When He Died
"Why are they still bringing food?" For months Madeline hadn't cooked. Grocery bags of noodle soup in cartons, whole chickens, chocolate chip cookies -- there was always something on the top step. Sometimes the notes blew off and she had no idea who to thank.
"They're taking care of me. You know how it is on the airplane? First put on your own oxygen mask, then help your children?"
He was used to getting his way, but the sudden possibility of magenta hair silenced him.
"You still want it, don't you?"
The next afternoon, Dustin took the stairs from the garage two at a time, pushed his brother, August, out of the way and hit the bathroom light switch. For a month he'd wanted magenta hair so badly he'd dreamed about it. When he'd told her, she'd said, "Well then, maybe the dream is enough." But it hadn't been.
His pudgy face, brown eyes, skin that always looked tan. Red lips that were sometimes an embarrassment. His mother's face and big bones. No one could beat him up; no one bothered trying.
"Mom, I think it's perfect. Don't you think it brings out my personality?"
Show and Tell
After the second morning recess, the other children started standing up, one by one, to show what they'd brought. August controlled himself, kept his hand down: he wanted to keep the best for last. But he could barely sit still. Danny was trying to tie a balloon into a long weiner dog, but the balloon kept bouncing back into a balloon. He looked like he might cry.
When the others were finished, August jumped up and ran to his cubby. He picked up the thin wire hangers where they were held together with a rubber band and carried them to the place beside the teacher's desk.
"This is what I brought today. My Dad's shirts. My Mom says I can keep them so I can wear them when I'm older."
August was the only child in the class who could hold up the weight of his body with just his hands. The children looked to their teacher to see what she made of his presentation.
He looked at his classmates. "Do you think they're nice shirts?"
The teacher was the only one who spoke. "They're beautiful shirts, August. Do you keep them in a special place?"
He didn't answer but let the shirts drag on the floor as he walked back to his chair. The bell rang and the other boys ran out noisily. He put his head on the shirts against the cool desk. Little by little, the blood inside his cheek warmed everything. The shirts came alive against his skin.
After dropping the boys off at school, she turns around and drives back in the opposite direction, away from her office, toward home. The streets are almost empty of cars, and the ones on the road seem to be driven lazily, as if their drivers are listening to dreamy songs on the radio. She pulls into the garage, scraping the side, taking off one more gray chip of plaster and paint, and runs inside.
The song playing inside her head: How did you slip out of our lives so quickly?
Past Dustin's painting of a basketball player that goes on for three lined, taped-together pages, past the humming dryer, she opens the door to her heart, a leather suitcase. Her heart and breath catch on each other. If you're not there, I'll be desolate forever.
The night she folded the clothes, alone and planning, she hadn't known it would be so soon that she'd need to come back and unfold them. She kneels now on cold cement, presses open both brass latches, and, closing her eyes, plants her face in the clean wool of his sweaters. Where are you hiding?
She pulls out the red wool sweater they'd given him on his last birthday, the gray and blue striped one, the beige hat he wore until the end. Can't I touch you one more time?
She wants the leather of the suitcase to give way, open onto another life: he would be there.
While he was alive, fuchsia was the last color on her mind. Looking back, she might have said that fucshia was always there, at the edge.
Her first fuchsia dress, ever. It was sleeveless, silk and linen, low cut, tight. Fit her like a modified glove, room for a finger to press between fabric and skin. Whose finger?
Six-year-old August seemed to read her mind: "Mom, you're too old for such a sexy dress." Pushing miniature soldiers into the ruts of the dark green carpet. "Isn't this perfect for grass, Mom?"
A field to roll in. "Yes, Augie." She looked in the mirror. "Not right for Grandma's?" "Definitely not, Mom," Dustin intervened.
Dustin, just ten, had been the man of the house for almost eleven months. The boys' father had died in the hospital, weighing less than Dustin, more than August. By the time he died, the only things complete and untouched, nearly perfect, were his striped shirts, his swimming medals.
She was in love with a color: fuchsia. "Boys: gray slacks, blue button-downs and navy blazers. Ties only if you want them. This is how I'm going -- they'll have to take it or leave it."
August threw a handful of soldiers at her. Ballistic in five seconds, hysterical in less than thirty.
"Don't talk about leaving!"
She gathered each tiny soldier, fifty-two of them, like a deck of cards, like their father's age before he died.
It was because of his brother that it happened, his brother's clawlike grip on the Action Man with all the dogtags around his neck, that came down on Dustin's back, making a long bloody scratch through his t-shirt and pants. The new babysitter made him take off his shirt and he took off his jeans as well, and in the hole of the boxers he insisted on wearing, there was a hair coming out, staring at him like it had a face and eyes. He was not yet eleven; he wasn't supposed to have that kind of hair.
Now he takes showers with the door locked and brings clean clothes into the bathroom with him. He remembers the luxury of wanting magenta hair and getting it as if it were the depth of his childhood.
One evening in the bathroom he searches for the curly hair but it's not there. He panics without it, pulls up his pants, finds his green flashlight, turns it on and twists it to the sharpest point of light, searches, as if the lone hair were a ship on a foggy morning. Finds it at last. Still there. Startling. He has no idea why it avoided his eyes a minute before. He finds a purple pen on the floor. Paints a circle round his lone dark hair.
After the hiatus of a long winter, she went quickly through spring to summer. She had several men, not at the same moment but at the same time, like a smorgasbord after a time of fast. She'd fasted for long enough.
This one was taking her through a vast supermarket, vegetables and fruit arrayed like paradise, a whole wall of candy. She picked up her clear bag and made ready to gather more chocolate and jelly beans (some, perhaps, for the children,) when her cell phone rang and she had to answer it, out of breath, not quite yet out of her head. She'd promised her son August that he could reach her any time of day or night.
"Yes, darling? . . . Having dinner. . . . Well, it's still early. We ordered a little bit ago, and I think I see the waiter with our salads. Yes, I do. . . . I'm fine, honey. How about you? . . .Yes, you can ask me anything you like. . . . Do you think we could discuss that in person? A watch is an expensive item. . . . Sleep well."
When she hung up, they were in the mashed potatoes department. Together, they worked their way back into more interesting aisles. They passed the candy again and headed past the vegetables, which were nicely steamed and delicious most of the time, but she required something more than a vegetarian diet. She found herself at the meat counter, out of breath, his mouth on her neck and biting hard enough to make her groan, when the phone rang again. She thought, even before saying hello, that everything was over, that nothing like this was ever going to work. Their bodies were slick with sweat, hardly distinguishable.
She attempted schoolteacher cheerfulness coupled with a sense of boundaries.
"Yes. I know you bought the watch with your own money, and yes, I do allow you to give away your toys, sometimes, when they're not particularly expensive. But do you remember how much you paid for the watch? . . . Yes, it was almost fifty dollars. Don't you think that's a lot? . . . I know Dan is your best friend, but is a fifty-dollar watch worth a drawing?"
He was confusing her, or her state of mind wasn't allowing her to think properly, and she had to get off the phone. "All right, it's your thing, do what you want. And August? Do you think you could let me eat my salad now? It's just arrived, and it looks delicious. . . . Some kind of vinaigrette. Thank you. I love you, too."
By then the sweat was dry and she was at a loss, but he was unusually talented, and before several moments had passed they were at the meat counter once more, as if they'd never left, ordering steak, thick-cut, and not daring to touch one another for fear of what might happen, right there in the supermarket, where they seemed to be alone but couldn't be sure. They stood like that, near one another but not touching, for what seemed several very long moments.
And when the phone rang again, she wasn't sure if it was the bell that customers press in order to bring the butcher from the back of the counter. But it was August. "Haven't we already discussed this, August? Just a few minutes ago? . . . No, we're still on the salad. Well, to tell you the truth, the waiter just came and took away our plates but because I keep talking to you on the phone, I wasn't able to finish it. . . . Yes, it's too bad, I agree. So what is it now? . . . Yes, you do have a large collection of watches, and giving one away so you have one less isn't such a big deal. But does it have to be the expensive one? Didn't you save for it -- for months, if I remember -- because it was the watch you wanted more than any other? . . . No I'm not trying to make you feel guilty. It's your decision. Just go ahead and decide and then do it."
Hanging up the phone, she thought it would be over, the man's pleasant blue eyes would tell her it had been a nice idea but wasn't working out. But he was upon her, almost smothering her, and they were back in the wanton supermarket as if they'd never been away, and before she had another thought, her body mingled with the oranges and reds, the yellows, the smoothnesses, the honeys and jams, until it all burst forth. Then she found herself entwined with him, two bodies on a bed in an apartment above a city street.
1996 © 2008