Rideshare

originally posted under the name ‘Fireflies’


Mariam was quick at everything she did, but when she was angry, another kind of fuel kicked in to keep her jets lit high. He could gauge her irritation by the time it took her to fold laundry or sort the bills and pay them.

The evening was thick, scented with a rain to come, and in the distance he could hear the traffic that ran alongside the subway station. It was late and he was the only one waiting just now.  At last he took his phone from his pocket.  He stared down at it for a moment before calling home. She answered on the second ring.

“You on the way?”

“Well, I’ve run into a snag.”

“Oh.”

“Well, there were a lot of people because the holiday-”

“The holiday is why I suggested you leave earlier,” she said. “But what about all these people?”

He held the phone away so she wouldn’t hear his sigh. Mariam hated to hear it; she would tell him to stop feeling sorry for himself.

“Of the four card machines, two were out of order, so the lines were twice as long as ever. I almost made it, ran all the way down and even scratched my leg on the escalator, but I was just a couple of seconds too late. I’m sorry, Mariam.”

She took in a breath. It sounded like she dropped something heavily on the counter. It might have been metal: a knife or a spatula maybe.

“The next one will be here in about seven minutes.”

“But you’ll miss Will,” she said. “He never waits – not even for a minute. Remember last week?”

“He saw me running across the lot. I know he did.”

“He’s kind of a prick that way.”

“Isn’t he though?” he said. Perhaps she would direct her ire at the man who always gave him a ride to the end of their drive, providing he didn’t have to wait. “It really was too much this last time.  He’s so rude.”

“It’s still your fault,” she said.

“Yes, I know.”

A pause snaked between them, too long and too thin. Finally she said, “I guess I’ll drive into town when you get in, but you’ll have to call me when you pass Dunn Grave so I’ll have about five minutes.”

“Okay,” he said.

“But this has to stop. We have to get your car fixed.”

He didn’t know what to say. They both knew they couldn’t afford the repairs. As it was, they were always a month behind on the house payment. Their little house with the crack in the stoop and the stink of mildew in the bathroom, it was a little bit of nothing that even so they could scarcely afford. How did she imagine that repairing the car was going to happen?

“Call me at Dunn Grave,” she said and she rang off without a good-bye.

“Thank you,” he said a moment too late. She hadn’t heard.

____________

When the train got beyond Mauricetown, the city glow was blotted out by the overhanging trees.  If he pressed his face to the glass, he could watch the fireflies begin to light, green stars in a galaxy of woods.  He noticed them last week, when he was late the last time.  They weren’t visible on the earlier trip; the waning days of summer were still too bright at that time to note them.  But if one missed the train and came on the very next one, there they were, something hopeful and beautiful to watch all the dreary ride homeward.

He recalled a night when he was a child, when his father was still alive.  It had been the two of them and his sister, returning from the barn after feeding the animals.  They spilled out into the night, the three of them, when the sky was purple all but for a ribbon of gold over the mountains.

“Do you see that?” his father whispered.  The two children fell silent.

At first, like star gazing, they could not quite see the fireflies.  Then they noticed one and then another and then a dozen more and finally countless lights in the dark lower pasture.

“Daddy,” his sister said.

“It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” he answered.

They stood in the silence and the night, hearing the throaty noises of the summer bugs, watching the green lights come and go and come again.  Behind them, a few pale rectangles marked the windows of their house on the hill, but they were lost in the beauty before them and forgot everything else.

It was hard to tell how long they stood there, three side by side, so calm and happy together, unlike so many other times.  Whether it was a minute or an hour, in the years after, he learned it was not long enough.  Had he deliberately missed the train tonight so that he’d see these fireflies again?  He wondered about that, unable to answer. There had been no broken machines at the station.  He’d just sort of moved too slow, his mind elsewhere, until suddenly he heard the train departing.  It would never do to let Mariam know the truth.

He was so happy to watch the fireflies of this day, pressed to the train window, that he forgot to call her as the train went through the station at Dunn Grave.  Finally, it came to his own stop, the end of the line, where the parking lot lights of the sprawling commuter town wore unholy halos in the muggy evening air.

At the end of the station lot, where a strip mall butted up seamlessly, his gaze fell briefly on the spot where Will usually parked his car while at work.  The slot was empty, as he already knew it would be.  He faced the street toward home and started walking away from the town.  He might have called Mariam, told her he couldn’t get a signal at Dunn Grave, told her he’d wait in the vestibule of the Target until she drove up to get him.  Instead, he headed toward home, grim and sure of the argument that would await.  He would never know why suddenly he couldn’t lie to placate her, but he trudged into the shadows of the county road like a child going to meet the strap.

When the last street light was at his back, he started to notice the fireflies again.  He thought of a spot on the road ahead where he could sit and watch them; the porch steps of an empty, plain farm house overgrown with Virginia creeper.  The iron gate cried out when he pressed through, and while it startled an owl out of a hole in the eaves, it did not startle him.  Nothing about the house frightened him tonight, though at times he’d thought it vaguely sinister.  In the autumn, if he glanced over just as his car lights flashed on the dusty window glass, he feared seeing a grim face looking out.  Tonight it was merely a lonely old thing, dead inside and out, with a little of its bones poking through its outsides, like a deer rotting open on the roadside.

He sat on the step and looked out into the familiar points of light.

It had been a long time since the night that he and his sister and his father shared this simple pleasure.  He remembered when the memory of it still was fresh, when he was a younger man, and he recalled that for a while it lay dormant, pushed aside by many other cares, only some his own.  But since last week, it was as clear as if it had just happened. It seemed like a sort of magic was waiting to unfold.  Perhaps there was an enchanted door somewhere, maybe inside the old house, that would spill him out into that other meadow and that other night.  He could steal up softly beside the three figures, the tall one and two little ones.  His steps would have to be still, so as not to frighten them, but if he could manage it, he’d stay as long as they had stayed and then he’d wait longer still, until the last light went out.

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.

 

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.

Pink Dogwoods

Well, she liked the pink Dogwoods, no matter what her husband said about them.  When he used the word ‘gaudy’ she sort of snorted because it was too fancy coming out of his fat face.  There he was, sitting all crooked in his recliner with the broken spring, wearing that damned Duck Dynasty shirt that already had food stains on it, and he was gonna talk about something being gaudy? She wanted to tell him people who didn’t know jack about taste, good or bad, didn’t get to talk about things being gaudy.  You had to earn that right by wearing your jeans the right size and throwing out something if your Sheetz chili cheese dog pooped all over it.  He glanced over at her when she snorted and his eyes went all kind of hard and narrow like bricks, so she didn’t say any of the things she was thinking.  Instead, she glanced away, flipping her hair off her shoulder.

Image

“Well, I like it and it was nice of Del to offer it to us.  Better than a bald spot in the yard.”

Then she remembered the thing that made him wear that stupid hat all the time and she glanced over to see if he took the comment the wrong way.  The beer can that whizzed by her face, inches from her nose, told her he had.  Oh hell, she thought.

“I didn’t mean that, dumb ass,” she said.

“You’re an asshole.”

“I’m an asshole? I didn’t mean your stupid little bald spot, Timmy.  Jesus effing Christ.”

He almost looked like he wanted to cry.  What a baby he could be sometimes.

“Well, get me another beer then,” he said, his eyes trained back on the set.

She closed the front door, where she’d been standing and looking at the tree in bloom, and she went into the kitchen to open the fridge.  When she couldn’t find any cold beers, she had to work real hard to hide a little smile.

“Looks like that was the last one, hon.”

“For fucks sake.”

She pulled an ice pop out of the freezer and tore the end off with her teeth.  “Want me to run up to Kern’s and get you some more?”

“I’ll do it,” he said.  He struggled to find the lever on the chair.

“I’ll do it,” she said. “You’ve already had a few and you’re almost ready to get your real license back.  No use blowing it now.”

He sank back into the chair.

A couple of minutes later, she came back from the bedroom, changed for the trip up the road.  He was making himself a cheese sandwich and his eyes went to bricks again when he saw her coming up the hall.

“You going on a date?”

She laughed, “You know I don’t go out in my pajamas.  I’m not like your sister.”

She didn’t have to worry about that setting him off.  He and Wendy were on each others shit lists right now, so all bets were off.  He grunted, scraping the side of the Miracle Whip jar with the knife.  “Well, get some of this, too.  We’re running low.”

“Okay,” she said, scrounging in her purse for some chap stick.

“Makeup, too?”

“It’s chap stick, Timmy.”

“Well, looks pink from here.”

“Too gaudy, you think?” she asked, snapping her purse closed.

“Oh, fuck off,” he answered.  He put the top on his sandwich and ground it flat with the palm of his hand.  He always liked his sandwiches like that. She watched him take it to his chair, but with his big bites, it was almost finished before he’d gotten himself horizontal again.

Her keys jangled brightly as she walked through the living room.  Now he noticed her hair.

“You curled your damned hair? You think you’re gonna run into somebody or something?”

“Look, Timmy. I don’t show up anywhere looking like trash.”

She saw a loose thread on the sparkly embroidery in her jean pocket and gave it a tug.

“Cheap Walmart shit,” she said.

He shook his head at her, hateful-like, everything about them in the sunless laughter and the anger in his eyes.  Swallowing his last bite, he said real slow and deliberate, “You ain’t gonna run into anyone cool enough up there for curling your damned hair.”

But she was already turning and the whine of the screen door hinge almost drowned out his words.  On the way up the road, she glanced back in the rear view mirror, watching the dust clouds rolling up in her wake.  It was too big for her, she reckoned, but she loved driving Timmy’s truck.  It was almost a shame he’d get his real license back soon.

There was only a couple cars outside of Kern’s when she got there.  One belonged to the old hag behind the counter who always asked her when she and Timmy were gonna have a baby.  The other was the white Cavalier that belonged to the store owner.  When she took her sunglasses off at the door, she could see him sitting back in his office, playing some game on his computer.  He didn’t glance up.  She turned her lip at the sight of him.

Maybe some people would turn up, she thought.  Maybe this was just a little lull.  She lingered in the chip aisle for what seemed an age, but no one drove up, not even to the gas pumps outside.  Finally, crestfallen, she took her things to the counter to pay up.  The hag was a little nicer today, though she glanced more than once at the tattoos that showed under her crop top.

“How’s Timmy?”

“He’s good.”

“How’s your mother?”

She pretended to be looking for her debit card, not wanting to talk about that with this old thing.  But in the way of old people, the other woman wasn’t giving up that easily.  “I said, how’s your Ma? Jimmy said he ran into her over in Delray and she looked like she’d put back on some weight.  Said she looked better.”

“Jimmy knows more than I do then,” she said.  She wanted to ask who the hell was Jimmy.

The drive back to the house was depressing, but when she pulled up in the yard and jumped out of the truck, her frown faded.  Coming through the front door, she walked bold and springy, the hair bouncing along her back like a porn star riding a pony.  It caught his eyes right away.

“That took a long time.”

She dropped the bag on the kitchen table and got him a beer right away.

“Sorry about that,” she said, popping the top.  “There was a line.”

“At Kern’s?”

“Yep.  I guess there was something going on down in Perch Creek.  Some retreat or something.  There was like twenty bikers there, stocking up on stuff.”

“At Kern’s?”

“Why do you keep asking that? Yes, at Kern’s.  I guess ole fat Jimmy Kern’s happy.  I’ve never seen it so packed.”

He shook his head. “Bull shit.”

She laughed, “Well, it’s true.  And some of the nicest guys you’d ever meet.  They were all from DC, I guess, or someplace like that.  These were like rich bikers.  Everybody had a Harley, but nice with speakers.”

She got herself a beer and stretched out on the couch.  Her voice was kind of dreamy as she went on weaving her tale.

“There was this one guy.  I thought he might be gay at first, because he was so good-looking.  But then he asked if I was doing anything tonight and I was like maybe he’s not.  Real tall.  You know that cousin of yours, the one at Sebrina’s wedding who was a teacher or something from Charleston? What was his name?”

“Kyle.”

She could see him behind her, sitting in his chair, through the glass on a picture that hung over the TV.  His jaw had got real square and set while she talked.

“Kyle? That’s right.  He was handsome like your cousin Kyle.  Thick blond hair and tall like that.  Anyway, he said they were gonna be in town until Sunday.”

He caught her studying him in the glass and she dropped her gaze.

“This guys name was Mark. I always liked that name.”

She paused, waiting for him to ask how she knew, but he said nothing.

“He tried to give me his number, too, but I was like, hold up, I’m a married woman.”

When she lifted her eyes to look into the glass, she saw that he’d closed his eyes and let his mouth go slack.  She rose up on one elbow and turned to glance at him over her shoulder.  Her engagement ring caught a strand of hair and pulled it a little.  She winced.

“You’re not asleep,” she said. “I know you’re not, Timmy.”

He let out a snoring kind of breath.

“Fucker,” she mumbled.

Faintly, just faintly, the corners of his mouth twitched, like a smile that wanted to happen.

Bloom

Side by side, they shoveled the snow.  The driveway was short, but the snow was high and heavy.  George took two scoops to clear each patch of ground, dividing the depth by half to lighten the load.  Sid dashed his shovel in here and there, just a little wild, sending his snow the farthest, a broadcast that showered them with sparkling powder.  The icy bits needled their necks but melted quickly along the edges of their collars and hats.

The clouds were still hanging low and now and again the snow began again, but they kept at their work steadily.  “It’s good we’re doing this,” George said. “Even if we get a couple more inches before dark, it’ll be so much less to move tomorrow.”

Sid paused and took his glasses off, tucking them into his coat pocket.

“They’re so beaded over, they’re really not helping,” he said.

George glanced back at the house now and again as they worked.  The low slung roof was lofted with almost two feet of snow, but it didn’t make the house look any prouder on the hill.  Rather, it gave him the impression of an old soul, huddled beneath the burden of too many blankets.  The chimney puffed a thin trail of smoke, a nostalgic perfume that made the afternoon seem cheery despite the storm.

Along the edge of the drive, where the plow had pushed by earlier on, the snow was dense and crusty.  They saved that for last and were finished in another twenty minutes.  Leaning against the shovel handles and breathing, they said nothing, two men glancing back over the results of their work.

“We’ll sleep good tonight,” George said. “That’s for sure.”

Sid smiled at the thought as he started back to the house.  They took their boots off at the threshold.  They beat their gloves and scarves and hats against the stone before stepping inside.  The warm front room was silent and shadowy, with an air about it which suggested it would always wait for them to come home.  The house, George thought again, was an old soul.

____________

The storm had started the night before, the thirteenth of February; they had no conceit that they would make it out for a Valentine’s dinner in a restaurant the next evening.  Eighteen years into a love affair that had begun with shy glances over a sandwich counter, they were not stuck on the idea that the romantic holiday needed roses and chocolates for decoration.

Long before the weather came, Sid had set himself the task of making a new dish for supper and last night had risked coming home late in the snow to procure all the ingredients.  George had roamed the house, worried until Sid’s headlights broached the drive.  Then he was so thankful that he’d made it in without trouble, he decided to simply relax into their snowbound holiday and let go of wanting to hold every cherished thing above calamity.  It was a goal he set for himself often, though it seldom stuck. In the back of his mind, it nagged him that he cared too much.

Those were the fears and thoughts of the thirteenth, gone on the breeze today like the snow Sid’s shovel had sent flying.  As the afternoon waned, George built up the fire and Sid began making dinner.  The recipe was more than he had reckoned on and soon there were heavy sighs coming from the kitchen and the percussion of bowls and measuring cups became somewhat frantic.  More than once, Sid popped his head through the door to ask for help converting measurements. His hair was askew and his cheeks were just a little red.  A moment later, George heard the kitchen window opening.

“You hot in there?” he called.

“A little.”

George found himself tightening up, absorbing his husband’s tension.  It seemed that goulash or sandwiches would have been much easier to pull off.  But he bit his lip and held his silence, not that they were above disagreement.  The house had witnessed many arguments and would witness more.  It seemed inevitable.  Today George was mindful of being a pest; it would be hellish to spend the holiday sulking.

Finally Sid seemed to get ahead of himself in the kitchen.  George came in and helped stir things in pots.  He caught up some of the dishes.  When he saw that Sid had pulled out special china, the plates with the gold edging and the turquoise band all around, he glanced down at his pajamas and thought maybe he ought to look a little more dressed for dinner.  He found a red sweater lying over the ironing board in the laundry room and put it on.  At least he’d look respectable sitting at the table.

Sid always told him he looked beautiful in red, though he felt a little more like himself in grey or blue.  When he returned to the kitchen, Sid glanced up from the stove.

“You cold?”

“No, just wanted to look nice for supper.”

He wished they had flowers.  When they were younger – when they had so much less – he always made an effort to keep fresh flowers in the house.  Now they came and went according to whim.  He eased around Sid, their kitchen being so small it made working side by side into something of a choreographed dance, and took the scissors out of the dish on the counter.  When he got to the front room, he couldn’t remember where he’d left his shoes, so he stepped out onto the front stoop bare footed. Leaning far out over the stoop, he snipped some of the withered hydrangea blooms they had not deadheaded back in the fall.  Careful to cradle them so they’d shed none of their snowy beards, he held them close to his chest as he eased back into the house.

Three bowls held the blooms nicely.  He put tea candles all around them, hoping the snow would sparkle in the light.  Sid seemed delighted with them as he put their plates down.  The dinner was wonderful, worth the late drive through the snow and the hour of high tension in the kitchen. George was mindful to give thanks, lest his earlier hesitations had registered.

He watched the white beards melting off the hydrangea as they ate, knowing that their sweet union, their years together were not unlike the snow.  No hour could be seized and held forever, just as warmth pulls water from ice.  His life would melt away, like the sparkles on the winsome bouquets of their Valentine dinner.

He glanced up at Sid, who was studying him softly.

“Just think,” Sid said. “In a few months, they’ll come back again.  Remember how bright they were last summer?”

George smiled back, reminded happily of the blooms that follow the melts, months chasing months, each with a lesson blessedly forgotten from season to season.

Missouri

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Julie nodded.

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

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

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

____________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

____________

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

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

Two Baths

She was five when they lived on Darby Road.  The house was small, a brick rancher with yellow wood floors and green bathroom tiles.  In the afternoon before her father came home, her mother ran the bath until it was only a bit full.  Then she put her in the tepid water and washed her with a soapy cloth.  She was a daydreamer girl, mesmerized by the gentle touch, the wallpaper pattern of bird cages, the shadows of the pine needles slanting across the window sill.

“You got good and dirty today, little girl,” her mother never failed to say.  “Now let me check that belly button. Promise not to be ticklish this time.”  Their laughter made the dim little house seem bright.

Her mother’s hands were red and creased, the nails wide, plain ovals.  In winter, the skin was rough from carrying in the fire wood, chapped by the cold winds.  In summer, the skin was peanut butter brown and there were calluses from gardening.  Looking up at her mother from the bath water, she thought the tired eyes were beautiful.  They were brown back then, she would always remember.  Later, they silvered with age.

____________

Many years later, when she was a woman, she lived with her husband in an apartment in town.  The walls were white everywhere, and the floors a dim gold that refused to honey with washing.  It was a homely little place where each balcony faced another, exactly the same, across a square inner yard of tightly shorn grass.

His name was Andrew and she loved him very dearly.  He was a gentle person.  He taught her to do things he knew how to do, like change the engine oil, because she asked him how.  When she told him she was lonely in the apartment during the days, he got her a small dog they named Spook, because his birthday was Halloween.   The dog was a menace and it took her a long while to grow fond of it.  She never told Andrew, though, because it had been sweet of him to think of it.

When her husband got sick, they went to many doctors.  No one could cure him and in little time he went from golden to grey.  On a windy March evening, as he lay in the hospital, squeezing her hand, he whispered that he wished they were home together.  Despite its bone-colored walls and bare tables, he loved that place because it was theirs.  She took him out of the hospital that night, despite the protests of the doctors.

At the apartment, she made up his bed on the sofa.  She put the stacks of bills in a kitchen drawer so he wouldn’t see them.  Spook climbed up and curled beside him.  When he grew feverish and cold some hours later,  she drew a hot bath and she took his weight full against her as she helped him into the water.  Gently, she bathed his pale shoulders, the thin arms and neck.  She was glad when he closed his eyes because she was not able to stop the tears.

He smiled at her and stilled her hands.  He said, “Isn’t this bath full enough already, sugar?”   He was kind enough to want to make her laugh, so she pushed up a smile for him and gave his nose a tweak.

When she got to his feet, she heard a last sigh and he was gone.  Her knees and her back ached and she sank down to sit next to the tub.  She found his hand and held it in hers until the water and his skin grew cold.  Dawn was slanting through the apartment, a fragile light spilling into the hall.

The Farm Dream

When they found the land, it seemed the perfect compromise.  Benny longed for the country life of her childhood on a small West Virginia farm.  Mike wanted a place closer to his job in Bethesda.  On the Maryland land she could make the farm she’d always wanted and he would be able to get home by at least half past six.

Once it was decided, they packed the kids in the station wagon and took them to see the land.  A spring rain stopped just before they arrived, but the trees were good and soaked, their lines charcoal dark against tender green undergrowth.  Mike jumped out and untied the rusting metal gate, lifting it out of the grass and walking it open.  He was a squarish man in his late thirties who’d been growing thicker by the year, but in that moment he was almost dashing.  He got back in and drove them up to the crest of a hill.

The kids were wide-eyed and a little unsure of the plan.  In the way that a child will connect only some of the dots, the boy thought this meant leaving their toys at the current house.  He had a brief picture of how his mound of stuffed animals had looked just before he left his bedroom that morning.  He was pretty sure the fluffy green dragon he called Baby Jesus had been wearing a worried expression.  Pressing his lips together, he said nothing for a while.

Benny spread out a big piece of paper on the hood of the car to show the kids their scheme.  On it she and Mike had painstakingly drawn the footprint of the land and then they had drawn in the house they wanted to build, some outbuildings and garden paths.  The paper was fuzzy in spots from erasing thoughts, but they were so sure of the final outcome, Benny had started to color things in with marker.  With excitement she pointed first to the vegetable garden plot and then to the bridge they’d build for crossing the creek. The garden was rows of cloudy little tufts, some colored orange, some green, others yellows.  The bridge was a brown rectangle spanning a wavy band of blue.

The littlest girl noticed that they’d drawn a cat and two dogs standing in the front yard.  She smiled shyly, “It’s Sandy and Buster.”

“That’s right, Burpy,” Benny said, mussing her daughter’s fine blond hair.

“And Marmalade,” the boy said, fiercely defending the cat only he liked. “We’re not leaving her!” He turned away and scowled into the distance.

Benny and Mike gave each other a secretive smile.  They thought their boy was a bit peculiar.  At six he was something of the grumpy old man of the house, though at times he was as light and sweet as any child.  Mike picked him up and gave him some tickles along the ribs and soon he was giggling despite himself.

They turned back to the drawing on the car hood.  Chewing on a strand of her hair, their oldest leaned in closer.  “What’s the inside of the house look like?” she asked.

Benny took a rolled up magazine out of her big purse and opened it to a dog-eared page.  In vivid water color tones, there was a drawing of a farm house with a fancy glass door and a deep porch.  Just below it was an overhead view of the layout inside the house.

“We’re going to change the porch,” Benny said. “And make it a wrap around.”

The kids gathered closer.  She pointed out the big bonus room over the garage.  “I thought this would be a fun place to set up sleeping quarters if we wanted to have the aunts and uncles and cousins over for the holidays.  Wouldn’t it be fun if everyone could cozy in for Thanksgiving and no one had to drive home?”

Thinking of the book she was reading him at night, The Little House in the Big Woods, the little boy pictured snow on the ground and a Christmas tree strung with cranberries.  He forgot to worry about his stuffed animals. The little smile that tucked into his face made Benny’s heart skip.  Little Crosspatch was on board.  With surprisingly little fuss, they assigned the bedrooms and talked a little bit about what color they might paint the walls.

It was a perfect and beautiful day for the family; the magic of the dream pulled the children in as the last clouds rolled off.  Mike opened the back of the station wagon and took out a picnic basket they’d hidden under the car blanket.  Inside were sandwiches, bags of chips and bottles of juice.  The oldest pulled the crust off her bread and ate the rest slowly, laying on her back and staring dreamily out over the rolling hills.  Little Burpy took everything off her sandwich, closed it again, and ate just the mayonnaise and bread.  The boy eyed the abandoned ham and cheese jealously and was about to reach out and purloin it, when his father’s blunt-tipped fingers dropped from above, plucking up the discards.  He watched the food disappear into Mike’s mouth,  the whole of it in one bite, like a snake on the National Geographic show eating a mouse.  The thought made him momentarily lose his appetite, but soon enough the salty chips lured him back.

Benny watched her brood closely, happy they were behind she and Mike on the plan.  It was important that they all believe in this together.  This was the first thing she and Mike had cared as much about in a long time.  She’d forgotten the feel of being close.  The farm dream was going to save them.

It was hard to be in a marriage that was slipping loose from its tethers, harder still in a house with children.  There were nights when they cursed at one another in the kitchen, muzzling their rage into sharp whispers as not to wake the kids.  Falling asleep exhausted, holding each other, she’d woken with more headaches than she could count.  Yet the children still needed to be fought out of bed, coerced into their clothes, watched from the window until they disappeared into the black mouth of the school bus.  Then and only then could she settle enough to explore her feelings.  Usually by then she just wanted to be with Mike, to feel out where they stood, to see if he really had forgiven her the things she said in anger.  He was a good guy, a steady father.  She often felt like he deserved better than her, except when they were fighting – then he needed to be reminded of just how lucky he was to have her.

They had been working on it more this year, trying to make it better, since they found the oldest standing in the kitchen doorway late one night, her eyes saucer wide, spilling tears at the things she’d heard them say.   Some instinct in motherhood was much stronger than whatever vanity had spurred their argument.  In an instant, her anger at Mike had vanished and her only thought was to remove the white mask of horror from the girl’s face.

Benny stole a glance at her now.  A freckled strawberry girl about to become a woman, her Julie was by nature quiet and pale.  She fought herself not to project judgment in the girl’s silence.  Even before she had discovered the ugly underside of their marriage, Julie had been this internal.  She was at times ethereal.  Benny reached a hand out over the gingham blanket and smoothed the girl’s long auburn hair.  A pair of soft grey eyes looked up into hers, sparkling in the sunlight.

Gently, Benny admonished her, “Stop chewing your hair. It’s filled with germs.”

The girl shrugged and looked away.  Shortly after, they started to gather up the wrappers and bottles.  Mike suggested they walk the property line together, but Julie said she had a headache and wanted to stay in the car and read.  Clamping her mouth closed, Benny turned away, folding up the blanket.  Mike gave her arm a squeeze.

“She’s fine.”

The little ones were quick as lightning along the hills and through the forest of the property.  Benny and Mike had trouble keeping up with them.  They came to the creek and he helped each of them over before crossing himself, careful on the stones, arms out to keep his balance.

When they got back to the car, Julie was sitting on the hood, Indian style, chewing a strand of hair and reading a romance novel.  Mike was laughing as they approached, as Benny tried to answer the little boy’s string of questions.

“Of course Marmalade won’t drown in the brook.”

“What’s that?”

“The brook is another word for creek.”

“Why’d you call it that?”

Mike said, “Someone will gets tickles if he doesn’t button up.”

They climbed in the station wagon and Mike turned it around slowly, heedful of getting the tires mired in the soft Spring earth.  On the county road, they came to a bend from which he and Benny had long ago noticed one could see the land.  He stopped the car and pointed out the view to the kids.

“The house will be at the top of that hill.”

Benny felt her breath catch.  Every wish to make things work out, to erase the sour moments of the past – it was all possible on this farm.  The kids peered out the dusty side windows with their lips a little parted, eyes wide and bright.  It seemed they caught the dream, too.  She folded her hands in her lap and there they stayed all the way home, shaped in a silent prayer.

Birthday Cake

When she had his company, Jo never wanted it, though he was a perfectly wonderful man.  He caught her not listening all the time and the look in his eyes made her feel like the worst kind of ass.  She’d double down, shutting away that inner landscape into which she so easily drifted, and pinch off an awkward apology.

She never wanted to be entirely alone, night on night; nor could she have imagined before the divorce the ice age of dawns, one on another, that came to gray her empty mornings.  In wanting solitude, she had simply imagined car rides with no date to keep; an afternoon of nosing through junk shops before sliding onto a diner stool at twilight for supper.  There would be no bolting her food to keep up, no conversation to keep or jokes to find the humor in.

He called her a year ago from a payphone in Washington.  It was muggy out at their place, but in the city it was cold and rainy.  His car had broken down again.  In the way that small calamities speak for big, terrible problems that go unheard, the busted car was the beginning of their end.  As she sat on the sofa, the phone to her ear, a cigarette smoldering in an ashtray on her lap, he unleashed a newlywed’s year of unhappiness. The commute was too much for him.  His work buddies were still sipping dripping wet cocktails while he was inching through traffic toward the dull outpost of their country life.  And he hated that the house needed more work than they had the time to tend.  At last he choked out the dreadful, truest thing: he hated that she didn’t really seem to want him there.  Jo remembered she’d been drifting away again; that brought her back around like a slap on the face.

“What was that?”

Over the extension she heard the rain on the concrete.  He said, “Seems like that to me.”

“I know,” she said.

There was a brief silence. “I’ll be honest, Jo. I’m scared.”

For a moment she wished they had a second car so she could go to him, but another part of her imagined the chilly ride back, the two of them huddled in the interior, trying to knit what they’d unraveled.  A chill tracked her spine as she pounded out her cigarette.  She felt a dreadful remorse, a pity for the two of them as heavy as the dead.  Staring into the shadows of the hall, she said, “Maybe I can borrow Becky’s car.  I could get there in an hour or so.”

“No,” he said.  “Don’t do that. I’ll stay with Mike.  He said I could use the sofa.”

Jo nodded.

“Maybe I’m just tired.  Look, I’ll call you tomorrow.”

They decided with little drama to drop the whole thing about two weeks later.  With no bickering to gum up the works, the paperwork resolved itself quickly.  He moved in with an old college buddy and she took back her maiden name.  The curious thing about their one year marriage was that it had carved contours in her life that seemed shallow but were hard to fill. The house was small, but its loneliness was as vast as caverns. When Christmas time came, she put up a tree so her sister would bring over the kids.  In taking out the decorations, she was struck with fresh, unexpected waves of despair.

It shook her enough to call her friend Becky.  They split a bottle of bourbon on her porch, a not so cold December Friday night, and Becky was good company.  “Well, you said you didn’t love him, but I bet you did just a little bit.  Maybe like a pet.”

That made Jo cry fresh tears even as she laughed.  Becky watched her for a moment with what counted as a shrug in her eyes.  “Look, I guess I just don’t think it’s that surprising you miss him at Christmas.  I miss my dad at Christmas and that was the meanest son of a bitch I ever knew.  Any other time of year, I could spit on his grave.  That’s why it’s such a shit holiday.”

“So what do I do?”

“You go in there and finish decorating that tree – I’ll help – and you get your family over and you just do Christmas.  What do you want, a blueprint? You never had to fake your way through a party before?”

In her own callow way, Becky got Jo through the holidays.  And once the tree came down, things seemed a little better again.  In January she watched Reagan’s inauguration on the television, while a girlfriend from the office worked blond dye into her hair. Seeing the color in the mirror, she lit a cigarette and said, “No. Let’s take it back.”

Her girlfriend talked her into letting it alone for a while.  That week a guy in the front office asked her out.  On Friday he took her to dinner and then over the state line for drinks and dancing.  It was a honky-tonk place and she hated the music, but the beers kept coming and he was a funny kind of guy, so she decided she was going to let the night cheer her up.  Somehow they got back to her place without wrecking the car.  He was so drunk he passed out on her couch.  She made him breakfast the next morning, but by then she didn’t find him that funny anymore.

“You’re not listening to me, are you?” he asked.

She looked up and saw a bit of egg stuck to the corner of his mouth.  For a moment, she poised to make an excuse, to spare his feelings.  Instead she shrugged. “No, I wasn’t.”

Her girlfriend at work told her on Monday that her date was going around saying she gave him a blow job on the way home from the roadhouse. She laughed until her stomach hurt.  The other woman looked at her like she was mad.  On the ride home she cried about it a little because it pissed her off: the lie he told, how quickly it got back to her.  That night, she bought a box of Clairol and took her hair back to brown.

At the end of March they were filling out quarterly reports when someone called and said they should turn on the radio. The president had been shot.  The whole staff gathered around the unit in the lobby and listened to the updates coming in.  When she got home, she sat in the kitchen and smoked while the oven heated up a frozen dinner.  As the house filled with the smell of salisbury steak, she wondered what the first lady might be doing.  It was hard to imagine her in a hospital room, all that coiffed perfection amid bedpans and bloody bandages.  It was easier to imagine her on a platform somewhere, a hair lollipop in a bright red wrapper.

Maybe old Nancy hadn’t gone to the hospital.  Maybe she was sitting in her room at the White House with a fox pelt around her shoulders, listening to reports come in from a little army of efficient secretaries.  Jo wondered if the president’s wife ever found herself drifting away during dinnertime chatter.  Ronny might reproach her in his ash and brown sugar voice.  She’d crank that shiny little smile, murmuring, “So then what did Khomeini say?”

He would look hurt.  “I wasn’t talking about that, Mommy.”

In April her birthday came and she said good-bye to her twenties over a coconut cake her sister made.  It was a little dry, but they washed it down with a sweet white wine from Kroger.  She woke up the next morning with a dry headache and remembered too late it was a work day.  Making the necessary apologies on the phone, she hopped in the shower and was heading across town ten minutes later.  Her hair wasn’t yet dry in back.  She pulled into the parking lot outside the office and then she sat in the car, staring at the light bouncing off all the windshields.  It was a bright, brisk, blinding morning.  A rain that came in the night had washed the new leaves clean.  It was a day that wanted nothing to do with nylons and bra straps.

She thought of the pink and white streamers her sister had taped up all over the little back porch last night, still twirling in the breeze today.  There was a big wedge of cake in the refrigerator.  She tried to remember if Alan had ever come to get his wind chimes out of the trees in the yard.  Thinking about their silver music made a sad lump press her throat.  Still, she wanted to know if they were hanging there, jangling, and she wanted more cake and to loll under the streamers, blissfully alone. Something was returning to her and she didn’t plan to miss its arrival.  She laughed like a fool all the way home and she never looked back.