Rain made a kind of veil, I remember. Jack used to stand in the open garage and look out at the blur it made of the pavement and of the houses across the street, or he would stand proprietarily in the patio doorway and watch the drops turn to mist on the lake as if he'd bought tickets to see it. He was a possessive man, Jack. All he needed to do to lay claim to a thing was hold it in his eyes for longer than if he didn't. He could have bought and sold me anytime he wanted, provided it was to and from himself, I used to tease. He wore a knitted shirt open at the collar, washed and ironed to fit snug across the span of his chest and tight belly. Cinched trousers, always a belt. Clothing gave itself to him, and rain wouldn't dare dishevel him. Fog brought out the natural astringency of him. You're fresh, I used to joke, I always like a man fresh. But he was not an easy man, Jack. Romantic, yes. And as savvy with me as he was in business. He didn't open the restaurants until after I died. He was in salvage, excavation, had an eye for restoration. The restaurants came out of that, I suppose the perfect salvaged view from a refinished table at the perfect salvaged window in a warehouse ready to be reborn. A hungry mix of investors, and add to that the banker's son just out of cook school and Jack with only the string of housekeepers he called "the help" in the kitchen at home. Jack was opportunistic, what he called "optimistic with style." But easy, no. If I was angry or fed up, if we had argued over how to discipline Dennis or David for having forgotten to lock the gate at the salvage yard, or if Jack had brought home for dinner another round of business contacts without checking first with me, then I swished my hips in the kitchen planning how next time he brought guests unannounced I'd whip a stack of TV dinners from the freezer and serve them bubbling in their compartmentalized trays.
I did it, too.
Polished the silver, laid out proper linen napkins, fixed a centerpiece of yellow tapers, put on Jack's favorite Tijuana Brass (I hated that pretentious fake bullfight music, but Jack never knew), then ushered the cluster of city council members to the table, where they chose between Swanson fried chicken or Banquet Salisbury steak. Has anyone ever seen a drumstick from a real chicken as miniature as the ones they fit in those trays? Midget chickens, apple brown Bettys two bites across, but Jack poured the wine like Niagara on a honeymoon and everyone hopped in the barrel and went smashing. Tipsiness suited me fine on certain occasions, I remember. Giddiness, too. I remember how mischievous it made me knowing when I was sixty Jack would call me his girl. After supper he rolled up his sleeves, sudsed those aluminum trays, rinsed them, dried them with a tea towel, set them on the plate stands in the china cabinet, locked the door, and dropped the key in his pocket, told me if I ever pulled a stunt like that again he'd sleep on the couch for as many nights as there were bones in a TV dinner chicken's body.
Jack would have kept his word. However many bones there are in a chicken would have been too many nights for me. Loneliness was never a charm on my bracelet unless Jack was doing something he wanted, hunting, maybe, and when he got home he'd be shivering with all the cold he'd stored up in that tree stand waiting to come home and get dunked in a warm bath. I only went four times to the cabin on the family hunting land. There was wild turkey dung on the outhouse floor. Anyway, the longer I managed to stay away from Jack, the quicker he'd come back.
Any woman worth the high heels she topples to and fro on knows that.
Also, Hansel and Gretel, the blind witch pinching the chicken bone. I should have read to the children every night, three sets of books for the three sets of twins, me with an open book on my lap and a twin half asleep in the crook of each elbow. From what I gather these days of the children, only Becka and Tip are likely to pick up a book, Tip more than Becka. Funny, since of course I never had a chance to read to Tip at all. Magazines I used to skim if I had a few moments. Cookbooks, barely. Books weren't my style, I suppose. I always felt a million things pulling me away from a page. If a book was an anchor, it couldn't hold my boat. The reason I chaperoned church ice-skating socials wasn't to keep the pre-teens in line, either. I enjoyed the admiration of the girls. I liked to imagine what figure I might cut when Dennis and David were too old for Teen Nights and Drew and Douggie came instead. Becka and Jenna, too, although I see now I would have been a hindrance to the girls, the comparison not in their favor. I had a perfect posture when I was alive. When I was dead and, after so many years of being waltzed and fox-trotted, got plunked near Becka and Jenna's postures, it was when they were sunbathing in their stretched-out one-piece bathing suits with the feet of their lounge chairs tipped higher than the heads so the tips of their toes burned pink in the sun. Made me feel like I had company up here. Not beholden to gravity, I mean; Becka's goggly contortions, Jenna's long neck curved like a goose's. Oh well. Really I have no claim on the girls. They were two years old when they last laid eyes on me. I gave them each a small push as if on a swing, set them in motion, the blue sky rocking above them. One evening I said because they were my girls, if tomboys, their abandoned dolls dun headed in the sidelines of their Wiffle ball games I said take care of your new, younger brother, knowing he'd be a boy, knowing he might help them grow into their girlhood, needing his nose wiped, needing his shoelaces tied on the back cement steps. Becka especially would need help growing into her girlhood, though tucked in bed the girls didn't hear me, their heads pressed so insistently into their pillows I had to shake out the dents every morning, punch the pillows back in shape until my last day on earth, knowing no one would do so when I was gone. If Douggie, Drew, Dennis, David, and Jenna had a way of missing me through Jack, attaching themselves to his stoicism like taut, bright kites to a brooding sky, Becka loped either ahead or behind, attracted by hunkered things lost in the grass. But my ghostliness was powerless to touch any of the twins, who weren't my business anymore apparently, and for that I had already yielded my regrets, folded them like tears in a crumpled tissue. Even when I was alive, Jack's and my debates about our ornery pairs of children had a way of escaping me. Jack was a smart-ass not a word I would have spoken when I could be heard! when he was trying to distract me from keeping him from doing what he wanted. He wanted David and Dennis to have to stay late at the salvage yard stripping crown moldings every night for two weeks in retaliation for forgetting to padlock the gate. I said no boys of mine'll have to miss two weeks of the too few summer nights of their too brief boyhoods for acting only as responsibly as any boys their age could be expected to act. Jack said how would I feel if the yard were vandalized, the tarps spray-painted with dirty jokes about twins, the leaded windows sledgehammered, the racks full of ornate doors knocked over, and the power tools left running? I said certainly David and Dennis couldn't be blamed for all that, and Jack said how would I feel if I were some other boy's mother and he had snuck into the unlocked salvage yard and chopped off his own head with a power saw? I said don't be ridiculous. Jack said the punishment for any act should weigh up against all the bad things that could possibly come of it. I said in that case, two weeks of stripping crown molding past bedtime wouldn't be nearly enough for having caused some hapless boy to get his head chopped off.
"Hatless," said Jack. "Not hapless."
Which I regretted laughing at, the second I started, of course. Jack had gotten the better of me again. David and Dennis were punished with two and a half weeks of sanding, brushing, buffing, and staining crown moldings.
I loved all my sons for being as smart as their father.
But I love Tip for being smarter. Tip's a whip.
I only wish I ever had the chance to hug and kiss him, teach him his letters and numbers, the colors and shapes, the animal sounds, all the starts of the ways of the world that accompany a person through life like rocks in a hard stream, put there as if for crossing. Really there's practically nothing I ever saw or heard or did of which I can't remember the slippery balance, the last-second leap to the next mossy foothold. Pink Cadillac. Ethel Merman's face. The names of my primary-school teachers. What goes in turkey stuffing. How to fasten a brassiere. How to kiss. How to make the tires squeal at the corner when someone who deserves a minor heart attack is waiting to cross. How to pretend badminton is your favorite form of entertainment, not to mention croquet. Card games. Flowers. Mrs. Carney, Mrs. Trainer, Miss Higgans, Mr. Harris, dahlias, salvias, marigold, aster, hearts, spit, slapjack, poker. I never did learn sheepshead. The clincher is I don't miss any of it, not even standing in the doorway with Jack in the rain, sharing one of his cigarettes. Rain was the only time I ever smoked. If it rained and Jack was smoking and I wasn't, then we were separate. But if I smoked, too, then we blended. Together, rain and cigarettes balanced our differences. The slight ticking of the smoke, the mist of the smell of ash, the moist drift and clatter of sulfur and burnt thunder, that mixture was our perfect cocktail. Three quarters Jack, one quarter Polly, or three quarters Polly, one quarter Jack, depending on who was in the friskier mood, together in a cup that would be sipped from as much by one of us as it was sipped by the other. But nor do I miss even Jack. All I miss is Tip, who I never kissed, or knew, or held for just a second in my dead arms. When a baby is stillborn, sometimes the grieving parents are permitted a few moments to rock the child deeper into sleep, calm the troubled creases from its forehead, sing lullabies into the translucent cones of its ears, nuzzle its name into its dry, open mouth. But when it's the mother who's dead, they cover her with the bedsheet and whisk her away, zip her up like a spent change purse, belly empty, fingers clenching not a penny. If only they had put him to my breast for a moment, I might still be able to conjure Tip's groping. And if they had held him once to my lips, I might remember the smell of him. Every baby is different, every baby's push is different from another one's pull. I used to lie on my back now and then during my babies' nap times, let them drape their limbs over my chest, could feel gravity reach through me like a rope through deep water to keep them in place. Douggie and Drew were rigid as bundles of dirty laundry, Becka and Jenna scaly as lizards, David and Dennis prickly as fresh-picked flowers. When at last the Night danced me within whispering distance of Tip, he was nine years old on the island with his new friend, Johnny, but right away I could fancy what it might have been like to hold him. Him like two crossed sticks of dynamite, the fuses lit but not blowing, stubborn as ever but always about to blast himself right out of my arms.
The reason it took me nine years to get to Tip was, simply, because it does. Take a while. To get back. To find whomever. Not even the Night, my capricious dance partner vain in Its black tuxedo, knows quite where to lead, for the halls are all mirrors, the dangling prisms of starlight yellowed. Uncertain as I, still Its hand prodded the small of my back, our dance over the years growing never dull but languid, our bodies flush together although we had no bodies. And then at once It'd set me down and take up another partner, another pair of pale arms although there were no arms. I sat stiffly those first few times between dances, like someone mousy at a social, clutching her clutch, waiting to know what to do and say, whose evening to influence and whose morning to leave alone. Tip was my unfinished business, of course, but as usual there were errands to be run along the way before the Night might snatch me up again, my respite only temporary, transient as dust lifting up and then settling back down. Ghosts don't know how to be ghosts right away. We have to find our own methods, unfurl our own maps, unwind, one way or another, the routes that might lead us to rest. Knowing this, even so I still need to reassure myself that when I finally came upon Tip with Johnny on the island, I didn't mean to invite Tom Bane's airplane to pull half the sky's constellations into the lake. I didn't mean for it to be a plane at all that fell out of the sky. I meant for it to be a falling star.
I meant only for the two boys to look up in unison to see something earthbound, a thing hurtling toward them out of their reach and control.
I wanted them to notice the big world around them and feel themselves small and necessarily kindred in the middle of it.
I wanted to accustom them to the idea that they must look out for each other.
Rain might have been best, I say to myself with hindsight. A falling star has too many irrelevant connotations. A fishing bird is likely to be as silly as a pelican, the acorn too big a deal out of nothing even if it landed in the campfire between them and popped and sizzled. But at the time I said, Enough contemplating, anything falling will be satisfactory as long as the boys see it together and be twins for life and protect each other. It was then that the plane began its first cartwheel, and ever since it hit the water, Tom Bane has slept on my name like a reel of foreign language played through a pillow of sand. Polly Baymiller, Polly Baymiller, he doesn't know what it means, but it both spurs him on and soothes him. Confuses him, too. He believes he is my adversary. Because he can't reach me directly, he'll try to punish Tip instead. If my sallying to and fro is meant to tame Tip's sorrows, then Tom means to compel them, means to draw the sorrows forth. If I intend to bring Tip happiness, Tom intends to thwart me. If I intend to bring Tip love, Tom means to confuse him. But the Night didn't care. It only picked me up, twirled me, and put me back down. Pretty casual on the uptake, aren't you? I said, and huffed off to the ladies' room to powder my nose, although I had no nose. Drummed my fingers on the side table and tried not to look worried, although I had no fingers. Finally stalked off home, although it turned out I was my home. My own threshold, my own door, the skittered leaves unswept from my dusty hallway. How disheveled I was, and miffed at my date, not even to have been driven home and given a kiss good-bye. The cad, I declared, though I set about doing just what the fickle Night wanted of me. Cleaning the house. Wiping, dusting, mopping, and swabbing, the Night stern at my window whenever It came back to fetch me. Clean this, clean that. Is this your house, or mine, anyway? I asked and, miffed, clutched the broom too fiercely, swished the dust cloth like skirts in an arrogant tango. On my private, ghostly dresser, Tip and Johnny turned to static, the tiny island became a blip on my radio, half the state of Wisconsin slid past my dial, all at once I ended up within whispering distance of some other dead wife and mother's rightful husband, Lysle, and son, Gem, who missed her so much I wanted to be her.
Drive slower, I found myself whispering contentiously to Lysle as if already accustomed to this new man's fondness for belligerence, my words thumping inside his too rubbery ears, only to blend with the purring of the highway under the eighteen wheels of the semi. Never having sat next to such a wiry truck driver before, and never once having sat in the cab of a semi, I supposed I had to trust in the Night's intuition and be not only concordant with wherever the Night plunked me, but sensible as well. All predicaments have purpose when one is a ghost, I figured, so I secured myself within the high, speeding perch of the surprising truck and waited to make sense of why on earth I'd been put there. Had I been not a ghost but a mortal I might never again have set foot in a normal car, which from the cab looked like toys with no room for humans inside them. Squashable as bugs, and less important. In the trailer behind me sat forty thousand pounds of jalapeño poppers, whatever that was, which Lysle could practically smell the steam rising off between him and his wife, where she'd set the plate between them at ten o'clock of the last morning they spent together, the TV on since the morning before, and the morning before that, too. The shows didn't matter to Lysle as long as his wife fell asleep in the armchair next to his at bedtime, dressed in her day clothes, and woke up next morning, same chair, wearing her nightgown, a yellow brushed flannel as soft as her name. Violet. Skinny as a stem, too, no matter how many times she ate "one of them poppers, now I know why they call them that," Lysle imagined her saying. His ears were pink as ham; if she wanted to rib him about something, she gave them a tweak, but that was as pissed off as she ever got. Pissed off. I never heard that term before Lysle used it, his whole manner of speaking knocking against me like moths at a window. Such a tranquil woman, Lysle's wife, Violet. A heart softer than pussy, Lysle thought in my head, shocking me so much I could have died all over again if such a thing were possible, his words jumping around in my head as if he were the ghost, haunting me. I could feel him banging doors in the house the Night had made of me, the thunk of Lysle's beer can when he set it on the table next to the poppers, the habit he had, while sitting, of lifting both legs at once and plunking his feet down square on the cat-smelling carpet, his boots never off unless he was taking a shower, but always untied. The TV on to a movie no one knew the name of, the mangy cockatiel pecking its calcium stick in the cage in the living room, the blinds open at night to a sandy view of pines, and open in the morning, too, the light glinting on Violet's glittery toenail polish she bought for ten percent off from her Mary Kay representative, who was the next teller over at the bank Violet worked at, which blew up one day from a
gas leak underneath it, the fuckers, the goddamn stupid shit-ass fuckers, I had to listen to Lysle thinking over and over, which is the closest probably anyone ever came to blushing when they were vapor, like me, thinner even than the steam that gathered on the windshield of the truck.
But I forgave Lysle his language. His grief was more substantial than I was, and anyway he didn't know I was there.
So, I was stuck with the wrong man knocking around inside me. A rude awakening, Lysle, for someone learning what it's like to be a ghost. A real plate smasher, Lysle, all my cupboard doors swinging half cocked on their hinges. I thought if I didn't get back to the tiny island that second and let Tip step over my threshold and let me hold him, I'd...I'd what? Die?
It was then I caught sight of Gem, who was dwarfed by the passenger seat, his untrimmed bangs like rows of crooked W's.
Don't forget to wash that peanut butter out of your eyebrows when your daddy pulls in at the next truck stop, I whispered to Gem, after which I heard all his ideas, too, as if I were the hallway and they were the footsteps, only Gem's footsteps were harder to follow than his father's because Gem didn't quite know how to talk yet even though he was five years old. Gem's eyes were so dark brown the black dot in the middle was like a tunnel with no end. But he remembered every runnel of chocolate sauce in every ice cream sundae his mother had ever made him, and every spoon she made him lick so clean he could see his pursed lips in it, and every time she urged him not to squeeze the new guinea pigs too hard. The guinea pigs were left at home in a cardboard box with their mother, lucky things, but Gem's mother's slippers were right where she'd last stepped out of them, under the dining room table with the bowl of drippy peaches on it. After three days of driving, the inside of Gem's elbow smelled to him like a puppy. No it doesn't. Yes it does. No it doesn't. Yes it does. Gem shook his head no and nodded yes. He was such a tiny thing, Gem, half swallowed up by the passenger seat of the semi with nothing to sit on but his own cowboy boots to see out the windshield. He was up on his knees even with the seat cranked high as it would go, craning his neck at all the motorcycles his father pointed out to him. Gem knew motorcycles like other children his age knew the letters of the alphabet. His father caromed right past the next couple of truck stops. Gem wet his pants. A whole day went by before his father thought to give him clean clothes. With a dry paper towel he rubbed the peanut butter so deep into Gem's eyebrows it couldn't be seen. Violet would have taken a damp dish towel to him, a gentle spiral starting at the tip of his nose and ending round and round the creases of his neck. Gem felt like the genie's bottle when his mother washed his face, like the genie might pop out of him and give her a Harley, but still the only place she ever wanted to go was home with Gem. Now she must have changed her mind. No she didn't. Yes she did. Gem clapped his hands over his ears in a rhythmic way so the sound of his father's truck was like the custom-made gurrr of his mother's new Harley starting up and shutting off again every time she remembered she hadn't said good-bye. Gem had never ridden in his dad's truck before, had only sat in it nights when it was parked near their house with the engine running so the poppers wouldn't spoil. Twice-baked potatoes were better than poppers if you were as hungry as Gem was, so at the truck stop his father bought him a hot dog.
Get him some milk, I whispered to Lysle, then gave a hasty swirl of the dust rag across the dial of my radio, trying to get back to Tip. But I just skimmed past him, heard just the timbre of Tip's laughter before sliding helplessly into range of Lysle again.
"Go get you one of them straws," Lysle said to Gem so Gem could blow milk bubbles when Lysle left him in the truck outside the tavern Lysle always stopped at en route to St. Louis. It wouldn't do to bring a five-year-old into the bar, especially when he had to tell all the truckers about what happened to Violet. Yes it fucking would, you don't protect a five-year-old from his own mother getting blown to pieces when she was counting other people's money, her and twenty thousand dollars turned to fairy dust in the same second. You can't protect a kid from something like that, Lysle debated back and forth between my ears. Yes you fucking did, especially when every trucker in the tavern was going to buy you a shot. How much money did Violet take out of the bank when she rode off on her Harley? Enough to buy heaven, I whispered to Lysle even though there was no such place, exactly. Heaven for me was for one split second seeing Jack at his desk in one of the restaurants writing a check to one of the charities (just because Jack was possessive didn't mean he wasn't generous, too), and when I lost sight of Jack and couldn't find Tip no matter how fiercely the Night bid me dust, I felt heavenly enough watching Gem eat his supper and drift off to sleep like a good boy. I had to be happy, simply because the idea of being a sad ghost instead of a glad one was too redundant. Dead is dead, but glad's more resourceful. Not even glad ghosts know how to be ghosts right away, however. We take hold of whatever catches us, and reach for what doesn't. Hell was nothing more than the opposite of heaven, like feeling Lysle twist inside me like a wet towel when another trucker in the bar joked how his girlfriends got too many headaches. The other men shushed the man, but Lysle was already gasping with indignation, his ears pinker than ever, his anger slapping my insides like a wet towel swatting the walls.
"At least your girlfriend had her head still attached to her body. At least you get the whole lady. Me, I don't even get my wife in my own wife's coffin. I get confetti. I'll give you an ache to think about, you don't get down on your knees this minute and thank God your lady's alive. Get down! Get down!"
Lysle's bootlaces snapping like whips every time he brought his foot down. The trucker raised himself off his bar stool. I'd never been hit by anyone. No one ever even slapped me. Certainly Jack would sooner die himself than even pinch my arm to bring me back to life. But now Lysle was all fists and kicks around the wrung-out pleats of the dress Jack buried me in. Appliquéd daisies. Not my favorite dress at all even back when we women pretended to like such clothing, but I didn't bat an eye when they prodded and poked me into it, although who would have imagined going sleeveless into eternity? Heaven was Gem's breath ruffling the daisy petals, dreaming about the front door of his house in Wisconsin with the light that blinked on by itself when anyone got close to it. Hell was Lysle spitting shots down my throat after the other truckers held him and the offender apart. Whiskey didn't faze me and though I'd never liked the odor except on New Year's, I'd give anything to be able to smell it now. That and sweat puppies. Sweat puppies was Lysle's way of talking about the smell in the creases of Gem's elbows. Glug glug. When Lysle drank I felt like the bottle with the whiskey going in backward. I'd never thought how glad I was Jack wasn't a drinker. A social drinker, yes, but so was I a little.
Still, Lysle wore whiskey quite naturally. He just missed being dapper, with a shot in his hand. His muscles were all skin and bone, Lysle's. He was built like a ranch hand, all wire and denim. There was something raw about him when he wasn't drinking. Then, cooked.
Gem, take the keys out of the ignition, I whispered maternally, when his father was still in the tavern. I was frightened of the notion of a drunken Lysle behind the wheel.
Being a ghost, I couldn't hear my own voice, but I could feel a breeze in Gem's ears.
Gem kept sleeping.
Gem, get hold of those keys and pull them out of the ignition, I whispered again.
Gem's sleep was like water tunneling through pipes. His dream of the front door light blinking on by itself was like an attic I didn't know I had in me. He would haunt me forever if I couldn't make him live past age five and a half. In the bar, Lysle was getting ready to leave, the roar of the truck already a promise to him. He was putting on his jacket even though he hadn't taken it off. How a man can get his ears snagged in a zipper is a puzzle only alcohol can solve. He was determined to drive very fast with his eyes shut so when he woke in the morning he'd be where he was going even though he didn't quite remember where he meant to get to anymore.
Gem, you can drive your dad's truck, Gem, I whispered to Gem's tousled hair, the top of his head squared off willy-nilly like his pet guinea pigs thirsting for water back home in their box of wood shavings.
Gem's nose whistled in sleep. There were dots on his face, I couldn't tell if they were freckles or dirt. If I were Violet I'd leave them there, even if they were dirt. He was such a cute boy, Gem, so tiny in his black T-shirt and black jeans and his cowboy boots.
Gem, just think, you could be the first five-year-old ever to drive a semi full of jalapeño poppers, I whispered. I didn't know what poppers were. I'd never heard of anything like that when I was alive. Wake up, Gem. I pleaded. Take out the keys.
Gem stirred and woke up. He wasn't wearing his seat belt. The door of the tavern banged open. Out stumbled Lysle all wired to get on the road. That was Lysle's word, too. I didn't know wired. I wondered if Jack did, or if he knew jalapeños. Sounded like a dance step. Lysle lurched toward the truck. Gem climbed on his knees so he'd be able to see out the windshield. His tousled head just an inch or two clear of the glass.
For a moment, just a moment, I was angry with Violet for leaving me to look after her child. Not to mention her husband. But then Poor Violet, I said to myself, like Poor me, knowing how much I wanted to be with Tip. Like me, Violet was drifting, spun by the Night, then jilted, left standing on a doorstep or crossing a threshold into the outskirts of some other dead woman's family with the object of easing their troubles, polishing their edges, unsnarling, if not their hungers, at least their hair. Being dead, I thought, is not unlike being in a kitchen with the door shut, the new dishwasher humming so nobody knows what you're doing in there, what you're thinking or feeling, what they're getting to eat. I used to stomp my foot in my kitchen, bang pots and pans, throw a wet sponge if I was angry at Jack, mix a batch of biscuits maybe, pour grape juice into Popsicle molds, burn my knuckles in the freezer finding a steak for tomorrow, lay it thunk on a plate, unwrap the crisp heavy white paper, no one knew, no one heard. All the tenderness, frustration, and mischief that happens in a kitchen happens in private, then vanishes the second they stab it with their forks. I used to think the only men familiar with the waxy crispness of butcher paper are the butchers, the only men who know the gritty pop of a can opener are the die-hard midnight snackers intent on a tuna fish sandwich. And Jack a restaurateur these days! In my kitchen, before I died, before he found entire restaurants reflected in the curve of every salvaged spoon and platter, Jack didn't even know where to find the bread and butter. I remember the time he asked, "Where do we keep the toast?" and how he used to read the newspaper after dinner in his armchair next to mine, but my chair would be empty, I'd be printing the twins' names on lunch bags, next day they'd never notice when I'd spelled all their names incorrectly on purpose, even packed Jack a bag marked Lilian once, he never noticed, he'd have choked with embarrassment to discover he was eating some dainty lady's sandwich.
Lysle stopped short in the middle of the parking lot, appearing troubled. After a moment he did something I'd never seen a man do in a public place. Jack would hang himself before he peed in a parking lot in the presence of a lady even if he didn't know she was there. I never even saw Jack pee in the bathroom. My own husband. And he never saw me either, though sometimes we chatted through the cracked-open door. Lysle's pee splashed against the dark of the pavement. He wasn't thinking about doing it, just doing it, so I didn't feel it on the floors of my house. I was a house, he was peeing, everything happening naturally. Gem caught sight of the truck keys hanging from the dash. He touched them, they swung, Lysle zipped up still looking troubled, I could feel his confusion like a jug of milk turning sour in the fridge. Gem grasped the key and tried to turn it. His hand was so tiny the key stayed as it was. The curve of the windshield was big enough to represent everything he'd need to pass through to get from life to death. And Lysle drunk as a skunk, ready to stink up Gem's chance at a good, long life. Put your weight on the key, I whispered into Gem's guinea pig hair. You can do it, I whispered across the span of his chest, a chest so narrow I could have kissed both nipples at once, though of course I'd never dreamed of touching a child's nipples. Not a body part I was ever terribly aware of. Bottles had nipples. That's all. Rinse the nipples, brush the nipples, boil the nipples, buy new nipples, that's all. Kiss the nipples, I whispered to Gem by mistake. Gem gazed down at his narrow wedge of T-shirt, where the picture of a cowgirl lassoed a motorcycle with a coiled purple snake. Never had I even caught sight of such a T-shirt when I was alive, buying T-shirts for my boys. I bought white ones, so I could have the pleasure of keeping them white. Spotless. Ironed. There was a whole stack of hand-me-down snap-sided T-shirts waiting for Tip to be born, white as they'd been in our first layette. There is something I regret, something I could have done that I didn't, after the priest told me to give birth and die. Knowing I'd never have the chance to dress Tip, still, I could have played with those shirts like a girl with a doll, snapped them, smoothed the white cotton under my fingers, even spilled a little milk on them, washed them, ironed them all over again, folded them just for the pleasure, as if Tip were born already and I was doing it for him. I had a feeling from the start he wouldn't be twins like the others, he'd have twice as many T-shirts as the rest of them but no partner like the others the way they held each other's hands while climbing the steps, the way they learned their pairs of names as if both names belonged to each of them, so David was David and Dennis, and Dennis was David and Dennis, too but I didn't say as much to Jack, how Tip would be alone with his pile of too many shirts.
Back and forth the keys swung. Gem gave the key a good, hard twist. Already he'd pressed the buttons, pulled the knobs. The wipers swished, the radio blared, the turn signal blinked. Gem's baby teeth showed crooked when the engine roared. Lysle lunged for the truck, nearly fell on his face, threw himself over Gem, yanked the keys from the dash, and with a drunken yell threw them as far as he could, past the noses of the other parked trucks.
Just as I'd planned.
Bingo, Lysle, I whispered.
They made no noise when they landed, the keys. They might not ever have landed at all. Who could have heard them anyway? What'd ya do that for? What'd ya do that for? Lysle screaming at Gem, the words ricocheting like pool balls inside me. But Gem was unfazed. He was accustomed to his father's flailing, his father's hullabaloos. He decided the keys hadn't fallen. Hadn't landed. Were still skimming and careening.
"Bingo," he said.
After he slept off his drink, Lysle spent forty minutes kicking the grass in search of the keys, then gave up and dug through the glove compartment for the trucking firm's phone number to call in for new ones. By then the morning heat had turned to foil on the top of the trailer bisecting the small dirt lot, the truck's nose in one patch of shade and the rear fender in another, but everything in between square in the sun. Under the trailer, where Gem crawled looking for fishing lures and parts of old pocketknives, there gathered a slippery smell like the inside of an empty popper box when he stuck his nose in it looking for the last poppers to spread in rows on the cookie sheet for his parents. His mother was dead. The tavern was closed on Mondays. The pay phone was outside the door, but his father kept losing his quarter. Three facts, like three drawers Gem opened and closed inside me to see if the contents snuck from drawer to drawer when he wasn't looking. Every so often the pay phone rang two and a half times for no reason, after which the trilling of the insects in the grass became more pronounced. Finally his father's quarter clinked the right way, but no one answered the phone at the trucking company, so finally Lysle phoned his sister, Carol, in the pinewoods outside of Iola, Wisconsin, and asked if there was anyone who felt like driving the four hundred and fifty miles south to come get him. It wasn't just being stuck that made Lysle so homesick all of a sudden. It was what he'd found out. He never should've hit the road so soon after Violet got blown up. Deep down, he must have hoped to come upon her hitching a ride on the highway, but now that he understood that this wouldn't be so, he longed at least to have a cry on the shoulder of Iola, where he had grown up, not far from the pinewoods he'd kept home in with Violet, their beach chairs sunk in a bed of pine needles around a giant fire pit for parties in the clearing outside their built-on trailor. Iola sat in the skirts of the kettle moraines on the edge of dairy country. Dawn smelled of milk, noon of clover.
"Sid'll do it," Carol answered Lysle right away. "He's on his way back from wherever."
Lysle guffawed, relieved to have something to snort at in the midst of his yearning for a double-decker cone from the ice cream gazebo near the water reservoir in Iola. No one had seen Sid in years. Wherever was jail, most likely. In any case Sid Haarstad, Lysle and Carol's older brother, who'd spent ten years in the navy before kayaking ninety miles of the Mekong River, only to be arrested upon return in Honolulu for packing a hilt full of opium, was the last person in the world, twice married and twice divorced notwithstanding, who upon acquittal and release from jail would choose to spend a summer watching home movies of spilled ice cream cones melting on the sidewalks of Mainstreet, U.S.A., even if he was desperate to recoup. But now he was on his way east to Wisconsin. Sid must be feeling unstrung, Carol confided to Lysle. Unstrung. The funny word plunked inside me, but everything else about Sid was as legible to me as print on paper, a book on my shelf that I wouldn't have so much as flipped through if I were alive. Dead, I was required to play a role in it, somehow, it being not Lysle's but Sid's story between the lines of which the Night had so trickily slipped me. And so there I was, reading Sid Haarstad inside out as if for some test to which the Night was preparing to put me. In all the phone calls Sid had ever made from jail, he claimed not to know how the opium had ended up in the hilt of the sword. He'd traded his kayak for the sword at the close of the Mekong River trip. It was a World War I sword, but the farmer who traded it used the weapon to gut pumpkins. For supper on the day Sid climbed the terraced slope to the village for a case of the bitter, beerish liquor they made in those parts, the farmer placed a wobbly pumpkin between Sid's feet, pulled the sword from the sheath, and lifted the blade over both their heads as reverently as if waiting for God to say which of the three round objects Sid's head, the farmer's head, or the pumpkin should prepare to meet its demise. For a long moment the sword stayed horizontal with the sky, and the look of concentration on the farmer's face intensified, as did the tautness of the muscles in his arms, but when the blade arced onto the pumpkin it made only a wet thwacking sound that did nothing but dent the rind. The farmer burst out laughing at his favorite joke, then grew more and more hilarious as he hacked at the pumpkin like he did every evening, thumping and sawing, the blade of the sword dull as mud, the orange pulp flying. Finally the farmer's bent-shouldered wife scooped out the meat and stewed it with chilies and basil while Sid wondered in English whether the sword had ever killed anyone in a war. The farmer raised his eyebrows, then poured more beer into Sid's mug from a standing height the way the waiters poured tea in the fancy Asian restaurants, the arc of liquid spanning the table without a splash. At sundown Sid was due back at the river with a case of the sour beer. He offered the farmer first some money and then his wristwatch in exchange for the heavy curved sword, then sign-talked the man into accompanying him to where the kayak waited with the other boats. The upswept shape of the sword resembled the curve of the kayak, making the trade seem inevitable to Sid, who lived his whole life anyway trading one event for another in an unending chain of adventure of which the opium stuffed in rolled bags in the hilt of the sword was the link that finally didn't seem to lead anywhere but back to Iola.
That was where the Book of Sid ended, so far, the brittle pages edged with gold because that's what Sid's heart was made of even if nobody knew it but me. Many years had gone by since his family had laid eyes on him, except for a formal navy portrait of someone who looked like a Gettysburg militiaman time-warped to the wrong war. At family gatherings the photo was passed hand to hand, the droopy handlebar mustache commented upon and examined until some consensus was reached as to whether the portrait was really of Sid, and if so, then for what act of heroism was there a Purple Heart pinned above the National Defense ribbon on the breast pocket of his uniform?
"Couldn't be his head he lost," one of the family always remarked, meaning Sid had lost his head long before going to Vietnam. But aside from the women, Sid was the smartest of the family.
Carol said to Lysle, "Tell me the number of where you are and how to get there, and Sid'll swing by and pick you and Gem up. You know Sid. He'll do anything once."
"Forget it," said Lysle, reading Carol the phone number anyway. "Like I'm gonna wait three weeks for some disappearing brother who ain't showing up before he goes somewhere else on the way. Gem!" Lysle shouted, pressing the receiver against the crook of his shoulder, "You ain't found them keys, you shouldn't be sitting there playing with that fishing lure!" Gem wrapped the parts of the pocketknife in a dandelion leaf, then crawled back under the truck in search of shade. He couldn't search for the keys because he knew he wouldn't find them. They were safe in heaven in his mother's blue jean pocket or swinging in the sparkly wind, a thousand colors trapped in the strands of Gem's mother's long dishwater hair. Every time Violet used to say her hair was dishwater, Gem imagined soapy lather in a jelly jar cup. Instead of searching for the keys as his father had told him, Gem searched for the grasshopper he'd noticed earlier perched secretively in one of the tire treads. When he spotted it flexing its legs on the slope of a matchbook and had caught the pale insect in his cupped hand, careful not to crush the helmet or twist the strawlike feet backward, he shimmied on his belly through the dirt into sunlight, leaving the matchbook behind so he could look for it later.
Lysle hung up the phone, wondering if it might be acceptable for a stranded man with a hungry son to break the tavern window in hopes of honey-roasted peanuts, soft drinks, jerky, and beer.
No more beer, I advised. The grasshopper butted against Gem's folded palm.
Lysle hunted for the best way to kick open the tavern. The front door was too thick, the windows nearly too narrow but not quite too high. He found a rock propping up a loose drainpipe, took off his T-shirt, then on second thought put it on again and ushered Gem over.
"Take your shirt off quick, it's dirtier than mine," he said.
"What for?" asked Gem.
"To get in the window," said Lysle.
Gem wondered how a T-shirt could climb in a window. Anyway, if he tried to take off his, the grasshopper would escape. But then he would find out how a T-shirt could climb in a window. He took off his shirt. The grasshopper plummeted upside down to the ground, where it wiggled its feet like someone pumping a bicycle. The telephone rang two and a half times and stopped. Lysle wrapped his hand inside the T-shirt and picked up the rock with it before climbing on top of three stacked bricks.
Tell your son to move away and shut his eyes, I whispered fierce as I could, for it dawned on me finally that I could be heard, my words a skitter of dust but their message conveyed.
"Move away and shut your eyes," obeyed Lysle, whose eyes glazed a moment with the start of a sneeze.
Gem stepped back a distance and shielded his eyes, peeking between his fingers. Smack smack smack. Every time the wrapped-up rock broke glass, Gem's toes curled in his boots.
Head or feet first? Lysle pondered back and forth inside me, making me think of dancing on the moonlit pontoon knotted to the end of the dock. Even nights I was pregnant with Tip, Jack and I danced on that boat, knowing we probably wouldn't have another summer to dance through. Now I was glad Jack didn't know what I know that my death would be a dance in the arms of the Night, who stepped in to steal me and Jack from each other. But those nights on the dock, the lake air smelled of lake flies and citronella while the lily pad blossoms gave no fragrance at all. The music was tinny where it drifted off the dock, like a hotel band under distant palm trees away from which we'd snuck to a private cove. I wanted a thatched umbrella, those nights, and a torch with an open flame, and someone crossing the house with towels folded over their forearm, heading for our bedroom to turn back the sheet and lay wrapped mints on starched pillowcases. Wrought iron, plaster of Paris, brass polish, varnish, steel wool, and sawdust. Those were Jack's smells, that summer I was pregnant with Tip, but I couldn't smell them now if we were stepping on each other's toes. Nor cigarettes. Smoking, Jack held the cigarette backward so the lit end hid in the curve of his palm. His wrist swiveled when he inhaled. Side to side on the dock, dancing with Jack, pregnant for the last time,
I kissed the cigarette pack under the hem of his shirt pocket. I kissed the crease of the collar and rubbed the tip of my nose around the shaved spot below his ear. I had a theory I told only Gwen, when we were starting to be friends, when she was pregnant with Johnny, when the neighborhood was new. Jack was tight with the developer and made sure every house had a view of the lake, or if not, a piece of the channel. He still called them his houses years after other families had been paying them off. Gwen and I liked to spy on him surveying the lawn, evenings when John, Gwen's husband, was still at work at the hospital, rallying for peace. "Married to an anesthesiologist." That's why she fought herself instead of him, it was less frustrating. Gwen used to sigh. What good was peace without struggle, negotiation, truce, capitulation, or surrender? What good was peace when you could pop it along with a tranquilizer? Had I lived a little longer I might have drummed up the gumption to ask if she thought she might coax John to seek some help for his drug use I saw him at the hospital once, when I stopped there on some errand, he was gliding around on those black Chinese slippers but instead I only told her I knew how it went, and that Jack's and my battles were all tongue-in-cheek, no pun intended, I said. And that I had a theory. I told her love isn't a state of mind, the way a lot of people think it is. It's a method of behaving, there's nothing abstract about it, it's like electrons in a wire, you need to flip a switch for the light to come on; love is cause and effect, first the act, then the feeling, first the kiss, then the forgiveness, first you iron the damn trousers and then you love the way he looks in them, and so on.
Gwen said, So that's why they call it making love.
Even dancing on the pontoon, I knew Jack wouldn't be able to adore Tip the way I wanted him to. Side to side on the wood slats, I knew this and hated Jack for it, and nuzzled his pocket and hated him, and watched the moon slip between some clouds and hated him, and leaned my head into the crook of his arm and hated, yet forgave, and hated, yet forgave.
Lysle shook the glass from Gem's T-shirt before giving it back. The larger shards of window lay heavy in the brittle grass and didn't shatter when Gem stomped them with his heels.
"Gem," said Lysle.
Gem quit stomping, flapped the shirt even harder than Lysle had flapped it to try to shake off the parking lot dirt and reveal again the picture of the cowgirl lassoing the motorcycle, and said to his father, "Not me."
"You don't even know what I asked you yet," said Lysle.
"So what. I ain't doin' it." Gem's smudged face lifted as if into the sky reflected in his eyes. Brown marbles swimming under willful flecks of clouds.
Not ain't, I amended. Not. I'm not doing it.
He ain't doing it, Lysle thought with a shake of his head, wanting a beer more than anything. He stepped back up onto the three stacked bricks and gripped his hands around the smoothest-looking part of the windowsill and jumped and pulled, but the window was narrower than it appeared or else his belt loop was stuck on a nail. "God fucking piss on a fucking stick!" He struggled. "Fucking horseshit goddamn piss on a fucking haystack." Lysle yanked and shoved, it didn't matter which way, the window was too narrow and his belt loop was snagged on a nail, too. Both. At once. And the sunken floor inside was lower than the ground outside the wall. He was stuck like water in ice.
Just as I'd intended.
"Pull my ankles!" he yelled.
Gem couldn't reach. Even standing on the stacked bricks he could do nothing but unlace his father's boots by mistake. The telephone rang three and a half rings. "Shut the dickface up!" Lysle yelled, knowing how all the truckers would make fun of him tomorrow night before they unstuck him. He knew they'd feed Gem a hamburger but feed Lysle salted peanuts by tossing them from a distance into his mouth while keeping score on the blackboard. Home versus visitors. Whichever team won would get to give him a shave. He'd need a shave by then, all right. He'd need a cry, too, stuck in a window with no Violet giggling gently at the sight of his jammed backside the way she used to titter if he left his fly unzipped. His nose itched no matter which way he rubbed. As for me, I was laughing so hard all my memories shook inside me, which made me cry instead. Now that I knew I could make myself heard, I was all the more impatient to try it on Tip. Tip was growing up without me; the years were flitting by, and I couldn't catch them from where I was, stuck in Lysle's life and Lysle in the window. How I wanted to get near Tip, he'd sneeze, or almost. I couldn't wait to see him tilt back his head and wince. Alive, I used to play a game with David and Douggie, Dennis and Drew stop their sneezes midsniff just by placing my pinkie finger against their nostrils and saying gesundheit before it was time.
"I want a drink," Gem announced from the far side of the wall, interrupting my reverie the sight of Drew's nose twitching like a mouse's, but Douggie's as disdainful as a cat's.
Lysle's voice was muffled when it came through the window. "You don't want it half as much as I will soon enough," he said. The phone rang again with a kind of a flutter, more like a bird than a phone.
"Catch it!" said Gem. He ran for it, blissful.
"Who dare?" he blurted into the receiver.
"I do," said the gruff-voiced man at the other end. "Who dis?"
"Me," said Gem.
"Me who?" said the man. "Me Gem?"
There was a nodding silence.
"Well, Gem, so happens I'm just a hundred miles down the road," said the man. "Want to get rescued by your uncle Sid?"
"Who dat?" said Gem.
Tell him to hurry, I whispered, for though I didn't know yet why I needed Sid, I knew he could help me, steal me out of the fickle whirl of the Night, settle my nerves, and tell me not to despair, though there was so much Tip was doing that I couldn't see or stop, wiping my eyes although I had no eyes, preparing me for what as yet unknotted grief my tears could possibly be made of.
Copyright © 2000 Abby Frucht.
All rights reserved.