Some Fun Stories and a Novella
By Antonya Nelson
Scribner Copyright © 2006 Antonya Nelson
All right reserved. ISBN: 0743218736
The evening sun was a giant peach in the rearview mirror, apocalyptic and gaseous as it burned toward the horizon behind Ann Ponders. The daily L.A. paradox: toxic beauty. She was grateful for a polluted day on which to move; it capped an argument she had been making for months. For clean air, she told herself, they were leaving the only home her children had ever known. Her husband and son had taken the first car early in the morning. But then the cat had escaped, moments before Ann was to drive the family's second car away, and she and her daughter had spent the day in the empty, hot house, waiting for the fickle creature to return.
"You know," said Ann to her eighteen-year-old, trying not to sound as furious and exasperated as she felt, "I can't get used to the new reliable you. The girl who left keys hanging in the door and burners burning. The girl who forgot her brother at Von's."
"You told me to cancel the utilities, I canceled the utilities." Lizzie's voice said she was innocent; over from her apartment in Westwood to help, she had left no margin for error. All day they'd sat on the tiled floor in the vacant dining room, or on the countertops in the kitchen, air-conditioning disabled, refrigerator door hanging open, fan inoperable. "And I told Cole he had to meet me at the checkout or, guess what? I'd leave him." Lizzie removed a pack of cigarettes from her waistband, free, in her father's absence, to be a person with bad habits. Ann had sworn not to tell him, but she wouldn't have, anyway.
Ann hauled herself up from her slump on the floor, ready to make another useless perimeter sweep. "Kitty kitty kitty?" one or the other of them had been calling for hours, circling the yard, culvert, street. Neither cared for the cat -- it peed on pillows, sharpened its claws on pants legs, licked itself neurotically -- but the boy, the eleven-year-old who'd ridden away with his father at dawn, needed Winky. Taking Winky fifteen hundred miles east to their new home, their hideout in the mountains, was non-negotiable.
"Hate that fucking cat," murmured Ann; the image saving the animal was of it curled in the armpit of her sleeping son. She hated a few other things, such as the way she looked in shorts and a sleeveless shirt, especially when compared with her daughter, who looked beautiful in whatever she wore. What consolation did age provide? Ann wondered. Bragging rights for having arrived at forty-five or sixty or ninety-nine? You didn't come through intact, that much was clear. Moreover, the interesting things happened early, a piece of information Ann was consciously, uncharitably, withholding from her daughter. Packing away their belongings, she'd found crayoned pictures addressed to her from Lizzie, pledging exclamatory, boundless love, filled with hearts and a round-headed tribe of people grinning their drunken smiley faces. The toddler who'd given herself to those drawings was gone, her features turned angular, her smile caustic, her thoughts sour and secret. Easy to love little children, harder to love grown-ups. Ann had been shocked to discover that, at fourteen, her daughter had shaved her pubic hair. When she was fifteen, Lizzie's notebook had been full of stick figures having scary sex, not to mention the sickening song lyrics pulsing from her bedroom stereo, or the Fuck Me and Cunt she'd markered onto her own shoes. Now, unbidden and often, Ann would be visited by one or the other of these images, a slide show starring her sunny child who had become an alarming adult.
The only help was to picture her boy, Cole, coming toward her with, say, a cookie in each hand, one for himself, one for her.
Lizzie's cell phone tweetered in her hip pocket. She studied its pink faceplate nonchalantly. "Grandma," she told Ann. When she raised her eyebrows and held out the ringing phone, Ann shook her head and stepped back, as if her mother could reach through the line for her. "I'm not here."
Lizzie had put on her listening expression as she engaged the line. "Neither is Grandma," she said. "It called accidentally. Grandma," she yelled into the phone. "Pick up, Grandma. It's the cafeteria," she told Ann. "I can hear silverware. Old people muttering." Even if Ann's mother had called on purpose, she wouldn't remember who or why. Alzheimer's had been stealing her for years now. Eleven months ago, when she learned about the airplanes deliberately aimed at the World Trade Center, it was as if their collapse took what was left of her with them. "You know, I once lived in New York," she'd repeated that day, those words and no others, a refrain to accompany the repeating footage on television, a refrain that was perhaps her last coherent response to the world.
"Or maybe it's bingo," Lizzie was saying, tuned to the tabletop or the linty interior of her grandmother's handbag. Shock had unglued her mother, Ann supposed, the perfectly understandable desire to stop knowing any more things. A defense mechanism of the mind, a pressure valve in the heart. She'd had to be moved from one part of her assisted-living facility to another, demoted to the wing where the rooms were more like cells and the assistants more like wardens. The pill brigade, the nightly tuck-in, the sniffing hygiene police -- wardens or stagehands or ventriloquists whose patients were wooden dolls it was their charge to animate. And Ann's mother, who lived this sentence, this shapeless ongoing performance, occasionally making her random accidental calls, a fleet piece of will or inadvertency exerting itself. Ann could leave L.A. because her mother would never know she was gone.
Lizzie said, "Grandma is telling Mrs. Carlyle to stop scaring her. 'You're scaring me, Mrs. Carlyle, you're scaring me.'"
"Mrs. Carlyle is dead," Ann said. "Your grandmother always thinks someone is scaring her. It used to be me."
"By being myself."
"Same way I scare you," Lizzie said cheerfully.
"I guess." The secret life, the naughty self. Packing, Ann had uncovered an old cache of drug paraphernalia -- stale pot, brass pipe, razor, and rolled dollar bill -- duct-taped inside her own bathroom towel cupboard. Her clever, duplicitous daughter, who knew that her parents would never think to look right under their own noses, this girl who also was prone to losing or forgetting things. "About your grandm -- "
"Jesus! I'm going to visit. Whose speed dial did she just hit, anyway? You have reminded me eight million times. Why do you have to endlessly repeat things, like I'm an idiot?" Lizzie reached around to scratch her back with her cell phone antenna, the pretty knob of her shoulder thrust forward, her halter riding up over the hollow stretch of her belly, the whole smooth suit of skin she wore without thinking. She clapped the cell shut like a castanet. "Goodbye, Grandma. Can we go sit in McDonald's?"
"I don't want to miss Winky." But really, Ann didn't want to be in public showing so much of her own flesh. She'd imagined herself hidden in the car all day, the car that was old and stuffed full of heavy breakables, likely to overheat, a yowling cat in a box who would dictate drive-through food and quick pit stops, a series of factors that had led her to her skimpy and regrettable outfit. Wife-beater, her shirt was called; fringed cutoffs.
"Can I go sit in McDonald's?" She wasn't rude, Ann reminded herself; she was just asking a question. If her son had asked, she'd let him go. Why always this flare of anger with her daughter?
"Go ahead," she said, pretending Lizzie was her son. Her son, who would have returned bearing an order of fries or clown cookies for his mother. Lizzie walked away swinging her hips, the lovely thinness she had accomplished with starvation and speed, more evidence of that plaguing paradox. The McDonald's yellow sign could be seen from the Ponders' stoop, Toys R Us behind it, Mobil, Exxon, Wendy's, competing like waving hands in a class of eager but dumb children. In Ann's future home, in Colorado, there would be no plastic signs within sight. Never again from her front yard would she hear the muzzled sound of a genderless voice at a drive-through intoning, "Please pull forward."
Water still sputtered from the bathtub spigot, although only the cold, which was tepid and chlorine-scented and already vaguely rusty. Ann sat on the rim dousing her legs. When the knock came -- the doorbell was electric, she reminded herself -- she had an absurd apprehension that her mother, in record-shattering time, had somehow finagled a way over here from the center, some cabbie or unwitting do-gooder who'd found her in bedclothes on the street, waving her bingo card. How did she continue to remember Ann's address when she couldn't often remember Ann herself? And say she did remember -- the truth of her situation dawning however briefly upon her -- then Ann suffered her mother's fury as if a colossal conspiracy had been cooked up behind her back. So it had, Ann thought. Soon her mother forgot -- an expression like bliss, like the uptake of a painkiller -- and returned contentedly to playing the coy dingbat, the innocent coquette from cocktail parties of Ann's youth, her flirting, drunken mother. The knock sounded again. More likely it was Lizzie at the door, returning for cash. Ann vowed not to get mad at her forgetful girl, this girl who, staying at UCLA, would be charged with visiting her difficult, declining grandmother . . . On the stoop she found her son's friend Dick.
"Ma'am." He wouldn't look at her face, but in a blinking circle around her, as if following the flying course of a gnat. His odd-shaped head showed the track lines of a recent buzz cut, a monthly ritual his father executed in the family's front yard. "I came to say goodbye to Cole," he said diffidently. Dick never showed much life around adults, as though the effort would be a wasted one, or maybe he was afraid, the native dread a smaller creature has of a larger one. Alone with Ann's son, however, he'd been silly and affectionate. She had eavesdropped on them, touched by how they loved to laugh, how politely deferential they were with each other, butts wedged into a single captain's chair in front of the computer, drawing cartoons with their heads tipped together, building forts that featured not weapons but foodstuff and flashlights. "Watson," they addressed each other in hissing British accents, partners in mystery and adventure.
"Oh, Dick, I'm so sorry, Cole is gone!" Ann flushed -- guilty. She'd engineered this separation of best friends. Subtly but relentlessly, slowly undermining connections to L.A. this last muddled and frightening year, nudging her family off its foundation and onto the road, away.
"Gone?" Dick said, his face falling.
"I'm so so sorry, Dick."
"Gone?" he repeated. Had Cole forgotten to say goodbye? Dick lived down the street. The two boys had come home from the hospital only a week apart; as toddlers, they'd pedaled their Big Wheels back and forth on the sidewalk, then braved kindergarten together with matching backpacks and lunch boxes. For years they'd gone around with their arms slung over each other's neck. "We're not gay," they had informed Ann sincerely one day. "We're like brothers." When Dick called on the phone, he would always announce himself: Hello, this is Dick. That name like a punch line, a throwback from the 1940s: Dick and his sidekick Jane, their dog, Spot. It wasn't until the boys had been friends for a few years that Ann realized her own husband shared Dick's full proper name. Her husband, Richard, however, had never let anyone call him Dick. What had Dick's parents been thinking eleven years ago?
But Cole probably seemed like a strange name to Dick's parents. Their bedraggled ranch house was surrounded by chain link, inside of which roamed two Rottweilers -- "the living moat," Dick's father boasted. These dogs would leap and froth when anyone approached the yard, eventually turning their ecstatic fury on each other, one chomping into the other's throat until there was a whimpering retreat. In the house proper, Dick's family bred Rottweilers; a litter was nearly always on the way or occupying a kids' plastic play pool in the living room. The home smelled intensely, nauseatingly, of dog -- Dick carried the potent, gamy odor with him, on his clothes and in his hair. You could smell it on the pillow after he'd spent the night. His father, who insisted that all children call him sir, believed in discipline and respect, rules and belts. On the rare occasion that it was he instead of one of Dick's brothers who came to retrieve Dick, he stood rocking on his heels at the Ponders' front stoop, refusing in his clipped manner -- "No, ma'am" -- the invitation to step inside, as if Ann had greeted him naked, holding a highball.
The boys would come tearing breathless from Cole's room, laughing and shouting, brought up short by the sight of Dick's father in profile just outside the door.
Then the sober palm would be clamped onto Dick's shoulder, the command to thank Ann for her hospitality, and the forced march home.
Today she stared at the boy, aware that she would probably never see him again. "Do you want to come in, Dick?" But what for? She had no treats to offer, no games to play, not even a chair to sit on.
"No," he said. "Thanks," he added, pawing at her stoop with his foot. "Can I go up in the treehouse?" he finally asked, rolling his gaze painfully to her face.
Rather than come in the house, he squeezed along the side yard, beating through the unruly oleander. Ann followed from inside, watching at the kitchen window as he climbed the ladder. His hands were like Cole's, slender and dextrous.
The boys had been born during the Gulf War. That was the safe topic Ann could fall back on with Dick's mother. Their politics did not agree -- they knew to keep their husbands separated and not to mention the bumper stickers regarding guns on their respective vehicles -- but biology had made them good enough friends. Even as Ann gave birth, she had thought about some poor woman in Iraq having a baby. Bad enough to be in Los Angeles, ignored as the entire maternity ward gathered around the television to watch the eerie green light of deployed Scud missiles. What if you were over there, hearing -- feeling -- them detonate?
Moreover, she and Dick's mother liked the other's little boy. Dick's mother had four sons, Dick her youngest. The oldest had joined the army recently; Dick was supremely proud of the fact. His other two brothers, the twins, fell between, bullies, brats. But Dick was neither a bully nor a brat; like Ann's own son, he was rangy, unathletic. They were children who deferred by instinct, not peacemakers but peacekeepers, knobby-kneed guys who had to be prompted to eat and encouraged to defend themselves against the other boys. Ann liked to think that Dick might find her home a respite, her family a good influence. And now he'd missed his chance to say goodbye.
She could have apologized for hours. Dick sat dejected in the treehouse, not even swinging his legs. Finally he climbed down, squeezed through the oleander, and was heading down the flagstones to the curb when Ann opened the front door. "Goodbye, Dick," she called.
He turned without stopping, his shoulders utterly slumped, scuffing his feet in baggy pants far too big for him. This gang-inspired fashion statement was another on the List of Reasons to Leave L.A. "Your cat is dead," he called back. The words, delivered in his typically uninflected way, took a moment to register. It was as if he were reporting that Ann had mail.
"Dick," she cajoled. He understood that she questioned the truth of what he'd said. He had a history of outrageous lies -- this habit he shared with Cole of make-believe and stories.
"Really," he said flatly. "Look in your swimming pool."
The air was blaringly, blindingly clear in Colorado; if you didn't want to weep, you had to wear sunglasses to step into it. Behind the Ponders' new house, the foothills began, meadowlarks calling out their exhaustive song, that insistent, badgering goodwill. Everywhere you wanted to go, you could walk or ride a bike. The dogs were variously sized but all golden, with tails like happy flags. This was the other, better West, its flagrant seasons -- first the red and orange and yellow leaves, which fell, it seemed, all in a single mad afternoon, a flurry of confetti, and then the snow, days and days, layer upon layer, the little city become a smooth, hibernating drift punctuated by chimneys and their nostalgic puffs of smoke. The lack of man-made racket was sometimes eerie, as if the landscape were waiting for something to happen. Even on the worst days in L.A., Ann had been able to sit on her front stoop and wrest a certain nostalgia from the atmosphere: the hum of an innocuous engine, either lawnmower or small plane, minor benign clouds filled with neither rain nor pollution, the shouting voices of children whose play could be fancied wholly innocent. The feverish unease of the city stalled for the moment.
"Did we do the right thing?" Richard would ask, putting his hands tentatively on Ann's shoulders.
She would resist the impulse to shake them off, restrain the flash of impatience: wasn't it obvious, this beauty just outside their door? A tangible beauty, like hard candy, something you could snatch at, bite. She wanted to ignore his real question, which was about the intangible, the baffling way his wife, without his permission or precise knowledge, had changed in recent years. He must have sensed that Ann's love for him had left; he was a man hoping to wait it out, or to lure it home, or, best of all, to wake one morning with the discovery that it had been merely a bad dream. "Of course we did the right thing," she would answer, if she answered.
At Thanksgiving, Ann went by herself to the airport to meet the Los Angeles flight. She'd forgotten that you couldn't greet at the gates anymore, that you had to lurk in the baggage claim area. She had pictured herself standing with open arms as her mother emerged panicked from the Jetway tunnel. Before Alzheimer's, her mother had had a wide-eyed, receptive relationship with the world, an anticipatory smile like that of a child excited for the jack-in-the-box to spring out.
Lizzie arrived by herself.
"Where's Grandma?" Ann asked, eyes casting over her daughter's shoulder in the sudden crowd. She was looking amid the Thanksgiving throng of visiting mothers for that small lost one who was hers. Lizzie, hair bent at strange angles around her face, wore a peeved, defensive expression; she knew she was going to be blamed for something that wasn't her fault. The plan, the careful set of directives Ann had supplied to a dozen different people in L.A., was supposed to result in her mother arriving in Colorado for Thanksgiving.
"I know, I know." Lizzie gave her attention to the baggage conveyer belt, now honking, now blinking, now disgorging suitcases. "We're at LAX, our bags are checked, we have a vodka for her nerves, then another for mine, then we're in line at security -- all this time she keeps calling me her abductor, but not like a paranoid whack job, like a joke, you know how she gets after vodka -- then one look at the guy putting his hand in people's shoes, and voila, she freaks." Lizzie had herded Ann to the belt as she talked, all the time watching for her suitcase. She pushed past Ann now to retrieve a large boxy floral bag Ann recalled from her own childhood. Her mother's suitcase, indisputable -- big enough to contain its owner. Tapestry, worn to threads at the corners, a part of a set that had gone with her parents many times abroad, on ships and trains, in Turkish cabs, South American buses, in a former gadabout life. Broken yellowed tag strings hung from this one's handle, testament to its worldliness, also its antiquity.
"Why is your grandmother's suitcase here?"
"It was already checked. In my name. You carry it, it weighs hardly anything. God knows what she packed. She had Equal packets stuffed in all her pockets."
"Where is she now?"
"At the center. I got her a cab. Before my plane even took off, she was back safe in her room. I called to make sure. Why do you always assume I'm a complete idiot?"
"I just don't understand -- "
"Security is such a fucking hassle nowadays, and she was really pissing me off."
"Please don't talk about your grandmother that way."
"I notice you're not there to deal with her."
"I can't believe you left her -- "
"Hey, Mom, you know what? No matter what I did, you would be mad right now. Think about it: If I come, you're mad 'cause I left her. If I don't come, you're mad because, hey, it's Thanksgiving, where's the family?" Lizzie waited for argument, her eyes wide and belligerent. And the words left her recalled for Ann that it was she, not her daughter, who had more fully done this to her mother. She let the subject drop. Lizzie turned to heave her own bag off the belt and began dragging it ahead of Ann, as if she knew where the car was parked. The tapestry piece -- her mother had referred to it as her "grip" -- felt as if there were nothing in it. Not quite nothing; one thing, maybe.
"Dude!" Lizzie greeted her brother an hour and a half later in Fort Collins. Unprompted, he threw his arms around her for a long hug. "What's with the outfit?" she said.
"It's a uniform?" he said, looking doubtfully at his shirt.
"I let you out of my sight for three months, you go geek." He submitted happily as she untucked his shirttails and frowsed his hair. They had their own intimacy, Ann saw with a tender pang, one completely removed from her or their father. Richard was trying to catch her eye, to let her know that he saw it, too, but she wouldn't look at him. She was training herself to scorn his collusion. But why?
The children shared amused glances over the Thanksgiving table, cracking obscure jokes that seemed to be at their parents' expense. Ann envisioned them as grown-up siblings. This, maybe, was the consolation she had been looking for, the knowledge that her children would remain loyal and fond, phone each other from their dorm rooms and apartments and houses, keep track and reminisce. Someday, she thought, they would be comparing notes about their parents, lodging their complaints, agreeing mostly but perhaps not entirely. Their father, Cole would speculate, had always had a soft spot for the daughter, and Lizzie would laugh -- she and Cole would be drinking beer in a bar, or whispering in the kitchen of one of their homes while their children and spouses slept -- reminding him that their mother had obviously preferred him.
This would be after Ann and Richard were old or maybe even dead, Ann thought. Neither age nor death seemed quite as formidable, put in this light. She flushed when she remembered the secret she had kept for years now, her escape clause and safeguard: she had given herself permission to divorce her husband when Cole graduated from high school. If she felt like divorcing him then, she would do it. But if she left their father, her children would be having a different conversation in that kitchen or bar she'd dreamed up. There'd be no disagreement about whose fault a divorce was.
"Doesn't Lizzie look awfully thin?" Richard asked in a whisper, in bed. "Did you smell cigarettes on her?"
His worries seemed so pale to Ann, so little, and so late in coming. Their daughter was no longer theirs; the world had had its way with her. Ann's anxiety had to do with Cole. What was Lizzie saying to him when their parents weren't around? It wasn't cigarette smoke that wafted worrisomely here, but that whiff of L.A., that musk of volatile adolescence, that had been let into the house.
"Can I call Dick?" Cole asked Ann on the Sunday evening after Thanksgiving. They were the only ones at home; Richard was driving Lizzie back to the airport. While Ann graded papers -- Change is a thing most everyone experiences, they invariably began -- Cole stared out the kitchen window into the dusk, looking lost. The looming fact of Monday morning inspired it. His sister's departure no doubt contributed; all weekend she'd played her loud music and monopolized the second bathroom and shown him interesting Internet sites, then abruptly she had packed up her cosmetics and clothes and noise and disappeared, leaving the house vibrantly still, the only sound the wet chugging of the dishwasher.
"Why Dick?" Ann asked.
"No, it's okay. Call Dick." Back in L.A., even though they'd lived within shouting distance, they'd had lengthy aimless phone conversations, Cole pacing around the house, laughing and gesturing. Ann imagined him pacing through this new house, filling Dick in on all that was strange: home, school, weather. She had assured Cole before they moved that his real friends were ones he would keep all his life, no matter where he lived, friends who were more like family. "Years from now," she told him, "you'll be calling Dick in the middle of the night just to chat. It doesn't matter where you live."
She had told him this, although she believed he would outgrow Dick. Dick would adopt the politics and values of his family, would follow in his oldest brother's footsteps first and enlist in the military, then later move into the blue-collar world of his father, who installed heaters and coolers in addition to breeding dogs. Meanwhile, Cole would go to college and graduate school; he cared too much about injustice for politics not to matter, so Dick's conservative mind-set would bother him. They would have grown apart in time, anyway. Moving had allowed the break to seem like nobody's fault, sad yet unavoidable.
Not unavoidable, Ann scolded herself. She had insisted, she had cried, she'd shamelessly exploited the national disaster of two Septembers ago to aid her cause, to substantiate her fear, her conviction, that they needed to retreat to higher ground, and her husband had finally acquiesced. "The important things," Ann had assured Cole in L.A., "are coming with us."
"Not Lizzie," he'd responded. "Not Grandma."
Like Cole, she still thought of L.A. as home. They all referred to it that way, even though their house was sold and their belongings were here. They held the configuration of that place in their minds, as if they could return to it, sleep in its beds, or boil water at the stove overlooking the window to the backyard. As if the cat would jump into that window, the way she often had, and press her dusty nose against the glass, leaving another in a long pattern of smudges.
Ann passed her son the phone and noted how his fingers flew over the keypad, Dick's number still a reflex of his hand.
"This is Cole," he said, "is Dick there?" He paused, his eyebrows pinched. "Dick? It is? I don't know, it didn't sound like you. I guess." He paused again. "Okay. Bye."
"That was the shortest call to Dick I ever heard. What happened?"
"I don't know." Cole set the phone back in its cradle. "I don't think that was Dick."
"Maybe one of the twins was pretending to be Dick?"
"Probably." Cole gave his mother a trembling look. "If it was Dick, he sounded weird."
"Depressed. Really depressed. It didn't sound like him at all."
"His voice could be changing."
"Yeah," he said, unconvinced. Her daughter would have marveled about such a phone call for a long time, turning it over with her mother, then phoning up other friends to analyze it ad nauseam, but Cole just wandered away, troubled and scowling. He had a stoic's reserve, the sort that bred ulcers, migraines. Later, Ann would mention the call again, maybe when she was tucking him into bed, on her knees with her cheek next to his on the pillow. She would tell him to try calling Dick again in a week or so, that either he was having a bad day or one of his brothers was playing a joke. Either way, Cole could make another call.
She hadn't told him that Winky had died. Returning from McDonald's, Lizzie had found Ann depositing the cat's bloated body in the Dumpster out front.
"Oh God! Well, you said you hated that f-ing cat," her daughter said, sucking the last of her soda noisily up through a straw.
Ann whirled on her. "You think that meant I wanted it dead?"
"I'm just commenting."
"I don't like your comment." Ann wanted to slap warmth into her daughter's face, make her have some feeling for the animal. The cat had been spinning in one place in the pool, held there by the action of the filter. There was something scarily beautiful about the sight, the fluttering smoothness of the fur, the animal's perfect weightless suspension and revolution, the impression that it could continue, unchanged, indefinitely. Remarkable that neither Ann nor Lizzie had noticed it before. Dick's treetop view had been better than their ground-level one.
When they finally said their goodbyes, they had agreed that it would be best to spare Cole the death of his pet. They'd say that the cat simply had not wanted to move, that she had chosen to stay in the neighborhood, that Lizzie would drive over and fill a food bowl every few days and keep them posted in Colorado. If Dick ever mentioned the dead cat, Ann would deny it, reminding Cole what a liar Dick was known to be.
"Hi, Ann, it's Nancy," the woman on the phone said. Her voice was weary, familiar, and Ann exclaimed, generically sociable, making small talk as she tried to figure out which Nancy it was. She knew three or four. Why would this Nancy assume she was the only one? The longer they exchanged pleasantries -- was Ann settled after the move? Did she miss L.A.? And the kids? -- the stranger the conversation seemed. At what point would Ann confess that she had no idea who she was talking to? Finally Nancy said, sighing, "I'm really calling to find out if Dick has tried to reach you." The voice instantly assumed a body and a location -- overweight, redheaded Nancy, Ann's former neighbor with her brood of boys and dogs.
"He's run away."
"Oh my Lord, Nancy. When?"
"Three days ago. I thought maybe Cole would know something."
Ann took the phone with her to the window in the kitchen; she needed to find her boy. The yard at first seemed empty, nothing but snow and the things it covered, a slight wind lifting faint, glittering waves of it. And then there he was, the sight of him allowing Ann to breathe once more: pulling a sled, hauling logs from one end of the yard to the other, big rubber snow boots weighing him to the ground. Until this year, he'd never seen snow. He was speaking to himself, she saw, telling a story, lost inside it. This was the kind of thing he and Dick had done together. Their alternate universe, ready-made and waiting. Ann's eyes filled with tears; she could not bring up words. "Nancy," she said. "I'm so sorry." Sorry, and shamefully grateful, with her boy penned there in the yard.
"He's called us a couple of times, so we know he's alive. We're praying that he's just blowing off steam." Nancy sighed. "It's been such a hard year for him, you know?" she went on thoughtfully. "He started sixth grade at the middle school, and everything was different. You wouldn't have recognized him, Ann. I mean, you know he's always been kind of shy, but he just turned plain sullen. He put on some weight, got pimples, the usual stuff, and he wouldn't joke around anymore . . ."
"Poor guy," Ann said softly.
"And his critters started dying. The rats, the iguana, the lovebirds. I thought it was coincidence, but now I'm not so sure. I even found him pulling the legs off the lizards in the yard, like he thought they might grow back the way the tails do. But he knew better . . ." Nancy continued talking, citing this evidence with surprise and exhaustion in her voice, argument, even -- as if she were making a case built on contradictions. It began with his separating himself from others, missing school in order to hang out at the Circle K, not speaking at home, painting his windows black -- black! not a shred of light allowed in -- refusing to care for or about his pets, hiding from his family in the overgrown culvert behind their house, that harsh place full of thistle and weed and trash, nothing like the snow-covered hills Ann now overlooked. Apparently the news of Dick's decline was something Nancy had reported so many times that she had stepped beyond its initial impact. It was a story, one she would probably be telling herself for the rest of her life, refashioning it as its end came. He had disappeared. He had been disappearing all year. She should have known, she would say, he was so quiet after he went to middle school. He'd started an awkward and unattractive puberty. He had a hard time making new friends. He didn't have any friends.
He didn't have any friends. "I don't know how I'll tell Cole," Ann murmured, thinking aloud, watching her son arrange the wood at the other end of the yard in the shape of a cabin. He was unaware of being watched, pushing his hat off his eyes with his cold red hand, talking as if to another boy. He would abandon this habit, become self-conscious, probably within the next few months. It took a great deal of restraint not to throw down the phone and run out and hold him against her -- as if Dick might find him first and claim him.
"I'm so glad Cole didn't answer the phone," said Nancy. "I would have had to hang up on him, I just couldn't have talked to that sweet child." She paused. "But maybe you could make sure he hasn't heard from Dick?"
When the boys were little, Cole had returned home one day from Dick's to tell Ann, "Dick's mom says we didn't come from apes." Before Ann could decry, Cole went on, "Dick's mom says we come from angels."
"I'm so scared," Nancy said now, her voice wobbling. While Cole stomped through the snow, Nancy berated herself, saying she should have known how upset Dick was, that last day, by the way he'd walked through the puddles on the way to school, "letting all of that L.A. street . . . shit . . . get on him." Ann was shocked. Not by the puddles -- boys, puddles, what could be more predictable? -- but by Nancy's resorting to profanity. "He's hiding somewhere, I know, and he's afraid to come back." His father's wrath, Ann thought, his mother's fear -- the glory of his having inspired it, the awesomeness of its combined force. Nancy said, "I mean, he became obsessed with negative things, black windows and all those dead pets, when did he get so fascinated with . . . badness?"
And this made Ann recall Winky the cat, her black body twirling in a current in a corner of the pool. The net extraordinarily heavy with its saturated load. "Your cat is dead."
Richard, listening later about Dick, was stunned. He had a hard time assimilating information that he didn't want to believe. It was as if his loyal heart had thrown up a shield around him, making the penetration of a dark impulse extra difficult; he had a kind of belief in angels, too, Ann thought. She had not done what she'd told Nancy she would, ask Cole if he'd heard from his friend. She waited until her son was asleep, until she and Richard were in bed. Then, when he had begun stroking her breasts, preamble to sex, she had stopped him with the news. His hand froze, moved back to his own chest, Richard immobilized, speechless. "Those poor people," he finally said. "Those poor, poor people." He disagreed with her plan to withhold the news from Cole: he might know something crucial. What if the situation were reversed, wouldn't Ann want Nancy to ask Dick? "But Cole would never run away," Ann insisted. "And I can tell by looking at him that he hasn't heard from Dick. He'd tell me." They lay in bed, talking quietly. Aside from issues relating to the children, they didn't spend much time, anymore, talking. "You know what else, Rich? I think maybe our moving played some part in Dick's changing. I mean, the cat was the first dead-animal incident. It was Dick who told me."
Ann closed her mouth, realizing for the first time that the kind lie she'd told Cole last summer had not been corrected for her husband. Even Lizzie had heard a truer version of events than Rich. "Winky," she said. "On moving day." Now she filled him in, complicating background that made him angry with her, surprisingly angry. He rose up on an elbow and looked down on her. Why would she treat him like a child? he asked. Why would she not tell him this? "I don't know," she said, miserable. He wasn't part of her inner life; it was as if she'd already started leaving him, packing herself up in preparation, one secret at a time.
Rich lay awake thinking beside her. Then he suddenly rolled from bed, and Ann heard him go into Cole's room down the hall. When she got there, he was gently but insistently rousing their boy. "Son?" he said.
"Don't!" Ann said. "He needs his sleep."
But Richard would not be dissuaded. When Cole finally woke, he told them he hadn't spoken with Dick since that last weird phone call.
"Weird phone call?" Richard demanded, as if Ann had withheld that from him, too.
Her son sat sleepily awestruck, a frown gathering on his forehead. "Where's Dick?" he asked.
It became a nightly query. Where was Dick? Now, as bedtime approached, Ann felt the terror growing. In the dark, her son imagined the worst had happened to his friend. He imagined his worst, Dick's mother imagined her worst, everyone suffering a private fictional nightmare. At night Ann crawled in beside Cole in the bottom bunk, lying there until he fell asleep, assuring him that Dick was merely hiding at a friend's house, that he would be located and brought home.
"But whose house would he hide in?" Cole pointed out. "What friend?"
Christmas came tainted; when asked what he wanted, Cole requested going home and meant L.A. He wanted nothing else. Lizzie flew in from California once more without her grandmother. This time the woman had turned tail when she saw the cab at the curb of the nursing home.
"If you want to see her," Lizzie told her mother nonchalantly as she reached to switch on the car radio, "you're going to have to get your ass back to L.A."
Why wouldn't that place leave her alone? Christmas Eve, Ann dreamed it was Dick she found dead in the swimming pool, swirling there like a difficult pet. When she woke and the dream had evaporated into the cool air of her bedroom, the deep breathing of her husband beside her, she had an unkind, inexorable thought: she would be forced to take her son back there if Dick were dead; they would have no choice but to return for a funeral.
"What's wrong?" Richard asked, half asleep, his kind, blind hand out of habit groping to reassure her.
"Nothing," she said, sliding away from his touch.
Cole's twelfth birthday fell on a bitter January Saturday. Under duress, he'd invited three boys, somewhat randomly; they were in his same grade, they lived nearby. The doorbell rang at noon, although the party wasn't scheduled until four -- the cake was still baking, the decorations unhung . . . Ann opened the door to find Dick's parents on her doorstep.
They were so out of place that she couldn't at first find their names. Their winter coats -- the father's a hunter's camouflage jacket -- further confused. And then why was Nancy holding a puppy?
"We couldn't just sit there doing nothing," Nancy explained as Ann invited them inside. The dog wore a bow. Her husband came in reluctantly, having never entered Ann's home before. But both the weather and the situation were too raw for him to stand outside. They looked haunted, as if drained of a shared vital fluid. It occurred to Ann that they couldn't be completely sane at this moment. "We're looking for Dick," Nancy said. "We thought he might have come to Colorado. Gary saw it in a dream, the KOA campground in Fort Collins."
Gary blushed deeply inside the hood of his leafy-patterned jacket. He was not a man accustomed to sharing his dreams, to having them made public. Nancy touched his sleeve with her free hand. This was how they stayed together, Ann saw, by giving permission, comfort; by being so much the other's missing half.
"Sit down," Ann said, indicating the couch before the hearth, where she'd just lit a fire. "Richard and Cole are out buying hot dogs. It's Cole's birthday." The baking chocolate cake was in the air, balloons drifting under the dining room table.
"And we brought him a present," Nancy said. "They're such lovers, these puppies. There's nothing like a Rottie, you'll see." She held up the animal by its armpits toward Ann, its little lump of a penis damp on its tight pink stomach. Ann took the dog awkwardly. He smelled like his family's home in L.A., like Dick.
"What about the other boys?" Ann asked, breathing through her mouth, blinking away tears. The puppy nuzzled into the crook of her arm, a baby creature in search of heat.
"We didn't clip his tail," Nancy said of the dog. "We thought you wouldn't want him clipped."
"The other boys are with Gary Junior," said Dick's father. "He was fixing to be called up for active duty, but we made this a priority. We're taking a proactive, uh . . ." he said, waving his hand as memory failed him.
"Stance," supplied Nancy.
"Stance." He wouldn't meet Ann's eyes. Just like his boy Dick that way. She guessed that he resented his youngest son's preventing his eldest from serving his country in this, its time of need. Twelve years ago, she and Nancy had given birth during another war, the same war.
In the room's lull, Ann thought to offer beverages, soda, tea, water, but what Dick's father requested was wine. And she liked him briefly. A little sympathetic tendril went out -- she would have wine, too -- then recoiled as she set the puppy on the kitchen floor. Seeing him precarious on the linoleum, legs braced and quivering, she had a chilly intuition slip upon her: this visit was not only to deliver a dog. They hadn't believed her when she said her family hadn't heard from Dick. They had come to see for themselves. She had to restrain herself from storming back into the living room, leading them on a glorious search of the premises, flinging open closets and thrusting their faces into the empty space beneath the beds. As if she would keep that kind of secret.
"Listen," Gary said after tossing back his wine like a dose of something medicinal, "we want to question your boy."
Nancy reached a hand in either direction, spreading herself between Ann and her husband as if to ward off blows. "Just talk to him," she said. "Honey, we don't want to scare him, I would never scare that sweet, sweet boy."
"It's his birthday," Ann said helplessly, hearing the familiar punk, punk of the car doors slam outside. Cole burst through the foyer, having recognized his friend's vehicle in their driveway, the California plates. Every adult in the room watched his face fill with the knowledge that Dick had not made a miraculous journey to join him on his birthday. They'd always celebrated their birthdays together.
"The KOA is closed," Nancy had been saying. Ann now watched her take in Cole -- his new height, the very faint hint of soft mustache on his upper lip -- Nancy's emotions so close to the surface, the sincere and fraught affection she had for the boy. Nancy would never not know him, Ann realized. None of them would ever not know the rest. The dog, still sleeping in her arms -- if they accepted this gift -- would live with her for years to come.
Cole went directly to Nancy to be held, laying his head on her chest and squeezing shut his eyes.
Richard did not want the puppy. Good deeds would heal Dick's family's hurt, Ann insisted, but she wondered if her openness had more to do with opposing Richard than the inherent wisdom of adopting the dog. She won, whatever the reason. She almost always won when she and Richard disagreed. He loved her too much.
"What will you name it?" they asked Cole of his new pet.
"Dick," he said without hesitating.
Dick the dog cried in the dark night. It was as if he were being tortured, as if solitude alone were killing him. Only human contact comforted him. Richard, who was the lightest sleeper, performed this role. Ann found him one predawn morning, sitting in the kitchen in the dim light of the open oven door, cradling the puppy like a baby, stroking it mindlessly. Her husband looked languorous and fatigued in that parental fugue state of too little sleep, too much tenderness. Not every man would do this, Ann told herself. The dog slept as if dead against Rich's chest, fat paws limp and folded at his chin. It was a scene to make her heart relent. Perhaps they should have had another child, a youngster to keep them young themselves, to distract them from the leakage of playfulness from the house, to preserve innocence. To surround them with it like a prevailing vapor.
When he glanced up and saw her watching him, Rich's face clouded, as if he were ashamed of, or perhaps only irritated by, having been caught. She had done this, turned him uneasy with his love.
Cole continued to ask after Dick. He'd promised Dick's parents he would tell them anything he could think of about his friend. One night Ann listened from the dark hallway as Rich comforted their boy. "Sometimes people grow so unhappy," Rich said, "that they think running away is the only solution." He went on to describe the hills and valleys of a lifetime, the fact that some people couldn't recognize a hard time as a temporary circumstance. He was positing a landscape, wide and full, elevations and declivities, a map meant to reassure himself, Ann thought, charting something that would allay his own fears about his wife, his daughter, his life. Cole said nothing, though Ann could perceive his listening, her husband's care in choosing his words and Cole's receiving them. Even as she was grateful to Rich for his gentle intelligence and his faith in its healing properties, she found herself arguing against it. Surely there was some instance in which running away was the answer?
In the hallway, Richard passed without meeting her eyes, not exactly cold, but wary.
His steps faded downstairs. The light in Cole's room was off, and Ann listened for crying. The silence of their new home often impressed her -- no close neighbors, no talking signs, no freeway roar, no alarms. Simply the sound of snow falling through space onto tree branches. A vacuum of hush. She waited to hear Cole call for her, and when he didn't, she put her face to the crack in his open door. "Do you want me to lie down with you?" she asked into the dark.
"That's okay," he said, declining. She entered the room anyway and knelt by the bed, like a child saying prayers.
"What are you thinking?" she whispered. His hair smelled sour; he still needed reminding to bathe.
After a long silence, he turned to face her. "About Dick."
"What about Dick?"
"Me and him were going to live on a ranch," Cole said. Growing accustomed to the dark, Ann could now see his hands folded under his cheek, the shine of his eyes. "We were going to have three dogs each, and horses." He blinked thoughtfully, as if visiting that place. "And a barn cat," he added.
"Baby," she said, stroking his hair. In Ann's mind, his ranch sprang to life; she put it in the backyard of their new home, under the foothills of the Rockies, though it had its creative origins in frenetic Los Angeles, beneath high-tension wires and endless airplanes and ozone alerts. "Where was this ranch?" she asked.
"Texas," he said without hesitation. A massive utopian landscape neither boy had seen, a giant star on a map, full of astronauts and cowboys. "Me and Dick dreamed about it all the time. We invented it in our sleep."
"Maybe that's where Dick went," Ann said. "Maybe that's where his parents should look."
"I told them that," Cole said. "They said they would, but it's a big place." She wondered how her son was picturing his friend, what he saw in his mind's eye when he imagined Dick -- Dick no longer in L.A., no longer anywhere in particular but everywhere and nowhere at once. He was, for Ann, fear itself, rumored, possible, unknown. Better for Cole to summon the Texas ranch and their future livestock, pets.
"Mom, I think I know why Dick ran away."
"You do?" She feared he would name her own suspicion, that it was their departure that had set events in motion. That in some skewed way, she, Ann, was directly responsible for that boy's sorrow, for the reverberating despair of everyone surrounding him, including Cole himself, right here in his bed. She laid her head on his pillow, ready to be accused. "Why did he run away, sweetheart?" she asked.
"I think he didn't want to turn twelve," Cole said.
Ann waited, but Cole had finished. She said, "But it'll still be his birthday . . ."
"I know." Her son wasn't going to explain the contradiction; Ann would simply have to accept it, which she did. "It already was his birthday," he added. His birthday and Dick's were only a week apart. They'd thrown joint parties, in Cole's yard one year, in Dick's the next, hands clasped together around a knife over a single layered cake like a married couple. Had Cole arrived at his insight concerning Dick because he shared the opinion about turning twelve, because he didn't find life, anymore, all that worthwhile? Ann couldn't bear to think so; she squeezed her eyes shut and hoped -- it seemed a weak thing, hope, and it was all she had -- with all her heart not. But even if he did, even if it were true, could she beg him not to feel the way he felt?
No. No more than he could beg her.
Copyright ©2006 by Antonya Nelson
Excerpted from Some Fun by Antonya Nelson Copyright © 2006 by Antonya Nelson. Excerpted by permission.
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