A fifth-grade bully, a blossoming romance, a late-night crash
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It was true what Mrs. Berry said: no one expected to see an old woman in a muscle car, a red and black Mustang convertible with a scooped hood and an engine that ran with a throaty hum we could feel in that soft place just below our stomachs as she pulled alongside us on our walk home from school. “Hey there,” she said. “You want a ride?”
“Not allowed to with strangers,” Kelly said. She and I were friends. In fact, she was the only friend I’d made since my mother and I had moved into the neighborhood a few months earlier.
The old woman laughed. She wore deep-red lipstick and inky eye makeup, and her laugh was loud and full of a warm energy that you wanted to be closer to. “I’m no stranger. I’m your neighbor,” she said. “I’m Mrs. Berry.”
I’d wondered about the house next to ours and been vaguely aware that old people lived in it. There were a lot of old people in our desert town because it never snowed and it was quiet and cheap to live there.
“You should visit me sometime after school for a snack and some lemonade. You two like lemonade?”
“Sure,” I said.
She laughed again, her voice loud and dry. “Then I’ll see you soon.”
A few days later, just after we got home from school, the old woman called out to us from her driveway, where she was hosing down her car, the water cascading over the fenders and doors and splashing on the concrete.
A large walnut tree towered over Mrs. Berry’s driveway. We approached her there in the shade, which was surprisingly cool and smelled of wet earth and the clean water from the hose. When we got close, she aimed the hose up and squeezed off the flow with her thumb, so that it sent a cool mist over us. We laughed and jumped back, though the water felt good in the heat. “How about some orange pop?” she said. “I’ve got some inside. And I’ve made some lemon bars.”
“How fast can that car go?” I asked.
She looked at it, the water still dripping down the fenders. “I don’t know, but it’s got a 289 Windsor V-8 — the best engine the Ford Motor Company puts in a car.”
She turned off the hose, and we followed her inside. In the entryway Kelly started to take off her shoes, as we both had to do in our houses, but Mrs. Berry waved a hand and said we could keep them on. A cool block of shade touched your skin in that front hall, and the dimness of the living room — the curtains were mostly closed — slowed you down. The walls were covered with framed posters and photographs and paintings depicting oceans, prairies, and mountain ranges. But the smell was what we noticed most: the odor of bread and cooked vegetables left too long on the stove and the powerful perfume of air freshener and something rubbery and medicinal like band-aids. And there was a sound that took a moment to notice, like the lapping of waves or the rustle of air through trees, as if somewhere nearby there were a forest. Scanning the room, we saw that this sound came from a man at the dining-room table who sat perfectly still and wore an oxygen mask. He had on loose blue pajamas and was slumped over in a vinyl chair like you might see in a hospital. A plastic collar held his neck up straight, and his eyes were open but didn’t move or seem to see anything.
“This is Mr. Berry,” Mrs. Berry said, looking at the man with softness in her eyes, though she spoke to him with a booming directness: “Michael, these are the neighbor kids, Kelly and Daniel. You’ll be happy to know I just washed the car.”
Her husband, she explained, had had a stroke the year before. “He doesn’t move a lot, but he can understand you. You can say hi to him,” Mrs. Berry told us with an edge of friendly command in her voice that meant we had to say something.
“Hey,” Kelly said.
“Hi,” I said.
Mrs. Berry went into the kitchen for the lemon bars, and during her brief absence we both looked away from Mr. Berry — though, in truth, I wanted to look closer to see where the tube of his oxygen nozzle ran and whether his eyes ever moved or his expression changed.
The old woman returned with our orange pop and the lemon bars, still warm and covered with powdered sugar that fell down my front, making Kelly and Mrs. Berry laugh at my snowy shirt. They were delicious, like every treat she would give us over the next several months, and the orange pop was in glass bottles, which were frosted with the cold from the refrigerator.
Kelly and I ate three lemon bars apiece while Mrs. Berry asked the sort of boring questions that adults ask kids: what grade we were in and what our favorite subjects were. When she asked Kelly what her parents did, Kelly said that her mother was a nurse and her father had worked in the automotive department at the Sears in Redlands, but now he was sick and spent most of his days in bed. Kelly seemed embarrassed, and just after she’d said it, we could hear her father coughing through an open window. She lived in the house just behind mine. Her father had tumors in his lungs, and you could hear his coughing a lot, especially in the afternoons and at night.
“Oh, my,” said Mrs. Berry, who seemed to understand that it was Kelly’s father we were hearing. “We all have our trials. We really do. I’m sorry he’s ill, sweetheart.” She was quiet for a moment, then said, “Maybe you two want to come for a drive in Mr. Berry’s Mustang sometime.”
At one point, just as we were finishing our second bottle of orange pop, something changed in the room. It took us a moment to notice the stillness: the watery rasp of the old man’s oxygen had gone silent. He’d stopped breathing. Kelly and I froze in our seats. Mrs. Berry was brushing some powdered sugar from her lap when she noticed it, too, and took her husband’s hand. “This happens sometimes,” she said calmly. His body started trembling, and Mrs. Berry made a comforting sound and whispered close to his face, “We’re almost through it, Michael.” But it was another minute or two before his body went slack again and the gentle sound of his oxygen returned. “There,” Mrs. Berry said, still holding his hand. She smiled at us, her lipstick bright red. “How about another lemon bar?”
School let out at noon on the Friday we took a drive with Mrs. Berry. My mother was a student teacher, and since she didn’t have to work that afternoon, she was out in our front yard, watering the dry flower beds, when Kelly and I got home. As we were about to go inside, the old woman stepped out of her house holding a shiny black handbag and wearing dark glasses and a blue kerchief over her red hair. A large woman in hospital scrubs had just pulled up in a station wagon, and Mrs. Berry handed her a sheet of instructions. “I’ll be back by four,” she told the nurse. Then she turned to Kelly and me. “Well, hello there,” she said, as if surprised to see us, though it was clear that she’d planned everything. Mrs. Berry turned to my mother and asked, “Would the kids like to come for a drive with me? I thought we could stop by the Thrifty Drug for some ice-cream cones.”
My mother smiled and said she didn’t see why not. She told Kelly to check with her parents, and Kelly hopped the fence that separated our backyards.
A few minutes later we were sitting in Mr. Berry’s convertible. The old woman seemed tiny behind the wheel, and she drove down our street as slow as walking. Her smile was large and sly and revealed lipstick stains on her front teeth. “Shall we drag Main?” she asked us. She revved the engine, and the car rumbled as we turned onto Main Street, which wasn’t much: Thrifty Drug, a few gas stations, a Circle K, a Del Taco, and a post office; a beige municipal building, its front yard all lava rocks, with two poles, one flying the American flag and the other the flag of California; an Assembly of God church and Bethel Baptist, where Kelly and I went; a National Guard armory surrounded by a chain-link fence, razor wire glistening at the top, and behind it rows of armored vehicles, jeeps, and tanks as far as you could see. They were waiting, we knew, to be sent to Vietnam or to be used against the Russians, if we ever went to war with them.
When we stopped at the second, and last, light in our town, a truck pulled up beside us, and a young man in the driver’s seat looked down at Mrs. Berry and said, “Hey there, Grandma.” He wore a baseball cap and needed a shave.
Mrs. Berry smiled at him, raised her fist, and thrust out her middle finger. This made the man laugh.
“You kids ready?” she asked. I nodded, and Mrs. Berry checked her rearview mirror. In front of us was the desert, a flat expanse of beiges and browns and reds cut through by the oily line of the road that stretched out to meet the shimmer of blue-white sky in the distance. “Hold on,” she said. The engine screamed, the tires shrieked, and I felt myself pushed back into the seat. Mrs. Berry gripped the wheel and let out a kind of cowboy whoop. I looked behind me at Kelly, who was smiling and holding on to the seat in front of her with both hands, her wheat-colored hair whipping in the wind. We ripped past a blue Impala and a pickup truck going in the opposite direction, after which it was only us. For a second it seemed as if we’d tear through the sky and escape what Pastor Lamb at Bethel Baptist called the End Times, when Christ would come again, as the lion and not the lamb, wielding a sword of light to punish the nonbelievers and all who had broken His father’s laws.
But we never reached the sky, and after some miles Mrs. Berry braked and pulled over and cut the engine. It was quiet, and we said nothing for a long time, just looked out into all that space, the brush and chalky dirt making us feel small, like a shiny speck, which was a good feeling to have.
“How’d you kids like that?” Mrs. Berry asked.
“It was like flying,” Kelly said, though, like me, she’d never been on an airplane.
“Yes, it was,” she said. And then: “You ready for some ice cream?” She turned around and headed back into town. “Maybe we’ll just go the speed limit now.”
My mother and I had arrived in that desert town about three months before I met Mrs. Berry and a year after my father had left. I didn’t often leave the house at first. I felt I had to keep watch over it: the living room, the kitchen, our two quiet bedrooms, the little bathroom at the end of the hall. My mother was scared a lot. At night, when the winds blew off the desert and beat against our windows like fists, she’d call the cops and tell them that a man was trying to break in. Like my mother, I started to sense it, too — someone out there, biding his time, waiting to strike. And so I stayed inside, watching Looney Tunes, Speed Racer, and Gilligan’s Island and walking through the house during commercials to check all the rooms, making sure they were secure.
One day someone knocked on the door. When I didn’t answer, the bell rang several times. “Hey,” a girl’s voice said. “I know someone’s in there. I saw you.”
I opened the door and saw Kelly. “You’re new here, aren’t you?” she said. “You moved in last month. And you go to my church. My house is just behind yours.” A sheen of sweat shone on her cheek, where she had a dark mole, and she was breathing hard, like she’d been running. Some neighborhood kids were playing out in the fields, and she saw me looking at them. “They’re all nine-year-old boys out there,” she said, “pretending to shoot each other. I’m eleven. How old are you?”
“The same,” I said.
“How come you don’t ever come out? You afraid of something?”
“No,” I said.
“Yeah, you are. It’s in your eyes,” she said, “at the very back of them.” She pretended to peer into my eyes and see the fear.
“I’m not afraid,” I said.
She came in, and we went into my room and sat on the edge of my bed. She picked up the Hardy Boys novel I’d been reading. “After you read one of these,” she said, “all the rest are the same: boring.”
She was right, though I had read at least ten of them.
She tensed up and closed her eyes tightly.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s my father,” she said, keeping her eyes closed.
I heard the coughing then, and she told me about his illness, the blood on the tissues in the trash next to his bed. “Everybody at Bethel is praying, but nothing changes.”
“I’ll pray, too,” I said. In fact, I prayed a lot. I prayed that my mother’s small stipend for teaching at the School for Special Needs in San Jacinto, along with some money my grandparents sent us each month, would pay for our car and our rent. I prayed that my mother wouldn’t smoke too many cigarettes from the carton of Kools in the freezer, one after another while pacing the kitchen. I prayed she wouldn’t panic and call the cops when the wind started again. I prayed that she wouldn’t ask me over and over what we were going to do, how we were going to pay for everything and get to the end of the month. “Tell me, Danny.”
I reached out and took Kelly’s hand, and she opened her eyes. “Hey,” I said.
She smiled. “Hey,” she said back.
She came over a lot after that. One time she led me into my room and closed the door. We knew we weren’t supposed to do what we did next, but those afternoons were long and quiet, with my mother away at school and Mr. Nichols coughing from his bedroom on the other side of the fence. We’d heard Pastor Lamb preach about the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse: war, disease, famine, and death. We wanted to be taken with our parents in the rapture, when God would welcome the faithful into heaven, sparing them the trials and tribulations of the final days. We’d learned from our Sunday-school teachers, Mrs. Green and Mr. Wills, who took the boys and girls in separate groups, that desire was God’s miracle, a gift He’d put in our bodies, making us want what we couldn’t have until we were husband and wife.
Behind my locked bedroom door, Kelly let her shorts fall to her ankles and pulled off her T-shirt but kept her purple underwear on. Her chest was swelling into small breasts with red nipples, and her long hair fell below her shoulders. I did the same, leaving on my white briefs. Then we lay on my twin bed, one on top of the other or side by side, our hearts beating fast. What we felt then was bigger than the constricting shame of penises and vaginas, the temptation to touch ourselves and others that we’d been warned against. All I wanted for now — and all Kelly seemed to want — was our bodies touching, our hushed breath rising and falling, our fingers clasped tightly. That was enough — more, in fact, than I’d ever imagined.
Despite the smell in Mrs. Berry’s house, and despite her silent husband and his occasional attacks, Kelly and I spent an afternoon or two a week in her living room that winter. She made good desserts: brownies, Toll House chocolate-chip cookies, red-velvet cupcakes with cream-cheese icing, Rice Krispies treats, and something called “trifle” — a rich, sweet, smooth dessert we ate with spoons out of chilled glasses. We didn’t have much else to do, and spending time at Mrs. Berry’s was a way of avoiding what we knew we shouldn’t be doing behind my closed bedroom door. Once a week, when the nurse came to watch Mr. Berry, we drove into the desert, the engine of the car roaring beneath us, and afterward we would go for ice cream at the Thrifty Drug. Mrs. Berry always got vanilla. (“I like it just fine, thank you very much,” she said.) Kelly got rainbow sherbet, even though it wasn’t real ice cream, and I got mint chip. We would sit on the bench in front of the store, between the humming ice machine and the painted horse on a metal pole that kids rode for a dime.
It was on one of those trips that Mrs. Berry told Kelly and me what she was doing for her husband. It was late spring, and the temperatures were scorching, the heat coming off the parking lot and making the white air bend and warp. We had to eat our ice cream fast while Mrs. Berry told us how she and Mr. Berry had met on the steps of the library at the University of South Dakota; how she’d been eyeing him for some time, liking the way his ears stuck out and his long, skinny frame and nice straight back; how he didn’t notice her until she said, “Hey there!” after which he looked up and smiled.
She shook her head slowly and said, “Today Mr. Berry and I will have been together for fifty-five years.” She laughed quietly. “He wouldn’t like me driving his car so fast. I was always egging him on to let loose; to put caution out on the curb, kick it down the road, live a little. I had to do that for him sometimes. But we had a very nice life, Mr. Berry and me.” When Mr. Berry had come back from the Great War, she told us, there had been a quietness in him. He struggled — they both struggled — for a time. He lost his job with the Army Corps of Engineers, though it didn’t have anything to do with his skills; he was good at what he did. And she’d wanted a child, but they’d never had one. “I can’t complain, though,” she said. “Eventually he came back to himself, and to me. He was — he is — a good man.”
Then she said, “I’m doing something for him now. It’s not easy. But I’m doing it.”
We listened closely, because she was whispering. She put a hand to her lips, and her fingers were trembling. We could hear her crying, but we couldn’t see the tears because she was wearing dark glasses. “The seizures he has because of his stroke,” she said, “they’re dangerous. They could end his life.” She paused, looking out at the mostly empty parking lot. “The doctors have given him medicine, but he doesn’t want it anymore, and I’m not making him take it.”
She stiffened, sat up, and dabbed a napkin at a spot of moisture beneath one of her dark lenses. Her ice cream had melted over her hand and down her wrist. “Oh, dear. Gladys Margaret Berry, you clumsy old . . .” She threw her dripping cone into the garbage next to us, riling the hornets that hovered above it. “I’m sorry,” she said, wiping her hand with the napkin. “You’ll please forget what I just said.” She smiled, but there was desperation in her voice. “You’ll do that, won’t you?”
And we said we would.
We liked Mrs. Berry, though she was old and sometimes talked about things that didn’t particularly interest us, like her and Mr. Berry’s honeymoon at Lake Louise, or the fact that Mr. Berry could dance the fox-trot like no one’s business, and later mastered the Lindy Hop after taking only a few lessons. And her house did smell. Once, as we lay mostly naked on my bed, Kelly blurted out what the stink was: “It smells like poop, hair spray, bad breath, and toothpaste all mixed together,” she said, and we both laughed.
Then she asked, “Do you think Mr. Berry is really alive?”
“His eyes are open,” I said.
“But they don’t move, do they?”
“His hands move sometimes.”
“No, they don’t,” she said. “The only thing he does is breathe.”
It was around this time that we stopped going over to Mrs. Berry’s. We snuck into my house through the back door so she wouldn’t see us come home from school. Once, we pretended not to hear her calling to us from her front porch: “Children, I made some gingerbread. It’s right out of the oven.” We just sprinted into the fields and didn’t look back. After a few weeks of this Mrs. Berry pulled up beside us in her car and said, “I’ve got a surprise for you. Hop in.” And we did, because we liked that car. It didn’t smell like her house, and we wouldn’t have to see her husband. She drove us into the desert, then pulled off the road. The car still idling, she got out, walked around to my side, and said, “Scoot over, Danny. You’re going to drive.”
“I don’t know how,” I said, confused, looking out at the flat desert in front of us. “I don’t have a license or anything.”
“He’s scared,” Kelly said.
“Oh, my,” the old woman said. “You’re a bit like Mr. Berry, aren’t you?” She put a hand to her brow and scanned the desert around us. “I don’t see any police officers here, do you?”
So I did what she said: I put the car in drive, pressed the pedal Mrs. Berry told me to press, and the car lurched forward. “Very good,” she said.
“I’m driving!” I half shouted.
“Yes, you are,” Mrs. Berry said. “You could go a tad bit faster, if you wanted.”
When my turn was over, I got in back, and Kelly took the wheel. With the car in park, she revved the engine until it nearly screamed. “That’s the gas pedal, I guess,” she said.
“The brake is important, too,” Mrs. Berry said, but the car was already flying forward by then, the force of the engine pressing us back in our seats, pebbles and red dirt shooting out behind us. Mrs. Berry laughed and shrieked at the sky and grasped at the red scarf on her head.
Later, at the Thrifty Drug for ice cream, I asked Mrs. Berry where she went to church. Both Kelly and I had decided that she went to the Assembly of God, or maybe she drove to church in San Jacinto. But she just shook her head and said, “Church isn’t for me.”
“You don’t believe?” I asked.
“I don’t,” she replied. There was a hesitance in her voice, as if she were being careful about what she said to us.
“Who made the world, then?” Kelly asked.
“Does there need to be somebody who made it?” she asked.
“Yes,” I said.
“I’m pretty sure the world just takes care of itself,” Mrs. Berry said.
“Don’t you worry about not being taken in the rapture?” Kelly asked. “About having to suffer and die?”
“Children,” Mrs. Berry said with incredulity, “we all die. That is life.”
“The righteous don’t,” I said. “They live forever.”
She squinted at us then. “What is it they teach you at your church?”
As we explained about the End Times and the Four Horsemen and Armageddon, she shook her head. “My God,” she said. “Doesn’t that scare you? Of course it does. And you’re just children. It must give you nightmares. Armageddon? Why would anyone tell you such a thing?” She let out a sharp breath. “Because they’re scared. That’s why. We’re all scared. But look at my Michael. If there were a God to snatch us up to heaven, why wouldn’t he have already done that for my husband? As far as I can see, none of us are saved. We’re in this together — all of us. Look at your poor father, sick and in his bed and—”
“Don’t you talk about my father,” Kelly said, sitting up on the bench outside of the Thrifty Drug. “God loves him, and you don’t get to say anything about him.” Kelly stood and threw her half-eaten sherbet cone into the trash.
Mrs. Berry’s face went pale, and though her eyes were still bright with a kind of anger, her voice was gentle: “Of course God loves him. You’re absolutely right.”
We didn’t see Mrs. Berry for several weeks after that. This was a difficult time for Kelly and me. My mother was taking her teaching exams and often stayed up until two or three in the morning, studying and smoking at the kitchen table. And Mr. Nichols was finishing up his radiation treatments and seemed sicker than ever. Bethel Baptist held a Wednesday-night prayer vigil for him, where everyone held lit candles and sang and then prayed silently.
We almost forgot about Mrs. Berry until one afternoon she saw us arriving home from school and called, “I’ve just made something to celebrate Mr. Berry’s birthday! He’s seventy-eight today. My goodness, the time goes by, doesn’t it?” She was wearing a checkered blue apron over a long yellow dress with ruffles at the sleeves. There was a desperate excitement in her voice that we couldn’t refuse.
The dining-room table was covered in a white cloth, and she’d put out china teacups with gold filigree and matching saucers and dessert plates. Orchestral music — bright and happy; perhaps the sort you’d dance the Lindy Hop to — was playing scratchily on the turntable in the corner. The house smelled of vanilla and sugar and butter. As usual, Mr. Berry sat slumped over in his chair, though today, for his birthday, he wore a button-up shirt with a red bow tie. “Happy birthday, Mr. Berry,” Kelly and I said, and for once he almost seemed to be looking at us. I could imagine a smile forming at the edge of his mouth.
“I’m making a Lady Baltimore cake today,” Mrs. Berry said. “Do you know what that is?” We shook our heads. “Then you’re in for a treat,” she said.
There was something else on the table, too — a deck of gilt-edged playing cards, a large jam jar of coins, and a stack of one-dollar bills, crisp and new, as if she’d just gotten them at the bank. “Do you play poker?” she asked. “It was one of Mr. Berry’s favorite games.”
We didn’t. She sat us down, quickly went over the rules, and gave us each two crisp dollar bills and a shiny mound of coins to bet with. “The money is yours,” she said. “And you can keep all your winnings.”
“What if we lose it all?” I asked. Neither Kelly nor I was used to having money, and I didn’t want to give up what was in front of me. But Mrs. Berry was already dealing the cards.
Over the next thirty minutes she couldn’t win. She bet big on hands that amounted to nothing and folded after putting two or three and once five dollars into the pot. The piles of coins and bills in front of Kelly and me grew. Kelly won the most, but we’d both done well by the time the old woman gathered up the cards and said, smiling, “I’m clearly no good at poker, am I?”
I felt bad then because it was clear that she’d lost on purpose. She excused herself and went into the kitchen to put the final touches on the cake while Kelly and I folded the bills carefully and scooped coins into our pockets.
“She’s paying us to be here,” I said, feeling sick about it.
Kelly hardly seemed to hear me. She stood, walked over to where Mr. Berry sat, and, without warning, clapped her hands in front of his eyes. Mr. Berry didn’t blink.
“Stop it,” I said. “Sit back down.”
Kelly ignored me. She put her mouth to the old man’s ear and said loudly, “Mr. Berry. Hello. It’s Kelly Nichols. Can you say hi?” He didn’t move. She put her index finger to his forehead and pushed his head up and into the cushion. When she took her finger away, his head settled back to where it had been. There was something determined and mean about the way she stared into his face. In fact, she’d been strange and angry all week. I knew her father had undergone a test at the hospital, and they were waiting for the results. The doctors had warned them not to expect good news. Kelly had been silent and brooding, and one time, when we were alone in my room, she’d held me so tightly that I’d felt her nails sink into my skin. Not knowing what else to say, I’d told her that her father would be OK, and she’d said in a fierce whisper, “Don’t say that. It’s not true. He’s dying.”
She leaned over Mr. Berry, removed his oxygen mask, and put her hand flat over his mouth and nose. “Stop it,” I said, but she persisted. “Kick,” she whispered into his face. “Do something, old man.” But his withered body remained motionless. She seemed to press harder, and I said again, “Stop it.”
Finally Kelly removed her hand and put his mask back on. The wet sound of his breathing resumed. She walked back to her chair, the coins in her pockets making a heavy, clinking sound. Her voice trembling, she said, “I told you he was dead.”
A few minutes later the old man started shaking the way he did at the onset of an attack, but this was different. His back was arching. He jolted forward, and the china teacup filled with mint tea, which he hadn’t touched, toppled from his tray and shattered on the floor. His eyes rolled up, and he made a kind of whimpering sound. “Mrs. Berry!” I called out. Saliva poured down his chin. His mouth clamped shut so hard his jaw quivered. When he opened it again, blood ran from his mouth.
“Mrs. Berry!” Kelly shouted.
The old woman appeared a moment later, carrying a platter with a layer cake, Vienna fingers pressed into the vanilla frosting, and a single lit candle in the middle. It was beautiful, an apparition of sugar and icing. She’d taken her apron off, and her yellow dress with ruffles seemed to glow in the dim room. She seemed about to sing “Happy Birthday to You.” But then she saw what was happening to Mr. Berry. “Dear God,” she said, lunging forward, nearly dropping the cake onto the table. “Michael,” she said, taking his hand. “I’m here.” His eyes were rolled back in his head. She lowered herself to her knees. “Sweetheart,” she said loudly, “you’re OK. It’s all OK.” She was smiling and crying at the same time, squeezing his hand tightly as if to lead him somewhere. There was something like hope or yearning in her eyes. “It’s OK,” she said. “I’m with you. It’s almost over. It will all be over soon. I promise.”
I looked at the cake because I didn’t want to see him die. Pearls of sugar lined the thin finger cookies, and a braided rope of frosting surrounded the base and top of the dessert. Then Mr. Berry coughed, and the candle on the cake went out, and little rubies of bloody saliva spattered over the white icing.
Finally Mr. Berry started to breathe again. We all listened to the woosh of his oxygen.
“And this,” Mrs. Berry said softly, shaking her head and looking into her husband’s blank face, “is what your loving God does to us?”
Two weeks later Kelly’s father came to church for the first time in months. He sat in the front pew, a large man in a light-blue suit. Kelly had told me his test results had been good — very good, in fact. His cancer was gone: disappeared and shrunk down to nothing. He was pale, and he squinted as if his eyes were adjusting to the light after a long time in the dark. But he stood up straight and sang “How Great Thou Art” with the congregation. The first words Pastor Lamb said that morning were “Let us praise God for the miracle He has wrought. Our brother Bobby Nichols is worshipping with us today.” People reached out to shake Mr. Nichols’s hand or pat his shoulders.
The following Sunday I stood with the congregation singing “Jesus Is Calling” for the invitational while Pastor Lamb urged anyone who had strayed, anyone who had sinned and wasn’t right with God, to come forward and renew their relationship with Jesus. Small squares of sunshine fell through the windows on either side of Bethel Baptist. Our church was nothing special: a simple rectangle of a building with a flat roof, a cinder-block foundation, aluminum siding the color of egg yolk, and a small wooden cross above the front door. But it was also the house of God, because, as Pastor Lamb reminded us, the Lord’s house was wherever His children worshipped. The pastor was balding, with two black wings of hair on either side of his head, and he wore white, flowing robes and kept the Word of God open on the pulpit before him. Mrs. Euler, a big woman with thick eyeglasses and short, curly hair the color of dry grass, was at the keyboard, big circles of perspiration at the armpits of her red blouse. She played on, and I felt the truth of what Pastor Lamb was preaching about as he said, “God knows our hearts. He knows if we’re not right with the Lord. His mercy, the gift of His grace, is limitless, but we must reach out and accept what He offers — for we are all sinners who fall short in the eyes of God. Our Father wants all His children back. We are His prodigal sons and daughters!” Pastor Lamb chanted above the singing congregation. I began walking to the front, singing as I walked, “Jesus is calling, calling to you and to me.” I closed my eyes and felt Pastor Lamb’s hand on my shoulder, and I heard him say, “Kneel with me.” And I did. And he said, “Do you renew your faith in our Savior, Jesus Christ, who gave His life that you might live forever?”
“I do,” I said.
“Then rise and be renewed in our Lord.”
And when I opened my eyes, I saw that Kelly, in her white dress with little yellow flowers on it, was standing beside me. She, too, had answered the invitational. And I knew then that together we would never die.
Things were different after Mr. Nichols got better. It was summer by then, and our small town baked in the heat, and the long, hot days passed slowly. Mr. Nichols went back to work part-time, then all day. I would see him in the mornings in his blue work clothes, driving with his wife in their Ford pickup. Sometimes I’d still hear him cough late at night, when I couldn’t sleep, but his coughing never lasted very long. Mr. Nichols started coaching Little League and asked me to play on his team. And even though there were no other girls on it, he let Kelly play, too. He was loud and enthusiastic on the field, clapping his hands and shouting out, “Let’s go, Wolverines!” Kelly was good at hitting and could throw the ball so hard it stung your palm through the glove. I mostly struck out, but when I sat back down on the bench, Mr. Nichols would lean over and say, “Great job, Danny. Way to swing. You’ll hit it next time.”
My mother was grateful that Mr. Nichols had invited me to join his team and that he took Kelly and me out into the desert one day and taught us how to shoot tin cans with a .22 rifle. Without my father around, I think my mother worried I might not learn to become a man. Mr. Nichols’s presence might have been one reason she seemed happier, more at ease. She was finishing up her studies, too, and applying for teaching jobs with real salaries. And because she was home more over the summer, Kelly and I spent less time locked in my room. We wandered out into the fields and into abandoned peach and citrus orchards, where we discovered an old barn with a half-collapsed roof, and we sat in its shade and ate the toffees and jawbreakers and jelly beans we’d bought with the money we’d won — or sort of won — from Mrs. Berry.
One afternoon, while my mother was in the backyard, Kelly and I took off our shirts in the living room and lay on the couch, where sunlight fell over us, and I could see our naked bellies and Kelly’s small breasts. A shock of hair had just begun to grow beneath my arms. It was risky because my mother could have walked in at any moment. “I like the danger,” Kelly said. “Don’t you?” She was teasing me because she knew I didn’t. She took my hand and placed it over her breast. “There,” she whispered. And I kissed her, and she kissed me back and said, “I love you, Daniel.” And I told her that I loved her, too. I thought about how she’d brought me out of my house and into the fields, the orchards, the abandoned barn, the baseball diamond.
Mrs. Berry no longer waited for us on her front porch or offered us rides in the Mustang or called out to us about whatever dessert she’d just made. In fact, she seemed to have disappeared inside her house, the windows as blank and dark as Mr. Berry’s eyes. Then one day, as Kelly and I walked beneath a row of pomegranate trees, picking up scarlet shards of fruit from the asphalt and eating them, we heard the soft growl of the Mustang’s engine. We turned around and saw the red and black car bearing down on us and the skeletal woman inside it — too pale, her makeup caked on — and I was afraid. But Mrs. Berry’s voice was gentle when she said, “Hello, children. My goodness, look at your mouths.” I looked at Kelly’s, which was dyed a deep red by the fruit. “I just wanted to say hi,” Mrs. Berry said. “And I wanted to let you know how glad I am that your father is better, dear. That’s such a blessing.” She seemed to use the word blessing intentionally, as if it were a kind of apology.
“Thank you,” Kelly said, though she looked down now, seeming almost ashamed.
Neither of us knew what to say.
“How’s Mr. Berry?” I blurted out.
“He’s fine, thank you. I should get back to him now.”
She drove away, and I hoped we would never have to enter her house again, not only because of the smell and the choked light and old Mr. Berry in the corner but also because it seemed that God loved us now. He loved me and my mother and Kelly and her parents. At the end of every Sunday service Pastor Lamb looked over the congregation and boomed, “May God be with you, brothers and sisters!” And He was with us — or seemed to be — and we didn’t need or want the company of old Mrs. Berry anymore.
What we didn’t yet know was that Mr. Nichols’s cancer would return a year later, and he’d go quickly then, after which Kelly and her mother would move, and we’d never see each other again. There would be no rapture, no End Times, no salvation for the righteous. Mrs. Berry had been right about that.
But at least for that summer, we escaped the old woman, kept our distance from her, and she kept her distance from us, too.
Then, on a Saturday morning about two weeks after school started in the fall, the old woman wandered out of her house and into the street. Kelly and I were trying out the new skateboards that Mr. Nichols had brought home from Sears the afternoon before. Mrs. Berry wore a faded pink robe, and her hair was an inch of gray fuzz, and we knew then that her bright-red curls had been a wig. She shook her head and said, “My dears, it’s happened. It’s Mr. Berry.” She turned back toward the house but didn’t move. “I’ve been with him all morning. But I just called someone. They haven’t arrived yet. I had to leave the house for a minute.”
“I’m sure they’ll be here soon,” Kelly said.
Mrs. Berry’s wet eyes looked past us and down the quiet road. There was no sign of anyone coming. “I should go back to him. He’s alone. I know that doesn’t matter now, but . . .”
Kelly took the old woman’s hand and started walking with her across the yellow lawn and toward the open door. I followed, but I was relieved when they stopped on the porch. Mrs. Berry looked at Kelly and said, “It’s OK now. It’ll all be fine.” The open doorway in front of us seemed to hold the dimness just inside the entryway. “You should go on home, children,” Mrs. Berry said.
“I’ll stay with you a minute, if you want me to,” Kelly said.
“I’d like that,” Mrs. Berry said.
They held hands and walked into the house, and I followed them.
Almost everything inside was the same: the smell, the pictures of mountains and oceans and lakes on the walls. The only difference was the silence. There was no hiss of oxygen. Mr. Berry sat slumped over in his chair, a fancy dinner napkin draped over his face. His neck and hands were colorless and waxy.
“Oh, Michael,” Mrs. Berry said. And then, “You should have seen him dance.” She started to cry quietly, and Kelly turned away from her, and I could see that she, too, was crying. Kelly seemed about to take her hand back, but then she turned again toward Mrs. Berry and embraced the old woman. I watched them hold each other for a time before I stepped forward and put my arms around them both.