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.”
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.