When Something Goes
People always talk about family being important. When a part of it goes away, you realize what that really means.
A spider's web floating in the air lands, ear-cheek-nose, across my face. Instinctively, I close my eyes and reach for it. My mother told me when I was seven that spiders put out the little filaments like parachutes, lots of them, until the wind catches them and the spider is picked up and transported. She called the strands gossamers. "Angels collect the little strings and sew them into wings," she said. "They're the thread of angels." We were in the garden looking at her roses and azaleas and a silk thread had drifted into us.
She reached out with the steak knife and cut off a bachelor's button for me. "Now you don't ever have to get married," she said, calming my fears about being asked to a girl's birthday party.
I'm the first one home. Sarah won't get in until tomorrow. Funeral's day after. I grew up in this house. Sarah grew up in the old one in Des Moines. I still have a room here, somehow, even after nine years. The front door's not even locked. Who's got Sam? The place seems odd without her barking.
I drop my bags inside the door, leaving it open to air the house, turn and go back out. I should go by and see Mrs. John, thank her for calling me. Ask about Sam. I walk out and across the street, past Jerry and Alice Satory's big yard to the tiny green house. I knock, loudly.
"That you, Ty?"
"Come in, come in," Mrs. John calls from behind the front door screen.
"Nice to see you again," I say, walking into the living room, touching her arm slightly as I pass. Her flesh is very soft. She points to the wingback chair and I sit in it. The radio plays the baseball game.
She is a big German woman. Her vision is getting worse every year -- I know from the writing in the birthday cards she still sends me with two dollars in them. The same two dollars I've gotten every year since we moved here when I was six. Now, at twenty-nine, I wonder how many more years she'll be sending them.
"I wanted to say thanks for calling," I start, but she puts up a hand to me. She was my mother's best friend.
"I baked a pie for you. Don't let me forget it."
"Thank you," I say, looking at the threadbare gray carpet of her living room. This heat, without air conditioning, and she baked something. I look up slightly, seeing her knee-high stockings over those big legs that aren't very sturdy. "Would you like to ride with us to the funeral?" I ask.
"No, that's for you kids. Family, you know, just family," she says leaning forward, her hand on her knee. She blushes a bit, the old rose growing back into her cheeks as the fan sweeps the air past her, moving her hair. She tucks the loose hair behind her ear as delicately as if she were a girl of sixteen.
"You're family," I say, quietly.
"I'll go with Tom Brodie," she says. For a moment, no one speaks and I'm struck with a memory of sitting on her back porch, listening to her tell me about her late husband and how he used to play baseball for the St. Louis Browns. Third base. She showed me his old glove and let me put my hand inside. It was hard and stiff, but it felt like baseball, and all my ideas of it. He had big hands.
She taught me how to throw a spitball. How to line up the seams and scuff 'em with your glove and work spit into that place so the ball would just sail.
"Sarah's coming in tomorrow. It's just a drive for me, so I came on right away after making arrangements."
She settles back into her chair with a sigh. "I've been sitting here all day, listening to the game and remembering. Pat had the most beautiful hollyhocks in town, you know. We used to sit on that little patio back there and have a drink and listen to the locusts." I can remember leaning out the back door and asking Mom if it was okay for me to go to the movies, or to the park, or downtown. Watching the two of them split a beer. And that electric noise of the cicadas in the trees.
Later, I'm sitting in the bathtub. It's an old iron one, with curled feet under it and a body about three feet deep. Full of hot water. I'm reading the latest letter from Anne's lawyer. Sarah's acting as mine. It's about division of marital property. There are two lists; things she thinks are hers and things she thinks are mine. Everything has a dollar amount next to it. The rest of the stuff is up for grabs, I guess. I'm supposed to decide what I want. I really haven't had much say in things so far. She left, so she's handling everything. It's not her fault that it won't, didn't, work out.
I close my eyes and lean back, soaking. Mom would tell me to get out of the tub -- it's thundering outside. "Water is a great conductor," she'd say, leaning in the door, rolling her eyes. I'd be embarrassed that I was talking to her from the bath, and she'd laugh and come in and sit down on the toilet and keep talking. Mom never saw me as anything but her youngest child. None of us was very private. It's one of the things Anne had a hard time adjusting to. I listen to the rain for a minute.
I can remember standing on Sarah's balcony atop the back porch, one night when I was fourteen. It was summer and Sarah was in law school and I had taken over her room. I was wearing headphones at about two-thirty in the morning, listening to a radio station that doesn't come in during the day. There aren't many good stations up here, but at night you get more of them. It helps that we live on top of a hill.
I was looking out over the backyard, past the fence and over neighbors' backyards down our block and up the hill of the next. All the yards were laid out under the moon. At first I could barely see the heat lightning way off north. It grew slowly, and I could only see the effect of the black clouds overtaking the bright stars. It was like the stars were being turned off. When I could hear the thunder over the music, I counted, under my breath, between the sight and the sound. The storm came in and I went back inside and lay in my bed watching the lightning, hearing the storm's voice and thinking about Sarah's being gone.
It's almost midnight when I call Annie.
"Mmmm... Tyler?" I woke her up.
"I shouldn't have called."
"It's late. What's the matter?" Her sound is thick, syrup.
"My mother died."
"Where are you?" I know her eyes open in the dark, wide.
"At Mom's house. Home."
"Are you alone?"
"Just me and the house. Even Sam's at the kennel."
"You shouldn't be alone." Her voice is gentle.
"It's okay. I just thought you should know."
"You should have called me, I'd have gone with you."
"Yes," she says, but it's a very quiet yes. A hard-to-admit yes, a late-at-night-only yes. Like something that's covered with tissue paper but you can still tell what it is. We both hear it.
I climb into my old bed, the bed I grew up in. Twin beds are big enough if there's only one person in them. I'm used to a queen-sized, but the only queen-sized is Mom's. I'm okay in here.
When I get back with Sam from the kennel, Sarah is sitting in the living room. Sam looks at her and turns towards the kitchen. The dog never did like her. I start for a second realizing just how much Sarah looks like Mom: thick black hair and deep laugh lines. Mom was more relaxed, though; Sarah is stiffer. Mom would be sitting back in the chair, but Sarah sits on the lip, with a print cotton skirt over her knees. "The front door was open, so I just came in," she says, getting up to hug me.
"It's your house as much as mine." It feels nice to be hugged. "We need to talk about the house and everything, don't we?" She pulls back some, like Dad always did when it was time for a talk.
"Yeah, I guess so. Mom wanted us to divide things ourselves if we could. If not, she left a list."
"Well, you're in charge, she never talked to me about it." She begins to guide me toward the front door. "Let's go for a walk," she says. "I don't want to be in here." Outside, she takes hold of my arm and we cut across the yard, heading up the hill toward the Presbyterian Church. We don't say anything for a few minutes.
"Do you want the house?" she begins.
"No, but I thought we could sell it." We're walking past the Dean's house. Its blue Victorian trim looks freshly painted. It's a fine house.
"I don't want to," I say without looking at her. There's been some work done around the eaves.
"What are you going to do with it? I mean, especially now that you're divorced?" I wince and my eyes move down the house.
"I'm not divorced..." The basement windows haven't been painted.
"And I know you could use the money." A green hose snakes away from the water spigot.
"It's my house..." It moves through the grass, coiling around the Japanese maple.
"I know, but let's try to be reasonable. You need to think about what you want." She tugs on my arm, but I can't seem to pull my eyes from the garden hose. It ends in the flower bed. The water is running over johnny-jump-ups and peonies and mums. You shouldn't water flowers in direct sunlight. It can kill them. You've got to be careful with things like that. "Now that the restaurant is popular, you can't live here, and you can't keep the place up otherwise."
We sit on the hill of the Presbyterian church. it's the highest point on our end of town. We used to come here when we were kids and watch the fireworks. They always mowed the lawn just before, and you could smell the freshly cut grass, feel it poking the back of your legs through the blanket. The sky would be full with exploding stars and M-80s that you felt in your chest a split second before you heard them in your ears. When it was over, the sky looked out-of-proportion big and the stars were dull as you waited for one more volley. The sky was huge. I lean back in the grass.
"So you want the silver and the china?" I say, feeling like a game-show host instead of a grieving son. And the rest of that on a Spiegel gift certificate, Ron. I chuckle at the thought, and Sarah looks at me.
"I think we should keep them together." She spreads her skirt over her knees.
"I'll take the round table, and the chairs." I feel a little queasy.
"Do you want the sideboard?"
"Not particularly," I say, getting up. "Let's go back."
From a block away I see the car in the street and stop dead. I helped her pick it out a year ago; I should recognize it. Anne's here. It takes a moment for Sarah to figure it out. "What's she doing here?" she asks.
The front door is still open when we get there. "Annie?" I yell out. No answer. Her stuff is on the stairs, though. She brought an overnight and there is a clothing bag hanging from the railing. I go upstairs, expecting the bathroom to be closed. It's not. "Check the back patio," I yell down to Sarah. I turn into my room and there are American Beauties on my neatly made little bed.
I walk back downstairs just in time to see Anne coming out of Alice Satory's backyard, azaleas in hand, still talking and waving back. I'm struck by how good she looks, her strawberry blond hair loose and a yellow skirt flowing around her legs. Alice's yard is lined with dark evergreens along the back and Anne seems highlighted against them. Alice and my mom would take a wheelbarrow out there with buckets and gardening tools and pick the raspberries and strawberries and huckleberries that grew between the trunks of the trees. I can remember seeing Mom's backside sticking out between the trees.
Anne gives me a hug and a small kiss and I squeeze her a moment, remembering how nice she feels. It's been a couple of months since we've seen each other. The only real separation since we met nine years ago. "Where's Sarah?"
"Out back," I say, starting to let go, but she pulls me closer. Into her neck, I mumble, "Thanks for--"
"Sssshhhh. You're still my husband." Sarah comes back in and she and Anne exchange nods. They used to be close, like sisters maybe. Sarah's my lawyer now, though, and she turns up the stairs.
"Can you give me a hand a moment, Anne?" she says over her shoulder.
"Sure," Annie says, backing away from me without looking away. Her free hand catches the banister perfectly, and she slowly turns up the stairs. The azaleas are for Sarah's bed, I guess.
I stand, listening at the bottom of the stairs as they walk down the hall. "I didn't think you'd be coming," Sarah says.
"I thought I should."
"For him or for Mom?" I hear Sarah as she closes the door to Mom's room. Without really thinking, I walk into the living room, losing the conversation for a moment. The house used to have steam heat and there are these round grates between all of the floors. We're not a very private family. I stand under the one to the bedroom, looking out the front window at the street and listening to them upstairs.
"Well, I don't think it's very decent of you to come here, knowing he's upset about the divorce," Sarah says.
"We're not divorced," Anne says. A green pick-up truck passes. Looks like Moraine's.
"Then what are all of those letters I keep getting from your lawyer about?"
"I'm not sure about the whole thing." I look up, wanting to read Annie's face. There are silver cobwebs in the grate.
"This is a damn good time to be unsure, after you've screwed him."
"Why are you suddenly acting like you care about him?" I hear Anne's voice rise like when we fought about having children and when she told me she'd slept with my ex-friend Dodge.
"Because he's my brother and my client, and I won't have you come here and upset him any more." I feel sick with the memory of Sarah protecting me. When I was ten she pulled two boys off of me in a fight. I started crying, not because I was hurt but because I was so mad.
"He called me and wanted me to come."
"When?" She couldn't understand that it was okay to be mad and fighting and ten years old, and I was too mad to speak.
"Last night, late." There is a long silence.
"I hear you've got another lover." Sarah can be very condescending. She is much older than Anne in some ways.
"I left him. It wasn't right." Annie's voice cracks. Someone sits down on the big bed. I can hear it.
"Well, good. I hope it was awful," Sarah says quickly.
"I don't have to listen to this." The begonias in the living room are blooming, I notice.
"What makes you think you can come here after you've pulled all this crap?" One of them moves across the room and I look up again.
"Of course he called. He loves you. And you'd better understand the responsibility of that." A shoe steps on the grate. It's Sarah's shoe, and I step out of view.
There is some quiet talk that I can't hear, as I think about who is responsible for what. She had said that I'd lost myself in the restaurant. That I'd let go of the things she wanted from me. I didn't let go; I just got too busy to live.
"He's going to be very successful, now that the restaurant is getting good reviews," Sarah says, after some time. She sounds a little softer. I think Annie's been crying. I go out to the front porch.
At dinner time, I'm in the kitchen with Anne. She's taking the peeled sections out of oranges for a salad. I showed her how to take the peel off and then the individual sections out of their skins.
"I hear you're dating," I say. I don't think she knows that I listened earlier.
"No, I'm not," she says, picking up another orange.
"Oh." I start to pick the cooked chicken meat from the bone for the chicken-walnut sandwiches. There are lots of tendons and small bones that you have to watch out for. I throw a piece of the chicken meat to Sam, who snaps it out of the air. Her thick tail slaps the ground.
"No," I say without looking up. This is a very complicated task that requires attention.
"I did see someone for awhile," she says. "What else do you want in this?"
"Do some of those pears. What happened?" I say, looking over at her. I have to stop what I'm doing to do this.
She looks straight at me. "I had to tell him everything. We didn't have anything between us."
"He didn't know me."
After dark, the three of us are sitting on the back patio. It is so dark that I can see only outlines, shadows. The crickets have replaced the cicadas' rhythmic whir. I feel much better than last night.
"This was a lot worse for me when Dad died," Sarah says.
"I was just there with Mom, mostly. I couldn't break down until it was over."
"What was he really like?" Annie asks Sarah.
I hear Sarah's ice cubes clink in her glass as she sits back. "Firm but very fair. Like when I got hit by a car -- "
"When did you get hit by a car?" I've never heard about it.
"Way before you were born. A lot happened before you were born, Newt. Dad spanked me the next day. I know he didn't want to, but I think he really felt like he was supposed to. I think he did a lot of things because he thought he was supposed to." She takes a small sip of her drink. She hasn't called me Newt in ten years or so. It was Dad's name for me.
"That's not the way I remember him. I remember that he always knew exactly what he was doing." I look at Annie; she's heard my side.
"He just acted that way around you. He used to call me in college and ask me how he should handle things with you."
"No, he really worried about how you and he were. Everyone knew you were Mom's. I used to be mad at you that he died first. Isn't that stupid?" I shift a bit in my seat and so does Anne. It's funny to think of my family talking about me. And Sarah getting upset. We all sit still for a minute.
"He used to wash his feet in the bathroom sink," I say, more for myself than for anyone.
"With Ivory soap. I used to sit there, talking, while he stood on one foot, washing the other," Sarah adds. Anne laughs.
"Why did he do that?"
"I never thought to ask at the time, but I found out from Mom that when he was in the war he didn't want to catch anything and he really didn't get a chance to bathe too often so he washed his feet in his helmet instead," Sarah says and sets her empty drink on the ground.
"I tried to wash my feet like that a few times, but I had to sit on the sink ledge because I was too short, and Mom had a fit."
"I'm going up to bed." Sarah says and stands. The crickets stop chirping and I hear Sam stretch and get up.
When the back porch screen bangs closed, Anne puts a hand out to me. "I've really missed you," she says. The top of my chest feels tight. I can't say anything. The crickets start their chorus again, reassured by my silence.
"I'm not going through with the divorce, unless you want me to because of what I did," she says.
"It's history. I never wanted you to leave in the first place."
"I'm going to bed. Coming?"
"Yes," I barely say, standing. My knees are a little shaky.
Lying in bed, Annie's arm across my stomach, her head on my shoulder, I stare out the window of my room. This is the same window I have looked out for years. I've seen the seasons change here enough times to know exactly what they look like. I know the way the backyards look under the blue streetlight in winter, when everything is asleep. I know that our yard gets more leaves on it than Brodie's. I know it perfectly.
"I think we should try dating first," she says into my neck. I can feel her breath on me.
"You sure?" I can hear Sam's legs move; she's dreaming.
"More than I was when I left." I feel her kiss my shoulder.
"You'll have to get used to a dog," I laugh.
Twin beds are too small for two people, but for right now, it's fine.
Mom is shaking me. "You're wasting the day," she whispers into my ear. I hunch my shoulders and giggle, pulling the covers up around me. I know the blankets are untucked at the bottom of the bed but my feet don't reach down there yet, anyway. "Do you want to go to the store with me?"
"Yeah." I sit up.
"Then get cleaned up quick. I'm going in ten minutes."
At the grocery, she pushes the cart. "Get a cantaloupe," she directs me and I go over and begin to pick them up, one by one, until I find the heaviest.
I hand it to her. "This one?"
"Well, it's pretty good, but it's not ready. You see the little veins on it?" she says, tracing one with her pinkie.
"Yeah." I trace one too.
"When the color between the little veins is orange, then it's ripe. Otherwise they're still green, and you have to wait."
"Okay," and I start to look for another one. When I find it we buy both; the other one will be ripe in a few days.
When I wake up, Annie is gone and I smell the air outside through the open window. The Satorys are mowing their lawn. I look out the window at the two of them. Jerry pushes the mower in diagonal stripes over the yard while Alice works along the edge of the sidewalk. The lawn is different colors of green depending on which way the mower went over it, like velour. I'm nine blocks away from my mother's body, but she is still in this house. Out back by the gate fertilizing her hollies, tying Sam to the run, or digging grass out from between the bricks of the patio like Alice is doing. Today, I put my mother in the ground that she loves, that I love, so much. I wish we could bury her in her own garden or back under the evergreens and strawberries across the street. That's where she belongs.
"We're going to try to work things out," I say to Sarah, sitting together while people come by to shake my hand and say, "Hello. Your mother was..." Annie is talking to Pastor Lucas. I can see them.
"Mom would be happy, don't you think?"
"Mom's happy regardless of what you do."
"What do you think?"
"I don't think this is the place," Sarah says, leaning forward to hug Mrs. Paterson, whom she doesn't know. Then she leans over to me and hugs me tight, just for a moment, and I know she's happy from the hitch in her throat. She protects me because she loves me.
When we get back to the house, there is a sort of reception. People come by. I know almost all of them, Sarah knows less, Anne knows most of the ones I do. In the afternoon, I go out in the backyard. I sit down next to the garden and let the tears come up. Mom's flowers are better than the ones at the church, I decide, and somehow this stops the crying. Then I see the steak knife in the dirt. I pick it up and go over to cut a bachelor button to put it in my lapel, but then I think better of it and cut an azalea instead. I put the knife in my pocket. I need to tell Sarah that, more than anything, I want this.
Neal Gordon (email@example.com) teaches at the Episcopal Academy in Philadelphia and works with the Working Writer's Group, a long-running critical group in the Philadelphia area.
InterText stories written by Neal Gordon: "When Something Goes" (v6n6), "The Worse Part" (v8n1).
InterText Copyright © 1991-1999 Jason Snell. This story may only be distributed as part of the collected whole of Volume 6, Number 6 of InterText. This story Copyright © 1996 Neal Gordon.