On Burying A Friend

The air is still moist from the night when I with gloved hands take up the shovel to make the grave for our very old friend.  It helps to be alone out here, bent over the earth with my thoughts.

Later the loneliness is edging close as thankfully my husband joins me in a cap to keep his ears warm. And so we take turns cracking through tree roots and pulling up stones. Helpmates. Silent in our grief, the passing of our ginger cat.

Our Guy.

The scratch of iron and rock make a sharp cry to break the calm of the woods, fittingly rough, like how we aren’t ready to let go.  Finally the hole is deep enough.  We climb the steep hill and I take off my muddy boots before entering the house.

My eye drops toward the floor as I push the door open, to where he usually stands with curious eyes asking to go out.  I cannot give a moment for tears just yet.  I push through the house, to the cool spare room, where he waits in his carrier.

I take him outside and together my husband and I wrap him up for burial.  He weighs the same in my hands as he ever did.  Or is he lighter now, not twisting to protest being cradled like a human baby?   I feel he must be given a final hug, something to say that inside the bundle is still the lovely creature who shared so many years with us.  I curve around his still form, weeping freely, my husband weeping with me, the two of us with rubbery garden gloves, hands a little cartoonish, eyes as red as pickled eggs.

“Okay,” I say.

Somehow we fitted his resting place perfectly.  The bundle settles into the depression as if sized by tireless craft, rather than the educated guess of two men unfamiliar with the digging of graves.  I gather a wad of mud between my hands, say a word of good-bye and sprinkle him over with earth.  My husband says his farewell and reaches out to let his gathered clay fall like dark heavy snow.

I am careful with the first shovels-full of dirt, filling in the edges until the ground is level with the top of him.   Then another level until the black bundle is covered over. When the ground is filled in again, we pull a rake over the earth until it is smooth.  Then I rake away the autumn leaves because they make his resting place seem too forlorn.

I decide we ought to cover him over in stones to keep animals from digging him up.  We root around at the edge of the woods as the day opens up bright and warm above us.  The mud on ours boots grows thicker as we work.  We cannot seem to stop hunting for new stones.  I like best the ones from under the leaves, the ones cleaned by a recent rain.  One crude rock at a time, we build a mound to cover the grave of this our very old friend.

“We’ll put a ring of bulbs around it in the spring,” I say.

And my husband nods through his tears.

“I’m glad it got warm. I fell asleep last night dreading the cold, knowing how he hated it.”

We are silent a moment more before taking up the shovel and the rake and climbing the hill.  At the side of the house, I realize we have forgotten the pick axe.  When I return to the edge of the woods to fetch it, I see a small rock winking up from the ground.  I almost turn away from it, but it seems that in noticing it, I ought to add it to the mound.kingly-guy

 

Momentos

As my high school graduation grew nearer, my father sent away for my class ring.  I wore it for about a year or two before it embarrassed me to put it on.  No one I knew advertised they finished high school through jewelry and I didn’t want to either.  The ring was exactly what it should have been: large and golden with a ruby stone and engravings to show I concentrated on The Arts.  A pair of brushes cross over a painter’s amoebic palette and some Greek letters make the case for the man my father thought I was becoming. 

The ring still surfaces now and then, floating to the top of a box of forgotten things from about the age of ten up through my twentieth year.   In that box there is also a keychain with a picture of an old friend in it; a few chess pieces from a set my mother made me in ceramics class;  blue and white shards of a Chinese umbrella holder that I cut my knee on when I was nine; shells from a beach where a girl and I sat in the blast of January winds not talking about things we might.


The keychain is a tapered square of turquoise plastic with a white tip on the narrow end.  In the tip there is a lens and when you look through it you see my old friend.  She is on the beach, her thick dark blond hair pushed behind one ear in defiance of a breeze off the water behind her.  When she and I first became friends, my world was small; my best friends were family and it was a joyful discovery to build my own friendship from scratch. We were close at one time and luckily it did not end in fire, as some of my relationships did when I was younger.  Rather we just drifted apart, first in our interests and later geographically.  Before social media, we were as good as invisible to one another for over a dozen years.  Now we reach out from time to time to say hello.

During all those years when many friendships were considered not only diminished but severed by lost addresses and by telephone numbers that no longer worked, I would occasion upon that keychain, squint into it and try to remember something about how she came to give it to me.  Had she gone to the beach alone or with one of her more loyal childhood friends?  Had we met for lunch, she proffering the memento as I worked out in my head who I’d be partying with later that night?


My mother didn’t handle my growing up very well.   Two dreamers who were much happier at home than out in the world, we needed one another mutually when I was young.  It must have been hard to see me making friends and moving outward into the world, while she was still fixed in a place defined by her phobias and her traditionalism.  When I was seventeen she and I were at our most tumultuous point.  In between our heated arguments about where I was going and who I was going out with – why did I like so and so more than my own family and what did we know about their people? – she would be moved to do very kind things.  One of them was the chess set, although by the time she finished it and presented it at Christmas, there were already changes in my worldview that made me feel only lackluster about the gift. 

Rendered in blue and grey, the Civil War iteration of the game did not suit who I was becoming – a person with growing disgust for a romantic take on rich southern slaveowners who turned on their own neighbors rather than follow the shifting moral imperative of their country. 

Having watched the film Gone With the Wind at nine and consuming the book greedily afterward, I spent the first half of my teen years in a love affair with the antebellum south. I wrote and rewrote novels with heroines who lived on plantations and wore hoop skirts.  With each rewrite my shifting principles showed evermore. As I discovered feminism, my heroine became pluckier.  I added character details to make her seem less organized around feminine norms.  Now she liked to sneak off bare footed to go fishing when she wasn’t sparring with our enigmatic and handsome hero. 

As I discovered my empathy for the economically disadvantaged, my heroine developed a friendship with a ‘po-white’ family down the road from the Big House and helped their ‘clean but respectable’ Irish children with their lessons in between trips to the trout creek.  Just as I may have been likely to start writing a slave rebellion into the plot, I grew tired of the whole Southern aristocracy schtick altogether.  By the time I received the chess set, it felt like a postcard from another year to another me, although I was careful to pretend I loved it.  My mother is very, very sensitive.


At the age of ten I was well in the midst of my romance with all things old world and opulent  when I discovered an umbrella holder in the cluttered storage cum laundry room in our basement.  Made of thick china and hand-painted in the Asian fashion with blue flowers and birds on a white field, it seemed like a relic from a much finer home than our fly-specked little ranch house in the country.  Perhaps this was the last vestige of the grand manor our family used to own on the Mississippi, I speculated – until my mother told me they were a dime a dozen in the seventies.

The top was broken and looked a little like the shape of the Coliseum, with pierced arches left incomplete where the missing pieces used to fit.  I found some of the broken bits in the bottom of the vessel and pestered my parents to buy me crazy glue so I could fix this treasure.  I was still working on the restoration months later – frustrated that not all the pieces had been saved by my parents – when a tumble with my sister landed me on a jagged point that split my knee open like a cruel smile.  They stitched it closed and it still looked like a punished mouth for weeks, weeping blood at the iodine-stained threads when I flexed my leg a bit too much.  For a couple years easily I worried that somehow I’d crack it open again, even when all that was left was a quite sturdy white scar, a lumpy albino worm where the mouth had once ruefully grinned.  I still have the umbrella holder and the shards; the mend was never complete.


I don’t remember gathering the shells with Jenny, but a visceral thread woven into the beginning of my manhood hangs free of me, teased even now by the mood of a wintry beach.  When all the umbrellas have been tucked away and the children have returned to school, beach towns become something more like wilderness again.  They become raw and savage: the breakers are cold knives nosing the sand, the blackened tangles of seaweed like so many Medusa headdresses abandoned. No matter where I am, when cold air that smells like salt water hits me, I am taken back to a Carolina beach and seventeen.

We walked with our heads down, our chins protecting our throats as the wind tore at our curls and rippled our too thin clothes.  It had been an awkward holiday, me liking Jenny’s green-haired artist friend we had come to visit so much that the three of us fell into a strange discord. In youth we wear our jealousy loosely on chapped lips, with faces still too childlike to hide our fleeting pain and rage.  Yet we are already learning to ignore what we think we will not be able to change.  And so Jenny continued to love me and I made funny faces and let the incoming storm off the water lift my hair into a wild black mop that she caught in her camera.  When my whimsical bravura was spent, we sat in the sand not talking about anything, unsure yet sure that the holiday had already pulled loose what had gathered us together.  The silence felt intimate, but we were no longer.

In the cold mist we watched the tide go out while three broken shells found a home in my pocket.  It has been over twenty years and I have yet to send them back to sea.

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.

 

 

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.

 

 

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.

 

Imperfect

It began with the car ride home, the leaden silence that clung to them, unshakable, through the weekend.  They had disagreed before. This was different. It was as if each knew they were implacable, opposed to the stance of the other in some meaningful way.

In the past, one or the other of them found themselves petty, licked their lips, took a breath, and began the stilted process of talking them back from the brink. Together.

This was not the way of it that weekend.

If George had wanted to make it right, he could have done so.  His charm was winning.  He was gifted with words.

And Sam had simple candor that was likely better than charisma or gilded phrases.  He might have said, with his dark brandy eyes focused on the road, “I was wrong. This is your decision. I’m sorry.”

That would have put the thaw on them.

George would have come at it more cautiously, as was his wont, edging at the thing with words that made neither of them at fault. Perhaps he might have even cast himself in the golden and violet shades of the noble and misunderstood.  He was good at that; a revisionist of his own immediate history.  Although he was not without humility, sincerity. He would have come around at the end, sighing in disgust with himself.

“You know what? It doesn’t matter. I was an ass not to ask you yesterday, when I might have done. Maybe we can stay for part of the week, if we call them up tonight and let them know.”

But neither of them followed the usual path of reconciliation this time.  George did not disrobe his truth slowly, crown and cloak giving way, layer by layer, to thin socks with holes in the toes. Sam did not set the ice to melting with his guileless warmth.

They sat side by side in the car as it carried them out of the mountains, the naked forests of winter to left and right casting spider web reflections on the glass.  Once Sam reached out as if to find music on the dash, but his hand dropped back into his lap.

When they got home, they carried in the luggage, turning on lights as they moved from front to back.  They were not giving each other the silent treatment. They were simply opting not to discuss the disagreement.

“Did you want me to throw away the rest of that cake? You said it was no good.”

“You can.”

“I won’t if you don’t think I should. Or I can offer it to Mrs. Jaffee.”

And later, as they crawled warily into bed, Sam said, “It’ll be good to sleep.”

George said, “Yes.”

They kissed good night.

It was not like their pattern to let a quarrel go unexplored. They had always picked them apart carefully, leaving no meat on the bones of malcontent.  It brought tears like a hateful onion, opened up forgotten hurts; then gently they brought it round to what it was, reducing the thing until it was sweeter, understandable.  And it ended with them lying in each others arms, still like after their first orgasm together, a long ago afternoon in a park, staring up into a white sky, listening to birds calling out with hearts bursting.

They didn’t like to argue.  Raised each in houses where emotions either paralyzed or polarized, where the eruptions were volcanic and corrosive, they had a distaste for conflict.  Yet in the face of this new thing – this passive, dispassionate response to one another – it seemed that they had either lost something or gained something.

Had the years given them the gift of allowing or had it numbed them to caring passionately?  And wasn’t caring passionately often so wrapped up in ego and prejudice? How often had they competed to be simply right? How often had that slow, cumbersome journey back to peace proven that to them?  Perhaps finally the thing had been found – a blessed acceptance of profound opposition.

Yet on Monday morning, as they hustled to be ready for work, Sam said, “If you want to leave on Thursday instead, we can call and have them move the reservation.”

And George heaved a sigh. “It isn’t really about when we leave, but more about the fact that you might have said last week, before I put the room on my card.”

It wasn’t exactly a relief to find themselves getting heated on the ride into town, yet it felt a little more like home than the silence.

“We are imperfect,” Sam said.

And George nodded.  “That we are.”

 

Switzerland

If he could reverse the order of the day, taking them back to the morning – to the moment before the argument – it would look something like this: the sun would lower among the peaks and the mist would thicken; the tourists would pick their way backward along the icy overlook; the ride back to Murren would seem nothing out of the ordinary, as the gondola belies no face nor a rear; then on lower ground they would all walk backward again, the group spreading apart in twos and threes as each returned to their lodgings.

Trent would step into the shower and the water would fly up off his skin and syphon itself back into the pin pricks in the shower head. He would peel himself into his pajamas again and step out on the terrace, where Henry would be sucking smoke clouds out of the thin mountain air, his cigarette growing longer, while Trent spat chocolate slowly into a teacup until it was full again and quite hot. Then and only then would they have reversed time enough to avoid the argument.

schilthorn coffee

They would be a blessed moment ahead of misunderstanding.  He could have imagined going back further, trains backing into tunnels, the plane recklessly hurtling itself over the Atlantic, tail first, seeming to gobble up its own jet stream. And again the sun would have drawn shadows in reverse, skin growing just a day younger, dew drops returning to the ethos.  But at that moment on the terrace overlooking Murren, there was still a chance that would have sufficed.

It was just after they talked about taking the lift to Schilthorn and a moment before Trent asked if Henry had gotten any texts from George Hargrove.  The chill settled closer about them when that was spoken.  Henry stiffened.

“I’m surprised you’d ask.”

“I’m sorry.”

Henry shrugged.  It was between them in the icy air, poised above the street, above the station so ideally close to the guest house.  Yesterday had brought the first snow of the season, causing the yellow leaves of autumn to fall, a sumptuous golden confetti under sugar drifts.  There had been jokes at check-in about them bringing winter with them.

Trent tried to move past it then.  “It really is like stepping straight into winter, isn’t it? In Milan it was still rather summery.  Chilly at night, of course. Remember you had to go back and get your sweater. That’s when I saw that man. I wish you’d seen it. So odd.”

The man with the huge hands.  They’d looked like something out of those old pictures from freak shows.  It was curious, because he was handsome – tall and manly enough – yet the size of his hands had given him a sinister edge.  One didn’t look at those hands and think of how they might caress a person; rather they seemed made for wringing a neck or for covering over a whole face, nose and mouth. They were smothering hands.

“I didn’t get a text until this morning,” Henry said calmly.  “He just asked how our trip was going.”

Trent forgot about the man in Milan instantly.  He felt his stomach turn over.  A flush set his cheeks afire like razor burn.  “That’s rich,” he said.  He didn’t recognize his voice.  It was stilted, forced.

“He’s trying,” Henry said.

“I know he’s trying. But it’s not what you think.”

Then Henry ground out his cigarette.  “Well, it’s more than you’ve done.  He’s not got it so easy, if you think of it.  He has the job of shutting down how he feels for me, of drowning it, putting it away.  You on the other hand have me – and you treat it like a house plant.”

“Not that analogy again, Henry.”

“Familiar little house plant.  You know how much to water it and where it likes to sit to take the sun.  It doesn’t require much.  Perhaps you’ll talk to it now and again. You’ve heard that helps. Read it somewhere, didn’t you?  Maybe you’ll tell it about the man with the big, funny hands.”

“Hateful bastard.”

“And if it grows too much for its container, you can always clip it.”

“How the fuck am I clipping you?”

Henry went silent.

Below them some other guests pushed out onto the street, drawing their hoods up, pulling on gloves.  And there was laughter as they chatted and made their way toward the gondola across the village.  Someone was talking about breakfast and another about lunch. Curls of vapor escaped their happy mouths.

“My god,” Trent said.  “You want to be with him, don’t you? That’s how you think I’m clipping you.  Monogamy.  It’s cutting you back.  It’s not what you want.”

Henry stared at him stonily.

“Go take your shower,” he said. “Let’s not do this today.”

“Tell me I’m wrong.”

“What I’ll tell you is that we both worked very hard to get here.  The last thing I want to do on holiday is audit my marriage.  Is that what you want?”

Henry always had a knack for cutting to the heart of the matter. Of course it wasn’t the time.  He should never have asked if Hargrove texted.  Then again Trent had always been one to peel away bandages and to pick at scabs.  He took in all the silver Swiss air he could draw and held it for a long moment.  Henry had turned to look out over the village by the time Trent stepped back into the room and removed his pajamas.

Shortly after they walked through the village, people joining the procession in twos and threes, until they came to the lift office.  And they climbed into the gondola and they rose up and lilted outward over the valley floor, little leaps as they crested the supports, butterflies bounding in their guts, gasps of surprise and shared laughter.  When they landed on Schilthorn, they followed along in a line until they came out onto the overlooks. There were still patches of ice because the day was  yet new; the sun would melt them later, after their group had returned to lower climbs.

The ice made them cling to one another; mothers to fathers; children to mothers; lovers to each other.  Until they came to the rails, where some of the group broke off and stood alone, taking pictures, or merely gazing out.  The view was rapturous: in every direction one saw charcoal peaks floating in pewter mist.  Here and there, as the sun plucked through, a ben-ben captured rock and ice, glittering like fragments of gold.

How had they come here?  Before there were lifts how had people the tenacity to keep climbing into this unknown?  Was is summer and green? Did they come to make a home when it was warm and easy, only to find themselves marooned later, unsure of how to descend when every deer path was but a series of bone shattering missteps?

The mountains were giving up no answers. Trent stood by himself for a long while, and it seemed that the other world – the world of their real lives – was small and clumsy and a little embarrassing up here in the divinity of Swiss highlands.  The testy exchanges when the internet wasn’t working right; the spot on the bathroom vanity one couldn’t help noticing when one sat on the toilet; the mind-numbing tasks at work, tackling the same problems from slightly altered angles.   Home and work.  Ice and accidents.  What we earn to keep and what we lose without knowing.

Once he’d been in New York, dashing across the West Side Highway.  His scarf had come loose but he didn’t realize it then.  Only when he got back to his hotel did he find it was gone.  Sometimes he wondered if it had looked romantic to the people waiting in traffic, the length of the scarf coming loose, whirling upward off his shoulders and floating down. Then he imagined the tires rolling nonchalantly forward, grinding it into the grey detritus of the street.  As each car crushed it, the scarf was less and less a thing of use and beauty and more and more it became merely city filth.

Henry came to stand at the rail beside him.  A moment later, they took each other’s hands and they found the restaurant and shared firstly a salad and then coffee with schnapps.  It was difficult to fathom the way forward. Trent would need to discover what Henry wanted and Henry would need the same.  Once they got back from holiday, it was hard to know what would remain of that distant life.

Still they made an effort to chatter about the trip and somehow or other when Trent got back around to the subject of the man in Milan with huge hands, it came out fresh and funny and made Henry laugh.  That felt good.  The dining room revolved slowly so that they saw the world below them from every angle as the sun came out to burn away the mist.

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.”

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.