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Apr/May 1999 Fiction

Symmetry

by Evelyn Sharenov


I remember it was still winter when Jack took me along on one of his forays. He let me know what he thought, which was that he didn't approve; nevertheless, he let me come. I think the idea of corrupting me, no matter how trivial the escapade, appealed to the lawless streak in him.

On a grey Saturday afternoon, we set out across town, then down the embankment along the icy river, through an unfriendly snow and cutting wind, to the road. Mt. Hood at our backs was steeped in low banks of grey clouds, but underneath I knew was the purest white I had ever seen. I was wet and chilled by the time we were far enough from the watchful eyes of our house to hitch a ride. I didn't complain though, for that first heady taste of the spice of male adventure numbed me to the elements. We got off at Sandy River Farms, stole whatever we could stuff in the pockets of our peacoats and started back. The weather was, by then, too fearsome for fellow travelers. We trudged all the way home, several miles of country road buried beneath an opaque sheath of ice.

Jack navigated cautiously into the swirling snow, maneuvering me sure-footedly around new drifts and treacherous clots of packed ice—the moldy leftovers of last week's storm. I kept up, stumbling and blinded, at his side. Jack's head was thrust forward into the wind. His long dark hair blew back and froze in place. He looked like a character out of the historical romance novel I was reading, like a warrior finding his way home after years of battle.

"How're you doing?" he called over his shoulder. His voice was muffled, as if he had left me behind in the snow, and I got frightened. He must have sensed this because he reached for my hand and held onto it tightly.

"I'm doing fine," I yelled back.

"You want my scarf?"

"No, I'm okay." Despite everything, I saw him as the needier one, and although I was two years younger than my brother, I had to look out for him. We made the rest of our way in silence.

By the time a familiar turn in the river appeared, I was exhausted but happy. The storm, as if forgiving my fall from grace, let up as we crossed the narrow bridge that dropped us about a half-mile from our house. A weak but peaceable sun came through the low and heavy clouds that sat like a ceiling over town. I felt its light touch on my shoulder, an accomplice to our conspiracy, dizzying after a stretch of overcast days, and I stood breathless and overheated in the cold late-afternoon sunshine. It was a sign, I thought, that all would be well and Jack would come to no harm.

 

I remember that day clearly, because I was a young girl, and because I went over it a million times, the way you memorize and interpret a lover's exact words or rehearse your own. They were the last peaceful moments for me, and they all came back as I stood at Sandy River Farms on a long golden summer day, dawdling over a beefsteak tomato and an ear of fresh corn, its pale silk hanging limp in the blazing sun. I saw Frank looking for me at the busy checkout and then in the maze of fragrant orchards. He squinted against the heat and glare, looking worried, as if he feared the noise and crowds would swallow me up. I made my way slowly toward him, picking up pears and peaches and placing them in the basket I carried.

"We'll be late," Frank spoke softly behind me.

"I know." Still, I lingered over the fruits and vegetables like a geneticist deciding the best specimens to cross breed.

"The kids are waiting in the car. Here, put those down and let's go." He took my hands and gently led me away, walking ahead of me, a blockade against the browsing army of families. When trouble came, Frank was like a frontier version of himself; he closed ranks and encircled me.

The children filled the back seat of the car with their noise. Our son sat behind Frank and our daughter behind me. They were reciting the cartoon rules for living. Never drink water when you're shot full of holes; when walking on air, never look down. Frank reached back into the tangle of their young limbs and retrieved an old shirt of his, with the flannel rubbed through at the elbows.

"Here, put this on." He handed me his shirt.

I obeyed him. Even though it was stifling, I felt chilled.

When Jack left home, I wore his shirts to sleep, to school, and especially to read his letters from overseas. Now when I needed an amulet, something to ensure safe passage, I wore one of Frank's.

We drove the same leisurely country roads between the farm and my father's house that Jack and I walked that wintry afternoon years ago, east through quiet green Oregon towns, past farms with carcasses of tractors left to rot in the rain. These were places to which sidewalks had not yet come. Mt. Hood loomed ahead of us, great bald patches of rock face visible in the summer sun. Frank, who came from New York City, once told me he envied me, my growing up in Sandy River. I met Frank in Viet Nam, where I was a nurse and he was a medic—which was what they made him after he got his conscientious objector status. When I invited him to come home with me, he accepted and stayed. Even after years of teaching in Portland, he still imagined the lives lived off these roads were somehow more private and passionate than other lives, vestiges of simpler easier times. He said there was a "thereness" to them, a splendor and wholeness that city people lacked. People were born here, grew up and fell in love here, married, had children, grew old and died here. Now and then kids left for the cities in Washington or California. Just as often they came home, like puppies who strayed too far from their lair. Outsiders were frowned on, objects of suspicion and gossip who, if they stayed long enough, were eventually accepted and embraced. It was a community without intellectual curiosity. It devoted its energy to staying alive. It had its share of joys and tragedies, although it sometimes seemed there was more tragedy to go around than joy. Young farmers died in tractor accidents, old farmers of too much whiskey. Every winter kids drowned in the freezing waters of the Sandy River; every summer they jumped off the overhanging rocks and got caught in its currents. Their bodies were always recovered, just as Jack's had been. The river, never possessive, gave up its dead.

"I know this is hard for you, but it'll be over soon and we can go home. The kids'll keep your father busy. He can use the diversion."

We didn't bring the children to my mother's funeral a month ago because they were young and my mother had killed herself.

"I don't know how to explain to them," I said after my father called with the news.

"There's nothing to explain. Maybe someday, but not right now."

When I told them that grandma was dead, they didn't question me. I decided they would stay with Frank's parents while we made all the arrangements. I didn't want to bring them along this weekend either, but Frank insisted.

I watched Frank drive, quiet at the wheel. He turned the radio on and put in a cassette; I reached over and turned it off. He looked at me briefly, then back at the roads.

"Laura, you can't protect them from this forever."

The children were suddenly silent, listening intently to us.

"But I want to."

I didn't want them there when I went through my mother's and Jack's things. I wanted them to be with Frank's family where they would be happy and safe. Families like Frank's weren't closed circles. They opened to take in strangers, like doors opened wide to admit light and warmth. I was afraid that my father's house and the circumstances of our visit would contaminate my children in some way, as if some congenital sadness lingered in the air my mother used to breathe, and my children would inhale this and be sad too.

Frank unloaded the bags of fresh fruit and vegetables that he had bought at the farm while the kids ran to my father. He looked smaller, stooped and gaunt, his hair grayed and thinned at the same time. Perhaps it was my imagination that he was losing the substance that held him to earth, especially next to Frank, who was a bulky man, broad and splendid. But my father's clothes, ill-fitting at best, hung on him, and his belt was cinched in its last hole, its tether lolling down like an old dog's tongue.

"Grandpa, grandpa," the kids yelled, giggling and squirming in his long thin arms. I stood by the car, waiting. I half expected Rufus, his coonhound, to come bounding from the house at this moment, just as he used to when Jack was alive. But of course he didn't. The summer-warmed driveway radiated up through my sandals. My father looked up at me and smiled.

"I'm glad you brought them," he said. I kissed his cheek and put my arms around him.

"You look like you've lost weight," I said. I felt his shoulder blades through his shirt, like chicken wings. He seemed fragile, a trait I would not normally have associated with my father, and shorter, as if the weight of all his wrong choices had beaten him down.

"Are you eating?"

"Mostly TV dinners. I don't have much of an appetite these days, sugar." We walked inside, arm in arm. I ached for him. He must have sensed what I was thinking. "I'm okay; you don't have to worry. Really," he reassured me. I helped Frank fill the refrigerator while the children and my father played in the living room. When there was nothing left to do, I sat at my father's old formica dinette set, covered by a faded red checkered oilcloth that I was sure I remembered from my childhood. I knew without looking that he ate off the same plastic break proof dishes we had when I was a girl. They never bought a microwave; he baked his TV dinners in the oven. Last year we bought them a CD player for their anniversary. I doubted he ever played it.

"Let's get started," Frank urged. I didn't move. "The sooner we get it done, the sooner we..." he stopped, at a loss for words, as if there was no future after clearing out my mother's and brother's possessions.

"Dad," I yelled out to the living room. "We'll be in mother's room."

"That's fine. I'll stay with the kids."

My mother's room was spartan. She had left the marriage bed years earlier because my father had a hiatal hernia and slept sitting up. Or so the story went. Tidy and fastidious during her life, my mother's bedroom told the story of a woman squeezed flat between her past and her present, living in an airless domesticity that she was neither capable of understanding nor of changing; she was a victim of generations of madness handed down like an heirloom. She slept in a single bed. The bedclothes were plain, white, with a faded handmade quilt folded neatly at the foot. Her powerlessness took the form of waking dreams, of seeing ghosts of family members who told her things, brought her messages from beyond the grave. She told me one, in secret, after Jack was gone. She confided to me that her father came to her in a dream and told her not to sell the house. I think my father was planning on putting the house on the market and moving in to the city, closer to Frank and me. I don't know what words were spoken between them, but the house never got sold. I wondered if her father came to her in a dream and told her to take all those sleeping pills.

So I performed this age-old ritual that women did—tidying up in death's aftermath, while men sit quietly with their grief. I cleaned up my family's messes—what my mother could not face doing. There was very little to go through in my mother's room: nothing to remember her by, nothing for my daughter, nothing for the Good Will. She had been buried in her wedding band. There was no other jewelry. Her clothing was limited to a couple of housedresses suitable for use as cleaning rags.

It had been unnatural to see my father at her funeral, stiff and awkward in his only suit, dry-eyed and quiet. There was an argument between my father and my aunts and uncles about the music to be played at the funeral—arguing being what my family did after a tragedy, to protect themselves from the first blows of grief. On my advice, they settled on the slow movement of Beethoven's Seventh Symphony. They deferred to me because I graduated from college.

After Jack died my father stopped going to church, as if in testing it, tragedy further weakened an already faltering faith. My mother had never been big on religion in the first place, but she had gone to keep peace with my father. It was as a favor to him that my mother was buried in the Catholic church. The priest, who was new to the parish—there was a rapid turnover of priests out here, as they quickly moved up the hierarchy or served their time—spoke to him about attending services again, like a simple act of contrition could revive faith that no longer existed.

Nevertheless, bright sunshine filtered through the high stained glass windows onto this lost flock, my small grieving family huddled together in a pew, while the priest intoned mass in a dead language. I was uncomfortable until the first strains of the Beethoven began.

I had been angry at my mother for years, since before Jack died, since he went to Viet Nam, angry at her complicity and silence, letting my father take Jack by the hand to enlist. Since before that even. I was angry at her when she watched stonily from the kitchen window as Jack dug a shallow grave in the hard winter soil and buried my cat. He had wrapped her in one of his old flannel shirts and placed her in a shoebox with her collar and tag. I added a poem I had written for her. Jack's arm had flung up reflexively to cover my eyes when we discovered her in the road. As he shovelled dirt over the small box, he swiped at his eyes, head averted, pretending to wipe his nose. When my mother committed suicide, I felt a petty gratification, followed again by anger. As I went through her things, I began tossing them across the room with increasing violence, until I picked up her lamp and smashed it on the floor. It broke into hundreds of white porcelain fragments. I was embarrassed and suddenly afraid my father had heard. Frank watched silently, at my side. When I began to cry he put his arms around me.

"Do you want to dig her up and kill her?" he asked evenly.

"Do you have to be so God-damned reasonable all the time?"

"You know what I mean. You're still looking for someone to blame, and they were just doing the best they knew how." He stopped. He remained calm, his tone even and unruffled, which I hated although it was one of the reasons I married him. "There wasn't a mean bone in your mother's body—a lot of confused ones maybe, but no mean ones. Same as your father." He took a deep breath. "Things happen. That's all." But I wanted my family to be like Frank's—sane, loving, normal. I was crying again. "I'm sorry. Maybe this wasn't the time..." And he went on holding me.

Jack's room had not been touched since the accident. My mother never went near it after he died. It was the same as when he left for Viet Nam, the same as when he came back: a boy's room filled with junk and memories that had once been boyhood dreams. I left his room for the morning. I too had not been near it in the years after he died, not because I chose to imitate my mother, but because I simply couldn't bear the thought of disposing of his things after he was gone.

My son's eyes were closing, and he was fighting to keep them open. Kim was already asleep on the couch, leaning against my father. Her gentle snores, like a kitten's purrs, gave off her dreams' faint exhaust and carried them like prayers on angels' wings to God's ears—that was from a poem my father once read me as I fell asleep. I hoped it was so. Frank carried her upstairs to my mother's room and tucked her in. Jimmy reluctantly followed them, but slept in "Uncle Jack's" bed. Just a baby when Jack died, his uncle was a larger-than-life memory whose adventures assumed gigantic proportions in his mind. He spoke with reverence and awe of my brother and always lowered his voice just a little when he asked me questions about him, as if I were privy to some secret life of Jack's. I too had come to see Jack in a somewhat unrealistic light—only two years older than me, but always running far ahead of me in the distance, toward his own future. I tried but couldn't keep up. Sometimes I imagined he was calling my son to his side.

My father and I were left alone in the living room. "You have a good man in Frank."

"I know, dad."

"Don't screw it up just 'cause it's the family genetics."

"Don't worry, dad. I could never hurt Frank."

"Your mother and I, we..." he seemed inclined to go on but then changed his mind. He seemed a little lost and out of his element when he tried to articulate emotions, like it wasn't his habit. He was a retired machinist. Now he worked his land as a hobby. He had five acres. When we were growing up, four of those acres were treed. Now only one was treed, where the Sandy ran. My father hired migrants during the summer and hung out with them, drinking a beer every evening during Oregon's long late twilight, while the mountain turned a deep hazy lavender, then a dark shadowed peak against the starlit night sky. This summer his arable acres lay fallow, arid and unplanted. When the winter winds and silver thaw came, soil would blow away down the gorge, riding on the winds' back.

I'm glad he didn't go on. I didn't want to hear it.

Instead, he switched topics to the local gossip. The new barber in town—an attractive blond lady who drove a canary yellow Harley with black leather sidebags—had taken the old men and their thinning hair by storm. Some of them went to get their hair cut three times a week, or they took their sons and grandsons if they ran out of excuses or hair.

Then there was the big story. One of the local women received a pair of mudflaps for her pickup as a Christmas gift from her husband. As if the mudflaps weren't bad enough, they had silhouettes of naked women on them. It was too much. She shot him dead on Christmas morning. The case was coming to trial this summer.

Frank slept with me in my old room in my twin bed. He offered to sleep on the couch, but I said no. After all these years, I still can't sleep without him beside me. The bed was narrow, virginal and uncomfortable. I learned to masturbate in that bed, and it took up a lot of my time, but that was all that ever happened in it. Not like Jack's bed, where I watched him with his girlfriend through a crack in the door. Where Jack got her pregnant.

I fell asleep to the distant sound of an ice cream truck piping "Turkey in the Straw." I tossed and turned all night and dreamed I was awake. In the morning I felt like I hadn't slept at all. Frank was on the floor when I opened my eyes to bright sunshine and a fine summer breeze coming through the old lace curtains that decorated my windows.

"It was too uncomfortable," Frank said in answer to my silence. He had taken a pillow down there with him but no cover. In the early days of our marriage, when the immediacy of Jack's death led to a daily outpouring of tears and recriminations, Frank would follow me from room to room when a look came over my face, some darkening he came to recognize. Inarticulate, he would knock over wine glasses to get to my hand across the dining table, or follow me into the bathroom, reaching out without warning to grab me from behind and hold me, to prevent me from crying alone. Over the years, like a seedling that takes root, I became unable to sleep or cry alone, as if my privacy were something I shared with Frank. If it fell to me to clean up my family's messes, then Frank would be there with me.

I looked from my window down at my mother's garden. If she had been contemplating suicide over a long period, there was nothing in her garden to indicate this. The neatly arranged varieties of roses were just now beginning to appear unpruned and overripe. Untended by my father, they were overgrown, their heavy scent too sweet in the morning air, like they were trying to cover up a worse odor.

Jimmy and Kim were already awake. I could hear them downstairs with my father. I sniffed the air for a hint of the day's weather, humidity or ozone, but the scent of frying bacon overcame me. It was a Sunday morning ritual. Even the death of my mother could not stop my father from cooking one of his fabulous breakfasts.

"Did you sleep okay?" my father asked when we were all seated. He prepared to peel and cut up more potatoes for his home fries and put another rasher of bacon in the pan. Garlic sizzled in the frying grease. He added the sliced potatoes and the grease roared and smoked. He liberally sprinkled everything with salt. His was the only kitchen where I would eat this way, although I imagined my arteries clogging as I wiped up egg yolk with buttered toast. My own cooking was limited to fish and chicken dishes and salads with greens from my own garden.

"Yeah," I lied. "You bet," said Frank, a little too heartily. Jimmy looked at him. He was older than Kim by the same number of years as Jack was older than me. Kim poked him in the side and they were off.

"Hey, don't you want to finish your breakfast?" Frank called after them.

My father laughed. "Let them go," he said. "They ate enough before you came down."

"Come on, let's finish Jack's room," Frank said. He stood carefully from the table, as if he feared his movement might hurt or disturb me.

Jack's room was a mess. Just as I remembered it, just as my son left it. Sometimes things are worse than you anticipate. Usually, they're not. This was neither. I went through everything, packed up some things in boxes to store away until some later date when I could decide what to do with them, threw away other things, went through his photos and records and decided to give these to Jimmy. I went through his letters from Janie, who described in great detail her abortion, how she hated him, how she loved him, how she missed him. She dotted her "i"s with happy faces. In her photos she was a beautiful young girl, and she loved my brother the way a young girl loves, without questioning and with faith in the future. I wondered how she looked as a grown woman, if she still thought about Jack, if she remembered making love to him in this room, if she had forgiven him. One card from my father read: "Dear Eddy Spaghetti, or should I say Edward Spagedward now that you're a man..." It was a thirteenth birthday card, and Jack loved spaghetti. Jack taught me how to inhale in this room, first tobacco then pot, deeply without choking, holding it, then letting it out slowly. This was where I learned how to dance, where he spun me out and around and back in to his arms, to his old rock and roll records—forty-fives, because that was all he could afford on his allowance. This was where we outlined our futures, creating them as we went along, investing them with a reality so vivid that for years it overshadowed our lives. In our imaginings we would meet in New York, where Jack wanted to study music and I wanted to study art. We would share an apartment in the Village, and when we were successful, we would return home as celebrities. There were no plans for marriages or families, no space left for love. I wrote Jack that I didn't want children when I grew up, only pets, because they never grow up and leave you. Jack wrote back, "They leave you, and when they do they break your heart, same as people only worse, because they never come back."

My letters from Jack were full of homesickness and fear. He wrote letters with poems in them. Things were not what he expected in Viet Nam. He was no hero. He spent his nights and spare change in the cool arms of purchased love. He took solace in drugs. By the time I graduated from nursing school and got to Viet Nam, Jack was already on his way home. I can remember my father crying only twice in my life; the first time was when Jack came home, gaunt, strung out on drugs, emotionally and physically bankrupt. The second time was after Jack died. "I have no son. I can't go on." His crying welled up from somewhere in his gut and wrenched my heart. He mourned so deeply I was afraid he would never stop. Expressing his grief at last, I understood that he loved Jack, but I didn't understand why he was angry until I had children of my own. When my father used to spank Jack, Jack would set his jaw, resolute and defiant, pretending the belt didn't hurt. I had seen that same defiance on Jimmy's face the last time Frank let him have it. And if my father cried twice, my mother never cried at all. She was as remote as the summit of Mt. Hood. Jack's death only made her more so.

After Jack died and I became pregnant with Kim, I started going to mass regularly. Frank thought I was crazy, but he took the path of least resistance and went along with me because he knew I would make life miserable for him otherwise. He didn't try to talk me out of it if it would help me believe in Jack's eternal peace—or in my own. He didn't remind me of Viet Nam and the horrors we saw there. But he wouldn't accompany me. He refused to participate in intermittent blind leaps of faith, as he put it. Somewhere along the line, I got it into my head that I was doing penance for being alive. And I was storing up good works for my daughter, like investing in stocks and bonds, only I was investing in the future of her soul. In the week before she was due to be born, I mowed our yard daily until our lawn was a brown stubble, then started in on my neighbors' lawns. Each morning I mowed another yard. No one objected as I prepared the neighborhood for my daughter's arrival into the world. She would be born in a state of grace. I said prayers at night, from bed, lying on my back, looking straight up at the ceiling. I prayed for the usual things expectant mothers pray for, that my daughter would be healthy and happy, and that the world would be kind to her. Then I prayed that neither of my children would grow up to be Republicans. And I prayed that Jimmy would not grow up to be like Jack. I kept up going to church until I returned to work at the VA Hospital in Portland. And then I stopped. Just as I stopped grieving now that my work was done in Jack's room. The long wakeful ghosts could now rest.

Frank had a different kind of faith than I did. Because he had faith in the world, he wanted children when I did not. I never thought my body could become pregnant. But it did, and we made these children easily, out of nothing but our own bodies.

We planned to go back as soon as I was finished here, but it was late afternoon, the kids were having a good time with my father, and I was just beginning to feel relaxed, so Frank and I thought it would be nice to stay another night. Frank decided he would cook dinner. I walked down to the river and along the banks until a clear path to the road became visible. There was deep shade all along the narrow beach from the overhanging trees. In fact, a canopy of trees met over this stretch of water. I took off my shoes and dangled my toes. It was icy, as always. I quickly walked on, suddenly nervous, although this was not the area where Jack drowned. The river was narrow and summer shallow at this bend, but its current moved along swiftly, and just ahead it widened and deepened, with treacherous rocks below the surface.

My father was down here somewhere with Jimmy and Kim. I heard them but couldn't see them. I thought about looking for them but didn't want to seem like I didn't trust my father with them. I climbed to the road, and the pure unfiltered heat of the late day sun pressed down on my back. Blank heat waves rose languidly from the blacktop and distorted my vision. I picked mountain blackberries off the brambles that lined the stretch of country road and put them in my skirt, which I gathered and made into a sort of fabric basket. A group of four migrant farm workers walked down the road toward me. They were short and muscular and had dark copper skin—Mixtek Indians from southern Mexico. They picked berries for the neighboring farmers and knew my father. Several of them had come to the house to pay their respects after my mother's funeral—those who were not superstitious about the way she died. They nodded politely as they passed me by on the road. It was quiet, with the endless drone of August finally hushed. I walked along the road back to the house. When I was a kid, Jack and I loved to explore all the paths that led away from home: We could take the river, we could take the road, or we could take a combination of both. But all the paths that led away from home also led back to it.

I took a ball of dough out of the freezer in the cellar and made cobblers out of the berries, while Frank made a salad and thawed steaks in the oven.

"Just pray we don't get food poisoning," I said.

He just smiled and leaned over and kissed me on the cheek. We had rounded a corner, and Frank knew it, too.

While Frank prepared the rest of the meal, I went out back and stretched out in my father's hammock. I closed my eyes. Birds sang and filled the air with music. My father built birdhouses for the finches, sparrows and chickadees, and all the houses had residents. The hatchlings noisily demanded feeding, so the birds were busy coming and going. A new generation of swallows practiced take-offs and landings from the trees to the eaves of the house, flying in tandem, spiralling, swooping, climbing. Of all the varieties that lived here, they were my favorite. They seemed to enjoy the show they put on for me.

The yard was heavily shaded, like the river. A dense covering of firs and old oaks draped me in shadow. Frank and I lived in an old Portland neighborhood that had been rebuilt a dozen years ago. I still remembered moving day. I was pregnant with Jimmy, and I posed proudly in my front yard on my newly planted lawn, with mere saplings for landscaping. In the photo Frank took, I was taller than the young maple tree beside me. I waved for the camera, smiling out, as if to the lovely applause of invisible neighbors. The new neighborhood was like an expanding universe. One day it would be full of homes and children like mine.

I napped briefly in the hammock, half aware of Frank setting the wood plank picnic table. The rich colors of spring were bleached out by the summer heat, the air was hazy and richly scented with humus, and the aroma of steak and baked potatoes reached me in the hammock, like a tap on the shoulder. We all sat to eat a noisy dinner.

In July it stays light until ten o'clock, but by this time in August dusk settles in earlier. One summer on a trip east to visit Frank's parents, Kim caught fireflies in a mayonnaise jar with holes punched in the lid, a gentle trap made by my father-in-law, who insisted she set them free before their flashlights grew dim. I missed these tiny nightlights that heralded the rising moon. The crickets began their evening symphony. The air was too thick to see any stars. It was a pure summer night—no underpinning of autumn scented the air. My father sprawled on the grass and smoked a cigar. Frank rested in an old Adirondack chair that needed stripping and refinishing.

My father asked whom I was voting for in the presidential election.

"I don't think we should discuss it," I laughed. He was baiting me. Frank and I stood on opposite sides of the political fence from my father, and he knew it. When I met Frank, I adopted his political views.

"You never know," he said. "I'm not exactly happy with the way the country's going."

"You mean to hell in a hand-basket?" Frank chimed in. He giggled.

"Dad, let's not get into it," I responded evenly.

"Well, then, how about this?" my father smoothly changed the subject. "Jimmy asked me if he could stay here the rest of August, and I'd love to have him. What do you think?"

I knew Frank was looking at me. I felt it, although I couldn't see his face in the darkness. It was like my father had rehearsed this. I knew it would be good for my father, but I wasn't sure how it would be for Jimmy. Frank was after me to ease up on the kids, give them some room to grow. I was quiet for several minutes. Frank said nothing. My father continued to puff on his cigar. I could see the smoke slowly rising toward the trees, like a cloud or ghost, tattered wisps caught on branches. At least my father would discourage Jimmy from getting tattooed and prevent him from piercing his nose and ears and God-knows what other body parts. I didn't mind it that he wore black all the time. It was the other stuff I objected to.

"Okay." I made my decision at about the same moment I realized I hadn't seen Jimmy in hours, since just after dinner. I sat up suddenly in the hammock. "Where is Jimmy?" Frank must have had the same realization. He stood up.

"Kim, have you seen Jimmy? Do you know where he is?"

She looked at me, then turned her head away just slightly, averting her eyes. She had trouble lying to me. "Yeah," she answered quietly.

I waited for her to answer. She didn't like to betray her brother's confidence—just like Jack and me.

"He's down by the river. He went for a swim," she said quietly.

"After dark? Alone?" My voice rose in panic and anger.

Frank grabbed my hand and held it. "Let's walk down there and get him. I'm sure he's okay," he said firmly.

My father started to go with us, but Frank said he should stay with Kim at the house, in case we missed Jimmy or crossed paths.

It was difficult finding our way through the woods. The path was in shadow, and no moonlight reached the ground, just as no sunlight did during the day. "Jimmy," I called as I stumbled and made little headway.

"Slow down," Frank said. Once again he took my hand and led me down the path to the river. Our eyes gradually adjusted to the permanent dusk, and I heard the river roaring just to our right a little ways. We emerged onto the rocky beach into pale moonlight. Jimmy stood there naked and shivering. His clothes were wet and lying on the ground. He held a small black and white dog to his narrow chest. His ribs were visible and his skin milky white and smooth. The sight of him with the dog touched my heart, and I began to cry in relief. He was barely more than a puppy himself. Somehow I couldn't find it in myself to be angry just then. That would come in time.

"What are you doing down here?" I didn't say that Kim told on him.

"I was just taking a walk—you know, throwing pebbles and stuff—when I saw this puppy in the river. She was having trouble swimming, so I jumped in and saved her. I was cold in my clothes; I figured I'd dry faster naked."

I sat down on the beach and hugged him to me, rubbing his arms, warming him. He was wiry and strong. The puppy shook and whined between us. Jimmy clutched her tightly.

"Can I keep her?" he asked quietly. "Please? I'm sorry I scared you, mom."

"We'll talk about that later. In the meantime we'll take her with us."

I slept alone in my bed that night. Frank stayed on the fold-out couch downstairs. I had some time to think before I fell into an exhausted sleep, and it occurred to me to thank Jack for giving Jimmy back to me. But that was foolish.

In the morning Frank and I got ready to drive back to the city. My father stood in the doorway, his arm on Jimmy's shoulders. Jimmy still held the puppy.

"What are you going to name her?" I asked.

"Coooool," Jimmy and Kim both shrieked and held their thumbs up to each other. Kim begged to stay with my father and Jimmy. It was more than I could spare, both my children, but we would come visit again next weekend.

"Next time you come the house will be suburban red. We're painting this week."

"You mean barn red?"

"Not any more," my father said. "Things change."

"See you guys in a week. Give me a hug," I said. I tried not to let it wrench my heart when they ran back to my father and my arms were suddenly empty. They romped with their new puppy.

"Hey, watch this," my father said. He stood out front of his doorway while we got into the car. Sun shone brightly down on him. He raised his arm and extended his index finger. The kids were perfectly still. Suddenly a pair of swallows came out from under the front eave of the house, as if they'd been observing the goings on from the safety of their nest. They flew low over his head, passed several times, circled around, and then one of them landed on his finger for several seconds, while the second one continued to fly nearby. Then both swallows returned to their nest.

I slept lightly on the ride home. The radio station cleared of static as we neared Portland. Frank reached for my hand as we crossed the Willamette River, just as the sun rose high enough to become a glittering reflection in the water.

 

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