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                 Rod Siino Writes

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"Frankie Would be Almost Nine" Published in Bull No. 5 (November 2015)

Posted on February 11, 2016 at 9:38 AM Comments comments (6)
When I was thirty-three my mother wrote asking me to be the executor of her will. She always was a great letter writer, and refused to use the telephone for long distance calls, even after I urged her to call collect. At least once each month I would find a small envelope with her perfect handwriting in my mailbox. Sometimes I’d get three in a week. She’d long ago stopped asking me to visit, focusing instead on reporting to me the mundane daily events of her life and those in the small Rhode Island town where I grew up and she still lived. At times, and especially toward the end, she’d write to me about my father and our relationships with him, which she knew was the main reason I lived thousands of miles away.

In the months before her death, she’d written that the doctors had told her she was in full remission, and that a recurrence was unlikely. So when I received her letter hinting that things were worse than she’d been letting on, I wasn’t exactly prepared to drop everything and go see her. She hadn’t come right out and said, “I’m dying,” but I did wonder. I debated with my wife for a day and a night about what to do. My mother and I had been estranged for years, since before my father’s passing, and my home there seemed a remote and forgettable memory. It was where I was from, but not where I was going.

If my friends in Phoenix asked me where I grew up, I’d say “back east” as if I were answering their question with a question of my own. Should I have gone home or not? It wasn’t that I hated the place, or that I didn’t love my mother as much as any other son. I felt, though, that life seemed to pull me in a direction away from that place, and I did nothing to resist it.

Was she dying? Yes. Would she die soon? I couldn’t say, and I wasn’t sure I wanted to think about it. In her last letter, she’d written about our family, especially my father: “Peter, sometimes fathers and sons don’t ever become friends like they should. Maybe it’s because they were too much alike and never realized it. Or maybe it was because one of them, the father or the son, didn’t have enough of himself to go around.”

She went on to talk about Frankie, the brother I never knew. “I pray every day for both of them, Frankie and your father, and although I miss them terribly, I have no great desire to leave this life.” With age she grew less able to distinguish last year from twenty years ago. I’m sure, too, the illness clouded her memories. She wrote about the past as if it were the day before. “When you came home from that fight with your face cut up, your mouth bleeding, your clothes all dirty, I wanted to go and find the boy that did it to you. Your father and I worried about you the way you’d left the house. Yes, your father worried too.” I imagined, as I read it, how she must have looked while writing the letter, hunched over in her bed, frail hands grasping the pen, an effort in every stroke.
As a teenager, and even into my twenties, having seen how my brother’s death had affected her, I believed my mother was weak. When my father passed, I was much too engulfed in my own rebellion to recognize how much strength she actually possessed. I blamed them both for my never really getting to know my father, and I never forgave them for going to Italy without me the year before his death. This might sound petty now, but I really thought that inviting me would at least have given me a chance of some relationship with them both. I was graduating high school then, unsure of my future, and prone, like many that age, to blame my parents for my discomfort with the world.

This residue dulled my instincts toward family obligations. I decided not to go home yet, convinced she would still be there when I did. The further I immersed myself in my architectural practice, the more convinced I was that my contentment lay somewhere within the homes I designed.
At that time, I had to finish designing a four-thousand-square-foot residence in Scottsdale, my biggest project to date. The client, a Texas oilman named Cobb, wanted to prove he could outfit his home in Arizona with as much Texas as possible. He fancied himself a 20 century Vanderbilt, but instead of importing Italian marble and Renaissance paintings, he’d commissioned an Austin sculptor to create a work of art for the entryway. The only instructions he’d given was that the sculpture must incorporate a barrel of Texas crude and a football helmet from Texas A&M.

I wrote my mother that I’d come to see her as soon as I could, and I hoped she’d understand. But a few days later, as I sat down to go over the plumbing specs with my Texan, I got a phone call from a doctor named Lardner telling me to hurry.

I prepared for the trip immediately. I’d been living with my wife, Rebecca, in a rented house at the base of Camelback Mountain. She’d grown up in Idaho, and had never been east of Chicago, but we fit well together because she’d saved me from trying to climb the corporate ladder in L.A. (She pointed out that my suits never fit.) In return, I’d convinced her she should teach, like she’d always wanted. So I got my Master’s in architecture, and we moved to Phoenix when Rebecca got a teaching job at a high school there.

To be fair, until the call from Dr. Lardner, my conversations with Rebecca about my family history had given her no desire to meet my mother. She knew I still had resentments. Though we’d talked often about me flying home for a visit, we had never seriously considered Rebecca joining me. So when I broached the topic, she didn’t hesitate.

“I don’t want to meet your mother now, Peter. What good would that do? The poor woman’s dying; she won’t want me there. Who would stay here and pander to Cobb? And what about the other jobs?”

I didn’t answer. We stood in my office on a Saturday morning drinking iced coffee, a worn copy of Cobb’s house plans on the design table.

“I’m not being selfish, honey,” her tone had softened. She rubbed my shoulder while she spoke. “All I’m saying is that it's bad timing. One of us should be here.” Sometimes her pragmatism struck me as downright meanness. I needed to stay, but I had to go. This was Thursday, and I could get a red-eye flight that would allow me to be at my mother’s side by Friday morning. So that’s what I did.

On Tuesday, I buried her.
 
The thing is, I did have a brother once. My little brother Frankie lived for four days back in 1963—around the time Kennedy was killed. My mother and father had prepared me for his arrival, and although I was only six years old, I knew it was a big event. I waited for that kid as if he were going to be my very own possession. Secretly, I collected shiny rocks and smooth sea glass and stored them away in a shoebox in my closet so that one day, when the kid was old enough, I would have something to give him on his birthday. My parents decided the baby would sleep in my room, his crib in the corner under the light, but not too close to the window.

So when I found out Frankie wouldn’t be coming home, I couldn’t understand it. I asked my father repeatedly, Where was Frankie? Didn’t he want to meet his big brother?

“Don’t ask me that, Pete,” my father said. Even at that age I could tell when he was thinking about something else. His eyes, though directed toward the television, were focused on the wall above and behind it. He looked at me, finally, and then this six-year-old understood what Frankie being dead really meant.

My father brought my mother home from the hospital the next day. From my bedroom window next to Frankie’s crib, I watched him open the door and help her out of the car. Our neighbor, Mr. Altobelli, his wife and two dogs looked on from their driveway as my parents walked slowly into the house leaning against each other, as if one wrong move and they would both fall to the ground in a heap. They walked into the living room, my father holding an overnight bag at his side. I stayed in my room, kneeling at the foot of my bed, as I heard them climb the creaking stairs and go into the bedroom and close the door. In a minute or two my father came out.

“Where’s Mom?” I asked, standing in my bedroom doorway.

“Go out and play, Pete,” he said, walking down the stairway, still carrying the overnight bag.
The first thing I thought was that I’d done something wrong. I took the shoebox of rocks and sea glass from under the crib and headed for the attic. Maybe I’d scared Frankie away. I didn’t know what to feel. When I came back down I wanted to see my mother, but my father told me she needed to rest.

“But, Dad...”

“Do as I say, Pete,” he said.

And I did. I went out, walked down the street, sat on the edge of the sidewalk near the bus graveyard, and I cried. When I went home later that afternoon, the crib and all the other things my mother and father had prepared for the baby had disappeared. Frankie would be with us though, the baby who never arrived, as if he were a piece of our lives hidden away in the attic with the old clothes we would never use but couldn’t give away.

Death has more to do with who’s left than with who isn’t.
 
 
My father’s name was Vincent DiMarco, and he loved television almost as much as he loved my mother.

She said never to ask him which one he preferred, because she didn’t want to know the answer. But I knew the answer, and so did she, despite her good-natured protests. She often showed this fun-loving side, but after Frankie died it disappeared, along with her smile and my relationship with my father.

A nightly fixture on his brown Naugahyde chair, my father would fall asleep in front of the local newscast at eleven o’clock, his head back and his snoring mouth wide open. By day he worked for a masonry contractor laying stone and bricks. Although he never said so, I’m sure he wanted me to be a mason like him and his father. But by the time I reached working age, he and I didn’t have much to say to each other. So we never had that big talk about my future, which was fine with me. He had enough on his mind with keeping my mother happy. Not that she demanded his attention all of the time. The circumstances of her life weighed heavily on her, and she needed to know my father was there. He did this well; his attentiveness toward her, to the exclusion of everyone else, including me, was a constant reminder of the very thing they were trying to forget. So, would it have mattered if I became a mason’s apprentice? My father wouldn’t have noticed. I wanted to get out of town anyway, out of Rhode Island and out of New England in general, and he knew it but never understood why.

He died of a stroke at age fifty-three. I was eighteen.
 
 
One night as I watched the after-dinner news with my parents--stories about negotiating peace treaties and rising gas prices--I imagined what it would be like not to be the only child. When I was home, my parents never said much, even to each other. If the television was on, forget it. I was fifteen by then, and Frankie would be almost nine. He and I could be playing football or building a tree fort.

The silence got to me. Hadn’t I paid enough? My mother sat next to my father on the couch, legs outstretched in his jeans and white socks. I waited for one of their mouths to move. Every now and then, I’d look back at them to see if they were sleeping.

Finally, I said what I said: “Dad, after Frankie died, did you ever think about having another baby?”
The look my father gave me, as if he were hit over the head by someone he’d trusted, lasted only a second before he stood up and gave me a quick backhand to the face. He stood over me, and I thought, I could take him, this son of a bitch. My mother screamed then, because I think she saw the look on my face, and my fists clenching. My face throbbed, but I didn’t cry.

“Don’t you ever talk about that in front of your mother,” he yelled.

“It’s okay, Vince!” my mother said. “Please.”

“We don’t talk about that, Helen. He knows that.”

I ran out of the house while they argued about what I said, what I could say, and what I shouldn’t. I’d felt my whole life that we were in a permanent state of doing penance, and if they blamed anyone it should be Frankie, not me. He was the one who hadn’t shown up. I didn’t see what I’d done to deserve all this silence. I found myself hating both my father and my dead brother as I ran out of the house into the September night.

I soon joined my friends: Big Christopher, Stevie Astrologo, and Chuckie Mac, and we headed for the bus graveyard, our hangout at the end of our dead end street. The graveyard was a life in itself. As we grew, it was where we went exploring, to test the boundaries of childhood and adolescence.
There were twenty-eight buses: some frames, others just a chassis, a few engines. They were silver and rusted and didn’t have any tires. They’d been left there after a bus line went out of business in the late 1950’s. Something vaguely threatening and exhilarating lurked within each of the gutted buses, which heightened our imaginations as we created our own world.

There was the bus Old Man Monahan had lived in until he died one night, throat cut, and his mongrel dog whimpering at his side. And over there was the one where two older teenagers, a boy and girl, had spent the night hiding from their parents, and then disappeared. Almost directly in the center of the graveyard, four of the buses were intact. We’d cleared out an area between the four, and had made a maze of paths around the rest. The interior of the buses had long since been overgrown by vines, and become homes to bats, birds and snakes. We were a group of boys with unsettled feelings about our lives, inherently afraid but covering it with bravado in the face of menace.

Someone mentioned the incredible purplish blue sky--probably Chuckie, who was always looking up hoping to see a UFO--but I didn’t look, preferring my own brooding thoughts. As we walked along the path to the hangout, my face still hurt a little, though I didn’t tell anyone what had happened. We heard voices and laughter as we got to the graveyard and we saw the other gang, with the new kid, Willie, at the center of things. They sat in a circle on the brown grass and dirt, passing around a joint.

We walked past them without saying a word. Someone said, “Faggots,” but nothing got started—not yet—as we took our positions next to a bus. Chuckie tossed us each a cigarette, and we lit up, sitting uncomfortably on the dirt.
 
 
After my mother’s funeral, I spent some time on the telephone with Jennifer, my new assistant. She was dealing with customers, especially the Texan, who found my sudden departure inconvenient.
“What’s a W.C.?” she said, frustration in her voice. “It’s on the plans about six times, and Mr. Cobb doesn’t know if he needs six of them.”

“It stands for Water Closet—remember? Toilets? And yes, he does need six of them because he wanted six bathrooms.”

“Toilets, that’s right.”

“Jennifer,” I said, pacing the bare floor of my parents’ living room, “can you handle all this? Should I ask Rebecca to help?” She said she was fine but I didn’t believe her. All I could think about was the Texan talking with some other architect, or maybe he’d paid a couple hundred dollars for plans he’d seen in some home-design book. I couldn't believe I agreed to do this job without a deposit.
“I’d better come back.” I said, knowing full well I couldn’t.

“No. Finish what you’re doing. I’ll handle this guy,” she said. “He’s starting to piss me off.” Then she said she’d been heartbroken when her aunt died the year before, and she could only imagine what it must feel like to lose your mother.

“I gotta go now, Jennifer. "I’ll call you later.”

I sorted through old clothes for hours, deciding what to keep and what to throw out, until I embraced the idea of a yard sale. Saturday was only a few days away, and I thought I could be ready. It felt mercenary in a way, but I needed to put this all behind me and get back home. I would sell what was in the house, put the house on the market, and then I would leave.

I cleaned out the attic. I searched between two floor joists and under a plank, and I found there the shoebox with the sea glass and rocks I’d saved for Frankie. I’d found most of the rocks, but none of the glass, at the bus graveyard. The shoebox was so dusty the glass and rocks appeared duller than I remembered. I wiped off the dust with my fingertips. There were about fifty pieces in all. Some mica, pyrite, obsidian. Four or five chips of granite. Twenty or so green, brown, and white pieces of smoothed-off sea glass. I went down to the living room and among a pile of cardboard boxes, a mountain of clothes, and with a shoebox full of rocks and sea glass on my lap, I imagined myself looking for beautiful rocks with Frankie, showing him how to find the best ones.

The next day I drove into Providence to look around. Through the East Side, busy with college students, and then downtown where I’d heard a drafting supply store was going out of business. As I walked along a busy sidewalk, I was astonished to see Willie, the one who I’d had that fight with when we were kids—the fight my mother had written about in her last letter to me. What were the chances? But when I remembered where I was, I realized this wasn't so surprising. Rhode Island covered just over a thousand square miles, so there wasn’t much room to hide. You could fit over a hundred Rhode Islands into the state of Arizona. And two-hundred-fifty into Texas. These were convenient statistics when I told my current friends of my need for room to stretch out a little.
Now, of all people, I was confronted with Willie. He still had his Coke-bottle glasses, and he wore jeans and penny loafers. The tail of his white shirt popped out of the back of his pants, just like I remembered, and he held a black violin case tightly. As he came toward me, I almost pretended I didn’t see him—I almost walked the other way into the crowd along the sidewalk. I could have moved to my right, slipping behind a couple of joggers checking their pulses. But they moved too fast, weaving in and out of the crowd, leaving me to deal with Willie all by myself.
“Peter DiMarco,” he said with a wide grin, “how are you?” As he reached to shake my hand, his smile covered his whole face until he was all teeth and gums and funny little eyes behind those glasses. The crowd filed past, and we moved into the doorway of an antique shop.

“Willie Stanton,” I said, holding out my hand. He shifted the violin case to his left arm. He told me to call him Bill, please. Nobody had called him Willie since he was a kid. He moved the case to the other arm, said I was looking good, and wasn’t it amazing two guys who were so small as kids could grow to be over six feet tall. Yes, amazing. He kept firing questions at me like he was afraid of the silence.

God, I thought, what the hell am I doing here? Two weeks ago I was outside Phoenix water skiing on Lake Pleasant with Rebecca. Now I was standing in the doorway of an antique shop in Providence, Rhode Island, with a guy I hadn’t seen in years, talking about nothing, but feeling there was something terribly important we needed to discuss.

“Things are good,” Bill said. “I went to the Conservatory after high school. Since then, I’ve been doing some playing,” he said. “I had a tryout with the Philharmonic.”

“That’s great,” I said, nodding like an approving parent, “but I don’t remember you being in the band.”

He said he wasn’t. He’d taken violin lessons on the side, but hadn’t let anyone know. I remembered what assholes teenage boys could be about someone playing anything like the violin; good move not telling anyone. I wondered if any of the people passing us were listening. The sun hit the back of my head and neck, and I suddenly imagined us under this enormous spotlight.

“I sometimes wondered about you, Peter,” Willie said. “You know, where you ended up. Arizona, huh?”

“Yeah, I’ve been all over,” I said, “but I’ll be here for a little while, I guess. My mother died, and I have to deal with the estate.” Why was I telling him this?

He said he was sorry, and I’m sure he meant it. Then he asked me if I was married, and I told him I was. “I was married once,” he said, as if marriage were an exotic landmark he’d seen once while driving out in the country. “But it didn’t work out. I found it too distracting; I think my wife did too.”
We promised to keep in touch, maybe go out for a beer. We exchanged phone numbers over our cell phones. I told him about the yard sale, and he said he’d try to come over.

It was so strange to see him. People from your past can have that effect. You see them, and you remember things you hadn’t thought about in ten or twenty years. When Willie and I were kids our neighborhood was in a sort of upheaval. At fifteen, the two of us and our respective groups of friends spent our time trying to stay out of each other’s way. Willie and his mother moved into our neighborhood shortly after her second divorce. Their tiny ranch house sat on a sunburned lot alongside the border of two rival neighborhoods. Brown grass and fading green bushes covered the lot. Next to them, the graveyard of abandoned buses stretched toward the woods.

The house seemed tired, neglected by a succession of residents. Its weathered cedar shingles and peeling shutters stood in contrast to the sprawling new Colonials on two-acre lots all around our neighborhood. This was the 1970’s, and most of the natives of Twin Oaks, Rhode Island, spent their time trying to keep the rest of the world at a distance. To a kid—to me and my friends—this was a kind of a war against an enemy hard to define. It was probably a matter of not wanting to lose what we had, although back then we never could have said what that was.

The day Willie moved in, he and his mother emptied a pickup truck full of boxes and battered suitcases. Chuckie Mac and I sat across the street. Maybe he’d be okay, this new boy with a surprised look on his face. We didn’t know then that he’d moved from house to house with his mother, and that he’d never met his father. And if we had, would we have treated him any differently? I was about to suggest we go meet this new kid, find out his name. He seemed to be about my size, which I liked.

“They’re losers,” Chuckie said in his Rhode Island accent that made loser come out “loozah.” “Look at him. Those glasses. They couldn’t even afford a moving van.”

“Yeah,” I said. “Look at them.” And I felt I’d lost something, and had no idea what it could possibly have been.

At first the kids from the other neighborhood treated Willie like we did. We wanted nothing to do with him—a scrawny thing with thick glasses and buck teeth. His voice was higher than those of some girls we knew. One late afternoon, while five or six of us smoked and traded stories about the girls we’d felt up, Willie showed up at our hangout in the graveyard. Big Christopher was there, and Stevie Astrologo, with his squint and one long eyebrow, and Chuckie McKenna, maybe a couple more.

“What do you want?” Christopher said. Willie stood there looking like he would melt into the ground if we weren’t nice to him. Little did he know we’d already formed opinions, and like official representatives of the town, we had to do our part to keep out people who didn’t belong.
“Who are you?” I said, standing.

He told us his name and, turning and pointing, said he’d moved into that house over there. When Christopher said his name—Willie—that first time we all thought it was the funniest thing we’d ever heard. He dwarfed Willie as he told him he’d better get going—he’d interrupted a private conversation. As we laughed and celebrated our small victory, I watched Willie—the look on his face. He didn’t melt, but simply accepted our rejection.  He turned and walked away, holding his head higher than we wanted him to.
 
 
I lit a cigarette as I stood in front of my yard sale assessing what had been sold. Except for the television, all the electronics—microwave, blender, toaster, and even the old hi-fi—sold early in the day. The china set, my dad’s collection of Montovani albums, the fake fruit made of marble, and the American Tourister luggage were all gone too. I’d brought the television outside, set it down on an old oak desk and turned it on so I could watch some Saturday morning shows.
 I wasn’t surprised when Willie walked up my driveway. He was alone, smiling widely, glasses falling off the bridge of his nose. We shook hands and I said it was good to see him again. After looking around for bit, he said he wanted the wooden frames from the family photos I’d displayed along the perimeter of a flowerbed. I said, “Sold.” I’d arranged the twelve pictures in chronological order against the rocks my father had placed there years before.

“You can have all of it,” I said, “the pictures and the frames.”

“That’s okay,” he said. “You should keep the photos.”

He looked away, toward a brass floor lamp in the corner of the yard. “Peter,” he said, gazing past the lamp and toward where he used to live, “have you been down there? To the graveyard?”

“No,” I said, “I haven’t had the time. Have you?”

Before he could answer, more neighbors arrived, offering consolation as they held my mother’s things. Most of them I didn’t know, but there was Mrs. Zinni and her deaf husband, Arthur, and then Mr. Altobelli, picking through some boxes on a card table with the stubby fingers of one hand, holding his two Dobermans by leather leashes with the other. He’d been a friend of my parents, and my mother had written about the kindness he’d shown her while she was sick. He knew I hadn’t been there for her.

“They’re beautiful,” I told him, “the dogs." He studied a glass ashtray from Rome.

“Thanks, Peter,” he said, still looking at the ashtray. Then he placed it back in a box and looked around.

“Mr. Altobelli,” I said, “do you know what everyone says about Dobermans? They’re the most loyal dogs there are. I have a Doberman myself, from all those years of living next door to you.” Then I bent down and patted one of them on the head, wondering if the dog could smell the lie on my hands.

“Hubcaps?” he said.

“Sorry,” I said, “I don’t have any hubcaps.” I said this as if I were breaking some very sad news to him.

He gave a perfunctory nod, and turned to leave with his dogs.

I stood up. “Everything must go, though,” I said to him like a salesman.

The telephone rang in the house, and as I walked past neighbors and others, Willie waved goodbye from his car and said we’d talk soon. I flipped my cigarette butt, and got to the phone by the fourth ring.

“Peter.” Rebecca’s voice sounded farther away than Phoenix.

I said hello.

“The Texan is pissing me off, Peter.” She went on to describe her day, which included a phone call from Jennifer at eight in the morning. She said she’d gone as far as she could with Mr. Cobb, who wanted me back there to review changes immediately. Cobb would sooner have a blizzard on a Sunday in August than to be made to wait for anything.

“Does that idiot know my mother just died?”

“Of course he does. He sent you flowers. They’re on your desk.” She laughed a little, and so did I. “He said, ‘Tell your hubby boy I’m sure sorry.’”

“Then he said something real friendly, like, ‘business is business,’ right?”

“Right.”

“This guy’s unbelievable.”

I told Rebecca I couldn’t come, and that she would have to do something, anything, to placate him.
“Is everything going all right, Peter? You sound like shit.”

“Things have been happening here, Becky,” I said. “I don’t know how long it will take me to resolve them.”

“Have you been sleeping at all?” she said, her voice now turning sweet.

“Please,” I said, “call Cobb and try to stall him. I can’t come home now. There’s too much going on here.” We talked for a few more minutes and she assured me that she’d handle it, although neither of us really knew how. At that point, I was too spent to care.

At three o’clock in the morning, as I tried to sleep in the living room, I heard a rustling in the bushes outside. It could have been the wind through the trees. Or maybe the eighty-year-old house was settling a little. I almost called Rebecca, but then she’d know I wasn’t asleep yet, so I listened, hoping whatever it was, outside or in, would go away. Lying in the dark with my eyes shut, I imagined my dead mother and father standing over me wanting to talk. For a while I stayed motionless, wearing only my underwear and a blanket, afraid to open my eyes because a ghost might be in the room. My heart beat heavily as I began to imagine Frankie standing with them, at an age he never reached, waiting for me to say hello.

I heard a noise outside again, and without considering what I was doing I bolted up and ran across the cold hardwood floor to the window. There was nothing there but the sound of my heart. A coating of dew had formed on the grass. I put on some clothes and went out the front door, wondering how low the temperature would fall. It had been seventy degrees earlier in the day, but September in Rhode Island meant anything could happen with the weather. I looked into the calm black night, down the street to the end of the cul-de-sac. There, the bus graveyard swallowed the night. It wasn’t a place to visit in the dark, but, still barefoot, I walked down the short driveway and stopped to look. Against the blackness of the sky I could make out the tree line, and in front of it, Willie’s old house. I found myself walking toward it. When I reached the edge of his lawn, even in the dim light from the street lamps and the half-moon, I could see the house had changed. The siding had been re-done—red cedar clapboard now covered the exterior. The owners had spent a lot of money on the roof, using dimensional asphalt shingles, and all the windows were double-hung thermopanes.

In the thickness of a cool night in New England, I could hear the echoes of boys’ voices coming from the graveyard over fifteen years before. What I’d lost, I realized, was a chance with Willie—to be his friend and for him to be mine. Just like I’d lost the chance with Frankie. The echoes of the voices from the past grew louder, and I moved toward the blackness of the graveyard and stood shivering outside, looking in.
 
 
The fight had taken place the same night my father had slapped me. A dozen boys circled around us an hour before sunset. It was still warm out as the bus graveyard vibrated to life, crickets squealing and birds calling out everywhere. Somehow Willie had latched on to the rival gang. We speculated about for months after, but all that was important in the moment was that he was theirs. In the code of fifteen year old boys, a fight was in order--and Willie and I matched up well.
“Hit him!” someone shouted, and then Little Willie and I traded missed punches back and forth. Yells of get him and hit him and knock him on his ass surrounded us as I concentrated on his puny face. Without his glasses he looked more focused. Maybe it was his squint, but I also thought he couldn’t see me—this explained why he kept missing. I didn’t know why I was missing. Then he caught me with a jab and I tasted blood. He hit me again, on the same cheek my father had slapped.
I got mad and hit him right in the mouth, then slugged him again across his bony nose and forehead, pushing him toward the side of a silvery bus shell. I ignored the pain in my hands as I jumped on top of him, pinning his arms to the dirt with my knees as I breathed in the dusty air, and the yells and hoots drilled through the graveyard. By the time the other boys pulled me off of him, his face looked like that of a dead soldier I’d seen on TV, only his eyes were open and he was crying.
Afterwards, as my lips swelled as we all stood around and smoked, both gangs grouped together in a ritual that occurred after all such altercations. When they’d wiped all the dirt off Willie’s clothes and out of his hair, they figured he’d be okay because he’d stopped crying. He put two cigarettes in his mouth, lit them and handed one to me. It made me sick to my stomach. I couldn’t feel the cigarette because of my numbed lips, but I smoked anyway.

Willie smiled. He’d shown us he was tough enough, no matter that he’d taken the worst of it. As for me, there was no satisfaction in what I’d done. My face hurt, and my mother and father were still waiting for me to come home.
 
 
I turned away from Willie’s house, the bus graveyard, and a fifteen-year-old boy, and walked back up my street, a thirty-three-year-old man, barefoot and shivering from the damp cold. Up the same driveway my parents had walked after Frankie died. I went inside.

Back on the couch, I draped the blanket over myself and used a rolled-up towel for a pillow and another to cover my feet. Everything left of my mother’s was packed away. I lay on my back studying each crack in the plastered ceiling and the house suddenly felt as big as it had when I was growing up. Surrounded by taped cardboard boxes with black magic marker scribblings, I closed my eyes and thought about ghosts. Let them come if they want to talk to me. I wanted to talk to them, too.

When the phone rang the next afternoon, I thought it might be Rebecca reporting on her efforts to placate the Texan, but it was someone named Anita instead. Even though she  asked for me, I suggested maybe she had the wrong number. After a pause, she said she was sorry for interrupting my day, but that she was calling for Bill Stanton, and he was hoping—they were both hoping—I would come over for dinner that evening.

Why were they doing this, I thought. Had she and Bill talked about me after he came home from the yard sale with the photos? Did he say, Anita, I went to that guy's yard sale, the one from my old neighborhood whose mother died. Look what I’ve got. And did Anita answer, That’s terrible, to sell all his mother’s belongings. And the pictures? Doesn’t he have a heart? Though her presumptuousness was entirely my own, I suddenly felt an irrational resentment at her and Bill. I wanted to tell her that Willie and me, we didn’t even know each other very well, we’d never really been friends. Instead, after looking around the living room at the empty bookcases and bare walls, I thought better of it. I declined the dinner, but asked her to tell Bill that I wanted to meet him that night, just before sunset.

“Tell him that I’ll be at the old bus graveyard,” I said. “Tell him it’s important.”
 
 
I carried the shoebox down the street and right into the middle of the graveyard. Still there, overgrown with vines, the yard and its contents existed like discarded trash, but somehow it was the only place developers had ignored over the years. And despite the empty bottles and spent butts scattered around, the place still maintained a sense of dignity, like a monument to the past that is preserved for all future generations to experience. I was leaning against one of the gutted buses smoking a cigarette and clenching the shoebox against my side when I saw Bill. He said hello, and we sat on the ground like we used to.

He pointed toward his old house. “Did you see how they’ve fixed it up?”

“They did a nice job.”

“First things first,” Bill said, handing me a pile of photographs. “I only wanted the frames.”
I stood up, motioned to Bill that I’d be back, and walked a narrow path among the buses. I carried the shoebox in one hand, the photos in the other. A long time ago, my friends and I had labeled this place a graveyard. I wondered now how accurate this was. The buses hadn’t disintegrated into nothing. Just like the buildings I designed or the ones my father built, these rusted, broken down frames had survived. I was surprised at the resilience. I looked again at the photos. Who had taken these pictures of my parents, I wondered, on the streets of Rome, in front of the Vatican? Had the person sensed that my parents were suffering?

But when I looked at them closely, I saw for the first time how their expressions told a story. I imagined my mother’s smile directed at me, telling me they’d survived. My father, his chin raised slightly, showed me the pride he had misplaced after Frankie died. Although this wasn’t long before he died himself, they had found for a little while the sustenance they needed to remain together.
I wondered why I had never seen this side of my father and why neither of them had let me in on their secret of learning to live a life without falling apart. I only had to look at their faces to find the answers. People find strength from different places. For my parents, it was each other. Strength was something hidden and personal that kept you in place and held you together for one more day. Sometimes that strength gave out too soon, and when that happened you shouldn’t call it weakness. It only meant--like my mother had written in the letter--that there wasn’t enough to go around. I would have to find my own reserve.

I walked back to Bill and sat down. Before I uncovered the box, I told him there was so much I wanted to say.

“It’s okay, Peter," he said. "You’re with friends here.” And I knew he was right.

I cradled Frankie’s shoebox and the photos of my parents and I thought, everything is here—right here in front of me. Then I handed the shoebox to Willie, and watched him look inside.
 
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Now appearing in "Bull"

Posted on June 28, 2014 at 11:45 AM Comments comments (0)
My short story "Frankie Would Be Almost Nine" is now in print and online at Bull. I will add it here soon...
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Smooth

Posted on November 16, 2013 at 1:03 PM Comments comments (0)
Dave’s wife was a lip balm addict. She stashed it everywhere: the car, her two purses, and in each of her coats. Cindy used all the brands she could find, without loyalty to any one. Blistex, Chap Stick, Carmex, Vaseline Lip Therapy, what have you. She employed an evenhanded, unscientific approach to selecting which stick to apply—closest one to her lips wins. Flavors were many. The basic fruits like Super Cherry and Lunar Lime. The sweets like Gum Ball Galaxy. Those named after famous people: Shaq-a-licious Surprise and J. Lo-Co-conut. And combinations like Very Berry Katy Perry and Jackie O-range Diamond. Some had an SPF of 45, but that was gravy.

She made Dave carry one with him in his front pants pocket, just in case she forgot hers. It was a strange thing to Dave—that Cindy sometimes forgot the thing she most needed. But he found it sweet that she relied on him in this small way, especially after his career had veered into a ditch. He needed that vote of confidence.

Dave had an advanced degree in economics. He’d been a star at school and at work. That people had once listened to his ideas was a badge of honor he’d worn with the pride reserved for the greatest of achievements. He could picture himself, and he often did, in a victory lap around the inner perimeter of an open-air stadium filled to capacity, flags of every color and design waving, adoration being foisted upon him. This was a thing that could not be matched by any remuneration. For Dave, it was never about the money. But then his firm had shut down under the shadow of a billing scandal. The events had left Dave’s resume with stains he couldn’t scrub off, and his ambition dormant. Now, a comparable job was out of the question. Headhunters wouldn’t touch him. He finally settled for a job down at the commercial docks gutting and cleaning the daily catch, figuring that doing so would be incentive not to remain inert. Problem was he was starting to like it—the repetition, and the certainty of how he measured his daily success.

Cindy worked full time. At night, she kept lip balm under her pillow like a tooth for the tooth fairy. Dave tried it himself once, without telling her, just before they’d gone to bed. He wanted to understand and for about a minute he thought he did. His coated lips felt impervious to the summer heat. He believed, at least for the short time he’d rubbed his upper and lower lips together, that he was protected. He lay there naked on his back watching the ceiling fan overhead until Cindy came to bed. Their lovemaking that night lasted for hours, each of them finally falling away from the other in sweaty exhaustion.

He fell asleep satisfied, believing things were on an upswing. I feel better, he thought. But at three a.m., when Cindy couldn’t find the lip balm under her pillow, she turned all the lights on in the bedroom. Frantic. She shook Dave awake, demanded he help her find it. The thing must have rolled off the nightstand, he said, where he’d put it while they were rolling around. But they never found it, as if their lovemaking had removed it from existence.
*
Cindy had a four-year business degree and a secure job in software development.  She left Dave later that same year he lost his job. This was during a September when it rained a lot, and the rest of the fall would be much the same. On the day he moved into his new place, his landlord helped him with the furniture. They carried a wooden library table up a long flight of stairs, around a sharp bend onto a landing and into his kitchen, placing it in the corner. It was big, oak, rectangular, with one drawer filled with something that rolled around every time he and his landlord repositioned it. He’d found the table with Cindy years before, second hand. She said they should buy it and refinish it. They’d be doing something together, she said, and it made her feel good. It would be a symbol of strength and longevity in their relationship. After Dave’s friend Richie lent them his truck to bring home the table, Dave and Cindy spent four days sanding the thing, making sure to rub out every bit of its previous finish. They coated it with a reddish-brown stain, and then used three coats of glossy polyurethane to complete the job. The new surface gleamed. He liked to rub his hand over it, to feel its smooth surface and the newness of what they’d done together.
*
During that last summer Dave and Cindy were together, they would sometimes lay in bed naked and sweating beneath the whirring fan. When the wind was right, the fan cooled them with fresh air off Narragansett Bay. Most days, though, the stagnant air hung over the town, wrapped it up so tight that no matter where you were in town you couldn’t breathe without smelling the daily catch from the docks where Dave worked.

“Hey, you,” she said, reaching for her lip balm. As she applied it, she rolled over, her head on his chest, and looked up at the ceiling. “Let’s play ‘Do You Think?’” She rolled over again, her dark hair falling onto her shoulders. She was on top of him now, smiling. She put the stick under her pillow.

“Do you want to play?”

“What?”

“Where are you anymore?”

“What do you mean?” Dave said.

“I don’t know. You just aren’t here sometimes.” She straddled him, her hair falling off her shoulders and her breasts rubbing against his chest. She put her hands on his collar bones, gently, slowly moving toward his exposed throat. “Do you want to play or not?” she said, her shining lips so close to his he could smell the lip balm: Calypso Punch. She backed away her hands, pushed down hard on his chest and then shook him.

“I just want to feel better,” he said.

“This will help,” she said, straightening up.

“Okay, okay, I give.”

“You start.”

“No, you start,” he said. He couldn’t think of any questions.

“Okay, then. Me first.” Cindy thought for a moment. “Do you think we’ll have any children?”

They’d met five years before and had been together since. She told him then that they’d be with each other always because he understood her needs and that she always admired a man who knew interesting things—things you could talk about at dinner parties, like the ones with Dave’s co-workers who were important enough to have catered affairs serving food prepared by the best local chefs. Sometimes Dave’s company even brought in a chef from Boston, like Todd English, to do the cooking. Those were the nights, Dave thought, when he most tangibly felt his success—eating the food of kings. It was said by several of Dave’s now-former executives that before Dave’s time at the firm, Julia Child had served French cuisine one evening. At the dinner party where Dave and Cindy had first heard the story, told with the greatest of reverie, they’d passed a satisfied glance to each other. The lovemaking that followed later in the evening had, to Dave, validated everything he’d done to that point in his thirty years on earth.

Dave looked at her mouth now as she spoke. He thought about how her smile had attracted him to her in the beginning. How her lips looked just after she’d rubbed her tongue over them. Soft, silky smooth, and a shade of pinkish red. He thought about how his current career trajectory no longer fit with Cindy’s desire for important people and dinner parties.

“Your turn.”

“Right. Okay. What was yours?”

She was getting pissed. “Do you think we’ll have any children?” she said again.

“Do you think we’ll live until we’re eighty?” he said.

“Do you think Elvis will be elected President?”

“Do you think Richie’s cute?”

“Do you think I belong in a nunnery?”
*
Dave had counted 15 places where Cindy had stored her supply of lip balm, including one on the shower shelf next to his razor blades.  She’d found this one at Banana Republic next to a sock display: Peach Peridot Almond. She’d gone there to buy him socks for a job interview. He’d needed those socks the next day when he’d been scheduled to speak with a company about selling their business equipment and supplies. The guy on the phone practically guaranteed Dave the job. “Just come in tomorrow,” he’d said, “and talk to Jack. Jack will love you. I know what Jack likes and you sound like what Jack likes.” Dave’s impulse had been to say, “Of course Jack will like me,” but he hesitated. Desperation can do that, he thought—hide your confidence so far out of reach you wonder if you ever had it in the first place. Maybe it was a dream.

Cindy forgot the socks but remembered the balm. Dave’s smart new suit and shiny polished black shoes couldn’t overcome very old socks with holes in them. On the walk over to the interview, the pain from the backs of his heals rubbing against the insides of his shoes pissed him off to distraction. This and the oppressive summer air clouded his ability to form coherent thoughts. Not surprisingly, the interview went badly.

Rain fell hard later that afternoon while he walked home, defeated, his clothes soaked through to his skin. He looked up and squinted, as if by doing so he might see between the raindrops and the thick cloud cover all the way into the blue sky and beyond. He saw himself just above the clouds carried by the wind, skipping along the tops, feeling them soft and smooth. As he floated, lighter than air, he slowly blended in with the sky so that all the molecules of his body scattered, and as the warming sunlight hit them just before dusk, they caused the clouds to evaporate, radiating colors so striking they brought people to their knees, crying with joy.

He couldn’t carry the elation all the way home, though. He found Cindy in bed, waiting, but the sex lasted just a few minutes as the rain hitting the roof caused Dave to lose focus and think only about it breaking through and flooding their bedroom. He imagined them being carried out the window, down the street and into the Bay, all the while holding on to each other tightly as they floated farther and farther away. He rolled off her, and lay beside her, listening for the rain to ease up. They were both silent.

“Hey,” he said, finally. He left the lights off.

“What.”

“Do you want to hear about today?”

“How’d it go?”

“Oh, I didn’t mean the interview. That was a disaster.”

He told her about his vision, the one where he floated above the clouds. He could feel himself getting excited as he explained it, painting her a vivid picture of what he was now calling “his revelation.”

“Can you see it?” he said, when she wasn’t responding. “Cindy?” He turned on the light now, but somehow she’d slipped out of the dark room as he’d been talking. There was no lip balm under her pillow.
*
Now, when they made love, he’d feel that they were together, again, in the same bed where she hid a stick of lip balm, and nothing more. Her lips stayed soft, and varied in taste and smell, but nothing could change the feeling that the two of them had gone flat.

“We need to spice things up. Do you think we could?” She said this one night after he’d finished a bowl of cereal. He’d gotten home just a half hour before from ten hours out in the sun. His boss said he’d seemed off that day. Like he wasn’t interested in his job anymore.

“What do you mean?” he replied to Cindy.

“It’s just that I’m getting to a point.”

“A point,” he said. “What point is that?”

“Well, you know, people are always getting to points in their lives. I just think that we’ve gotten to one.”

“So it’s both of us, is it?”

“I just want us to love each other the same way we always did, is all. Do you think that’s asking too much?”

“I’m tired,” he said. “Do you think we could talk about this another time?”
*
“Dave?”

“What?”

“Do you think that Richie would do it with me and you together?” She was next to him in bed, her left arm draped over his chest, her left hand clutching Ruby Red Surprise. The air in the room contained none of the vibrancy of times before. Just a sheet covered them both, and his feet stuck out the end so that his heels rubbed along the footboard. He didn’t wear socks.

“What did you say?” he said. But he’d heard her. He felt his heart pound harder in his chest. He bent his knees so that the arches of his feet could rub along the footboard. 

“Do you...?”

“Richie’s game for anything,” Dave said. “But I don’t think I could—you know—participate.”
Cindy turned away, onto her back. Looking disappointed, she stared at the ceiling. She licked her lips and then, without looking back at him, said, “Would you watch?”
*
Heavy rain battered the sidewalk and trees outside Dave’s new apartment. He sat at the library table, his landlord standing next to him looking out a window. Dave couldn’t get comfortable. There was all this oaky, grainy space in front of him. He ran his hands over its surface: smooth, like silk, just as it always had been since he and Cindy had worked on it. He had positioned the table in the only spot it could fit, just below a small window, the one his landlord looked out now. He wondered how he’d gotten himself to a point where he was alone and worked five days a week at the docks. This was not a possibility he’d imagined when he first bought this table with Cindy.

“Got a great view of Narragansett Bay from this window,” his landlord said. He was old enough to be Dave’s father, but in great physical shape. He wore a dark blue T-shirt, now with sweat stains from moving the furniture. His biceps bulged through the sleeves. He had more hair on his arms than Dave had ever seen on anyone. The hair was mostly black, with gray scattered throughout.

“Do you know anything about gutting fish?” Dave asked, rubbing his own almost hairless right forearm.

“I know they stink something fierce when it’s hot like it was this past summer,” his landlord said, continuing to look out the window. He folded his arms, showing off his  Schwarzenegger biceps, and nodded slowly. “I do know that.”

Dave opened the table’s drawer and picked up a stick of Strawberry Garnet Glaze lip balm. It was one of about a dozen little-used sticks that had been rolling around in the wooden drawer while they moved it.

“My wife,” he said, showing his landlord the stick. “She had the softest lips.”

“They all do,” the landlord said, taking it and studying the writing on its label. He held it close to his nose, breathed deep and closed his eyes. A faint smile came over his face and then quickly disappeared as if it had never been there. He placed the stick on the table and looked at his new tenant with an expression that said he understood but didn’t want to discuss it, and moved his gaze back out the window to the heavy rain.

“What’s out here?” Dave asked. He removed the cap from the lip balm and held it close to his nose.

“Everything. Town’s going to float away,” his landlord said. “Where is she now?”

“You can probably see her if you look hard enough, floating away with everything else.”

“Yeah,” the landlord said, still looking out the window. “Sounds about right. They do that too, don’t they?”

After the landlord left, Dave removed all the lip balm from the drawer and lined them up on the table, as if they were standing at attention. He counted 14 in all. He would start with the Strawberry Garnet Glaze. One by one, he uncapped a stick, turned it so the balm poked out, and then applied it to his lips. First the upper and then the lower. He rubbed his lips together to spread it around more fully, making sure to coat the entire surface.

“More,” he said out loud to the empty room. He grabbed a random stick and turned it to expose more of the balm and rubbed some into his forearms, onto his nose, his cheeks and his ears. When he ran out of a stick, he moved to the next one. He closed his eyes and used it on the lids, and then on his forehead. When he’d applied some on all the exposed areas, he took off his shirt and rubbed balm into his chest and his stomach. Then he went to a mirror in his bathroom and contorted himself into a pretzel as he applied the last of the balm onto his back. He placed the empty tubes into the drawer where he’d found them and slid the drawer shut, deriving comfort from the sound they made as they rolled around—hollow, empty. “Good,” he said.

Shirtless and barefoot, he went outside to watch the rain. Water flowed down his street, pushing its way easily toward the bay off in the distance. He put his feet in the warm current as it carried leaves and twigs and trash from the gutters, passed overflowing drainage grates as if they didn’t exist, forcing its way along a predetermined path away from here. The rain pelted his shoulders and chest, but he was impervious to its attack. Nothing could get through the balm’s protection. The nights with Cindy—the panicked moments when the balm could not be found—suddenly made sense to him. How he could not have understood then what was so apparent now was laughable, unimaginable. He laughed out loud at the skies pouring down on him, drilling at him in vain, water bouncing off him and into the gutter. Nothing, he thought, could penetrate this protection, this impermeable coating.

Then he had a thought so lucid he felt scared by his own self-assurance. It was as if the coating of the balm had had a completely unexpected effect. His brain had been cleared of all residual input, and what was left was one thing, a singular idea of such simple beauty tears began to fall down his cheeks. He hadn’t felt this way for a long time, since the days he was the superstar for his clients, when he’d speak and they seemed to agree with everything he said.

And the thought was this: Let it in.

He peeled off the rest of his clothes, tossed them aside and looked up into the sky, naked, with arms reaching up. The rain fell too hard for him to see between the drops, as he’d tried to on the day of the failed job interview. As it fell even harder, he brought both hands to his face, and with his fingernails scraped the balm off his forehead and cheeks.

He felt the drops begin to work their way through the first layer of his skin on his head. For a brief moment he felt an irrational fear, and began to move toward the shelter of his front door. But when it didn’t hurt, he stopped. 

Soon the raindrops penetrated all the way through so that his skin began to wash away, exposing his skull. Tissue began to mix with blood, all of it dissolving into a rapid torrent of himself washing down his body and into the gutter. He scraped off more and more balm from his shoulders and chest, his forearms and back. When all his skin had gone—and slowly, painlessly, all of his bones—his veins and all his organs liquefied completely into the rushing torrent. This wasn’t what he’d expected, this ending, far from skirting atop the clouds and flawless sunsets with people on their knees crying at the beauty they’d beheld—this was better. As he rushed with the water toward Narragansett Bay, he remained aware of himself spreading rapidly, freely with the current. Before he knew it, he stretched a hundred yards, now two hundred, gliding in the warm flow. He entered a storm drain—the bay would be next, where he’d be dispersed into the cloudy, cold water. Look at me now, Cindy, he thought. I’m everything.

END


Author's Note - this is a gently edited version of the story that appears in Chagrin River Review
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Look At That

Posted on July 20, 2013 at 3:43 PM Comments comments (0)
A young woman watched a soldier read a paperback. She faced him from across her kitchen table, holding an empty glass in one hand, her long fingers wrapped nearly all the way around, and resting her chin on the other. With her eyes still on the soldier and his book, she pulled her thinning hair to one side of her neck. Her facial skin looked like a thin layer of parchment adhered to her skull. She wore a tattered nightgown, white with a faint pattern of red and green, and nothing on her feet.

I wonder how old my soldier is, she thought. Beneath his tired expression, he had the ingenuous look of youth. She thought he was about eighteen, four years her junior. To be young, she thought. The loss she had felt since the war began, of youth or anything close to a feeling of naivete, grew as she watched him. She was educated, and knew about cynicism. How it could take hold like an iron vise and squeeze every bit of innocence from you. She knew. But my soldier, she thought-has he come here to take me away from this? Sides don't matter after everything is gone. How could we be enemies?
     
They were on the top floor of a brick building, five stories tall. Around it, rows of buildings, once tall and proudly overlooking crowded city streets, lay flattened, or crumbling in pieces. As if they'd been made out of sandstone and someone, maybe God Himself, had taken the buildings in His hands and crushed them, letting the pieces fall to the ground in a pile. Occasional gunfire or pattering of desperate footfalls could be heard all around.
     
In the room next to the kitchen, the young woman's mother and older sister sat on the mother's bed. The thin walls of the apartment allowed them to listen to the happenings in the kitchen. There were windows facing the outside. With excellent perches, the two lolled away the hours viewing the ruins and the dark birds circling overhead, waiting. An unsure breeze passing through the room dissipated the odor from soiled clothing and bedding. But with it came the stench from outside.
     
The sun had taken on an ethereal orange-red hue throughout these long days, and in the kitchen its light sliced through a window above a stainless steel sink. It grazed the young man's shoulder, and sent a small reddish glow onto flowered green wallpaper. The table stood on a linoleum floor beneath a darkened ceiling light. Several small tin cans lay scattered across the tabletop.
     
"Is he still reading?" the mother called out from her bedroom.  
     
The young woman looked away from her soldier toward the sound of her mother's voice, and then back again at him. Her brown hair moved from the side and now fell limp behind her back. She smiled, revealing graying teeth with several gaps between.
     
"He's so handsome!" she said to her mother and her older sister. "Don't you think he is?"
     
The soldier turned a page of the book, cast a curious glance at the girl, and continued reading. His black sideburns were cut evenly at one-half inch above the bottoms of his earlobes. He had sunken cheekbones and pallid coloring. A gray uniform, dirt-stained with several rips and an emblem of a bird on one breast pocket, hung on his frail body. On the other pocket were several colorful medal ribbons grouped together like flags in a parade. Their colors had caught the girl's eye when he'd arrived that morning, but now she saw that they too were soiled and dull.
     
He turned a page of his book. She wondered what the words said. Unfamiliar words marched across the cover. If he spoke to me, she thought, would I understand? Yet she did not feel fear-of him, or of his rifle leaning against the wall beside him.
     
"I'm so hungry," the girl called out to her mother and sister.
     
"What does he eat?" her sister said.
     
The girl put her elbows on the table, her delicate chin on her hands. She studied him. "He has this stuff he brought in little cans." She picked one up.
     
The soldier glanced at the girl and smiled with perfect, straight teeth. Then he continued reading.
     
She smiled too. "He likes his little cans, alright!" she said, and stroked his forearm.
     
The soldier pulled away from her, and put a hand on his gun.
     
"I'm sorry." She raised her arms to show she meant no harm.
     
He grunted, sighed, almost smiled again. Then he read.
     
"Would you like to have some bread? I think we could give him some bread," the mother said.
     
"He doesn't understand, Mother," the older sister said.
     
"How about you, Honey? Do you want some bread?"
     
"She can't eat that, either. She's still sick, Mother."
     
"Can't eat bread?" the mother said.
     
"No bread?"
     
"Baby's still sick," the older sister said with a great self-assurance. "Your fever only just broke yesterday, Honey. Nothing solid today. You can't keep it down."
     
"No, Honey, nothing solid today," Mother said.
     
"But I feel fine. Don't I look fine?" the girl said to her soldier.
     
"You're not fine. Not yet. Maybe tomorrow. How about some wine? You love that! Does he love that, too?"
     
"Do you?" the girl asked.
     
"Everybody likes wine," Mother said. "We only have a little left, but he can have it. Go ahead, ask him." And then she said, "Look at that. Would you look at that. There's a rat on the roof next door eating a dead seagull. Do rats eat sea gulls?"
     
"I don't know, Mother." The young woman looked at her soldier. "If I was a rat, I'd be sleeping on a hot day like this one."
     
The soldier stretched his arms high over his head, brought them down slowly to either side as if resisting his surroundings, and then studied his watch. He pursed his lips as he looked now at the young woman.
     
"I know, Honey, but rats are funny like that," Mother said. "Isn't that a sight? I never expected that." Mother sighed. "What should we do now?"
     
"Do?" the older sister said.
     
"Do," Mother said.
     
"What about the wine? Are you going to drink the wine now, Honey?"
    
The young woman gathered her strength and stood, feeling knives of pain in her knees and her back. She stood erect, arms to her side, chin high, and walked the four steps to the cabinets, trying to remember when she could walk without a limp. As she searched the cabinets, she sensed the soldier watching her, his black eyes enveloping her whole body. She fumbled with things, pushing aside several dusty ceramic cups. "Where is it?" she called out toward the doorway.
     
"Can't you find any?" Mother said. "Did someone drink it already? Did he? Didn't you say he liked wine? Go help her find it," she said to the sister.
     
The young woman looked at the soldier as his head jerked up from his book to the doorway. "I didn't say that!" she yelled, now turning toward the musty cabinet. "And you shouldn't sound so accusing, Mother. He might get angry."
     
"But he doesn't understand us."
     
"He may not understand words, but other things communicate what you're feeling." She leaned into, and then grabbed, the counter. "I'm tired." Her own voice sounded listless to her.
     
"Go help her," the mother said again.
     
"Don't come help! I'll find it."
     
"The rat's gone-I'll come help you," the sister said. "Oh, my back aches so much. How much longer is this going to take?" Creaking spring sounds of her climbing off the bed could be heard in the kitchen.
     
"They say it depends," the mother said. "Maybe a doctor will be able to come soon. Not many of them left, I guess. Here she comes, Honey!"
     
His fingers tapping on the table, the soldier shifted his position and looked toward the hallway. He combed his hair with his hand and then looked at his hand in disgust, pulling several hairs from between fingers.
     
The young woman continued her search.
     
"Found it!" she said, finally, with a relieved look at her soldier. She held out a half-full bottle of red wine toward him as if it were a precious stone. "He didn't drink any!"
     
"Oh, good," the sister cried. "And look: the rat's back. Look at him eat!"
     
"He didn't?" Mother said.
     
"No. I told you."
     
"Well, does he like wine or not?"
     
"Do you?" Offering the wine, the young woman wanted him to feel her look bathe his entire body. She placed the bottle before him on the table and pointed to it. "Drink," she said. "For you." She reached for his hand as if she were going to touch a frightened animal, and placed her frail hand on his. "Yes, we're on different sides," she said in a hushed voice, "and you're scared. But so am I." And then she said, "We're here."
     
He closed the book, marking with a finger the spot where he left off, and scrutinized the girl as she stood before him. When their eyes met, he dropped his book, murmured something inexplicable, and then he reached around her with one hand and caressed her back.
     
"Oh," she whispered, lifting her head to the ceiling and closing her eyes. "Yes."
     
Her legs shook as she felt him lift her nightgown with both hands. When he reached the waist of her underclothes, he slid them off halfway. As they glided down her legs, over her aching knees and past her bony calves to her ankles, she felt a spark of life flare inside her.
     
She heard his breathing, but sensed no panic in him. Holding his head with both hands, she felt him touch her. Yes.
     
He then reached to lift off her nightgown.
     
"No," she said looking down at him, "my body...don't you see my body?" She cried.
     
He stood up then, wiped her wet cheek with his hand, and held her to his chest, wrapping his arms around her. She closed her eyes, and with her arms at her side, she wondered if he could feel her heart beating. She tried to steady her own breathing, felt shaken, repulsed by the thought of him holding her. The odor from his chest was sweet, inviting, and she slowly brought her arms around his waist.
     
For several minutes, she feasted on the comfort.
     
"What's happening out there, Honey?"
     
"Nothing," she said. "Don't come in here, Mother." But she knew they would both be coming in. She heard the squeaking of the bed springs again, and then the sounds of her sister and mother making their way to the kitchen. "Hurry," she whispered to him.
     
He stood back, unbuttoned his shirt and took it off. She traced along his ribs with her trembling hands. She lifted her nightgown over her head and dropped it to the floor. As she shook, she shielded herself and leaned into his bare shoulder. And all the time he murmured to her, a sweet sound that meant more to her than any words she had ever heard.
     
As she felt the hard and damp floor against her back, she tried to block out the shuffling sounds of them getting closer. For the first time she was glad they were so weak from the sickness and hunger. Although her soldier was so young and slight, she thought that every one of her vertebrae could be crushed beneath his weight if he moved just so. As she watched him above her, his sunken features, his white chest with scattered hairs, hardly enough to call him a man, and tears streaming down his face, she held him. As the terror, and now the silence, had held them.
     
'Clever death,' she thought. 'But you don't have us yet.'
     
She felt his warm tears falling onto her. Her heart pumped, her lungs took in oxygen, she became aware they were being watched, but heard nothing. No objections, no screams of disgust, no cries for her to stop. Then she saw the outline of his rib cage, collarbones, the lump sticking out from his throat. And with one last exhalation of breath they held each other as if clutching the ground during an earthquake. They lay there and held each other tighter, tighter.

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The Fire

Posted on February 23, 2013 at 9:24 PM Comments comments (0)
On the day of the fire, my father and I stood in the snowy parking lot of my apartment complex and watched the water from the hoses transform my basement unit into a wading pool. The smoke escaping from the broken windows of the four-story brick building drifted upward, stopping about fifty feet above the flat rooftop. There it hung–not black, exactly, more a charcoal gray–a result of some freak inversion effect causing it to hang there for hours after the last flames had been doused, a lingering reminder of my current circumstance.
 
The next day, when the thaw hit, everything began to melt, and I began to move out. We walked through the foot-high water in my living room, floating paperback books and record albums bobbing around like so much litter in a polluted lake.
 
“Get those up,” my father said, pointing to a corner of the room.
 
Like a corpse doing a dead man’s float, my brand new golf bag with a new set of Tour blades was knocking against a wall from the waves we made by moving about the apartment. I gathered them up, heavy with water and grime, and threw the bag over my shoulder as a caddy does when he readies himself to walk a fairway. All I wanted then was to head to a range; hit some balls; swing free and easy and ready myself for the next round, but that wouldn’t come for months. We silently walked out of the mess and into the snowy daylight and freedom of the parking lot, puddles and snow melting all around us. I leaned the bag against my truck, shivering, cold from wading through my apartment. We stood there, an old man and his grown son, and hugged. It was the first time he’d hugged me since I was a kid. It was the last time he’d ever hug me.
 
That set of golf clubs had been one of many I’d owned throughout my life. When I was a boy, my father had brought me home my first golf club, which he’d found in the bin of used clubs at the pro shop of the course where he played every week with his buddies from work. My father was an electrical engineer, and worked for a defense contractor. His real love, though, was the game he played once a week, weather permitting. We lived together, just the two of us, in a small town in Massachusetts. This was long after my mother had left us and then died in a car accident. His golf day was Saturday, and on the particular Saturday he brought me the club I was twelve and, at that time, was gradually becoming aware of his affinity for the game. We watched the pros on television often, and he’d speak in reverential tones about their abilities, as if these were traits everyman should have. “See?” he would say. “Do you see the concentration? The focus?”
 
From the moment I first held that junior 7-iron with a facsimile of Chi Chi Rodriguez’s signature etched into the back, I set out to learn the game of golf. It was a good way to break into it, my father said, having just the single club.
 
“Learn it a club at a time,” he said, “if you ever want to be a shot-maker.”
 
I carried that club with me wherever I went. I’d stand in front of our black and white television on Saturday or Sunday afternoons studying the pros, imitating their swings, in awe of their calm under pressure. Sometimes I stood at attention, as I would in church during those times when you’re supposed to be quiet, in total silence while the announcer whispered about Jack Nicklaus looking over a five-footer for par, or Arnold Palmer on the tee hitting another big drive–always striking the ball so hard it looked as if he’d need traction for the torque he’d exerted on his back.
 
“He’s trying to hurt that ball,” my father said with a smile.
 
Back then, Tiger Woods wasn’t even born yet; the best golfers were guys like Nicklaus and Palmer and Gary Player, playing at places with names that captured my imagination: Augusta, Baltusrol, Shinnecock Hills, Winged Foot, The Royal & Ancient, and Pinehurst #2.
 
My father was like many fathers, apt to point out to his son life’s lessons from the minutia of the seemingly unremarkable. He wasn’t big on platitudes, though. He’d never say a thing like, “There aren’t any shortcuts to success,” or “If at first you don't succeed try, try again.” For him, golf and the professionals we watched transcended what until then to me were simply clubs and balls and pretty pictures of fairways and greens. I gradually came to understand that the expanse of a golf course was more a place of refuge where you were alone with your thoughts, challenged yourself in small ways, where subtle changes have profound effects on final results.
 
 Walking around my neighborhood, cutting through neighbors’ yards with friends or even by myself, I could be seen with Chi Chi on my shoulder, a twelve year old boy dreaming of becoming a shot-maker—to have the characteristics my father found so important: confidence, focus, driven by the desire to be excellent at something. Nothing then, or now, provided more motivation for me than to make my father proud of me. At first I played in my backyard with plastic golf balls, and then, sometimes with my father, went down to the school playground with used balls from his bag.
 
“Bea shot-maker, Pete,” he would say.
 
It seemed that I shanked and hooked and sliced a thousand shots before I’d move to the next club. I’d spray balls across that field at every angle and trajectory in my sometimes futile attempt at mastering a club. Eventually, I graduated to a full set, learning each club as my father prescribed.
 
One summer, I was probably thirteen or fourteen by then, my friends and I laid out a nine-hole par three golf course on the playground. We used just our 7-irons, a club that typically yielded shots of a hundred thirty yards or so for us. The course incorporated a parking lot as a water hazard, and the woods all around as out of bounds. If you hit the school building, it was a two-shot penalty. Given our love for the sound of smashing glass, if you broke a window it was only a one-shot penalty, even if your ball was lost inside the school. We used the jungle gyms, slides, swing sets, see-saws and even a sewer grate, all scattered across the field, as the holes. Hit the target and you were considered “in.” Win the match and you’d win the Masters, or one of the Opens or the PGA.
 
As I practiced early on and learned more about the game from my father and from the pros on television, I decided I’d always be a golfer. But I never wanted to be a professional golfer. I would leave that to those on the Tour, the disciplined players who could get home from a hanging lie two-hundred fifty yards from a green surrounded by deep bunkers or water. Me, it’s taken time, but I’ve developed a serviceable game--one that comes and goes, takes me to the heights of joy as much as it does to the lowest levels of frustration. I’ve played many rounds, even won a couple local tournaments like my father did, but making a career out of it wasn’t for me. I could never take up as a profession that which I love so well.
 
 
 
Growing up, I spent most of my time outdoors. It’s what comes with living alone with your dad. When he was at home, he’d give me things to do around the house, and do things with me, help with homework or talk about golf techniques. When he was at work or out with his buddies, he gave me leave to do what I wanted, which usually meant walking the neighborhood streets with my friends, playing in the woods, golfing on the playground. He was there for me when I needed him, though. Years later, when Tom Taylor set fire to my apartment building, causing most of my belongings to suffer water damage, my father was there carrying furniture and soggy books out of my apartment and into a rental van. It took us two days in that January thaw, and by then he was nearly seventy years old.
 
And so, I grew to be most comfortable outdoors. I love the smell of fallen leaves, the greens and yellows of the grass during summer, and the sun on my shoulders year-round. Landscaping just seemed to happen naturally. Not a glamorous career, as my father often reminded me, but I’m outside most of the year, and I know everything there is to know about lawn care in this part of the country. The northeast presents challenges for grass because the weather varies to extremes between the cold winters and the humidity of the summers. When a customer wants to know about bluegrasses, fescues, ryegrasses and bent grasses, and which ones are best adapted here, I’m your man. I tell them I’m particularly fond of Kentucky Bluegrass for its excellent recuperative and reproductive capacity. It develops a dense turf stand, has excellent color and mows more cleanly than tougher-bladed grasses such as perennial ryegrass. It also has greater cold tolerance than either perennial ryegrass or tall fescue.
 
True, I spend winters doing other activities to keep me financially afloat, like snow plowing. But winter doesn’t mean that I stop thinking about golf. I still practice my swing indoors, where I can also do my visualization exercises. I close my eyes and see myself making shots, hitting fairways off the tee, dropping a 3-iron softly onto a postage stamp green from two-twenty, making a thirty-foot bender for a par. Sometimes I imagine I’m at the tee of the 12 hole at Augusta, my father in the gallery, looking at a hundred fifty-five yarder with a narrow, canted green guarded by Rae’s Creek. A shot-maker’s hole. Hit it too high and the wind can get hold of your ball and knock it down into the water or move it away from target; too low and you can skip it into the rear bunker, setting yourself up for a come-backer with the water waiting on the far side of the green. I picture myself dropping a 7-iron right next to the pin–every time.
 
 
Although the smell of the fire clinged to every article of furniture, clothing and other fixtures and accessories I owned, we dried it all out as best we could, packed up what was salvageable and moved me here. This was three years ago. I think the smell is gone now, but maybe I’ve gotten so used to it that I just don’t notice it anymore.
 
Were it not for my living room being in a state of disarray, it would be a pleasant setting for quiet summer nights like this one. I have proof. Photographs, currently in a safe deposit box, were done for insurance purposes at my father’s suggestion. He photographed this entire apartment, each and every surviving item, and packaged them all up in a photo album. He looked haggard that day after we’d finished moving, a little more hunched over than normal, his skin tone growing paler by the moment.
 
I told him to be careful, that he’d exerted himself more than necessary, but he scoffed at the idea of slowing down and said, simply, “Next time you’ll be ready.”
 
The photos he handed to me show a room that is more than just livable, no question; it was to be envied. But since I moved, I’m not a good cleaner. Except for narrow paths from the living room to the kitchen to the bedroom to the only bathroom in the apartment, the hardwood floor has gone missing. Scattered around the apartment is my album collection of nearly a thousand, some without their original covers, lost in the fire.The albums aren’t the principal component of the clutter. Books and magazines, some in piles, some scattered, are everywhere. There’s unwashed silverware, unopened mail, opened mail, pocket change, soda bottles and cans, a pizza box, a few golf balls, an overturned table lamp broken from an errant practice swing, a Wilson persimmon head driver, a leather-gripped Tour bladed 7-iron and, of course, the record albums. All of the albums were once alphabetized within their respective genres: rock, jazz, classical, etc. Now none are alphabetical and most are unplayable.
 
Tom Taylor was never arrested for starting the fire. It was generally agreed, though, by those of us who were affected by the fire, that he’d done it. We’d heard the apartment complex, which he owned with a partner, was in the way of a larger development they’d wanted to build. According to the police, though, nothing could be proven. To what I’m sure was Tom’s great disappointment, one of my neighbors reported the fire before it could do permanent damage, so it wasn’t a total loss for insurance purposes. I’m guessing that at this point Tom has found other opportunities in real estate.
 
Like me, Tom was a golfer of some merit, and more than once the two of us had casually discussed what it would take to own and operate a golf course. He’d not been a member at a private club then, preferring to accept the invitations of those who were members. He often said he admired my turf knowledge and my abilities as a landscaper, and that one day he hoped he’d be able to offer me an opportunity to use my talents on something, in his words, “more substantial than just cutting and seeding lawns and doing yard clean ups.” Now, this, of course, was before the fire, and if Tom has similar aspirations now, I haven’t heard. He took golf seriously, though, and had a particular source of pride that he seemed to take great care in nurturing: Tom had an uncanny resemblance to Gary Player. The only thing missing was Player’s South African accent. A golfer well known for being in great physical condition, Player wore black almost exclusively. He had a certain appeal among fans and stature among his competition as someone to be admired, if for nothing else than his excellent sense of style. Nobody looked better in a pair of black slacks, a black short-sleeve Perry Ellis buttoned to the top, and black pullover vest than Gary Player. Tom, who like Player was short and slight, wore only black, even in summer. Just the way the pant leg fell off their knees and down to their feet, with the crease bending at the ankle; and their shoulders, broad as they were, accented perfectly by the ubiquitous vest. These were golfers with style.
 
 
 
After years of being a landscaper, I’d grown used to my father’s occasional politely negative commentary about my career choice. Although he said he was proud of me a number of times, he did express his concern about the inherent pitfalls of being a small business owner. 
 
“A guy working out of his truck with a couple lawn mowers and a two-man crew is not a viable business long-term,” he would tell me.
 
Sure, I struggled for a while—all with the unstated aim of making him proud of me. It took me years to understand how to manage the costs associated with equipment upkeep and payroll. Not to mention the little things like billing customers, paying for supplies; and then there’s just dealing with customers, which in my case is more of a challenge because, for better or worse, my clientele have always been what I would consider wealthy – another way of saying that they’re know-it-alls with nothing better to do than tell me how to do my job. Just because a guy’s a doctor, he figures he knows everything. I have debated turf types with surgeons who don’t know the difference between a Bermuda grass and a fescue. One guy thought a rhizome had something to do with the atmosphere. Then there’s the financial side of dealing with customers. Ever try to get fifty bucks out of the president of a bank? Or from some thirty-year old millionaire? Let me tell you, there’s a reason rich people are rich. I maintain my cool, though. I’ve never come to blows with a customer. If they begin to piss me off, I smile and think of something else. Not a particularly healthy habit, I know.
 
All this, of course, validated to some extent my father’s argument in the first place. But I’d hoped he would eventually come to understand that I was happy staying small and playing golf, something I would ask him about now if he were still alive. I wish he hadn’t exerted himself so much during my move. I just wish he could be here now so we could talk some more about it; so he could see that although it’s been difficult, it’s also been rewarding.
 
 
I pick up the 7-iron now, from its resting place on top of an album stack, and take a sniff of the blade. No sign of smoke, just the sweet smell of summer grass. I’ve been thinking about something lately. Why not bring the playground golf course concept to my current neighborhood? My concern, of course, has been how my neighbors will react to this, but given that my golf game is far superior to that of my youth, I’m hoping my improved shot control will ease their concerns. I now live in an exclusively residential area of the city, at the intersection of five streets, creating a diagonal span between the farthest house from mine of about a hundred fifty to a hundred sixty yards, the current length for my 7-iron. This open space across pavement is especially appealing because it will give me an opportunity to work on the height of my shot, which lately has inexplicably flattened.
 
In addition to that, I’ve found it increasingly difficult to make a confident club selection. My father, I’m sure, would suggest that I just keep at it. Go to the range, he’d say, and practice. Even on the day he died, it’s one of the last things we talked about before I finally convinced him to go home and get some rest. When I got the call that he’d been rushed to the hospital, I’d been putting the finishing touches on organizing my new home. This was different from when my mother had died. Back then, I wasn’t old enough to appreciate any of it. I didn’t understand that my father’s grieving for her, despite the fact that she had left him, was an ongoing process that was wrapped up in everything he did and said. All he ever told me about her leaving was that she’d left to find something that she hadn’t ever found with him. Knowing the man as I did, I could see that his pensive demeanor might have been hard to live with. It was all in his head. As I was sitting next to him in the Intensive Care Unit, watching the machines keep him alive, I thought about how he was leaving me, and knew for the first time how he must have felt all those years about my mother having left.
 
He died that evening. The doctor said his heart gave out.
    
 
I practice addressing the ball now as I consider my ever-evolving plan. After reflecting on what I thought would be my father’s advice, I approached the local pro the other day at the driving range and had him watch me hit a few shots.
 
“You’re stiff on the back swing,” he said.
 
“You would be too,” I said, “if you raked, planted, seeded or cut fifty lawns a week during the summer.” Clearly he was more a student of swing mechanics than of the mental game of golf, which I’m betting is the real issue. This guy's got it easy, I thought, and I told him so. Out in the real golfing world there are greens to hit, not just plywood signs with numbers painted on them like at the range. Did he think Gary Player’s game got better by aiming at the person inside the little cage of the tractor retrieving balls at the range? Player could choose the right club at the right time every time, and always be in style. Until Tiger, golfers everywhere didn’t fully appreciate the combination of style and substance. For me, although I appreciate and admire style, I don’t have any. I can’t match a smart pair of slacks with a nicely fitting shirt. Even if I did, I don’t have the right body type to do it justice. Although my shoulders are nicely square, my legs are too short. I’ve got to be a shot-maker. If I can’t choose the club to get home with, I’m dead.
 
 “Forget my back,” I said to the pro. “Get into my head. Help me get home. I need to pick a club!”
 
But he was unrelenting, insisting that if I was serious about my golf game, I’d consider a career change. This, I thought, sounds too much like my father talking to me about the landscaping business. Although he never would have suggested that my game would improve if I changed careers. Still, it resonated with me enough that I immediately terminated my relationship with the pro. With my plan for a neighborhood golf course, I won’t need him anyway.
 
The logical next step, then, is to speak with all those neighbors whose front yards will serve as the holes, and especially speak to the owners of the house a full 7-iron away. There’s a young dogwood that’s perfect for the pin, centered as it is between a driveway and a flagstone walkway. And, more good news: these neighbors are new, having moved in just last week. All I need to do, I hope, is to become friendly with them, and maybe offer them free lawn care.
 
I’m a planner by nature, and although this may seem like an over-simplification for the task at hand, I’m also a firm believer in meeting things head on. I look out my second story window now across the expanse of pavement toward the house in question, a 1920’s village colonial with white clapboard and newly installed energy-efficient double-hung windows. A red SUV sits in the driveway. 
 
I hold the leather grip of the 7-iron, interlocking my fingers as I would on the golf course, and swing the club in slow motion, imagining the ball dropping softly onto my neighbor’s grass within inches of the dogwood tree. This, I think, is something I wish my father could be here to see.
 
Stuffing three golf balls into the pocket of my shorts, I walk down the stairs and onto my front porch. The smell is of humid city air mixed with cut grass, as a neighbor down the block mows his lawn. I stand on my own grass looking down at my feet, still clad in work boots. Although I rent, my landlord’s allowed me to experiment on this lawn as long as I take care of it. I planted creeping red, a fine fescue, before last winter and then tried over-seeding with Kentucky Bluegrass. The turf is performing quite well, and will make an excellent first tee. I consider getting my golf shoes out of my golf bag, but instead I drop the golf balls onto the grass and begin to take practice swings in earnest.  My back is sore as usual, and as I stop to stretch I see someone walking across the designated first green.
 
He’s far enough away so I can see only that it is a man and not a woman, and that he’s dressed well, if not unusually, for this humid summer night. It being dusk, colors are sometimes difficult to distinguish, especially dark ones. I remember once buying what I thought was a black shirt only to find it was dark green, so I don’t want to be quick to judge. I stand completely still, and squint.
 
He walks from the SUV to the dogwood, dragging something behind him what appears to be a hose and sprinkler. Good lawn care is an admirable trait in anyone, and I’m delighted in this case for obvious reasons. At least as far as the lawn care goes. Gradually, though, it’s registering with me: not only is this guy wearing black, long pants and all, but he’s somewhat short with short hair and an excellent sense of style. My back begins to feel worse as I think about short golfers in good shape and the people they resemble.
 
There's very little traffic in the neighborhood tonight. The sky darkens as the sun begins to set, so I need to act fast. Whoever my new neighbor is, he's gone back into the house. I’ve abandoned my original plan, the one that included me endearing myself to these new folks. A new plan begins to take shape, but before I implement it, I need to be sure who I'm dealing with. I pick up one of the golf balls and stuff it into my back pocket. With the Tour blade on my shoulder, a grown-up version of that little kid who long ago toured the neighborhoods with a junior Chi Chi Rodriguez on his shoulder, I walk the expanse of pavement toward the house. I silently count the paces from my house to the neighbor's as I walk, three feet to a step. I'm thinking: why not confirm the distance? 
 
I keep my eyes focused on the yard in hopes of seeing this guy again, in hopes of making a final determination that it is not Tom.
 
Eighty yards so far.
 
Nothing would make me happier than to discover that I've made a terrible mistake. Chalk it up to a long day in the sun. Maybe my new neighbor and I will laugh about it over a beer. Another guy dressed like Gary Player, that's not unusual. Good style is always “in.”
 
I imagine anyone seeing me now assumes I'm just taking a pleasant stroll, maybe headed the several blocks to the field down the street to practice chip shots. I’ve done it before.
 
One hundred and twenty-three yards.
 
A car drives by as I get closer to the house. The sprinkler passes back and forth on the lawn.
 
I'm less than a chip shot away now and I see movement in the house. A light is on in one of the first floor rooms. Silhouettes of a man and a woman behind a drawn curtain move around. The front door swings open and Tom Taylor walks out. He doesn't see me at first. I stop.
 
One fifty-one to the curb.
 
“Hello,” I say, and he turns. There is no recognition in his face.
 
“Hi.” He looks at the 7-iron on my shoulder. I think he’s scared. I like that.
 
I take the golf ball from my pocket and toss it up and down. I consider doing a Tiger Woods, using the club head and golf ball like a paddle and rubber ball, but I'm not in the mood to show off. I don't know what to do now, but I do know I don’t want this guy as a neighbor, especially in the house that was to have been the first hole in my neighborhood golf course. And there’s no way I’m going to give him free lawn care.
 
I don't say anything else. I turn and walk toward my house because I know what must be done. It's almost completely dark now, so I'll need to rely on street lights and light from the surrounding houses. When I reach my house, I lean the 7-iron against my truck, and go to my storage area in the basement. There, beneath more clutter, is a three gallon plastic container filled with used balls I've accumulated over many years. I never can bring myself just to throw them away.
 
Call it an adrenaline rush, I don't know, but my back doesn't bother me as I carry it out of the basement and onto the lawn. Next, I retrieve my golf bag from the apartment, set it up next to me, and then tilt the container of balls enough so that about fifty balls fall out. I’ll need all of my clubs tonight.
 
 
The first shot, a 7-iron, is lost in the darkness. I hear it thwack against something solid, probably the side of a house, but certainly not Tom's. The next shot, though, is perfect. It's a big 7-iron, a majestic 7-iron, a Tiger 7-iron, high and far. Although I never see it in flight, from the moment I hit it I know it's on target. The shattering of glass from Tom's second story window confirms it. That’s a one-shot penalty, I think. But I shake that off and continue. I practice drives and fairway woods. I practice drawing the ball with my 3-iron, and slicing it with the 5-iron. His SUV is the unfortunate recipient of an errant shot when I falter a little, my 6-iron trajectory flattens, and the ball careens off the pavement and into its tailgate. The thwunk from hitting the roof of the house, though, is especially satisfying. Tom's yells grow louder now, as he stands next to the dogwood.
 
Neighbors watch the commotion from their doorsteps and yards. That last 7-iron was pin high, ten yards right.
 
I'm in a groove.
 
I can feel it now, Dad.
 
I’m a focused shot-maker tonight. I could hit any target: swing set, jungle gym, see-saw. I could be on the 12 at Augusta and I would have no fear. That tiny green is mine. The water hazard? Not even in play. I’m outside at work and the club selection is spot-on. A little to the left and I'll be home.
 
 
 
 
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Divorce and Other Arrangements

Posted on February 23, 2013 at 9:03 PM Comments comments (1)
Later that day, Zwain raised his glass to propose a toast. He’d already passed through his dining room like a sommelier, filling our glasses with something bright and red. His was a long and lean body that, if he were to stretch his arms fully, would seem to occupy the entire room. Now he stood at the head of his table, a captain and his unlikely crew of five, and smiled: “Everyone happy?” he said. “Good. Salute.”
 
He cradled the glass in the narrow fingers of his left hand, holding it up toward a brass hanging light fixture. Zwain paused, searching for the words, his thick gold wedding band sparkling in the light. “I just want you all to know how happy I am,” he said, “how happy both Kimmy and I are that you’re here tonight. Everyone. Even if you did bring us torrential rains.”
 
Although I drank and laughed with the rest of them, my mind was on Laura. As I looked around the table—at the smiling Laura and the other guests, and at the wine and place settings—and as I breathed in the aromas of the food that Zwain was preparing for us, I became certain I shouldn’t have brought Laura here. That what I'd concealed from her (for what I believed were good reasons) would eventually be revealed. Up until the toast, she had been sitting quietly at her place, fidgeting nervously with her long dark hair, nodding and smiling as Kimmy shared anecdotes with her. She didn’t yet know how the rest of us had come to be here that night. For Laura it was only as I had told her: we were having dinner with my friends whom I had spoken of mostly in passing.
 
For the rest of us, I had begun to realize, that night was something altogether different. We were foundering in a form of détente, something that over the years had successfully repaired minor wounds suffered along the way. The strain hanging over the table, however, was palpable; and Zwain believed, naively I thought, he could fix everything with his renowned hospitality.
 
After topping off our wine glasses again to three-quarters full, he checked our place settings and seemed to be happy—certain that all was perfect. The dining room was pleasant and warm. Music, some jazz ballads and blues, played quietly in the adjoining unlit living room. This was my friend Zwain, the great orchestrator of moods. The dinner, the room, the house. All conspired to elicit calm and reason. The walls of his dining room were beige with detailed white crown moldings and chair rail. Floral-patterned pillows covered a window seat beneath a bow window facing the street. Even now, at night, we had a great view of a finely-manicured park. The lights along the street lit up the park like a stadium; its grass green and lush from the rains that hadn’t let up for over a month.
 
Up high on an antique mahogany hutch, two cats, one a tabby, the other a short-haired gray with a white torso, gazed down as Zwain, ever the perfect host, announced the course. “Crostone con funghi.
 
It was time again to feast at Zwain’s.
 
He placed a large warm serving plate in the middle of the table onto two emerald-colored ceramic tiles. He positioned the plate between the opened bottle of red wine and Laura’s ashtray, and then smiled at me. “Don’t be afraid to use your hands, Chester.”
 
Stacked on the serving plate at the center of the table, the appetizer of warm bread with mushrooms and Italian ham looked perfect. Zwain took meticulous care that each portion was uniform in size and shape. I was sure if we took the time to count the mushrooms on each piece that we’d find an equitable distribution. It was an aspect of Zwain’s personality I found both engaging and completely infuriating. A light steam wafted from each piece, and a rich mushroom and egg sauce spilled over some of the pieces and onto the plate. It could have been a centerfold in Gourmet magazine.
 
“Mushrooms,” I said, as I reached for the serving plate.
 
Zwain disappeared through the swinging door into the kitchen.
 
“I’m starving.” Annie shifted on a wooden chair at one end of the table, tapping her fingers on a bright red and blue plate. She grabbed the white cloth napkin from on top of the plate, and laid it on her lap. She looked at the other four of us, and forced a smile. “Well, I am,” she said to Carlo.
 
Laura and I sat across from one another, with Carlo off to Annie’s side, and Kimberly at the other end. The smells of fresh garlic, mushrooms and spices filled the room. In the kitchen metal pans slid over gas burners, and water boiled.
 
The brass hanging light fixture—a Victorian reproduction with a foliage design going from the ceiling to the eight tiny bulbs no larger than candle flames—provided the only light in the room. Zwain had talked many times of redecorating this room, insisting that he really didn’t like the “ornate feel” as he called it. But the whole damn house had that feel, and I think he secretly liked it. I imagined him and Kimmy strolling arm-in-arm through his little house like a tour guide and his client, Zwain pointing out his obvious good taste. He had a good eye, I admit, not only for furniture and fixtures.
 
“Carlo, baby,” Annie said, offering her plate, “lay one on me.”
 
I asked Laura to put out her cigarette, and then bit into my appetizer.
 
Kimberly smiled toward me, and drank from her wine glass. As she shifted in her seat she said, “Zwain loves to cook.”
 
“You okay, Kimmy?”
 
She looked at me, even though Annie had asked the question, but didn’t answer.
 
“You just look like you went far away for a minute there,” I said.
 
“No, no, I’m fine,” Kimmy said, “I was just thinking about how long it’s been since we were all together like this.”
 
“Zwain’s house is so nice,” Laura said to Kimmy. “I mean, your house.” Laura smiled and blushed.
 
Carlo nudged Annie’s arm at this, and Annie hit him across his shoulder. “Don’t do that, I hate that.”
 
Surrounded by taller apartments and condominiums, Zwain’s house maintained a certain stature in the line of buildings facing north to the park. A gold plaque fastened to the front of the house read: “Built in 1885, and once occupied by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.” Zwain hadn’t researched the accuracy of this claim, but he would be the last person to remove the thing. A gusting wind slapped hard against the house, rattling the window sashes.
 
“It’s a nice place, though, you’re right, Laura,” Carlo said, using a pleasant voice.
 
“So, you’re not from California originally, right Carlo?”
 
“Now, Laura, what makes you say that?”
 
“Well, you mean besides your Brooklyn accent? Chet told me.”
 
Annie laughed. “He tries to hide it, sweetie, but he can’t. I’m from upstate. We moved out here right after college.”
 
“Young lovers,” I said.
 
“Yeah, so we married young, Chet,” Carlo said without attempting to hide his accent. “Ain’t no crime there.”
 
“We never thought they’d stay, though,” Zwain said to Laura. “We were sure you’d be heading back east after two years, remember? Like all the other east coasters.”
 
“We’ll never leave,” Annie said.
 
“You can’t,” I said. “Carlo and Annie are wanted for some heinous crime that they won’t admit to.”
 
Annie told Zwain and me to shut up, that Laura might actually believe her. Zwain and I laughed and ate some more food.
 
“Somebody left a note on my car today,” Carlo said. He straightened his posture, looking around the table, ready for center stage. “That neighbor.” He looked at Annie.
 
“Which one?” Annie said, licking a finger. She watched Zwain pass her on the way to the kitchen. “These mushrooms are so good. What are they?”
 
Carlo looked down at his plate and closed his eyes as if he were in prayer.
 
“Porcinis!” Kimberly said, brightening.
 
“And portobellos,” Zwain yelled from the kitchen amid sounds of pots and pans and running water.
 
“I was going to say that.” Kimmy took a look around the table. Her napkin had fallen off her lap. “Are you going to have some?” she yelled to Zwain. As she reached to the floor, her fine brown hair fell across her face.
 
“Already did,” he said, “I’ll sit when I bring the main course. Secondi Piatti.
 
Secondi Piatti,” I echoed enthusiastically. “Your hair looks great long, Kimmy,” I said.
 
Kimberly thanked me, involuntarily fixed her hair, and looked away.
 
“The smells!” Annie said, casting an accusatory glance at me. “The smells from the kitchen! It’s so good. Everything is so good!”
 
I smiled at Annie, choosing to ignore the glance, and wiped my mouth with my napkin.
 
But she was off in another direction, looking at Carlo. “Don’t look at me like that,” she said to her husband. “Everything is really good, and I can say so if I want to. To tell you the truth, I’m a little jealous, Zwain. You’re a better cook than I am.”
 
“I know, baby,” Carlo said. “Everyone in the whole city, and for that matter in the whole goddamn state of California can smell just how great a chef Zwain is. But I’m trying to tell a story.” He looked hurt, and took his cheeks and chin between the fingers of his left hand and squeezed hard. “I should have shaved again.”
 
“I’m going to have to run a couple of extra miles tomorrow,” Laura said.
 
“You run?” Kimmy said, looking at Laura’s pack of cigarettes.
 
“I just smoke when I’m nervous.”
 
“Oh, don’t be nervous,” Kimmy said. “We’re just a bunch of hot air. It’s great that you run, though. Zwain," she yelled, "Laura runs too, isn’t that great?”
 
“Does everyone in the room run except for me?” I said.
 
“Gotta keep in shape, Chet," Carlo said. "You’re almost forty.”
 
“Running, or jogging or whatever you want to call it, never appealed to me.”
 
“I’ll work on him,” Laura said.
 
“My enthusiasm for exercise has long since passed.”
 
“Zwain and I are training for a 5K,” Kimmy said to Laura.
 
“If nothing else,” I said to Kimmy, “you two have always been fashionable.”
 
“Listen to the wind and rain.”
 
“Well that’s just it, Annie,” Carlo said, placing a full fork of food on his plate, “I mean, that’s why I parked there.”
 
“Okay, baby, so what happened?”
 
“I parked in that spot,” he said, “the one that might be illegal. Because of the goddamn rain. There’s this spot on our street,” he said to everyone. “close to our condo.”
 
“Don’t you guys have parking?” Zwain had walked in and was opening a bottle of white wine as he stood in the doorway. He said something to the tabby on top of the hutch and then rubbed its cheek.
 
“No,” Carlo said to Zwain. “Well anyway, some neighbor leaves me a note from one of those little spiral pads, you know? You know what kind I mean?”
 
“Like a cop.”
 
“Yeah, Zwain,” Carlo said, “I suppose. Yeah, cops have them, I guess,” he said, offering his empty glass to Zwain, who poured. “Thanks, buddy. So it’s the kind of a pad you might have in your pocket if you were that kind of a person.”
 
“What kind of a person?”
 
“I’m just saying,” Carlo said to Annie, “that this person might be the kind of a person who needs a little spiral pad in their top pocket.”
 
“But what does that mean?” Annie said.
 
“What does what mean?” He put down his wine glass.
 
“To need a little pad in your pocket? I mean, what are you saying?”
 
Zwain began to clear the plates. Kimberly offered to help but he waved her off.
 
“Maybe they’re forgetful,” Zwain said, and then slipped into the kitchen.
 
“Exactly.”
 
“So they’re forgetful,” Annie said. “They might have a lot on their minds.” As she wiped some strands of hair she looked at Carlo as if she couldn’t believe he hadn’t thought of this himself. “This is not brain surgery.”
 
“That’s the point of the little spiral pad, now isn’t it?” Carlo said, frustrated.
 
“I like to do that too,” Laura said.
 
“What’s that, sweetie?”
 
“Make sure I write stuff down—to let somebody know, or to let myself know, what I think about something.” As she held her pack of cigarettes in her trembling hand, Laura looked at Carlo. “Maybe they just like to write people notes,” she said, and laughed. She dropped the pack on the table next to the ashtray.
 
“Maybe,” Carlo said, staring at his plate.
 
Primi Piatti!” Zwain walked in, balancing several plates with steam rising from them, looking like a professional waiter.
 
“Ah, Primi Piatti. Penne al Mare!” My nose was an inch from my plate as I breathed in deeply.
 
“Our little Italian boys,” Laura said, blushing.
 
“Penne with shrimp and calamari.” Zwain reached to put her plate in front of her. “Hope you all like garlic.”
 
“Oh, the smells,” Annie said poking at her food with a fork.
 
The steam from the plates flowed busily and began to envelop the room. A fine layer of moisture collected on the windowpanes.
 
Zwain sat at the table between Laura and Kimberly. Putting a hand on Kimberly’s, he squeezed, but she pulled back. “The wind’s picked up a bit,” he said.
 
“You’re sitting now?” Kimberly said with a smile.
 
“So go on, Carlo.”
 
“Thank you.”
 
“I wish this goddamn rain would stop.”
 
“Wait,” I said. “One more toast.”
 
“Jesus Christ.”
 
“Giancarlo LoPresti, watch your fucking mouth.”
 
“To our hosts,” I said raising my glass, “Zwain and Kimmy. May you both be happy in your new venture.”
 
“What new venture?”
 
“He means them getting back together, stupid,” Annie whispered to Carlo.
 
“I know that.”
 
“Whatever,” she whispered. “Here, here!” she shouted now, “to the happy couple.”
 
“Why, thank you, Chester.”
 
“Yes, thanks, Chet.”
 
Prego.
 
“God,” Carlo said, “can we all stop trying to sound Italian? My father’s probably rolling in his grave.”
 
“Baby, do you want to tell your story now?”
 
“Annie, please, don’t give me that sarcastic bullshit.”
 
“I’m serious.”
 
“Well you’re sounding pretty sarcastic if you ask me,” Carlo said pointing. “Doesn’t she sound sarcastic to you, Laura?”
 
“Leave Laura out of this,” Annie said. And then, looking at Laura, “Sweetie, you don’t know us well enough yet, but we’re always like this. You’ll get used to it.”
 
“I doubt it.” Carlo then leaned over to his wife and kissed her on the cheek.
 
“Go ahead,” Annie said, in a mothering tone that she often used on him, “tell your story.”
 
Carlo looked as if he’d just remembered something. He turned toward the window and hesitated. “Hey, listen to that. The rain stopped.”
 
Through the layer of moisture on the windowpanes, into the wet evening, glowed the blurred light from the street lamps and the park. Carlo now stood at the window. Using the side of his fist he wiped off one of the panes. “The fog’s rolling in.”
 
“Maybe we’ll be fogged in tonight.”
 
“Anyway,” Carlo said as he seated himself, “the point of the story was the note. It was short. And it was mean.” With his fork he speared some pasta and shrimp and bit, then washed it down with wine. “It’s unnerving to have somebody you don’t even know do that.”
 
“Do what?”
 
“Carlo’s very sensitive. Aren’t you, baby.”
 
“Annie!"
 
“Well, you are.”
 
“That’s nice,” Laura said, and then she took a long drink of wine.
 
“Who do you think wrote it?”
 
“I don’t know, Chet, maybe that old neighbor of ours. But it happened, what,” he looked at his watch-less wrist, “four hours ago? My heart’s still pounding.”
 
“Were you mad?” Laura asked.
 
“He was scared,” Kimberly said, without looking at Carlo. She looked around the table as we all stopped eating to look up at her. “You were scared,” she said, “right, Carlo?”
 
Carlo laughed and said, “The only thing that scares me, Kimmy, are bankers and FBI agents.”
 
“Oh, God.”
 
“Okay, Carlo,” Zwain said, “I’ll bite. Why bankers?”
 
“Because they got you by the balls.”
 
“And the FBI?”
 
Carlo worked on loading up his fork with seafood and pasta, and then placed the pile of food into his mouth, took two bites and swallowed. “Because, little Miss Sarcasm,” he said, and then hesitated and gulped down some wine. “Because FBI agents know it. They don't need further explanation. They read your face, your actions. They can tell about you by the words you choose. They don't need to see your checking account balance to know what they have.” With the back of his hand, he wiped his mouth.
 
Zwain smiled at Carlo and stood up from the table, wiping his hands with his cloth napkin. He placed the napkin on his chair and then positioned himself behind Kimmy with his hands on her shoulders. Looking again around the table at each person as if he were taking inventory of what we’d eaten, he nodded his head at each of our place settings, tallying up the consumption to the minutest detail, I was sure. “You’re all doing quite well,” he said, an extra lilt in his voice; and then kissed the top of Kimmy’s head and walked through the swinging door to his kitchen.
    
 
 “So who’s this neighbor?”
 
“What’s that, Chet?”
 
I had moved into the living room then. By the light of a small lamp on top of a stereo cabinet I read the jacket of a record album. I pushed my glasses higher onto the bridge of my nose and looked at my friends sitting at the table. “Will Zwain ever move to CD’s?”
 
“No,” Zwain said. He was clearing the plates from the table and bringing them to the kitchen. As Kimmy watched, Laura began to help straighten the table for the next course.
 
“Carlo thinks it’s some old guy,” Annie said.
 
“Don’t you like old people?”
 
“That’s not it, Kimmy.”
 
“Then what was it?” Zwain asked, as he walked out of the room.
 
“It’s getting old. Imagine something for me, Kimmy.” Carlo finished his plate and now leaned back, rubbing his chin some more and then folded his hands across his large stomach. “People not even born yet will be taking care of you someday.”
 
“What are you talking about?” I said, now sitting at the table. I had chosen new music, more upbeat and louder. “You’re on one of your rolls tonight, Carlo,” I said, remembering that the more he drank the more articulate he believed he became.
 
“You’ll be ninety,” Carlo said, ignoring me, “unable to put on your own shoes—and you’ll be walking down the street, right outside there near the park. And your son or daughter, or maybe worse, your grandson or granddaughter will be holding you up so that you don’t fall over and crack your head open on the sidewalk.” He looked only at Kimmy as he spoke. “And those people—where are they now? Not even a goddamn gleam in your pretty blue eyes.”
 
“Zwain and Kimmy don’t even have children.”
 
Pollo e Pomodori.” Zwain rushed in with more food.
 
“You’re just so melodramatic, Carlo,” Kimmy said.
 
“Let’s eat,” Annie said.
 
“Calm down everyone.” Zwain smoothly distributed the plates of the next course to each guest. He glanced at Kimmy, who wouldn’t steer her determined gaze from Carlo’s.
 
“Well, Annie made a good point. What if you don’t have any kids?” Kimmy said to Carlo.
 
Carlo shrugged.
 
“Well Jesus, Carlo, you can’t be making these sweeping statements and then just give me that dumb fucking look of yours.”
 
“Don’t start with me, Kimmy, or you might make me say something that’s best left unsaid.” Carlo’s accent was in full swing. She’d made him mad, and now anything could happen. It was then that I realized where this was all heading. And I wanted to get myself and Laura as far away from my friends as I could. I was afraid to look at her because I was sure she was looking at me for some sort of guidance that I couldn’t give. I considered leaving right then and there, but I thought I’d try a different approach.
 
“Zwain’s right,” I said. “Let’s everyone relax.”
 
“Forget it, Chet.”
 
“Finish your story, baby. What did the note say?”
 
“Screw the story, Annie,” Carlo said. “Kimmy has something to say to me.”
 
“Don’t shrug me off like that, Carlo.”
 
“Why are you doing this, Carlo?” Now sitting next to Kimberly, Zwain fingered his empty wine glass. He looked at me, and then at Laura, and then back at Carlo, imploring him with his look. “Please don’t screw this night up.”
 
“It’s just not right, Chet,” Carlo said to me. “It’s not right and I’m going to say so.”
 
“You just did, Carlo. So let’s just drop it, and all be friends.”
 
“Well, what the hell, Zwain.”
 
“Chet.” Laura put down her fork. She lit a cigarette and raised her eyebrows at me.
 
“Laura, I’ll explain later. Honey, please don’t smoke.” The conversation had overwhelmed any escape plan that I may have been concocting. I needed, though, to tend to Laura before Carlo had gotten too far. But as I looked at Laura, and then at Kimmy, I froze, thinking that if I could just get past this moment I’d be able to explain everything—later.
 
Laura said my name again.
 
“Carlo,” Zwain said. He waited for Carlo to look at him. “I know about it.”
 
“What are you talking about, Zwain?”
 
“About Chet and Kimmy,” Zwain said, remaining calm.
 
“Well, what do you know?”
 
“Oh, god, baby, why are you doing this? Where’s the next course?”
 
“No, Annie. No more courses. No more food. No more wine. It’s a big goddamn charade. You want to play charades, guys? I know—we’ll get Laura to guess.”
 
“Have some more wine, Carlo.”
 
“Chet, I want to talk to you outside. Now.”
 
“Laura, please,” I said, “Carlo, you asshole, keep Laura out of this.”
 
“Dammit.”
 
“Wait a minute, Zwain,” Carlo said. “You knew about that?”
 
“That Chet and Kimberly got together last year while she and I split up? Yes.”
 
“Come on. And that didn’t bother you?”
 
“I love Kimmy,” Zwain said. “And I love Chet. So I understand.”
 
“Understand?”
 
“Yeah, he’s funny that way.”
 
“Oh please, Kimmy. Save it,” Carlo said. “I told you. I told everyone a long time ago that you two wouldn’t work.”
 
“The voice of reason.”
 
“No. Forget that Kimmy. You should have gone away a long time ago.”
 
Laura said it was time for us to leave, and I tried to calm her with a word and a reassuring gesture. I must have looked pathetic to her. But the others ignored us.
 
“Gone where, Carlo?”
 
“After you and Chet got divorced way back when.”
 
“Divorced?” Laura now understood.
 
“Laura, I told you that Kimmy and I¼”
 
“Were married, Chet? You were married? You never told me you were married. Shit.”
 
“Jesus Christ, Chet. Did you tell her anything?”
 
“Carlo, shut up,” Zwain said, trying to save us all. “Laura, please, wait. It’s not what you think¼
 
“No, Zwain, really.” She stood up, dropped her lit cigarette into her water glass, and pushed her chair under the table. 
 
“But it was just for a year—when they were very young.”
 
She shook her head and told Zwain that she appreciated how much work he’d put into this night. She said that although he was a great chef and an excellent host, he didn’t have a clue about her and what she was thinking.
 
“Chet, you’re killing me now,” Carlo said. “I mean, I thought you were smart.”
 
“Sweetie, we didn’t mean to..."
 
“Oh, please shut up, Annie,” Laura said. “I’m sure you’re trying to help, but please. Shut up.”
 
I followed Laura to the doorway of the hall and stopped. I watched her as she opened the closet and found her coat and umbrella. She turned toward me but wouldn’t look me in the eye. As she played with her hair, I considered very carefully what I should say. Should I have lied to her? Should I have said, It’s all a big farce, this talk of me and Kimmy? I hoped she would be the first to speak, but she just shook her head, all the while looking down at my feet.
 
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Carlo is such an asshole for doing that.”
 
“Carlo? He’s right, Chet. Why didn’t you tell me?”
 
“Laura, look at me, honey.”
 
“Don’t call me that.”
 
“Laura, this was all before you and I ever met.”
 
“Why would somebody do that? Bring me here and not tell me. You must have known, Chet. You had to know that it would come out.”
 
“I’d hoped we could talk about it. I didn’t think until we got here that I should have said something first. Then, when I figured that out, we were already here. I decided to cross my fingers.”
 
“You’re so stupid, Chet. You could have everything. But you have nothing.”
 
She looked at me then, finally showing me the hurt and anger in her eyes.
 
“What should I have said to you, Laura? How could I have told you that only a year ago Kimmy and I took off? She and Zwain had split up—for good this time, she said. We drove down the coast. We spent the weekend at an inn, talking about our past. We made promises that we’d get it right this time. How could I have told you all that?”
 
“You could have told me like you just did, Chet. At least then I wouldn’t have had to go through this.” Then her expression changed, almost softening. “What happened? To you and Kimmy.”
 
“We were wrong, Laura. We actually figured out pretty quickly that our friendship couldn’t stand the strain of our relationship. So we did what we did.”
 
“And Zwain?”
 
“Zwain is the best friend I’ve ever had.”
 
“Maybe I was wrong,” she said. “At least you have that.”
 
We said some more things, and resolved only to speak again the next day. But I wasn’t optimistic. She didn't ask me to go with her. And if she had, I don't think I would have. I had something of my own to resolve. I returned alone to the dining room, where the conversation had continued to escalate.
 
Kimmy was explaining to Carlo, in her most bitterly sarcastic tone, that life was not a Norman Rockwell painting.
 
“No, Kimmy? Well, look around you. The house, the dinner. The two goddamned cats on that hutch thing over there. Don’t lecture me about Norman Rockwell.” 
 
“Where was I going to go, Carlo?” Kimmy, red-faced but keeping her composure, ignored him and moved on. “When Chet and I got divorced, where was I supposed to go?”
 
“Away, Kimmy. Back home where you came from.” Carlo pointed to the window as he said this. “You and Chet didn’t work out and that’s too bad, but you called it quits. Next step, you both go back home where you came from. Chet’s already home—so you go. That’s the way it works. But no way you should start up with Chet’s best friend.”
 
 “Carlo, I don’t think we need to rehash ancient history.”
 
“Fine. No rehashing necessary. Bottom line is that the three of you are just so messed up. That’s it. It’s what I’m here to say. Zwain, Kimmy and Chet. Well I don’t want any part of this shit. Come on, Annie. We’re leaving.” Carlo got up, walked toward the door and looked back at Annie who was still sitting, playing with her food, hoping to God, I thought, for some miracle that would make all that had happened disappear and go away until the end of time.
 
“What did the note say, baby?”
 
“What note?”
 
“Carlo please tell everyone the rest of the story. Then we’ll have dessert.”
 
“Annie, stop whining. Let’s go. Thanks for the food Zwain. Good job.”
 
“Excellent. It was all just excellent.”
 
At first Zwain remained seated, staring at his wine glass, not looking at me or at Kimmy. I wondered if he thought that he’d made a mistake. And then I wondered what that mistake might have been. Was it getting back together with Kimmy? Was it trying to bring together friends who couldn’t be brought together again? Was it forgiving me? He looked at me and stood up, and then walked over to Carlo and put his hands on Carlo’s broad shoulders. “Please don’t go,” he said in a quiet voice. “Please stay, Carlo. Annie. Celebrate with us.”
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Walking Her Out of Me

Posted on February 23, 2013 at 8:58 PM Comments comments (0)
These wheat fields go on and on.
 
“Day twelve,” Jimmy says, breathing harder. “I can do this.” As if to convince himself, he slips his leather knapsack onto one shoulder. Bending to one knee he studies the ground until he finds a rock suitable to add to his collection. He chooses a partially buried walnut-sized gray stone, scraping it out from the ground with his fingernails until it pops into his hand. After putting the stone into the knapsack, he continues on, leaning forward slightly to counter-balance the weight. In the field to his right, far in the distance, a bright red combine harvests wheat. Ka-chunga-ka-chunga-ka-chunga.
 
Jimmy and his knapsack left home twelve days ago; his girlfriend Nadia leaning out the upstairs window all the while. He didn’t flinch as the TV remote whizzed by his head and smashed onto the street.
 
“Good arm, Nadia,”he shouted.
 
“Where are you going, Jimmy?” she said, suddenly with a great degree of affection.
 
Jimmy reminded her that she’d just told him that their relationship didn’t have legs.
 
“But I’ll miss you,” she said.
 
Jimmy told her to go and put some clothes on, proud of himself for not faltering. It was time to start over. As Nadia slammed the window shut Jimmy closed his eyes and let the hot sun burn his face.
 
To ready himself for the long walk, he went directly to Mason’s Shoes in the center of town, and bought new boots. They’re the kind of boots that workmen wear on construction sites: steel tipped with extra long laces that need to be wrapped around the ankles several times before tying. And they’re designed to last. Jimmy checks the soles every few hours for wear and tear. He does this again now. Nothing. They may last forever.
 
He used his VISA card to pay for the boots. Then he asked the girl behind the counter for a pair of scissors. She was sixteen, cute, wearing a hot pink store uniform that didn’t fit her right. Made her look thinner than she was, like the thing was still hanging in a closet on a wire hanger. He used the scissors to slice the card in half, and then handed the scissors and the two halves of the VISA card to the girl. He thanked her for everything, especially for the boots which he’d already put on.
 
“I have to walk her out of me,” he said.
 
The girl smiled as if she understood. Jimmy thought her presumptuous.
 
With each stride now Jimmy breathes deep, alternating inhales and exhales with lefts and rights. He is fluid, rhythmic; like a metronome, he thinks. If only Nadia could see this. She’d be impressed by the level of sheer determination.
 
The road is asphalt and straight. A bus zooms past, kicking up dust and dirt from the roadside. The dust cloud surrounds him, entering his mouth as he breathes, and leaving a thin layer of itself on his curly brown hair and sunburnt cheeks. His knapsack, once filled with an assortment of sandwiches, is heavy with rocks and pebbles collected along the way. He wears sunglasses, tortoise shell framed with golden screws and one cracked lens.
 
The road pitches slightly upward. Over the rise a car, its engine stuttering, is stopped on the shoulder. The sun reflects off its dusty rear window, blinding his approach with brilliant white light. He holds his arms out in front of him, interlocking his fingers, so he can see the car and its driver better. Then he stops.
 
The car, a blue Cadillac with four doors and a silver-dollar-sized hood ornament, is old, from the ‘60’s. Its color is not turquoise or cobalt, although it may once have been. It is more the fading blue seen late on a fall day, just before the sun sets. Rust has eaten away at the sheet metal. One large hole, in the shape of a comet and its tail, has formed on the trunk.
 
After stopping the engine Nadia swings open the door.
 
“I've been looking for you," she says, wearing a smile like she would a full length coat. Nadia is more beautiful than he remembered. He thinks the heat must be playing tricks on him. After only twelve days she’s changed: her hair is softer, blonder and shoulder length; and her eyes, the greenish gray color of a mako, don’t have any hurt left in them.
 
“You have to sleep now,” she says. “You can’t go on like this.” With a suntanned arm she leans on the car’s rooftop. The arm is covered with rows of golden hair, glistening with sweat.
 
“You said we were through,” Jimmy says. “I’ve almost walked you off.”
 
Her brow is furrowed as she seems to consider her words very carefully. Then she says, finally, “Twelve days, Jimmy. Let’s be realistic.”
 
“I can go twelve more,” Jimmy says without hesitation. “Check this out.” And he shows her the sole on his left boot.
 
“Don’t get surly with me,” Nadia says. “I’ve come all this way to get you back. Besides, it’s almost too late. Listen.”
 
Ka-chunga-ka-chunga-ka-chunga. The combine is closer. A slight breeze crosses the field forming ripples, like sheets on a just used bed. The combine sucks stalks of wheat up through the blades, out its chute and onto the ground in tidy rows.
 
As Jimmy lets the knapsack drop to the ground with a thump, he stops beside the car close enough to smell her. His lower back and legs begin to ache. “Of course,” he says, “you’re right. But I hate to give up.” He says the last part in a dry whisper. Even without the weight of the rock-filled knapsack he feels heavy, as if the earth’s gravity has suddenly increased fourfold.
 
“I promise to try to love you better, Jimmy.”
 
“So you say, Nadia.”
 
“Let me show you,”she says. “Get in.”
 
With that same smile Nadia opens the rear door for him, and he lays down. The warm vinyl seat soothes his back.
 
“Use this for a pillow,” she says, handing him the knapsack.
 
She closes the door behind him; then she bends her long body until she is headfirst halfway inside the open window. Jimmy thinks she must be on the tips of her toes. Her head tilts to one side, reminding him of the way she once looked at him. He is going to tell her this, but she turns away, toward the combine. Ka-chunga-ka-chunga-ka-chunga. Jimmy says nothing as she hurriedly removes each of his new boots. First the left one, off and onto the ground. Then the right.
 
Jimmy used to believe that love lasted forever. Then he believed that you could pour it out of you, like water from a pitcher. He and Nadia never seemed to be in sync on such issues.
 
“Watch this,” she shouts over the sound of the combine. She steps away from the car with a boot in her hand. “Just like in football—fingertips along the laces.”
 
One at a time, she throws the boots far, deep, professionally. Perfect spirals. They streak across the blue sky, laces trailing behind, each landing in the path of the combine. She never even glances at the soles.
 
 
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It's August and They're Leaving

Posted on February 23, 2013 at 8:37 PM Comments comments (0)
Charlie Johnson stood over his swimming pool and looked past his friendly-neighbor fence at the colonial house next door. A yellow and green moving van had arrived at the Nelson's earlier that morning. Two large men in jeans and white t-shirts lumbered on the fading green lawn between house and truck with couches and chairs, an antique armoire, and the nineteenth century highboy the Nelsons had found on Cape Cod. A third guy, a shirtless teenager, danced through the clutter on the front lawn like a marine on an obstacle course. No sign of the Nelsons yet.
 
Charlie wore just his gray and black chef's pants and black shoes. His broad upper body was deeply tanned, especially his back and shoulders where he'd peeled and re-tanned twice already during the summer. The sound of insects in the bushes, and a lone crow in a pine tree filled the silence. Charlie now watched the reflections of sunlight jumping on the water's surface. The long-handled net he dipped into the water picked up leaves and bugs which had found their way into his pool. From every direction, he thought, neighbors' trees dropped in more dirt and filth. He looked forward to a conversation he would have with his new neighbors about this. Better to get off on the right foot.
 
He drove the net to the bottom of the shallow end and rubbed along the bumpy surface of the bottom. He had to call someone soon for an estimate. The vinyl surface had bunched up in places, like back-road frost heaves in the wintertime. Along the incline from the shallow to the deep end, which measured nine and a half feet exactly, the craggy bottom was at its worst. Dirt had sunk to the bottom and had been caught in the bluish liner; and Charlie felt a sudden urgency that the bottom was scarred so badly he must do something now before it was too late. From behind him the sound of child's voice approaching broke his concentration.
 
"Hi, Daddy." Jo Jo skipped over to him in little white shorts and red and white striped t-shirt. She dragged a small bag along the concrete. Charlie pulled the pool cleaner from the water and laid it on the concrete. He crouched down, eye level with his daughter, smiling.
 
"Watch your bag, honey," Sandy said, following with Erik holding her hand. "Show Daddy your new sneakers," she said smiling at Jo Jo. Sandy's dark hair was pulled back in a pony-tail, held there by a large white bow. She wore a blue cotton top and khaki shorts. Charlie looked from her back to Jo Jo.
 
"Look,Daddy."
 
"Wow, Jo, these are great," Charlie said, taking one out of the box. Then he stroked a bit of her soft brown hair from her eyes. "You can run fast in these. Hi, Erik."
 
Erik held onto his mother's hand. "Come over here, buddy," Charlie coaxed, "give Daddy a hug." Erik turned and hid his face behind his mother's leg. "Oh, come on, Erik," Charlie said, as sweetly as he could, "come help me do the pool." He tried to get hold of Erik's arm, but the boy began to cry.
 
"Charlie," Sandy said, "just let him alone, he hasn't had a good day."
 
"Okay, okay," Charlie said, turning his back and still holding onto the sneaker. "God," he said, bringing a hand through his sweaty hair.
 
"What are you still doing here, anyway," Sandy said to Charlie's back. "Don't you need to get back to work?"
 
"The restaurant can wait," Charlie said. He turned and handed the sneaker to Jo Jo. Then he looked at Sandy. "We're dead today. Everybody must be at the beach," he said. "I'll work dinner."
 
"Oh," she said, distracted by the activity of the moving crew. "Nelsons will be gone soon."
 
"Yeah, new neighbors. Maybe they'll cut their trees back so the pool won't get so dirty," Charlie said, now re-examining Jo Jo's new sneaker.
 
"Like the Nelsons?"
 
"What?"
 
"Barb Nelson didn't care if her leaves fell into our pool."
 
"Maybe these new ones will be different," Charlie said, trying to ignore her sarcastic tone.
 
"Don't we still own a chain saw?"
 
"Yes, we still own a chain saw."
 
"Well, we could start now," she said, waving a hand at the trees. "Start cutting everything away, before the new neighbors move in. I mean, this is a perfect opportunity."
 
"With Barb and Ted still in there? They still live there, Sandy." Charlie placed Jo Jo's sneaker into the box and then the box into the bag. He rested it on the concrete and stood up.
 
"On sale."
 
"Hmm?"
 
"They were on sale," Sandy said.
 
"Oh. That's okay," Charlie said.
 
"Well, it's just that you told me..."
 
"I know what I said, it's okay. Business should pick up soon. It's the heat." He stood and lifted Jo Jo up. "Nothing's too good for my little girl, right Jo?"
 
"Daddy, you're all sweaty. Let me down."
 
"You know, Charlie," Sandy said looking at the pool, "we've got other things to worry about besides this idiotic pool. You should be at the restaurant. If that goes--well..." She shook her head and started to walk toward the house with Erik. "I've got to get them out of the sun. You should too, your skin's turning into leather. Did you eat," she said, still walking away.
 
"I'm all set," he said, grabbing the roll of his stomach. "I shouldn't eat. Look, I've got the body of a forty year old."
 
"Mommy,"Jo Jo said, "let's go swimming today!"
 
"No, not today, sweetie, let's go eat."
 
"Why don't you swim, Sandy," Charlie said. He heard the pleading tone of his voice, and it made him feel sick to his stomach.
 
"No."
 
He looked away from her to the pool. "I'm going to call the pool guy. We've got to replace this bottom."
 
"I know. Come on, Jo Jo." Sandy pulled the screen door shut and disappeared into the house, their daughter skipping behind.
 
Charlie followed."I'm calling the pool guy."
 
Charlie walked over to the fence along the Nelson's property. He saw the three men loading, and then through the overhanging branches he caught a glimpse of Ted Nelson walking through his front yard and into his garage. He looked like he was getting ready to play tennis--white shorts and shirt. Charlie wondered who Ted had for a tennis partner these days.
 
In the shade the heat was more bearable, yet the branches of the trees hanging over him made him uneasy, brushing against his suntanned shoulders, coaxing thoughts of Barb Nelson. From his perspective under the trees, he could make out most the Nelson's front yard, but very little of the house. Where was she now? Maybe packing. Maybe she was sitting in a chair near an open window facing Charlie's house. Charlie and Sandy had heard they were moving far away, that's all. Nobody in the neighborhood seemed to know where. He wanted to know what it was like for Barb and Ted. How getting out was going to make things better.
 
Charlie heard someone pulling into his driveway. When he got to the front of his house, he saw an old Ford F150 with four rusted out quarters ticking and creaking in the heat. On the side, printed in brand new paint was: "ARTHUR FLETCHER ~ POOLS," and a telephone number. The driver of the truck gave a friendly wave to Charlie and got out.
 
"Mr. Fletcher?" Charlie said, walking toward him. "Thanks for coming on such short notice."
 
"It's fine, I'm sure. Sounded on the phone as if you couldn't wait another day." Leaning slightly to one side, he moved slowly around his truck toward Charlie. He offered a large hand and shook. "Pleased to meet you, Mr. Johnson." His dark blue t-shirt fit tightly around large biceps, and sweat stains hung beneath his arms reaching down toward his thick waistline.
 
"Same. Come on around back and I'll show you the patient."
 
"That will be fine." As he spoke, his bushy eyebrows moved up and down like the caterpillars crawling up and down the neighbors' trees. "But first, could I bother you for a refreshment? Maybe you've got some cold water or lemonade?" He wiped his brow with his forearm. "The heat."
 
"Okay, sure, there must be something in the fridge. Why don't you go around back, through there, and I'll meet you."
 
In the kitchen Sandy fed the children at the new oak table with matching chairs. They all ate tuna sandwiches, Jo Jo's with ketchup on the side.
 
"Guy needs a cold drink before he tells me how much he's going to take me for," Charlie said as he opened the refrigerator door.
 
"Put a shirt on, Charlie, the guy's going to think you spend all your time around the pool."
 
"Ha, ha."
 
"Seriously."
 
"Okay,seriously, I will."
 
"How'd you get him to come so fast?"
 
"I guess I convinced him that there was a real emergency."
 
"That will be very apparent once he sees the pool. Tell him to get a concrete truck and fill it all in."
 
"That's funny." With one hand on the refrigerator door, he watched her eat her sandwich. "Sandy."
 
She stopped eating, put the sandwich on her plate. "Just tell me you won't, Charlie. Tell me that part again."
 
"Sandy."
 
"Say it, Charlie." As she looked at him, her pony tail fell off her shoulder and down her back. "I just want to hear you tell me again that that was the one and only time."
 
"Sandy, the kids!"
 
"Say it,Charlie!"
 
"Say it,Charlie," Jo Jo echoed.
 
"Jo Jo."
 
"I thought we were done with this. Five minutes ago, you were fine. What gives?"
 
"I go in andout. Sorry," Sandy said sarcastically.
 
Charlie slid over to the sink and faced the window. "They're moving. Look outside. Go ahead, look," he said pointing, as if he really expected her to stand up and look out the window. "There's a moving van and three guys taking everything out of their house."
 
"Come on, honey," Sandy said calmly to Erik, "eat your sandwich."
 
"Sandy, I thought..."
 
"Just drop it," she said, very quietly. "There's nothing to talk about."
 
"Then why bring it up?" He knelt down next to her, feeling the hard floor against his knees. "I thought you said that it's over and done with. I thought that's what you wanted."
 
She stood and walked past him and into the dining room, and Charlie smelled her perfume as he followed. Sandy turned and faced him, looking up at him. Then she walked away and looked out a window toward the driveway and Mr. Fletcher's truck. "You have to do something, Charlie."
 
"Like what," he said, putting one hand on each of her shoulders as if checking the temperature of a heating element.
 
"Don't." Still looking out the window, she shook her head.
 
"Sandy," Charlie said backing away, "if you don't even know what it is, then how am I supposed to?"
 
"I don't know, Charlie," she said, now walking past him into the kitchen. "Figure it out."
 
Charlie filled a glass with ice and with water from the faucet. Then he went outside.
 
"Pretty bad," Mr. Fletcher said, standing next to a chaise lounge chair near the deep end of the pool. He looked around overhead at the tree branches extending from the neighbor's yard. "Seems to me your neighbors ought to cut these back," he said, pointing.
 
"They're moving," Charlie said approaching with the glass of water, "the neighbors. I didn't want just to cut them away without saying something. But I'll talk to the new ones." He handed Fletcher the glass.
 
"Thanks. I saw the truck next door." He took a long swallow. "It's a hot one, isn't it," he said with a smile. "Mind if I sit for a minute?" And then he sat on the end of the chaise, finished the glass of water and handed it to Charlie. "Thanks." He maneuvered himself all the way onto the chair and smiled.
 
"Are you comfortable, Mr. Fletcher?"
 
"How's that? Oh, sorry, I was just thinking how much I used to love sitting in the sun. But now it's just too damn hot. Summers never used to be this hot." He pulled a white handkerchief from his back pocket and wiped his thick eyebrows.
 
Charlie stared at the old man lying on his chair. He thought Fletcher might be falling asleep. "Um, Mr. Fletcher? What do you think? How much?" he said, hands on his hips looking into the pool.
 
Fletcher stood up. "Yes sir, pretty bad," he said, looking at the trees and then at the house next door. "It's never a good thing when neighbors don't get along."
 
"I mean about the pool," Charlie said, "the liner."
 
"Yes, that's bad, no doubt about that," he said, turning back to the pool.
 
"Charlie?" Sandy called through the screen door. "How long are you going to be here? I've got to go to the market."
 
"Just a few minutes. I think I'll go back to work. They're probably giving food away by now."
 
"I thought you weren't going back till later."
 
"I changed my mind."
 
"I won't be long. Erik's down and Jo Jo's in here playing. Just be a few minutes."
 
"Sandy,"Charlie said, now walking toward the house.
 
"Just a few minutes. I've got the monitor turned up loud. Jo Jo will call you if she hears anything from Erik."
 
"Mommy," Jo Jo said from within the house, "can't I go swimming?"
 
"No,honey," she said. "The pool's broken."
 
Charlie stopped, looked down at his feet and then around to Mr. Fletcher who was bent over the pool with one hand in the water. He felt the sun burning through his tan.
 
"The water's at a good temperature here, Mr. Johnson," Fletcher said. "All we have to do is get the liner replaced, like you said on the phone."
 
"What's that you said?"
 
"The water--it's refreshing." He stood up.
 
"I guess it is at that, Mr. Fletcher," Charlie said, now standing beside him. "I really don't use the pool. It's for my wife and kids." Hands on hips, Charlie stared into the water. He could really use the cooling off. "I try to keep it clean. I'm out here every day cleaning the thing," he said. "But look at it. You probably think I never clean it, and I wouldn't blame you. It came with the house. I mean--you know what I mean? We've only been here for a few years. I can't understand it."
 
Fletcher folded his hairy arms across his chest and listened intently to Charlie.
 
"Well?"
 
"Hmmm?"
 
"How much do you think this will cost me?"
 
"Price? Well, let's see." Arms still folded, he walked away from Charlie, past the chaise, along the pool's edge toward the deep end. He passed the diving board, and then swung around past the water slide until he was on the other side, directly across from Charlie.
 
"A liner like this, it can be expensive," Mr. Fletcher said, pointing to the pool. "The process isn't too difficult, it's just time consuming. Very labor intensive."
 
"I know about long hours, Mr. Fletcher," Charlie said, bending over with one hand in the water. He didn't look up at Fletcher. He let his fingertips cross back and forth along the water's surface.
 
"You sure you want to do this now," Fletcher asked. "Summer's almost over."
 
"Are you too busy, Mr. Fletcher? Is that what you're saying to me? Because if it is, well--maybe I should talk to someone else."
 
"No, no," Fletcher said, "I didn't mean that. It's just that you won't have the use of it for a week or so. And it is August." He wiped his brow with his forearm.
 
"I know," Charlie said, still running his hand through the water, "but would you swim in this pool, Mr. Fletcher? As it is now? Because, I have to tell you, my wife will not swim in that pool. She won't let my kids. I haven't been in there for two months, myself. No one has. It's just too dirty. Are you understanding this Mr. Fletcher? Are we clear? Nobody swims in the pool until it's fixed."
 
Fletcher just stared at him.
 
"Mr.Fletcher?"
 
"Have I offended you, Mr. Johnson?"
 
"What? Oh, I'm sorry I snapped at you, Mr. Fletcher," Charlie said. "It's just been very...difficult around here lately. Business isn't going so well--hell nothing is at his point." Charlie stood, and walked slowly around the pool to where the old man stood. He wiped his forehead and face with his wet hand, and then Fletcher passed him the handkerchief. "My wife doesn't trust me anymore, Mr. Fletcher."
 
"Alright, Mr. Johnson, it's alright. I understand. I'm not what you'd call a particularly wise old man, but--I understand." He turned toward the Nelson's house again, raising his head a little as if spying on the men loading the truck. "No matter what I do, though, you're still going to have a problem with them."
 
"The neighbors?" Charlie turned away and walked toward the fence abutting the Nelson's. "But they're leaving." He crouched down behind the fence and spied through one of the slots. There was Barb Nelson now, about fifty yards away, carrying a cardboard box and putting it gently into the back of her station wagon. She wore a loose tank top with a black bikini bra underneath, and her blond hair looked combed back and wet. Ted followed. As Barb bent into the car, he came up behind her and put a hand on her back. She emerged from the car and said something to her husband, and they embraced. Then, with arms around each other's waist, Ted and Barb turned toward Charlie's house. They stood there and just looked toward him, not saying anything. Charlie felt himself involuntarily stand up so that they could see his head pop up over the fence. Summer sounds of birds and insects filled the air between him and the Nelsons with a piercing shrill. Charlie half waved to them, then ran his hand through his hair. Barb Nelson looked down at her feet at first, but then raised her head again. Ted raised his chin a little, and they both seemed to pull the other closer. Ted turned and closed the hatch to their car and got in. As he started the engine, Barb got in the passenger's side and slammed the door.
 
"Wait!" Charlie said. He gripped the top of the fence and climbed over, scraping his chest as he did. He slipped through a group of rhododendrons, and past an azalea, onto the front lawn, dodging the two large men lugging a floral patterned sofa. Ted and Barb pulled away now, and Charlie could see their raised windows. "Ted! Barb! Wait!" he screamed this time, and the car stopped short about twenty yards away. Charlie froze, saw Barb and Ted looking back at him, then talking to each other. He walked slowly toward them and then began to run again. Tires screeched as they pulled away. Charlie ran faster, as fast as he could, "Hey!" he said as he ran, "I just wanted to apologize. I'm sorry!" he screamed. "Ted, I'm sorry! Barb!" But they turned the corner and drove away.
 
Charlie stopped. He bent at the waist and took deep breaths, his lungs burning. He had only run about a half a block, but the distance back to his house now seemed interminable, so he sat down on the curb to catch his breath. "I'm so sorry," he said.
 
"What are you doing?" Sandy had pulled up. She sat in the car looking down at him quizzically. "Are you all right?"
 
"Yes,"Charlie said. Then, "I don't know."
 
"I just saw the Nelsons leaving. Did you talk to them?"
 
Charlie didn't say anything.
 
"Charlie, did you say something? Tell me!"
 
"I just wanted to tell them--to tell you--how terribly sorry I am." He bowed his head between his legs, thinking about what he'd done to his family. Then he stood up quickly. "The kids!" He sprinted away from Sandy, past the moving van and up his own driveway. As Fletcher opened the door to his truck, Charlie raced by him, hurdled a bush and sprang into the house. Jo Jo and Erik sat quietly in front of the television. Charlie lay down behind them on his side, catching his breath, and watched them. Sandy arrived a moment later.
 
"Mommy!"Erik said.
 
"Hi. Didn't we say no TV until four o'clock?"
 
"Oh,Mom," Jo Jo said.
 
"Come on," Sandy said, turning off the set. "Charlie, could you get the bags from the car?"
 
When Charlie came back inside with the bags, he placed them on the counter in the kitchen. He took a carton of eggs and a half gallon of milk and put them in the refrigerator. He placed some Delicious apples in a bowl on the table. He put away several cans in a cabinet, and a box of cereal and some cookies in another. He folded the bags and shoved them under the sink. He found Sandy and the kids spread out on the floor of the family room amongst a clutter of toys.
 
"When are you going back to work?" Sandy asked. She was helping Erik and Jo Jo with a puzzle.
 
"Later," Charlie said, kneeling on the floor next to her.
 
"Really,"she said, looking up at him from the puzzle.
 
"Really,"he said.
 
"What about the pool guy?"
 
"Well, I told him that I'd get back to him. The liner's bad, but--it's August. It can wait till fall. Meantime, I'm going into the garage and see if I can get that chain saw running."
 
"Good idea," Sandy said. "Good idea." Then she handed a piece of the puzzle to Jo Jo, and pointed.
 
 
 
 
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