Sunday, May 2, 2010
Saturday, April 5, 2008
The midnight air was biting; it was sharp and cold as he drew his breath in, letting it out again in a gusty sigh. He collapsed against the car, a 1985 dark blue Cressida that gleamed against the blackness of the sky behind it.
Taking another deep breath, the icy tingles in his lungs somehow calming, he opened the door and slung himself into the driver’s seat. He closed his eyes, allowing his head to fall against the seat, and he relaxed. His heart beat slowed.
“You’re out of shape, Dominic,” he said to no one, his eyes still closed.
Snapping his head up, he sighed again and turned the key in the ignition.
“Sleep later,” he muttered.
He drove in silence for as long as he could stand it, maybe ten miles. Maybe fifteen. He wasn’t sure. He pressed the radio button, hoping for something from the vast expanse of nothingness beyond him. He didn’t know if he’d get radio reception here, but he needed more than the hum of the tires beneath him.
AM sixty-three was playing country music. That would do. It was better than the loud emptiness of the car screaming at him. He glanced at the clock on the dashboard. It was a quarter of one. Sheila liked him to be home by two o’clock on his nights out. She didn’t mind if he played pool until the bar lights came on, but it was understood she wanted him home right after. There were too many pretty women in tight t-shirts and jeans who might be interested in a ride home, and Sheila didn’t want them getting their rides from Dominic.
He gave a rueful smile. If only Sheila knew the number of times he’d heard offers from those pretty women. He’d buy them a drink, maybe two, maybe a few games of pool. He’d listen to them talk, and he’d let them curl a hand on his shoulder while they pretended to watch him shoot a game. He’d hold a gaze or two, letting them think they saw promise in his eyes as they lowered their lashes, thick with mascara, in mock coy glances.
Dominic liked to flirt.
He was tempted once in a while, and sometimes he’d have to excuse himself to the bar for a bourbon, letting the smooth oak taste squelch the urge to slide his arms around a slender waist and accept what was being offered. He wasn’t a man to cheat on his wife. Those were urges to fight.
Now he fought the urge to close his eyes again. He cracked the window of the Cressida, wanting to feel again the surge of the chill night breeze.
It didn’t matter anymore. As the miles sped underneath his tires and behind him, his mind eased. It didn’t matter if he arrived home at two o’clock, three, four, or five. It didn’t matter if the faint aroma of Obsession clung to his hair or his shirt, and it didn’t matter if a dab of coral pink sullied the cuff of his shirt.
It wouldn’t matter if he came home early again. Sheila’s wide blue eyes, half-hidden by a wall of pale blonde hair, would no longer tell him he wasn’t expected; her lusty gasps would no longer tell him he wasn’t wanted.
The pungent tang of the fresh earth was all that perfumed him now, the damp bits molded into the tread of his shoes, dark strips outlining the edges of his fingernails. Soon, even those traces would be gone, the shoes rinsed in the icy water of the tap on the porch, and the fingernails raked through thick black hair under the spray of an extra hot shower.
Tonight, Dominic would have the king-sized bed to himself.
Tuesday, February 5, 2008
The silver coffee service had belonged to his mother. He watched Gloria polish it with an old t-shirt of his, years of tarnish removed under her vigorous hand. He was touched that Gloria was giving such care to the coffee service; maybe she wanted to display it with her other treasures as an honored heirloom.
“What’s it worth, do you think?” she said suddenly, holding her arm out to admire her work. “A few hundred? I think eBay would bring in more money than a pawn shop, don’t you?”
Marvin was startled. She wanted to sell the coffee service? He thought of his mother, lying quietly, cold and alone, waiting for day they would commit her spirit. And what Gloria was thinking of was not her dearly departed mother-in-law but the money she could get from selling her heirlooms? It was unthinkable. Marvin reached over and snatched the sugar bowl from his wife’s plump fingers.
“We will NOT sell this coffee set!” His voice was harsh. “It was Mother’s. She wanted us to have it. She wanted us to have all of this.” His hand swept around the small kitchen, including the table at which Gloria sat, the Formica-topped dinette with the chrome frame.
“Wanted you to have it,” Gloria snorted. “When did she say that? She was hording everything in this house, never threw out or gave away a thing. What makes you think she cared about that coffee service? Why should I care about it?”
“And probably kept it in that damn box the last fifty years,” Gloria snapped. “I knew her for twenty-five years, Marvin. If she wanted me to have that coffee service, she’d have given it to me instead of letting it tarnish in a box.”
“Why are you bothering to polish it now?” Marvin asked sullenly, idly playing with the tissue in the box at Gloria’s elbow.
“I wanted to see if it was worth anything before we took it with us. I’m telling you, Marvin, ninety percent of this junk will be hauled to the Goodwill before we go home!”
Marvin sat down and eyed Gloria with resentment.
“These are Mother’s things,” he said evenly. “We will go through them with the care they deserve, even if it takes all weekend. This is all I have left of her.”
“Stop being sentimental, Marvin. Most of it is junk.” Gloria’s eyes surveyed the countertops, loaded down with boxes and stacks of old dishes and piles of ragged towels and washcloths.
“Anything of collectible value, I’m putting on eBay,” she continued. “The rest can get dumped.”
Marvin was silent. He didn’t like this, not one bit. The dollar signs in Gloria’s eyes were distinctly unattractive. Collectibles? Sell Mother’s things on eBay? How could Gloria be so heartless? It was true that his wife had never really gotten along with his mother. They had grudgingly accepted one another’s presence as a part of Marvin’s life, but he had no idea that Gloria would be so ready to erase his mother’s very existence.
“This probably will take all weekend,” Gloria grumbled as she rummaged in a boxful of 1960s Melmac dishes.
“Here?” Gloria asked. “You want me to sleep in your mother’s room? The sheets are probably still warm.” She wrinkled her nose in disgust.
“You can use the guest room if it’s that distasteful to you, Gloria,” Marvin responded primly.
“And what about that bathroom? The plumbing is out again! I’m supposed to stay in a house where the toilet doesn’t flush?”
“I’ll take care of it, Gloria. Don’t worry.”
Gloria continued to putter in the kitchen, occasionally muttering under her breath unflattering comments about her mother-in-law’s housekeeping and her taste. She tossed piece after piece into a large box she had marked “junk.” A few things were set on the table next to the silver coffee service, Gloria evidently intent on selling them. Marvin wondered what she would do with the money she made off of the trappings of his mother’s life.
“No taste at all,” Gloria grumbled. “Junk, most of it. Not even worth an estate sale. Gas station premiums. Did she get all of her ‘good china’ as gas station premiums? Not even a single piece of Mikasa. No Fiestaware. What a waste of time.”
He went into the bedroom and closed the door, sitting on the rose chenille spread that adorned her bed. The room smelled of perfume and sickness, and it held the air of her death in it. He was sorry he hadn’t been able to care for her better. He was sorry she had wasted away and he had been unable to stop it. He was sorry now that Gloria didn’t have a greater respect for the dead and the pieces of property that kept him connected to his mother.
Gloria would want to sell the house too, he expected. He had grown up in this tiny house, and before too long all the remnants of his childhood would be gone, auctioned to the highest bidder and Gloria counting the cash his mother’s death had given her. He shuddered, his thin shoulders shaking as he tried to fight back the tears.
He opened the jewelry box, nearly empty except for the pearl necklace and the pearl earrings in the heavy gold setting. Mother hadn’t worn them often. She complained that they pinched her ears.
He picked up the necklace and earrings, slipping them into the pocket of his jeans.
“Gloria won’t sell these, Mother,” he whispered. “I’ll keep them as a memento of you. Gloria is so wrong, Mother. She wants to erase you from our memories. I think she’s glad you died. I think she’s glad to be rid of you.” He laughed bitterly. “I had no idea my wife was so cold, Mother. I’m sorry about that. Maybe you were right all those years ago. Maybe I shouldn’t have married her.”
Marvin sighed heavily, his despair pressing in on his chest. He didn’t want to divide his loyalties between his mother and his wife. Gloria had been a good wife, if somewhat distant, and he needed her to understand how important his mother’s things were to him. He needed her to understand he couldn’t just get rid of them. He couldn’t get rid of his memories.
With the pearl necklace and earrings safe in his pocket, he made his way back to the kitchen, where Gloria’s “junk” box was overflowing. Gloria was nowhere to be seen.
“Gloria?” Marvin called. “Where are you?”
Her response was muffled, coming from the basement below.
“I’m down here!” she answered, sounding cross. “So many boxes down here…Marvin, didn’t that woman ever throw anything away? Come down here and help me!”
Marvin was reluctant. He didn’t like the basement. It was poorly lit and dank, and it smelled of mildew. The stairs creaked under his feet as he descended. The mildew odor assaulted his nostrils. The basement had never been finished, and the hard concrete floor felt cold even through his shoes. The washer and dryer were down there, next to the furnace and the water heater. There were boxes piled everywhere. Old clothes, mostly ruined from age and damp, hung from the pipes across the ceiling.
“I need some trash bags,” Gloria said as she looked up and saw Marvin standing next to her. “Almost everything down here is ruined. We’ll have to pay someone to haul out all of this mess. Didn’t your mother know the basement had water damage?”
“I don’t think so,” Marvin answered. “She rarely came down here. She did her washing in the bathtub.”
“Damn shame,” Gloria muttered. “Some of these things might have been valuable or collectible. She must have saved every piece of clothing she’d ever owned since the 1940s. All ruined now. Ruined.”
Marvin felt his mother’s presence swirling in this room. She was here. It was palpable. Some of the dresses he saw hanging up were unrecognizable, but some of them held the image of their original condition. He remembered the housedresses she wore when he was a little boy. He could see her in them now, forty years melting away inside his brain, the ghosts of his memories ringing in his ears: Marvin! Put that frog outside! Don’t bring that filthy thing in here! Marvin! Stand up straight. Comb your hair! Do you want folks thinking I don’t know how to bring you up? Marvin! Don’t get trapped by a girl. You stay away from those town girls! Nothing but trouble! Marvin! Don’t you marry that Gloria Lowry! She’s trouble. I can tell! You leave her be and stay here to take care of your poor old mother. Marvin! Marvin! Marvin!
Marvin put his hands to his ears.
“What in heaven’s name is wrong with you?” Gloria looked at him curiously. “You look as if you’ve seen a ghost.”
He turned and walked back up the stairway into the sunlight streaming through the kitchen window. He found the trash bags on the counter next to the sink and picked up the box. With his other hand, he reached into his pocket and rolled the pearl necklace between his fingers.
“I’ve tried to do right by you, Mother,” he said sorrowfully. “I’m sorry your things were ruined. I’m sorry Gloria is so angry.
He closed his eyes and leaned against the counter, his grief coming to him in a torrent. Dimly, he heard Gloria’s footsteps on the staircase.
“What’s keeping you?” she snapped, crossing the top step and entering the kitchen. “I have to bag up most of that garbage in plastic so they’ll haul it away.” She snatched the box from Marvin.
“You’re no help,” she complained when Marvin didn’t move or open his eyes. “Useless. I’m left to do all this by myself. That woman was a packrat. A filthy packrat. Did her washing in the bathtub? No wonder nothing seems really clean. Damn shame she let all those old clothes go to ruin…that fool of a woman…” Gloria continued her tirade as she headed back to the basement to stuff the contents of rotting cardboard cartons into the trash bags.
“Just like his mother, not a lick of sense, and nobody thought to check the basement? She must have been senile for years, don’t know what….” Gloria’s voice was broken by a scream piercing the heavy air.
Marvin’s eyes flew open. Gloria was screaming. Why was Gloria screaming? He pulled himself from the spot near the counter and went around to the staircase. His eyes widened as he saw Gloria at the bottom of the stairs, her body contorted in a grotesque tableau. Blood trickled from the corner of her mouth, and her glassy eyes stared upward, seeing nothing.
Marvin’s heart pounded and he felt his mother with him again. He fingered the necklace in his pocket.
“It’s a shame, Gloria,” he said, shaking his head sadly at the figure below. “It’s a shame you had to push Mother so hard. You had to know she’d push back.”
Monday, July 9, 2007
Kurt read back what he had written and frowned. He pounded the desk with his fist.
“It’s shit,” he said disgustedly, his own voice echoing in the emptiness of the house. He clicked and highlighted the text, stabbing the delete key with more force than was necessary. He rested his elbow on the desk, placing his forehead in his hand, utterly weary physically and mentally.
After a moment, he sat up with a jerk and shook his head.
“Coffee,” he said to no one in particular, standing up and heading for the kitchen to put on a pot. A look at the clock over the stove told him it was just past 2:30 in the morning. He had a deadline to meet. His editor was expecting these chapters tomorrow. Today. In truth, he had wanted the chapters days ago, but Kurt had been unable to oblige. He felt now as if he were in a vise, but he had no choice. He had to write until he had something that would work. Something. Anything.
He filled the coffeemaker with water, measured the coffee into the filter, and flicked the switch. He leaned back against the counter to watch the coffee brew, his mind trying to find the track that would take him back into his book. He felt helpless, as if he had no control over his ability – or lack thereof – to write.
The coffee dripped steadily into the carafe, the popping, dripping sound the only noise in the oppressively quiet house. Nothing had gone right since Olivia had died. She had been everything to Kurt: his life, his heart, his light, and his soul. When she had died, she had taken his Muse with her. His inspiration had been wrapped up in her, and all the music and beauty in his life had died when she did.
For six months, Kurt had been restlessly and aimlessly walking the floors in this empty house, searching in vain for respite from the searing ache in his heart, but there was never comfort. The emptiness weighed on him, threatening to crush him. The silence was a scream that echoed endlessly in his ears. Time had not eased his own screams.
His mother called daily, trying to pull him from the quicksand.
“Kurt,” she would say. “You have to go on living. Olivia wouldn’t have wanted your life to end with hers. She loved you. She wouldn’t want this for you.” Her pleading didn’t help him. Sometimes he’d listen quietly. Other times he’d rage at her.
“Leave me be! What can I possibly have that’s worth having without Olivia! She was everything!” Eventually his mother would hang up, only to try again the next day. There were many days when Kurt refused to answer the phone at all.
The coffee was done. He pulled a mug from the cupboard, filled it, and took a hard swallow, heedless of the burning on his tongue. He wrapped his hands around the mug as if for his own life, hanging on to anything that might anchor him. In his mind he saw her, young and beautiful and healthy, standing in this kitchen the day after he had brought her home from their honeymoon.
She stood at the counter, slicing carrots and tomatoes into a big teakwood bowl of lettuce, her ash blonde hair shimmering in the late afternoon sun streaming through the kitchen window. Kurt sat opposite her, nursing a glass of white wine, watching the sunlight playing on her hair and skin. He marveled that this lovely, lively young woman was his bride. He thought he’d never known a happier moment.
“I love you,” he said, reaching out a hand to touch her. She smiled, her warmth radiating through the kitchen and penetrating the deepest parts of Kurt.
“I love you too.” She leaned over and kissed him with soft lips. He breathed her scent, filling his lungs with her.
“I can’t wait to have a dozen babies with you and fill this house with their laughter,” she said excitedly, a shine in her green eyes.
“And they’ll all be beautiful, just like their mother.”
Olivia blushed at that, finishing the vegetables and tossing the salad with her hands.
“No more beautiful than you,” she said.
Hot tears surprised Kurt. He wasn’t a crier.
She had been beautiful, his Olivia. Even at the end, when the cancer had ravaged her body and taken her strength, she had been beautiful. He’d have given own his life for her if only she hadn’t had to suffer.
They had been married only ten months when she’d developed the blinding headaches that sent them rushing to her doctor for answers. For help. Answers they had gotten; for help, there was none. The cancer had taken her quickly. Olivia had been just twenty-four years old when she died.
Kurt drained the mug of coffee, refilled it, and padded down the darkened, quiet hallway back to the den. He sat in the leather chair in front of his desk once more, watching the cursor blink its rhythm on the blank screen in front of him. His penciled notes were strewn about the desk, some of them crumpled in his frustration and spilling over onto the Oriental rug beneath his feet. The half-eaten remains of his supper lay at the back of the desk. Movement caught Kurt’s eye, and he turned to see a large spider crawl across the abandoned plate. His first thought was to smash it with his fist, but with a muttered remark about karma, he instead scooped it up with his napkin. He stood and strode into the foyer, opening the heavy door and unceremoniously dumping the spider into the darkness outside.
“Go home,” he said senselessly, wondering if he was slowly going insane.
He stood a moment, breathing the sharply chilled air. He wondered if the cold burst into his lungs would clear the dissonance in his head. The still, cloudless darkness renewed his sense of urgency to meet his deadline, but nothing eased the dull ache left hanging in his body. He slammed the door shut and threw the deadbolt.
Back in the den he sat in front of the uncompromising computer, the blank page looming there. He took a large swallow of coffee and began again, starting and stopping in dissatisfaction and deleting more than he saved.
“Damn it!” he shouted, hearing the reverb sting his ears. “Damn damn damn. I can’t write!”
He jumped up suddenly, knocking over the mug of coffee. It dripped off the edge of the desk onto the rug, soaking the crumpled papers that lay there.
Kurt knelt, violently throwing the coffee-stained paper into the wastebasket. As the wet seeped into the rug, his own tears shocked him once more.
“I’m sorry, Olivia,” he said ruefully. “I know you loved this rug. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He fetched a thick towel from the closet in the hall and pressed it against the rug, hoping to pull the coffee out of its fibers. As he mopped at the mess, another spider crawled in front of him.
“Where did you come from?” he asked sharply. “Go outside with your buddy.” He scooped the spider up, this time with his bare hands, and tossed it into the cold as he had done before. “Find your friend! Leave me alone.”
“It’s no use!” he bellowed, leaning back against the front door as he closed it. “I give up! I’m not going to write again.”
Kurt started. He shook his head. What the hell…? Was he hearing things? Where had that voice come from? Had he finally snapped completely, going over the edge to insanity? He heard it again.
“You can write. You have to stop trying to control it.”
“Who are you!” Kurt yelled. “Am I crazy?”
“You’re not crazy. Go sit. Write.”
“I can’t.” Kurt’s voice was bitter. He stormed back into the den and flung his body into the leather chair. As he watched the cursor blink, an idea slowly formed in his head and began to consume his thoughts. A few moments later, he hunched over the keyboard and began to thump out the words, faster and faster until his furious fingers had trouble keeping pace with his brain. His breath was rapid, jagged, and his eyes glazed as the story came with ever increasing speed.
As the first dim gray light of dawn began to peer into the windows, Kurt’s fingers at last rested. He lay his head on the desk and allowed the weariness to take over. He slept. A single spider crawled across the back of his hand and stopped in front of the keyboard to watch him.
“These are great, Kurt,” Barry enthused. “Best work I’ve seen from you in months.” He shuffled the papers, spot reading portions here and there.
“You’re the editor, Barry. I’ll take your word for it.” Kurt gave him a weak smile. “My night took a lot out of me,” he explained at Barry’s look of concern. “I wound up sleeping at my desk.”
Barry laughed. “Worse writers than you have done the same,” he said. His face becoming serious, he placed a hand on Kurt’s shoulder. “Do you think you should talk to someone about it?”
“About what? Sleeping at my desk?”
“No. About Olivia’s death.”
Kurt pulled away from him. “No. I’m fine. I’ve – I’ve got to go now, Barry. Get back to me with your revision notes.” Kurt snatched his leather briefcase and left the editor’s office abruptly.
When he arrived home, he went immediately to the den. The chair in front of the desk still felt warm. The large coffee stain on the Oriental rug was gone. Kurt’s eyes were drawn to the computer screen in front of him, the cursor blinking rapidly next to the words typed there. He read, his mouth agape, his eyes widening as he stood up, gripping the edge of the desk and following the words again and again:
I love you, Kurt. Keep writing. O.
In a corner of the room, a spider began carefully spinning a web.
Bonnie glanced out the window as she washed the dishes. The brilliant blue of the early summer sky drew her eyes. Her backyard was sunny and inviting, the tiny deck surrounded by the blooming annuals she had planted just two weeks before. Her watchful gaze took in the budding oak tree, the apple tree, the lavender plants, and the yellow cotton sheets flapping gently in the morning breeze.
Today would be the day.
As Bonnie rinsed the last plate and carefully placed it in the draining rack, Jeff came stumbling into the kitchen. He was unshaven and bleary-eyed, suffering the after effects of last night’s binge. He didn’t look as though he had slept at all, though Bonnie had heard his snores most of the night. His stench was powerful, and Bonnie wrinkled her nose.
“Get me some breakfast,” Jeff spat at her as he sat down at the little round table and picked up the newspaper.
“I’ve already eaten and washed up, Jeff. It’s past ten o’clock.”
“Do you want to be that stupid, you dumb bitch?” Jeff glared at her from around the newspaper, his dark eyes clouded with unspent fury. “I said, get me some breakfast.”
Bonnie nervously twisted one end of her pink and white gingham apron.
“Okay, Jeff,” she said quietly, removing a shiny copper-bottomed frying pan from the dish draining rack. It was an old pan, in need of a new handle or at least solder for the current one, but Bonnie kept it as clean as new. She wiped it dry with her apron and set it on the stove top. As she cracked eggs into the pan, she looked over her shoulder at Jeff still sitting at the table. She wondered what it was eight years ago that had made her think she loved him. She couldn’t remember if there had ever been any real charm or appeal. She couldn’t remember if he had always been hotheaded. She couldn’t remember much of anything about him before the first time he had hit her, a blow that had come on her wedding night.
The wedding had been small and quick. She had worn a faded floral sundress and a white straw hat Jeff had said she could buy new. He had worn a threadbare brown suit with white shoes. They had stood in front of a judge in the county courthouse to take their vows, Jeff’s somber older sister their only witness.
After a quiet supper at the diner in the middle of town, Jeff had taken her to a motel on the outskirts for their wedding night. The motel was a little rundown, the green paint faded and peeling, the sign proudly proclaiming a color television in each room. It was in their tiny room over the sounds of that color television that Jeff had struck her. At seventeen, Bonnie had been a nervous bride, afraid of what she knew was to come in the marriage bed. Jeff had not wanted to wait. He had not wanted to be patient or gentle with his young wife and had responded to her tears with violence. He had punched her face, and when she was sufficiently cowed, had ripped the sundress from her body and relieved himself on her, rolling over with a groan when he was finished.
The next morning, Bonnie had woken to a bruised jaw and a ravaged spirit.
Eight years of marriage hadn’t changed or mellowed Jeff at all. In fact, he’d gotten worse. Bonnie carefully flipped the eggs in the pan and slid them onto a plate with a slice of buttered toast. The eggs were as perfectly “over easy” as any could be. She set the plate in front of Jeff and went to the counter to pour him a mug of coffee. As she turned to bring the mug to him, he flung the newspaper down and eyed his breakfast with disgust.
“What the fuck is this?” Jeff’s tone and face were frightening; Bonnie was disheartened.
“You- you said you wanted breakfast. I made eggs. You knew I was making eggs.” Bonnie set the coffee down on the table and backed away, bumping into the counter and holding its edge behind her back. She bit her lip as she saw Jeff begin to rise from the table as if in slow motion.
“I don’t want over easy, bitch. Why are you so stupid all the time?” Suddenly he was upon her, pulling her hair and dragging her from the counter to the table. He slammed her face into the plate and rubbed it around as if she were a bad dog who messed in the house. She could feel the yolk in her nostrils as he continued to grind her head into his breakfast.
“You eat that shit,” he said angrily, giving her leg a vicious kick and her head a final slam. He left the kitchen, swearing at her all the way down the hallway into the bathroom. Each curse seemed to echo loudly in the tiny house and inside Bonnie’s brain.
She lifted her head slowly, bits of egg clinging to her eyelashes and runny yolk sliding down her cheeks. She wanted to cry but knew had to remain strong. She resolutely wiped the egg from her skin with the gingham apron and willed herself to stay calm. Today would be the day.
She heard the sound of the shower running as she dutifully cleaned up the mess her husband had made. She wondered what her life would have been like if she hadn’t married him. Would she have been better off or worse? She knew she couldn’t have stood one more month, one more week, in her parents’ house, watching her father beat her mother in one drunken rage after another. Bonnie never returned home after Jeff had picked her up from school and taken her to the courthouse. She had heard a few years ago that her father had drunk himself to death. Although she sometimes felt sorry for her mother, she couldn’t bring herself to care what had happened to her father.
When she had finished cleaning the table and the dishes, she rinsed the apron in the kitchen sink, looking out the window to her charming backyard as she did so. When the apron was rinsed of all the bits of egg, she wrung it out firmly. Brushing aside a wisp of mousy brown hair from her eyes, she went out the kitchen door, hearing the hollow aluminum bang of the screen door as it shut behind her. She went into the backyard, tilting up her face for a moment to feel the comforting warmth of the sun on her skin. The scent of the lavender permeated the air, and Bonnie drew it in as deeply as she could as she plucked two clothespins from the line and secured the apron there. She thrust her hands into the pockets of her dress and looked around again. It was a lovely yard, carefully tended only by Bonnie, a retreat she felt was all her own. She would miss this refuge, but it couldn’t be helped. Today would be the day she would leave it.
Bonnie went back into the house. She could hear Jeff’s movements in the bedroom as he dressed after his shower. She took a duster, a rag, and a spray bottle of cleaner from the broom closet in the kitchen and quietly padded down the carpeted stairway to the basement. The family room she had thought inviting and warm when she and Jeff bought this house now seemed chilly and remote. She snapped on the overhead light, shivering a little in the cold, remembering the silky warmth of the sun in the yard. She made her way through the room, dusting this and dusting that, spraying cleaner and wiping down the glass front of the fireplace. Bonnie enjoyed cleaning. She took pride in her neat and tidy little home, the rituals involved in her housekeeping offering a comforting consistency to her days. She plucked a long piece of ivory from the mantel, the tusk from a narwhal that Jeff had brought home one night after a poker game. She dusted it thoroughly, running her hands along the smooth, cold spiral. She gently replaced the tusk in its spot, taking care to point the tip toward the wall.
When she had finished wiping and tidying, Bonnie opened the heavy closet door at the back of the family room. She pulled a suitcase from the bottom shelf and set it aside on the floor. It was old and worn and not very big, but it would do.
“What the fuck do you think you’re doing?” Jeff’s voice surprised Bonnie and she whirled around as he came down the stairs, clad in stiff blue jeans and boots, his hair still shower damp. He had not shaved, and his chest was bare.
“It’s cleaning day, Jeff.” Bonnie’s voice was soft. “I have some cleaning out to do.”
“I’m going out,” Jeff growled in return. “You better not have this shit laying around when I get back. And I want dinner on time!” He turned back toward the stairway.
Bonnie pulled herself up to her full height, breathed deeply, and took her plunge.
“Jeff.” She said it clearly and firmly, firmly enough to cause her husband to stop and turn back to her, suspicion evident in the narrowing of his eyes.
“Jeff,” she said again. “I don’t want you to go.”
“What? What did you say?” His voice was low and dangerous, and he advanced toward her with one agonizingly slow step. She saw the glitter of the brass plate on the toe of his boot.
“I…” Bonnie swallowed hard, then forged ahead. “I don’t want you to go.” She drew up her chin and forced herself to look into his eyes, black and dangerous with his rising anger. She could read the fury in them as she retreated, just as she done in the kitchen earlier. As she leaned away from Jeff, the back of her head butted against the fireplace mantel.
“You bitch!” he shot at her, advancing yet one more step. “You…do…not…tell…me… what to do.”
Bonnie watched as Jeff’s hand reached for his belt buckle. She stood transfixed as he slowly removed the belt from his crisply pressed jeans. She heard the hiss of the leather as it swung through the air. She felt the razor-sharp sting as it struck her flesh, slicing it open. She saw the blood flow from the injury.
Bonnie loaded the last of her things into the trunk of the car. She gave a tug on the lid, pulling it down firmly to latch it. She wiped the dusty residue onto her jeans. She tucked her hair behind her ears, hair made a sunny golden blonde that afternoon with a box of Miss Clairol. Jeff didn’t like Bonnie to wear jeans, but she had kept this pair hidden, buried in the bottom drawer of her dresser, waiting for a chance to put them on. She liked the way they fit on her hips. She liked that she wasn’t afraid to wear them today. She went up the concrete step to the kitchen door, trying it to make sure it was locked. She walked around to the backyard, wanting one last glimpse of her garden. She looked lovingly at her oak and apple trees, at her lavender and her annuals, at the freshly turned earth that was to have been her vegetable garden. She felt a stab of regret that she wouldn’t be there to watch her vegetables flourish, but it simply couldn’t be helped. Bonnie had no time nor room to err. It was time to go.
With a road atlas to guide her and a full tank of gas, Bonnie backed the car out of the driveway with one final, wistful look at the cottage that had been her home. She drove out of the lane and then sped off onto the highway at sixty miles per hour, ready now to put distance between her and the life she’d shared with Jeff.
As she drove, she thought of Jeff a little sadly. She wished it had been different. She wished Jeff had been the kind of husband she’d longed for, wished it hadn’t come to this. Jeff hadn’t cared much for Bonnie’s garden. He’d laughed and sneered at her efforts to grow prize-winning flowers and big, ripe tomatoes. How fitting that now, in her absence, he would be the one to feed and nurture her vegetables.
She reached for the bit of ivory beside her on the car seat. Her fingers ran along the cold, hard length of that tusk, closing over the sharply pointed end. She supposed that at some time it would have to go, but for now she enjoyed the strength it gave her. It had been difficult to clean properly, but she had taken care of the job. Bonnie was very good at cleaning.
Today was cleaning day.
It was deceptively sunny. Louis peeked out the window in the foyer and saw the big spring sun brightening everything it touched. There were a few shadows cast by the pear tree in the front yard, but for Louis there were always shadows anyway.
Louis knew that despite the warm appearance of the sun, it was still early in the spring, and that meant it might still be cold. He went to the closet, pulling out a worn wool sweater and poking his thin arms into the sleeves. He buttoned it carefully and slowly, thankful that the buttons were big enough to manipulate without causing too much pain in his fingers. Over the sweater, he pulled on a windbreaker jacket, zipping it up to his neck.
From his jacket pocket, he withdrew the leash. He jangled it a bit until Tommy came bounding around the corner, eager for his walk this morning.
“Hey there, feller,” Louis said gently, bending down to fasten the leash to Tommy’s collar and give him a scratch behind the ears. Tommy leaned into Louis’ touch, eagerly lapping at his free hand.
“Let’s go get some flowers for Miss Violet, should we boy?” Louis smiled, scratching Tommy’s head once more. Louis couldn’t have asked for a better friend than old Tommy.
When they emerged from the house, Louis felt the breeze on his face and knew he had been right. The sun was deceptive. The warm, inviting appearance from inside the house belied the chilly air outside. He gripped Tommy’s leash firmly and thrust both hands into the pockets of his windbreaker.
Tommy walked slowly, seeming to enjoy the scenery. Tommy was old too, like Louis, and he never tugged on the leash or tried to make Louis walk too fast. Tommy had been with Louis and Violet since he was a pup, and that was seventeen years ago. Sometimes Louis wished there had been grandchildren to play with Tommy when he was a pup, but wishing for a thing doesn’t make it so. Louis knew that as well as anybody. Still, it was just too bad that Tommy hadn’t had any boisterous children around him to toss a ball or run in the fields with him. He’d grown old beside Louis and Violet, content enough in his life with them. He didn’t seem to miss what he’d never had.
Louis and Tommy strolled to the corner, where they stopped at Mr. Harlan’s stand. Mr. Harlan sold newspapers and magazines. He also sold a tiny selection of fruits laid out in wooden baskets, candy and gum, and every day, he had a few bouquets of fresh flowers to sell, bouquets hand picked from his own garden and arranged by his wife. Louis was pleased to see that today Mr. Harlan had some violets.
“They’re beautiful today, Louis,” Mr. Harlan smiled as Louis passed him a few crinkled bills to pay for a bouquet. “Anna was very happy to see the daffodils and the violets this year.”
“I imagine she was, Sam,” Louis answered pleasantly. “My Violet loves the spring flowers. She’ll be happy with these.”
Mr. Harlan bent down to scruff the back of Tommy’s neck while Tommy waited patiently for Louis. In a moment they were on their way again, Mr. Harlan waving genially and calling after them to have a nice day.
Louis and Tommy walked on through the neighborhood and past the park, where several young boys had gotten together a game of baseball. Louis heard their shouts echoing in his ears long after he had passed the park. It made him happy to think of children playing baseball in the early spring, eager to be outside after a long and snowy winter. Sixty-five years ago, Louis had been just like those young boys, tearing outside at the first sign of baseball weather, cracking the bat and sliding in the mud. He remembered long afternoons spent poring over baseball cards up in the tree house they had built in the woods behind his house. He sighed. Louis’ carefree childhood days were just shadows now, like so many other shadows, pictures of a past that had ceased to exist.
When they finally reached their destination, Louis lifted the latch on the heavy iron gate and pushed it open. He dropped Tommy’s leash and let him in first, leaving the gate open and following Tommy. Tommy knew where to go. He reached her first, promptly lying down and resting his head on his front paws. When Louis caught up to him, he lightly patted the warm golden fur. Tommy’s brown eyes seemed to hold sympathy for Louis as he silently watched Louis’ movements.
Steadying himself on the stone, Louis carefully knelt. He placed the violets tenderly on the earth, smelling the freshness of the awakening grass and the damp soil. His gnarled fingers ran along the front of the stone, feeling the words etched there. He swallowed hard over the lump forming in his throat.
“I brought you some violets, my girl,” he said, his voice growing raspy. “Violets for my Violet. I thought you’d like them today. It’s just right for spring. It’s too cold today. I thought the violets would make it seem warm.”
Louis leaned over, resting his cheek on the stone. It was as cold as it ever was. Tommy stood up and walked over slowly, his leash jingling as it dragged behind him. He put his paws on Louis’ knees, and Louis sat, heedless of the mud. Tommy snuggled into Louis’ lap as far as he could go, seeming to want Louis to take warmth from him.
“Gone too soon, wasn’t she, boy?” Louis spoke wearily. “It’s been a long winter, Tommy. Violet would have liked to be tending her flowerbeds now. That old garden will be full of shadows when the brush gets overgrown.” He scrubbed the top of Tommy’s hair with fingers becoming knotted in pain from his arthritis. “I don’t know if I can take care of her things, boy. Won’t be much of a garden this year.” Tears stung the old man’s eyes. He pressed his cheek to Tommy’s head and let them fall.
The late afternoon shadows had grown very long by the time Mitch left the park and headed for home. He and the guys had spent the whole day playing baseball and warming up for the season to come. He was happily splattered with mud and his muscles were sore, but he was more concerned about his stomach rumbling. He didn’t want to be late to supper, so he picked up the pace to a jog as he approached the cemetery three blocks from his house. When he came upon it, he saw that the iron gate was open, waiting for someone to come along and close it. Mitch slowed his steps, peering curiously into the cemetery, wondering who would be there at this time of the day.
He stopped short when he saw an old man leaning against one of the stones, fast asleep with a dog in his lap.
“Mister!” he shouted. “Hey, mister! Are you okay?” Getting no answer, Mitch jogged across the lawn until he reached the man and his dog. Something didn’t seem right. Mitch gasped, his instinct telling him to run the rest of the way home and tell his father. He turned, his feet pounding into the softening earth as he ran.
Behind him, just as the last shadows fell before the dusk, violets bloomed.
Sunday, April 29, 2007
HIGHWAY 10 TO ANYWHERE
“I’m hot-headed, check it and see, I got a reefer of a hundred and three!” Joey’s raspy voice filled the car, singing along very badly to the radio.
“You idiot,” I said sharply, glancing over at him as I drove. “It’s hot blooded. I got a fever of a hundred and three. Geez, sing it right, will you?”
Joey was unperturbed. “Ah, whatever,” he answered dismissively. “I errored. Big deal.”
I sighed. “Err, Joe. The word is err. You erred. You did not error.”
“What are you?” he asked. “Are you my sister or the damn English teacher?”
“Maybe with a little luck, some day I really will be a teacher. And watch your mouth.”
“Yeah, well. Where were you when I needed help with my oral report on the norwhale in Mrs. Schiffling’s class last year?”
Joey fell silent, and I drove along steadily at seventy miles per hour, not much more than instinct to guide me. I wasn’t sure where we were going, just that we were leaving Wisconsin. We were headed west on Highway 10 to anywhere.
I was twenty that summer. Joey was sixteen. He was my only brother, and I felt responsible for him. When Mama died, Joey was only nine. I was just thirteen, but I took over caring for the house and looking after Joey. Daddy wasn’t much help. He provided for us, but his work took him away often. When he was at home, he moped around, drinking, crying, and mostly ignoring Joey and me. I guess he never really got over Mama’s death. He used to tell me Joey and I were too much like Mama, that looking at us hurt. He hung on for a few years until I finished school, but eventually life proved to be too much for my Daddy. I came home one afternoon to find him on the floor, dead from a gunshot, the injury self-inflicted.
I don’t know how I got through those next few days. The police came, the ambulance, the paramedics – they all came. There was nothing they could do. The coroner came, and my Daddy was gone. The ladies from church came, all of them bringing food and tut-tutting about my brother Joey and what would happen to him. There was a funeral and there were lawyers. There were child welfare people.
Daddy had some insurance, but there wasn’t much payout for taking his own life, and so they put the house up for sale. After the debts were paid and the lawyers were paid, there was precious little left for Joey and me. The child welfare people didn’t seem to care much what happened to Joey, and so when they let me become his guardian, I decided it was time for us to leave. We had no home and no family. There was nothing to keep us in Wisconsin and every reason to start a new life somewhere else. We loaded what we had into Dad’s old Ford and took off with one thousand dollars and no real plan at all.
I looked over at Joey again. He had dozed off, his head leaned back against the seat. With his mouth open and his face softened, he looked like a little boy as he slept. I hoped I was doing right by him. I was all he had. Maybe we could go to Minneapolis. Maybe I could find a job there and Joey could finish high school. Maybe someday I could go to college. That would be something.
I heard the echo of my mother’s long ago words, words spoken softly to me as she lay dying in a darkened room, her anguish at leaving her children naked on her face.
“Take care of Joey, now, Sharon,” she had said. “He looks up to you. Be good to him. Take care of him. He’s my angel.”
“I will, Mama,” I had said then, and I said it again now. “I’ll take care of Joey, Mama.”
I pulled into a gas station in Marshfield. Joey stirred, sitting up and rubbing his sleepy eyes.
“Where are we?”
“Marshfield. You want something to drink?” It was July, hot and muggy, and the old Ford didn’t have air conditioning.
“Yeah. Get me a beer.” Joey’s eyes were mischievous.
“Yeah, I won’t. A root beer, maybe.” I had forty dollars in my wallet, the rest of our money carefully hidden in a sealed envelope in the bottom of my suitcase in the trunk. I counted out twenty dollars for the gas and another dollar for a drink. I handed the bills to Joey.
“You go on in and pay, will you? And bring me back a root beer too.”
I leaned against the door of the Ford, watching Joey run into the station. He was so eager and sweet, and I loved him. He didn’t talk much about Daddy dying. He never said the word suicide. He never ever mentioned Mama. I wondered what secrets my little brother held inside of him. I wondered if those secrets would ever come out.
My heart gave a little tug when Joey came out of the station, waving two bottles of root beer and a Clark bar at me.
“I gotcha a candy bar,” he said lazily. “But you have to share, ‘cause I didn’t have enough money for two.”
That was Joey’s way of saying he loved me too. If Mama’s death had been a solder for us, Daddy dying had strengthened it. I gave Joey a little punch on the arm as he handed me my root beer and half the Clark bar. He punched me back before getting into his side of the car.
“Put that seatbelt on,” I admonished him as he lounged in the seat, his gangly long legs looking folded up in a space too small.
“Yeah, yeah. Whatever,” Joey said, flashing me another grin.
“You’re a curse on me, Joey. Just fasten the seatbelt, will you?”
Back on the road, Joey sang again.
“Well, it’s eight o’clock in Boise, Idaho, I’ll find my lame-o driver, mister, take us to the show….”
“It’s limo driver, Joe. Limo driver.”
“I know it,” Joey said. “I just like to yank on your chain a little.” He sat up straight, taking a slug out of his root beer. “D’you think we could go to Boise, Idaho? How far is that anyway?”
“I don’t know. Couple thousand miles, I guess. I thought maybe we’d go to Minneapolis.”
“Okay,” Joey said, readily agreeing with me. “What’s in Minneapolis?”
“I don’t know. It’s a big city. Someplace I can find a job and we can get an apartment, and I can enroll you in school.”
“I don’t want to go to school. I’m sixteen. I don’t have to go to school anymore.”
“Joe, I know you don’t have to go to school, but how are you going to get a good job if you don’t finish school?”
“Why do I care?” Joey gulped down the last of his root beer. “Daddy finished school. He got a good job. Look where it got him. He’s dead. He didn’t care if it left us with nothing. He’s dead, and what good did school do him?”
I was quiet. It was the first time Joey talked about Daddy’s death. I was disheartened and didn’t know what to say.
We drove in silence for a few more miles. We came to Osseo, time to leave Highway 10 and turn onto Interstate 94. Joey suddenly spoke just as I entered the on ramp.
“Did Mama wear lavender?” he asked.
I was startled.
“Yeah, she did. Did you remember that?”
“Yeah,” Joey admitted. “I remember she smelled like lavender.” He turned to me, tears brimming over in his blue, blue eyes.
“Sharon, I don’t remember much of Mama,” he continued. “Does that mean I didn’t love her enough? All I remember is her pretty hair and the smell of lavender.”
“Oh, God, Joe! Don’t say that!” I gripped the steering wheel with my left hand, reaching for Joey with my right. I felt his hand slip into mine, and I gave it a squeeze.
“You loved her, Joey. Don’t think otherwise. You loved her, and she adored you. You were her angel.”
“I didn’t want her to die, Sharon.” Joey’s voice was broken now with sobs, big heaving cries I couldn’t stop even if I wanted to. All the pent up despair and anger was coming out of Joey, and he clung to my hand as if it were life support.
I drove on, listening to him cry, my heart breaking a little with every sob. I had to take care of him. He didn’t have anybody else. I stroked the palm of his hand with my thumb.
“It’s okay, Joey. I won’t leave you.”
I saw the big brown sign shaped like Minnesota up ahead. “Minnesota Welcomes You!” it said. I was glad to leave Wisconsin behind. For Joey and me, Wisconsin had been nothing but loss and heartache.
“Minnesota,” I said to him, lifting his hand with mine to gesture at the sign. He nodded, his tears dried but his eyes still red and swollen.
“I’ll go to school. And when I’m done, I’m gonna put you through college and you’re gonna be a teacher.”
I looked over at Joey and smiled, giving another squeeze to the fingers laced with mine.
I felt the burden on my heart lift just a little when he spoke those words, and the first tall buildings of Minneapolis came into view.