Wednesday, April 29, 2009

a friend for Nola

Nola waited by the old lockers after school, an excited little flutter in her stomach. She had a friend, a real friend. There was someone who thought she was funny, interesting, who liked to hang out with her. Melanie Woodman was her friend. Nola and Melanie…Melanie and Nola. Have you seen Nola? Oh, she’s with her friend Melanie. Nola practically hugged herself as she stood waiting for Melanie to meet her as planned.

That night at the slumber party had been very enlightening. Nola had missed so much of the big picture before that evening that she couldn’t help wonder what else she overlooked, what other social constructs she missed? She would have to be more observant, this was new territory.

Melanie Woodman had seemed to be just like all the other girls, part of the blur, the out of reach social unit that was the eighth grade class. But Nola failed to see that Melanie was almost as much an outsider as she herself was. The only difference between them was that Melanie was rich, and therefore she was useful to the other girls so they acted nicer to her. She had concert tickets, cool clothes, a limo that picked her up from school and would take her anywhere she wanted to go, parents that traveled and didn’t care if she had parties. It seemed maybe the other kids didn’t even like Melanie anymore than they did Nola; they just liked what she provided.

At the beginning of Melanie's party Nola hung back, she stayed around the edges of the room, moving just enough so that no one noticed she didn’t have anyone to talk to. She wasn’t trying to eavesdrop, just trying to make it through the evening without looking like a reject. But eavesdrop she did.

She kept a constant eye on Melanie, thinking at first that since she was the host, the one that invited her, if there was going to be trouble or if a trick was going to be played that she would be the one orchestrating it. Nola wanted to keep track of Melanie to make sure she wasn’t ambushed. She also kept a keen eye on Gwen Van Matre.

Gwen Van Matre had invited Nola to her own birthday party at the beginning of the school year, when Nola was still hopeful that skipping ahead put her in a class with kids that wouldn’t pick on her, where she’d be able to fit in better. The party was to consist of a horseback ride and picnic by a lake in a nearby state park. There were fifteen girls, so since the Van Matres only owned six horses themselves, some were rented from a nearby stable.

Nola had been crazy for horses since she could walk, she’d taken riding lessons at Lynchwood Stables when she was younger and Grandee could still bring her. She was a decent rider for her age. But when all the girls were mounting up at the start of the trail it turned out it had been specially arranged for Nola to ride a saggy old pony, the only pony, in fact, that was there that day, brought just for her since she was “so young”. A toddler could have ridden the animal, and in fact Nola was tall and lanky for her age, she matched most of the eighth grade girls inch for inch in height.

But perhaps what was worst of all is that the creature had been decorated as if for a little girl’s birthday party, bedecked with streaming ribbons and barrettes in it’s mane and tail, a colorful rainbow blanket peeked out from beneath a sparkling pink and white saddle. It was a sight to behold and the minute all the other kids saw it the laughter had been nearly deafening.

Nola had two choices, ride that pony or not go. She was sort of frozen, not sure what to do. But in the moment, unsure, she chose to ride the pony, to try and suck it up. As if the humiliation weren’t already enough, though, someone had also given strict instructions to the stable owners that a guide needed to be provided with the pony as well. Even though Nola assured the young woman that it wasn’t necessary, she was unmoved, only following orders. So to add insult to injury this young woman, a teenager barely taller than Nola herself, insisted on holding the reigns and walking the pony the whole way. It was going to be humiliating.

She looked ridiculous on the little pony, like a giant on a toy horse. The other girls towered over her as one by one they headed down the woodland trail on their graceful mounts. The poor old Shetland was so slow, so tired, that halfway there she just stopped and would go no further. Try as the guide might, the poor beast would not be budged. Again Nola had a choice, either walk the rest of the way to catch up with the others, already miles ahead, or go home. This time Nola chose to go home. She walked rather than call her mother for a ride, trying not to cry the whole way.

The next day at school some of the girls made fun of her. They teased her for how ridiculous she looked riding the pretty little pony and they busted her chops for being such a baby that she couldn’t be a sport about the whole thing, that she went crying home to her mommy. It wasn’t true; she knew it was no innocent error. It was a purposeful joke meant to put her in her place, to let her know that she would never fit in. And she certainly didn’t cry to her mother. Her mother would not have understood. She would have thought it was an honest mistake; that the Van Matres had only tried to get a horse appropriate for her age. Kate would have thought they were being accommodating. Nola’s mom never seemed to get these things. The social nuances of middle school were lost on her. Nola couldn’t prove it wasn’t a miscommunication, of course, but she sure doubted it.

Apparently societal scorn at this advanced age could be subtle. It was different than the overt treatment Nola had gotten from her peers before. Their acts had been obvious, quick. This new echelon needed careful navigation; schemes were potentially more elaborate. After Gwen’s party Nola had waited for another incident, another situation. But there had been none, none until Melanie Woodman’s party.

Understandably Nola was worried the slumber party at Melanie Woodman’s house was another set-up. She was right, it was, but not by Melanie. Poor Melanie had been an unwitting pawn in another of Gwen Van Matre’s attempts to humiliate Nola. This time though, it backfired.

Monday, April 27, 2009

the accident

(I wrote this earlier on the day I received my own phone call)

“Today is the day.”

She’d tried not to think about it, to stay busy. She had a pile of magazines to flip through, painted her toe nails, but strangely it was cleaning that she was drawn to. She sorted out the pantry, sorted out the laundry, for some reason sorting things engrossed her now, it was mind numbing, just what she needed. The thought of that was actually kind of funny. Of all the things to bring her relief from the waves of anxiety, that cleaning would do it was practically hilarious, so not typical of her. Graham might even think it was funny if he were there, might even crack a smile or make a joke. Maybe she should have told him after all. But of course, that would open doors she preferred to keep closed. At least for now.

Still, whenever Kate had a lull in those mundane household activities, that sentence popped right back in her head again. “Today is the day.” Today she would find out what the lumps in her breast were, the results from the biopsy would be available some time today. There’d be a call. A stranger, someone she didn’t know would be on the phone and would give her some sort of news.

She already knew what they weren’t. They weren’t simple cysts, they weren’t simple anything. They were definitely something. The mammogram and ultrasound had disproved they’re being nothing. But the type of something they could be was so variable as to make one’s head spin. The biopsy results would answer some, perhaps even all her questions. Or it could end up merely creating more questions. But in some way today would either be a beginning or an ending, it would change her entire life or it would go on as before, all would be decided for her in practically an instant. That huge difference would be determined for her by a voice at the other end of the phone.

The waiting was the hardest part. It was agony. Time for the mind to go to every dark corner; to explore every black hole. But perhaps the worst part was no one stopped her from going there. No one said she was over reacting, that it was nothing, she was being silly, letting her imagination run wild. That’s what she usually heard when she worried. In fact, people often seemed annoyed at her when she was anxious, like her worry was a source of irritation, a bother. She was, after all, a ninny as her mother tagged her, someone who over reacted. That label she new well, she wore so often that it almost felt comfortable. She half wished someone would call her that now.

But this time no one got annoyed with her for crying, no one told her to get a hold of herself. No one said she was over reacting. And that was what scared her the most. Because there’d only been one other time in her entire life when that had happened, when no one told her she was being a ninny, and the results then had been worse than unthinkable.

That night, that awful night when she and Graham had realized as the sirens screamed that Ethan wasn’t in the house, that he’d slipped out into the darkness, her first instinct was to run towards the sound. As she flung open the door she immediately thought any second Graham would tell her to stop being such an idiot, not to go running out into the night aimlessly. But he didn’t. He was right beside her. In fact he quickly passed her, outrunning her easily, his long legs covered more ground faster than she could. Did he look back to see if she was keeping up? She couldn’t remember now.

As she watched him race ahead and reach the main road at end of their peaceful little street the flashing lights of police cars and ambulances cast weird light patterns, a dancing red and orange glow against his rapid moving form. A police officer tried to stop him but Graham threw him aside like he was a rag doll and disappeared amongst the closely crowded emergency vehicles. As Kate herself finally got closer, another officer grabbed her but she wasn’t so strong as Graham. The man held her with all his might and after struggling for a moment she collapsed in his arms, unable to catch her breath, her chest pounding in a surreal rhythm with the flashing lights.

She barely remembered getting to the hospital, that same police officer drove her, or was it another one? Graham had been driven too but they weren’t taken in the same car together. Why was that? In all these years that small nuance hadn’t occurred to her until just now.

It wasn’t because he rode in the ambulance with Ethan; she knew that. Kate had thought that at first and was heartbroken, angry even. A child as young as Ethan should have his mother near him if he’s hurt…it’s the mother that comforts, that soothes, why would they let Graham go instead of her? But later she found out a police officer had brought Graham too, he’d not been allowed in the ambulance. That was even worse. Ethan had been alone, with strangers. Just like he’d been alone in the dark on the street, just like he’d been alone by the front door waiting for his father to come home.

Only later did Kate grow to understand that Ethan was already gone when they’d reached the accident scene, that it was merely a formality, a valiant production to make sure every last possible effort was made before pronouncing him dead. The wait for news then seemed insufferable but now Kate wondered how long it had really been…an hour perhaps, surely not much more.

Graham had looked so pale, so grim, so vulnerable as they sat waiting. She’d never seen him like that and never would again. Kate had been afraid to look at him too long, let alone to speak to him; afraid just the sound of her voice or the feel of her gaze would push him over the edge. She kept thinking of his mother’s story about how the loss of her siblings, that final loss of the baby Nolan, had been what did Deirdre’s father in, it had caused his death in her opinion. Had he been a strong man before that, Kate wondered, or was he weak like her?

Eventually the burning question in Kate’s throat could be contained no more and she had to break the silence, had to chance shattering Graham’s fragile, contained grip. But the question came out of her mouth wrong; it wasn’t what she really wanted to know.

“Did you see him, did you get to see him?”

His answer was terse, choked, short, “Yes.” And with that he stood up and walked away a few feet, waving his hand as if to say, “no more”.

What Kate really wanted to know was, “Did Ethan see you, did he know you were there?” For some reason her brain wouldn’t let her ask that, her lips couldn’t form those specific words. Later she found out the definitive answer, the impossibility of her hope that her son had known at least one of his parents was there with him.

The phone rang and Kate snapped back to the present. She stared at it a moment and let it ring one more time, then slowly reached for the receiver.

Today is the day.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

if only

It had always been hard to think about that day in any detail, even years and years later. Not because she forgot, that could never happen. It was because the details made it excruciating, made it just that much more unbearable. They revealed how preventable, how avoidable it all was. That was the part that could stay hidden in silence, in the vagaries faded by time. To even think about the details lead to the inevitable “if only” and that sick feeling of wanting to reverse time, to take it all back and erase it.

Kate could clearly remember what Ethan was like right before it happened, those last hours of what would end up being his final day on earth. He was excited to go trick or treating, jazzed up about his Batman costume, impatient to go. He didn’t know something bad was going to happen, of course, but that wasn’t the part that really got to Kate. What haunted her most was the thought that at some point he did get scared, did feel he was in danger. She hoped that wasn’t the case, that he got to stay happy and bright, his innocence protected right up until the very last second. He might have just been going happily along when that car hit him, completely unaware. But he also might have been scared, realized he was lost, crying for her, wondering why she hadn’t come for him, wondering where his Mommy was.

She could talk for hours on end about Ethan. It filled her with happiness, kept him alive, kept him from fading away into nothingness. But she rarely retold the last bit of the story of that day, not about how it all had transpired, what lead up to it.

Graham never talked about it either, of course, but then he never talked about Ethan in any way so it was less noticeable. In all these years Kate had always blamed herself completely and only barely let herself form the thought that it was his fault too. On some level she’d known, believed it in some internal way. But she didn’t let the idea take full shape; she kept it in the shadows, away from the light. Even when they spent all that time waiting at the hospital, she never once went there. He had looked so grim. Was it because she didn’t have the heart; did she feel sorry for him?

Eventually the idea took hold, came out of the shadows into the glaring light of consciousness. But she still wouldn’t say it out loud. Kate would never give him the chance to defend himself or try to twist it around to being solely her fault. Because everything that ever happened was her fault. So of course he would never say he was sorry, he never would say that he had made a mistake. Graham had never apologized for anything in all the years she knew him. He felt justified, right in every single thing he did. He was so sure about everything, so absolutely sure of himself at all times that it would never occur to him to say he was sorry. He didn’t think he’d ever made a single error.

Kate couldn’t imagine what that felt like. Her whole life she second-guessed nearly everything she did, everything she thought. But not this, not anymore. This was the one time she was sure she was right. She knew in every fiber of her being Graham was to blame as much as she was. And she knew he knew it too, because he would have had at her, at some point during all these years he would have ripped her to shreds if he could have, if he thought even remotely that it was her responsibility alone. But he never had, and that’s how she knew. That was as close as you would get to seeing a guilty conscious in him.

When Nola began asking questions about that day it made Kate feel nervous and uncomfortable. She told Nola it was too painful for her to think about, and it was. She’d been so open and free with Ethan’s life story; Nola had always been such a willing listener to every tale. Eventually she relented, told about the accident, the hospital, the funeral, wine made her brave. But this part of the story was different. Now Kate wished she had told her, destroyed her father forever in her eyes. Nola already thought he was mean, cruel. This would finish the job, annihilate him and show him up for the uncaring monster he really was. Maybe then Nola would stop blaming her alone for so much of her childhood sorrow.

She could tell Nola how Graham hadn’t called out that day, hadn’t simply said, “I’m home.” If he had, Kate would have told him Ethan was waiting by the front door for him, had been waiting not so patiently because Graham was late, as usual. Ethan was whining and fidgeting and Kate had needed a break, she’d left him there in the foyer to wait and watch for Daddy to get home through the glass door while she went upstairs and started cleaning up. If Graham had only called out she would have told him where Ethan was and then when he didn’t find the boy there waiting where Kate had left him they would have realized he must have slipped out of the house, somehow opened the door and gone out into the evening in a dark colored costume, barely three years old, never crossing a street by himself yet. They would have searched for him sooner, found him before…

But Graham didn’t call out to her when he got home because he was angry. That was nothing new, he was always angry, always in a rage about something she had done or hadn’t done. He wouldn’t speak to her; she was beneath him because of her stupidity, her endless fuck-ups and mistakes. She never lived up to his expectations and he seethed at her for it. It was his hate, his anger and her willingness to silently endure it that had killed their son.

Graham thought she was already out with Ethan, that she’d given up waiting and took him out trick or treating herself. She saw his car in the driveway from the upstairs window and then when she peeked over the railing and looked by the front door Ethan was gone, she’d thought Graham came home and took him without saying a word, typical of him. They didn’t realize that neither one of them had him, didn’t realize that Ethan had gotten out on his own, until it was too late. Until they heard the fiercely close sirens screaming and each came to the front window too look, finally seeing each other and realizing, immediately, silently, their mistake. Fearing the worst, running down the short little street, following that roaring sound, as it grew louder, bringing them closer to the unthinkable.

Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Melanie's house

Melanie Woodman’s house was probably the largest one in Darlington. Her family was thought by most to be the richest in town, but it was very new money; obscene compared to the well established Darlingtons, Ramseys, and Coopers, the upper middleclass decedents of the original founding families. Their old money had come from the town, from business they built and farms they once ran, and then been put right back into Darlington Township when they donated endowments to schools or parks, offering land for the college. Their families had been in the northern New Jersey area since before the 1700’s. Unlike the Woodmans, who by those standards were relative newcomers.

Melanie’s family bought what was locally known as “The Manor” from the Avanti family, also late arrivals to the area, less than a decade ago. But originally the house had belonged, like so many of the grander ones, to members of the Darlington family. In fact it had been the final jewel in the family crown, when their wealth was at its peak. All that farming money and the prosperity from local businesses, had been sunk into the costly house, built before the great crash, in the early 20’s. Architecturally it was a hodgepodge, part late Craftsman, with Japanese elements, and part English Tudor. The house was singular, both for it’s style, surrounding property, and immense size.

Melanie Woodman’s father worked on Wall Street, though Nola didn’t know what he did there and suspected Melanie didn’t either. When she walked up the long bricked drive lined with various species of dwarf Japanese maples and eerily shaped lava rocks tucked amongst a carpet of woodchips and pachysandra, she felt small, like she didn’t belong in this landscape, this world. But when Nola rang the doorbell it was Mrs. Woodman herself that answered, and the greeting she received was welcoming, in fact, almost too much so.

“Oh!” Mrs. Woodman squealed with delight, “You must be Nola Collins, oh Honey, you look just like the picture of your Daddy on his book jackets, come in, come in.” Nola was ushered into a large foyer with a slate floor and coffered ceiling, dark wood beams stained to look like ebony framed the space like a cathedral and looked harsh against the soft ochre walls. There was a fountain with water bubbling up out of polished river stones and Oriental vases in niches on the walls. In the center of the foyer was a red and black lacquered table topped by a potted orchid paired with a jade-toned Buddha statue, serenely gazing at all who entered. The space had the feel of a Japanese restaurant, Nola half expected Mrs. Woodman to be wearing a brightly colored Kimono. Instead there was one hanging on the wall going up the massive, angular staircase.

Mrs. Woodman noticed Nola taking in the d├ęcor. “Do you like Japanese art, Nola?” Before Nola could think of an answer Melanie’s mother continued, “I know you are really smart, Melanie tells me you are some kind of whiz kid. You probably know more about all this than even my husband does. Mr. Woodman’s hobby is collecting, you see. He was presented with a real Samurai sword once when he was on business in Japan and he was just so taken with it he got interested and started this collection. We bought the house because it just seemed to be screaming Japan, don’t you think?”

Nola thought the house might be screaming something else, but she chose not to answer. Instead she just nodded. Grown-ups like Mrs. Woodman rarely expected an actual answer, they just liked to ramble.

“Nola, could I get you something to drink, would you like a Pepsi?”

“No thank you.”

“Well, before I send you off to where the rest of the kids are, just tell me,” and her voice dropped to a whisper, “what is your father working on right now? Mr. Woodman might be a fan of Oriental object d’art, but my love has always been cowboys and Indians. I adored all those old westerns when I was a kid, couldn’t get enough of them…you know, Gunsmoke, Bonanza, oh, and John Wayne movies…oh my.” Her voice again rose to it’s former bubbly heights, “Girls my age loved the Beatles or Elvis but give me The Duke from those old movies and I would just swoon,” Melanie’s mother giggled in a way Nola thought impossible past the age of sixteen. Just then Melanie herself came into the foyer.

“Hi Nola, come on, we’re in the game room. Mom, can you tell Sandy to bring down more sodas?” And with that Nola was taken by the arm and led down a hall, then further down a large flight of stairs and into an expansive basement room. There were no windows, but the room was light and bright, canned spotlights dotted the vast low ceiling and sconces lined the pale yellow walls. The room looked like a cross between an old fashioned arcade and a casino. There were pinball machines, a jukebox, slot machines and even a roulette wheel. At one end of the long room was a billiard table and at the other, a ping-pong table. Nola was dumb struck; she’d never seen anything quite like this. She felt immediately out of place, and more than a little apprehensive. She had no idea how to play most of these games. She didn’t want to look like a fool. As she glanced around she also noticed something else that made her nervous. There were boys here! She held her sleeping bag a little tighter and wondered if she’d misunderstood, had it not been an invite for a slumber party? Was it to be coed? Melanie’s mother didn’t strike Nola as the type to sanction that.

As if reading her mind, Melanie said, “The boys are here until 9:00, after that they have to go home. You can put your sleeping bag over there, with everyone else’s,” and she pointed to a pile of more than a dozen sleeping bags dumped into a heap in a small alcove at one end of the room. When Nola dropped her bag in the appointed spot, she noticed there was a door to the outside; it had glass panels that were painted black and was ornately carved, with an old iron doorknob and gargoyle knocker. Melanie said, “That used to go to the outside, but the bulkhead doors were bricked over when they built the solarium. Now we just call it ‘the stairs to nowhere’ -- see?” and she opened the wooden door to reveal concrete steps that went right up to a brick ceiling. Suddenly there was a burst of laughter from the other side of the room and Melanie excused herself, leaving Nola alone to survey the other guests. She wished she could just stay in this corner, tucked away, and watch for the rest of the night.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

nothing done

It was morning, light streamed around the edge of the window shades in pale streaks across the dark room. Kate looked at the clock, 9:30. Good, they’d both be gone now. Just in case she lay there, listening for any sounds indicating otherwise, but all seemed quiet. She climbed out of bed and grabbed the big, thick blue robe that lay on top of the pile of dirty clothes closest to the nightstand, wrapping herself up against the morning chill. She tiptoed out of the room and listened at the top of the stairs again. Still silent.

Downstairs in the kitchen while she waited for the water to boil she scooped coffee into the press and added sugar to the bottom of her large mug, three heaping spoonfuls. It was a lot, but she would be good for the rest of the morning; that was the plan, she would not eat until noon, this will be breakfast. No need to deprive myself of caffeine in the process, she thought. A good cup of coffee will do wonders for me. It will make things easier. Maybe the energy will get me going today.

While she waited for the coffee to steep she looked out the window over the sink. It’s a shame this was the window that had the best view of the woods, at least on the first floor. The upstairs windows were like being in the treetops, either thick and green, too dense for sunlight, or bare and stark revealing the harsh brilliant sky, depending on the season. But down here you could see the narrow straight trunks and the woodland floor dotted with patches of ferns. You could also see some of the old rock wall the farmers had laid long ago, lichen covered stones marked out some sort of boundary that no longer mattered to anyone.

Graham had joked once when they first moved in that maybe the pretty view would entice her to do the dishes more often. She hated it when he joked like that, because it wasn’t a joke, it was a subtle reminder of some way she failed to meet his expectations. He didn’t ever tease her about something sweet, something pleasant, only her bad housekeeping or forgetfulness, her carelessness. He’d laugh at her when he wasn’t angry. Sometimes she almost preferred his anger; at least it was honest.

When she looked down from the window into the sink she noticed for the first time in ages it was empty. Either he had loaded the dishwasher or he’d made Nola do it. Kate never did it anymore; she didn’t even make a pretense towards acting like she would.

Kate had always hated doing housework; she hated it with a passion. She felt demeaned by it and overwhelmed at the mere thought of being responsible for even the most basic amount of upkeep. Cleaning the bathroom every week felt daunting, vacuuming was monumental, dusting seemed pointless and doing the dishes was a new low in drudgery. Of course, one couldn’t say that, one couldn’t admit to having no intention of keeping their house clean. Everyone else in the world just accepted that this was part of life, this was just one of those things you had to do like brushing your teeth or paying taxes. But secretly Kate had never quite accepted the inevitability of having to clean a house. She considered it a large defect in her character.

When she worked they had paid for a cleaning woman to come in. Kate had paid, out of her salary. That was heaven, a relief beyond description. No one expected her to clean, to scrub, to wash anything beyond her own dishes. She managed that, it seemed small in comparison when isolated like that, the only cleaning required of her. A few pots, pans and plates seemed minor in the scheme of life.

But once she quit her job she was expected to start cleaning again the way she was supposed to when Nola was little. Only back then Graham’s mother had helped out a lot, especially when Nola was a baby. Kate’s postpartum depression had lingered longer than usual; to be expected after all she went through. She was still ill from the eclampsia and had lost weight, being that sickly Kate was obviously overwhelmed by motherhood alone and little was expected of her. Adding to it all, Nola was colicky and Graham was busy with one of his books. It didn’t seem so odd to have her mother in law “help”. Deirdre had been so happy to do it, she gladly did all the housework, most of the cooking, while Kate just slept and nursed the baby. When it was time for her to take over she could never live up to Deirdre’s ability, she realized her best bet was to try and get a job, she wasn’t cut out to be a stay at home mother. By the time Nola was old enough Kate was well and went back to work part time. Problem solved.

Now since she’d been out of work the house was a total disaster. Graham was refusing to do all but the bare essentials and they were both making Nola do more than her fair share. Kate knew this, she could see it, but she felt powerless to change.

Every day she woke up and thought that this day would somehow be different. This would be the day she made herself get up off her ass and clean or cook or do something productive. Every day she sat down with her morning coffee in the armchair by the window with the vague intent to plan her day, what she would do, when she would do it. But she never actually left the chair. Before she knew it the whole day had been spent eating and watching TV, daydreaming, planning and procrastinating and then suddenly she’d see Nola come down the street carrying her books. Kate would dash upstairs before she made it to the front door. She couldn’t face Nola, still in her bathrobe, nothing done, nothing changed since the girl left seven hours ago. If she could have crawled under the floorboards and disappeared she would have. Shame at that moment was sharp and sudden, choking; it felt like a noose around her neck.

Yet the next day she would begin again, and again it would end the same. The truth was deep down she didn’t care anymore if days went by, weeks, years even. On her own Kate really didn’t care if all she did for the rest of her life was read, watch TV and eat her way to even further enormity. It was only when she saw herself through someone else’s eyes that it made her feel badly. Then she was forced to see what she really was, a pathetic, lazy person, incapable of mastering even basic life skills. In the presence of others she saw how insignificant her life had become. Even enveloped in her increasing size she felt small, miniscule. No matter how big she got she would always be nothing.

There was something wrong with her that she couldn’t even muster up enough desire to run a vacuum. What kind of person was this overwhelmed by ordinary housework, by ordinary life? Someone extraordinarily screwed up. Damaged. The thought occurred to her, in moments of clarity, that she needed help. But the thought of asking for help, of admitting she was this far gone, only filled her with more shame.

So the answer seemed to be just staying inside, avoiding people. If you didn’t go out and no one came in you could hide and just live in peace, alone, in quiet, simple, undemanding peace. There would be no one to make assessments, no one to judge. You couldn’t fail if you didn’t do anything. It was easy. At least until Nola or Graham came home.

Then the cocoon was broken and pretending didn’t work anymore. It was difficult to maintain a normal demeanor around Graham and Nola; it seemed phony under the circumstances, and exhausting besides. So when they were home Kate stayed in her room if at all possible. She would get in bed and if they came up to see her she would say she was sick, a migraine, some other malady. Graham never came up. Nola did, but she never stayed long.

Otherwise, if she were downstairs with them and one of them cleaned in her presence, if one of them started doing dishes or if she came into a room while they were dusting or about to vacuum, it was like a smack in the face, it was like being yelled at or degraded. They knew she should be doing that, and she knew that’s what they were thinking. She could feel the resentment emanating off of them like heat. Graham’s silence was brutal; Nola’s pitiful.

She was better off alone, better off in bed, like an invalid, someone for whom simple tasks were completely beyond. Simple things like cleaning a house and…taking care of a child. She hadn’t even managed the simple task of keeping her child alive. Not unscathed, not perfect, just alive. Everyone else seemed to do it, or if they didn’t it was due to plagues or horrific circumstances beyond their control. But Ethan’s death wasn’t beyond her control. It was preventable. Yet she didn’t prevent it, did she? It would have been preventable for a different mother, a normal mother. A normal mother would have a live child and clean floors.

And then she’d remember that she did now have a live child who still needed clean floors and a normal, functioning mother. And if it were possible, Kate would then feel even worse.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Ethan deserves better

On the weekends when Kate came home after showing a house, she would shed her work items, peeling things off one by one…keys in the dish on the foyer table, purse hung on the hall rack, suit jacket on the newel post, paper jammed briefcase in the closet, shoes with panty hose stuffed in them placed on the bottom step of the staircase, off to the side. Graham’s rules were everything had to be kept neat, nothing lying around. The shoes and jacket were a compromise, if they were on the stairs to go up and you were still downstairs then that was okay, acceptable.

Next Kate would go into the kitchen and head straight for the wine, kept in the lower cabinet to the right of the sink. She’d use an old fashioned glass, not a wine goblet, and fill it to near the top, leaving just enough room for an ice cube. Then she would go into the living room, close the drapes and sit in the dark with her feet up on the couch, still in her remaining work clothes. After about half an hour, her wine finished, she’d be asleep, curled up in a near fetal position and snoring softly.

Nola watched this process, or some parts of it, often. If she had something to talk to her mother about, Kate would invariably tell her to wait, to give her some time to decompress as she called it, like she was coming up to the surface and didn’t want to rush the process lest she get the bends. The stories of the day would wait. Monday morning permissions slips would wait. Help fixing a toy would wait. Even bedtime, hours later, would wait.

Most of the time, but not always, well after 8:00 in the evening Kate would rouse herself off the sofa and come in to the kitchen, ostensibly to start dinner. She’d mumble something about, “why’d you let me sleep so long?” as she automatically opened the fridge or went to the stove. Inevitably she would discover that dinner had already been taken care of, some semblance of sandwiches or take out, the remains of which were evidence that finally made Kate realize the meal was over without her. At this she would say, “Well then, fine,” and with an annoyed huff she would go back to the cabinet where the wine was kept, pour another glass and take it with her upstairs to the spare room. She stayed there till morning.

On occasion, Kate stayed on the couch, never even attempting to fake making dinner. At some point during the night she would wake up and go upstairs, because Nola never found her there in the morning.

Nola's father would come and go throughout this, depending on his schedule at school or what book he was working on. Sometimes he would be locked in his study writing while Kate slept on the couch, sometimes he’d come home and shower, get ready and go back to school for workshops or evening classes, or to do research in the library. He told Nola to make sandwiches for them both if he was working at home, or sometimes he’d tell her to order food and he’d grab a slice of pizza or carton of Chinese food to take back to the college with him. Nola always ate alone on the weekends now.

Graham wasn’t quiet as he went about the house, he would slam things as usual, thump around, pound up and down the stairs. Kate never stirred. Nola always wondered if her mom was pretending, like playing dead.

On the days when Kate was there when Nola got home from school, it was a little different. She would announce brightly, enthusiastically that she felt like a little wine, as if it were a novelty. She would also announce that she wasn’t going to use the good glasses, why bother, it was just her after all. For the rest of the afternoon Kate would sit in the kitchen drinking her wine, only replenishing her glass when she thought no one was looking. Nola noticed the glass was refilled if she left and came back, so she knew her mother must be furtively pouring while she was gone.

If Nola were busy, playing outside or in her room, Kate would look at the calendar and “figure things out” or sort thru the mail, do her nails, putter around, eventually get dinner started. Nola would happen into the kitchen now and then and that’s the kind of stuff she would see her mother doing. She never talked on the phone anymore, unless it was business.

But most of the time, on afternoons as Kate drank her wine in the kitchen, always in the kitchen, most of the time she talked. She would tell Nola all about how things were going for her at work, she’d tell stories about the people in her office, or the people to whom she showed houses or the people who were selling them, and especially she’d tell Nola all about the houses themselves. She liked to talk about architecture, history, even town planning and zoning. Kate loved to talk about her work. She loved to talk about the people she met and the houses she saw.

Eventually, though, it always happened that some story, some person or house, would remind her of Ethan. All stories lead to Ethan. When Nola was little she used to like her mother’s Ethan stories. She liked them because they made her mother happy to tell them. She liked them because her mother would let her stay up late to hear them. She also liked them because her mother only told the nice ones.

But now, especially when Kate was drinking wine for a while, now the stories were not always the happy ones. Now sometimes Kate talked about sad things, about the accident, the hospital and about the funeral. And each time she would tell Nola these stories she acted like it was for the first time, forgetting that just yesterday, or the day before, or many times before that, she had told the same story. Kate forgot things from one day to the next.

Nola was fascinated by all of it at first. She had only heard bits and pieces, only been able to surmise or guess at things that had happened based on the little she’d heard. So when her mother began filling in the gory details Nola ate them up greedily, hungry to understand all facets of the Ethan story, all the mysterious parts she had been left out of. She egged her mother on, let her repeat herself, hoping to gain a better picture of what had happened, how things had been.

But after a few months the repetitive stories made Nola uncomfortable. They made her sad, but it was more than that. Nola couldn’t help feel that Kate was using Ethan somehow; she was using his death for some sort of explanation, an excuse. Because of Ethan things weren’t the way they were supposed to be. Because of Ethan life had gone in a certain mistaken direction. Because of Ethan everything was wrong. Nola felt defensive for her dead brother. It wasn’t his fault, he couldn’t help being dead. Nola liked it better when her mother was happy about the memories or sad about the loss, she didn’t like it when Kate used Ethan to rationalize. Ethan was more than that. He deserved better than that.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

the invitation

Nola watched from the swings as the other girls sat on the steps outside the cafeteria. It seemed like every girl in her class sat there, she was practically the only one that didn’t. Well, there was Gracie Cooper, but she was an odd child, not quite right. Kate had said once something about her being “mainstreamed” and that being a mistake. And then there were the Sylvester twins, Lisa and Jenny. They were always together and didn’t seem to care about being with anyone else. Nola tried not to care, too. She tried very hard to pretend she didn’t care. But she did.

So when Melanie Woodman suddenly appeared in front of her, out of nowhere, blocking the strong afternoon sun as she stood before her, Nola was startled. She almost fell off the swing. Melanie didn’t seem to notice.

“I’m having a sleep over next weekend and I’m inviting every girl from class. Here,” she said, shoving an invitation at Nola, who almost dropped it when she awkwardly reached for it. “You don’t have to come,” Melanie said matter of fact, and then turned to walk away. However she stopped a few feet beyond Nola, turned back around, and added in what sounded like a genuine attempt at being nice, “But I guess it’d be cool if you did,” and with that she walked back over to the steps full of chattering girls.

Nola watched, a little wary. She expected to see Melanie say something to the crowd and then hear a twitter of giggles, to see some of them make a face or in some way reveal their true feelings about Nola having even been spoken to let alone receiving an invitation to Melanie’s home, that it was all some sort of joke or trick. But no such reaction followed. They seemed to continue their conversations; their behavior was unchanged. Nola looked at the invitation and started to open it, half expecting it to be empty or have some sort of hoax hidden inside instead of a real invite. Then she realized that if that were the case she would be playing right into their hands, becoming their afternoon entertainment. And if it wasn’t a prank, well, it might look lame if she were so suspicious. She decided to wait until she got home.

The rest of the day went as usual. No one spoke to her; no one paid any attention to her at all. Nola was invisible to her classmates, and why not? She didn’t belong there; she wasn’t like the rest of them. They were almost three years older than her but it might as well have been three hundred years. They probably thought she was either a baby or a freak. She wasn’t interested in the same things they were, didn't get their fads, their inside jokes went over her head.

She didn't belong with kids her own age, either, and they certainly didn’t like her, that was clear. They thought she was stuck up, too smart for her own good. “Genius Freak,” that’s what they called her, being smart was some sort of insult requiring an epithet, shameful and weird.

After school when she got home she went to her room as quickly as possible, rooted around in her backpack and dug out the invite. Carefully she opened the small pink envelope, inside was a regular invitation, complete with glitter and little bits of confetti tucked in. The card looked in order, the right date, time, she knew the address was correct because it was only a few miles away and she passed it on her way to school every day. Everything looked legitimate. The RSVP date was the day after tomorrow. She needed to think about this, make sure she considered the possibilities.

In the end she decided to go.

She would ride her bike there instead of having her mom drive her. That way if anything happened she could leave in a hurry, on her own steam. Nola figured she could hide the bike in a little patch of woods about a block or so before Melanie’s house and walk the rest of the distance, that way no one could do anything to the bike and prevent her from leaving if she needed to. She thought it all through, planned for every contingency. She would be cautious and on guard. Based on her experience with kids her own age she knew you had to be. But maybe these girls were different.

When Nola had first been told she'd be skipped ahead two grade levels, she was both nervous and relieved. All the kids from her old grade had thought she was a huge pain in the ass, so she had no friends, everyone hated her. Nola raised her hand too much, she knew all the answers and read everything quicker than anyone else in the class. Of course, Nola didn’t realize she was different at first. During the early days of school, back in kindergarten and first grade, she thought everyone was just like her. By the time she understood, it was too late. She’d already established her reputation as a know it all. Being a know it all was a sin worse than having red hair, or wearing glasses or even being fat. It was worse than all three combined.

So far, with the exception of one girl, Gwen Van Matre, her new eighth grade classmates pretty much ignored her as long as she left them alone and stayed quiet. There was that incident at Gwen's birthday party in the beginning of the year, but Nola could have misunderstood, it could have been an innocent mistake.

But back in her old grade with the kids that knew her all along, it had been different, there was no misunderstanding. Their cruelty seemed to have no bounds. They would roll their eyes whenever she walked by, mock her if she spoke at all. It became a popular schoolyard pastime to do exaggerated imitations of "Know-It-All-Nola"...to see who could string together the largest made-up words and mange to say them in as pretentious and pompous a tone as possible.

The first few times Nola was made fun of she went home crying to her mother. Kate had told her that the kids were just teasing, to try and laugh it off and not pay any attention. Nola had tried, but that only seemed to egg them on to go to further extremes, to do wilder and more inflated imitations, and worse. It was only the beginning. She was a convenient target for merciless ridicule. Alone, culled from the herd she was weak, vulnerable, a perfect scapegoat. Her backpack would mysteriously disappear; she would trip on unseen feet as she walked down the hall or in the cafeteria, sending her food flying and causing the cafeteria staff to hate her too. Even a couple of the teachers had joined in the derisive laughter a few times, in spite of themselves. Towards the end of the last school year it had gotten physical, violent. Nola came home bruised and scraped from being pushed around, punched. That’s when the school system intervened.

Nola was hopeful now that she was with the eighth graders, hopeful but still cautious, once burned twice shy, like Grandee used to say. Still, these older girls seemed less physically rowdy, they were more aloof and Nola took that for maturity, for seriousness, perhaps even for the chance to be safe. She thought that if she simply remembered to keep it dialed back a notch, didn’t put herself out there, she might at least just slide through, slip by disregarded and unnoticed.

She couldn’t have been more wrong.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

doors

“You’re so worried about healing this big rift between me and Dad, so worried about how we’ll get along after you’re gone,” Nola said the word 'gone' sarcastically, over dramatizing it for effect, “you just don’t get it.”

“What, what don’t I get, should I not care about you, about how he’ll be to you if I’m dead?”

“No, that’s not it, you should, I guess, but it’s not the only thing…”

“Nola, I know it’s not the only thing, I would like to take care of everything, so many…but I don’t know how much time I’ll have. I have to take care of what I can, do the important stuff first…”

“But you are the important stuff, you are the one…you are the one who might be leaving and we, our…this sucks, the way we are, our relationship sucks as much as mine and Dad’s does, more.”

“How can you say that? Look, I know I’ve made mistakes. I...I’d do a lot of things differently…”

“Tell me that, Damn it, tell me stuff like that! I need to know what you regret, I need to know that you know how badly you fucked up with me, that you wish…that you wish you could have loved me.”

“Nola! I’ve always loved you.”

“Yeah, maybe, but not as much as him, never as much as him and you blame me for that.”

“Nola, that’s not true, it may have seemed like …”

“It’s not my fault.” And with that Nola began to shake, to physically vibrate. She seemed wild eyed, like a caged animal pent up finally set free, yet disoriented, not knowing which way to go.

Kate took a step closer, tried to pacify her, to speak calmly, soothing, the way she would to a wounded child, “What’s not your fault, honey, tell me?”

“I got to live just because he died. You would never have had me if he hadn’t died. How do you think that feels, to know that I’m the replacement kid? You blame me for not working out the way you hoped but it’s not my fault because no one could replace Ethan…no one could replace any one but even if they could no one could replace Ethan because you would never have let them. Even if I’d been perfect you never let anyone in to that…space, that space that was his. You let me look, you let me see what that kind of motherly love looked like, you told me stories of how much you adored him, how everyone loved Ethan. You let me see what being loved like that might look like, but you never gave it to me, never let me touch it or feel it for myself.”

Nola was pacing now, tears streaming down her face, black eyeliner and mascara streaking down her cheeks, her body wracked with sobs, her breath exaggerated and gulping. “Don’t you think, don’t you know that was worse torture than any way Daddy could have treated me? You sold me a bill of goods about motherhood, painted me this glorious picture and then denied me the chance to have any of it.”

“But do you know what’s worse? I don’t even know if it actually exists at all in real life. I mean, did you really love Ethan like that? Or was that all just another delusion, just the way you dreamed it should be, so you convinced yourself that’s the way it was. But the truth is, the truth is you just told me all that stuff to make yourself feel better, to make you feel like a better person, a better mother. That way you could forgive yourself for not loving me…that way it could be my fault for not being like him or Ethan’s fault for ripping out your heart when he died but you never blamed yourself.”

Nola began to scream, her fists held tightly at her sides, her whole body rigid, “But it was your fault, Mom, yours and yours alone and I will never forgive you! Do you hear me, never! So take that to your grave with Ethan. I hope the two of you will be very happy together rotting in the mud!”

Kate stared at Nola like a dazed deer caught in headlights. Her mind swaying, trying to take in what she was hearing, what she was seeing. She tried to think of what to say next, but her thoughts were jumbled, words seemed garbled in her throat like she had tried to swallow marbles and couldn’t get them down, she was silently choking on the impact of all her daughter had said.

Nola stood, finally still, and glared at Kate, glowered at her with an intensity that seemed to give off heat. For one second they stayed locked in each other’s eyes, one enraged, one choking, both staring, frozen. Then Nola shook her head slightly in disgust and spit on the floor in front of Kate’s feet. She turned around and thundered out of the room. When Nola reached the front door she grabbed her bag from the hook off the hall rack so violently that she tore one end of the brackets holding it right out of the wall. As the screw was stripped from the wall it made an awful scraping sound and bits of plaster crumbled. The rack swung down on one end, sending everything hanging on it flying to the floor with a thud. The empty hall rack teetered on the wall for a moment as Nola stared at it. Then she walked out the door, slamming it with all her might, harder than her father had slammed it hundreds of times, harder than all the slammed doors of a lifetime. The frosted glass window smashed, the rack fell off the wall the rest of the way, and books went flying off the shelves in the parlor.

Kate stood in the kitchen doorway taking in the carnage. She just stood there looking for a long time, holding on to the edge of her mother’s Hoosier cabinet for balance. Eventually she felt her throat loosen, her mind slowly stopped reeling. She closed her eyes and the shattering of the door glass replayed in slow motion in her mind. Each falling shard seemed to loosen the grip that held her stuck in that stunned silence, like all the pieces of her she’d been trying to hold together finally just fell apart. There was nothing left but a few jagged fragments clinging to an empty frame. She opened her eyes.

She knew something had to be done. She knew this had to be fixed; it couldn’t be left like this. And for the first time she realized it was up to her…she would have to repair this all by herself. She just didn’t know where to begin.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

in the dark

(grist for the mill)

Kate sat in the small, dark, ultrasound room and tried not to cry. She tried to think of anything that would distract her from the mounting panic she felt. She took the fleshy part of her hand, that plump bit at the base, between the index finger and thumb, and dug her fingernails in as hard as she could. Maybe the pain would distract her from thinking, keep her from the rising realization that filled her with terror.

The technician had been so matter of fact. No, it wasn’t a cyst. Definitely wasn’t that. She’d need a biopsy. That word, ominous and unbelievable. This couldn’t be happening.

But then again, why not, why couldn’t it be happening? She’d heard once, couldn’t remember where, but she’d heard something about a person lamenting, “why me, why oh why me?” The answer, coming from whom, perhaps it was supposed to be God -- Kate could not remember that either now...but the answer was clear and cold; “Why not you?”

But Kate had thought there was a different answer for her. Frankly, she'd thought she was exempt from this sort of thing. She was shocked, stunned, even stupefied at the possibility of it being true, that she might actually have breast cancer. She’d filled her quota for tragedy. She lost a child, wasn’t that enough, didn’t that excuse her from any more agony, wasn’t that enough of a price to pay for one lifetime?

She’d known people who seemed to have nothing but bad luck. One horrible thing after another seemed to befall them. Illness, poverty, loss, the worst of the worst. These people were perpetually bitter and morose, understandably so. But Kate always secretly imagined that somehow they were different, a certain type, a genetic species unto themselves. Maybe she even thought that they must be, in a cosmic karmic kind of way, at least partially to blame for their endless misfortunes.

The thought occurred to her now, sitting in the dark ultrasound room waiting for the technician to come back, that maybe their bitterness, forming as a result of the first things that went wrong in their sad lives, developed into a kind of growth, a festering attitude that drew more and more sorrow towards it, feeding off it in some kind of parasitic way. Had she done that, had she unwittingly caused this growth now in her breast? She’d done her fair share of wallowing, drowned herself in seas of bitterness. Was she in actuality just like one of those people? Was this her fault too?

The door opened suddenly and the light was turned on. “I’m sorry, I could have turned the light on before I left,” the chipper technician said, “I always do that, I always leave people in the dark,” she laughed. Kate couldn’t help herself; “I guess there’s a lot of that going on around here.” The technician stared at her, blankly. “Never mind,” Kate said quickly, “Bad joke.”

The technician had confirmed her findings with the radiologist; Kate would need to schedule a biopsy. She was told she could get referrals at the desk as she left. The last thing the ultrasound technician said was, “Good luck.”

Kate could tell that the woman didn’t hold out much hope, she was being nice but she knew something more than Kate did at this moment, probably a lot more than Kate did. No doubt working in a place like this you got to know what looked hopeful and what didn't. Kate was convinced she could see in the woman’s eyes a look of concealed pity.

There were things, pieces of information that she would have to find out in bits and pieces, a slow steady diet of facts and statistics, medical jargon and redirect. A process was beginning now, this minute, that would take a long time. Maybe there was hope, but it didn’t seem to look good, and this woman knew it, Kate could tell.

As Kate stepped out into the long hall and headed towards the cubical where her clothes and purse were, she saw at the other end a man holding a small boy, a toddler. All Kate could make out from that distance was that the boy had blond hair, like Ethan. But as she was walking towards him, as she got closer and closer, more details revealed themselves. With each step she saw a little more…the striped pattern of his little red shirt, the overalls he wore with the strap hanging off one shoulder, his fingers in his mouth, the sweep of his bangs to one side, the toy in his other hand, it was a little train…was it a Thomas train? With every step all the little details that made him someone specific, an individual child, were getting more and more fleshed out until she reached her cubical doorway and took what would be her closest look, the final degree of proximity revealing as much detail as she would ever have of this boy. She stopped and took it in. She could see his eyes now; they were dark. He held her gaze for a minute and then buried his head in his father’s, well, the man’s shoulder, shy, not wanting to interact with this stranger. Kate understood. She remembered how little boys could be at that age.

Back in her appointed cubical she had to force herself to focus and put her clothes on, make sure she gathered all her belongings and try to act normal, try to walk out of the radiology lab with dignity and make it to her car. Dignity seemed all she had left now. She just needed to make it to her car. When she stepped out of the cubical, dressed, she turned to look for the boy and the man holding him. They were gone.

Once inside her car she looked around to make sure she was alone, no one in the cars on either side of her. She thought she would cry right off the bat but she sat in stunned silence. Disbelief seemed to have numbed her momentarily.

She started thinking about that little boy. Was his mother there for a mammogram? Was she okay? Would his life go on, happy, blissfully safe for at least another day?

Maybe it was a good sign, this innocent little child, like Ethan telling her it was okay Mommy, it will all work out in the end. Or maybe it was a bitter reminder of how cruel, how short, how sinister life could be. She couldn’t decide which it was. Not today. Not here, not now.

And then she thought of Nola, and the tears came.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

bones to pick

Nola tried to will herself back to sleep but it was no use, she had to pee. She dreaded asking to use the bathroom and tried to put off getting up as long as possible, but it only made her have to go worse. Maybe he was almost done getting ready? But as she lay in bed Nola could still hear her father intermittently walking back and forth from bathroom to bedroom, the old floorboards creaking under the thick rug with each muffled footstep. She knew she’d never make it.

“Daddy, I’m sorry, but can I please use the bathroom? I have to go really bad.”

“You’ll have to wait,” came the curt reply.

Nola sat on the end of her bed, trying to watch for when her father was done with the bathroom without looking like she was being pesky. She didn’t know if he would tell her it was ok at some point, or if he meant that she had to wait until he was completely done getting ready, but there was no way she would ask which way he meant it.

She began to wiggle and tried to take her mind off going. As she waited she counted the flowers on her bedspread. Then she counted the stripes on her rug. Next she counted the polka dots on her curtains. She was running out of things to count and rocking back and forth.

“Go ahead, just hurry it up.”

“Thanks Daddy, I’m sorry.”

Nola pulled down her panties and hiked up her nightgown, barely making it to sit down on the seat before she started to pee. She leaned forward and pushed, trying to hurry it up. When she was finished she didn’t wash her hands; she could do that in the kitchen.

Once downstairs Nola could still hear that same intermittent walking back and forth until finally the master bedroom door closed. The next sound would be her father’s footsteps on the stairs; he was coming.

As her father entered the kitchen Nola said, “Good morning.” There was no reply. Sometimes that meant something, sometimes it didn’t. Nola sat very still at the table, moving only just enough to quietly continue eating her cereal. She tried to be careful and not eat too loudly, not to slurp her juice or scrape the spoon against the cereal bowl. He hated that noise in particular.

On the counter by the stove she watched her mother line up three coffee cups while her father stood waiting. Kate filled each cup halfway so there’d be room for plenty of milk. This was her father’s only breakfast; he never ate in the morning, except for Sundays when he got a bagel downtown. He poured milk into the first two cups and drank one of them standing over the sink. Then he took the second cup and headed out the side door and through the breezeway into the garage. The third cup sat there alone and black on the counter, waiting for his return. Nola could see the steam rise in a misty cloud over the mug. Her father liked his coffee hot, it really had to be boiling so the milk wouldn’t turn it too cold.

Nola knew that her father was meticulously cleaning the windshield of his car with Windex and paper towels, just like he did every single day. Rain or shine he always started out with a clean window to look through on his short drive to work. Nola thought it was funny that he cleaned the windshield even if it was raining or snowing. When she asked him why he did it, since it would just get dirty again, he said that it still made a difference, he said, “dirt adds up.”

When her father came in from the garage he had his usual wad of dirty paper towels in one hand and the empty coffee cup in the other. He didn’t have a garbage pail in the garage; he didn’t want any trash near his car. He never left his cups lying around, either. Nola wasn’t allowed to drink anywhere in the house except the kitchen because he didn’t want any cups or glasses left lying around. Things lying around would get him really mad.

After the garage Graham went into his study to polish his boots. With the thin walls and the open door Nola could hear him almost as clearly as if he were in the room with her. She knew by the sounds what he was doing every step of the way.

When Nola was a smaller child and liked to follow her father around she would watch Graham shine his shoes nearly every morning. She was fascinated by the process, loved the sharp metrical sounds of the brush and antiseptic, oily smell of the polished leather. Later, as she got a little older, she would peek at him from the butler’s pantry instead, hoping he wouldn’t notice her watching. But now she just listened from the kitchen to the familiar sounds.

First, he got out his shoeshine kit from the bottom desk drawer. She could hear the bag unzip, hear the can of polish being opened and then the unmistakable noise of her father spitting onto the surface of the thick paste to thin it out. Then there was a muffled sort of quiet, so he must be spreading the dark polish onto his cowboy boots with a soft brush, working it in all the nooks and crannies, every inch covered, no spot missed. The silence was broken by the rhythm of a stiff bristle brush as it brushed back and forth, evenly stroking across all sides of the well-worn boots. A few more moments of silent buffing with a cloth and he’d be done.

Once her father came back into the kitchen he took the last cup of coffee and added the milk. While he stood drinking it over the sink again, Nola’s mother finally put the milk away.

With his back turned to anyone that might be in the room, Nola’s father stared out the window drinking the last of his morning coffee. The routine was almost over now. Nothing had been slammed, no indication he was mad for any reason. If he didn’t say anything, if he didn’t have any bones to pick with her or her mother, then that meant everything was okay.

That’s what her father always said if he wanted to tell her she had done something wrong, or if she hadn’t done something she was supposed to do. “Listen,” he’d start off, “ I have a bone to pick with you.” Sometimes he would say he had “a few bones to pick”, or even “a lot of bones,” when she’d messed up a bunch of stuff. He’d even have a bone to pick with both Nola and her mom sometimes, “I have a bone to pick with both of you.” That’s what he said if he was willing to set them straight about something.

But sometimes he wasn't willing to talk to them; he wouldn’t talk to them at all, not even to say hello or goodbye. Sometimes it didn’t mean anything but other times it was a warning sign, it meant he was really mad and they would have to guess, to try and figure out what they did wrong.

The way you'd know he was mad was he'd slam things. You weren’t sure if or when it was coming, so it was always kind of a surprise. He’d walk into the room with the same countenance he did every day, take that heavy pottery mug of coffee laden with milk calmly in his hand and when he’d drunk it all down he might suddenly slam it on the worn wooden counter, loud enough to startle but not hard enough to break it. He never broke it; though whenever that happened Nola thought this would be the time, this would be the time he went too far and broke the cup.

Other times he’d drink the coffee and place the cup down gentle as usual, only to slam the side door with all his might as he left to go to the garage, slam it so hard it shook the whole house. Or maybe he’d slam it shut when he came back in. He might kick the metal garbage can after throwing out the dirty paper towels, ostensibly because the lid stuck, though kicking didn’t do anything but dent it; there were dozens of small little divots around the perimeter of the can from Graham’s frustrated boot tips.

Sometimes nothing would happen until Graham left the house and he’d slam the front door so hard the grapevine wreath would go flying off or books would fall from the shelf in the next room. You just never knew. You never knew if everything was ok until he’d finally left for the day and nothing had been slammed. You never knew it was alright unless no bones had needed to be picked.

Nola had a dream once when she was very little that she took a huge pile of bones, scraps from Grandee’s roast chicken, and placed them on a platter in front of her father at the dinner table. She did it to please him, in the dream she thought it would make him happy.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

the ninny & the weasel

“Is this signature alright, yes or no?” The man behind the counter at the DMV asked Kate as she looked at the form to verify her own signature.

“Yes, it’s fine,” she said politely.

“M’am, is this signature alright, yes or no?”

Kate thought she hadn’t answered loudly enough, so this time she said very clearly, in a stronger voice, “Yes, it is fine.”

Now the man behind the counter let out an exasperated sigh and spoke very slowly, annunciating every word in an exaggerated manner as if she were mentally challenged, “M’am, is this signature alright,” and through gritted, impatient teeth he finished, “...yes or no?”

Kate now realized he had heard her the first two times, it was her response that was at fault. Was he only allowed to accept a specific ‘yes or no’ answer, or was he just being a prick? Normally Kate would have just given him what he wanted. She would have felt stupid for not having picked up on the requirement and given the proper answer in the first place. But today, today she was not in the mood to give anyone what they wanted, least of all this weasely little ass behind the DMV counter. Nola had kept her up all night and she was bone tired, she was too tired to give anyone what they wanted anymore.

“Yes, it is fine!” Kate said loudly, slowly, matching his exasperation word for word, spitting out the words through her own clenched teeth.

He finally looked up at her. She was staring at him as if he were the most evil man on earth, as if he was the epitome of evil and she had been hunting him her whole life waiting for this very moment to jump over the counter and drive a stake through his inhuman heart.

Without looking away and maintaining a totally blank expression he said, “Twelve dollars please.” This time his tone was flat, not angry, but not pleasant either. Kate placed her cash down on the counter and he slid her driver’s license towards her, just close enough for her to reach. She snatched it up, glared at him one more second, and then turned and walked away as defiantly as she could, triumphant, knowing that people were staring at her, secretly cheering her on for standing up to the weasel behind the DMV counter the way they all wished they had the nerve to do.

It wasn’t until she got all the way out to her car that she realized she didn’t have her purse.

Oh good God, I left it on the counter! Oh shit! What am I going to do? I can’t go back. I won’t. She looked at the car door, luck would have it the car was unlocked. She opened the door and climbed in, relieved she could find some cover, some semblance of privacy to hide in. At least she could have a moment to think.

She wouldn’t go back in, no way. She would call Graham from a payphone and tell him she lost her purse, that she didn’t know where. But he would suggest it was at Motor Vehicle, he would tell her to go there and check first before he came all the way down there. Or did he even know that’s where she went? Had she remembered to tell him where she was going? Maybe she could say she had come to town to go to one of the stores instead. The shoe store, yes, she could say she went there.

This was ridiculous, she should go back to the DMV and get her damn purse, she’d done nothing wrong, nothing to be embarrassed about. But that man had been so mean and she had stood up to him, sort of. She had certainly let him know that she didn’t take kindly to his treatment of her, she had made that clear at least. But now all her courage, all her brave defiance had evaporated at the foolishness and pathetic idiocy of forgetting her purse. How could she have been so stupid? If she had a brain she’d be dangerous.

That’s what her mother always said to her, “if you had a brain you’d be dangerous.” Graham had laughed hysterically the first time her mom had said it in front of him, back when he and Kate were dating. He thought it was very funny, said he’d have to remember that. And he did. Kate had laughed too then, trying not to appear overly sensitive, like she was a good sport and could take a joke. But it had cut her to the quick that her mom would use that familiar phrase in front of her new boyfriend. If only she’d known then that it would pale in comparison to what Graham was capable of saying. Graham and her mom had a lot in common. They both could make her feel inept with one look; one sharp verbal jab could flatten her and cut her to the core.

Kate felt stupid, like she couldn’t even manage to do the simplest stuff right. Her mother would chastise her, point out her mistakes with a laugh, but not because it was funny. In fact, she knew she was the bane of her mother’s existence. Always with her head in the clouds and her feet going the wrong way, Kate forgot things all the time, mere minutes after instructions were given she would have no recollection of what was expected, probably because she wasn’t paying attention in the first place. No doubt because of that she made mistakes, sometimes big ones. She probably would actually forget her own head if it weren’t attached.

Her mother would have a few choice things to say about this episode. She’d say, “what’s wrong with you, how could you forget your purse, it was right there on the counter in front of your own eyes?” And she’d think Kate was utterly ridiculous for not wanting to go back and get it, she’d call her a ninny – yet another of her mother’s favorite ways to castigate her. Kate hated that word, “ninny.” It sounded exactly like what it was, a weak, silly, lame little person with no sense whatsoever. “Why are you being such a ninny, go back and get your own damn purse.”

Kate new from an early age she just didn’t have the courage, the fortitude her mother did. Her mother was the strongest woman she knew, she seemed made of iron. When her father died Kate’s mother had raised her and her three brothers, worked two jobs and kept the house spotless. Kate’s brothers had all gone to college, each one had achieved success and credited their mother for pushing and for making them tow the line. Somehow Kate was different, what seemed like basic tasks of life overwhelmed her. Even as a child she always knew she was her mother’s greatest disappointment. When her mother didn’t speak to her, ignored her, she knew it was because poor Agnes couldn’t bear to be reminded of this colossal failure, Kate’s mere presence would be like rubbing salt into the wound.

There was no escape from Agnes and her critisizm, even from beyond the grave she manged to shake Kate’s confidence. Whenever Kate felt stupid, every time she made a mistake, she thought of what her mother would think, could practically hear her harsh, raspy voice in her head. It was an automatic response. Now she sat in the cold car and wished she had the nerve to go back and get her purse, wished she could be more like normal people. But she wasn’t and never would be. She was weak, her mother was right. Graham was right. Even Nola, the way she looked at Kate sometimes with those knowing blue eyes, even her own infant daughter already knew she was useless.

Kate looked up just in time to see that man, the weasel from the DMV, walking towards her car, her purse in his hand. She got out and walked around the front of her car to meet him. “You forgot this,” he said, barely looking at her. “Yes, I just realized…” but before she could finish the sentence he’d already turned and was walking away, back to his weasely counter, his weasely job.

Even he knows I’m a ninny. It is obvious even to him.

Disclaimer: Weasels are noble creatures, some of my most treasured friends are weasels -- the dreaded DMV Weasel is a species unto itself and no relation to the other, talented and remarkable weasels of the world :)

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Sycamore Cave

Nola had studied the local history of her town in her library class, fascinated especially by the old photographs. Some things looked familiar to her, like the downtown storefronts, even with the horses and buggies parked along Main Street instead of cars. But other pictures were unidentifiable; they looked completely foreign as if they weren’t taken in her town at all.

She listened intently to the town historian as she explained that Darlington was one of many suburbs around New York City that grew out of a once predominantly agricultural community. There were still vague remnants of a few old farms, though they were dwindled down to only a handful of measly acres now. Bits and pieces of the woodland areas scattered throughout the currently upscale and quaint neighborhoods were actually once farmer’s fields, overgrown through the course of a mere half century or so with large oaks, hemlocks, maples and sycamores, the forest reclaiming what the plow had abandoned just a few generations ago. It amazed Nola how quickly nature could change things, how fast it erased all human traces if given half the chance.

Nola’s own home was a quaint old farmhouse preserved from another era, once part of one of the largest farms in Darlington, owned by members of the Darlington family themselves. She saw lots of pictures of the house at the library, but only a few of the people who lived there, other than Ramsey Darlington, the town founder, his pictures were plentiful. Her house had once had acres and acres of land around it, all cleared and nearly flat. Today the land surrounding her house was barely a quarter acre. Much of the original parcel had been sold off lot by lot during the housing boom of the fifties and the rest was eventually donated by the Darlington family to nearby Mahwah Mountain College for expansion in the sixties.

Landlocked behind Nola’s home was a 10-acre tract of woods, likely once one of those flat, cleared fields where maybe cows grazed or corn grew. Along the perimeter of the former field was the remarkably intact vestiges of a low, stone wall, no doubt built by that long gone Darlington farmer who once lived in Nola’s house. Today the wall acted as a divider of sorts; along one length of it the woods were divided from the houses of the bordering street, and on the other side it outlined the edge of the rolling college lawns. Across the third side, the farthest stretch of wall from Nola's yard, it created a property line for another old Darlington farmhouse, smaller than Nola's, but of the same era.

Nola liked to think about the farmer that lived in her house, and his wife and children. She pictured them picking up rocks turned up by the plough and placing them upon the ever-growing wall, stone by stone. Nola could imagine that maybe the children might be able to identify which individual stones they’d each placed there, maybe even proudly boasting about which one of them had laid the largest one, heavier than his or her brothers and sisters were able to lift. Nola always imagined there were lots of kids; all those old time farmers had big families. Grandee had told her it was necessary to have lots of children because there was a lot of work to do, and sadly sometimes the children didn’t all live so they needed to have as many as they could to ensure there’d be enough to carry on the farm. Times were different back then, harder for children and adult alike.

It must have been a daunting task to lay a rock wall like that if you thought about it, but Nola guessed they didn’t give it much thought, that farmer and his family with all his many kids. They probably just took it in stride and did what needed to be done. That’s what it seemed like all people from the past did. Whenever her grandmother told her stories from her own childhood it seemed like people in the generations past accepted their lot in life better than people did today. At least that’s what she always said.

Nola loved her house, and she loved her street and the surrounding neighborhood, but perhaps her favorite place lay in those woods behind her home. Safely contained within the confines of that old stone wall at the center of the woodland, was a place called the Sycamore Cave by the local children, as they’d called it since before Nola was born, though it wasn’t a cave by any means. It was actually a half downed tree, what once was an impressive sycamore, it’s trunk 20 feet in diameter, over 100 feet tall. But lightening had struck the giant, probably back when it stood alone in that cleared farmer’s field, and the top half had been severed almost all the way through, but not quite. It snapped and fell in such a way that the upper portion stayed attached to the trunk, and, as if bending down from the waist, the top landed astride of it. The once lush, long limbed canopy was now upside down and created a fifty-foot cone of sorts, like a teepee of tangled limbs.

Through the years vines and brambles quickly grew over the outer branches so that the interior, starved of sunlight, was completely hidden from view and only a carpet of dry leaves blanketed the ground within. Bare, dead limbs on the shaded interior of the “cave” seemed almost like a rickety framework, an unfinished cathedral created by some crazy architect, now abandoned. You could climb to the top, the once middle of the tree, if you were brave enough. Nola hadn’t attempted it since she was little, but then she never made it to the top. She was glad now she hadn’t. She decided not to try anymore, to leave it unclimbed.

Nola often wondered if Ethan had ever seen the tree, but her mother said she couldn’t remember. It was hard to believe that he hadn’t, Grandee said he loved to go for walks in the neighborhood with Granda. They’d be gone for hours and Granda would come back carrying Ethan, half asleep, they’d gone so far in their travels that it had worn him out. Nola always wished she could have known her grandfather. Everyone, even Grandee, said he was a mean man; a hard man is what she’d say. Nola’s own dad would shake his head and say his father was a tough old coot, “hard as nails and twice as sharp.” But everyone agreed he had a soft spot, a special place in his heart for his grandson. Nola knew her grandmother felt that way about her, that she held that kind of special place in Grandee’s heart. But it would have been nice to have a grandfather carry her home after an adventure.

Everywhere Nola went in her neighborhood, her little world, she wondered if Ethan had been there before her. As she got older than he had been when he died, she began to realize that his world had been rather small, he hadn’t had the chance to expand it the way she did. She was the lucky one, her mother would often say, who got to do all the things he didn’t get a chance to. Sometimes when she’d whine about something she couldn’t have or wasn’t allowed to do her mother would give her a sad look and say, “You should feel lucky for all the things you do have, all the things you do get to do, your poor brother didn’t get his chance.” It always made Nola feel bad. Whenever she got to do something that she knew Ethan didn’t get the opportunity to experience she felt like she should try extra hard to enjoy it. That way maybe she could make up for what he missed. It was difficult, though, and she never felt like it was enough, never felt like she could enjoy things enough for the two of them.

When grown-ups mentioned Ethan to her mother or father, which they rarely did, but if they did, they would always say what a blessing Nola must be to them. Her parents smiled and said yes, thank God for Nola, they didn’t know what they would do without her. But Nola didn’t feel like a blessing. She wished she did, she wished she could be a comfort, a gentle reminder that Ethan had been here on earth.

She’d already lived longer than her brother, she’d surpassed him, she was in a new territory beyond his knowing, his touch. Darlington had been Ethan’s home just like it was the home of the farmer’s children who lived in her house, yet those children would hardly recognize their home now, the woods in what was once their level, cleared field would seem as foreign to them as another planet. Would it be that way for Ethan, too? Someday the Sycamore Cave might finally fall down completely and rot into the earth, leaving no trace of the children who once climbed its lofty heights. The rock wall could crumble and the stones laid with care would disappear beneath the leafy mulch of the forest floor. That felt unforgivable to Nola. Time was cruel, unyielding. It felt unsafe.