Landau

We’re pleased to have you for a visit, Mr. Landau.  It’s not often we have a man of letters in these parts.  I hear your stories are quite popular in some sets, though I’m not much of a reader, I’ll admit.  You look tired, though. I hope the train ride wasn’t too long? Now, mind that step, bless you.

These stairs are narrow and a mite crooked, but I’m sure you’ll get the hang of them soon enough. Now, what is this?  I’m sure I told that girl to sweep up here. Well, old houses, you know. Now, this is the garret, as you can see, but we’ve given it a lovely sprucing up.  You like the color? Mother was worried that it was too green, but I said it made the place seem quite sunny, though I don’t suppose the rug goes very well now that I look at it.

The windows stick now and again, if we’ve had rain – which you know is often out in these parts – but if you give the casing a good whack, they’ll come open fine.  This one has the best view. Oh dear, mind your head, Mr. Landau.  It’ll take you a while to get accustomed to the ceilings, like as not. You are a tall one, I’ll say that, and willowy.

See out there? Isn’t that nice? Just below is the lake, which I’ll grant you looks a bit bleak just now, but in a few weeks, it’ll be surrounded with flowers – purple and blue and little ones of yellow that you only see when you’re down walking through them.

Now that, out there, is Grandy Mountain, which’ll wear that bonnet of snow all the year, even in July, when we’re all broiling like pigs over a spit down here.  There’s paths up, but some safer than others, so you’ll need to ask around before you set off on any exploring.  But then, I suppose you might not be the sporting type.

Now, here I’ve been gabbing away and not telling you where to put down your trunk. Oh, but then so you have and over there, too, in that spot. Oh dear. Well, I don’t see why not. I suppose if it crimps the edge of mother’s rug, we can somehow smooth it out. Maybe over the kettle.

Oh and so you’re moving it, are you? Well, it might be for the best. I’d recommend putting it there, in the front gable.  That way you can walk straight up to it as you need and not bump your head.  Is it as heavy as all that, sir? You do look a mite strained, Mr. Landau.

In Dr. Dransfield’s letter, he said you were sick from exhaustion, so I imagine you’ll be needing plenty of rest. Well, as you can imagine, sir, we have a surplus of quiet out here in our little corner of the world. Mother has the preacher – and sometimes Anna, that is Ms. Galvistan – out for Sunday supper every week, but generally it’s just the two of us, so you shan’t have to worry about the noise of comings and goings.

Now, I’ve put this table here for your typewriter. It’s mother’s sewing table, but the contraption’s been on the fritz, so we sent it to London to have it looked at.  It’s quite a sturdy little table, though not very big.  You could open the top to make it a little bigger, but then there’d be the hole and what good would that do you, I ask?  I’d only request that you leave this bit of oil cloth in place, so as not to scratch the wood.  Mother thinks it’s walnut and very fine, though I suspect it’s only the finish.  Still, she’d be so heart-broken if it were gauged by your typewriter.

You look so fagged, poor Mr. Landau. I shall get out of your hair in just a moment, but first I ought to point out one or two more things, so as you’ll feel absolutely comfortable and need me no more to feel right at home.

I will admit to knowing a little something about you besides that you’re a writer, Mr. Landau.  A little something which has made mother and me very sympathetic to your plight.  It was Mrs. Whitticombe, who does over our bonnets, who told us about it. She’s a terrible gossip and that son of hers, Jimmy – the one who up and went off to work in the theatre – well, he’s the one who told her.  She says that Jimmy’s getting very important in London, but Mrs. Whitticombe likes to put on airs, so there’s no telling the truth of that.  She tried to sell me feathers for my autumn bonnet once; said they were ring tail pheasant, but I could tell she’d marked plain ones in with paint. It didn’t look natural, at all.  Still, out here in the provinces, when there is only one woman who’s any good with hats, you have to make do and put up with the prattle.  Isn’t that right, Mr. Landau?

Well, I only wanted to say, mother and I are very sympathetic, dear man.  I blessedly have never had the misfortune of falling in love – indeed, I think I’m missing the part that fancies men very much.  Not that I mean to say… Well, I mean, I think love is a rather foolish thing.  That is all.

I think people like you must take it all the harder, isn’t that right, Mr. Landau? I mean, artist, they say, are quite sensitive people really. Mother says they take things harder than other folks. So, we’ve made a pact – mother and I have – to be sure you’re not bothered by a soul while you’re up here. You shall have as much peace and quiet as you need and before you know it, sir, you’ll be right as rain.

Now, enough of that, Mr. Landau. I can see you’re getting all the more strained by the minute. I know I shouldn’t have brought it up, but I just thought you’d like to know you have our sympathies. It’s always the delicate ones who the girls throw over for men with charm and swagger.  We’re terrible, fickle creatures, mother always says, and not to be trusted. Oh, dear, you have got a look about you, sir. Quite pale, you’ve gotten.

But to business, sir. I’ve cleared out this wardrobe for your things.  It smelled of mouse, I worried, so I hung some lavender in it.  Then mother said gentlemen didn’t like to smell of sachets, so I had the girl take the lavender down and scrub it good with lemon oil.  It turned out quite nice, if a bit pungent.  I hope it’ll do.  Oh, I see you’ve found the bed. My goodness, you’re a quiet one, aren’t you?

Well, I had wanted to point out that mother volunteered her favorite coverlet because it’s so pretty, but she did ask that I show you the lace along the edge, so that you’d be extra careful of it while you stayed.  No, no, sir. Not that edge. It’s here, under your boot. Oh heavens, and it’s so delicate.  I think it was rather extravagant of mother, poor dear.  I don’t think you’ll be able to relax at all, knowing that lace will be ripped to shreds by the time your stay is over. I have a nice wool blanket, plain but sturdy, that I shall bring up before supper.  Never fear, sir. We’ll have everything sorted soon enough.

I did want to tell you about dinner, because mother is very strict about sitting down, only because she’s rather cross if the cabbage goes cold.  When you hear the bell, it means five minutes until we sit down.  If you prefer to take dinner in your room, you may let me know earlier in the day.  I don’t suppose you’re much of an eater, but I hope our chilly air will enliven your stomach.  Hot meals are the best way to keep the bones warm.

Oh sir, I hate to see you getting up if you’re so tired. I told you I would tend to the coverlet later.  You are a dear.  Mother was given that coverlet by a very fine lady who stayed here many years ago.  A shy enough creature, delicate like yourself, who cut her summer short quite out of the blue.  She sent us a letter, weeks later along with the coverlet, apologizing for her hasty departure.  I think she was the type who enjoys the city more than the countryside.  It seemed her nerves only got worse the longer she stayed with us.  Poor dear.

Now, if you open the window today, Mr. Landau, it may get a bit chilly by sunset.  The draft is the devil.  Oh, my! What a whack you’ve got on you, but as I said, that is the only way to get it open.  That is rather a lot to open it, dear sir.  It may stick if you open it so far. I had wanted to have the girl take some beeswax along the case, but you know she said she needed to get home for supper and I thought perhaps that was a hint that she thought we ought to offer her some of ours and I hadn’t made very much that day.  Well, and the girl is a rather large creature with a big appetite. I think her people are Welsh and you know how they eat, sir.

Well, and so you’re putting your trunk on the sill.  Sir, is that wise? Well – oh my! There it goes! If I didn’t know better, Mr. Landau, I would have thought you sent that out on purpose. Mr. Landau, what in heavens name are you up to? Do you need air?  My goodness, you’re far too long legged to try to fold yourself through that opening.  My goodness, it’s like watching a spider coming out of the drain. Mr. Landau, have you quite lost your senses? Oh!

What madness!  I hope he hasn’t fallen on mother’s hydrangea.  She is terribly particular about them and they barely came back last year, what with all them mites and then the mildew.  Mr. Landau? Mr. Landau, what were you thinking?  Oh my, and now he’s up and over the hedge.  How peculiar.

Wilderness

When I was a kid, I became enchanted with Cinderella stories, but my versions never had princesses.  They had houses and they had witches.  It was the house and the witch who would be transformed and made beautiful.  Homes should always be sweet; women should always be gorgeous. I must have thought this as a kid and clearly popular society is still largely convinced its true.

My favorite place to draw was the dining room because there was no place else to spread out the typing paper I took from my mother’s desk and the assortment of random colored pencils that hadn’t gone missing yet.  There were corner windows in that room, looking out over a pasture and a scrap of back yard.  When the chickens were out, they littered the grass like folds of white towels – the crowns each a smear of blood.  Sometimes when I looked up through the smudged glass I saw my mother coming back from the barn.  Her plaid jacket was frayed at the cuffs and her hair was ruffled messily by the work.  She always seemed tired.

The first iteration.

I would draw a house and a woman softly, the pencil whispering on the page and leaving only the vaguest impression.  The woman would have worried bags under her eyes and a ragged gown.  The house would have loose shudders and a shaggy lawn.  It had to be drawn lightly so that I could cover it over with the magical transformation.  I thought it was cheating to erase the lines, so instead I would add more pigment on top, burying the first and deliciously tragic version under the adorable cheer to follow.

The change.

With bold strokes of my pencil the house would be reimagined with pristine woodwork and flowering shrubbery.  Birds would appear in the formerly barren skies, a few limp letters ‘m’ that are somehow sparrows or larks in flight. Even to grownups one never need explain that these are birds.

A sun with lines of radiant warmth appeared over the trees.

With greater care still the burdened witch became a mighty queen, her eyes ringed with such lashes that the dimly drawn wrinkles were all but undetectable. With my pencil I sketched over her dismal schmatta, layering on top a diaphanous skirt with hundreds of folds. Messy hair vanished under a mantle of exuberant curls; the bitter mouth fold budded  into a hopeful rose.  If I could find the crayon called peach, I’d bring the blood to her cheeks.

I made the messy and neglected into something ordered, manicured, and styled.  If it failed to convince me, I added flowers and more eyelashes.  I might have flourished in marketing.

In truth I was playing at something adults rarely learn to examine, whether or not the picturesque is superior to the authentic.  There is a reason that we have apps to place crowns of flowers on our Snapchat photos; a glow to our Instagram selfie to blur away the pores; the framework of Facebook to describe the perfect weekend, leaving out the parts where we quarreled over which credit cards to use.  We are terrified of loose ends, of things and people gone ragged.  Perhaps the animal in us knows how quickly we can be toppled, the way a rabbit knows that once the fox has them in its jaws, there are only seconds before the end.

The blood widens a pink circle in the snow as the black eyes of the rabbit reflect a cloudless blue sky.  Burying its nose in the warmth of the rabbits breast, the fox eats quickly amid the smell of iron and meat and frosty grasses.  His breath rises up around them, a fog veil to soften the truth that this is how the circle goes unbroken.

If we are to survive on the terms that make us human, cooperation within the growing village of humanity, without losing our grip on the one power that helps us maintain our place, a self-convincing sense of contentment, we must embroider reality, making over everything that we find dim with bright colors.  If our grip on the story loosens and we are forced to see how quickly our shutters rot, perhaps the entire fabric of our narrative will spill out of control.  Grass that needs our hands to chase away the chicory and pokeberry might return to wilderness.

We may go wild ourselves.

Marla

My aunt Marla was not easy to like, but she was maybe the funnest person to watch in Wassavale County.  There is something about people who have no filter that makes their every interaction a grenade with a loose pin.  You know this could go south quick, but you can’t look away.

Through knowing her, I learned the difference between nice and polite.  Some people always say what the social contract assigns them, but they’re filled with poison inside.  Marla didn’t really hate anyone, I discovered eventually, but she couldn’t help seeing folks exactly as they were.  And saying things from that same place of truth.

There was a lot that was unstable about my childhood, but the one thing I could count on was that when things got dicy at home, my aunt would swing by in her shiny blue Mustang and drive me away from everything hateful.   One Memorial Day weekend when I was nine, an argument between my folks sent my Mom into a tizzy and she wound up going to stay with her folks for most of the day.  She was going to leave us, she said, a threat she employed so often that my older sister, Hillary, never acted frightened of it anymore.

Aunt Marla came as soon as my father called her, though doubtless she had her own holiday plans.  Dad always said moss didn’t grow on Marla.  Despite the opening day throng, she took us to the town pool – a treat for county kids – and pissed off an old friend of hers within the first half hour.

pool2

My sister had abandoned us the moment we arrived, being at that stage in her teens when it was considered uncool to have relatives either older or younger than oneself.  Having made an immediate beeline for the long line at the food hut, I was happily eating a wafer thin cheeseburger twenty minutes later when a smiling woman in a wide-brimmed hat approached us.

“Howdy, stranger!”

Marla was rubbing on cocoanut oil.  There were signs on the fence around the pool asking people not to use too much lotion; this was her second replenishment.  I thought it made her smell like a parfait from Tastee-Freez and it made me hungry all over again.

Marla glanced at the woman over her shoulder without smiling.

“Oh. Hi, Crystal.”

“I miss seeing you at church.”

“I haven’t gone in ten years.”

Crystal squinted out across the glittering pool water, then perched on the edge of Marla’s lounger.  She bit her lip, her eyes cutting to me.

“Is this your nephew? You’ve grown, sugarbooger.”

I smiled nervously, aware that I had a smear of ketchup on my chin.  As I dug around in Marla’s bag for a napkin, she arranged herself to bask in the sun.  She turned to the woman in the big hat.  My aunt’s power to unnerve was heightened by her perpetual accessory, slightly mirrored sunglasses, which hid her warm brown eyes while reflecting back at them their own growing anxiety. Staring down Marla was like looking into the thin, hardened face of a state trooper with the addition of a frazzled blond lion’s mane.

“I gotta say, Crystal, you look great.”

The other woman’s smile was short lived.

“Yeah, Crystal.  When I heard what that son of a bitch did to you, I thought, ‘Well, she won’t show her face for a year.’ I mean, it was embarrassing to even hear about it.”

Crystal stood quickly.

“Me and Bobby are working things out now.”

Marla snorted.  “Well, good luck.”

Crystal opened her mouth to say something, thought better of it, and walked away with studied ease.  Marla nodded meditatively at the departing figure.

“Those beauty pageant types – the really good ones – never lose their poise. It’s classy. She’s real classy.”

Opening the wrapper on a Zero bar, I tilted my head to study Crystal’s posture.

“I thought you didn’t like her.”

“Why’d you think that?”

I almost said the first thing to come to my mind, but I decided on another answer.  “Well, I thought maybe you didn’t like her asking about you going to church.  Mom hates it when people ask her when she’s coming back.”

Marla laughed shortly.  “I don’t give a shit about that stuff.  Crystal’s okay.”

 


 

I found out from my mom that night that Crystal’s Bobby had cheated on her, embezzling money from the auto dealership where he worked to pay for a secret love nest with another woman.  The dealership was owned by Crystal’s dad, so the betrayal ran all the way through the family.

I dried the dishes and watched Mom burn through a menthol.

“Your aunt’s gonna get killed one day,” she said.  “But I’d have loved to see the look on that bitch’s face when Marla brought up the thing with Bobby.”

“That’s not nice, though, is it, Mom?”

This was from my older sister, who was standing on a step ladder, putting away a casserole dish with green daisies on the sides.  Hillary blinked down at us through her thick, peach-toned eyeglasses.

Mom shrugged. “She was stuck up in high school.”

It wasn’t much of a defense, but we knew that no matter how much Mom may have disliked someone, she’d never say anything to their face that would cause them a moment’s discomfort.  She wasn’t like her sister-in-law at all.  Neither was our Dad, who’d suffer almost anything rather than cause someone else the smallest qualm of self-doubt.

Aunt Marla had a theory that his personality was what kept my folks together.

“If your Dad wasn’t a weakling, your Mom would have been out on her ass years ago.”

She told us this many times throughout my childhood in one way or another.  The last time Marla said this was when she was driving Hillary to a fitting for her wedding dress.  I was along for part of the way; they were going to drop me off at a friend’s house in town.

There had been a kerfuffle at the house that morning that left Mom refusing to go with my sister to the dress shop.  The fitting appointment was a day after Mom’s birthday, but because her birthday fell on a Friday that year, she had lobbied to move the celebration to Saturday instead, which didn’t necessarily require the fitting to be cancelled, although Mom thought it should have been.  She was sure that the dressmaker would take too long and they’d be rushed to get ready for dinner. Looking back on it, there was no reasonable outcome that would have required anyone to change their plans.  Still, by the end of the Saturday morning argument, Mom stormed into her bedroom, shrieking, “Happy fucking birthday to me.” Slam.

 


 

As always, Marla was available at the drop of a hat when I called her to pick us up. Dad explained before we left the house that he offered to take my sister, but that Hillary refused.

“Of course she did,” Marla said. “You’d be a wreck at a fitting. Up and down, trying too hard not to act bored.  But you’ve never had a poker face, Sonny.  Besides, you gotta stand watch over crazy in case she tries to cut her wrists again.”

Dad glanced through the car window at us, his lips drawn thin.  Hillary was staring out through the windshield, her green eyes as cool and latently ferocious as the twin jade dragons at the Chinese restaurant in town.  He tilted away to look at our low slung rancher, dully lit by the overcast day.  “She’ll be alright, I think.”

Marla shrugged.  “When she pulls that stick out her ass, I hope it leaves a splinter she can’t reach with tweezers.”

“You’re a real peach,” Dad said.

I looked up quickly to see if he was being sarcastic – something I thought was literally impossible for him – but he was giving his sister a genuine smile.

“I mean it,” he said.  “You’re more of a mother-”

“Don’t,” Marla said.

She patted his hand quickly, then hit the window toggle to shut him out.  As she pulled away, she said for herself only, “It’s too stuffy outside to shoot the shit with him when I got the A/C running.”

We were halfway down the drive when she made her famous claim again, “If he had even squirrel balls, he’d have thrown her into the bin back in the beginning.”

My sister and I were silent.  It seemed each time it came up that one or the other of us would finally snap and say something to defend our mom.  Yet despite the hurt Marla’s words caused, I think we each felt there was enough truth that anything we said would have been hollow loyalism.

At the end of the drive, Marla said, “Chipmunk balls even.”

 


 

We didn’t know it that day, but Dad was working on an exit strategy.  He was just waiting until my sister’s wedding was over.  While she and her husband were in the Poconos, he served Mom with divorce papers and moved into an apartment in town.  It wasn’t far from the pool and I would still have been going to the same high school in the fall, but I stayed with Mom.  Marla’s jibs about my mother’s attempted suicides weren’t cut from whole cloth, and since the age of seven, I had lived with an underlying terror that I’d be the one to find her dead.

Dad understood all too well.  And while I think he would have liked the company, he was probably relieved to know someone was taking up the watch in his absence. The weird thing was that the divorce went really smoothly.  Mom even had moments when she was calm and insightful.

“He did the right thing,” she said one day in the fall.  We were bringing in firewood together. There was a lot one could say about Mom, but she never shied from work.  She was carrying in twice as much as me.

“You’re not mad?”

“Nope.”

But as the days of winter grew shorter and colder, the all too familiar flatness settled on her.  I knew the signs like the words of a song you hate, but can’t escape on the radio.  She started taking less showers, forgetting to eat, and sleeping later into the morning.  Each day when I left for school, my stomach was in knots, worrying about what I’d find when I got home.  By New Years, I wasn’t sleeping a whole night through.

I called Aunt Marla out of desperation one Sunday morning when Mom refused to get out of bed. She didn’t fail me, as she never had, and within a half hour, I heard the wheels of the Mustang crunching through the gravel.

Marla looked a little worn to me that day as she paused out on the breezeway.  Her tan was still fixed in place, thanks to a subscription she cherished deeply at a salon over in Bunkport, but her face looked leaner than ever.  For the first time, I saw that, like the rest of us, she was getting older, too.

The first thing she did when she entered mom’s bedroom was to pull the bedspread off the bed and yank the pillow out from under her head.  It was like a magician’s trick, seeing the cloth whip away in one clean arc, leaving in place one limpid woman – forty, fat, curled in a ball.

Mom grunted. “What are you doing, Marla.”

“Stripping the bed.  These sheets are fowl.”

“Leave me alone.”

“You think Corey needs your pity party?  Get the fuck up.  We’re washing your sheets and we’re washing your hair.  You smell like a whore with busted plumbing.”

That made my mom laugh out loud, rolling on her back and pushing out her laughter at the ceiling.  I couldn’t find the humor, but I smiled at Marla.

“Get up,” she said.

Over breakfast, Marla told my mom what she was going to do with the rest of her life.  Or she told her what the next few weeks of it were going to look like.  “You’re going to start seeing a therapist.  I know a woman.  She’s good. I’ll get you in quick.”

“So I’m not allowed to be depressed after my husband leaves me and my daughter runs off.”

“Your daughter didn’t run off.  She left with her husband after a wedding that was two years in the planning.  You’re an asshole if you feel abandoned by her.  Hillary was old enough to start her own life.”

Mom glanced moodily out the window.  The wintery yard was as homely a silver yellow as a boiler onion.  She was going inside of herself again.

Marla gestured to me and I covered my belly with my hands, a thing I did whenever anyone looked my way.

“This one can’t start his own life yet, so you owe it to him to pull yourself together.”

Before she left, she made Mom agree to see a therapist.  I watched my aunt drive down the driveway and wished desperately she’d turn the car around, tell me to hop in.  I would have loved to have gone to live with her, to sleep on her sofa, to keep my clothes in a bundle hidden behind the TV.  I would never leave a dish unwashed, I’d close the fridge without a sound.  I would have made myself as quiet as a mouse, as small as a beetle, if it meant I could tuck away into her life instead of that one. As I turned back to the house, I saw Mom through the kitchen window, pouring herself a glass of juice.

Maybe Marla’s advice would take hold.  She could get some help, pull out of this. Winter would be over before we knew it.  Marla was blunt and sharp, she held your feet to the fire.  But you never felt guilty when she told you how things were. You simply knew she was illuminating the truth.  Do with it what you would.

In that way, she was the sunlight when I was small.

 

 

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.

 

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.

Now We Are Four

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.”

“He’s lonely.”

“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.

“Yep.”

“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.