night on night, and pulled the letters and the blooms up through the cloth, floss by floss, until it was as perfect and bright as her own sampler had been years ago. They moved up the wedding to be sure she could see it. Leaning against her cane, as bent and drawn as a woman twice her age, she carried a joyful light in her eyes when the vowels were spoken.
After the wedding supper, when the young ones were dancing to fiddles, Cecily’s mother sat under an oak tree with a line of laurel at her back, and she watched the dresses whirling out over the grass. The laurel was not yet blooming and the tree had hardly any leaves, save a few stubborn brown ones that clung over the winter. When Cecily went to sit at her feet, she leaned down and said into her ear, “You’d have liked it later, dear heart, when all the flowers were out.”
“You’re the only bloom I had to have today,” Cecily said. She leaned her cheek against her mother’s knee and soon the cool fingers came to gently brush her hair off her face.
“Well, you’re sweet to say it,” her mother said.
They rested there a long while, listening to the strings, the hoots and laughter.
Will drew in a square inside the square, near the middle, and he said, “That’s the hearth. They’ll be a fireplace in front for your parlor and a flue for the stove around the back.”
“So that corner is the kitchen.”
He nodded at her gravely, his ginger brown eyes sweet and clever. Her hand found his shoulder as she leaned in closer to watch his work. “Will there be other windows?”
“Two on the back,” he said. He scratched in a thick line for each, then he added a few more lines inside the cabin. “So this is our room, off the kitchen, looking back on the shed and the back hill.”
“A nice big room,” she said.
He blushed and glanced away, “Well, it looks bigger here.”
“It looks bigger on that little brown bag?” she asked, laughing.
He shook his head, “I mean, the whole place won’t be too big.”
“But we can add on to the back later,” he said.
She sat down beside him and found his other hand, resting on his lap. “Well, I’m happy to grow the house as we grow the family. One thing at a time.”
He leaned his head against hers. “Anything else you want?”
She thought of the little corner of the farm where he wanted to build the house, the way it sat close to the road, with a view out over Buck Mountain. The patch of yard would be small, but she’d fill it with flowers, all the sweet old-fashioned one’s her mother loved.
Her mouth pulled a little frown, thinking about the view and the flowers and how they’d come and go by that back corner door all their days, only opening the front when company came. She gave his hand a squeeze, “I want a picture window in front, so we can see everything.”
He might have thought about how much a big piece of glass cost or reminded her that drifters coming down the road could glance in at them at night. Instead he picked up the pencil and made a thick, long mark along the front, to the left of the slanted line of the door. In the soft light, shoulders together, making lines on the brown paper, they built the dream together, heedless of what the crops, the weather or the bank would let them make.
When he thinks of London, he remembers a girl with henna red hair and eyes like exotic oceans. Water he’s yet to dip his toes into. They were best friends for a year and lovers for a scant few weeks. That began in a rented room over Baker Street, where the window looked out on roofs for chimney sweep dancers. It surprised them both, that their laughter and wrestling sport would lead to urgent kisses, sliding hands and tongues, a shattering and quieting bliss. He held her until she fell asleep, wondering what it meant. Had he changed or been mistaken in himself all along?
Later he stood out on those roofs, listening to the noise of the city, feeling the humidity of the summer night. He smoked back then and he remembers watching grey plumes drifting away from him into the shadows. In his recollection, he didn’t want to turn and study her through the window. He felt a mixture of anger and curiosity. They had opened something between them that could not help but feel bold and mysterious. Yet he was sure it only complicated everything. The weeks to come would prove him right.
He walked to where the building ended over the street and sat on the dirty ledge. He thought of home, the small nest of their town in Virginia, and he cried when his thoughts drifted to the boy he was sure he loved. In later years, this summer of youth would amuse him a little. If the man he became could stand near the boy he was, watching him swiping at his tears and lighting another cigarette, he would be hard pressed not to turn away with a smile of both kindness and contempt. Would he drop a hand onto the boy’s shoulder, give it a comforting squeeze?
His father used to do that, when he was alive, and that young man always squirmed away from the touch. The young have no notion of how cruel they are, carving out their space, keeping their old keepers at arms length while they mine the world for gems they can only find on their own. He hopes he would save the gesture. Perhaps he’d do the thing the boy hadn’t the courage to – after all, things would sort themselves out eventually – and instead he might turn and give the young woman his consideration. Knowing where the years would take her, surely she needed the love more than his callow, slender, boyish self.
If he could go back as he was now, with just a hint of ache in his joints, a skiff of white wintering his dark hair, he might stand at the glass and think she was a bit of Venus in the shadows of that old room. In sleep she would seem angelic, her claws tucked away. For the year of their friendship, she was safe and never needed to use them. Except perhaps a bit at the end – but those little cat scratches were all but forgotten. He would trace his finger along the glass, the silhouette of her cheek against the pillow.
I miss the boys who died, knowing their inner sadness belongs to boys who both knew and yet never never knew how they were loved. This is the work of a lifetime – be it a scant few years or a long stream of decades – finding that we are liked, wanted and needed. A part of us is always skeptical. We try so hard to please, come up against our own fragility – grey dawns of the heart – and despair at our failings. The moments of laughter, the warm press of a friendly hand, the sweet, but slipping smiles of friendships: these are all breezes that catch our sails and tug us farther along the sea of our journey. These are tender moments, warm with the texture of knitted things, comforting like the scents of favorite soups and newly found desserts. This is joy to pull us through bleakest despair and remind us that at the end of our worked days, we will see smiles we know again, share confidences and food and a pause while every nose recalls together that this is the smell of spring coming again. This bittersweet lesson – learned when dear people pass from this world – is found in the tears that come from knowing you can remember the timber of their voice but never hear it again and that you only got to say so many thank yous to ears like your own that could hear them. Never hold back your applause, never be shy with praise and love. The bitterest regrets are plaudits that fell away without being spoken and all the times that love was shamed into a muddier, cooler kind of warmth.
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.
The landscape of my childhood is not honey colored or bright with rosy reds. There were stormy blues and sleepy yellows. If I colored it with crayons, it would be the hues children leave in the box.
In photographs that have faded as much as memory, the fields around our old house are paler than boiler onions. All the winter walks have become one remembered walk, our breath blowing out ahead in thin clouds, the ice on the bent grass crunching under foot. Let the snow birds break the air, startled out of the underbrush. Let the dogs make chase, each cry bold and bright and startling. They are a part of this magic and cannot disturb it. But we would walk gently, let no words pierce the air. If I want her to hold my hand, I need only to reach up and my mother will curl her warm, work-worn fingers around. She will never be happier than on this walk. She and the woods speak a common language.
I am mesmerized by the pine needles on the forest floor. If I nudge them with my shoe, they open, but they are deep and never reveal the dark soil beneath. Yet I know what lies under them. I dig open the earth each spring, following the smell of the chives, hoping to uncover how it all works. Where do the earthworms go when the thistle drops its head and the ice returns, first thin and white as powder sugar, than thicker and grayer toward the morose stretch of February?
My mother has a rage that runs deep, a sadness that is darker than all the long nights of winter. We children are what constrain her, what contain her and pull at her to rise each morning and try again. We did not ask for the burden; she did not ask for her pain. She erupts at times, when she is at her limit, and there is no creature that could barrel out of the shadow of the woods that would be any more terrifying. The boar and the bear would fall back before her and, glancing around her, design their escape.
When a parent dies, they leave a child. The age of the child does not matter. When my father died, his son had as much grey hair as he had brown. In the wake of his passing, childhood has been opened again. I thought I knew my past. But the youth I thought I knew was merely one edit. The original cannot be altered, merely viewed at different intervals, seen in another way by eyes that know more now than they did before.
On a warm summer night in my thirty-ninth year, I lose myself in an argument. This is not the soft rage I have known before, nor am I fueled by anger so much as fear. We are two souls, deeply in love, but not seeing each other or hearing each other. Blind and bitter and ugly, we are up the stairs and down the stairs. We are on the bed and in the kitchen. Words on words, voices climbing and falling, but never arriving.
Before this night, I have glanced around for something to throw, but I have never done it. I have wanted to rend the air, but instead have gone away to cry, pleaded for pardon and hung my head in remorse the whole of the long, sad day to come. It is never just my fault, but I imagine myself the keeper of the joy. The impulse to cook, to keep things tidy, to find the wisdom and the humor in the things that go awry – these are a part of me, a magic that lets the boat rise with the storm.
On this night, this summer night, I pick something up and send it across the kitchen. The noise is tremendous. I pick up another thing and another, each missile thrown harder than the last. Then he comes to me, startled from our strange spell, horrified by what I have become in this instant. I am horrified, as well, but surely breaking the silence is something. Now the opening has been forced, we can work up and out of the hole.
I clean up my mess on my hands and knees, first with a little broom and dustpan, then with the vacuum. I stop only to hold him because he is crying. We are children parenting ourselves and our love. He fears we cannot find our way back. I think we’re halfway there.
As I have always done, I want to bring us back to safer ground. I sent us into deeper shadows than we have probed before, but my wings are strong enough to carry us home. And sure enough, we do find the healing words and though we will go to work the next day with a terrible weight, we will get lighter with each night’s sleep. It is in us to keep loving, to keep the light.
The dent in the freezer door and the scratches on the floor remain. No amount of regret can pop the steel or knit the finish on the tiles. My rage left its traces on the surface of our life, but through it, the hearts beneath are stronger and closer.
When there is too much happening inside – a terrible brew of sad thoughts, regrets, incomplete sentences, formless worries and dreams bent over on themselves – the explosion is the thing that must happen. There is a better way, surely, and we hope never to see ourselves blow open that way again. We will walk away the next time. We will let our worries out in short, safe little puffs.
Since the night I went mad, I see my mother’s rages anew. It is true, she could make a wild animal bolt when she lost it. Now I know what her insides felt like. Before I only knew how she looked on the surface. I knew the vein on her temple, the black cave of her mouth, the fire running over her cheeks and the white ice of her knuckles as her fist clutched the air. She was alone with a despair that was killing her and this was the best she could manage.
In my thirty-ninth year I lost my father, which is a terrible thing. Yet I have found something grave and golden, a lovely cold comfort. I have found another well of compassion, deep waters connecting me to my mother.
She never had to explain to me the thing about being quiet in the woods. I knew it because she knew it. We come out of the pines and pause at the edge of the pond. The banks are brown and muddy on this end. We step close, but not too close.
The other end is called the deep end. Its banks are not dark and soft; they are pebbled with light shale. It is easy to scuttle forward on that end, to slide into the water. I don’t know how deep the deep end is, but I feel a sort of terror about it and seldom walk around to that side.
If she and I are careful, we can lean forward, holding hands to help balance one another, and we can peer at the gentle blue of the winter sky, mirrored on the surface. But we cannot lean in far enough to see each other glancing up at ourselves. If we fell in, the mirror breaks open and the cold water pulls us under.
When she opens the door to let me in her apartment, the actress is dressed in her feeling bad costume. The only time she wears this cow neck sweater, yoga pant combo is when she’s suffering from another bout of laryngitis. She’s piled her blond hair into a messy, under the weather knot that is still somehow precious. Deciding she seems moody, I mentally brace myself.
Padding ahead of me into the living room on perfectly pedicured feet, she says huskily, “You look cute today. I hope I can be helpful. My energist says I’m probably not contagious, but maybe keep your distance. Oh, look. Sofia forgot to take home her cake.”
She curls into her favorite chair as I spread out the script and my laptop on the cocktail table between us. Her apartment is big for New York, very sunny and peppered with the usual bits of Buddhist kitsch. Her maid has managed to keep a few plants alive in the window sills. The place has just been cleaned and smells like sage, orange oil and window cleaner.
“Oh, do you want something to drink?” she asks.
“No, I’m okay.”
I’ve been editing her script for about two months, although editing is her word and not mine. More honestly, I have been ghost-writing the thing for her. We meet like this once a week and she gives me some fresh ideas to offset all the progress and I share with her my latest efforts.
I can feel her watching me as I make myself comfortable. I know from past experience that she is very sensitive to other people’s moods, so to lighten things up, I glance up and make a sort of silly face. She gives me back a half smile.
“Before we get started,” she says. “I want to talk about something from last week. Have you lost weight? No, it’s your shirt. Never mind.”
“Was that what you wanted to talk about?”
She laughs like its the funniest thing anyone ever said, then abruptly stops, putting a hand to her throat. “I need to remember to take better care of myself,” she says in a soft tone I’ve learned is her version of talking to herself. “I’ve got to mother me, now.”
“Well, my energist says I mother too many other people and that’s why I’m sick. I’m all out of whack…”
I read something about chakras on a train ride once. I cannot resist saying, “I can see your blue chakra pulsing from over here.”
This really excites her: “That’s your throat, that’s why I keep getting laryngitis. Or whatever the Eastern word is for that.”
I nod sympathetically. She says, “But the long and short of it is, I need to be selfish for a while. Look after me.”
“That really is important.”
“So back to what I wanted to talk about.”
She bites her lip and looks pained. “Can you not say that word? It has a lot of violent connotations for me. As you might remember, my college roommate was killed.”
“That’s right. It was a car accident, wasn’t it, five years ago? I remember you told me about it once.”
“So, as you can imagine, I like to keep that kind of energy out of the apartment. Especially when it’s just been saged. And even more when I’m in a healing mode.”
“Right,” I say. “Of course.”
She gets up and moves into the kitchenette. I shuffle through my notes as she puts a kettle on the stove and drops a teabag into an Italian teacup she bought at a fancy little shop on Bleecker. She showed it to me the first day I came to the apartment. Teacups and house stuff had been her obsession at that time. “It’s my grandma stage, I guess,” she’d said with a little snort.
Leaning against the counter, she gives me a long look. I adjust my glasses and match her gaze, careful to keep my face mild and pleasant, like the smell of posh hand soap. She lets out a little growl of frustration. I’m starting to think she’s going to sack me.
“The thing is, I’ve been running those lines since last week, and I just don’t think Clara would say those things.”
“About being molested,” she says. “I think she’d be too embarrassed.”
“Oh.” I scroll backward through the script and pause when the scene she’s talking about comes up. “But didn’t you say that if she talked about being molested, it would make her more sympathetic when she kills her husband?”
“Must you constantly hang me up with things I said in the past?” she asks. She crosses the distance between us and folds her arms on her chest. It is a very actressy thing to do, I cannot help but think. “Something you need to understand about me is that I’m like water, okay?”
“I’m sorry. How’s that?”
She turns away, scraping a hand through her hair. “A river is never the same from one day to another.”
“Oh. It isn’t? I didn’t know that.”
The kettle lets out a cry and she moves to fill her teacup. I promise myself I will write down all the funny things I would like to say to her later. For the moment, as with every week, I would like to get out of here with my usual check. Thinking fast, I say, “Did you have any ideas for something else? I mean, from a theatrical perspective, I think those lines were terrific. I feel like the audience needs a moment like that with her.”
She returns to her chair, thoughtfully bobbing the tea bag up and down by the string. When she settles, she stares up into the rafters, trying to glean some wisdom from the heavens, it would seem.
“I thought maybe she could talk about being afraid of heights or something. Like maybe her grandfather once took her to the Eiffel Tower or something and she was afraid, but he didn’t know for some reason, so he kept ignoring her and making her go up another flight of stairs. And then another and another.”
I swallow a giggle, a nervous tick of mine. “I see.”
“But I don’t want that to make the grandfather seem like a monster.”
“Right, because in act one she says the only person who ever treated her with any real kindness was her grandpap.”
“Perhaps we could make it that this was the onset of his Alzheimer’s and he didn’t know better. That would make you have conflicted feelings, too, like a little bit of anger but also, logically you know he deserves your pity.”
She’s taking her first sip of tea as I say this and her eyes widen so much I think maybe she burned her mouth. Instead, she sets the cup aside so quickly some of it spills, and she says, “That’s genius! Brilliant!”
I start to make some little changes on my lap top. This may not be as hard as I thought. “Well, like here, where before we had, ‘Uncle Jake was shoving his fingers home, again and again, even though I kept screaming, “No, Uncle Jake, no!’ We can just replace ‘Uncle Jake’ with ‘Grandpap’ and ‘shoving his fingers home’ with ‘pulling me up the stairs’. It totally works.”
She stares at me dreamily. “That’s why you’re here. That’s why the Universe sent you.”
I drop my gaze, blushing even though I know she’s full of shit. Someone can’t tell you that you’re basically heaven-sent without it making you feel a little goofy pleasure. I make myself busy on some other quick edits and pretend not to notice when she slides out of her chair and starts doing light yoga on the flokati rug. She is deep in child’s pose when I find the first little stumbling block.
“Listen to this,” I venture. “There’s that moment in act four, when you say that you never let a man touch you until you fell in love with Peter. But see the equivalent now would be something like you never entered a highrise again. But you see, of course she lives in a penthouse apartment.”
She pops up suddenly, her face pink, her manner much more animated than one would have thought. “What if we say she was afraid of heights until she met Peter. Then, because he was an architect – for highrises – she made it her mission to overcome her phobia so she can go to ribbon cuttings or something…”
There is a silence after she trails off. We’re both thinking it sounds thin. She gives me a beseeching look then and something about her eyes and the fluffy madness of her ponytail makes me think of those cute dogs that rich people have. The little lap dogs with bangs and bows. I never do know canine breeds. Luckily, I become obsessed with remembering the name for that kind of dog before I start to laugh insanely.
Scratching my chin, I say, “Perhaps he designs a big bridge and she knows she’ll have to go to the christening of it or something, so she gets one of those Russian ex-KGB hypnotists to put her under and cure her. This could all have happened years ago.”
“Is that a thing?” she asks with sudden interest. “Ex-KGB hypnotists?”
“I believe it is,” I say. “I mean, I think someone told me something about that once.”
“That’s fascinating. I could use someone like that. I’ve been meaning to overcome cracking my toe knuckles and to learn how to concentrate better. Are you thirsty yet? Hey, did you go see that comic you talked about?”
I smile at her. “No, I did not. But what do you think about that idea? We just knock out the fear of heights thing quickly so we don’t gum up the story. After she talks about being dragged up the Eiffel Tower, she can say something like, ‘I had hypnosis years ago to overcome my fear of heights, but all the shrinks in the world can’t bring Grandpap back so I can tell him how sorry I am for being so mad at him.'”
She’s shaking her head, with that dreamy look again. “You really are brilliant. But find a way to slip in the Russian ex-KGB part. I think that really sexes up the whole thing.”
The sun is starting to slant about an hour later, when we decide to stop for the week. She has exhausted the energy she sets aside for this project and I am out of quick ideas to bridge her mad ones. The last part is always a little awkward. She likes to chit chat in the hall until I am forced to remind her about my check. Then she acts embarrassed and says, “You poor thing. I’m so sorry.” Luckily, she is not a hugger, a rarity in her profession.
There are a lot of hateful things I think about her. In my apartment, I have a little notebook where I write all the cutting things I’d like to tell her when she drives me mad with new changes. On its ruled pages, I’ve written how I think she changes up her persona, switching gurus and grains and friends, just to avoid ever really getting a glimpse of herself. I’ve jabbed at her talent, called her a fool. I’ve doodled pictures of her accidentally farting while going into downward dog. That one made me laugh until my stomach hurt a little bit.
Then a funny thing happens, when she turns to hand me the check. She catches a glimpse of herself in the hall mirror and laughs little bit at how her hair has arranged itself. “Jesus, I look like a Bichon Frise.” Later, I will still probably laugh, but in the moment, I realize she already knows about herself all the mean things I think I know. But, also, she knows other things about herself that I cannot imagine. It gives her about as much dignity as any of us manage. For the moment, as I take the check, I think maybe I can cut her some slack.