With a broken-down oven, in a hotel kitchen, on an uninhabited island
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Sheila won custody. I get alternate weekends and a month in the summer, plus special events if I give notice in advance. It’s working out, mostly. Mark is eight and such a crackerjack, playing soccer and reading Sherlock Holmes. He’s ahead of the pack in reading for his age, and maybe he’s not the star in soccer, but two weeks ago his team squeaked into the playoffs. Sheila was there, even though it was my Saturday, because she’s interested in Mark’s coach. She had called me before the game and asked me to keep my distance. I’d suggested I come disguised as a groundskeeper.
“I don’t have time for this,” she said.
She was talking on her cellphone from somewhere in the yard. It made her voice sound altered, as if she had already changed since the divorce. And she has. The phone and lots of her clothes are new. Maybe some other things I don’t know about. I try not to quiz Mark, because our time together is limited, and he’s sensitive about what’s what. He volunteered that he likes his coach. I’ve met the guy, of course. He’s taller than I am and wears a jacket with Members Only on the breast pocket.
I didn’t wear a disguise to the game, but I brought my mirrored sunglasses so that Sheila might think I was watching her even when I wasn’t. I always was, though. I’m not sure she even saw me. If she did, she decided not to wave.
After the match, I took Mark to the pond at the park. I keep a small fishing rod in the trunk of my car — nothing fancy, but the boy doesn’t mind. We bought “bait” at the 7-Eleven: snack foods and cheese. It wasn’t long after we got to the pond that Mark hooked one, pulling it in past the floating drink cups and half-submerged paper sacks. I’m going to take him to the mountains next summer: do it right, with real bait and no styrofoam flotsam and boom-chuka radios. Mark dragged the trout up the grass slope. I got it off the hook and held it before him.
“Now, Watson, what do you make of this piscatorial specimen?”
“It likes cheese.”
“A valid inference. Any notable physical attributes?”
“Anything goofy about it?”
He examined it as a flotilla of ducks quacked past, steering toward an elderly lady on one of those motorized carts for seniors. I inferred that she had bread crumbs.
“This fin is funny,” Mark said.
“Well noted, Watson. A mutilated dorsal. Mutilation random or regular?”
“Maybe it was in a fight?” he said.
I tried Holmesian logic: All hatchery trout have clipped dorsal fins, I explained. “And this trout has what?”
“A funny fin.”
“Therefore, Watson, it is clear that . . .” The bread-crumb lady was drawing closer, driving a flock of demanding waterfowl before her.
“Can we go to lunch?” Mark asked.
We drove to the lunch counter at the health-food store. The boy hates the place, but his mother doesn’t want him eating junk food, and she quizzes him more than I do. We ordered the soup of the day, mustard broccoli, and split an avocado and Swiss on “flourless bread,” whatever that is.
“The next time we find a clue,” Mark said, “it’s my turn to be Holmes.”
The following weekend I missed Mark’s game because I had to drive upstate to see my folks and help them put in their storm windows. When I was a kid, this was my big task, a sort of ritual. Ever since my father had contracted chronic bronchitis, it had become my task again. He bathed and shaved while my mother and I cleaned the first-story windowpanes. Then she wrapped him in a scarf, topped him off with a stocking cap, and brought him outside.
“It’s not so cold,” he said, looking to the uniformly gray sky. He coughed some.
When I’d first taken over installing the storm windows as a teenager, he would tell me each move to make. After I got older, he assumed I knew what I was doing, but apparently he thinks I’ve grown stupid again, because this time he directed me with huffed, abbreviated commands. I simply acknowledged them and got on with it. Each screen had to be escorted down the ladder and handed to him. He carried it to the garage to exchange for a storm window, already washed and ready for duty. Meanwhile I climbed the ladder back to the window, inside of which stood my mother, keeper of the Windex and paper towels. She handed both to me, shut the window, and monitored my swipes, tapping when I missed a spot. Down I went again to retrieve the appropriate storm window.
“It’s a two-man job,” my father said.
“Couldn’t do it without you,” I said. Going back and forth between my parents reminded me of Mark toddling between Sheila and me when he was just starting to walk.
“Can you hear me?” Mother asked through the window of the guest bedroom.
“Do you think your father’s warm enough?”
“He’s doing fine,” I said.
“It’s good for him to get out and feel useful.”
“I’m sure it is.”
Our conversation fogged the window, and she smiled through the hazy circles, her face softly matted and framed.
“See you around the corner,” I said, and I descended to my father.
“Your mother is tired. It’s too much. This old barn.” He spoke with effort and many pauses. “She won’t hire a girl. Too much trouble. She says.” He took another breath. “Which is nonsense. You talk to her.” He removed his glasses and wiped his watering eyes with a monogrammed handkerchief, freshly ironed — evidence of her daily industry. Sherlock never sleeps, as I tell Mark. “You talk to her, Bobby,” he said. “Maybe you can remember. To do that.”
“Of course,” I said.
We did my old room last, and my mother apologized for its condition. At each window of the house she had confessed to neglecting her duties, but this room merited a special self-flagellation. She said she had been sorting through old boxes in the attic, trying to pare down and throw away, but she simply couldn’t part with some of my things — at least, not yet — so she had brought them back to my room.
When I’d carried my bag up Friday night, it was like walking into a museum of me. The magnetism exhibit from the junior-high science fair was set up on the bureau, iron filings still at bristly attention. A first baseman’s mitt lay on the chair, as if dropped there that afternoon. I found it impossible not to pick it up. Its shape reclaimed my hand. Hanging over my bed was a framed essay I’d written for Flag Day, and the walk-in closet was a regular anthology of my old clothes, hung in chronological order from left to right: baby clothes, followed by a sailor suit with short pants, followed by overalls with cowboys twirling lariats on the bib. Then a pair of corduroy trousers and a flannel shirt that took me to first grade, and other school outfits, each hanging a little farther down. Last was my graduation-dinner sport coat and slacks. These felt like more than just childhood artifacts. They were clues. But to what? I backed out of the closet and sat on the bed, feeling the weight of personal history, thinking that, if I’d had a brother or sister, the weight might have been distributed. I opened my bag, retrieved a strawberry-daiquiri wine cooler, and drank it all. Since the divorce I’ve taken up drinking in a big way, even though I’ve never liked the taste of alcohol.
Mark called on Saturday evening.
“It’s for you, Bobby,” Mom said to me. “A Mr. Holmes.” She was beaming. I took the wall phone in the dinette and stared at a corkboard covered with emergency numbers. “Sherlock?”
“Is this Dr. Watson?” Mark asked.
“Himself, sir. At your service.”
“I have some good news and some super news. Which do you want to hear first?”
“Give me the super news.”
“We won the division. First place. Three to zip.”
Jesus, I was happy for him. I’d been thinking about his game that afternoon, hoping he wouldn’t be too wired up. It’s his biggest problem: getting too excited. Mine too.
“Aren’t you going to ask me the good news?” Mark said.
I was pulling tacks from the corkboard and sticking them back in again. “Shoot, champ.”
“I made a goal.”
“That’s wonderful, buddy. And your first of the season.”
“It was sort of an accident. The ball bounced off me into the goal.”
“Doesn’t matter. You had yourself in the right spot.”
“We all got blue ribbons.”
“I can’t wait to see it.”
“It’s just a ribbon.”
“Sure it is, but you hold on to it. It’s going to mean a lot to you someday. And if your mother doesn’t have room for it, you give it to me, and I’ll find a safe place for it.”
“OK, Dad. I have to go eat now. Coach is having dinner with us. Isn’t that cool?”
“Absolutely,” I said.
“I guess I’ll see you next week,” he said.
“No guessing about it.”
“Watch out for Professor Moriarty.”
“I’m ever vigilant.”
I wanted to tell my son that I love him, in just those words. Easy enough, you’d think, but at eight he’s uncomfortable with such talk. So we let Holmes and Watson say it for us. Then I told Mom and Dad the news, or most of it. I left out the part about the coach coming to dinner.
Later my parents and I gathered in the dinette to critique the afternoon’s window work. My father, who was in the army and then the reserve, sets great store by the planning and review of household upkeep. We got out the household manual and recorded some possibilities for improving efficiency in the spring, when the screens will come out of the garage, rested and ready to repel wasps and flies. When we were done, my mother closed the manual, her fortress prepared to battle winter.
The truth is, the old house is falling apart. There’s a lot of what Sheila, who is in real estate, calls “deferred maintenance” going on here — or, rather, not going on. Sheila tells me that my personality suffers from deferred maintenance. Her sense of humor is just one of the things I miss. Thinking about that and my dad’s health and the coach sitting in my old chair, well, I was ready to retire to my room and finish off the wine coolers. And that’s just what I did, while giving my earnest thoughts on Flag Day serious reassessment.
Sunday was clear and warmer. Mom wanted Dad to walk as far as the main road, and she asked me to go along with him. Again she put the cap and scarf on him, and he never adjusted them, as if to say, Make me look like a damn fool if you want. It’s not my doing. We walked slowly, and he did remarkably well. I pointed to this and that sign of seasonal change and even got him to huff out the name of a bird. When we reached the road, he pulled open the mailbox — one of the rural ones that look like a Quonset hut on a post.
“Sunday,” he said, staring into the empty box. “Why the hell are. We down here on Sunday?”
“For the air?” I said.
He shut the mailbox and looked around like a trapped animal. Then he asked me why I’d let Sheila go. I told him I’d tried to hold on to her. He repeated his question. I mentioned irreconcilable differences.
“Speak English,” he said.
A station wagon with a family of four inside drove by, everyone dressed for church. They waved. I didn’t know them, but I smiled and waved back. My father didn’t turn around.
I told him Sheila wanted a chance to discover herself.
He cleaned his glasses with his handkerchief and said nothing.
“Give me a break,” I said. “I’m a drowning man. Throw me a line.”
“Sink,” he said.
Surely his illness had something to do with his brevity. If he’d had more respiratory power, he would have qualified that verb. I have to think so. Nonetheless, I got depressed after lunch and drove down to the grocery store and made up a mixed four-pack of wine coolers, two strawberry daiquiri and two fuzzy peach. Investigating another drug seemed appropriate, so I bought a pack of Merit Ultra Lights, a product of Philip Morris, Inc. I drank one wine cooler sitting in the car and also tried a cigarette, holding it between my first two fingers. There was only one other vehicle in the lot, a station wagon with a man inside eating doughnuts.
Sheila’s problem, from her point of view, was me. Which was a little unfair. I thought she used fudgy semantics: My spontaneity she termed “erratic behavior.” My looking for just the right job she labeled “malingering.” Lazy and shiftless were also words I think she used. Eventually her patience wore thin. (I see it all now, though I didn’t at the time.) At night she started giving me the cold shoulder — the whole back, really. And during the day, she could be downright insulting. The thing about the insults, though, was that I liked them. From an attractive woman, name-calling proved somehow irresistible. I relished the scolding and began to behave so as to deserve more of it. You might say we were in something of a downward spiral.
“I can’t abide it, Robert,” she said one day. We were running late because I’d taken the boy on a spur-of-the-moment detour to a pretty cool hydroponic-gardening demonstration. “I can’t count on you. You’re so idiotic sometimes.”
“Say that again — the last part,” I said.
“You are an idiot! Is your hearing going as well as your mind?”
In retrospect, I could have done things differently. Despite her lawyer’s take on it, I still deem our differences reconcilable.
© Elizabeth White
Back at my parents’ house, I unhooked the storm window in my room and did some serious smoking and drinking for about an hour. I felt a bit better, but not totally calm.
When I came down for dinner, my mother said, “Your father’s still resting. He has good days and bad days.” She was cooking and somehow folding laundry at the same time. My clothes, to be exact. “A full night’s sleep makes a world of difference for him.”
“I’ll be gone in the morning before you two are up.”
“Yes,” she said, still folding clothes.
“Sheila and I are getting back together. Going to be remarried before Christmas. It’s all settled. Essentially.”
She dropped the clothes, and I opened my arms for her. “Oh, Bobby,” she said. “Oh, Bobby.”
“I’ve been waiting for the right time to tell you, but it never . . . you know.”
“My prayers. All my prayers,” she said.
She was going to wake him with the news. I said absolutely not and got her settled down, and then the two of us had dinner, although I couldn’t eat much on account of all that drinking and smoking. At bedtime I saw to the lights and the doors. I told her I’d get the meat from the freezer in the basement for her, save her the climb down and up.
So I stretched the truth about Sheila and me because, sure, I knew how the news would carry her along in that little boat of hope. Me, too. I could hope. Saying it aloud could be the first step toward making it happen.
It was late when I remembered to retrieve the frozen meat. I went quietly through the long hallway where I used to sock-slide as a kid. Now the floor was carpeted. Warmer, they said, and a safer landing in case of a fall. Then it was down the stairs to dig through all those frosty packages.
That’s when I found another clue to the puzzle that I’m trying to solve — a murky mystery that wouldn’t interest Mark, not yet. The question is not “Whodunit?” but “What the hell happened to me?” The clue that might provide an answer lay at the bottom of the big freezer, under a stack of steaks and wedged between two turkeys. It was wrapped in plastic, then butcher paper, and labeled with a marking pencil. I brushed off the freezer frost and carried it to the center of the basement, under the bare bulb, to be sure I’d read it right: “Bobby’s first fish.” I took off the paper and the plastic. Frozen in a small block of ice, almost opaque now, was a barely legal-sized trout, the mouth parted to form a small triangle. What would Sherlock Holmes make of this? That my parents haven’t moved in years? That electrical failure has been minimal in these parts? That I’m an only child, fucked up from noon to Sunday?
My first fish, in cryonic afterlife, recently turned twenty-eight.
Back in my room I mixed a peach cooler with a strawberry for a wine-punch effect, did some more chain-smoking, and stared at the little trout, which I’d brought upstairs on a plate. It was pretty late when I called Sheila.
“What is it?”
“Nothing special. I was just feeling sort of Sunday about things. Thought I’d see how you were. You sound better on the regular phone.”
“Will this take long?”
“It needn’t take anything. You have company? Coach there?”
“Of course not.”
“He was last night.”
She waited. I didn’t say anything, but, unfortunately, burped. Belched, actually.
“If you must know, he was here earlier to take Mark to the movies, and now Mark is in bed, and ‘Coach,’ as you call him, is gone.”
“Movies on a school night?”
“A Disney, I hope.”
“Damn it, Robert.”
“Some of the old Disneys are in rerelease.”
She exhaled with a hiss.
“Listen, I just wanted to report that I’ve got the windows switched around and everybody’s doing fine up here.”
She waited again. My stomach was feeling chemical. “Did I catch you at a bad time?” I asked.
“Robert, I’ve got a hellish day tomorrow, and I really don’t need this update. Legally, I do not have to listen to this. You are very close to a violation. It would be easy for me to get an injunction. You know that.”
She was on the verge of invective, and, despite my intentions to reform, I was getting excited. “OK now, Sheil. All right. Just one last thing. And forgive me if I’m misreading you here, but sometimes when you’re feeling a bit testy, like you obviously are tonight, well, oddly enough, a little phone sex is just the ticket.”
She blew like a whale, releasing a chain of insults that had me in ecstasy — until she lit into me about Sherlock Holmes. She said I was making the boy weird. She shouldn’t have said that. I was forced to defend the work of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle at some length, contrasting it to whatever degenerate movie fare Members Only had taken Mark to see. I went on about that and other things — covered a lot of ground, really. It did, however, seem like the wrong time to fill her in on our impending reconciliation.
She hung up before I got it all out, but I got out quite a bit, even screaming at a dead phone line. Boy, it felt good to let go like that. I actually felt fine and sat in the darkness feeling fine for many minutes until my breathing was steady. The October moonlight favored the clean windows, and I got close enough to look out across the fields and feel the cold radiate off the glass. You have to wonder how much good those old storm windows do. When my breathing became irregular again, I tried counting backward from a hundred in Roman numerals, but it was the wrong therapy for the evening, so I put my head down on the windowsill and began envisioning people and things in their places. It’s something I do sometimes. I imagined the place where the screens were stacked, and then my old bicycle beside them, with the fat tires and mudflaps.
It calmed me, visualizing the world piece by piece like that. Everything was going to be fine — was already fine, in fact. I pictured my son safe and happy, miles to the south, clutching a blue ribbon in his sleep, and my parents lying side by side below me, also sleeping. After that I finished packing, being sure to put all the empty wine-cooler bottles in my bag. But even this little bit of exertion had me sweating. No kidding. So I just lay back on the bed with the frozen fish, pressing it to my forehead.