Burning Down the House

My people take it on the chin.

We absorb the blow.

Yet I have observed a curious thing about being hurt by someone else.  Even when the hurt is unintended, merely a clumsy misuse of words, it gets at something cold and murky in my psyche.  When I’m burned, I answer with ice.

Perhaps it is a protective skiff of the cold stuff, a pristine shield that rises until I am done licking my wounds – be they imagined or real.  The good news is that I pick away at it with logic and eventually pull myself from the numbing tomb.

While I am in that place, though, I am not easy to be around.  My words are few, my smile is absent – laughter unimaginable.  A dry observer would call it pouting, but that would be ungenerous.  Or perhaps only partly true.

It wasn’t always this way.  Before there was ice, there was fire.

christmas shopping

Friends of mine know a story I tell about a plastic flashlight in my childhood.  It involved my sister, Bird; there are few stories centered on this one that aren’t complicated.   The story ends with me climbing under a thorny hedgerow to retrieve a Christmas gift.  Yet the aftershocks are permanent, leaving their impression on my adult self.  The artifact of that day is the reason I always go to ice.  It is a safer alternative to setting fires.

When I was a kid, shopping for other people was a pleasure.  I wasn’t so concerned with whether or not the recipient would like it, so long as it made sense for them in some vague way and so long as it fit my firmly defined budget.  Our parents gave my sisters and I each a small sum to get everyone’s gifts with and then shepherded us through the mall until we were finished. It must have been crushingly obnoxious to them.

Because I always saved my cleaning allowance (marveling that I got cash for doing my favorite thing) it meant that I had a little more to spend.  I started with Mommy and Daddy, then picked something for the girls, then my aunt Becky and my Grandma.  If there was enough left over, I might get something for a favorite cousin.  Somehow I always made the budget work.  When it worked out perfectly, I ended with one small self-indulgence, a candy bar to eat in secret.

My sister Bird was another person altogether.  She started shopping for her school friends first, sparing no expense, as she had all the spontaneous generosity of a bi-polar lottery winner on a spree.  This meant that she had to ask for more money at some point in the afternoon.  The one Christmas shopping trip I remember clearest is the one that led to my tussle with the thorn bushes later in the winter.

My mother wasn’t gifted at setting boundaries. When Bird found her in the  JC Penney and asked for more money, Mom started with a defense weaker than day one of a little league training camp. Answering in a tone that is the closest audible rendering of hand-wringing I have ever heard, she said, “Bird, damn it. You know your father and I said you only get fifty this year. You knew that going in.”

“I know, Mommy, but Travis’ friendship ring was eight dollars and the pack of scrunchies I got for Tammy was another three and-”

“Who’s Travis?” Mom asked.

“He’s new in school. He’s awesome.”

“But, damn it, Bird. Your father and I are really pressed this year. We barely had enough money for the Christmas tree lights.”

I heard this with a chill, horrified to imagine we were so close to ruin.

Bird didn’t miss a beat.  “But I think Cassie would love a vanity set for her Cabbage Patch Kid and she gave me something for my birthday and I forgot hers. Please, Mommy, please.”

Her desire to please her friends was admirable.  Eventually, as she kept the whining up through the department store, Mom forked over another twenty. Her parting comment was, “But if me and your father lose the house, I don’t know what we’ll do.”

Then as Bird skipped off to finish her purchases, Mom turned to me and confided resentfully, “If she cared about us as much as she does her friends…”

I had heard this before and knew her take on it.  Bird just used us as a crashing pad, a money dispensary, a food bank.  She showered her affections on everyone but the family. Her heart was really with those people who lived further along the school bus route.  Mom viewed them as coarse and simple.  She couldn’t imagine what Bird saw in them.

“Those old Butterfields,” she’d say. “More like Butterballs. I don’t get it.”

This was a conversation she had with her sister on the telephone, zig-zagging her way through the house with a spiral cord marking her path like a line on a treasure map.  My aunt said something funny and Mom laughed before leaning in on a remembered scandal.

“You know old Carol Butterfield?  Poor homely thing. Wasn’t her husband mixed up in that thing with…”

Disappearing into the depths of her bedroom and shutting the door, I would never find out what scandal had befallen Carol Butterfield’s husband.

Before we left the mall that day, Mom double checked that we each finished our shopping. My oldest sister, Moo, who had done hers in the first hour and spent the rest of the day perched at the fountain, reading a new book, looked up from the last chapter and nodded. I patted the sides of my bags with a look that said I’d shopped like a hero: Dad was saved again from the yearly horror of running out of monogrammed handkerchiefs; Grandma would have a new addition to her collection of trivets; and Mom was going to love finding room for another what-not in the china cabinet.

Bird glanced away cagily.  Knowing she’d already pushed the limits, she was smart enough to back off for the present.  In the coming weeks, she’d find the gifts for the family here and there, as we went to the Dollar General.  And she’d have less trouble wheedling a dollar or two at a time out of our parents to add to her stash of gifts.  Still, I would keep track, watching every transaction jealously from behind a TV Guide.

And I tallied her abuses to our family finances like an estate planner with only one client. “One curiously egg-shaped pack of pantyhose for Aunt Becky. Check. There goes the oil bill. If Mom’s right, we’ll be bedding down in sleeping bags by the end of January.”

Or, “A completely unnecessary multi-pack of Pez dispensers for all the boy cousins. I hope she likes eating beans and rice, because our days of chicken patties are going the way of Unions.”

One cheaply packaged Christmas gift at a time was sending us straight to the poor house. Fostered on this idea of imminent ruin and miserly concern about how others acquire their goods, it is no wonder I reached adulthood as a young republican, the admittedly androgynous Alex P. Keating of our knotty little family.

When Christmas day arrived, Bird’s gift for me was a flashlight.  It was small and yellow, not much bigger than a fat Crayola marker.  I studied it for a moment trying to understand the reason she’d picked it. Seeing me puzzling over it, she said, “Because you like to play detective.”

Then it made sense.  I liked it.  She was right: when I wasn’t cleaning the house and singing the soundtrack to Disney’s Cinderella, I was embroiled in cases of espionage and detection.  Many dollar bills had been taped behind the pictures on the living room walls, so that I could discover them as a clue in a later hunt.  And that year I had formed a detective agency with Bird and my cousin Carrie that involved gory coroner’s reports and copious notations about serial murders.

I was touched that Bird’s gift matched up to something I cared about.  The weeks of staking out her every shopping decision were forgotten as I placed the yellow flashlight with my other treasures on my immaculate dresser.

As is the way with kids, we are sometimes enemies and sometimes friends.  Weeks later, when Bird and I got into a quarrel – the cause of which is long forgotten – I spotted the flashlight on the dresser. Remembering my mother’s comments about how Bird always spent more on her friends and gave them better gifts, I no longer saw how the flashlight fitted my sleuthing life.  I saw it as something else; a Dollar Store find. One of the cheap pick ups that crowded the check out line.

I snatched it up as we bickered back and forth.

“I hate your stupid, cheap gift,” I said.  It took the words from her, it took the air out of the room, extracted the sunlight from the day, greyed the snow on the window sill.  Still I wasn’t through.  Even as her eyes filled with tears, I had to keep burning down the house. I had to make her hurt like what ever (now forgotten) thing she’d said that hurt me.

I took the flashlight out of the house and I threw it into the overgrown bushes that lined the yard.  It was trash.  She was trash. I hated everyone.  It still chills me to remember that act of wicked loathing.

I remember her face peering out at me from the screen door, streaked with tears, her small brown eyes crinkled closed, two painful lines in a reddened circle to remind me this was a human face.  I had succeeded in setting that fire but it brought me no joy.

Flooded with immediate regret, I crawled under the bushes, pushing through even as the thorns cut my arms and the snow shocked my skin, and I found the flashlight  and brought it to her in muddy hands.

“I’m sorry,” I said.  “I really do like it.  I really do.”

She couldn’t answer yet.

“I’ll clean it,” I promised.

But the thing about setting fires is that they leave only scorched earth, fragments of what existed before only found if you kick through the ashes.  The building of new takes time and there is no replicating the old.

We hope to find peace with our own transgressions and if we’re lucky we learn something that helps us later.  I cannot reclaim that bubble of time during which the flashlight was pristine and my friendship with Bird imperfect but unscarred, but my empathy was finely tuned by that day.  And though instinct may stir to set the fire, I have learned to draw the ice over me until it passes.

 

 

Hell Fire

In the early autumn of 1981, my Mom and I discovered a new radio song to harmonize over as we drove around town.  It was an Oak Ridge Boys tune called Elvira.  You should go Youtube it and then unfollow me.  I deserve nothing less.  Of all the things I share with Mom, the biggest may be that I’m a big picture dreamer who sometimes needs to focus on the details as to not screw them up.  With that song, we spent about a year singing the lyrics wrong.  Although to this day, I still think ‘My heart’s on fire….hell fire-ah” is a gutsier choice than what the Oak Ridge Boys recorded.

station wagon edit

Those last weeks of August were dreamy, though the threat of school skulked at the edges of my mind.  Still, it was hot enough for shorts and we weren’t yet ready to go shopping for Trapper Keepers and pencils. The station wagon didn’t have air conditioning, so the drives were windy and warm.  Our legs stuck to the seats unless we wiggled around from time to time. The syrupy remains of cola in the console drew flies if you stopped in traffic too long. The music took our minds off the heat and bugs.  We didn’t care who heard us singing.

If you were to catch our passionate duet as we pulled into a parking lot in those days, you would likely be in one of three places in town.  This might be outside the A & P, as grocery shopping was our never ending endeavor.  You could be a tired commuter stopping to grab some low calorie TV dinners on the way home, your double knits really chafing your thighs, your comb over slipping down over your gigantic eyeglasses as you glanced up to see who was making the commotion.

Actually that guy would be my father and if he had smarts he’d disavow any knowledge of our existence in that moment.  He’d hunch down in his gas-guzzling, Flint-built Ford, waiting for us to disembark from the station wagon and make our way inside.  This was a different time, before smart phones, so he would have likely wound his wrist watch, balanced the check book, and people watched while he waited for us to leave.

The other place you might find our mother son performance playing out would be the parking lot of the Tastee-Freez.   Musical artists need creamy indulgences – it is our fuel, our reward and our punishment.   My sister Bird would be along for the ride, scowling out the side window, puzzling over a thing she’d heard about on 20/20.  Called emancipation, it was something kids could do to divorce their parents.  Most likely she would have been working out who to hit up for shopping money if she went through with it.  Tinkerbell makeup didn’t buy itself. One thing was for sure: she wasn’t enjoying our singing and she wasn’t joining in.  When we got to the counter, we all united around the theme of helping Mom cheat Weight Watchers, that cult she and Dad had joined earlier in the year.

That had started innocently enough in the late winter.  At our first barbecue of the spring, Mom made a special sauce that had half the calories.  They took the skin off the drumsticks before they grilled them.  We were likely not told that the mayo in the potato salad was low cholesterol because in memory we gobbled it down with all the usual verve.   Our new ways were different, but they were tasty enough, so we had no reason to fear.

But then our grocery shopping began to entail skipping whole sections of the store. There would be no more strawberry Quik, so more Chips Ahoy. Breakfast cereals were edited to only beige and brown as colorful bowls of morning happiness became a thing of the past.  It was as if this Weight Watchers crowd had explicitly said,  “Children should learn nobody promises us rainbows.”

Then came melba toast and cottage cheese.  It was war.

“Mommy, we were good at K-Mart.  Can we go to Tastee Freeze?”

“Now, damn it, kids. No.”

“Please? Please? Please?”

“Goddam it.”

Ever the staunch hold out, she’d make an abrupt u-turn, cutting off a pedestrian with a stroller, and in moments we’d be heading toward sweet, icy bliss.  As we drove around town ten minutes later, licking down our cones while singing Elvira wrong, she’d say, “This will be our little secret. Daddy will be sad that he didn’t get any.”

We’d shrug in agreement and though Bird would still not sing with us, she was happy to lean her face out into the crisp sunlight, letting the wind ruffle her hair and eyelashes like a winsome golden retriever. Up along Main Street, belting ‘hell-fire-ah, hell-fire-ah’ as we passed the movie house, the five and dime, the old ladies gaping at us from the bench outside the furniture store.

The other place you might have been standing as our car pulled in, blaring that song, was the local library.  If it were a light day there, we’d find a spot quickly, happily dashing in to find new books.  On a busy day, Mom circled the parking lot with a seething resentment. She was all too happy to explain who was to blame for our parking troubles.  Lest there be confusion, our family holds the belief that someone is always to blame.

“It’s the transplants.  They come here to live, bringing their snobby Northern Virginia attitudes, telling us there’s nothing to do here. But they love to belly up to the public library.”

Then as a woman approached a car, she’d pause hopefully.  If the woman got in and drove off, we were golden.  If she were merely retrieving a forgotten volume from the car seat, Mom watched her return to the cool, air-conditioned library with a scowl.

“Now she saw me waiting there. She could have waved me on. Typical transplant.”

Perhaps Mom was cranky.  It had been a couple of hours since she perched a slice of canned peaches and a dollop of cottage cheese onto a melba toast wafer and called it lunch.  As she scoped out the next opening with a set jaw, we gazed out into the grasshoppery meadow along side the library, knowing that this too would pass, that the song would catch us up again, carrying us along to the next stop.  Most importantly, if we played our cards right, there would be ice cream.

 

 

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.

Pillar

The custard would not thicken and finally, having added this and that without result, she turned off the burner and walked away from it.  There was some ice cream in the freezer and some strawberries in the fridge.  The berries were a little sad-looking, but she’d cut out the bad parts and macerate the rest.  Her mother would never notice.

It was strange to her to be going through normal little rituals like planning for dessert.  In light of everything, she ought to be sitting with friends to either side of her, holding her hands, rubbing her shoulders.  That is what a woman should want when her lover has been murdered.  No one who knew her would deny it to her.

In the back of their cabin, the yard was a narrow strip running along a steep bank, thickly overgrown with scrub cedar and autumn olive.  Below, the thin branch of the North river slipped past, a determined and patient body, head down as it acquiesced to the bends and boulders and to the fallen trees.  It was low just now, silent and safe.

Last year there had been a flood and the river climbed the bank, pushed through the woods and rose up into the cabin.  The furniture lifted off the floor and swam about the rooms. When the water dropped, the dining chairs were ganged in a corner, drunkenly toppled against each other.  The carpet was covered over in mud and silt.

She and Mike had cleaned the place on their own, drawing on the wall in the bedroom closet when they were done, a mark of where the water had been, with the words, “We’ve decided to stay anyway.”  They added the year as an afterthought, hoping it was true this was a hundred year flood plain.

One night when they were cleaning up, they talked about where they might have gone if they hadn’t stayed put.  Mike was cutting out the bottom two feet of the drywall in the living room.  A work lamp, clamped to the ladder, cast his face in shadow, lit his golden hair and arms.  She glanced up now and then as she emptied out the kitchen cabinets, watching the muscles in his back moving under his shirt.

“What was that place Suzanne used to talk about?” she called out. “That town in Vermont where she went to school?”

“I don’t remember,” he said. “But I remember the name of the lunch place she used to talk about.  The Goat Head.  Sounded so good.  Didn’t she bring us hummus from there once?”

“Yep.”

“I could live up north,” he said.

“I could, too.”

She shifted onto her hands and knees and began to scrub the inside of the cabinet with bleach water.  The fumes stung her eyes, but they said it was the only way to prevent mold.  “We used to go to Maryland when I was a little girl.  There was a house on a point on the Chesapeake.  Mom always came alive there. She wasn’t much of a people person.  There she didn’t have to put on any acts.  She could flop around all day, drinking coffee and smoking.  She spent most of the day on the screened porch, reading and watching us down at the water’s edge.  It was peaceful.”

For a moment, his work went still.  She wondered if he was feeling sorry for her, but just as she would have cautioned him not to say anything about her mother, she heard his hammer at work, pulling nails.  She let out her breath, leaning out of the cabinet to breathe.

Outside they heard rain drops falling on the grass.

“Maybe this’ll kill the humidity.”

“That would be nice.”

They were whispering, though they were alone.

“Hey, Mike.”

“What?”

“I’m glad we didn’t move up north.”

 

 


 

Her mother was sanskrit before they cracked the code.  She was unreadable, unknowable, a column of femininity with pointy flats at the ground and a smooth dark crown that reached up into the sky.  She was not a tree, because they had boughs that reached out, listed, trembled with life.  Her mother’s arms were always close to her frame, folded against her chest; or else her hands were linked at her back or tucked into pockets.

Her voice was low, slightly less so when she was lying.

“Tell your father we went for a walk today.  All of us together.”

“But we didn’t.”

“I know, but he’s been hounding me.  Just tell him we went down to the point and then back.  Tell him I seemed good.”

Molly peered up at her.  “You did seem good.  Resting in the house.”

“Don’t be like that.  Just tell him I took you guys out for a walk.”

“Okay.”

Her mother hugged her shoulders, turning her head to pull on the cigarette dangling from her long fingers.  “Mmm. Tell him it was nice.”

Molly loved her father and she was almost sure she loved her mother, but it was never joyful to be around them at the same time.  He treated his wife like something delicate, as if he cherished a thing about her no one else could see.  His eyes followed her wistfully; he shifted himself to fit closer to her in all ways.

On his fortieth birthday, her mother fretted over a cake.  It surprised the kids not only because she usually treated the kitchen like the coffee counter at a gas station, but because she never went to any pains for their father.  It just wasn’t how they operated.

The night of the birthday dinner, he was telling them about something that had gone wrong at work, when their mother heaved a sigh and dropped her fork onto her plate.

“This is boring,” she said.

A silence fell in the small dining room.  The children glanced into their father’s stunned face, then studied their laps.  Molly tried to think of something to say so he could finish his story.  Maybe she could act like mother was just joking. She lifted her face to try the lie.

“Anyway,” her mother said.  “You could get to the point a little sooner.”

When she brought out the cake after supper, he made an effort to seem enthused. And despite his hurt over the earlier comment, Molly could see he was touched by the gesture.

“You didn’t have to, Annie,” he murmured.

“I know,” she said.  She looked into his face quickly, then lowered a scowl onto the cake as she cut it.  “Anyway, I hope you like it.”

 

 


 

The man who murdered Mike had known them both since high school.  His name was Julian.  He was lanky and handsome with shadowy brown eyes and curly hair that made him seem boyish.  Sometimes they made runs together, he and Mike, bringing pot across the state line to sell in town.  Mike wasn’t much of a drug dealer.  He knew a couple of guys who’d buy a quarter pound at a time.  It was Julian who had a roster of clients.  He sold his share in little bits to just about anyone: eighths, dimes, and nickels.  He’d sell a junior high kid a single bud, wrapped up in the cellophane of a cigarette pack, rather than turn away a five dollar bill.

She never liked Julian, never trusted him.  He used to look up at her from under his curls, letting a slow and knowing smile bloom on his face.  His lips were red and cherry sweet inside the frame of his dark beard and she could not deny that the smile had an affect.  He could see it in her eyes and they both knew it.   She always looked away.  He never touched her, never came up close or behind her.  He never said a sweet thing to her, told her she looked good in any color.  In truth, Julian didn’t talk much.

Mike told her one night how their drug runs always went down.  They drove up Route 50 into Maryland, then turned onto Greenlick Road just before the old burned out church.  There were two more turns off that road, each new road a little narrower, the last one gravel only.  Julian made him sit in the car while he went in to buy.  He’d play the radio, but low, because the men inside didn’t like noise from outside.

Every time they went there, it ended with three sounds.  The first was the screen door on the little green cabin, whining as it opened, then slapping the frame softly.  Julian tapped on the trunk and Mike hit the latch on the floorboard to open it.  Julian always closed the trunk so softly it made no sound, but then he’d tap his knuckles on the glass of the passenger door and Mike would unlock the car.

“How’d you guys work that out?” she asked, turning something over on the stove.

“We didn’t really,” Mike said.  “It’s just always like that.”

“So you never see the pot until you get back into town and split it up?”

“Nope.”  He pulled his guitar out from behind the sofa and began to tune it.  He wasn’t much of a player, but he handled the thing every day.

“So you don’t even know if its good until you own it?”

“Nope.”

She pulled the pan off the burner and came to sit on the coffee table in front of him.  It was winter that night, snow flying at the windows, the Kodiak stove hot to the touch, heating the little rooms faithfully.  “Listen to me,” she said.

He smiled up at her, knowing she was going to give him advice.  At times like this, she wondered how much he really took her words to heart.

“Molly Harding?” he said.

“What?”

“I’m listening.”

She put a hand over his, stilling the guitar strings.

“If you guys ever get caught, you need to play dumb.  You need to act like you thought he was just buying enough for himself.”

He opened his mouth to speak.

“Julian’s a piece of shit.  He’d throw you under the bus in a heartbeat.  You’ve never seen the seller but you know how to get to the house.  Draw the cops a map. Cooperate. Say you smoke now and again – they’ll test you, so no use lying about it.  Say you drove Julian because he’d been drinking.  Unless they’ve been following you guys a while, they’ll never know the difference.”

“What about my guys?”

“Your guys? Your three college friends who split your share?  They’re the opposite of him; they’d never betray you.  Besides, they’re all model citizens, don’t even really look like potheads.  We’re not in our twenties anymore.  Only people like Julian fit what cops think of as trouble.”

“What do you want me to say?”

“If you ever get caught, you were driving Julian because he’d had a little too much to drink. You knew he was getting some pot, but you thought it was just a little for himself.  And then you draw them a map of how to get to the place.  Julian’s exactly the kind of guy they’d like to send up.  If you get them to the place where he’s buying, that’s all they’ll want from you.”

He’d looked at her for a long while.

“You’re a little cold sometimes, you know that?”

She wanted to smile but couldn’t.  “I know how to take care of my chickens.”

He dropped his gaze.

“Well, I’ll think about it.”

“If you ever get caught, do it exactly like I said.”  She went back to the stove, “Or stop running with him.  I’d prefer that.”

He shook his head at the thought.

In the Spring they had another party, marking the flood from the year before. Everyone was to bring something. They made a makeshift table out on the side yard under two sycamores: two sawhorses from Mike’s shed and a piece of plywood. She spread two cloths over the rough panel and though they didn’t match, it didn’t matter once all the bowls of food covered everything over. She had asked him not to, but Mike invited Julian.

“I didn’t think he’d come.”

She was clipping flowers from the edge of the yard. “There’s free food and booze. Of course he’d come.”

After the sun set, people had started to separate into groups, some down by the river, where a couple of guys were making music.  Julian found her in the kitchen by herself, doing dishes.

“You always keep moving, Molly.”

She didn’t look up from the water.

In the darkening glass of the window over the sink, she could see his curly head outlined by the ceiling light from the living room. It almost seemed he was wearing a halo.  She rolled her eyes at the thought.

“You not speaking to me tonight?” he asked, his drawl never so lazy. “You’re always mean to me, Molly Harding.”

“Don’t call me that,” she said.

He laughed, a rich sound like one from an old wooden violin. No, not that distinguished.  She slowed her breathing, trying to decide what to say but a moment later he stepped away, leaving her alone in the house.  He left his scent with her in the kitchen, spicy and sweaty and warm.  Pulling her lips tight, she switched on the ceiling fan.

In August, they went through a long, rainy period.  The river rose again, rapidly, and people started talking about a second flood.  She and Mike never said their fears aloud.  One night he went on a run with Julian up Route 50 and when he was gone two hours longer than usual, she convinced herself the road had got washed out and they were stuck up country for a while.  They’d probably have to wait for the water to drop and that might take a couple of days.  She tried to imagine how the two men would spend that much time together.  She wondered when Mike would think to call her.

It was the middle of the night before the phone rang, waking her from a light slumber that had stole over her despite her efforts to stay awake.  She answered with a dry voice.  An operator asked if she would take a collect call from the county jail. Her heart sinking, she said she’d take the call.

“Mike?”

“I decided to take your advice,” he said.

 


 

When her mother got to the house that evening, she was sporting a new haircut. Over dinner she told Molly about the trouble she’d had finding a good stylist.  She only let men touch her hair.

“I don’t trust a woman to tell me what looks good on me.”

Molly didn’t ask why, mostly because she didn’t care.  She moved the food around on her plate.  Her mother pulled a leather cigarette case out of her purse, which always rested on the floor near her feet, even at dinner – and no matter the house.

“You mind?” she asked.

Molly rose and opened a couple of windows.

“Okay, I’ll be quick,” her mother said.  “It’s cold out there.”

The two women sat without words, the one eating her dinner half-heartedly, the other burning down her smoke like it was being timed.  At last her mother broke the silence.

“You gonna find a renter for this place?”

Molly’s eyes widened; it had only been ten days.

“What?”

“I mean, you can’t sell it. It’s in a flood plain. I tried to tell you guys that before.”

“It isn’t even on my mind right now.”

Molly pushed her food away.

“Okay. Suit yourself.”

“Mom!”

Her mother shrugged, rising to put her cigarette out under the kitchen faucet. Dropping the butt into the trash, she moved to close the windows.

“Not yet,” Molly said.  “It still stinks in here.”

Her mother folded her arms.  “You can’t stay here.  Those bastards may still be out there.”

“They’re not coming for me.  It wasn’t my fight.”

“You don’t know.”

Molly dropped her face into her hands, rubbed her eyes until she thought she’d rub them out, the two dark stains that had been condemning her from the bathroom mirror since the night of the shooting.  Eyes that said she’d brought this on him.

Her mother sighed.  “Can I close the windows now?”

“If you want to.”

They closed softly.  Molly looked up and caught her mother gazing at herself in the glass, her expression wistful or else nothing at all but tired.  This woman had taught her how to lie good and she had schooled Mike to do the same.  She frowned down at her hands, folded on the table.  It wasn’t fair to string things together that way.

It wasn’t the whole story.

Time had taught her why her Mother asked her to tell stories to her father.  She’d had reasons that were not without compassion.

“I want to buy you some blinds for the windows if you’re not leaving,” her mother said.  “Although I think when the shock wears off, you’ll want to start over again, somewhere else.”

Molly nodded wearily.  She was either too defeated to argue the point or not entirely sure the other woman was wrong.  Perhaps in time she would need to move on, to put these years in their place, and strike a fresh mark on a new page. If she had her mother’s strength or something like it.

 

The Wedding Photo of My Grandparents [or The End of All Things Childish]

She wore a purple gown on her wedding day and he wore a red tie.  In the only picture of them from the day, he towers over her with an arm slung around her shoulders.  Neither of them are smiling into the camera, into eternity, but there is something friendly about his eyes.  White daisies are blooming at her feet, but she carries no flowers.

imageHis shirt sleeves are rolled all the way up to his biceps.  The arm hanging free at his side is a thing of beauty, long and golden and muscular.  The hand is manly and finely formed.  He is a handsome young farmer, cleaned up for a day, taking a wife.  She has a creamy glow that makes her seem soft like a lover, but her eyes, thrown into shadow by a high Arkansas sun, hold something in them like flint.

 

After Chagall

She was pretty sure he was watching her, the old man sitting across the train station, eating a fish sandwich out of a paper wrapper.  He had a soft face, a lumpy nose.   The hands that held the lunch to his mouth were spotted brown and red.  His gaze fell away each time she caught him looking.  The eyebrows shot up almost wistfully.

chagallDigging in her purse, she found her phone and opened up her calendar, checking dates for the week ahead.  It was a shame her assistant had put her with the Bryants on Thursday morning; she didn’t meet the wallpaper hanger until Wednesday afternoon and she knew he wouldn’t provide her a quote overnight.  If she could move him up, get the labor quote and his estimate of rolls before Thursday, she might walk out of her presentation with a deposit in hand.  It would certainly help, but it was already Tuesday night and she hated to press the wallpaper guy.  Experience had taught her to go lightly with asking favors.

Noticing that her chest was tightening with nerves, she decided to relax about the mix up with the schedule.  Julia was trying very hard and, really, it would all work out in the end. When she glanced up, the old man glanced away again.  He’d balled his sandwich wrapper up and it rested in his open hands.  He pitched his face toward the floor for a moment, then chanced another look.  Their eyes met and held.  He surprised her then.

“You Eleanor Parks?”

She narrowed her gaze. “Yes.”

“You helped my wife with a design – years ago.”

She smiled.  It was odd to keep calling across the space between them, so she hitched her purse strap on her shoulder and closed the distance.  “What was your wife’s name?”

“Adriana Leopoldi.”

She tilted her head, wishing it rang a bell.

“It was a long time ago.  You were just starting out, apprenticing under another designer. My wife always figured you were given the job because it was kind of small potatoes and your boss was too big for it.  We lived in Queens, a little bungalow that’s no longer there. You told her to take the drapery down everywhere and get blinds.  She painted the kitchen light yellow.  We had it painted ten years later, but she used the same color again.”

Eleanor smiled, though the woman still didn’t come to mind.

“But did you and I meet?”

“Only once, passed in the driveway.  My wife was talking real fast, trying to kind of push you along because I was in my work clothes and I think it embarrassed her a little bit. Adriana was like that. She wanted things always just so.  She always liked what you helped her with.”

It occurred to her she ought to ask how she was now, out of politeness, but thought better of it. If she were dead, it might make the old soul melancholy and make her feel worse for not remembering the former client.  Taking a seat beside him, she said, “Was she sad to see the house razed?”

“She never knew. Alzheimers. By the time we had to sell it, she was in a home and most days, she was pretty out of it.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.  My mother had Alzheimers, too.”

“Yeah, I know.  That’s why you did all that free work a few years ago at the Hirshhorn Clinic, on account of it was the wing for people like my Adriana and your mother.  I read an article about it in the Times.”

“I’m surprised you recognized me.  I’m not a very distinctive looking person; sometimes my friends don’t realize it’s me until they’re right up on me.”

“The Mrs. used to follow you for years, when you first got published.  She told everyone she knew how you once helped us.  Kept a scrapbook of your career, bought all your books. I think it was on account of you were the age our daughter would’ve been and she always said, if Chrissy’d lived, she could’ve done a lot worse than to be a fancy interior decorator with antique jewelry and a horse farm in Connecticut.”

It came to her in a flash then, a quick little memory of his wife.  It was almost twenty years ago, she and the other woman standing at each other’s shoulders in front of a kitchen sink.  They couldn’t afford to pull out all of the cabinets and the room was small.  She pointed to a light yellow paint swatch and the woman smiled, saying she always wondered what something like that would be like.

Adriana Leopoldi.  The name sounded kind of rich.  She wore her makeup perfectly, if a little too heavily, and she smelled like the perfume counter at a shiny department store. When she talked, she worried a string of small but good pearls at her neck, and her smile for Eleanor was always warm, always generous and trusting.

The kitchen had been hot, the whole house a little stuffy.  When she recapped her project to her boss, the stout southerner had rolled her eyes.  “Well, sugar, you have to suffer through some of the little ones. They all teach a lesson, even if it’s only that nothing greases creativity like cash.”

It had made her feel a little ashamed of her work for Mrs. Leopoldi and then ashamed of that shame, too.  She found that she took extra care to make the woman in the little house in Queens feel important enough.  When they were done with their work, Mrs. Leopoldi sent her a card.  Thin paper, Eleanor’s boss noted, reaching over her shoulder to rub the front flap.  But it was after Chagall, the older woman’s favorite artist.  She thanked Eleanor for all her help in flowery words, an elegant hand like honeysuckle running.

Eleanor had hated her boss for a moment when she pointed out the thinness of the card, but then tucked it away and cherished it for many years when rummaging through her desk drawers.  It went with her twice, once when she left her mentor for a job at a larger firm uptown, and once more, when she opened her own fluffy little boutique in the village. The boutique didn’t last, but her career boomed.  The card and the woman who wrote it had lapsed into the realm of forgotten things.

“She was a real fan of yours,” he said.  “Said you were a lady.”

Eleanor nodded, but she couldn’t find words.

“Thank you,” she said at last.

“Hey, you okay?”

“I’m just very touched.”

They sat in silence for a moment.  At last she asked, “Where are you these days? Do you miss the house in Queens?”

“Oh, no.  I’m in Williamsburg now.  My grandson’s got a eyeglass factory there; they make everything out of wood.  Real old-fashioned kind of stuff, but kind of modern, too.  I think his grandma would have liked his work.  You might even.  He has two apartments over the shop – one for each of us.  He’s a good boy.  The like you don’t find too much anymore.”

Eleanor imagined the grandson.  She bet he wore his hair a little messy, wore all of his clothes ironically.  His grandmother wouldn’t quite understand.  She’d spend too much money buying him a suit he wouldn’t want to wear.  She’d tell him things like that still mattered. And if he were kind, he’d give her a hug and tell her he knew she was right, even if he had his doubts.

“Cashmere,” she said, remembering the color she’d recommended to Mrs. Leopoldi.

He winked at her.  “That was it.”

Donut Girl

When I was a little boy, my cousin Wendy worked at a place called Fox’s Diner.  It was a narrow chrome caboose with rounded corners, the obligatory row of stools running along a Formica counter, and a greasy residue that had been lingering since the Eisenhower administration.  Fox’s sold burgers and fries, but what they were known for – what you could smell on an overcast day as soon as you turned onto South Street – was the deep-fried donuts.

happy diner imageThese were old school donuts, from a time before what they call the food revolution.  There were no layers of peanut butter, M&Ms, and bacon, because these soft pillows of happiness were good enough on their own.  This was back before indulgent, fattening nibbles had become the weekend cocaine spree of hipsters, hipsters who trudge through a week of gym visits and sushi lunches to offset the damages.  At least, one imagines they pay the piper for brunches of pimento cheese-laden burgers, mac-and-cheese curly fries, and pork-belly milkshakes.  (Just skimming online menus for Williamsburg hotspots.)

Wendy’s proximity to the best donuts in town seemed to have no effect on her trim waist, though in the self-deprecating mien of the women in my family, she was quick to point out how pear-shaped she was becoming.  Back then, in the late 70s, everybody was talking about Thunder Thighs.  If you had anything but bikini-hotdog legs, you suffered from Thunder Thighs.  It sounds quite powerful, when you think about it.  If she hadn’t been schooled in a certain countrified (and awkward to behold) modesty, she might have owned her curves in the modern way.

“Yeah, these are called Thunder Thighs. But who’s man enough to bring the lightening?”

Cue rock-n-roll tongue and swag.

I thought Wendy was beautiful.  There was a sweetness to her blue eyes, and something like southern sunshine in her quick smile.   She was a high-strung person who worried about imagined dreads.  There was a kind of energy about her that, heightened by both inborn nerves and pot-induced paranoia, gave one a sense that something exciting was about to happen.

One of her pet fears was that the world was going to end, based on radio broadcasts at the time from Christian Evangelicals. She would call up my mom for reassurances.  My mother was a victim of her own peculiar anxieties, but she could employ logic handily to help others out.  We always knew Wendy was on the line when Mom strung the cord through the kitchen to a stool under the pantry window, leaning her head against the cool glass while she repeated the familiar mantra, “Only God knows the hour, sweetheart.”

The end of days for Fox’s Diner came over a decade later, when the building was torn down and a pharmacy erected in its place.  Wendy had moved on by then, earning her living working for the bank, raising a daughter and finally – to the relief of her loved ones – leaving her husband as a red-headed devil in the rearview mirror of her life.

There were old men who used to line up along the counter at Fox’s, knowing the only topping those doughnuts needed was the quicksilver flash of Wendy’s smile.  And families that piled in along the wall, heavy in their winter coats, ordering a dozen at a time. They’d eat them hot out of the bag on the drive home.  And old ladies who came to sit in twos and threes of a morning, drinking Sanka-bad coffee and nibbling toward the hole in the center while they caught up on news together.

Soles squeaked on a floor that no amount of Comet or bleach water could ever quite simonize, the bell on the door chimed steadily, and when Wendy was about half-way through a shift, the sun would set over the town, the sky smoldering orange and violet, the houses and the yards painted black.  The neon donut over the diner was visible in the twilight from about two blocks away, but it wasn’t necessary because all you had to do was follow your nose.

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.”