When the dawn begins to peek through the heavy drapes, I roll over.
It’s quiet, this early. The ceiling is much the same as it was yesterday morning, and the one before, and the one before—cracked plaster, delicate as eggshell. The walls are papered in the same dusky blue, dotted with hand-stamped daisies, a relic from the room’s earliest days. I lay as still as I possibly can and listen for the first signs of life from the street below. First, there is Bruce, unlocking his diner a couple streets over. He always leaves the glass door propped open, so that the pops and hiss from the grill edge out onto the street, a siren’s call for the hungry either heading to man the banks, or coming off third shift at the clothing manufacturer.
Gaggles of women pour from these factory doors, hair tied back, cracked lips in wide smiles, and fill the booths. They’re still clinging to their jobs, to the small bit of liberation they claim in the hours between nine and seven, before they go home to their school-aged children and relieve the grandmother that watches Benny, Sue, and Katherine. It’s real, this story—it’s the same for all of these women, and I know this from interviewing them for the Informer.
After Bruce comes Jack, the paperboy, who stands on the street corner and sells copies of our competitor. I buy one from him every morning, just so I can make note of what they’re covering, circle the good bits and mark up the bad. We have the edge, at least financially, but they write more human interest, and I’ve been telling Mr. Sachs we need to do more. We can keep our older subscribers, the ones in their sixties and seventies and eighties, but what about the new? The young people cresting thirty, the younger ones barely into their twenties—like me—they don’t want to read brief write-ups on luncheons and opportunities for volunteering. They want to reach into the pit of our bustling city and clasp the hand of a stranger, relating through their stories.
Heartstrings, that’s our ticket. And today—today I make my case.
I force myself into a sitting position, and my head swims a little. Last night, Gordon and I sat on the steps outside the community hall, where they were having a dance. He’d brought a handsome silver flask with him, engraved with his family crest—a gift from my grandfather, only thing he ever gave me worth anything—and we’d sipped some sort of rum and coke conception from it, trading stories, funny and sad. We do this sort of thing often, and it always leaves me warm. The tiniest touch of alcohol feels like a celebration, and with his hand resting on my knee, and the moon a light wash on our faces—it’s like I’m finally heard. All the parts of me, the sore and the bruised and the shining—
I pause a moment to grab at the pad of paper that sits on my bedside, and fumble for the fountain pen. A gift from Mama, mailed to me right after I started the job what, fourteen months ago? I pause a moment to count, and decide that yes, fourteen, but then I’ve lost my train of thought, which was something about bruises and listening. The paper is for prose, if I can get it down fast enough. I write it and then I type it up on the typewriter at work, and then I tuck it into my leather filing satchel for later use. It’s an effective system.
These words have been lost, though, so I sit there a few moments longer, and then reach over to dig through the dresser which sits three feet away. The room is small, and from my iron-framed twin bed with its dull mattress, I can almost reach out and touch anything. But I like this. It’s easy, in this city, to feel swallowed—that’s how I felt at first, dwarfed by buildings bigger than any I’d seen, by the sheer number of people that coagulate on Main Street at noon each day to grab lunch. It was a long time before I was content, and then a longer time before I was happy. And now—
“Morning, Miss Louise!”
I yank on the skirt that’s in my hands, and do up the buttons of my blouse as I head over the window. The curtain is haloed by sun, and I yank it aside to wave down at Jack. He wags a tightly-rolled newspaper back at me.
“Anything good this morning?” I call, snapping in my faux pearl earrings.
“Nice story about the mayor’s wife.”
“Ah! And did you all cover the city council meeting a couple nights ago?”
“All right, great. I’ll be right down.”
“Okay!” He’s adorable, Jack, with his glinting grin and his puppy dog eyes. He’s all of twelve years old, but already has the type of charm I fall inexplicably for.
I adjust the curtain and consider not making my bed, but some deep-seated lesson from Mama rears up inside me and I’m compelled to straighten it, tucking in the corners. I grab for my messenger bag, checking to make sure the pitch for Mr. Sachs is in there, and on my way out the door—seated through a narrow but shallow hallway that abruptly juts out from the room—I grab the letter to Mama that I wrote last night.
I slip off my loafers at the top of the stairs and take them one bare foot at a time. I am the youngest tenant in the Auburn Boarding House, quite possibly by a good forty years or so, and all its occupants sleep until the day has grown so hot they’re driven from the vacuum of their beds. If I make so much as the slightest noise, the landlady—a haughty Mrs. Erwin, sporting dyed auburn hair and bulging eyes—will emerge from behind her leaden door to rant at me, making more racket than I did in the process. And then at dinner, should I choose to attend, all the watery eyes will settle on me with glares fit for a tyrannical King.
Outside, the sidewalks have just started to pulse with warmth. It’s a hot time, the thick of June, and even the trees seem a little burdened by this. Jack is waiting by the pot of wilted flowers that borders the front steps, as promised, and I smile as I take the paper from him and press a dime into his palm. He reaches in his pocket for a nickel, like he always does, and I shake my head at him.
“That’s your tip.”
“Thank you, Miss Louise.” He grins a toothy grin. I fight the urge to ruffle his hair.
“I never had a brother, Jack,” I say, sinking onto the stoop to flay the paper across my thighs, “but I imagine that if I did, he’d have been a lot like you.”
“Aw, thanks.” Jack scans the street for passers-by, but it’s too early yet. Five minutes until the women come off their shift, until Bruce flips his cardstock sign to read Open. In my peripheral, I watch him open his mouth, and then catch himself.
I look up from a fine-print article about a clothing sale, which also features a lengthy three paragraphs about the family who owns the shop. See, I need to tell Mr. Sachs, that’s the difference. That’s the difference between our potential longevity and demise. Maybe in a less melodramatic fashion, though. Mr. Sachs doesn’t like what he calls “pompous sheep”, which means anybody who uses a word not commonly heard in the radio advertisements.
“What is it?” I ask, resting my finger atop the line I’ve reached.
He’s pink in the face. “I—I mean, what am I like?”
“Oh, Jack.” I beam at him. “You’re wonderful. You’re adventurous, and smart, and not at all shy—some kids your age are awfully shy, I’ve seen, but you march right up to people. You know what you want. And you’re kind to everybody—I’ve seen that, too—and you care about what you do, which is more than I can say for most people.”
“Thank you.” He contemplates the collection of papers in his bag, tightly wound and ready to be sold. “I guess I never saw myself like that.”
“Humble people never do. Or maybe it’s not humility, though. It’s more like a confidence in yourself because you know the truth about yourself, and there’s no denying it, and you don’t try to hide it. Honesty’s not bragging, not unless you’re trying to hurt people. But I know you’d never do that, that you care too much—”
A hitch in my throat, as the gush of words finally reach my ears. I snap my mouth closed and my teeth clack together. “I’m sorry.”
He’s fighting a smile. I can tell it. “No, no. Thank you. That’s really nice.”
I rub my nose, and refocus on my paper. My eyes are burning. I try to speak past the abrupt warble in my voice. There comes the morning crowd, the first notes of them drifting down the street. “Good luck today.”
“Thanks, Miss Louise.” And with that, he’s gone, shouting the name of the paper, thankfully oblivious to my current condition. I flick at the tears that have accumulated on my lashes, dangling by a precarious thread. It’s time for me to go. I stand. I tell myself, today is the important day. I tell myself, walk with your chin up. I tell myself, don’t think about him. Don’t think about him. Don’t think about him.
I have Mr. Sachs’ coffee made the way he likes it, extra dark with three heaping spoonfuls of brown sugar. He says it gives it an edge. I’ve adjusted the collar of my blouse and tugged at the flare of my skirt until it’s just so, inspected my ankles until I’m satisfied that they jut out becomingly over the tops of my shoes. I’ve also polished the shoes with my spit, which I’d read about in books, but it was actually a little gross and I don’t think I’ll ever do that again.
It’s the little things that don’t matter, and it’s those I choose to distract myself with, until I’m standing in front of his office, the frosted glass bearing his name—Wilbur Sachs, Editor—and then reality comes rushing in. My hand shakes, the one holding the coffee, so I switch it to my left.
I raise my hand and knock. “Mr. Sachs? I’ve got your beverage.”
Another Sachs-ism of his, as I’ve christened them. Beverage has an “air of allure”, apparently, although I think it’s mostly to give the drink ambiguity. He desperately desires to be one of those hard-hitting editors depicted in the movies, the kind who smokes cigars and takes scotch before noon. In reality, Mr. Sachs eats tuna-salad on rye, lovingly prepared by his sister, and his poison is coffee. Lots and lots of coffee. I’ve become so adept at making coffee, I’ve dreamt about it.
“Mr. Sachs?” I try, paired with a harder rap. Nothing.
I balance the coffee on a banister and hurry down to the main level, where our receptionist, Millie, works. The Illinois Informer office is housed in an old warehouse, a turn-of-the-century affair that involves many flights of stairs. Millie is sitting in front of a ledger, painstakingly copying down subscriptions, it looks like. As secretary to Mr. Sachs, my job deals more in personal errands and, lately, helping him to manage the influx of articles, to situate the layout. Millie’s job would slowly suck my soul of its marrow, but I don’t say that to her.
“Good morning,” I say, even though I said this fifteen minutes ago when I walked in. “Did Mr. Sachs come in this morning?”
“Mm—I believe so.” She doesn’t look up, and I lean over, wanting for her beady blue eyes to meet mine so I can blame her later if it turns out she was wrong.
“I really need to know.”
Now they’re rolling at me, her eyes, and I wish I’d just taken the answer and left with it. “Yes, Louise, he came in.”
“And you’re positive?”
“Yes, Louise; we had a conversation and everything.” She stops to bare her teeth at me, a poor-man’s smile. “Do you want me to relate it for you?”
“No.” I lean away, give her broad desk a decisive smack. “Thanks.”
I scurry back upstairs. Mr. Sachs’ door is as I left it—closed. Behind the blurry window into his office, I can see it’s dim, that’s there’s no light on.
I have the sudden, irreconcilable vision of him of arms splayed out, torso slumped against his desk. Informer Editor Suffers Death By Coffee, the headline would read, a preview into a three-page tribute to him, filled with his witticisms and lots of grimacing pictures. The letters of my name would find one another on the byline, I just know it.
God, I think, please don’t let that happen.
Not that I don’t want a byline. I do. I do. But hearts are fickle, and mine can’t take much more.
I give in to my misery and go search for the skeleton key that unlocks all the second-level doors. Poised in front of his, key in hand, I draw a breath. Try one more time.
“Mr. Sachs? I have your cof—”
The door wrenches open. Mr. Sachs—legs spread, arms crossed—frowns deeply. “My what?”
“Ah—” I step back. “Sir. What happened?”
“What do you mean, Louise?”
“I’ve been knocking for ages. I thought…” I pause, anticipating another interruption, but he only raises his eyebrows. “Um. I don’t know. What I thought, I mean—mostly, or maybe, that you were—”
At this, he laughs. It’s a wheezy laugh, like he’s smoked from birth. “Don’t worry, naive one; there’s no way I’ll die before I get next year’s tax return.”
“Ha.” It’s all I can manage. I pivot for his coffee, and hold it out to him. “What were you doing, then?”
He turns and wanders back into his office. The windows are closed, and he has the space heater going in the furthest corner from his massive desk. From the armpits of his green button-down bloom twin sweat stains. “This is good, Louise. Very nice. Nice edge.”
He pauses by the desk without sitting, and I watch wordlessly as he straightens a stack of legal pads. There’s a small indentation in his cheek, I realize, the crease of paper—like he was sleeping. I almost want to call him out on it, poke a bit of fun, but I don’t think I could get away with it.
And, also, today’s the day. My pitch. My revolutionary idea that’s going to change the course of this paper forever and ever.
“Louise,” Mr. Sachs says, sinking down into his chair. It’s padded with three cushions, none of them complimentary. “What can I do you for?”
“Um—” I dig for the note I slipped into my pocket, fingers brushing right over the stack of papers outlining my idea. I manage to extract the list of messages. “The head of city planning called, and she wants to see about getting a reporter for the events next week.”
“That’s fine. Can you manage that?”
“Dandy. All right, you can—”
I hold it up. “There’s more, sir.”
His face shifts into one of discontent, an expression he often wears. “Then get on with it.”
“Right. Okay. Um.” I run down the rest, most of them reporter requests, a couple personal calls from women who proudly stated the Mrs. that precedes their name. I try to ignore these indiscretions, swallow my displeasure when I make plans for Mr. Sachs to meet them for lunch. It happens often. He’s not married, at least, but he always seems to go for the women who already are.
“And that’s it,” I conclude after a few seconds. He nods.
“Okay. You can handle all of that.” He gestures to the pile on his desk, drafts for tomorrow’s issue. “Got a big one. They say th War’s gonna end this world, you know that?”
“I do, sir.” I feel the buzz, deep down in my toes. The thrill of it. “But I mean, it’s over. It’s been over. Do you actually think—”
“It might. Maybe. We’ll see.”
“So you just—take care of that. And let me know when it’s done, okay?” He pushes an empty mug across his desk. “I’ll also take more coffee. Little more brown sugar next time.”
“Of course.” I grab the mug and head for the door, pause and twist. “Mr. Sachs?”
He doesn’t seem to hear me. I clear my throat.
“Mr. Sachs. Mr. Sachs?”
“Mr. Sachs? Are you hearing me?”
He sighs. Deeply. “Of course. But I don’t have time for questions today, just answers. Unless it’s something that pertains to the war. Does it?” All without single glance up. I squeeze my eyes shut, draw a breath, open them.
“Not really. But—” An idea blooms, fragrant. “I mean, yes. For the most part. Unconventionally.”
“Unconventional.” He twists his mouth to the side, grabbing a red pen from the cup on his desk and twisting the lid off. “I’m not a big fan of that.”
“I know, sir. I know.” I’m eager now, hands fluttering. I reach into my pocket for the outline. “There’s just an idea I have. And I think, Mr. Sachs, after working for you for so long—and I’ve never missed a day or made a mistake, I might add—”
“We don’t do horn-tooting here, Louise. And you do make mistakes.” He finally meets my perturbed gaze, his scowl deep, his face weathered. But his eyes are warm, brown, and soft. “You talk too much, for one. You never put enough sugar in my coffee.”
“And you argue.”
“Well.” I want to fight that, but the irony is too fresh. “Yes.”
“So don’t paint yourself as a martyr. But the rest of what you said is true. So get me my coffee, and then we’ll talk. Okay? But you’re going to have to talk while I dress this up, because Malone wrote his usual drivel again.”
“Of course, sir.” I try to level the excitement in my voice as I clip out of the office. As I stop to refill his cup in the tiny kitchen all the employees share, I hum under my breath. If there was a window in here, I would stop to marvel at the beauty of this day—the seven-thirty glow of daybreak, blues lingering in the horizon. But there’s not, so instead I wink at the wallpaper and load the cup with five spoons of crumbly sugar.
Gordon’s dark head of hair peeks over the stairs at noon, and the rest of him follows. There’s a dusting of rain on the strands, plastering some to his forehead, others sticking up. I don’t want for him to reach my desk, I don’t even meet him halfway—I cross the space between us and throw my arms around him, so that he has to stagger back, clutch at the bannister.
“Hi,” he says into my neck. “Happy afternoon.”
“It is.” I pull away. “Mr. Sachs said yes.”
“He said yes?”
“He said yes!” I’m positively radiant, I’m sure of that. My body is electricity. I reach up to kiss him once, chaste, on the lips. Twice, actually, because they’re good lips.
“How long?” His hand finds the back of my neck, curving to its shape.
“Two weeks. I get two weeks.”
“And the word count?”
“That’s better than you’d hoped.”
“I know.” I withdraw, keeping my hands on his shoulders. He’s tall enough that if I stay like this too long my arms will ache from the strain. I keep them there a few seconds more, however, and then drop them reluctantly to my sides. “But it means—you know. Having to be away.”
“Right. But it’s good. Aren’t you excited?”
“I’m so excited.”
He follows me back to my desk, where I gather my things so I can leave with him. “Is it raining?”
“It was just sprinkling for a moment.”
I release a shaky breath through my smile. Today’s a day for sandwiches from the corner deli, for eating while strolling the intensely green park.
“Who’s going to do your job?”
“Millie,” I reply, the name grit in my mouth.
Gordon chuckles. It’s easy, deep. “I bet you love that.”
“It’s quite possibly the only downside.” I check my pocketbook, make sure everything’s there. He’s waiting for me, arm poised to hook through mine. I oblige him. “I can only hope she’s a massive failure and he misses me horribly, therefore reaffirming what an asset I am.”
“As if he doesn’t already know.”
“Well, they say—” We have to break apart to descend to the main level, so the gesture seems silly, “—you know. They say you don’t know what you have until you don’t have it anymore.”
“What if you’re one of the lucky ones who always has what you want?”
He holds the door open for me. Millie has already left for lunch, I’m relieved to see. She has a habit of sneering at us when we pass her, an obvious and therefore obnoxious couple.
It’s stifling outside, and I feel overdressed. As we head down toward the deli—not even having to talk about it, just knowing—I wait for his reply. But he seems to have forgotten our thread of conversation, or at least grown disinterested, because he starts talking about a new book he’s publishing and I’m swept away, into a far more glamorous world of print.
That’s how we met. Nine months ago, when I had to set up a meeting with an employee from the printing company to talk about a book that was coming out, a memoir of somebody who’d fought in the first World War. Mr. Sachs had been busy, so he sent me to take notes and surprise, there was Gordon: tall, handsome, offering a delightful grin. Soon we weren’t talking about the book at all. We were talking about ourselves, each other, mostly me. He had so many questions for me. And we haven’t stopped talking since, not really, and not about things that matter.
“I’m thinking,” he says as we stand in line, “that I should come visit. Maybe the second week.”
My cheeks lift. “Oh?”
“Yeah. Meet everybody. What do you think?”
“I was thinking…pickles or cucumber?”
“Maybe to you.” I make a show of sighing, swaying, tilting my head. “I’m like, do I want the salt and acidity? Or do I want—”
“Louise. I’m dying.”
“Yes.” My hand finds his. “Yes, I would adore that. Love it. Don’t die.”
Our mouths find each other, and yes, we’re in public—but not the office. This kiss lasts. This kiss means something. This kiss feels like a promise.
I pull away with a giggle. “We’re a spectacle.”
“Let them look.”
“Let them eat cake, off with their heads—”
He leans in again, but a quick shake of my head and he reroutes, pressing his cheek briefly to mine and draping an arm around my waist. It’s almost our turn. Nobody wants to watch us exchange germs.
“If I had to choose germs,” I whisper, then, staring straight ahead, “they’d be yours.”
“That’s excellent to hear. I feel exactly the same.”
The woman behind the counter gives us a knowing smile as we step up, taking in the glorious spread, a rainbow of sandwich toppings. “What can I get you sweethearts?”
I pack my suitcase. I write Mama, even though I could call and have the General Store give her a message, because this way she won’t spend the next days aching with anticipation. The letter will get to her maybe a day before, maybe the morning of.
Mr. Sachs has agreed to let me come home, to cover the aftereffects of war on a small town. He’s agreed to let me get personal, finally. I convinced him we need it, if we’re going to last now that this war is over. I believe I have a future in this newspaper, Mama.
I draw a shivery breath, suddenly cold as I stand there clutching my note. I could say more. I could ask her to please let him know. But that’s what a coward would do, I tell myself. And Clark’s never been keen on cowards, not being one himself.
The note is sent as-is: perfunctory, without frills. Kind of like me, I suppose.
My last day of work is long. Tomorrow I leave, taking a train to the town closest to home. It’s a four-hour ride. The last time I made the trip was when I came here to attend school four years ago, Mama’s arms tight around me, her hot cheek pressed to mine. She tucked twenty dollars into the pocket of my jacket, all her savings from the past few months of darning things and selling her baked goods at the town market. It was hard to come by, money, with war thick in the air, draining everybody’s resources everywhere.
“Louise,” she said, looking deep into my eyes on the day of my sendoff, “trust yourself. That’s the first rule.”
“And don’t—don’t be afraid to take chances.”
“But of course, baby, don’t be taking too many chances.”
“Sometimes—” Her voice caved in on itself, petering out in helium. “You have to.”
“I know, Mama.” I burrowed into her warmth, and we held each other like that for awhile, on the train platform. I worried she was too alone. I worried she was still seeing Mr. Otis Kitchett, even though it was less scandalous now that his wife, Sarah, was dead—last spring. I worried about the town moving on without me, in the two years it’d take for me to complete secretary school. I worried that when I came back, it’d be too much the same.
It was easier away, I found pretty quickly. Especially with—everything.
“You should write him,” Mama had said that day, on the platform. The crowd was staring to slide toward the two entrances to the train, jostling us.
“He can write to me, Mama.”
My bitterness stalled her. “Okay, baby. Okay. I love you.”
“I love you.”
We filled the space between us, that chunk of four years, with letters, but I never did ask outright about Mr. Otis Kitchett. And she never asked about Clark.
“Mr. Sachs.” I present him with his seventh cup of coffee that day. It’s only just past lunch. He’s buried in corrections, and without a word, he proffers a stack of them.
“Thanks.” I take the articles back to my desk and sit, pouring over the bland words, the predictably-constructed sentences. I’m exhausted already.
I change Mrs. Redford smiled to Mrs. Redford lit up, her face a rising sun, and then scribble that out. That would not fly, not in a piece about a court date. I scrunch up my nose at a particularly obstinate string of words, and flush some of them out. Don’t need the and, don’t need the also.
This is life, I realize with a start. Me sitting here, pretending I’m not going to be stepping off a train onto a dirt road tomorrow. Pretending that everything will be okay, that my old world will just open up and accept me. And I can’t. I know I can’t swirl back in and expect confetti, because he’s there, and—and—
And suddenly I am grabbing the phone on my desk, punching in the old number. Hoping it’s still the same. It rings once, twice. I hang up.
What are you doing?
My conscience is loud, and insistent. It demands an answer. I don’t have one. Only that I haven’t spoken to my dearest friend since that awful day, and that—
He ruined it. Not you.
And I know this. As true as my name. He made his own bed, and deserved to lie in it, but when he told me—I still ache, when I think of that day, when he came in, sheepishly, a smile that told me he’d done the worst thing of his life, and he knew it. I can’t remember what I said, but I remember the feel of those words ripping from my throat, how the skin felt raw after he stormed out. I remember the slender slope of his shoulders, how all the sudden he seemed not a man, but a boy. I remember how, at the first firing of accusations from my mouth, his eyes widened, and blinked, and glistened. I smile to think of it now, as sharp as it still is, because I made Clark cry. A victory.
But he made me cry, too.
I rest my hand on the black curve of the phone. I stick my finger in the rotary and dial again, this time slower, and raise it to my ear with a shaky hand. Once, twice, three times, four—
A feminine voice, sweet as peaches and cream. “Janet?”
“Speaking. Who’s this?”
“Oh.” A barking laugh. “Oh, no way. Louise? Louise? Is that you.”
“Louise! Darling! How are you? How’s Illinois?”
“It’s great, I’m great—”
“I can’t believe this.” Her voice is positively euphoric. I feel bad, then—at least I could have called her, during this time. Doesn’t mean I have to speak to her stepson.
I feel like adopting that philosophy right now, but I have to ask. I have to warn him.
“It’s been so long.” She’s still going on, and it’s so unlike her, no-nonsense Janet, that I can’t help but grin. I press a fist to my chin, and glance up at Mr. Sachs’ office. The door is still closed, but I know eventually he’ll emerge for more coffee if I don’t beat him to it.
“Janet, I’m really sorry—I really want to talk, I do, but I’m at work and my boss wouldn’t like this.”
“Of course. Well, it was great to—to talk to you. My God, I can’t believe I’m saying—”
“Wait—” At this, her marveling recedes. “I actually called for a reason. I need to—I mean, what I’m saying is I’d like—prefer to—Clark. Talking to him. I mean.”
A few beats of silence. “You want to talk to Clark?”
“Want—need. More need. I have to tell him something.”
“Could you give me his number, wherever he is?” I have the sudden realization that maybe, quite perhaps, he doesn't live in town anymore. In which case, hooray.
“Well, he’s here.”
“Yeah—yes. I figured your Mom would’ve told you.”
“No. Nope. She didn’t.” I don’t tell her that Clark—their family, really—is strictly off limits, as far as conversation goes. I also don’t tell her I haven’t spoken to my mother on the phone but twice in all this time, leaving our conversation to letters. It’s easier to avoid the tender things, when you can flip your pencil and go at the paper with an eraser, or even White-Out, should something sensitive arise from the lead words.
“—go get him,” Janet is saying, and her voice fades. A clack follows as the phone is rested on the countertop, then the sound of her footsteps, growing distant. I expect to hear her call for Clark, but there’s nothing, so he must…or is probably living upstairs. In his bedroom.
A thousand nights come back to me, spend shrouded by those four walls. A telescope. A comforter. Sugar cookies. Tears. Laughter. All the best and hardest parts of my life were either spent or reflected on in that room, and quite suddenly I wonder why we never spent any time in mine. It was nice enough. Not too small. Lots of light. A full-size bed—
His voice rumbles through me, straight to my core. My hand drops to my stomach as it lurches. I’m going to be sick. I’m going to throw up.
“Hi,” he continues. I can’t find my words.
“Are you—Janet, I think she hung up—”
“I’m here! I’m here—here,” I sputter. “Clark.”
It’s the first time I’ve said his name to him in so long, it makes me dizzy. I find I’m glad I’m sitting. My heart is pounding, skipping really—skimming right over the extraneous beats, leaving me just the vital ones.
I can’t seem to find a suitable response, a way to kick off this conversation.
“Are you going to talk at all? Why did you call?”
“…that rhymed.” I bite down and wince.
“I’m sorry.” I swipe my tongue around my mouth, tasting metal. “I bit my tongue, if it makes you feel any better. It’s bleeding.”
He hesitates. I can feel it. Then: “Blood no longer does much for me. You’ll have to try something else.”
“Hey—um—” I fiddle with the cup of pens on my desk, contained in simple beige pottery. I latch onto the tallest of them, an unsharpened No. 2, and use it to circle the circumference of the cup. “Clark.” I say his name again because I can.
“How come we never—like, we never spent any time in my room?”
“When we were kids. Growing up. We never, like—”
“In your room?”
“Why didn’t we spend time there?”
“I, um—” He coughs, and for a minute I think it’s awkwardness, he’s trying to fill the silence, but it quickly overwhelms him and I have to just sit there, waiting, hoping Mr. Sachs can’t hear him hacking through the speaker. It’s quite loud. “Sorry. Sorry. I have this—thing.”
“No, really.” He coughs again, this one brief, but I can hear the smile through it. “Just getting over pneumonia.”
“Oh, gee. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well. Not your fault.”
We sit there for a minute, breathing, and then I remember what we were discussing.
“About the room—”
“It’s—I was just thinking about it. This morning. And…how we spent pretty much all our time in yours. Which was great. It was.”
“Really. It’s a nice room.”
“Yeah, it was.”
“But never in…you know, mine. And I wondered—I don’t know. Why.”
“I…” He clears his throat, this time, and I worry for a second it’s going to turn into another cough. “Don’t get mad.”
“You have a history.”
“I do not.”
“—joking, Louise. It’s a joke. And you’re getting mad.”
I roll my eyes, lean back in my chair. “Whatever. Finish your sentence.”
“Oh, is that how it is?”
“Bossing me around, huh?”
“I dealt with enough of that for two years. I don’t need it again.”
“Oh, we’ve all heard your sordid war stories. Please just continue answering.”
He laughs, but it’s choked, and I sit up a little straighter, because maybe he does have sordid war stories. And I’ve been stupid again, I realize.
“Clark. I’m sorry. That was insensitive.”
“It was funny.”
“No, not really. I’m just—”
“Tell you what. I’m going to answer you now. Why we didn’t spend time in your room.”
“And you can calm down. I promise I wasn’t offended.”
“I promise. Don’t sound so skeptical.”
“I’m not, I’m not.”
“Okay. Um. I think—tell me if I’m wrong—that we spent so little time in your room mostly because you weren’t a big fan of your house. Or your mother.”
“I love my mother.”
“For a while there you didn’t.”
“No, I did. Those were just my angst-ridden teenage years.”
“Ooh, good word.”
“Yeah, thanks. I’ve expanded my vocabulary exponentially.”
“Another great one.”
“I’m a pompous sheep.” I say this with my chin held high, nodding toward Mr. Sachs’ door, momentarily forgetting that Clark isn’t here, that he can’t see me.
“Yes. When I—” Oh. Why I’ve called. “I’ve called, Clark—”
“I realize, Louise.”
“—for a reason.” Our words overlap. He stops.
“Yes. And it’s to announce—”
“Do I not get three guesses?”
“No. Because I don’t have time.” From behind Mr. Sachs’ door comes the first call for Louise, now! I wonder if he can hear me talking. “Actually, I’m out of time. But I’m coming home. Don’t tell my mother, she may not know yet, and it’s a surprise.”
“Whoo,” I add.
He draws a breath. “Home. Here.”
“I’ll be there early evening.”
“A lovely time of day, Louise. But when?”
“As in date?”
“It’s June twenty-fifth.”
“Well, you said date.”
“I said ballpark.”
I spring to my feet, the phone cord stretching to my height. “My boss is calling. I have to go.”
“You have a boss?”
I adjust the phone on my ear. “I have a lot of things, Clark. That I didn’t before.”
“And I hope I can—”
“Louise. What are you doing?”
“Sorry! Bye.” I hang up. See him. I hope I can see him.
A moment later I’m standing in front of Mr. Sachs, fresh mug of steaming coffee in had, six spoonfuls of brown sugar.
“What were you doing?” He demands, taking the cup from me and shoving the other my way.
“You were on the phone for a long time.”
“They wanted half price. It was incessant.”
I’m almost to the door, when he interrupts, “Well, you gave it to them, right?”
His eyes climb skyward. “For the love of God, Louise. You know we need the revenue.”
“Yes—but—” And I paste on my brightest smile, the most assured tilt of my head, “we won’t after my story’s published.”
I step outside and close the door behind me, glancing at the clock. Two hours, and I’m done.
Gordon meets me on the front stoop of the boardinghouse. He’s not allowed inside by Mrs. Erwin, not even to help me carry my bags down the stairs, so she supervises from the top of them as I take the first heavy load down, and then the second. As soon as the cases are over the threshold, though, Gordon swoops in, taking them up in his capable hands.
“Nasty woman,” he remarks, as we start down the sidewalk.
“At least the rent’s cheap.”
“She couldn’t charge any more than a couple bucks for living in that hovel.”
“Hey,” I protest, mock-indignant, “you haven’t even seen the inside!”
“That’s fair, but I’m assuming based on the exterior.”
“I like my shoebox.”
He grimaces, but I can see the smile teasing the corners of his eyes. “Agh, what’ve you got in here?”
“Oh, clothes…” Though it presents a challenge, I loop my arm around his, pulled ramrod straight from the weight of my bag. “Some notebooks. For notes, you know. My—” Here, I cover my mouth, “typewriter. A backup ink cartridge. Four of my old manuscripts.”
“Ah, I see. So a whole militia.”
“Everything I need to have a successful fourteen days.”
I rest my head on his shoulder as we walk, and the crowd almost seems to part for us—the older women smile at me, the men nod at Gordon, the teenagers stare after us with dove eyes. Young love has a powerful effect on people, I’ve noted.
We drop my bags off at the station, leaving them behind the desk with the attendant. Gordon decided we should bring them tonight, so I didn’t have to worry with them in the morning, and I’m glad for that. On our way back, we duck into a small Italian restaurant—a handful of tables, red-and-white checkered, with garlic swampy in the air.
“I’m going to miss you,” is the first thing he says to me, before we’ve even glanced at our menus, which—granted—are quite small. The place had to downsize, after the war. I contemplate a chicken pasta.
“It’s only two weeks.” It’s the most comfort I can offer, because quite suddenly there’s a tickle in my throat, a stinging in my eyes. I glance up and he’s opened to me fully, his gaze steady on me—wide, dark eyes and dark hair and this lovely skin, a shade I’d call white rose.
“I can come, right?” He asks, holding my gaze. “Like I talked about?”
“Of course.” I draw my bottom lip through my teeth, and it’s too much. I have to look away. I resume my perusal of the menu, and finally decided on stuffed ravioli.
“What are you actually going to do?” He asks after some minutes have passed, over garlic bread and a bottle of red wine—a splurge, if you ask me, but he insisted.
I take a sip, crinkle my nose and smile at the tang of it. “Well, I’m going to go around. Interview families about life pre-and-post war. It’ll be an economic number, you know, focusing on rural areas. But also a personal piece, because I can tie myself in there.”
“And you don’t think it’s too far, you know? For people to actually care?”
“What, the distance?”
“No…” I take a bite of garlic bread, chew thoughtfully. “I really want people to be interested. I really do. I mean, would you read it?”
“I’d read a weather report written by you, Louise.”
“No, not by me. In general. Would you take the time to read a piece about people you don’t know, about a town you don’t know? Just because it came from a shared place?”
He pauses, considers this. “You want my honest answer?”
“You know I do.”
And the grin I wear, it’s uncontrollable. I can’t help it—I lean across the table and throw my arms around his neck, planting a kiss on the corner of his jaw.
“You have to visit. Okay? You have to. My mother is dying to meet you.”
“And your friends, I hope?”
I pulled away, trailing my hands along his arms, until I’m reseated. “I told you. I didn’t leave any friends behind in that town.”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Well…” I tear off a piece of bread. “I had a few, you know. But nobody who ma—lasted.”
“It’s called growing up, I think. Up and out.”
I run my hands over the curve of my hips. “I did grow out. Exponentially.”
I wait for the affirmation—good word—but Gordon just laughs. He’s used to my grandiose presentation of certain words, the way I brandish them like prizes. Still eight-years-old at heart.
But he didn’t know you then, I remind myself, and you can’t expect that from him.
Our food arrives. I break into the first ravioli with my fork and try not to think about how, tomorrow, I’ll see the boy who did used to know me, whom I used to expect recognition from—the boy whose recognition, once upon a time, was the only that mattered.
The landscape changes, quite abruptly. Green gives way to stalks of corn, and the stalks of corn give way to dust—the grass died out, summer’s chokehold. I spring back against the leather seat, heart aflutter, and toy with my hair. I wish it was long enough to braid, to pull back in a bun, but I chopped it all off—for the first time in my life, really—right below the ears, the way all the girls in the city do it. It’s the haircut of the working woman, and I can still feel that buzz of adrenaline I got right after the deed was done, squinting in the “complimentary” dusky mirror that hangs over the dresser.
I miss my room, quite suddenly, the longing palpable. I miss the certainty of my bustling city, the assurance that comes with a breeze tickling my neck. Here, hair is long. Here, women wear dresses passed down from mother to daughter to sister. Here, I don’t belong.
The town begins to take shape, the one over from ours—Winifred Dale, I think it’s called, but I honestly can’t remember—and the train begins to slow as it reaches the station. I run my fingers over the top of my head. I’m wearing a canary-yellow blouse, the one I bought with my first paycheck from the office. Now I’m wishing I hadn’t.
I force myself to sit still as the train peters into a crawl, and then shrieks to a stop. In the seats around me, the dozen or so other passengers stand, open the baggage compartments, and slide their suitcases from the shadows. They squeeze past one another in the aisles, offering up apologetic smiles, and I just sit there. I should stand, heave my own luggage down, clomp down the steps onto the narrow platform. But I can’t.
I should just stay here, I decide, until the train keeps going. The allure of the window is too much, though, and I can’t help but glance outside, scanning the crowd. It only takes a moment to find her, my Mama. She’s waiting toward the back of the crowd, hands clasped in front of her. It’s a shock to see her there, much the same as when I left her—maybe even in the same dress, I despair, hating my outfit even more. Her hair has relinquished a lot of its territory to a cloudy grey, though, and even from here I can see the pull of wrinkles on her skin. She was old when I was young, I remember, and now—
Now I’ve wasted so much time.
Just like that, I spring to my feet, all trepidation gone. I yank at my bags and they thud to the floor, causing the conductor to lean back from his position by the door with alarm.
“You okay, miss?”
“Just fine,” I call back, trying to right the suitcases. They’ve tipped over, and I can’t get them—
Finally, I give up, dragging them along by their handles, stooped low to the ground. The conductor helps insists on taking one from me, the heavier of the two, and he follows me down, onto the platform. My eyes are locked on Mama, but she’s still roving the throng, trying to find me. I lift my hand in a wave, and then higher, and then higher, until my arm is stretched all the way into the air.
“Louise!” My name bursts from her and takes flight, reaching my ears and wrapping itself around me. It’s a sound that’s alive with love, the kind of love I haven’t heard from anyone in four years.
And I’m crying, and she’s crying, and we find each other. I can sense the eyes of the people around us, the smiles that they think are secretive, and I’m glad for them. I’m glad they get to witness this reunion today, take tale of it home to their families, told with a burgeoning nostalgia over cookies and tea. I hold her even tighter, my mother, and tell myself to remember this moment. And to maybe even begin my piece with it, reeling people in, the twelve-thousands subscribers—
“You’re taller than me!”
I pull away with a start and realize yes, it’s true, that the top of her head reaches about where my eyebrows are. I glance down to check our shoes, thinking maybe I wore my heeled Oxfords, but no—
“I didn’t realize you were still growing.” Her hands find my shoulders, and she pulls back, inspecting me from head-to-toe. “Baby, you’re gorgeous!”
“You’re a woman!” There’s a sudden gleam in her eyes, and my throat responds accordingly.
“Don’t cry, please,” I say, but it’s choked.
“Oh, my baby.” She wraps me in her arms again, laughing into my shoulder. “Four years. Four years. It’ll never be that long again, you understand? Not ever.”
“Oh.” She pulls away, and her eyes drift over my shoulder, where she smiles at the conductor. “Thank you, sir.”
He sets my suitcase down, beaming. “You ladies have a nice day.”
“And you, sir.”
He strolls back to his train, and Mama stoops over to grab a suitcase. “Come on. I have lunch waiting at home. All your favorites.”
A familiar pickup truck waits for us in the small dirt lot by the station office, and I watch as Mama hoists my suitcase into its bed. It takes me a minute of contemplation before I realize whose it is—Mr. Kitchett’s. I open my mouth to say something to Mama, but she beats me to it.
“What all did you bring in here, baby? Blocks of cement?”
I relay its contents to her, the same as I did to Gordon. As I clamber up into the cab—I haven’t ridden in a truck since the last time I was here, I don’t think—I ask when Mama got my letter.
“A couple days ago.”
“Wow. Post is faster than I thought.” My mind is elsewhere, and by the way she’s looking at me—from the corners of her eyes, flicking them fast to me and back to the road—she knows it.
“They’ve made some progress here.” She laughs, and turns the keys in the ignition. It’s a false start, and she tries again, and again, until the truck sputters to life. And then we’re off, traversing the same roads I grew up with, the roads that paid witness to my triumphs and heartbreaks. I press my forehead to the window.
“You can roll it down, baby,” Mama suggests, reaching to crank at her own until the fresh, albeit dusty air is whistling around us. I do the same.
“So—” Mama adjusts her grip on the wheel, and the false serenity that’s been blanketing us since I fell into her arms is peeled back. I can hear something ominous in her tone, the way the word edges from behind the confines of her teeth.
“There’s something I should tell you. Somethings, I guess.”
“I’ll start with myself.” She sucks in a breath, holds it, lets the truth out in a rush: “Mr. Kitchett and I are married. He’s at the house. I told him not to come. Because I wanted to tell you. First.”
I rub at my eyes, feeling half in a dream. Mr. Otis Kitchett, his white undershirt, his hand on my Mama’s back. I might have known. “Okay.”
“Please don’t be angry. I wanted to write you and tell you, but I was afraid—”
“Mama. It’s okay.” I remind myself I’m grown now. An adult. That insolent fifteen-year-old of the past rears within me, but I hold her back. I’m stronger than her, I remind myself, and the memories from that time flood my mind—crumpled on the floor, crying over Clark, Mama’s arms around me. Easily the most tumultuous time in my life, when I still relied so heavily on everybody else. “I’m not…it doesn’t upset me.” I force the next words through a desert-dry mouth. “Are you happy?”
“I am. And, baby…there’s something else. And this may make you mad, but we’ve been married about five months now. It took us a long time to get over Sarah. And I pray about that every day, baby, you’ve got to understand. But she was ill in…in mind, and they hadn’t been in love for a very long time.” Mama swallows. “She didn’t even know who she was or where she was, poor soul, when she died. Anyway.” She fixates on a distance point, a stop sign blaring our turn into town. “He’s there. At the house. I didn’t want to catch you off guard, but he’s very excited to see you and I hope—what I mean is, I want you to get along. With him. It’s everything to me.”
I try not to be mad. I didn’t even know as much back when it happened, and here my Mama is, being completely honest with me. So I can’t be mad. I can’t, and I won’t.
“I also think it’s perfectly acceptable if you’re angry,” she adds, “because I would be. I honestly thought if I shared it with you…well, I don’t know what I thought. The letters would stop. You’d never speak to me again.” She laughs, and it’s feeble. “Which is stupid, I know, baby. You’re an adult, you’re mature—but also, yes, you can be mad. At me.” She punctuates her ramblings with another deep breath, but this one trails into silence.
“I’m not upset, Mama,” I leap to assure her, realizing it’s my turn. I clench my hand against my thigh. “Last time…I was immature about the whole thing. Daddy’s still…he was still fresh. To me.” And I realize with a start that my father has now been out of my life for longer than he was in it. “I…”
“Fourteen years,” Mama declares, “just a little over fourteen years. And baby, I miss him everyday. It aches. I don’t know—I won’t ever stop loving him, you understand that? And I know you won’t either, ‘cause he’s watching you, and he’s proud.”
There are tears in her eyes again, matching mine. I let slip an uneasy laugh, and that is that. Somehow I know, in the pit of my stomach, that we will never fight over Mama and Mr. Kitchett again. Or at least I won’t start anything. I can promise myself that.
We finally reach the stop sign, and make the left turn. “What else?” I ask, desperate for distraction. In the distance, I can see the few modest buildings that make up our town. My stomach lurches for the fourth or fifth time today, and I’m glad that I didn’t eat breakfast.
“You said there were things—”
“Well, baby, that was pretty much it. Um…” Her eyebrows raise. “I know we don’t—we haven’t talked about him. But Clark is back at home.”
“Okay.” I nod, grave. I don’t tell her that we talked, feeling suddenly exhausted at the prospect of seeing him. “That’s fine.”
“There’s a meadow between you two, remember.”
“Okay.” As we coast through the town, Mama waves at people. They grin widely and return the gesture; some of them shout hello to me, faces gone alight with recognition. It’s not difficult to conjure up a beam of my own—I delight in spotting old friends, people who have changed so much and so little.
It’s a handful of minutes before we reach our road, and my breath hitches in anticipation. I’m on the edge of the seat, pressing my hands flush to it on either side of me. Mama’s laughter rings.
“Anxious. Excited. Nauseous. All of the above.”
“What do you think’s gonna be waiting there for you, baby?”
“Well, a delicious lunch.”
“And a warm house.”
“It’s hot today, so yes.”
“And—and my bedroom.” I grin to think of the white coverlet, the butter walls, my white dresser and the nicked vase atop it, bearing a constant rotation of the season’s wildflowers. I wonder if Mama has kept it stocked, if she’s swept my hand-braided rug, an heirloom. I wonder why I haven’t come home sooner.
We turn onto our road, and there it is in the distance—my beloved home, maybe leaning a little more than before, but white and two stories and proud. The garden is lush, in its prime, and I spot the bright red spots of tomatoes and the leafy greens. The grass, despite the drought that always hits around this month, has clung to a bit of perkiness and stands at attention. The windows gleam as we draw closer, freshly washed, and I can see the kitchen curtains fluttering in the breeze.
“Oh, Mama,” I breathe, overcome yet again by my tears. I wipe them away. Home. I’m home.
The driveway is empty, save for my old bike, and as the truck rolls to a stop and I swing the door open and hop down, I see the tires have been newly filled.
“You’re welcome to use the truck, of course,” Mama says, pulling the keys from the ignition. I’ve wandered up to the bike, am running my hand over the handlebars, “but Otis did that for you. He thought you might like to have it.”
“That’s very nice of him.”
“He’s like that, you know.” It’s impossible to miss the pride in her voice, as she holds to the side of the door and steps gingerly onto dark amber ground. “You’ll learn soon enough. How long are you staying?”
“Just a couple weeks.”
The side door swings open, and there stands Mr. Otis Kitchett, face solemn. He’s about as I remember him, except a little rounder, perhaps, and he’s grown a beard, the blonde strung with white. His skin is leathery, his eyes small and brown and uncharacteristically kind, or at least tamed by the years. And then I think of the bike’s tires, and then I think of the rides to town he gave us, and then I think about all the food he brought after Daddy died. And I think, hm, maybe he’s been nice this whole time. Maybe he was soured by the biased eyes of a child.
“Mr. Kitchett,” I say, stepping forward and sticking my hand out.
He takes the steps one at a time, meets me with a firm shake. His face allows a brief, somber smile, and I match it.
“Otis,” is all he says, and I ignore the redness in his cheeks.
“Otis.” We drop hands all at once, an unspoken agreement, and I gesture to my bike. “Thanks for that. It was really kind of you.”
“It’s no trouble.” He notices Mama lingering by the truck bed and hurries over, planting a chaste kiss on her temple. She mumbles something to him, and I watch as he takes down the suitcases without a flicker of anything—surprise, discomfort, annoyance. They could be filled with feathers, for all the response he shoes. He doesn’t ask what I’ve packed.
As I trail after he and Mama, into the oven-warmed kitchen and into the cloying scent of zucchini bread, I think maybe Mr. Kitchett and I can finally be friends, at long last.
That night, Mama watches me from the doorway. I’ve put on an old matching pajama set, faded pink shorts and a boxy top. I lug my typewriter and writing supplies out from one of the suitcases, set it up on a desk I dragged in from another room. It doesn’t match the rest of my furniture, but no matter.
I feed a piece of paper through the typewriter and clamber to my hands and knees in search of an outlet. A few seconds and I’m pressing the A. The ink comes out bold, so I don't need to replace the cartridge yet, as I feared. It’s been awhile since I wrote.
“See?” I say, waving Mama over.
“Ooh, it’s lovely.”
“I bought it with my—” I do a quick calculation, “—second paycheck. Something like that.”
“Must have cost a fortune.”
“Almost all of it.” I draw out the seat. “You want to try?”
“Is it difficult to use, baby?” Already she’s sinking down.
“Not at all.” I show her how to press and hold down SHIFT to make the letters capital. I point out the punctuation keys, and the ENTER, to start a new line. “It’ll ding when you get to the end of the paper.”
“Okay.” She starts finger-pecking, and a giggle slips out. “Oh. Am I doing it right?”
“You’re fine, Mama.”
She whips her eyes between the keys, the paper, the keys. “Whoops! I made a mistake.”
“Nothing some White-Out can’t fix.” I snatch the bottle from my suitcase and go over the letter. “Now we wait. Give it a minute.”
She drops her hands to her lap, out of breath. “I think that’s enough for me, my love, at least for tonight.”
I laugh. She’s managed: “The quick fox jumps over the b”, but I don’t argue.
“All right.” She stands. “I should get to bed.”
“Sounds good.” I slip into the spot she’s just vacated, and her hands fall to my shoulders as she bends over to press a kiss to my cheek. “G’night, Mama.”
“Goodnight, baby.” She curls her hand around the doorframe. As I unwind her paper from the holder, I can still feel her there. Without looking, I prompt, “Mama?”
“Are you gonna see Clark at all?”
“Mm?” I glance up, even though I heard. “I don’t know. I think so.”
“I know Janet would like to see you, at least.”
“And me her.”
“So you should go. Before you get all wrapped up in this story.”
“Yeah.” I draw my knees up to my chest, fighting a surge of rebellion. “I can handle it, Mama.”
“I know you can. I just wondered, that’s all.”
“And Clark—you knew he was discharged, right?”
“He got hurt.”
I lower my legs. “I thought you said it wasn’t serious.”
It was one of the few times Mama and I talked about him, right after I left. The first of the two phone calls I made to her, in December, Merry Christmas. She’d sent a few things in the mail for me. Clark’s home, to which I said, Oh? And she said something like, Yeah, he’s finished.
“It wasn’t—really. I just don’t want you to be all caught off guard.” Mama’s hands flutter to her waist, and she rests them there. “He limps, though. Pretty badly.”
“Huh.” Capable, earnest Clark, burdened with a limp. I feel sorry for him, I think.
“But he gets around. Has his own business—but I’ll let him tell you this. I’m sorry.”
“It’s okay. It’s good for me to know.”
“Okay.” She rests her head against the doorframe, watching me. “I can’t tell you what it’s like to have you back, baby. The world world has changed, it feels like, but right now—”
“—everything’s the same.”
“Exactly. What do they call that, feeling like you’ve felt something before?”
“Right. That’s what I have right now.”
“Me too,” I agree, even though it sounds ridiculous. Even though it’s radically untrue. Because things may be hunky-dory and safe and happy and much the same here, but right outside this house things are irrevocably changed.
I say goodnight again, and Mama leaves. I consider writing, finally starting the article, but nothing comes to mind. I turn off the typewriter and crawl into bed.
The next morning dawns cool and bright. I’m downstairs before seven to find Mr. Kitchett at the kitchen table, eating leftover zucchini bread, Mama reading a newspaper in the living room.
“I’m gonna go,” I say, pouring and gulping a mug of hot coffee. It stings my mouth, “and get it over with.”
“At this hour?” Mama’s still in her nightgown, and she rises to greet me. “Have some breakfast, honey.”
“I can’t. I won’t be able to until—”
“Okay, okay. I understand.” She smiles absently at me, tucks a stand of hair behind my ear. “I like this style, by the way. It suits you.”
“Thanks.” I reach up to grab her hand before it can come at me again, and I squeeze it. “I really need to get this over with, okay?”
“Let me know how it goes.”
“I will.” And I’m off, calling good morning to Mr. Kitchett. He returns it rather gruffly, and as I step out the back door, I catch a glimpse of Mama leaning over him, draping her arms across his broad shoulders.
I stop there to catch my breath, to see if I can quiet my pounding heart. Clark’s house seemed closer when I was younger, I realize. It’s ages away, and the field has grown up so much, it’d be a hassle to cross. I decide the walk won’t hurt.
I start out, hands in the pockets of my pants, an old pair of Daddy’s that I drudged up this morning. He was slender, but they’re still a little large, so I looped a belt around my waist to hold him up, tucked in my plain white shirt. I don’t feel like myself, I realize, as I start toward the road. Short hair, mannish outfit, new disposition. I’m not Louisa or Lou or even Louise, really. I’m the byline girl, the one who will appear alongside my forthcoming article. And that’s great and all, but—
A car drives by, honks its horn. I startle, and spin around. The wheels kick up dust as it continues down the road, but then it slows and stills, and the dust settles. It’s not a car I recognize, slim and low to the ground, the color of sunshine. I stare as the door swings open, and then—
Then Clark leans out.
I’m frozen in place. He reaches skyward, and it takes a second for me to register that he’s waving. I lift my own hand, tentative.
“Where’re you heading?” He calls, his voice booming clear across the dozen or so yards between us.
I lick my lips. “Ah—to you.”
“Here.” He holds a finger up, ducks his upper half back inside. A moment later and the car is in reverse, heading towards me. I scramble back, allowing the car room, and he comes to a sudden stop just a few feet from me, the driver’s side door still open.
“Hi,” he says, peering out at me. I step closer.
“Hi,” I say back.
We stare at each other. There’s not appraisal in his eyes, and I don’t feel it in mine. It’s just—acknowledgment. You exist. I exist. I regret it.
“Louise—” And then he’s standing, swaying a little, his hands out. An offering.
I take it.
“Clark,” I yelp, as I spring into his arms. They encircle me, and I’m surprised to find our faces almost at the same level, the same height. I remember him so tall. I squeeze tight, tighter than I’ve ever held anybody in my entire life. “Oh, my God. I’ve missed you.”
“I’ve missed you.”
The animosity melts away, or at least some of it. It’s hard to stay angry when one of the people you love most in the world is looking right at you. I’m itching to jump right in with questions, but then I’m also content to maybe stay like this forever. Holding each other.
I press my cheek to his, delighting in the bit of stubble that pricks my cheek. “Oh, my God. You’ve finally got yourself a beard.”
“I don’t.” His hand goes to his chin, and I lean away, sizing up the fine blonde hairs. “This is just because I haven’t had time to shave.”
I finally get a good look at him, his hair shorter than I remember it, a duller brown than before. His eyes are as thick-lashed as ever, though, and his shoulders broad, his skin the color of honey, flecked with freckles. I wonder what he sees in me.
“You look good,” I finally say, extracting myself from his hold. He lets go.
“So do you. I like this.” He tugs at a baggy spot on my t-shirt. “New look.”
“Somewhat. I’m experimenting.”
He grips onto the car, holding himself steady. “You’ve changed.”
“So have you.” I’m noticing, now, the little things—a long scar on his forehead, stretching from the outermost corner of his eyebrow to his widow’s peak; his face is sallower, not as full as before, having lost the last of his baby fat. And, always thin, his frame now begs for the natural muscle that used to cushion it. He’s light, I realize, barely bigger than me.
“Clark,” I breathe, unable to help myself.
“I know.” He grins, all teeth. “I promise I’m eating. I can’t—I don’t build muscle like I used to. Not since this.” He rests a hand on his hip, and I notice the lopsided way he’s standing, all his weight on his right foot.
“We weren’t talking,” he says, “so I didn’t tell you.”
“It was why I was discharged. Bullet to the side. Shattered a whole part of my pelvis. They weren’t even sure I was going to be able to walk again, so it’s really—it’s good I can. But it’s like having a rubber leg, sometimes; it just doesn’t want to work.”
“So I can’t exercise, can’t run. Can’t ride a bike.” He shrugs. “And that’s all you’re going to hear me complain, so don’t look at me differently.”
“I’m not.” I press my lips together. “I just wish—”
“What, Louise?” And the buoyancy leaves him, an ancient exasperation creeping in. “We weren’t talking. I wasn’t going to use this as some pity ploy to get you to speak to me. You were mad.”
“I was mad, yes, but…I don’t know, Clark.”
“It is what it is, okay? And it’s in the past. So let’s not play the what-if game, okay? We both made our decisions.”
“Right.” But it doesn’t mean we have to like them. “Speaking of—”
“Oh, don’t start.” But it’s teasing, thank goodness. He points to the passenger side of the car. “Want me to show you where I work?”
“Sure,” I say, already halfway around the car, “I’d love to.”
We talk about inane things as he drives, topics that used to enchant us, filling the hours we’d spend together. Any good movies lately? I rattle off a list of my favorites, unsurprised to find that he adores almost all of them. Any music? His taste is much the same as mine, aside from a couple choices that have too much of an edge for my taste. Has he learned anything new about the stars? Not really, but the largest telescope ever was created just last year. And then the topic of the War comes up, or mainly why I’m here, which is pretty much related.
“Were you scared?” I ask, as we begin to near town—the ride also shorter than I remember, shorter even than yesterday’s brief voyage.
“During what—the war?”
“Maybe at first. During basic. That’s stuffs scary, all these older men yelling at you, and there’s this unspoken kind of language, you know. What’s acceptable to talk about, and what’s not. What it’s acceptable to look like, that kind of thing. But you learn.”
“Did you have to, um—you know. Kill people?”
He squares his jaw. “Jeez, Louise.”
“I just—I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have asked.”
“I was kidding you. It’s okay.”
We’re silent. We’ve reached town. Clark turns down one of the snaking side roads and parks in a wide space bordering a stout brick building. When he opens the door and begins to hoist himself out, it’s clear I’m not going to get an answer.
“Where are we headed?”
As Clark starts off at a slow gait, back onto the main stretch, I have to force myself not to stare at him. It’s painful, watching him walk—his left foot drags the ground, mostly limp, and he has to curl the whole right side of his body inward to propel himself forward. My heart aches for him, and I hate myself a little bit. I should have been there. I should—
“What?” I tear my eyes from his waist. They’re a watery mess. Clark pauses in the middle of the sidewalk to turn back and give me a disproving look, button down loose on him, suspenders lopsided. The first of my tears spill over, and I wipe them away.
“You’re making me—” His words catch, and he clears his throat. “You’re making me feel pathetic.”
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I start toward him, swiping angrily at my face. “I’m an idiot. I’m sorry.”
“I really am. This is—it’s not you. It’s me.”
“That’s an original line.”
“No, no. I’m upset.”
“I see that.” He pauses, considers this. “Why’re you so upset, huh?” As I near him, he reaches out to twine his fingers through mine, and the quick storm of my tears subsides.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” I use the neck of my skirt to pat my face dry. “I think I’m just tired. It’s just…I’m realizing that I wasted six years of my life without you.”
“I thought you were mad.”
“You wouldn’t have wanted to talk to me anyway.” He brushes me off and turns around, starting off again. This time I match his steps so I’m don’t have an excuse to stare.
“Why would you say that? Of course I did.”
“Everyday. Everyday I wished I could hear your voice.”
“So why didn’t you, then?” But he doesn’t ask this in an accusatory way, just curious. My valiant comforter. Not much has changed.
I shake my head. “I don’t know. I don’t. And that’s why I’m upset.”
“Not because I’m a disappointing cripple?”
“Oh, Clark. Stop.”
“It’s a joke, Lou.”
The name, a treat from his mouth. It sends a conflicting ripple of content through me, and I’m such a mess of emotions, it’s a release when we finally come to a small storefront.
“Ta-da.” He sweeps his hand outside, beneath bright, hand-painted letters on the window. Knicks and Knacks.
“It’s a children’s shop.” He reaches into his pocket for a set of keys and inserts them in the door, twisting it open in one fluid motion. We step inside an oasis—shelves upon shelves, lined with delightful toys and trinkets. They’re are small wooden pistols, petite dollhouses, little cardboard books.
“Clark, this is amazing.” I’m drawn to a small, hand-painted figure of a farm-girl—overalls, twin blonde braids, dirt smeared on her elbows. She looks like me. “When did you open this?”
“Not just me. A friend and I started it. A few months after the war ended.” He coughs. “That’s about how long it took me to heal, anyway. I needed a distraction.”
“This is so—it’s great. Can you imagine if we’d had this hear when we were kids.”
“I know.” He busies himself straightening a rug, flicking on an overhead light, flipping around an Open sign. “Not the most practical. But we actually do a good business. A lot of people come from out-of-town, because there isn’t really anything like this in the area.”
“Of course not. It’s incredible.” I’m still clasping onto the farm girl, and I head over to a miniature fire-engine. I wonder if Jack, my newspaper boy, would like this. I decide to buy it for him.
“Can I be your first customer?” I ask, bringing my purchases to the counter, which Clark is now perched behind. He rises slowly from the tall stool and passes me a paper sack.
“You're not going to pay me, Louise.”
“Well, no—I insist.” I reach for my the little tin I keep my money in, and then realize I ran outside this morning without so much as a penny. Without shoes, actually, I note, glancing down at my feet.
“I’ll take you back home,” Clark assures me, “as soon as Greg gets here.”
“Are you good to wait?”
I pocket the farm girl and the firetruck, leaning against the counter. “I’m good for as long as you'll have me.”
That afternoon, I hole up in my room and begin my piece, starting with the moment I stepped off the train platform into Mama’s arms: Homecoming, a concept that’s become all-too-familiar to the lot of us: a triumphant, somewhat ashen affair. The author’s return home was quite different than that of the stone faced soldiers who spilled off trains back into their changed towns some four years ago, however. On this more upbeat occasion, she was falling into the arms of a doting mother, four years in the making. Visions of battlefields, of friends and foes losing lives, did not tarnish the landscape of her mine, but there was a heaviness there—a heaviness that necessitated the antidote of Home.
I continue on this thread for awhile, until I’m satisfied, and continue: Friendship imploded, but like the small towns all around the U.S. that are slowly finding their footing, it too began to rebuild itself. War-ravaged and bearing a permanent limp rather good-naturedly, a former soldier finds the writer’s heart, seizes it as obliviously as he did seven years before, and the seven before that.
It’s horrid work, but I let my imagination run wild anyway, piling on the metaphors and analogies and poorly-articulated truths. I know these words will likely never see the light of day. Regardless, it’s a start. I need to get them down before I can accomplish anything else.
The evening brings with it a walk, a meandering stroll along the road. My steps are backed by a symphony of cicadas, crickets, pulling out their instruments of sound as the evening darkens to night. Fireflies pop in the distance, catching my eyes with a tremulous glow. Everything is silent.
In the distance is Clark’s house, the downstairs windows aflame with light. I imagine him gathered around the table with Janet and his father, eating a meal, and it sends a ripple of longing through me. We should’ve been having dinners this whole time. We should’ve opened his store together, dressed up the shelves with a fresh coat of paint, orchestrated a ribbon-cutting ceremony. And I think, Louise, he left. And I think, I could have waited. I know it’s ridiculous, that I would’ve put my life on hold for him. I would have skipped secretary school, writing for the newspaper, my small but homey four walls and all the people I’ve come to know. I would have in a heartbeat, but he didn’t give me a choice.
Something nags at the back of my mind, and I left a hand to scratch my neck. Mosquito. I haven’t been bitten by one in ages, but they brew here in the thicket of grasses, clinging to the little moisture leftover from the last rain. I lift my head toward the sky, breathing in the freshest air, wishing I could bring in the plethora of stars that wink down at me, like they know.
Gordon. I would’ve had to give up Gordon.
I pivot on my heel and speed-walk toward the house, because I forgot to call him last night like I promised I would. I find the downstairs is deserted, Mama and Mr. Kitchett already gone up to bed. I plop down at the kitchen table, stretching the phone over from where it hangs on the wall after dialing the number. He shares an apartment with two other men who work at the publishing company, and I pray that they won’t answer, that I won’t have to make small talk.
Thank God, it’s him. I sag against the kitchen table. “Gordon, hi.”
“Louise! Are you okay?”
“Yeah, yeah, fine—I’m sorry—”
“I’ve been going crazy, telling myself you probably just got busy, but you were supposed to—”
“I know, I know. I’m really, really sorry, Gordon, I swear. It’s been crazy.”
“—and I even called the train station, just to make sure you got in okay.” A chuckle slips out. “Wow, that sounds crazy. It was a lot of going in circles, too.”
My stomach twists, delightfully. “You did?”
“Of course I did. I just wanted to know you were okay.”
“Next time I’ll send a homing pigeon or something.”
“Honestly, I’d invest in that…” He stops to catch his breath. “I was hoping it was you, when the phone rang.”
“I’m really—I’m sorry.”
“No, no. Don’t apologize. I’m making a big deal out of nothing.”
“You’re not…” I twine the phone cord around my palm, three times, until it’s taut. “I just got so busy, what with the reunion—reunions…and all.”
“Yeah, yes—Mama, and her—she’s married now, Gordon, to that guy I told you about.”
“What guy, hon?”
“You know…the one she…” I lower my voice, “was having an affair with.”
“I don’t think you told me about that.”
“I must have.” I release the phone cord. It thuds dully against the table. “It’s like, one of the pivotal moments in my life. I caught them.”
“That’s…horrible, Louise; no wonder you didn’t tell me.”
“But I did.”
He laughs. “But you didn’t. Don’t worry; I’m not offended.”
A pause. “So…elaborate? They’re together?”
“Married, yeah. But he’s nice. So that’s good.”
“And you said you had other reunions—” In the background, muffled talking, “Wait, sorry. Mickey’s trying to tell me something.”
Gordon disappears, and I wait there, tapping my foot. Three minutes past, then five, then seven. I yawn.
“Now it’s my turn to apologize,” he says, voice suddenly booming in my ear, “he had a question about this project he’s working on, and you know Mickey…a little daft.”
“Nice word.” But I say it through a yawn, and Gordon laughs.
“I’m sorry. Why don’t you get to bed? And tomorrow I’ll call and we can figure out when I should come down, okay? Why don’t you give me the number?”
It takes me a moment to summon the digits, it’s been so long since I last called my house. If Gordon’s thrown by my lengthy pause and incoherent mumbling, he doesn’t show it. He says goodnight, love you in my ear, and I return it, and I’m suddenly so exhausted I wait for him to hang up first, which he does. Then I just sit there for awhile, still yawning, and infinitely glad I didn’t have a chance to get into the whole sordid Clark story.
“I’d like to interview you.”
“You don’t say.” Behind the counter, Clark picks up a polishing cloth, dabs a corner into a shallow dish of beeswax, picks up a wooden toy and starts circling the wax around it. The wood darkens and shines. I know it will feel sticky in a child’s hands, a scintillating sensation to young fingers. I reach out and press my own index against the newly-shined spot, unable to resist.
“No, really.” It’s early, not quite nine, but I knew I needed to start on interviews today, and Clark is going to be my test subject. That, and he’s the perfect candidate—former soldier returned home with a war injury, having to start over. It’s exactly what I need for my article.
I rode by bike here, and left it leaned against the building, so my hair is windblown, the flounce of my dress deflated. Clark picks up the next wooden piece, a small airplane, and gets rubbing.
“All right,” he says at last, and his voice takes on a serious edge, “but no questions. About the war.”
I’m digging into my messenger bag for my notepad, but I pause at this, glance up. “None?”
His head is down as he focuses on reaching every curve of the propeller. “I mean…general is fine. But I don’t want…to revisit actual, specific moments. Okay?”
“What about—” I gesture to his hip, summoning courage, “can we talk about that?”
He looks up, and I wait for bangs to fall into his eyes like they used to, so slivers of blue peek out at me. But his hair’s too closely cropped, and I find that I miss that shield. “Is it necessary?”
“Yes,” I say, although it’s so obviously for my own curiosity that I feel myself flush. “But if it’s really an issue…”
“It’s—whatever.” He sets the airplane aside, plucks a car from the shallow wooden crate full of alike trinkets. “Come sit here.” He gets up and heaves himself over to a small doorway, which—once opened up—leads into a storage closet. He pulls out another stool identical to his own, maybe a foot shorter, and painted regs, and drags it to a stop a couple feet from his. “I’ll be your subject, and you can be my assistant. Learn the ways of toy-selling.”
“That sounds perfect.” I sit down on the stool, and it creaks under my weight. “Jeez.”
“Technically, that one’s for a child. So we’ll see if it holds up.” A smirk lights up his features, and for a moment we are children again, all our troubles forgotten. The thinness of his neck and shoulders lean away, the jaunt of his nose and jaw. I grin back.
“So—” I glance down at the stack I’ve gathered from my bag: a yellow legal pad, a typewritten list of predetermined questions—and, if I’m being honest when I woke at six to prepare them this morning, all oriented to Clark—a clipboard, my favorite fountain pen. I glance down the list, trying to decide where to start, and then go with the first. “Why did you join the army?”
“Um—well.” He’s gone to work on the car again, is blinking down at it. “I mean, you know this; you were the first one I told.”
My throat seizes up. I haven’t thought about that night in ages, not consciously, and at the same time I’ve been turning it over in my head every second of every day. “I need your own words.”
He looks up. “I don’t know. I guess because I was at a crossroads…in my personal life.” I scribble down crossroads as he keeps talking. “I was eighteen, almost done with school. My dad was working, Janet had her own thing going…it’s not like they needed me. And a lot of my pals were joining, you know, as soon as their birthdays hit. It was like a celebration. It was a right of passage.”
“And did you feel like you’d done the right thing, once you’d joined?”
His pupils skirt around the question. “I felt like…I left a lot of loose ends. So maybe not. But also, what else was there to do?”
I swallow. He meets my wide-eyed gaze. “I think…at least a part of it…was we were outgrowing each other. You know? And you were kind of my rock, Louise, which I realize now was kind of…I mean, we depended on each other too much, you know?”
“You think we were outgrowing each other?” I’ve stopped writing. I clutch the pen in my fist.
“I don’t know. We each had our own thing going, and our lives were getting messy. Being together didn’t seem to help much anymore.” He draws a deep breath. “So I went, yes. And I don’t regret it. But at the same time I wished I had left…better.”
I nod, slowly. Uncurl my fingers from my hand. The pen drops from them. I pick it up, wordlessly jot down, outgrowing friends, family doesn’t need, no idea what step was next. “Okay.”
“Next question?” His voice is strained with false optimism. I force myself to go to the next question.
“While you were there, did anything happen that you realize would permanently change your life once you were back?”
“Uh,” he slides a hand down his thigh, to rest on his knee. The lame leg. “This.”
“How—do you want to talk about how it happened?”
“Well.” He clears his throat. “It was near the end of the war, almost when it was over. Things had calmed some, at least for us, where we were stationed. In Normandy, with that whole business. And we were in the thick of it, one day, and all the sudden there was this horrible crack and I was down. I didn’t know what had happened at first. And—ah—some guys grabbed me up under the arms. They dragged me to safety, which my doctor said probably made it worse—the dragging, I mean. I’d been shot in the hip close-range, guy I hadn’t even seen.” Clark clears his throat. “I remember them saying, you know, you’ll be okay, man. We got him.” He sighs. “And I wish they hadn’t told me he was dead.”
I’m scribbling furiously, trying to keep up with him. I reach the last own his words and glance up to find him staring out toward the storefront, as if willing somebody to walk in, for this interview to end.
“Okay,” I say. “Okay. Should we stop?”
“No—no. It’s okay.” He smiles, wan. “I just haven’t talked about it in awhile, is all. Or ever.”
“But it’s good…therapeutic.”
“I’ll finish. No trouble.”
I flick my tongue across my lips. “So you didn’t get back in the US until forty-five, right?”
“Yes. My family didn’t know about my accident for a long while, not until the new year, because I was kept at a hospital to recover. There were a lot of surgeries, and a couple of infections…I still have shrapnel, you know, from the bullet. So—”
“—that’s why I never found out. I was already gone.”
“Yes.” He draws a breath. “When did you leave?”
“Oh, um—right after Christmas, really.”
“Four years ago. Hard to believe.”
I jot a couple things down. “So you were glad to return home?”
“Oh, so. Got to be with my family again.”
“I bet. And did you find that the town had changed—”
“Not a lot. Hardly at all.”
I laugh, brusque. “Was it hard getting started again?”
“Not really. I had a lot of support from everyone. I knew this was the best place to be. For me to be. With everything—it just made sense. So I stayed at my dad’s. Opened my store with a buddy. And lived my life. And here we are.”
“Do you feel like the War has had a great impact on the town? You know, that it’s changed?”
Clark contemplates this. “Maybe…on the rest of the world. The bigger parts.” He lifts his shoulders, lets them go along with a breath. “But people underestimate the power of small towns. We survive, and we thrive, because when you don’t have a lot to account for in the first place…I don’t know, it’s easier to hold onto a little than a lot.”
I copy that quote down, exactly, and reach over to squeeze his hand. “Thank you.”
He returns to his toy polishing. “Was that what you wanted?”
“It was good. Really—thank you.” I rise, glancing around the shop. “You know, I’m happy you’re here. Not somewhere else. I was worried, when I came back—”
“I kept waiting for you to.” His words still my breath.
“Come back. Someday.” He shrugged. “I hope we’d make up, Lou. I’m glad we finally have.”
Have we? I nod. “Me, too.”
The new few days pass in a blur. After my first successful interview with Clark, I drum up a new list of inquiries for business owners, and spend a day going shop-to-shop. Everybody agrees to provide their side of the story, and I’m surprised by some of what comes from these meetings. The shopkeepers—almost all of them people I’ve known since I was a little girl—faced great trials during those tumultuous years, and the period afterward; sons gone off to war, widowed daughters, days upon days without a single sale.
“First it was the first World War,” says one Ms. Euler, a woman with a face so time-aged her wrinkles have folded into each other, “and then the Depression, and a second one?” She throws her hands up, bracelets jangling—she’s a collector, she says, her wrists adorned with them. “So much fighting—between them, between us. It was a fight to stay open.”
“So how did you do it?” I ask, glancing around the shoe store—sparsely-stocked, bearing a tiny selection of the affordable, the practical.
“I quit fighting, is what I did.”
“How do you mean?”
“Oh, honey child. That’s something a body has to figure out for himself.”
“Can you elaborate?”
“It’s a lesson best learned.” She pats my hand, cataract-glossed eyes roaming around her modest kingdom. “What can I do you for, then? Pair of loafers?”
I buy some, just to be nice.
“Janet’s invited us for dinner.”
Mama announces this as I walk into the kitchen, on my fifth afternoon back home. She’s kneading bread, the radio blaring Bing Crosby. I toss my satchel down on the kitchen table, join Mama at the counter.
“You don’t have to go,” she says, nodding towards a board piled high with potatoes. I start chopping, sectioning them in thirds. “Smaller, baby.”
Sixths, then. “I’ll go. Why wouldn’t I?”
“Well, there’s Clark—”
I realize what a neglectful daughter I’ve been, out running about working on my story and completely forgetting to fill Mama in. “Oh. We—we made up.”
“Louise!” She throws her hands in the air, and flour flies everywhere, raining white. We’re both coughing as she leans forwards to kiss me on the cheek. “When? I told Janet on the phone I wasn’t sure you’d come!”
“I guess Clark didn’t say anything to her, either.” I grin as I wipe flour from my cheek, but it’s faint. I turn and busy myself with another potato.
“When?” She’s buzzing, my Mama, already forgotten her dough. It’s slowly deflating.
I nod to it, my hands otherwise occupied. “First day back. Ran into him outside.”
She takes up her kneading again. “Oh, that makes me so happy. You’ve no idea.” A few moments pass, just the thunk of my knife against the wooden cutting board, the rhythmic slapping of the dough. Then: “You been seeing a lot of each other?”
“Not…really. First couple of days.” I shrug. “We wave.”
“And it’s okay? Seeing him?”
“Yeah—yes. It’s good.” I slide the newest potato to the side, and move to the next. “I mean…it’s different. It’s not like we can just forget the last six years.”
“Was it that long?”
“Oh, Louise. That’s nearly as long as you were friends.”
I wait for the rest. Nothing comes. “What, Mama?”
Her hair is up in a bun, but a few strands fall as she ducks her head, focusing intently on punching the bread. “I don’t know what you fought about. But I could wager a guess—”
“Oh, let’s not—”
“I’m not wanting to get into it, believe me. I’m just saying, you know, if things are feeling off…you might need to talk about it. To talk through it.”
“Mama…” In my hurry to get through the last potato, I nearly knick my thumb.
“I know these things, baby. You’re adults now, right? You can manage.”
“I won’t revisit it.”
“Why? Haven’t you moved on? You’ve got your beau, and he’s—”
“Great. He’s great, yes.”
“I was going to say something about Clark, but yes. I’ll be excited to meet him.”
I did mention my boyfriend was coming, at least. So there’s that. I finish the last potato and rinse the knife off in the sink. Ella Fitzgerald is now crooning from the speakers.
I lay the knife down in the sink, gingerly. “Yeah, Mama?”
She’s looking right at me, gaze unwavering. “Do you still have feelings for Clark?”
I shake my head so adamantly my neck smarts. “No. Absolutely not.” Continue shaking.
“Then you should be able to talk about it.” She picks up the ball of dough, deposits it in a greased dish. “I’m telling you, things aren’t gonna go back to the way they were until you work this out.”
My vision tilts a little. “Mama—”
“Not tonight, obviously. That’s neither the place nor time.” Her face takes on a sadness, and she tilts her head forward. “But before you go. Maybe even before Gregory gets here.”
I sigh. “Gordon, Mama.”
She gives me smile, all apology. “Whoops. I’ll learn.”
As I turn to leave the kitchen, satchel in hand, she calls over her shoulder, “Be ready by five.”
I sit down to start typing up my notes from today, but I can’t concentrate. She’s right, and she knows I know it.
Come four o’clock, I’m restless; I’ve caught up on my notes from the day and thrown on one of my old dresses—slightly ill-fitting at the waist, but passable—and tidied my room yet again. I wander downstairs, where Mama is still at work in the kitchen. I ask if I can help, but she shoos me away.
The outdoors provides a comfortable warmth. The small garden is my solace as I kneel, careful not to soil the fabric of my dress, and tear up a few weeks. Or I think they’re weeds—I hope. It’s been so long since I’ve even stepped foot in a garden, an embarrassing amount of time, and I’m a bit perturbed to find I can’t definitively tell the difference between dandelion greens and broccoli leaf.
My mind is fighting a maelstrom of thoughts, spitting and hissing and pounding into one another. My heart is in my throat. In an hour. In an hour, all my guilt will be assuaged, and I’ll know I did the right thing way back when, or else my blood will pump until it’s only regret, only regret, only, and I’ll wish away everything that’s good about my life if only, present happiness be damned.
The breeze picks up, and I raise my chin to the sun, slide my eyes closed, breathe. The wind carries with it a faint sound, a thumping that has been distilled. I open my eyes, and they immediately flit to the shanty towards the edge of the field, smack dab in the space between Clark’s and my home, the crucial vertex of a triangle.
I smack my lips together. The name is acid on my tongue. I haven’t thought about her, haven’t looked the direction of that sordid place, but now it’s unmistakable; the wind picks up, and I can hear that the pounding is coming from there. I’ve no idea what will await me, but I rise, brush some particles from my skirt, and head that way.
The grasses are long, untamed, a barrier between friendship. I remember flinging myself through these when I was younger with the ease of swimming—it used to be supple, this terrain, giving to my eager feet with a fluidity like water. Now I have to slug my way through, sidestepping thorny brambles and yard-long, prickling reeds. It takes me a handful of minutes to reach the dilapidated four walls, and when I start to draw near, I see the windows are gone—knocked out, no hint of jagged, reflective glass. Inside, the thumping continues, and I’m tempted to surmise that it’s probably the wind beating something around. At this thought, I hesitate at the edge of the property, but then the sound ceases for several seconds while my hair continues to blow wild around my face, and I know that’s not the case.
I finally sidle up to the window, lean my forearms against it, and peer over the lip and down onto the floor. Clark is on hands and knees, nailing long, wide plants of wood into the baseboard. All around him are various instruments—hammers, containers of nails, a level, a couple cans of paint. The walls are stripped down to bare frames, half of them done, the other supports termite-eaten and sagging. It’s a small room, this one, can’t be more than nine feet long and six or seven feet wide.
A curse flies from his mouth as he jerks upright, wincing. “Oh, Louise! Jesus.”
Quips are more his meta, but I try anyway: “People get us confused all the time.”
I lean through the window, dangling my arms down, where they brush against the sandpaper boards. “What’s happening here?”
He has a nail in his mouth, and he slips it from between his teeth to set it aside and push himself into a standing position. I note the care he takes with his bad leg, the tender way he pulls it up beneath him. “We have a dinner, don't we? What time is it?”
“It’s a quarter past four.” I don’t have my watch on, but I figure it’s a close-enough guess. I sway against the sill. “What is this, Clark?”
“Oh—this?” He reaches up to scratch behind his head, then limps over to the door, which has been newly replaced, I see. It’s simple, brown wood set inside a larger piece. The knob is cheap. He gently glides it open, and peeks around the corner, to where I’m still standing. “Here, come in. But don’t touch the wood—I just stained it.”
“It looks good,” I hedge, as I step past him. He shakes his head.
“It does not. But it’s going to. When I’m done.”
“Why—I mean, what all are you doing?”
“Well.” He tucks his hands into his pockets and leans against one of the stronger walls. “I’m re-framing the house. Going to put new walls in, and paint them. Probably yellow, something cheerful. And I’m doing new floors.” He points to his handwork with the toe of his boots. “I’ve got the kitchen walls done, and the bedroom. Oh, and I’m building on a bathroom.”
“It didn’t have a bathroom?”
“Nope.” He shakes his head, but his face has taken on a cast.
I say what we’re both thinking: “Poor Rita.”
And then, dear God, I know I’ve reached the point of no return. This is the moment I was anticipating, come early. This is what Mama was talking about. I open my mouth, preparing to say it all in a rush, but all that comes out is, “Clark?”
“Yeah.” It’s not a question, though.
“Are you guys—”
“Yes. We are.”
It shouldn't feel like a gut-punch, but it does. “Okay.”
“What?” And his tone ripens, thick with steel, like six years before. “Did you think something had gone horribly wrong? Is that the only reason you’re talking to me?”
“Clark—no.” I’m scrambling. “Why would you say that?”
He’s staring at me, and it’s disappointment personified. “Because you stopped for the same reasons.”
“I was young, okay?” I seize his hand between two palms, force myself to be okay with this. “It hurt. Badly. I felt like you chose her over me.”
“Mm.” He nods, curt. “Because that’s how it works.”
“I think a wife generally takes precedence over friends, Clark.”
His eyes flash, and he gently slides his hand from my grasp, not looking at me. He dives back to his knees, picks up the hammer, begins pounding.
I stand there, waiting, arms crossed. “Clark.”
He drops the hammer and sits up, bracing his hands on his knees. “What, Louise?” His voice is as world-weary as any I’ve heard.
“You really hurt me.” I fight to keep my lip from trembling, but it’s a losing battle. “Back then. I couldn’t possibly begin to understand—I don’t know. I felt like I lost you. Okay? I’m sorry for the way it ended. But I don’t want to go back there.”
“You were always hateful to her, Louise. Always.”
“I was not! I gave her my—” Oh, what was it? “—tuna sandwich. Back in school. Remember?”
“What a kindness.”
“You were proud of me.” I cross my arms. “At the time.”
“Maybe. But I guess I just expected more from you than giving her half-eaten sandwiches.”
“Clark, what was I supposed to do? What did you expect?”
“Some understanding, maybe?” He’s turned to face me, still down on his knees, a position of prayer. “I thought you’d get it.”
I shake my head. “You can’t tell me it was just to rescue her. You loved her.”
“Of course I loved her. Maybe not—it might have been more that I was enamored back then, okay? I’ll concede. But now—”
I don’t want to hear about now, so I give my head a quick shake. “It’s okay. You don’t have to explain.”
“You never let me, Louise. And now you’re mad again and I don’t get it. I don’t get it.”
“I’m not mad now.”
“Yeah—yes you are. You’re doing that pouty thing, and your face is red—”
“I don’t need a narration.”
“Then what do you need from me, Louise? What can I do to make this okay with you?” He’s drawing his hands down in front of him, sharp, and his tone is vaguely patronizing, but he means it. This much I know. He doesn’t understand why it was so hard for me.
Mama’s voice rings in my ear, telling me to talk through it. When’s the last time I took her advice? I can’t remember. I don’t know if I have since I was a child, since before Daddy died. My eyes fill up at that, at the thought of him—lean, sun-bronzed Daddy, always loving me, his Louisa. I wonder if my life would’ve been different if he’d been here, if Clark and I would have gotten nearly as close.
A lifetime supply of childhood memories flashes in my mind, the self-assured boy with the card tricks and the smile, the forever entertainer, my rock. And then, when we were older—my muse, my desire, the boy who broke my heart and didn’t even know it.
“Clark,” I finally say, “I was in love with you.”
His eyes widen, nearly comical. He’s still on his knees, but he sits back further at my proclamation.
“That’s why,” I breathe, whipping my head toward the window. I press my arms tighter to my chest. “It’s why I reacted so badly. It’s why I got distant. It’s why—you’ve got to understand how bad that hurt. I always thought there was this chance, even when she first came along and it became perfectly clear that you liked her. The dance? Remember that?” I pause for a breath, but not enough for him to get a word in, not that he was going to. He’s staring at the ground now, his mouth twisted up to the side, his expression evasive. “I was devastated, Clark. Just about a little thing like the dance. And then you enlist, and six months later before you ship out you come in and you say you’re going to marry her? My God, I thought I’d rather be dead than have to witness that. So I did what I had to do. To keep my sanity. And that’s that.”
I draw a deep breath. He says nothing. The silence fills the air—hot, oppressive silence. A summer silence.
“I wish you would’ve told me,” he says at last.
“Why?” I bark a laugh. “So you could say, I’m sorry, Louise, but I so obviously do not feel the same way?” I back off, then, adjust my tone. “Look, I am sorry I waited so long. I feel like I could have been honest with you a long time ago, at least after some distance was between us. And I’m sorry to tell you this now, but I feel like—it wasn’t making sense to you, I know that, and it was never going to until I said something. So there it is.”
He nods, a slow up-and-down. And then he looks up at me, and I expect a smile, but the corners of his mouth are downtrodden. “Okay.”
I stick my hand out. He accepts the help up, staggering to his feet. Then he goes about and starts collecting his tools, piling them in one of the more polished corners of the room, and I hurry to help him.
“You don’t have to—”
“Please.” There’s something twisted in my stomach, an anxiety, but I don’t have the energy to voice it. So, Clark, what’s the verdict? When the room is cleared, he hurries to the door—still slower than I’d normally walk, but I let him take the lead—and opens it again for me. As I brush past him, he reaches out, touching his hand to my wrist.
I stop and turn to him. His eyes are stardust, ancient and good.
“I still love you,” he says, “but not like—you used to.”
“Okay.” That’s all I can manage.
“No, really. I guess I should have known. I just—we were such good friends, you know? You were my best friend. Are. I haven’t had one since.”
“Me either,” I admit. I feel like we’re crouched on a precipice. Anything could happen.
“I want us to be able to be friends. Despite everything around us. Even if you hate her—”
“I don’t hate her.”
“—she’s my wife.”
He licks his lips, and nods. “I just want you back.”
I smile weakly. “You have me.”
“And—” I step outside, to allow him through, “—don’t worry, you know, about the infatuation thing. I’m not in love with you anymore, believe me. That ship has long sailed.”
He smiles as he steps out, laughs a little. “Okay, good. Because—honestly, Louise, it’s kind of weird. It would be weird.”
“You’re like my sister.”
“Yep.” A sting, deep in my chest. I’m glad for the younger, more fragile me that I never told him this, never got that reply. The damage would have been irreparable. “I have a boyfriend now, too, by the way.”
“Oh? What’s his name?”
“Gordon.” We start walking out towards the center of the field, the even distance between our houses. When we reach the point where we’re directly across from them, I draw a deep breath.
“Okay, well. See you in half an hour.”
“Half an hour.” He sticks his hand out, businesslike, and we shake with wry smiles. Then I turn and amble toward home, taking my time, matching my steps to Clark’s laborious gait. I don’t turn around, for I’ve already learned his new lilt and rhythm. I’m pleased to find that, when I do reach my door—a good five minutes later—and turn, Clark is just at his.
He turns. He waves.
I step inside.
Janet throws open the door and I’m in her arms before I can manage a word. Mama says hello from over my shoulder, her arm linked with Mr. Kitchett’s, but I’m swamped by Janet—that familiar otherworldly smell of her, a foreign perfume, her tight ringlets pressed to my cheeks, her red lips flying.
“Oh, my god, Louise. You’ve grown so much; it’s incredible. Oh, wow.” She pulls away, keeping me at arm’s length, and sizes me up. “You’re a vision, you know that?”
I could say the same for her. She hasn’t changed, maybe a wrinkle or two that wasn’t there before, but she’s just as glamorous as I remember her. I realize she’s in her late thirties now, that I met her when she was—oh, gosh, when she was a year younger than me. It’s incredible. I want to say so, but Mama is standing behind me, nearly sixty, and so I don’t.
“Janet,” is all I say, then, “I’m sorry.”
“Sorry? Sorry for what?” Her hands flutter about her as she motions for us to come inside and hang up our coats, and closes the door.
“For not calling. I’m sorry.”
“Oh.” She shakes her head at me, lips pursed. “It’s all in the past now. And Clark tells me you’re working for a big newspaper and doing a story? Tell me about it.”
We follow her inside while I relay the details of my work, the story, and Janet motions for us to sit on the couch. She comes back with two iced teas.
“You know, you’re absolutely right,” she says, presenting them to Mama and Mr. Kitchett. She wipes droplets from her hands onto her apron. “About papers needing human interest. It’s so calculating. Lately we’ve been all business, and I’m trying to push the reporters in a different direction, but there’s only so much you can do as editor, believe it or not.” She shrugs modestly, and I want to be her.
“Rita, hon,” she calls over her shoulder, “you need help with the rest of it?”
“No,” a gravelly voice calls back, and my heart stutters. Then she appears—Rita Plymouth in the flesh; materializing through the archway, all I an register of her are two more glasses she holds—wet with condensation. Taking small, careful steps, she walks up to where I sit and places the glass on the table before me.
“Here you go.”
I pick it up and start to sip, eyes whirling, and then remember myself, “Thank you.”
She sits down in a chair adjacent to mine, crosses her ankles, unsmiling. I zero in on my glass. I feel fifteen again, the forgotten girl. But I glance up at Rita, and there’s no malice in her face—just disinterest, maybe.
“How are you?” I pose.
She shrugs. “Fair enough. You?”
“Mm.” She cranes her neck to look over her shoulder, crossing her leg over her knee. It jitters against the floor. She’s slim and angular, maybe more so now, just a waif of a thing. Her hair is wispy and fine, pulled pack, accentuating the severity of her jaw, nose, the slant of her eyes and lips. She looks older than Janet, I realize with a start, though she is Clark’s age.
“What’s been happening?” I direct to her again. The parents have picked up their own conversation. Rita leans way to the side, halfway over the arm of the chair, and continues to throw glances behind her, but when I talk she focuses on me.
“I just said—nevermind.”
“No, what?” She holds her own drink, and gulps it.
“I—um, what’s been happening, is what I said.”
“Oh.” She reaches up to scratch at a small scab on her cheek. “Not much. Honestly. Um. I mean, I’ve been living here. Been learning piano. Clark’s been working on the house, but you probably knew that. My Mom died a couple of years ago so it’s just been sitting empty.”
She shrugs. “And that’s pretty much—” At a creak in the stairs, she twists her whole torso to the sound, “—it.”
We watch as Clark descends, wordless. Janet continues talking to my mother and Mr. Kitchett, but Rita is staring intently at him, and I at her. A hint of happiness flickers on his face as he finally reaches the bottom, his chest rising and falling. He glances at her, and gives her a tiny, intimate smile. I busy myself with the cubes of ice in the tea.
“Hello, everybody,” he says from the threshold of the room, a moment later. “Sorry—I was finishing getting ready. Was out working.”
He goes to shake Mr. Kitchett’s hand, and the burly man rises. Mama stands for a hug, pulling him close, and whispers something in his ear, to which he gives a vehement nod. Then he’s looking at me, and I’m looking at him, and he says hello and I say it back, but that’s all. He goes to Rita.
She scoots over, and he plops down beside her, despite the seat being small, pulling her half onto his lap. She’s all bones, and he’s a whisper of his former self, and together they are ghosts—drained, pale, eclipsed by thinness. It hurts for me to look at them, so I don’t.
“I’ve made lasagna,” Janet announces, “and it’s in the oven.” She’s gone to the kitchen, returned with her own tea. “But I have salads and garlic bread, so whenever you’re all ready—”
The pull is irresistible, and I’m back on them, a voyeur. Rita has pressed her head to Clark’s and is saying something under her breath, to which his lips part as his eyes drink her in. Why, I want to ask. Why her? She’s not even pretty, I decide, and I don’t feel biased—I know anyone would agree with me. Her youth used to give her some intrigue, that notion that she knew more than she should, had lived and breathed harder than most people her age. But now that’s left her, washed her clean of anything but facts: she is worn, she is wasted. She is going nowhere.
Why, Clark? But I don’t say that, of course. Mama and Mr. Kitchett have risen to follow Janet to the dining room, so I do the same. We find our seats at the table and it’s a good two minutes before Rita and Clark even appear, conspiratorial in the way their hands brush, in the looks they give each other.
I realize I can’t wait for Gordon to get here, as I unfold my napkin and spread it across my lap. And also, sitting at this table mostly filled with the people I should love most in the world, I can’t wait to go home. To Illinois, that is.
Rita keeps getting up to refill her beverage, and as the dinner continues—her small serving of lasagna mostly untouched, a piece of garlic bread bearing a few nibbles—she gets quieter. And quieter. Finally, the few questions directed at her seem not to pass through her ears to register in her mind. Her stare becomes vacant, her words insipid.
“I’ve gotta…I’m gonna to step outside,” she says at last, stumbling from her chair, towards the entryway. She walks sluggishly, so that the floor vibrates beneath her steps. Clark stares after her but doesn’t follow, and then reaches for the pan of lasagna, second serving. We all ignore the reality of her.
Later, when she’s still not inside, I ask if she’s all right. He nods.
“She likes the fresh air. That’s all. Spends a lot of time out there.”
“Funny…” I almost don’t say it, but then I do. “I haven’t really seen her.”
“—mostly at night.”
“Prefers the cover of darkness?” I stack emptied plates. Janet and Mama and Mr. Kitchett are in the kitchen, doing up the dishes, leaving us to bring them in. I sweep up a couple of glasses, including hers, and stack them atop the dirtied plates. Clark holds the silverware in his fist.
I’m deciding what more I can balance when a smell hits me—a strong one, emanating from her glass. I drop my chin and sniff audibly. Clark looks up from stacking napkins.
“Please. Don’t say anything.”
“I won’t.” God, it’s awful—horrendous, whatever it is. She’s mixed it with the tea. “But at least it makes sense now.”
“I said don’t.”
“I’m not.” And I sweep out of that room, incensed and befuddled. When I reach the kitchen, I tip her glass down the drain, running the water, while Janet and Mama are distracted. Then I deposit the dishes on the counter and—while Clark is still busy with the dining room—slip out the front door. Curiosity has got the better of me.
Night has not quite fallen, the sky in the early throes of twilight, so it’s easy to spot her—at the outer edge of the property, away from the windows. The orange glow of a cigarette is jarring in the dusk. It’s not a scandal like it was when I was eight, watching her Mama puff away—I’ve seen plenty of people smoke now; it’s good for you, doctors say, and I’ve even done it here and there myself. But the pile of already-discarded ones that line her feet, ash still alive, are a little alarming.
She draws deep lungfuls of air in quick succession, so that the cigarette is finished quickly, and immediately reaches into a packet for another. I hesitate. I want to say something. But I also don’t know what I say, or what path my words will choose—and what will come for her, afterward—so I don’t. I step back inside.
Clark is still in the dining room, and I rejoin him.
“Where were you?” He asks, the innocuous words tainted with suspicion.
I gather the used napkins from him. “Helping in the kitchen. Where do these get washed?”
He points, and I scurry away, ashamed. I should feel satisfaction, I think, or something akin to it. But this is your friend, I remind myself, and that truth is irreconcilable with my desire to gloat. She’s a mess, is all I know, and he’s the one who’s left to clean up after her.
Gordon insists on driving, even though he doesn’t know the roads. I crank down all the windows in that old truck and stick my hands out of it, letting the air whip dust through my fingers, spread wide. My hair is wild in the sunshine, my world warm, my spirits uplifted. His free hand searches for mine, and our fingers brush and intertwine.
It’s too loud to speak, so we don’t. I lay my head back against the seat and watch him. He’s freshly shaved, probably nervous to meet Mama, and his eyes are squinting in the brightness. I love the freckles that dot his face, the scar on his lower lip where it split playing baseball when he was eleven. I love his mind.
“Here!” I jerk upright, pointing wildly to our imminent turn. It’s sharp, but he makes it, and then we’re on our road and I’m laughing wildly.
“Already off to an exciting start,” he narrates, as he slows the truck. My white farmhouse appears in the distance, the fields sprightly after the bout of rain we got last night. It was cozy, with the fire going and tea in hands, a plate of cookies on the table while thunder shook the panes of glass in the windows.
“We should get a dog,” I said to Mama. I’d been writing, various thoughts and one-liners I wanted to include in my article. At this, she looked up from the pages of her novel and scoffed.
“Baby, you’re going back the week after next…”
“You would’ve be here to take care of it.”
“Well, maybe I’d come home more.”
She rolled her eyes, but she was smiling, and so was I.
“Seriously, though. We need a dog.”
She shook her head, eyes skimming the book. I was quite done yet.
“Mama,” I said, “you know we never had a dog.”
“Before I was born.”
“That’s true. He ran away, see? That’d just happen again.”
“Not if he was trained. I could train him.”
“Baby.” She looked up, and I could see she was a little exasperated. “Unless you’re moving back home, no dog. And even then I’d be hesitant. Dogs are destructive. Dogs would tear up the garden and eat things. Dogs would track mud in the house. Dogs would—”
“I said dog, Mama, not dogs.”
“You know, I think Louise has a point.”
A gruff voice from the corner of the room—Mr. Otis Kitchett, still in his standard uniform of overalls and baseball cap, repairing a chair leg.
“Otis, what do you mean?”
“Dogs keep good company, Darlene. Nice companions. Never had one myself, always wanted one of them…Cocker Spaniels, I think they’s called.”
“Oh, Cocker Spaniels!” My excitement tested the limits of my voice, surpassing the thunder. “Mama, those’re the best.”
Mr. Kitchett nodded emphatically, rocked the chair forward and bag. He heaved to his feet, plopped down in the chair. “Good dogs. Neighbor used to have a couple.”
“Otis.” Mama was shocked, that was easy to tell, but she was fighting a grin.
I didn’t bother to hide mine, throwing it at my unlikely ally.
“I’m just saying,” is how he punctuated our conversation, and then he left.
I play that back in my mind as Gordon pulls into our drive. I want to share it with him—share the unexpected victory I found with Mr. Kitchett. Except I haven’t talked about Mr. Kitchett much, only to share snippets of my life with him. He wouldn’t be able to fathom the peace that coursed through me when Mr. Kitchett voiced his agreement, the depth of my sudden, overwhelming serenity. My Mama found happiness, and finally—finally—I can be happy for her.
“This is it,” I say, as the truck’s roar ceases. Out here, the wind seems softer, less harsh. I’m about to open my door but already Gordon is out of the cab, over on my side, standing before me. He helps me down by my waist, his fingers locked in an unwavering grip. I take the opportunity to slide my arms around his neck, lean in for a kiss.
I wish Clark was here to see this.
The thought startles me, enough for me to turn my head, his lips moving for a second against my cheek at the absence of mine.
“Mama could be watching,” I explain, and he shakes his head.
“Let them eat cake.”
I want to return the joke, but my stomach is roiling, and besides, I don’t want to supply Mama with any cake for eating. I say as much as I start for his bag. He’s packed light.
“I can’t let you carry that, you know,” he says as he follows me to our back door. “What’s your Mom going to think of me, what kind of gentleman I am?”
He’s teasing, but he’s right. “Good point. This isn’t Illinois anymore.” I shove the handle at him, and he takes it right as our door swing opens.
Mama’s done her hair up nice, in a bun, and is wearing one of the newer dresses she owns. Mr. Kitchett stands immediately behind her, nicely groomed, his eyes all crinkly.
“Gordon,” she breathes, and I’m pleased she remembered his name.
He sticks out his hand. “Ma’am. So good to meet you.”
“And you.” There’s a primness to the way she pumps his hand up and down, a delicate touch I’m not used to seeing. I want to laugh—my Mama, putting on airs for Gordon, city boy. “Come inside, won’t you? I’ve made some tea. Louise can show you to your room.”
We walk through the house, and I’m acutely aware of everything about it—the comfortable but modest living room, the dip in the floor that has been around as long as I have, the slight mustiness that accompanies the upstairs. We’ve set him up in our guest bedroom, more closet-sized than anything, but he’s beaming as he sets his bag on the bed.
“So this is where you grew up, huh?”
He reels me in with two arms. “Tell me your best memory.”
“Um—ah.” I think, tilt my head against his chest. “Something with my Dad, probably. Doing math at the table. I didn’t go to school until I was eight.”
“You didn’t?” He sounds surprised. “I didn’t know that.”
“Well, we used to live in this really rural area…like, very. No neighbors for a dozen miles. It just didn’t make sense. And then Daddy decided he wanted to retire from farming, to just live off the land, so we picked this place. And we came here.”
“I really only lived here for ten years. But I don’t know.” I pull away, considering this room, one I rarely spend time in. “It’s home. It’s where the important things happened.”
“Like doing math with your dad?”
“I’m not!” His grin is impish.
We detach in unspoken unison, and I throw my hands up, let them flop to my sides. “So…yes. That’s my life. Was my life, before.”
I think of the years I’ve spent here, many of them fraught with some sort of tumult. Daddy dying. Rita showing up. Mama and Mr. Kitchett. Clark choosing Rita. Clark enlisting. Our final, explosive fight. But also, there was going to the movies, Janet dropping us off. Playing endless games of tags in the fields. Clark spreading his cards, magic things, across our table, the same trick over and over again just because I liked it. Night spent studying the sky through his telescope. Mama’s batches of zucchini bread, her gentle hands holding me when I needed to be held. The good books I read, the scarves I mended, all the reading I did. The people that loved me.
“It was,” I say, and, “We should go downstairs. Our tea will get cold.”
Mama and Gordon get along beautifully, which is a relief, because he has to spend some time at the house while I’m off interviewing. He could come along, but he’s working through editing a novel at the moment—a thick one, a romance, something that should pull in a lot of money. I leave him to his work at the kitchen table every day, and I always return to some sort of scene between he and Mama. They’re laughing over cookies, or he’s helping to start dinner, or redoing the curtains for her after they’ve been washed. Sometimes I stop just outside the door and watch, reveling the ease of their friendship. Other times I can’t wait and fling myself inside, kicking off my shoes as I go, wanting to join the fun.
“I think we should have a cookout,” Mama says on the eve of the Fourth of July, “to celebrate Gordon. And you being here.”
“It’s kind of last minute for that, Mama.” Gordon and I are ensnared in a game of chess, and I’m winning, to his chagrin. “Checkmate.”
“You purposefully withheld information about your chess abilities.”
“Are you accusing me of fraud?”
“Not fraud—false advertising.”
“Just a small one,” Mama pipes up from the corner. “Fried chicken and a watermelon from the garden. You like fried chicken, Gordon?”
He moves his kingpin. “Yes, ma’am. Love it.”
Gordon always bakes his chicken, I itch to spout. I don’t. “A cookout implies guests, Mama.”
“Well, it’s our turn to host.”
“Ha!” I pump my hand in the air. “You’ve been defeated again.”
“And a sore loser,” he mutters.
“So I’ll give them a call.” Mama’s been knitting, but she smiles at us. “You two. You make such a handsome couple.”
“Mama.” I let my head fall to my hands, and then I raise it in horror. “Oh, Mama, no. You’re not thinking about inviting Janet and—and all of them?”
“Of course I am. They had us over last week.”
“No, Mama. That’s the last thing I want.”
“I thought—” Her eyes flick over to Gordon, who is watching us now, interest piqued. “I thought you and Clark had made up, baby.”
“We have.” There’s a burning in my face, and I cover my cheeks with my hands. “I just don’t want—Rita was drinking, you see, the other night at the dinner.” My desperation, my desire to keep the old and new separate, drives me to tell her this. I know I shouldn’t. “She was completely off her rocker, Mama. I don’t want that here. I don’t like her.”
My voice is hard-edged. Mama sighs.
“If you and Clark are to be friends, you’ll have to get used to her.”
“If we do stay friends—” and I’m careful to keep my tone flippant, here, “—she won’t be involved. I said I don’t like her, and I don’t want her here.”
Mama has made it halfway to the kitchen, but she surrenders, peering at me curiously. “All right, baby, it’s your time here. You call the shots.”
“I’m not—I’m not trying—”
But she’s already heading upstairs, her feet quick on the creaking wood. Mr. Otis, wordless and silent in a corner chair by the fireplaces, rises and follows. He offers me a quick smile as he passes.
I feel as if I’ve been slapped, but the sting is worth it. Rita won’t be here, and that’s what matters.
I’ve stood up, I realize, and I sink back down onto my chair, unclenching my fists. Gordon is blinking at me, and I can tell he’s deciding whether or not to ask me questions.
I don’t give him the chance. “Come on. Two out of three, give yourself another chance.”
“We’ve already played four, Louise.”
“Well.” I start moving the pieces back to their places, “then best out of nine, all right?”
He nods. He picks up his chess piece. Even though I won, I let him go first.
Gordon decides fireworks are in order, like a real Fourth. In Illinois, it’s a huge affair—the streets decked out in red, white, and blue ribbons, all the shops offering half-off foods, vendors selling popcorn and hotdogs and cotton candy on street corners. The firework show starts at nightfall, and the party noise continues well into the wee hours of the morning.
Before the war ended, my first year in that city, it was subdued. But by the following July, the soldiers were back home to their wives and girlfriends, and all anybody wanted to do was celebrate. So it’s no surprise Gordon asks to borrow the truck, accustomed as he is to his town’s traditions, and then drags me along with him.
“Mama’s going to resent me for leaving her to the apple pie all by herself,” I protest, as we rush down the dust lane, tripping over our own feet.
“Or maybe you’re never going to forgive me for stealing you away from it.”
“Easy to get those two confused.”
We reach the truck, and I’m a little wheezy, but stealthy enough to snatch keys from his hand. “I’m driving. Since you made me come with you.”
I hoist myself up in the truck, and he follows. We chat idly on the way into town, but once I’m there—the usual flow, groups of people scattered about and arms heavy with afternoon shopping—I’m stumped. Where to buy fireworks?
“Are you telling me nobody sells them?”
I slow the truck as we head down the main strip, turning my head right and left in search of somewhere promising. “Maybe the general store?”
“Which one? I’ve counted three.”
I reach over to give him a pinch, but he seizes my hand. “Come on, now, Louise, it’s nice; let’s walk.”
We do, hand-in-hand, and garner a lot of inquisitive looks. Little Louise Parker, holding hands with a mystery boy? I’m loathe to think of all the phone calls Mama’s going to be getting, rather than anybody squaring off at us and asking point-blank who he is. Such is the nature of small towns.
Clark’s store is open, looks like, so I cross to the opposite side of the street, Gordon trailing close behind. We duck into the General Store, but they don’t have any fireworks. Nor does the hardware store, or the small grocer, or either of our two clothing shops.
“We’re fresh out of luck,” I declare, as we exit our final stop. “Look, maybe if you light some things on fire and throw them up, and I make explosion sounds—” Here, I stop to splay my fingers in the air, accompanied by a whoosh—“then we’ll be good to go.”
I’m uncharacteristically silly, manic almost, and he knows it. His eyes slide down the parallel street of slim pickings, finally resting on Kicks and Knacks. “What about there?”
“Good, then. I bet they have something, if not the real thing.”
“Gordon, I don’t think—” He’s stepped off the sidewalk and has his hand out, waiting for me. “I don’t think we should.”
And I want to sputter some excuse, it’s overpriced or the owner is unfriendly or even smells horribly of mold. But he genuinely wants to know, and it’s too much power to realize that whatever I say, whether he buys it or not, he’ll accept it.
This is it, I tell myself, this is him. I wet my lips.
“An old friend works there. Owns it.”
“He—was more than a friend. Kind of. At one point.” I drop my chin, kicking at the ground. “Actually, I was enamored with him for about two years, and he—did not reciprocate.”
“But that was seven years ago.”
“So what’s the problem?”
I step down so I’m at his level—or rather, he’s taller than me again. Knit my hands behind his back. “Well, well like I said—he also was my best friend. For seven years before that.”
“But—I mean, what’s the problem, Louise?” He furrows his brows at me, and it’s cute, and I want to touch my finger to the lines. “That’s all fine.”
“Well, also there’s something else.”
“What?” Suspicion flickers on his face, followed by a hint of something that’s perturbing—fear, maybe? My chest constricts at the sight. “You’re not—you didn’t—”
“You weren’t with him, were you?” He reaches up to rifle a hand through his hair. “Since you’ve been back, is what I mean to say.”
“Oh—Gordon.” I follow his fingers with mine to fix it, mussed as it is now. “Stop. No. Never.” I manage to squeeze out a laugh. “Honestly, I’m making this too grave, I think. All I’m trying to say is—and this is the real kicker, okay? He’s my neighbor. We grew up together. He lives in the house across the field from ours. And that’s all there is to it.”
“So—” It doesn’t take more than a second for him to put the pieces together. “Last night; that’s why you didn’t want your Mom inviting them over.”
“Not really. No.” We’re standing in an open space, but a small, sleek car pulls alongside it, obviously wanting for parking. I make a snap decision and head for Knicksand Knacks. Obviously, I have something to prove. Obviously, I’m the one that forced myself into proving it. “He’s married. To this awful girl we grew up with. She’s a real—I don’t like her.” We pause in front of the storefront, the picture window. “And he’s injured from the war, you know, and I think she’s just making his life more difficult. And she drinks constantly, doesn’t do anything; I just didn’t want her around.” I shudder, putting on a show. “Negative. It’s like—being around her, you feel like a little piece of you dies.”
In my periphery, I can see the register is empty. Maybe Clark’s not here. The Open sign in the window says otherwise, but it’s his business partner instead. Thank God.
“Anyway. I’ve never disliked anybody so much as I’ve disliked that idiotic woman, and I refuse to be around her. Even if it means not getting to be around him. So that’s it. That’s everything.” I heave with a breath. “Everything I’ve been dying to tell you.”
“And why didn’t you?” He reaches out to brush his thumb across my nose, but I catch his wrist.
“Because—” I study his face, the goodness there. Pale as the moon. “What I found…with you…is what I think I wanted for a very long time. And I couldn’t have it. Because it was the wrong person, right? But you’re—not wrong. You’re right.” I smile, waxy. “I can’t have it go away.”
He forces his hand to my cheek, brings the other one up to hold my head steady. “I’m not going away. Are you going away?”
“Of course not.”
“Then it’s okay. And you can be—” He glances up, then, steps back. “Sorry. Excuse us.”
“You’re fine.” A light voice, flippant, daggers in my back.
If I were to count the goosebumps on my arm, there would be hundreds. I slip out from Gordon’s touch, whirl around. “Clark. Hi. Sorry—we were—waiting. To see you.”
“Louise.” He’s already got the door open, and he holds it there with one shoulder. His mouth is grim, but he motions us inside. “You getting something?”
Gordon reaches out to take the door from him. “Hi. Nice to meet you.” He’s a lot taller than Clark, and he nods down at him. I’m glad he’s smart enough not to smile.
I allow myself a brief moment of blissful, eyes-closed darkness. How much did he hear? Why did I say those things? My God, what did I say?
My mouth is moving: “Fireworks.” I squint in sudden sunshine. “Do you have any?”
“We have some sparklers, and those things that pop.”
“Great.” Gordon bobs his head up and down. “We’ll grab some, then.” He’s still holding the door, but so is Clark. Gordon tilts his head forward. “You go ahead.”
“I’ve got it.” Clark raises his chin but he’s looking at me, defiantly, and I can’t seem to speak, to find my feet so that I can move them.
“I think—I’ll wait out here, Gordon; you get them.”
“Yeah—I’m—” Out of breath. Eyes burning. “I’ll see you, Clark.”
He doesn’t reply. I’m spinning, tilting, really, staggering off. Forcing myself to walk slowly. One foot, heel-toe. Other foot. Passing the general store, turning the corner—
flying to the safety of the truck.
“A bear! No—a dog—a stuffed bear!”
Gordon has his hands cupped around his mouth, yelling with a ferocity that sends his voice ringing across the plains. Across the flickering fire, I rest my chin on my hand, offer a lazy smile. Night has fallen to cloak our little gathering, and Mama stands before Gordon, sparkler in hand, furiously etching her picture into the air. The streaks from its end are suspended in the air for a pregnant pause, before they dissipate. Gordon continues guessing, quite fruitlessly.
Mr. Kitchett, squinting at his watch in the near-dark, holds up a hand. “Five seconds.”
“Ah—cat. Bear! I said bear. Um—some sort of—of round animal? Something?”
Mama shakes her head, wrist flying. I make out a mouth, two eyes, shoulder-length hair—
The childhood version of me shimmers into air.
“Was that a little girl?”
Mama points at me. She’s grinning. “Oh, Gordon, I’m sorry. That was a terrible choice.”
“You said I looked like a bear,” I point out, leaving heavily on my knees. I raise my eyebrows at him, face partially obscured by the flames that lick up in the distance between us.
“It was—it was round. I thought I saw two ears.”
“And a cat.”
“Forgive me. You’ll notice they’re all very pleasant-looking animals.”
“Mm.” I straighten up. “Mr. Kitchett?”
“Otis.” He turns to face the clearing where the charade-playing members of each team stand. “Ready when you are.”
Gordon, also wearing a watch, holds up his wrist as I rise and take my place. “One minute.”
I lean over to light a new sparkler in the fire. Gordon calls for me to start, and I carve a tree into the space before me. And again. And again. Broccoli, says Mr. Kitchett. A bouquet of flowers. No, no, no. My vision is blurring, I’m staring so hard at the sparkler, and Mr. Kitchett is continuing to shout out wrong guesses. I vaguely register Mama, hand covering her grinning mouth, and Gordon, lips parted as he glances between his watch and me. I register a trickle of sweat on my temple. I register that Clark’s house, so distant, has two gold-glowing windows, and that the shack he’s been fixing up is dead to the night.
I should apologize. This is not the life I wanted.
“And—round’s over.” Gordon and Mama high-five.
Mr. Kitchett lets out a long whoosh of breath. “Sorry, girl. Guess I’m a bit rusty.”
“It’s fine. It was a tree.”
“Right. I thought—”
Crack. We all loll our heads toward a rustling in the field. The tall grasses have been split by a figure, lithe in its movements. A woman. For a minute I think, Rita, but as the person breaks through to our side the firelight illuminates the burgundy of their lipstick, and then Janet is shouting hello.
“I’m so sorry to interrupt,” she prefaces, hurrying towards us.
Mama rises with a smile. “Janet! Come sit and join us. We’re playing charades.”
“That sounds nice.” She’s reached us, short of breath, and wearing a pasted-on smile. “That’s actually not why I’m here though. I—we’ve got a strange question. Have any of you seen Rita?”
“Rita?” Mama echoes. “No, dear. I haven’t. Otis?”
A firm shake of the head.
“I don’t even know what she looks like.”
“Uh—kind of dark hair,” Mama offers, while Janet wrings her hands. “Very skinny.”
My heart is thumping. I try to swallow through a dry throat, but I can’t. When I try to speak, my voice croaks. “Jan—Janet, is everything okay?”
“Well, yes. For the most part. Probably just an overreaction on my end, I just worry—”
“Well.” Mama closes her hand around Janet’s busy ones. “Please do let us know when you find her, will you? And we’ll be on the lookout.”
“Of course. Clark will probably head out to look for her.” She turns on her heel. “Goodnight, everyone. Sorry to bother you.”
She slips into the field. I mark her progress with my eyes, the lilt of her shoulders.
“How strange.” Mama sinks back into her chair. “That girl—poor thing. Just troubled. I could tell at dinner.”
“Louise is not a fan.” I can hear the wryness in Gordon’s voice, but it’s not funny. None of this is funny.
“I’m sorry.” At once I’m in the air, my head above all the rest, legs ramrod-straight. I draw a breath, a deep musky smell that’s part fire, part earth. “I’m going with her.”
“I’ll be back!” And I take off at a jog, as not to hear protests. Over my shoulder, I throw, “Don’t wait up!” And I hope Gordon won’t follow. I need to do this.
It only takes a minute to catch up to Janet. She’s at the halfway point, her shoulders sagging. She perks up when I come up beside her.
“Louise! Did you all see her?”
“Ah—no. No.” I brace my hands on my hips, drawing deep breaths. “I want—I’m going to go with Clark. To look for her.”
“Oh, dear.” I can’t tell if it’s a term of endearment or an expression of dismay. “He—may not want that. He’s very touchy, when it comes to her.”
I pull a burr from the shoulder of my dress. “He’ll just have to deal with it, I guess. Because I’m going.”
“Well. When you put it like that…”
Our feet crunch, filling a few moments of silence. Janet bores holes into the ground.
“She’s not…well,” she says at last. “You know that.”
“She’s never been well.” Janet swipes her hand across her forehead. “She stayed with us, those two years Clark was overseas. And that was like…I don’t know. Nails on a chalkboard sometimes.” She shakes her head at the moon. “I told him, Clark, bad idea. Her life was a mess, and I know only messes come from messes. But instead he married her so he’d know she’d be safe with us. Me.” She sighs. “It sounds awful.”
“I was angry too, Janet.”
“You had a right to be. And so did I. It’s just—I raised that boy. He was mine. Not his father’s. My husband.” Her hand curls into a fist. “He was never around, you know that—still isn’t. It was me. I stepped in, twenty years old and naive, and I made him my son. He’s my son.”
“I know.” I find her hand in the dark. “He’s still my best friend.”
“So what can we do for him?” Exasperation trickles from her works. “Besides—support this. Help him look for her. It’s the same story every time.”
“This has happened before?”
“Oh—” Their clear yard stretches before us, tantalizing. “He’s waiting.”
She picks up the pace, and I follow. Clark stands on the porch, arms crossed. He shifts when he sees me.
“Louise. What’re you doing here?”
“I’m going to go with you,” I call, “to look for her.” The words catch in the wind and whip around us, maybe even all the way back to the listening ears of Mama and Mr. Kitchett and Gordon. I turn around and see that the fire is still going, a bright speck.
We reach him. His face is set in a grimace. “Nothing?”
“No.” Janet shakes her head. “I’m sorry, sweetie.”
“That’s fine. I’ll just—” He jiggles a pair of keys in his hand, and then starts down the steps, heading for the car. Wordlessly, I ghost to the passenger door.
He unlocks his side and gets in, but not mine. I bang my palm on the window.
He puts his keys in the ignition. I frown.
The engine roars to life. My eyes smart.
“Clark!” I bang harder now. “Don’t ignore me!”
He puts it into drive, but keeps his foot on the brake, hands on either side of the wheel, eyes set on a distant point. I hit again, but when he starts to inch forward, I have no choice but to step away.
It’s the same feeling as being slapped, I imagine. I sniff and stand there dumbly, watching as he heads toward the edge of the yard. Tears are falling from my eyes, and I wipe them away with fumbling thumbs. He has started to turn onto the road when Janet’s voice rips into the clearing.
I’ve never heard such a bellow from somebody. I jump, and he does too, instantly slamming his foot on the brake. Janet goes charging toward the car, arms swinging at her sides. She reaches the window and pounds on it. He lowers it, revealing his face half in shadow.
“She has left her family gathering to come help you look for that girl. You will not ignore her, do you understand?”
“Janet—” His words are soft, but his voice is resonant. “Today she said some stuff about—I don’t want her going along, okay? She’s not—”
“Louise is going. Do you understand me? You will not treat her like this.”
“I’m twenty-five, Janet. You’re not—”
“Oh, yes, yes, yes. Yes, I am.” Her voice is thunder on this still night. “If you do not let her into this car right now, you will not come back to this house tonight. You or Rita. Do you understand?”
“Do you understand me, Clark?”
The window rolls back up, but there’s an unmistakable click. Janet beckons me over. I hesitate.
“Get in the car, Louise.” Her voice is steel.
I oblige her, hurrying over to the door and opening it, slipping in. The air inside is choked. Clark starts the car and we’re off without a word. I twist around to stare out the back window at Janet’s retreating form, arms wrapped around herself.
“Where’s your dad?” I ask gruffly.
She slips inside, moving with a frailty that contradicts her show only a few moments ago. My chest aches for her.
Clark reaches the road into town, but he takes the opposite one, leading to a farther, bigger city. I expected to find comfort here, with him, but it’s walking on nails.
“Today,” I say.
He doesn’t reply.
“I’m sorry, Clark. I thought we were alone.”
“That makes it okay.”
“I don’t—there’s no rule I have to like her; that’s not fair.”
“I didn’t say you had to like her. But don’t talk about her like that, okay?”
I turn to the window with a huff. “Come on, Clark. Why should you care?”
“Because she’s my wife.”
“Yeah, some wife. It’s past ten and you don’t even know where she is.” The words are out of me before I can stop them.
The car jerks to a stop.
I turn to him with a face ablaze. “What?”
“Get out of my car.”
And suddenly I am furious. “No.”
“Yes. Get. Out.” He lurches over me, wrenches the door open. “I want you out of here.”
“I’m not leaving.”
“You are.” He jabs his finger at the world beyond, stars and cornfields.
“I’m not walking in the dark.”
“You’ll be fine. It’s a mile.”
“Yes. Or I’ll make you go. Get out.” He grabs hold of my wrist. “Get out of the car.”
“Oh, really? Really, Clark?” I stab my finger into his shoulder. “I’d like to see you try. You can’t even get around normally.” We’re nose-to-nose, my lips puckered, heart hammering. “When did you get like this, huh? So bitter. So miserable.”
“I’m only miserable when you’re around.”
“Right. Like Rita doesn’t have anything to do with that, God forbid.” I throw my hands in the air. “She’s ruined you! You’re ruined!” I settle back against the seat as the fight leaves me in one big exhale. “I don’t even know you anymore.”
“And that’s the way I want it, okay? He turns the car back on. “Shut the door.”
I slam it. The night sounds—crickets and crackling corn husks—cease to exist.
“After tonight,” he says, his words a promise, “we’re done. Okay? After tonight.”
“What do you even mean?”
“We tried. We can’t be friends.” He puts the car into drive, and we’re going again. The motor is a death sentence. “We had our time. And now we move on.”
I squeeze my eyes closed. I am sitting next to a stranger. “Good.” The word is all consonants, syrupy in my throat.
“I don’t even—why’d you even come tonight?”
“You felt guilty, right?”
“And yet you aren’t sorry.”
“I said I was sorry. Are you—”
“You said you were sorry that I heard, Louise. Not that you said it.”
I shake my head.
“You know it’s true.”
“Just shut up, Clark. Okay? Shut up.”
“I’m not turning around.”
“I didn’t ask you to.”
He clears his throat. I stare out the window, body rigid. My neck hurts from the strain.
We come into town, and this one is alive with celebrate. People line the streets, arm-in-arm and toasting to our country’s birthday. Clark weaves his way through them. It’s a start-and-stop process. Finally, he puts it park right outside of a seedy little facade, smoky windows and a neon sign. He doesn’t bother to pull into a parking space. “I’ll be right back.”
I stare after him. A couple of giggling women, loitering outside in stockings and skirts, whistle at him as he heads through the door. He ignores them.
I roll down my window. “Um, excuse me?”
One looks at me. She’s young, probably my age, but made up heavily. “Yes, sweetie?”
“What place is this?”
She points her cigarette through the door. “That your boyfriend?”
“Good.” She laughs. “Good boys don’t come here.”
“It’s a bar, baby-cakes. With girls.”
“How do you mean?”
“You know—” She shakes her shoulders, leans forward and back, giggling. The other one, maybe a little older, offers a slow-blooming grin.
I don’t, but I decide I’ve heard enough. I lean back against the seat.
A few minutes pass, and right when I’m staring to get anxious, Clark comes back through. The women don’t acknowledge as he passes this time. There’s a fine line of sweat on his upper lip, and he’s narrow-eyed as he gets into the car.
“Did you find her?”
“I know where she is.”
He pulls pack out into the road, makes a U-turn. We head back down country roads, and he wrenches the wheel to the left once, twice, until a neighborhood appears; a series of houses line the streets, all of them compact, made of splintering wood. Some inhabitants sit out on their porches, women in dressing gowns, men with beer bottles. Clark swivels his head from side-to-side as we edge down the road, hunting for something. Finally, he stops at a place with a sign that advertises sewing.
“I’ll come with you—” I grab the door handle.
There’s a woman sitting on the porch, and he pauses before her, talking furiously. I train my ear toward the sound, catching a bit.
“—said she’d come back with you—”
“Is she—she’s my wife—can—”
The woman rises, swaying. There’s a drink in her hand. Her dressing gown flutters open to reveal she’s in a slip. “Sweet one. Quiet.”
“Pretty, dark eyes. Spent all her money on—”
They step inside. A screen door flutters closed behind them.
I count to sixty. Again. A third time.
Four. Five. Six.
Thirty-five, thirty-six, thirty-seven—
The door creaks, and the woman steps onto the porch, holding it open with one hand. With her other, she brings a bottle to her lips. “Sorry for the state she’s in.”
Clark steps over the threshold, and doesn’t reply. He’s stumbling, off-balance. Rita is in his arms, long legs sticks, arms limp and crossed over her middle. I hop out of the car.
“Do you need—”
“Just open the back,” he grunts. I know she can’t be heavy, but he’s concentrating on the ground, trying to maintain his balance. I throw open the back door, and then the other one, in case he needs both. The woman watches wordlessly from the porch.
“Really am sorry ‘bout this,” she calls, as Clark reaches us. I hurry to grab Rita under the arms, the better to help him. Her mouth is open, a bit of drool edging from the corner. She reeks of booze. Her face is makeup-smeared, the corner of her mouth homing a series of scabs. The fluttering gown she wears edges down her shoulder as I lift her from Clark, revealing nothing underneath.
I avert my eyes. Clark says nothing as he reaches over to reposition the fabric.
I try not to think about the outline of bones I just saw, her ribs with skin stretched so tightly over them, I fear it could tear. I try not to think about her concave chest, flat as a teenage boy’s.
Her tongue works over her lips and she mumbles something. Clark nods toward the back of the car, and I duck so I can crawl in, backwards. I gently pull her across the backseat, until I’ve reached the other side and can step down, onto the dirt.
Clark leans over her, adjusting her clothing once again.
“Clar—k.” She whispers his name.
“Mm, good.” She turns over onto her side, a laborious process.
“We’re going home.”
She doesn’t respond to this. I realize I’m staring, so I blink, shut the door. When I glance back at the porch, the woman is gone.
We get in the car, silent. We make it halfway home before I dare to speak.
He glances into the backseat. Rita has her face pressed against the fabric, softly snoring.
A few seconds lapse. “She does this a lot?”
He pauses. “Yes.”
“So—” I splay my fingers over my knees. “Does Janet know?”
“No. Not really. Not specifics.”
“Where does she think she goes?”
“Are you going to interrogate me the whole drive?” He reaches up to adjust the rearview mirror, ending with it in the same position.
“I’m just asking, Clark. It’s…I feel like I deserve to know.”
“You forced yourself into—” He breaks off. “You chose to come.”
“I didn’t promise you any answers. I don’t like to talk about it.”
“But maybe you should. Maybe you need to.”
“If I do,” he says, “it’s not going to be with you.”
“Sorry.” It’s bitter, like a lemon seed.
“I meant it. Earlier. I don’t think we can or—or should be friends.”
“It’s too complicated.”
“It doesn’t have to be.”
“But it is. Obviously for you it’s you or her, which is ridiculous. You have your own life, Louise. And I have mine. We should be able to coexist without hating each other.”
“Do you hate me?”
His silence is the answer.
“Oh, Clark. I don’t hate you. I’ve never hated you.”
He tightens his grip on the wheel. “Six years, Louise. Six years you threw away. It seems like hate.”
“I was angry. This isn’t—it’s not fair. What you’re doing.”
“Everything I’m doing you did first. And I was willing to forget it, but you’re still so angry about it, and I can’t figure out why. For the life of me, I can’t.”
“No, it’s not because I’m your friend. If I was your friend you’d have gotten over it.” He raises a thumb to his lip, draws it across. “I can’t figure it out, and I can’t do it anymore. I’m done. Okay? I’m really done.” The car ambles onto our road. “I really am.”
But I’m really not.
He stops at the end of my driveway. “Do you want me to pull you up?”
“No.” I get out of the car, keeping my grip on it. I turn around to look right into his eyes. And I think that maybe I’m just holding onto our history. It’s all we have left. It’s comfort. It’s the good times we used to have, keep me adhered through the bad. Though it’s apparent now to the both of us—for the first time to me in this moment—that we can never be friends again.
“Clark?” I venture.
He doesn’t break my gaze. “Yeah.”
“Is it okay to still use your interview? For the article?”
“I can mail you a copy.”
He faces forward. “It’s okay. Don’t worry about it.”
He nods at his own reflection in the windshield. The road is eerie in the light from the headlamps.
I slam the door shut. He drives a few dozen yards and turns down his own lane. I watch his car until it’s stopped in the driveway, and he’s slipping out, going around back for Rita. I expect him to look up, maybe to wave. This could all be a nightmare, if he played his cards right.
But you haven’t played with cards in a long time, I remind myself. The line sounds poetic—a final goodbye, a victory lap, the perfect close to our swan song.
I cling to those words as I make my way inside, up the stairs. The house is silent, everyone gone to bed. I knock on Gordon’s door anyway.
He comes to it still dressed, manuscript in hand. Waiting up for me, it looks like.
“Louise?” Is all he asks.
I nod, and accept his waiting arms.
There’s nothing left to do but what is absolutely necessary. I have four days before my time is up and I have to board the train back home, so I make a To-Do list. I compile the interviews I’ve got, ten in all, and decide to start writing. I scrap my initial beginning, the one with my buoyant arrival—I want to contrast what everyone else is saying. Not much changed throbs on these pages, each of them professing an idealized truth. But it has, I want to shout, everything here has changed. So I do. In writing.
On the second day, Mama asks about Rita and Clark. I give her an abbreviated version. She stands over me while I scribble at the notepad in front of me, her hands working over the rail of the chair I’m sitting in.
“So you’re going to see Clark again?” She asks, “before you go?”
Her tone is too hopeful. “Probably…not.”
“Oh, baby. I’m sorry.”
“Yeah, well…” I lift my head, smile. “C’est la vie.” I put my pen back to paper. “Could you tell? Um, I mean—that things weren’t right?”
“You’ve not been in the same spirits since that day.”
“Well, I said some stuff. About Rita, to Gordon. Clark overheard. Earlier in the day. And then we got into it in the car when we were going to get her and it all…spiraled.”
“That’s a shame.”
“I don’t regret it though.” I lift my thumbnail to my mouth, nibble. “I’m glad he heard it. In fact—” I bring my hand down on the table, thwack. “Mama, it’s better this way. It really is. I can’t watch him throw his life away like this, to live so pointlessly. I won’t do it. I won’t just pretend everything’s fine. It’s worse than not being friends, you know?”
“I do.” She reaches out to tuck a piece of hair behind my ear, then crouches in front of me. “I don’t know that you’ll love this example, baby, but that’s how I felt with Mr. Kitchett. When everything was so mixed up…I don’t know. I loved him, Louise.” Her eyes crinkle when she smiles, slipping her hands over my wrists. “I found love again. And to think…for awhile there, it was all or nothing for us. You know? I thought, I can’t just be friends with this man. I have to be able to love him.”
“So I chose to…not be with him for awhile. But we found each other again.” She edges to her feet. “Oh, my. Baby, I think I’m getting old.”
“Mama.” I pull tug my wrists down, until her hands slip over mine. “I’m sorry about that. I really am.”
“About what?” But the sheen in her eyes betrays her.
“Screwing that up for you.” I stare up at her face, all the curves and creases that I know so well. “I’m sorry. I was fifteen. I was naive. I thought I was the most important thing in your universe. ”
“Louise, you are.” She bends her lips to my head. “You always have been.”
“I just mean, like—that I thought it came down to him or me. That’s what it felt like. You picking him over me. And that really hurt. And it’s ridiculous, now, looking back—”
“Shh.” Her lips move against my skin. “I picked you. I’d always pick you.”
We stay there for a pause, and I breathe through my mouth.
I look up at her, and she looks at me. I raise a fist to my stomach. “I can’t give up Clark.”
“I know, baby.”
“I just—it hurts too much.” I shake my head, disbelief. My insides clench. “But we can’t be friends. I know that. I know.”
“You can’t control these things, baby. Believe me, I’ve tried.”
“So what do I—do—” I’m cut short by a shudder, all of it overwhelming me—Clark across the way, Gordon upstairs in the guest bedroom, Mama before me, an article waiting to be written. “I can’t even think about it, honestly. I can’t.”
“Don’t for right now.” She steps back, letting my hands fall. “You’ve got time. This—” She points to the paper, “—comes first. You come first.”
“Yeah.” I glance down at the page. All my notes seem horribly irrelevant, all the sudden. “I should work on this. For a bit.”
“Get me if you need anything.”
“Okay.” I zero in on my last sentence, a mumbo-jumbo of words.
Mama stands in the doorway, head tilted. “Your path will come to you. Don’t doubt that. If you try to fight it, like I did—I don’t know, baby, it just ends up costing you more.”
“And your Daddy would be proud.” She raises her chin. “He’d be so proud of you, his Louisa.”
“Well.” I force a laugh, all modesty. But as she ducks from the room, I know she is only speaking the truth. I can see him here, sitting next to me in his deep blue overalls, feel him looking over my shoulder, commenting on my work.
“Please help me figure this out,” I whisper, eyes closed. Then I open them, because how stupid.
The next morning marks my second-to-last day. Mama’s done up a big breakfast, biscuits and eggs and an enormous fruit salad. I eat until I could burst, reveling in the feel of pajamas on skin, and allow Gordon to bring me all my cups of coffee. It’s nice to be waited on.
“I was thinking,” Mama says, as we finish up the last of our meal, “that today, maybe, we could go on a picnic. Maybe in the woods. Pack some sandwiches—”
“Mama, I’m too full to think about food.” I drain the last of the liquid from my cup. “But my God, was it good.”
“It really was,” Gordon seconds. “Thank you so much, Mrs. Kitchett. For this—everything.”
I smile at him, but it’s sad. He’s leaving tomorrow, getting a day’s head start so I can spend the last hours with my family. It’s a sweet gesture. The kind of thing somebody does for you when they love you. I reach under the table to squeeze his fingers.
“Gordon, we were so happy to have you.” Mama leans forward on her elbows, hands crooked under her chin. “We’re just happy Louise has found somebody that’s so kind, and good—”
“He is,” I interject, staring at the tablecloth. There’s a microscopic hole, pinpoint-sized. I move my eyes to him, to his profile solid and real with eyes only for me. I squeeze again. “I got lucky, that’s for sure.”
“Oh, now. Come on.” He kisses me on the temple, chaste, and I close my eyes.
We clear the breakfast dishes, decide a late-afternoon picnic is in order, and then we go our separate ways. I button myself into one of my old dresses, delicate cap sleeves and white fabric that curves with my waist. I put a small plait in my hair, as long as the short length with allow. I inspect my fingernails, clean under them.
Today, I am a daughter and girlfriend.
A knock sounds. I’m fixing the last pieces of my hair. “Come in.”
The handle turns, and it’s Gordon, coming up behind me. He stoops over to rest his chin against my neck, and we stare at ourselves in the mirror—the shapes of us, the way we fit together. His lips, my lips. His eyes, mine. He runs his hands up my ribcage.
“Louise,” he says.
“I don’t want to leave you.”
I laugh, reaching up to pat his cheek. “It’s only for twenty-four hours. Then I’m yours again.”
“Yeah.” His other hand finds my body, parallel, and then he’s turning me around. I give in to it, to the ocean pull of him. He looks down at me, and I up at him.
“I like your family.”
“A lot. And I think they like me.”
“They do. Also a lot.”
“So I was—see, I was thinking.”
“Yeah.” I lean back a little, really letting him hold me up, seeing how it feels to have somebody’s support. It’s steadfast.
“I was thinking that—you see, I love you, Louise.”
“Yeah. I love you. I’m in love with you.”
A prickle up my spine. I right myself, place my hands over his. “Are you—”
“I am in love with you, and I’ve wanted to say that a long time.”
He nods his head, glowing, backlit by conviction. I wet my lips.
“I know you don’t have a father, Louise. And so I wasn’t sure what—I should do. So I didn’t talk to anybody.”
“About loving me?” An erratic laugh escapes, jumbled as twine. “I don’t think you have to.”
“I realized that…I want us to be together.”
“So do I.”
“That’s all I want to hear, because—” And he is sinking to one knee, moving his hands to my hips. I can feel my pulse in my pointer finger, throbbing against his skin.
“You’re the love of my life,” he says, drinking me in with adoration. “I don’t ever want anybody else. And being here has made me realize that this is it for me. Louise—” At this, he reaches into the pockets of his pants, digging around. A moment pauses. He laughs. “It’s—I can’t get it—”
I dart over, plunging my hand into the fabric, forcing his fingers out. I feel a band, the unmistakable solidity of a stone. It’s caught under a fold. I’m able to grab hold of it, and without breaking his gaze, I press it into his hand.
He’s grinning, slightly red. “Thanks. But, ah, this. Louise,” He holds up the ring. The sunlight catches the glint of scarlet. “Please be my wife. I’ve never wanted anything more.”
I can hear my breaths, mixed with his own. Both of us nervous, probably for different reasons.
“I have to—to sit down.” My vision is blurry at the edges, my head suddenly swimming. I back up until my calves hit the bed, forcing Gordon to let go of me, and plop down.
“Louise? Are you okay?”
“A minute.” I bend over until my forehead touches my knees, taking hitching breaths.
His hand finds my knee. “Did I—are you all right?”
“Yeah.” I lift my head to manage a weak smile. “It’s…a surprise.”
“Oh. Good. I hope.”
“Yeah—it’s—” My sentence trails into thin air, but Gordon is back to beaming. He places the ring on my knee.
“Look. This—I had it done for you. It has a ruby.”
“It’s beautiful.” I pick up the band, roll it back and forth between two fingers. It’s lovely, such a deep color, and it’s tempting just to slip it on.
He pauses, measuring my expression, the natural line of my lips. “I’m sorry…I thought…”
“No. I mean, yes.” I hold up the ring. “This is such a good surprise. I’m honestly…I can’t get my head around it.”
“Yeah?” He places his hands on my knees, crouched on his heels.
“Me? A wife. Performing wifely tasks.” I set the ring back down on my leg. It feels like a whisper, the hint of a touch. “That’s hard for me to picture.”
“Well, I don’t—there’s nothing that has to be wifely, Louise. I said I wanted you.”
“I know.” I lace my hand around the base of his neck, through the strands of his hair.
“If I wanted any other wife I’d just go to the general store and pick out a nice woman.”
“Oh, you think you’re funny.”
“I just thought…you know, we could live together. You could move out of that dingy boardinghouse, that closet room—”
“—I like my room.”
“Well, I know. But we could find an apartment together, some place you can make your own. I’ve been saving up. And you can decorate it however you like, and I’ll help, of course.”
“And we’ll walk to work together…we’ll go on little day trips out to places. We’ll go to shows. Maybe someday we’ll have kids.” His face is taut with eagerness. I tilt my head.
“I always did dream about day trips and shows, as a little girl.” But my heartbeat quickens, the excitement buzzing in my blood. It all sounds so adult—having a husband, a home, a life.
The perfect way to move on.
“Ha. Very funny.”
I force a smile. “It was my turn.”
We sit in silence a moment. I studiously ignore the ring that blares from my knee.
If I marry Gordon—
I try to run down the list, the pros and cons, the reality of our life. All I can drum up are the things he’s already mentioned. Nothing more, nothing less. Is this how it’s supposed to feel? Security? Trusting? I’m picturing it, thinking so hard I’d be hard-pressed to allow in anything else, but I’m just blank. I feel nothing.
Oh, I want to say, I can’t marry you. Duh.
“Let me—can I have the day?” I venture. “To think about it?”
“Oh—yeah. Of course.” He stands, arms straight at his sides. “Is everything okay? Do you want to talk about it?”
“No…silly.” I pick up the ring, place it in the well of my palm. “I’m just thinking. As I do. You know me. Always thinking.”
“Yeah.” He bends over to kiss me, soft on the jaw, and as he pulls away I hold out the ring.
“No—just hold on to it. For now?” A hopeful end.
“Sure.” I place it back down, almost afraid to touch it. Reiterate: “It’s really so beautiful.”
He grabs my hand in his as he rises, looking down at me. The corners of his eyes are laced with mild disappointment, maybe a little sadness, but I can’t just say yes. I can’t.
“Good. That’s good. It reminded me of you.”
I throw open the windows and sit at the kitchen table, ring placed directly in front of me. The wind tosses through the space, making it feel cavernous, and I offer a challenge: destroy it. Give me a thousand shards of blood to pick up off the floor, until they’re caked beneath my fingernails and lodged in the pads of my fingers. Give me a reason to say no.
I have none. I know that. I push the ring aside and rest my head on my arms, screwing my eyes shut. He loves me. I might love him, might feel something. My mother does. Mr. Kitchett does. He fits into my life as seamlessly as I fit into his. He encourages me. We compliment each other. He doesn’t get angry with me or even perturbed at my aloofness, my secret-keeping. He kisses me with a fierceness that’s gentle, not pushing—merely confiding. I like you. No, wait, I love you.
Daddy would have liked him.
I lift my head and reach for the ring. For the first time, I slip it on my fourth finger. It’s lovely—a slim gold band, ruby set upon it. Very plain—unadorned with embellishments, a stranger to frivolity. It fits me, shows he knows what I like, has paid attention to the ornaments I choose.
But maybe he never accounted for why try so hard to dress my life with simplicity. Maybe because all of the underlying tension, the complicated twists of relationships and memories that settle in my gut. They will weigh me down. I will weigh him down.
The ring looks good against my skin. I flex my fingers. It’s not too tight.
A knocking sounds on the back door. I glance that way and slink over to one of the windows, peering through. It may be Mama and Mr. Kitchett and Gordon, returned from town already, though they just left a little over an hour ago. When I said I had a headache, needed rest, Gordon gave me this loaded look, and I’d be shocked if Mama hadn’t picked up on it. The questions will come, probably tomorrow after he’s gone. By then, I will have decided.
Mr. Kitchett’s truck is still absent from the drive, so I know it’s not them. A wild hope soars within me, sudden and breath-snatching. Clark.
I’m at the door in a flash, then, grabbing the handle and wringing it to the side and yanking it open. My mouth is already flying. “Look, I’m so—”
Rita Plymouth flinches, and I crash to a stop. The words in my mouth congeal at the back of my teeth, coating them like slime, and all that emerges is a jumbled, “Shawl.”
“Hi,” she says.
I draw the door to a small space, just enough for me to wedge myself in. My right hand I keep on the knob, the left I use to latch onto the frame, supporting myself. “Rita. Hi—hey. Hello.”
“Look.” She crosses her arms over her chest, and her oversized, sleeveless top billows around her. I flick my eyes to the divots in her shoulders, away from the mottled bruise on her wrist. “I don’t want to waste your time.”
“I’m not in any hurry.”
She shakes her head, sharp, with a grimace. “No, no. Listen. I wanted to say that I know you came along with Clark the other night. And that was good of you.”
“Oh, Rita.” I doubt she even remembers most of it, but I incline my head. “It wasn’t…of course. I mean. Yeah, of course.”
“You were there for him when I couldn’t be. And I’m usually not, or I haven’t been since…since we were kids.” Her hands are fluttering around her face now, two spindly butterflies. “It was hard all those years he didn’t have you, Louise. He’s not been the same—not the same guy I married. Which was stupid, yes, I should’ve known better. But I thought marriage would fix everything wrong with my life. Okay? My mother never married. You saw what she was like, that witch.”
“Or maybe you didn’t, but Clark knew. Knows.” Her eyes dart in the negative space around me—the shadows between my ankles, deepening the tuck of my waist. I force myself even tighter into the space, to close the gap.
“Rita, do you need something?” I draw a breath through my nose, slow and silent. The wind blows her hair towards me, but all I catch is something faint and floral.
“No. I don’t need something.” Her face crystallizes, until it is unreadable. “I came because I know that I’m the reason you guys stopped talking. Or you stopped talking to him. And now you’ve made up, but the other night…something happened, yes? A fight?”
“Of course I don’t.” She levels her gaze on me. “But Louise, I know my husband. And something’s been wrong since that night, something additional, and he’s not himself. I’m not an idiot, either, I know you hate me. And that’s your thing, it’s—whatever. I don’t care. I’ve never cared what you thought about me.”
I frown. “Rita, I don’t need—”
“Save it, please.”
I swallow. “I’m talking, okay? I’m talking. And I don’t want to hear that. I never asked you to care, so don’t make it sound like you’re doing me any favors. All right?”
“Well…maybe I just misunderstood you.”
“Or maybe you also think you don’t care what I think about you, but maybe you actually do. And maybe when I said that, and you heard that I meant it, it upset you. Because you know you don’t.”
I open my mouth, fully expecting to ream into her—but no, as my mind turns over her words, nothing comes out but a laugh.
“What?” Her eyebrows arch up, full and high, and then her face dissolves into something like amusement—a crooked mouth, grinning teeth that have been tinted gray by smoke and god knows what else. It’s a fading light.
“I’m—it’s just, that was so complicated.”
“It made sense as I was saying it.”
“Are you sure?”
Her smile dissipates. “I need to go.”
“But listen. Okay?” She brings her hands together in front of her, clasps them. “You should go to him. Make up. Because honestly, it’s like all the joy leaves him. He hasn’t been truly happy since you guys were friends, right back when he enlisted.”
I lean heavily against the doorframe. She pauses, and I try to think of a reasonable answer, an ‘I can’t because’ that doesn’t involve her.
She’s flying again. “I know it’s because of me. I’m not an idiot. And yes, maybe I can even agree it was stupid for us to get married when we were so young, before we even really knew each other. But he was so good. I know why he did it for me. I don’t expect you to get it, because I know you liked him, Louise. I know you did.”
“As a friend,” I’m quick to add.
She crosses her arms, straightening her torso, and for a moment I see some of her old strength threading through her. “Don’t lie to yourself. Maybe that’s the problem. You’ve always lied to yourself. And no, I don’t like that you liked my husband that way, and I still don’t. But I trust him. And I trust—I trust you’re not going to screw it up for us.”
“I don’t—what are you trying to say?”
“I’m saying…” And she drops her arms, her shoulders, looking out toward the road. The shadows cast by the jut of her bones have intensified in the midday sun. “I came here not knowing what I was going to say. Except that we’re all adults now, right?” She turns her head back to me. “Adults. And we should be able to get along, and you guys should be able to get over this.” She turns her palms over, extending them out to me. “All I want, Louise, believe it or not, is for Clark to be happy. That’s all I’ve ever wanted. And I screw that up a lot for him, I know that. I’m working on it. I wanted a lot more for him.”
“Rita.” I swallow, brow furrowed in surprise. “I’m certain he’s happy with you. You should hear the way he talks about you. It’s…he’s devoted.”
“I don’t need reassuring.” She waves her hands in the air, shifting her weight. “No. That’s not what I came here for. I came because I know that you’re part of that…puzzle piece. Whatever you want to call it. You’re part of what’s going to help him heal. Maybe the final part. I don’t know. Maybe if you guys get better then he and I can get better…”
Her words trail off in the wind, and then she snaps her mouth shut. We stare at each other.
“Anyway,” she says, bringing her fists to her sides. “That’s all.”
“That’s all I wanted to say.” She turns and springs down the steps, and I worry a gust will scoop her right up, thrash her against a tree. She’s not wearing shoes.
She turns a few paces away, face devoid of joy. “Congratulations, by the way.”
She lifts her left hand in the breeze, waggling her fingers. Her own engagement ring glints in the sun, an heirloom that I know belonged to Clark’s mother.
And that is all. I don’t reply, and she twists around and is submerged in the sea of grasses, lighting a cigarette as she goes. I watch for a moment, and then the shelf of her shoulders becomes too sharp, and my ring glows in the light like a beacon, and I have to step back inside.
When the truck sounds in the driveway, a little over an hour later, I tuck my hand in my pocket. But I don’t take it off.
When we all head to bed that night, sunburned and sloshing from the bottle of wine we split, I reach for Gordon, giving him a slight pinch as we pass on the stairs. We all branch off to our rooms—Mama and Mr. Kitchett to theirs, me to mine, Gordon to his own. Inside, I change into a knee-length nightgown blazing with daisies and lay on the bed, on top of the covers.
It’s hot, summer’s heat seeping through the window, filling the room. I splay my hands on my stomach, flattening them against the fabric. Even in the moonlight, the ruby is beautiful.
I get up to turn my fan on, glancing out the window. Across the way, Clark’s old bedroom is dark. I realize I don’t even know if he sleeps there any more, that maybe he and Rita have taken over the guest bedroom, which was a little larger. His father’s car is absent from the driveway. I realize it’s been absent from the driveway.
I’m puzzling over this when he knocks. I know it’s not Mama.
I open the door a crack, smile flashing white, and he lifts his lips back at me.
“You came,” I whisper.
“You don’t normally pinch like that. I figured I should.”
I crack the door, just wide enough for him to slip inside. The déjà vu comes in a wave, except this time I can breathe. This time, I am in control.
I curl my hand into his. I can hear my breathing, mingling with his, and I bring my left hand to his chest, stretching up on my tiptoes to press my mouth against his. When I pull away, it is to rest my head against his shoulder. He runs his thumb over the ring.
“You’re wearing it.”
I can hear his heart thudding through his nightshirt. I close my eyes.
“Yes,” I say. “My answer is yes.”
A sound escapes him, a mix between an Oh and a Yes! It’s pure elation. I am in his arms, then, and giggling, trying to keep it quiet, as he spins us around, my feet clunky against the floor.
“You’re making me dizzy!” I hiss, through the later.
He stops, his hands on me, all over me, my body pressed to his. “You will never regret this,” he pledges. “Not once, not our whole lives together.”
“I don’t plan to.” With my hand on his neck, I bring his face back to mine again. The night is ours. Tomorrow is forgotten.
Morning comes, syrupy. I’ve kicked the blankets off, they’re twisted down around my feet, but Gordon still has a bit of the sheet pulled around him. I raise my head up off the pillow and stare at him, stare deeply, at the valleys of his faces, the deep cliff faces I could throw myself from. I reach out to press my hand against his arm, watching his breathing.
This. I will wake up to this.
I drop my head back to the pillow and close my eyes, concentrating on the river of sweat tracing a path down my spine, on the energy radiating from my restless toes, an expulsion from last night. So much energy in both of us, so much fervor. I wrap my arms around myself, skin livid with goosebumps, and use a sheet to stifle a laugh.
My ring cuts through the thin fabric, pressing against my lip. I’d almost forgotten it. I extract my hand and study it, the beauty exemplified by my acceptance. This is my ring. This is my destiny.
I decide that we’ll tell Mama and Mr. Kitchett over breakfast. I’ll ask Gordon to stay the extra day, fiancee that he is, and ride home with me tomorrow. The day after that it’s back to work, but we can while our last few hours away in his apartment. He’ll kick his roommates out for the evening. We’ll put on the radio and dance wildly around. I’ll grab us cokes from the market on the corner and we’ll sit on his window ledge and drink them. Later, we’ll find heaven again in the folds of his sheets. It’s perfect. And in a week my piece will be published, my name trumpeting from the byline, and I’ll start to get more stories, and I’ll save up money for our wedding. Our wedding, which will have food catered by our favorite deli and which will be an intimate but beautiful affair, all the newspaper staff—
Her knock sounds as the door is already being opened, and I jerk upright. Next to me, Gordon stirs, and I want to scream hide, but it’s too late. Mama is standing in the doorway to the room, hand on the knob, and my heart is pounding.
It only takes her a moment to size up the scene before her, and she steps in and swiftly shuts it behind her. She’s pale, drained of color, her mouth pressed tight.
“Mama,” I hiss. “Please—give me a minute.”
“I have to talk to you,” she replies, glancing at Gordon. “Now.”
“Okay, but—but get out a minute. I’m fumbling with the blankets, trying to pull them up, smoothing my nightgown over my legs. She doesn’t budge. “Please.”
“Look, I know it’s late.” I glance at the clock, the numbers lambasting nine forty-five. “But I think he’s going to stay the extra day, Mama, so could you please—can we have some privacy?”
A flush passes over her cheeks, but she ignores Gordon’s form, lying motionless. I adjust the straps of my nightgown and swat the nest that’s my hair, a vain effort to smooth it into place.
“I need to tell you something.” She leans heavily on the doorknob, so much so that I could imagine it snapping right off. She’d crumple to the ground. At least then I could shoo Gordon out of this bed. I nod, wild-eyed.
“Yes, of course, but can it wait? Mama, I just need to—I’ll meet you in the kitchen—”
In my periphery, I see Gordon crack an eye open. The one not smushed into his pillow, which means Mama could probably see that he’s awake, if she wanted. But her gaze is only on me.
Her tone stops me. It’s hard, and flat. “Mama?”
She sighs. “Baby, I wanted to tell you a different way. Rita has died.”
I try to swallow, but my mouth is too dry. I work my tongue wildly around, a sad attempt at conjuring spit. “Rita who?”
“Plymouth—or, or she has Clark’s name now, I guess.”
“She’s—” I try to form the words, but I can’t. I don’t even feel the bed move, but Gordon’s arm slip around me, smooth. I hear him apologize to Mama for being in here. I hear Mama brush it off, and I guess I should have expected as much understanding from her, but I can’t—
“How?” I find myself saying. “When?”
“Last night—I already said, honey.”
“The exact time?” She furrows her brows. “Um—I’m not sure. Janet didn’t say.”
“Just called. With the news. And she didn’t say how, either.”
“Oh, oh. God. God.” I curl my head into my hands. This has to be a nightmare. This is a nightmare, surely, because I saw her, she was standing on our back stoop less than twenty-four hours ago. Apology on her lips. Cigarette in her hand.
I need to get out of this bed, so I do. Gordon stays, red-cheeked. “Where’s Clark? Where?”
“I think at Janet’s, baby, I don’t know—”
“Okay.” And I’m pulling on my robe, not bothering with actual clothes. And I’m slipping on my clogs, the ones I left behind when I moved out of this place because I thought they were too ugly. They still fit, beautifully. I forgot how comfortable they are. “I’m going.”
“Louise—” Mama protests, but moves so I can get past her, down the stairs. “Honey, I know you’re an adult, and you can make your own decisions—”
“Oh, let’s not lecture now.” I pause halfway down the stairs, turn back with a look of pure challenge. “It’s not the time.”
“No—no, not that.” My pause has allowed her to reach me, to cross the space. She rests a gentle hand on my arm. “With Clark, baby. Gordon is—you’re an adult.”
I finally manage a swallow. The lump is gone, but there’s a brick in my stomach. I can feel it sagging, stretching my insides out, weighing me down. “We’re engaged.”
I flutter my eyes open and closed. “Last night, Mama, but that’s not—”
“Oh, Louise.” She’s teary, Mama, and her voice takes on a reverence I’m not used to hearing. “Oh, baby. That’s wonderful. I’m—”
“Mama. Mama, I need to go.” I force my feet into moving, despite the increasing gravity of the brick. God, I can barely move. I pull my robe right around me as I stalk out the back door, and size up the grass. The path from our house to theirs is more overgrown than ever, having gone the past four years without being trodden by shoes, or tires. This grass is the absence of friendship.
Rita Plymouth is dead.
She is dead. The person Clark loved most in the world—gone. Forever. And the Rita from our childhood, the mealy-mouthed girl with the dirt-streaked cheeks, the teenager with her cigarettes and the know-it-all tilt of her head; do they exist anymore? Did she even matter?
That’s what I ask myself as I force my way through the plain. This has to be fake. A mistake. An alternate reality. That’s all I can think as I push through the bounty of burrs and bugs, little nitty things that I swipe at.
The sky is blue. Rita is dead.
The day is clear, and bright. Rita is dead.
The wind is gentle, carry with it a touch of lavender. Rita is dead.
I am engaged. Rita is dead.
I am alive, and Rita is dead.
I stop at the halfway mark and bend over, using my hand to stifle a cry. I hated her, Rita, but I didn’t want this. My mind flashes to the night we all had dinner, how scattered and lovely she was, all at once. How Clark looked at her. How she looked back, like she owed her world to him. The things she said yesterday, the proof that she was utterly devoted to him, in all her treacherous glory. Surely someone like that can’t have died. They’d need time to redeem themselves first, to get over the bumps. She’d need to stop smoking first, the yellow stains fading from her fingers. She’d need to quit drinking, her tongue loosing its taste for liquor, her body giving into other highs—Clark’s touch, Clark’s love. She’d need to have babies, a whole mess of them, her body growing full at the edges. She’d need to come to me one day years and years down the line and say, You know, you would’ve been better for him, sooner. But I got there.
She is dead.
Janet meets me on the front porch, and Mama must have called, told her I was coming. I fall into her arms and we hold each other tight, the both of us tearless. She links her hands over my back and squeezes so that I almost can’t breathe, and I squeeze back.
“Where’s Clark,” I ask, as I pull away, trying to peer over her shoulder into the dark cave of their home. “And what—I mean, what happened, Janet? Is it true?”
Her eyes are hollowed, something missing from them. “It is.”
It was stupid to ask. The last flicker of hope in me dies out. “No, no. How can that—how?”
Janet finally pulls away, pressing the heel of her hand hard to one eye. She glances behind her, shuts the door to seal off the sound of us. “We think—I mean, the doctor said sleeping pills. She had these things she took to help her sleep sometimes, and last night she just…I couldn’t get the full story from Clark, but we found the bottle and I guess she took seven or eight, maybe more, and she’d already had a lot to drink.”
I can’t fathom these words, can’t drum up a response.
“She died in her sleep,” Janet says at last. “It was peaceful.”
As if that’s any consolation, although I guess it could have been worse. I sink down on the porch steps, and Janet sinks beside me.
“Clark?” I ask.
“He’s shut himself in his old room. I’ve tried to talk to him, Louise, but—” Her hands are shaking as she stills them on her knees. “I’m scared. I don’t know where his mind is—” Her words are sludge, and she blinks up at the sun. “I tried to get his father to stay home today, but he had to work, awful man—” And like that she breaks down, and is crying. I wrap my arm around her.
She flattens her hand over mine. “Please, I’m begging you. Go and talk to him. Please.”
“I am. I am.”
“He needs somebody right now, Louise, and it’s not me.”
I give her a squeeze and stand on shaky legs, leaving her there as I go inside. It would be all to easy to sit with Janet today, offering weak consolation: you were good to her, you were there for her, you did everything you could.
I take the stairs slowly, listening as each creak sounds under my foot, fourteen in all. I remember the way I used to soar up these steps, braids flapping behind me, in my rush to his room. Now my hair is cropped. Now I walk as if burdened my weight. Now I have an engagement ring on my fourth finger. Now Rita is dead.
I reach the top of the stairs and glance toward his room. The door is firmly closed, the dark slice beneath the door alluding to closed curtains. I draw a breath and hold it as I try the knob, find it locked.
“Clark?” I knock gently. “Clark, it’s Louise. Let me in.”
Nothing. Like the car window all over again. I skip the dramatics and go straight for the throat.
“You have got to open this door. If you don’t—I’m going to think you’re dead, you’ve got to understand that. I will break this down. I have to see you.”
“Clark.” I hit again, this time an open fist. “Clark. Now.”
Panic rears inside me. I smack harder, harder again, harder still. “If you don’t—”
The creak of a mattress, from inside. Dull, thudding footsteps. Relief rushes through my brittle body, so sweet that I have to stoop over, catch my breath.
A deadbolt slides out of place. I raise my head.
He opens the door.
I am through the sliver of space, my arms around his neck, before he can close it against me. I curl myself into him, and after a pause he curls into me.
“Clark, I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”
I feel him nod against my neck, wooden. His arms are limp at his sides.
“I don’t even—I don’t know what to say. Honestly.” I pull back, find his face dry, his eyes bloodshot. This friend of mine, emptied to the bone. “I don’t know, Clark.”
He steps away, extracts himself. “I need to lie down. Okay? I need quiet.” He turns and shuffles back to his bed, the old full-size, and collapses against it, wrapping his arms around a pillow. I stand there a moment, staring at him, the small form.
“Can you go?” He voices after a pause.
“I—no.” I tiptoe over, sinking down onto the bed. I stretch out next to him. “No, I won’t go.”
He faces the wall, and stays that way. “Please. Not now. Don’t argue with me.”
“Don’t argue with me, Clark. I’m staying.”
He doesn’t reply. A few minutes pass of absolute stillness. I’m trying not to breathe, can’t even hear his breath. Then the bed begins to vibrate. His shoulders are shaking.
I scoot over so my torso is pressed against his spine. The tears rush to my eyes, and I press my face against his neck as I curl an arm over him, finding his hand. I take it, and squeeze. After a minute, he laces his fingers through mine.
He breaths in, a wet crackling sniffle, and the hitch afterward shows his embarrassment. The tension in his body, the trying to keep quiet—
“Clark,” I say, my own voice thick with tears, “you can cry.”
A handful of seconds lapse before first sob breaks the dam, an exhale of hot, ugly breath, and I gently tug him so he’s turned to face me. He sobs and sobs and sobs, the tears licking his face, mingling with mucus and spit but I don’t care, I wrap myself around him, am his pillow. He holds me tight as the shoulder of my dress dampens with every wail. And then I realize he is saying my name, again and again. Louise, Louise, Louise.
“I know,” I whisper, pressing my hand to the base of his neck, holding his head to my neck, getting as close as I possibly can. My own tears leak out, and together they run rivers down our bodies. “I know. I know. I know.”
It’s been five hours, and I haven’t been back home yet.
I pull myself from him when he’s finally gone to sleep, damp and sweaty. I close the door with a soft click and pad down the stairs. Janet stands in the kitchen, fluttering about, stirring a pot of soup on the stove. When she sees me, she sags against the countertop.
“Sleeping.” I run my hand over my eyes. “Right now.”
“Oh, God.” She stumbles her way over to a kitchen chair, sinks down, throws her head back. “Thank you. Thank you so much.”
“It’s fine.” I direct my pointer to her phone. “Can I—”
“Of course. Sure.” She nods and I take it up, dialing my number.
“Louise!” Mama’s voice, sharp on the line. “Janet called a couple of hours ago. What’s happening? How is he?”
“He’s…” I don’t know. Broken. Instead, I relay the the message I gave to Janet. “So I’m sleeping here tonight. Okay?”
“What about tomorrow?”
I curse. “I’ll…I’ll give Mr. Sachs a call. Millie should still be in.”
“The receptionist. I’ll call him. It’ll be okay.”
“Gordon. He’s there?”
“Could you…I need to talk to him.”
“Sure, sure, baby. I love you. I’ll come by in the morning.”
There’s a shuffle, words exchanged, and Gordon is on the line. “Hi.”
“Hey.” I flick my eyes down to my ring. “How are you?”
“I should be asking you.”
“Not okay. Not at all.”
A few seconds lapse. “You stayed.”
“I needed to. I needed to make sure things were all right.”
“That’s good of you.”
“It’s what anybody would do.”
We breathe into each other. I want him, I realize, right now. The comfort of his arms. “I’m sorry about this morning. Mama bursting in.”
“It’s all right. I’m sorry for being there.”
“Don’t apologize. It was a wonderful night.”
“And…I mean, it feels wrong.” I tuck my hand into my pocket, turning away from Janet. She’s back to stirring the soup, but I know she’s probably listening, “but I’m still excited. About us.”
“It’s all I could think of this morning.”
I wet my lips. “I can’t come back with you tomorrow.”
“And I’m sleeping here tonight. He needs me right now.”
“And I don’t think…I don’t know if you coming by would be the best thing.”
“Sure.” His voice is understanding, but it’s also disappointment.
“So will you call me tomorrow? At the house? If I’m not back Mama can give you this number.”
“Of course I will.”
“Okay, okay good. And I’ll be back soon. I should think. I hope. I’ve got to call Mr. Sachs.”
“Well, good luck.”
“Enjoy the train ride, okay?” I turn my lips into the mouthpiece, as if that could get me closer.
“All right. I love you.”
I hang up before he can reply, stand there with my hand still over the phone. I breathe in and out.
“You’re engaged,” Janet says, with surprise.
I nod. “Yes.” And then I extract my hand from my pocket, slipping the ring off. I cross the kitchen and hand it to her. “But don’t tell Clark. Not now. Is there somewhere safe you could put it?”
She closes her fist around my lovely ruby. “Of course.”
“Good.” I sit down in the kitchen chair. “Do you have clothes? Can I use the bath?”
“Oh, Louise. Of course. But you don’t have to—”
“Stay? Of course I do.” Her face is relief, at these words. I rise. “If you could just—I’ll take a quick bath. And then I’ve got to make another call.”
I run the bath hot enough that it steams, sink down into the warmth. The bottle of shampoo Janet has supplied me with is fancy and fragrant, nothing like Mama’s bars of Castille. I pump a generous amount into the bath, swish it around me until it suds and sink down, allowing myself to be enveloped in the cloying sweetness. I wash Clark’s tears and snot off of me, some of it my own, and I sink even lower and think about how Rita probably used this tub.
But now she is dead.
I can’t get my head around it. Can’t possibly. Can’t understand what this means for the rest of my life. Who knew she had such stock in it, anyway?
I splash myself in the face with the water. I want to sit in it until my fingers prune and I start to shiver, but I don’t have that luxury today. Today is my day to be there for somebody. Which means getting back to Clark as quickly as possible.
Carefully, I step from the bath, pausing on the mat to let the water stream off my body. The robe Janet gave me is folded over one arm, and I cross to the mirror without putting it on. I swipe at the fogged glass with my palm and stare at my reflection. I imagine Rita, doing the same last night. Opening the medicine cabinet, reflection disappearing. Scanning the rows of bottles until she came to the one she wanted, the only prescription in here, looks like.
It’s still here. I reach out and pluck it up, two swift fingers.
EDWINA RITA PLYMOUTH, the label trumpets. It’s old, dated six years before. I realize this is a previous one, not the one she most recently used—the police probably took that, when they called them, if they called them. I don’t know. I don’t even know if her body is still in this house, laying lifeless, probably not much different than when she was alive. I doubt it, at least.
I twist the cap off the prescription and look inside. A fine white powder dusts the bottom. I turn on the faucet, stick it under the stream, slosh it out so it shines clear. I don’t know what I was hoping for. Answers, maybe. Why Clark loved her. Why she did this. Why she came to me yesterday.
She knew, I think, and it’s a cold dawning in my chest.
I notice the birthdate—second of June, nineteen-oh-four. Not Rita’s after all, her mother’s. I wrap the old bottle in a wad of toilet tissue, drop it into the wastebasket. I think about what mothers pass onto us: resilience, spirit, courage, compliance, fault, fury. I think about how my heart is webbed to my mother’s in a way that is different from all the other loves I’ve felt, even with Daddy. I think about how we both say her zucchini bread has this special taste, this nutty comfort, and not one other person has ever picked up on it. It’s inexplicable, the bonds that tie me to her.
Now I think about a mother with addictions, with boyfriends, with pills. And I know then Rita Plymouth never had a chance. Not even with Clark.
“Illinois Informer, Millie speaking. How may I assist you?”
Her voice has this nasal quality that makes me instantly bristle. Or maybe it’s the judgement there, even to the anonymous caller whose name she has yet to learn. “Millie, hi. This is Louise.”
“Who works with you.”
“Many people work with me, dear”—even though she’s my own age, that wretch—“so you’ll have to jog my memory a bit. Full name?”
“Louise Parker. Secretary to Mr. Sachs.”
“Oh, of course, Louise. How’s vacation?”
“It’s—” not vacation, thanks, “—troubled. May I speak to Mr. Sachs.”
“Yes. Just one moment while I transfer you to his secretary.”
A ringing takes up, and I settle against the wall. Janet is dishing out bowls of soup, and my stomach growls. I haven’t eaten a thing, don’t really want to, but hunger has its own plans.
“This is Sachs!” He barks in my ear, rather gruffly. I swallow.
“Mr. Sachs. It’s Louise.”
“Excuse me, sir?”
“I said what’re you calling for, Louise?”
“Right, to—” Janet holds out the bowl of soup so I see her set it on the table, motioning to it with a tip of her head. I offer a warbling smile.
“Louise?” Impatience has overcome him, inexplicably. “What is it? I have things to tend to.”
“Of course. Sir, I’m supposed to be back day after tomorrow—”
“With your little piece.”
“Yes, sir. With my piece.”
“But I’m afraid I won’t be able to make it. I may be a couple days behind, maybe a week. I don’t know. But I can call Millie with updates—”
A scrape sounds on his end, something being rearranged. “Hold on, now, Louise.”
I clamp my mouth shut, try: “Sir?”
“We can’t have that. Work is backed up out the wazoo here, pieces I haven’t been able to get to yet. I need you here bright and early on the eleventh, as we specified.”
“Sir, I can’t—”
“You can and you will. I expect an article from you as well. We’ve moved things aside to allow room. So you will be here.”
“Mr. Sachs, I really can’t. I’m not joking.”
“Why is that, Louise? Give me a good reason.”
I let the silence settle between us. I could answer. I could say My best friend’s wife died. But a year and a half of fetching his coffee, of proving my talent and worth with countless article corrections and editing—partially doing his job at times, it felt like—has earned me no respect.
“It’s not really my business to discuss,” I finally decide upon, “but I’m needed urgently by a friend. If you’d please understand, I’d really—”
“There is no understanding. In this industry, Louise, there’s one thing you should have learned: the news waits for nobody. Remember that, okay? The news waits for nobody.”
“Yes, Mr. Sachs, but—”
“I don’t want to hear it. Either you’re here Monday or you forfeit your job and the article. I’ll just find somebody else to do your work. It’s not difficult, anyhow.”
Each word causes a lurch in my chest, trailed by a flare of disbelief. How dare he. “Well. Well, I guess I’ll just—”
“What’ll it be, no hedging. I haven’t got the time.”
I glance down at my soup, growing cold, then at Janet, who labors over the few dishes in the sink. The room is void of energy, of life. I nod against the receiver.
“I guess I’ll have to quit, then.”
“Not quit. Fired. Stay on the line a moment, will you?”
I pull the phone away from my ear just enough to release a breath, placing my forehead against the wall. I hold it there, focusing on quieting my raging pulse, and a drone fills the immediate space as Millie’s voice returns to the line, booming and perky with a smile.
“Hi there, Louise. You can expect your last paycheck in the ma—”
I hang up on that sniveling sad-sack with a bang. The chair scrapes as I pull it away from the table and drop myself into it.
“Louise?” Janet asks, drifting towards me. “Did you do something you shouldn’t have?”
“No.” Meeting her eyes, I raise the spoon to my lips, slurp.
Her funeral is quiet, three days later. I haven’t left Clark’s side, so Mama brings me everything I need—a modest, high-necked black dress, a pair of short heels. She and Mr. Kitchett follow us to the pretty little cemetery, a description that should be incongruous but isn’t, really. I vowed when I was little not to return to a church, and I’m glad that we don’t. I don’t have to be reminded of Daddy, this way.
She is buried off to the side of the small plot, toward a cluster of wildflowers. The casket is closed, and for that I am grateful. The attendees are my family, Clark, Janet, his father, Clark’s business partner, and some friend of Rita’s. She’s not quite as rough-hewn as Rita; she’s still carrying meat on her bones, but it’s easy to tell they come from the same stock.
A minister says the words, which are nice. A beautiful soul taken too soon, a life brimming with promise extinguished. One of the great tragedies of this realm. But there is more for her, after, of course. That’s the consolation prize. Rita’s up dancing in a meadow right now, with her deceased mother who has been made holy by heaven, and she no longer gets her kicks off of drugs and alcohol, and she no longer tests the night through venturing out on binges. Those are all my thoughts that I tack passively on as the minister eulogizes her. When it is over, and the casket has been lowered into the ground, Clark reaches into his pocket and tosses something in there—a slim box, a flash, too fast for someone to see who wasn’t expecting it.
Cigarettes, maybe? I wrinkle my nose. The minister finishes and the dirt is thrown over top, and soon Rita is underground. I shiver, even though it’s a warm afternoon.
Mama has volunteered to host a reception, cakes and tea and orchestral music. I take Clark’s arm as we tread our way over to the car we took with Janet and his father. We’ve reached the doors when his name rings out, sharp and fire-edged.
“Clark.” It’s Rita’s friend, and she is in a rage. She storms our way in high heels, her dress swishing wildly around her ankles. When she reaches us, her chest is heaving.
“Is this her?” And she stabs her finger at me, of all people, to which Janet is instantly beside me.
“Is this her,” she demands, eyes only for Clark.
“I don’t know what you mean,” he says evenly. His arm tightens around mine, just a little. His father huffs as he climbs into his car, starting the engine. Our signal to go.
“How dare you bring her,” Amelia continues, anger giving way to something with a life of its own, livid and rearing its head. Spit arcs from her mouth as she rages on, “you know this witch caused Rita more worry than anything. How dare you. How dare you.” Her hand thumps into him, and Janet reaches out to grab the girl by the shoulder.
“Get back, Amelia.”
“I hope I never see you people again,” she laments, as she stumbles away. “Rita deserved better.”
Confusion has muddled my thinking until now, but at this, I flare. “Wait,” I shout, as she stalks off. “She couldn’t have done better. She was happy with him! He treated her better than—”
With a yank, I am pulled into the backseat. Clark leans over me to slam the door shut, breathing heavy, and as soon as Janet has slipped into her seat his father pulls away. I don’t say anything to Clark, and he doesn’t say anything to me, but I track Amelia’s slinking form until we’ve passed her on our way to the road. She’s without a car, probably. Walked here for her friend.
“Nice service,” Clark’s father says at last. “Sad.”
Janet doesn’t reply. Clark turns his head to the window.
I sit quietly, not wanting to prod. I can’t wait until we are back at the house, where Clark will surely slip upstairs, and I with him. It’s been like that since then. Sometimes he’ll just sit and do nothing, other times we’ll talk a little bit. Always about anything but. Still, it’s comfort.
We turn down his lane. Swift across the seat, Clark grabs my hand. He holds it just a moment, and then he lets go.
A gray month lapses by. Two. Three. I volley between my house and Clark’s. We spend our days together. I eat breakfast at his kitchen table, lunch at the store, dinner in his front yard. We catch fireflies. When the first hint of fall comes round, we build fires and sit around them, throwing bits of pieces of things into them. I invent a game where we write something on paper, something heavy on us, and throw it into the flames. They swallow our secrets right up.
I’m engaged, I write on four different occasions, at a loss for anything else. Each time I’ll meet Clark’s eyes across the flickers, and he’ll smile a little, and I’ll smile back. That is that.
The shack is torn down, Clark’s handiwork included. Janet pays to have it done. I know that because they talk about it, right in front of me. I’m just another member of their imbalanced and grossly isolated family, but the love they have for one another is boundless. I see that, watching them. Thank god his father did one thing right, is all I can think.
Gordon visits twice. The first time it’s to spin some color back into my world, which really isn’t that hard. It’s not like my love died, after all. I remind myself of that when we’re together, playing games or eating food or bouncing ideas off of one another. I excuse myself from Clark’s house for those days. I put on my engagement ring. When Gordon broaches the subject of the wedding, I say I want chrysanthemums for my bouquet, springs of lavender. But that’s all I know.
The second time he comes, it is to convince me to return with him.
“Our last book sold really well,” he says in earnest, his hand over mine as we sit at my kitchen table. It’s late, just the two of us awake. “The guys all moved out. I’ve saved money. All we have to do now is start our lives.”
I glance at the calendar Mama has hung on my wall. It’s early October. The leaves outside the window are changing color, but it’s too dark to see them now.
“You can come back with me tomorrow,” he continues. The idea licks at me in earnest, and I’m something delicious. “In a month or so, your parents can visit.”
“My Mama,” I correct, “and Mr. Kitchett.”
“Right. Mr. Kitchett. It’ll be really nice. We’ll have a party.”
“And Clark?” I ask, dropping my wrist to the table. I’d been twirling a piece of hair round my finger, again and again. “What about him?”
“Louise—” His face is ashen this night, not the warm cream I’m used to. “It’s been a long time. He’ll be okay.”
“He’s not ready yet. For me to leave him.”
“How would you even know?”
“I just…I know Gordon. I’ll know. And you’ll be the first person I call.”
We sit there in silence, all the excitement sucked from the air. He takes a breath, releases it slowly.
“I need to ask you something.”
“Sure.” On the table, I stretch my left hand over his, purposefully, so his eyes will alight on the ring. I’m scared, suddenly, that maybe he won’t be okay with this arrangement. He’s probably not in the first place, but maybe it’s worse now—no end in sight.
I nod, encouraging.
“Don’t take this the wrong way. Don’t get mad.”
“I won’t.” My neck prickles, and I know what he’s going to ask—what everybody’s been thinking since that funeral, Mama and Janet and even myself, on our most promising days.
“Are you with him? Have you guys been together?”
“Gordon.” I’ve prepared myself with an answer, a firecracker. I stand up and come up to him, loop my arms around his neck, sink down onto his lap. I press my body against his and kiss him with a pent-up fervor, the result of all these months of being so close, and so far away. When I pull away, it’s to a dazzling smile, to two eyes that love and cherish me.
“Okay,” he whispers, dropping his his head. “I get it.”
“No, silly,” I say anyways, just in case he needs to hear it. “It’s not like that. It has never been like that.”
It’s a stargazing kind of night, the cool of November seeping into our bones. We bundle up in sweaters and head outside, to the place in the lawn where the grasses are softest, right before they delve into the split between our houses. I sit down on the hard dirt and he follows; we lay back.
“They’re so pretty tonight,” I note. “Like, unusually so.”
“I used to love to study the stars, when we were little. Remember that game I made up with the constellations?”
“They all had so much drama in their lives.” I laugh. It’s unnatural. “I think they were all dating each other and there was some murder too, if I remember.”
“Creative even then.”
“It was stupid.”
“No.” I hear a rustle as his head turns, and I tilt mine in response, so we are grinning at each other. Mine is genuine. His still lacks its luster. “I liked that game. I liked all our games.”
We talk about childhood most often, usually the days before Rita. I reach across the space between us and grab his hand. We also do that a lot—hold hands. Mostly it’s holding hands, sometimes holding each other. He doesn’t cry anymore, but I keep waiting for something to break, the dam that will finally allow him to move on. Because he’s not there yet, and we’re not there yet.
“Tell me something,” I prompt.
“Anything something.” I throw my hands up, allow them to flutter down. “Entertain me.”
“There was an old woman who swallowed a fly…”
“Anything. But that.”
“Okay. Um. Are you looking for personal anecdote?”
“Well…” He juts his chin toward the sky. The stars wink down at him, and I do too, still staring. He’s magnificent and magnetic. Beguiling and bewildering. Fascinating and fortuitous.
I dance these words around my head, taste them on my tongue, until I’m rolling them out to him. He laughs at the alliteration.
“Okay,” I say, “here’s what you’ll do: give me what I am.”
“Ah…I’ll need a moment.”
“I’ve got one.”
“I don’t think as quick as you. And you’ve now got quite the vocabulary.”
“That’s all right. And you do too, by the way. You taught me all about vocabulary, remember?”
“Well.” He narrows his eyes, concentrating. “School probably had some hand in that.” I can’t seem to look away from him, to break this spell we are under. The moon offers the most flattering light, whatever people may say.
“You are…determined and dazzling. Tenacious and turbulent. Loyal and loving.”
I’m silent a minute, feeling those words in my chest. I raise a hand to my throat, then, clear it. “See? You have a better overall grasp of the English language.”
“Those last two were copouts, though.”
“They were nice.”
Silence settles around us. Clark coughs. I sit up, shaking out my arms, the chill finally getting to me. I expect him to follow, but he glances over at me and scoots himself over, over and over, until his head is hovering just above my lap, his torso propped up by knobby elbows.
“Can I use you as a pillow?”
“But of course.” I try to keep my voice even. His hair tickles my legs, then, bared in the dress I wear. It’s soft, a little longer. I reach out to run a hand through it.
Upside down, he smiles at me. Every curve of his face is beautiful, every pane and mark and divot and dimple and crease and crinkle and color. My boy.
“Clark,” I say.
“Louise,” he replies.
I let his name dangle. He’s smiling again.
“I’ve been meaning—” and then his face grows still, sober. “I need to thank you.”
“Louise.” His face tilts, disbelief. “You’ve got to realize.”
“Well—yeah. Yes. For staying with you.”
“But that was nothing. You did everything for me. When we were younger.”
“What do you mean?”
I take my hand from his hand to hold a finger up, number one. “Kept me sane when my father died. You distracted me, took me to the movies. You made life worth living for a little while when it was at its worst. And you were there when I found out about my Mama and Mr. Kitchett, that’s another. You don’t remember that? I cried and you just laid there with me and listened. I stayed for days. And even when…things changed between us, you were there to comfort me. To help me through it.” I shrug. “I don’t know, Clark, but I have you to thank for so much. Most of the best parts of my life.”
“Except the past seven years.”
“Right. That.” A laugh slips out of me, and out of him, and I’m so infinitely grateful we can joke of this now. Of the mess that was us.
“I think…” He reaches back, patting around, trying to find my hand. I relinquish it to him. He tips his chin to his chest, studying his house, all of his world navy blue in the dark. “I think I may have hurt you more than I helped you sometimes, though. And I’m sorry.”
“Me too.” I pause. “We haven’t talked about it, you know.”
“What?” Even though he knows.
“Did you mean all that? What you said?”
“It was late. I was tired.” He lets go of me to rub his eyes. “And I suppose I did mean it at the time, though. I was miserable afterward.”
“Um…” I weigh telling him. We haven’t spoken her name very often, just in snatches. “Here are Rita’s things, Clark. Rita’s old friend called today. Letter for Rita.” Usually it’s Janet, not me. I glance down at him, think about how broken he still is. All because of her. And maybe he thought she didn’t love him, I don’t know. So I’m brave. I open my mouth and I tell him. “She came to visit me. The day before she died. Rita. She said that you were sad…and all she wanted was for you to be happy. She asked me to make up with you.”
He’s silent a moment. I glance down to find wet eyes. “She did.”
“Sounds like her.”
“I guess, yeah.”
“That sounds exactly like her.” He sniffs, the inhale crackly, and wipes a hand across his face. “Louise. Louise, I don’t ever think it’s going to stop feeling like I’ve…been hit by a truck. Or something. I think the pain is going to go away but it never does. I just forget it and that’s not…getting better. That hurts worse, you know.”
“I do know.” I cup his face with my hand, run my thumb over his cheek, again and again.
“And you’ve had to be here. You’ve had to experience it all too. And I’m sorry.” I’m not looking at him, but I feel his head move from side to side as he shakes it, just slightly, against my legs. “And Janet told me you lost your job. The article. All of that.”
“Well. He was a terrible boss, anyway.”
“No, I’m serious! And the receptionist—total quack.”
“She was a dingbat.”
He laughs. It’s gentle.
“You know you have to move on,” he says eventually, cradling those words in their infancy. It’s the idea that there are next steps to take, that I can’t live forever twenty-two and with my best friend. “You have your fiancee—”
“Wait.” I start, sitting up straighter. “You know I’m engaged?”
“Yeah. Was it a secret?”
I glance down at my naked fourth finger, the hand idle, splayed to hold myself up. “A little bit.”
“I’m sorry. Janet told me a couple months ago, when he came to visit.”
“I guess congratulations. I mean, not like that…I’m happy for you. But I guess maybe if you wanted it secret you didn’t want congratulations.”
“It’s not that.” I don’t offer more, but he picks up my words, swishes them in his mouth until he recognizes the taste.
“It’s because of me and Rita.”
I don’t answer.
“We didn’t have a…storybook marriage. You know that. It was dumb in the first place, and you know that also. We were both in a bad way. But she was worse, and she just got worse, until it was out of my control. And all I could do—” He breaks off. I can’t look at him for fear of crying. I’ve needed to hear this, I tell myself. The why. But now it’s here, and there’s nothing I can do.
“You don’t have to explain, Clark,” I say at last.
“But you deserve it. After—I—after awhile I had two choices: leave her or love her. And when you love somebody in the first place, it’s not even really a choice.”
“And I feel like I had no choice, Lou. I really didn’t. It was from the start. It was from the moment I saw her, the first time I did that stupid card trick for her.”
“Oh.” Possession turns my stomach in knots, which is stupid. She’s not here. She can’t possess any part of him anymore. His head is in my lap, my hands are on him. But his thoughts are with her, always with her.
“She got it, actually. First time. She knew what I was doing, how to do the trick. And I thought, what—” He laughs. “What. What. And she just continued to surprise me in every way. She’s so smart, Louise, you have no idea. She’s so…” He gnaws at his lower lip. “Was so.”
“I remember that trick,” I venture at last, a sorry attempt to stake my claim. “That kept me mesmerized for hours. I’d never seen magic.”
“I don’t think she even believed in magic. That’s just it.”
“I always thought—” and his eyes have taken on this shine, rivaling the stars. “I guess I always thought I’d fall in love with somebody who just loved me, who held on to everything I said and bought everything I said and was just engrossed in me. And instead she wasn’t, and she saw through, and she pulled me out and made me see who I really was.”
He sighs, his chest rising and falling. “And I was so stupid I didn’t realize. She…that night, she came to bed. All tired. She said she was so tired. She kissed me, and she tasted like…whisky or something, I don’t know. It was foul. And her hair was all ratty and she was just this shell and all I remember feeling when I turned out my light was this fury with myself, for still loving her. Because I realized a long time before there was nothing I could do about it but move on.” He swallows. “She did it for me.”
“That’s it. That’s all.” He finds my hand again. I’m quiet.
“Thank you for telling me that,” I say at last. “I think I understand.”
And I do. She swept in, wrapped him around her, surprised him. She didn’t fawn over his words or rely on him to hold her up. She was quiet, and then she was abrasive, and then she was wasted, just wasted, but she was never for him. And that’s what he needed, somebody who lived and breathed for only themselves.
I swipe at my own tears.
“You want to go inside?” He says at last. “It’s getting pretty cold. I’ll make hot chocolate.”
I nod raising my sleeve to my face. By the time we’re standing, walking back toward the house, my face is dry. He’ll never know I was crying.
We reach the door. I glance up at the moon. “Actually, we should look through your telescope.”
“Old time’s sake?”
“Or new time’s sake,” I try. He nods.
“Sounds like a plan.”
I end up making the hot chocolate, while he sets it up. I take the stairs quickly, hands quivering in anticipation, and take care not to slosh any drink over the rims of the mugs. He’s got the telescope ready for me when I walk in, and I trade him the cup for a look at the galaxy.
“It’s beautiful,” I breathe, as the glowing orb fills my vision. “It’s been so long.”
The bed creaks. He’s watching me. That’s what we do.
“Clark?” I say, my eye still affixed to the scope, a gorgeous crater etching itself into my vision.
“Yeah? Oh, the hot chocolate’s really good. You had any yet?”
“Yeah.” Another sip.
“If we’re really taking a trip down memory lane, do you still have those cards?” I reach up to adjust the view, pulling back a little bit. It’s so full tonight, the moon. Almost too much to comprehend.
He is silent. I think maybe he’s taking another drink, but there’s nothing.
“Clark?” And I turn and look at him, sitting on the bed, awash in moonlight. The mug is balanced on one knee, he’s smack dab in the bed, he’s watching me, he still looks ten. There’s this expression on this face, a sadness that I can’t place.
“I’m sorry,” he says at last. “I…got rid of those ones.”
He nods, wets his lips. He’s measuring something, but I can’t tell what. “When Rita was buried. I threw them in with her.” He sighs. “It felt like…like they belonged with her.”
“Oh.” I whip back to the telescope, press it to my face, not really seeing. Something inside me dies and goes cold. I feel it right then and there, spreading metallic through my veins. Our then and now cracks in half, the divide too wide to ever breach again, and there is only going forward.
“We have more downstairs—” The bed creaks as he stands. I curl both hands around the telescope, concentrating.
“It’s all right, don’t get up. This is good.”
“Just—this. Looking. Me watching, you watching me.”
He laughs. The bed creaks when he sits.
I’ve been getting ready here for the past two hours, even though I really didn’t need that long. Mama stood guard outside the bathroom door as I shaved my legs and arms, applied copious amounts of this expensive lemon-verbena lotion, and washed my face. Then Janet swept in and did my makeup, using her own supplies—mascara on my lashes, a light rogue on my cheeks, the palest pink for my lips. My nails were painted by Mama, keeling before me as I sat on the lid of the commode, a shade of rose. Janet pulled the curlers from my hair and left it long and loose around my shoulders. I miss it short, but I wanted it long for today. I’ve been growing it out for eight months.
Tomorrow I’ll take a pair of scissors, hack it off, maybe even above my ears this time. Once you’re a wife, practicality takes over. That’s what I’ve observed, anyway.
I turn my head toward the door, looking away from the mirror. They left me alone a minute, my last few seconds before I’m officially a bride and put on the dress. The voice doesn’t belong to Mama or Janet, though. It’s Esther—dear Esther, my first female friend, roommate extraordinaire.
“Hey there,” I say, exhaling as I confront my reflection. “What’s happening?”
“It’s getting busy.” She comes up behind me and places her hands on my shoulders, kneading. She has this way about her, this soothing energy. Her parents were actual gypsies, and she grew up on the road, leading an erratic and richly textured life, an undercurrent of urgency perpetually nipping at their heels. She’s the first in my series.
“Another paper called and left a message,” she says, lifting her hands. My muscles tense back up.
“They want a meeting.”
“Good.” I told myself I could do this on my own, and I am. I’m doing it. Remarkable Youth in Postwar America is going to be published some day, read by thousands of eyes. That I am sure of.
“You can call them back,” she says, “after the honeymoon. I told them you were getting married.”
“That’ll discredit me.”
“What? No, it won’t!”
“I’m preaching the virtues of social progression and have to…to postpone a meeting for one of the oldest customs in the book.” I readjust the ends of my hair, the seam of my slip. “It’s a little ironic.”
“I hardly think that’s what they thought.”
“How do you know?”
“Their secretary went, ‘awww’ for about fifteen seconds, and she said to tell you congratulations. Don’t rush.”
“I’m disappointed in her.”
“Mmhm.” She leans forward to press a kiss to my shoulder, a custom of ours. I grin.
“I’ll see you in a moment, bridesmaid.”
“Well, I’ll see you in a moment, bride.”
She’s gone, a swirl of bracelets clacking together and honey-gold hair. Mine is lighter than hers by quite a few touches. I fix another ringlet.
A new breathiness, a more reverent quality. Mama, bringing my dress. I meet her halfway and she throws her arms around me, pressing her lips to my cheek, lingering.
“I waited to put on lipstick just so I could do that.”
“Mama.” I knot my hands together and we stand there a few moments, holding each other.
“I figured this day would come,” she says at last, unmoving. “I just didn’t know how fast.”
“It was beautiful, wasn’t it, way back when? When it was just the three of us living in that woods with nobody for a dozen miles.”
“It was awfully nice. Isolated.”
Nostalgia has got the best of her. She pulls back, and her face has lost its dreaminess. “Baby, I want you to know how proud…how proud I am.” She beams as she reaches into a pocket, extracting a square of paper. “I grabbed this for you.”
It’s her zucchini bread, the old recipe card she always uses. I blink down at it. “What about you?”
“I have it up here.” She taps her head, reminding me of a wise old owl, a thing of folklore, someone who knows and says and also she’d kill me if I said that. “I’m so excited for you, baby. Everything’s starting.”
“Just don’t forget the little people.” She reaches up to swipe at my cheek. “I did put on lipstick, actually. Forgot.”
I laugh. “It’s all right, Mama.”
“Well.” The dress is still draped over her arm, but she extends it to me. “Your gown.”
“It’s not…” I scoop it into my arms. It’s a modest dress, knee-length with a v-neckline, fluttering satin sleeves. I got it for a steal, which is why I bought it. I didn’t need to feel fancy on this day, but I suppose I will.
“I’m going across,” she says, giving me one last kiss, her attention pulled to the window. Across the yard, our house is a flurry of activity, cars and people, and she’s the hostess. “Clark’s waiting downstairs.”
“You’ve got about five minutes, baby.” She takes my hands in hers, gives me one last look. “This is the final moment you’re Louise Parker, you know that?”
“Oh, I’ll always have that in me.”
“I hope so, baby.”
She hurries out of the room, giddy with excitement. I unzip the dress and step into it. Already, my heart has started thumping. It takes me a minute to get the zipper up, but I do, facing myself yet again.
I look nice, I decide, my hair done. Everything in place, except the shoes which I will have to carry, because I am not about to walk across that field barefoot.
“Clark!” I call.
His steps sound on the stairs, the creak-groan of his slow-moving body. But sure. Always sure.
When he enters the room, the sunlight catching the honey in his hair, I do a little twirl. He laughs.
“Don’t you dare say I’m gorgeous,” I threaten, ghosting across the room to him. The skirt swishes around me.
“Thanks.” He pauses to let me pass, and I start down the stairs at a tentative pace. He’s right behind me, and I would never tell him, but I go first in case he stumbles. He never has, not in all my months of being with him, but possibly—there’s always a chance. And I want to be there if his feet fail him.
“You nervous?” He asks, as I reach the bottom step, him right after.
I shake my head, then think better of it. “Actually, yeah. I am.”
He leads the way to his front door, holds it open for me. “It’ll be okay.”
“I just don’t like…the audience.”
“Right. But I’ll be there. And that’s what matters.”
He laughs at my flippancy. “I’ll make faces, if you’d like.”
“Don’t. It’ll distract me.” I step onto his porch, immediately squinting. The sun is bright today, glaring, unusually so. August is a genial month.
He joins me there, and I lay my head against his shoulder, his arm through mine. We stand on the porch, surveying the scene across the field, at my house—cars parking, people pouring out, gathering on the opposite side, where Mr. Kitchett has hacked down the tall grasses to place a couple dozen chairs and fashioned an aisle of flower petals. It’ll be beautiful, I know.
“Did you ever think we’d end up like this?” I ask, my voice a tight thing.
He runs his palm over my knuckles. “I didn’t know if we’d end up anywhere.”
“Please. Of course you did.” I curl into him. “You’re my friend forever, you know that?”
“I know that.” He straightens, then, so I do too. “I think your Mama is motioning for us to come. Hard to tell.”
I shield the sun with my hand. “It’s so far away, isn’t it?”
“My house from yours.”
“I don’t know.” His shoulder lifts in a shrug. I can feel his bad leg, shaking against mine. “It didn’t feel like that when we were young.”
“We’re still young, Clark.”
He looks at me. He smiles. He doesn’t blink.
“I guess we are.”
Mama is waving us over, I can see now. The people are gathered. Gordon awaits.
“Come on, Lou,” he says, with the most gentle of tugs. “Time to give you away.”
We start across the field, a slow trek. I’m glad I opted for a shorter skirt. The grasses latch on badly enough as it is. I’ll have to brush off the debris before it starts.
“You’re not actually gonna give me away, though, are you?” I peer over at him. Same height as me, now, which is different—but so much else the same. Same crook to his mouth, same layered eyes, same underlying strength, despite the new story his body tells.
“I could never,” he says, and I draw a deep breath.
We are halfway there, some harried faces coming into view as they scurry to find seats. More people came than expected, it looks like. Mama has been watching our progress, but as we reach three-fourths of the way—an invisible checkpoint in her mind—her beam brightens even further and she scurries off to take her place.
My knees tremble and my heart is in my ears. Today is a good day. Today I am getting married.
“I feel like I’m going to faint,” I whisper in Clark’s ear. He tightens his hold.
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