I was in my parents' bathroom braiding the wig my mother was wearing, trying to make her look like a hippie. It was Halloween, 1970. I was sixteen. Two strands of each braid were wig hair, and the third was purple ribbon. I was going to do nine of these, three on each side and three in the back, but my mother wouldn't hold still. "Don't laugh," I said. "It's getting late, and I've only got one side done." My brother Charles, who was twelve, was sitting on the edge of the bathtub. He shook his head at our mother and covered his face with his hands. Lily, who was eight, was sitting on the lid of the toilet in her ballerina costume. This was Lily's third year as a ballerina. She took ballet lessons every Saturday, but Halloween was her only chance to wear a pink tutu and slippers that laced up the ankles, not to mention lipstick. She kept peeking around the bathroom door, as if she heard someone—our father—coming. But he was out of town at a scientific conference in Arizona. If he had been around, our mother would not be dressed as a hippie, even on Halloween. Our mother had a goofy streak a mile wide, something she, tried to keep in check when our father was around.
"All right," Mom said. "Let's be very serious now." She didn't laugh again until I was putting the rubber band around my final ribbon braid. She was taking Lily and some friends trick-or-treating as soon as it got dark. Charles and I, who were both past trick-or-treating, would stay home and hand out candy to the kids who came to our house. The idea for the costume had started downtown this afternoon in Thrifty, where our mother was buying Scotch tape and cotton balls. As she was heading for the checkout counter with the three of us following her, she saw a long auburn wig with bangs on sale for five dollars. "Look, Cathy," she said to me. "What do you think?" and she put it on. A little fringe of her real hair—brown and parted on the side, held back with two crisscrossed bobby pins—hung out from under the glossy synthetic mane. She found a mirror on a carousel of sunglasses and laughed so hard at herself that she had to bend over and rest her hands on her knees.
I said, "Yeah. Buy it, Mom."
Lily said, "Don't. Take it off." She looked behind her to see if other customers were watching, but there was no one around. She reached up and tried to grab the wig. But Mom was too fast for Lily, ducking away, then putting a hand on her hip and striking a vampish pose.
"That is so ugly," Charles said. "Get it, Mom. I dare you."
"I'm going to," she said. She looked in the mirror and laughed again. The ribbon and braids were my idea.
By the time we got home, it was already four. My mother and I rummaged around in my closet—making a big mess because we were in such a hurry—until we found an old pair of my jeans. Two years before, in ninth grade, I had patched them all over in different kinds of material—blue paisley on the knees, green corduroy on the rear end, and red velvet around the cuffs. She couldn't button them, but that was all right, because on top she wore a baggy old work shirt of my father's that hung over the jeans. She borrowed my sandals and put a little silver ring around one of her toes.
Lily said, "I don't think the other mothers are dressing up, Mom." The same things that made Charles and me laugh at our mother made Lily nervous and embarrassed.
"Yes, they are," our mother said. "Joanna's mother is going as a witch, and Laurie's mother is going as a vampire or a Martian—I forget what she said." Lily chewed at a hangnail.
I tied a purple scarf around my mother's forehead. "Good," I said, admiring my work. "She looks funny, Lil," I said. "People will laugh."
"Oh," Lily said. "Dad wouldn't like it, I bet."
"But Dad's not here, Lil," said Charles. "Relax, would you?"
Our father, a physics professor at the university, was in a terrible mood these days. Recently the students had boycotted classes to protest the war in Vietnam and spray-painted antigovernment slogans and cartoons of President Nixon all over the building where his lab was. Other professors his age were growing their hair and sideburns long, as if they were members of middle-aged rock bands. Secretaries and graduate students addressed him by his first name. Our father was irritated all the time. He liked things the way they were before. He had voted for Nixon twice.
Now our father shouted at us every night at the dinner table, his face turning dark red with fury. We did everything wrong. One night he made Lily shake hands with him over and over (she cried the whole time) until he was convinced that everyone she met for the rest of her life would know from her firm grasp that she came from a good family. Charles had to stand in the backyard for an hour once, throwing a ball overhand, while our father stood on the patio and yelled, "Use your goddamn legs!" I did more wrong than anyone. My voice was nasal, he said, my hair was too long, and my math skills were appalling. Sometimes I set him off on purpose. I worked the word "irrelevant" into the conversation, knowing it would trigger an explosive speech on overused words. I refused to eat meat, saying no one could prove that animals did not have souls. I preferred his chasing me, yelling about insolence, out into the driveway to his shouting at the others, especially Mom. She tried too hard and crumpled when our father got mad at her.
Almost every day, she had some little surprise to cheer him up—a gadget she had sent away for to give him as a present, a fancy dessert, a joke she had heard, a new book that supported his views exactly. She tried to foresee the things that would annoy him and correct them before they happened. Every evening, she checked our rooms to make sure they were tidy. She reorganized the refrigerator and cupboards to use space more economically. And she read two newspapers daily while we were at school, in case our father wanted to discuss anything. I was her assistant, her deputy. "No job too small, no job too large," I would say, as I called from downtown to tell her that I had found saffron for the soup she was making or as I ironed a king-sized flat sheet.
"O.K., you guys," said our mother, "I'm ready." She made a peace sign at us, two fingers in a V. "Lily, go get your shoes on or we're going to be late."
I was in the kitchen dumping a bag of miniature candy bars into a salad bowl when I heard a car in the driveway. I rushed to find my monster mask and wig and then hurried to the front hall with the bowl. Charles was painting gory wounds and black stitches on his face, using the hall mirror. Our mother padded down the hall, the sandals flapping against her heels. "Anyone seen my keys?" she said. Lily was behind her, fluffing out the skirt of her tutu.
The front door opened before I reached it. Our father walked in with his briefcase full of journals in one hand and his suitcase in the other. "Dad," I said. "Happy Halloween."
Our mother said, "You're back early. How was the meeting?"
He stared at her. He looked at the wig, at the jeans, at the shoes, then closed the door behind him.
"Hi, Dad," Lily said, in a hoarse whisper. "I'm a ballerina. Again. "
Our father glanced at us, pressed his lips together, and went through the kitchen out to the patio. We heard a chair scrape against the concrete outside. Our mother whispered to me, "Get the meatloaf out of the refrigerator and put it in the oven. Put on three cups of water for rice, and start washing some lettuce. Got that?" I nodded. "Thanks, punkin. Lily, you go with Joanna and Laurie. I have to stay here."
Lily's face clouded up as she tried not to cry.
"I'll go with you," Charles said. "Come on, where's your candy bag?"
"Thank you, Charles," our mother said. She walked on her toes to the stairs to keep the sandals from flapping. "Cathy, I'll be right down. " Halfway up the steps, she pulled off the wig and tossed it down to me. I caught it and took it to the kitchen, where I stuffed it in the cupboard behind some paper bags.
In the morning, my best friend, Denise, picked me up for school. Denise had bought a car as soon as she got her driver's license the year before. It was a '61 Ford station wagon. It was brown and cost two hundred dollars. I spent a lot of time with Denise. It wasn't tense at her house the way it was at ours. Denise's father hadn't lived with them since she was little, and her mother was pretty relaxed.
In the front seat, I slid way down and started to take off my clothes. First I took off my white cardigan, folded it, and put it on the seat next to me. I also took off my gray jumper but left on the blue turtleneck I was wearing underneath. From a paper bag down by my feet, I pulled out a white sailor shirt I had bought at the Army-Navy store. It was a real one that some actual Navy guy had worn. Whenever I had it on, men my father's age came up to me to explain what the little symbols sewn on the sleeves meant. It was big, so I rolled the cuffs up. Then I put on a pair of Levi's that I had washed many times over at Denise's until they were soft. (At home, not only were we not allowed to wear jeans, but my dad would never have permitted washing anything that wasn't truly dirty.) My jeans were starting to wear thin on one knee, and I was looking forward to the rip that would soon appear there, letting my knee stick out between frayed threads. I took off my penny loafers, barely scuffed on the bottom, and put on a pair of brown-and-white saddle shoes I had bought at the Salvation Army for thirty-five cents.
Denise said, "Feel better?"
I said, "Yes, thank you."
That day was way too hot for November first, even for California. For the seventh time in a row, the temperature was in the high eighties. Up in the hills a few miles away, a fire had been burning in the dry grass since around midnight. I kept wearing the wrong clothes to school, expecting it to cool off.
Our first class was American Government. Because of the heat, Mrs. Garabedian had us sit outside. This didn't help, because out on the lawn behind the library there was no shade.
"I'm getting sunstroke," I whispered to Denise. Then I saw something that confirmed it. My mother was walking across the grass, wearing sunglasses and the old plaid shorts she used for gardening. There was dirt on her knees. She walked up to Mrs. Garabedian and spoke to her in a low voice. I sat up. The teacher said, "Cathy, you're excused for today. " Everyone turned around to look at me.
"What?" I said. "I mean, I need a pass, don't I?" For some reason, I didn't want to go with my mother; I wanted to stay right here.
"No pass," Mrs. Garabedian said. "Go, sweetheart. I'll take care of it."
I felt cool suddenly as the blood drained, away from my face and my hands became clammy. No teacher had ever called me sweetheart. I picked up my books and followed Mom to the car. Lily was in front and Charles in back, their pale, anxious faces peering out at us through the open windows.
I got in next to Charles. Our mother sat behind the wheel and put the key in the ignition. She turned so that we could all see her and took her sunglasses off. Her eyes were red. "Children," she said, "your father is gone." The last word didn't come out right. It was a short, pinched squeak at the end of the sentence, and I thought, Divorce. But that wasn't it. Our mother was making a little speech that included the words hospital, massive coronary, loved you all very much. It took me a moment to realize that by "gone" she didn't mean just away, but dead. The air was sucked out of the car, and everything looked dark. I put my head back on the seat.
Charles and Lily started crying, and there weren't any Kleenex. I dug around in my purse and found some napkins from Taco Bell. I handed one to Charles, one to Lily, and one to our mother. I was not crying. I just had this problem about breathing. I felt desperate for oxygen, but as soon as started to inhale, I found that my lungs were already full of too much air.
A few minutes later, our mother started the car and headed home, holding her soggy napkin against the steering wheel. I had a feeling that the world was about to spin loose, that a natural law had suddenly proven false. When we got to our road, we saw Mrs. Riemer standing in front of her house. She was clipping her hedge, wearing a big straw hat and white cream on her nose. As our car passed, she waved and went on clipping. I wanted to roll down my window and yell, "Don't you know? Can't you see? Our father died. You can't just wave at us."
In the house, our mother said, "Listen, now. People are going to call and come over to offer their condolences. They're going to say, 'I'm sorry about your father.' Do you know what you're supposed to say back? You say 'Thank you.' All right? They say they're sorry, you thank them."
We all said, "O.K."
Our mother was on the phone the rest of the morning, telling the story exactly the same way to everybody. She said that last night after dinner our father went back to the university to work on something he and Professor Minnikel had going at the lab. He left the house early this morning, just the way he always did, and the next thing she knew—she was weeding out front—Dr. Martinez was calling from intensive care. By the time she got down to the hospital, Alan (our father) was gone. She always said "gone," instead of "dead." Sometimes she put her hand over her eyes, as if shielding them from a bright light, and tried to make her voice sound even. She told about the medicine for high blood pressure that our father never took, the diet he didn't follow, and the stress-reducing exercise program he kept postponing. She ended by saying that the funeral would be Friday.
In the afternoon, our neighbor Mrs. Riemer walked down our driveway. She had wiped the cream off her nose and removed her sun hat. She was carrying a casserole dish, and balanced on top of it was something in a paper bag. Under her arm was a bunch of gardenias from her garden wrapped in a cone of newspaper. "I heard," she said to our mother. She looked at the three of us. "I'm so sorry."
There was a little pause, then we all said, "Thank you."
Mrs. Riemer handed the casserole dish to our mother. "You can freeze this, or heat it up tonight, whatever."
"Thank you very much," said our mother. "How nice."
"And this is for all of you." She handed the bag to me.
Inside was a puzzle. Fifteen hundred pieces, the box said. The picture was a medieval painting of the Tower of Babel. I said, "Thank you," again.
Mrs. Riemer said, "Now, don't feel you have to like it. Just do it if you want to or throw it away if you don't, or leave it on a shelf for a year—whatever. This is no time to be polite. How are you kids?" Mrs. Riemer wrinkled her brow, to let us know she cared about our answer.
"Fine," we all said.
"Well, of course you are. Yes." She handed the gardenias to our mother.
"These smell just wonderful, don't they, kids?" our mother said. We all nodded.
Mrs. Riemer said, "Is there anything I can do?" My mother shook her head. "Well, if you think of something, please call me. Even if it's just to talk, pick up that phone. In the middle of the night, whenever. Or don't call. Whatever you need to do." She reached out to Mom, who put the casserole on a chair. Mrs. Riemer took hold of both her hands and squeezed. My mother's eyes filled up again, and Mrs. Riemer hugged her. She clung to the back of our neighbor's blouse for a long time. It looked odd to me to see her hugging the woman who lived down the street. Mrs. Riemer shut her eyes and bit her bottom lip. When my mother let go and backed a few steps away, wiping her eyes, Mrs. Riemer turned to leave. The back of her blouse was wrinkled in the two places Mom had held on to. At the front door, she said to us, "I'll be around. You call me. I mean it."
Two secretaries from the physics department and one of my father's graduate students came by, bringing a big flower arrangement with a card from my father's lab. The graduate student, Quentin, sat next to me on the couch and pulled at his cuticles. A secretary, named Annabelle with hair to her waist and earrings to her shoulders said to us, "We're all real sorry about, you know, what happened to your dad."
The other woman, Debbie, nodded and said, "Yeah, really."
Charles said, "Thank you," and his nostrils flared.
I poked a fingernail under the cellophane of Mrs. Riemer's puzzle and took the top off the box. For a second, I was stunned by the number and small size of the pieces. We'll never finish this, I thought. Quentin looked over my shoulder at the picture on the lid of the box and said, "Cool puzzle."
I said, "Thank you."
When they left, our mother put the flowers from the lab on the mantel and Mrs. Riemer's gardenias on the coffee table. I took a lamp, an ashtray, and two magazines off a table in the corner and pulled up some chairs. Then I sat down and started to spread out the puzzle pieces. Lily and Charles sat down with me. I said, "Get all the sky pieces and put them over here. And this is going to be a pile for the pieces with these little brick things. See those lines, Lily? Here, look at the picture. That's this part. When you find one of those, put it here, O.K.?"
Charles bent low to the table and started a new pile with the first two pieces he picked up. He pointed to them. "Edge pieces, you guys."
The house began to smell like gardenias.
In a dressing room on the third floor of Bullock's, my mother and I were sitting in our underwear, waiting for the saleswoman to come back with more dresses for us to try on. So far, we had each tried one that we didn't like. That morning my mother had surveyed all the closets for funeral clothes. She found a navy-blue jumper and white blouse for Lily, and for Charles she got out a blue blazer and gray flannel pants. I didn't have anything suitable, she said, and she didn't like any of her own clothes, either. Our grandparents, Fred and Nonny, who had arrived from Chicago the night before, were at home with Lily and Charles. They were our mother's parents. Our father's mother had died before I was born and his father died when I was little.
"I was going to have a garage sale," my mother was saying now, staring at some straight pins on the carpet. The elastic of her bra was worn; her breasts drooped. "I wanted to get rid of all the junk we've accumulated. And I meant to get some pictures framed of you kids. " Eyeing herself in the mirror, she pulled at her hair. The perm was almost grown out, so that it was flat on top and not curly anymore but just a little frizzy at the ends. She took out her bobby pins and put them in again. "I was going to get my hair done weeks ago and never got around to that, either."
"Maybe you can still make an appointment for this afternoon," I said.
"Oh, I could," said my mother. "It's just that I meant to do all these things—I mean—you know what I mean. "
She meant that she had a few more things she wanted to try that she thought might snap Dad into a better mood, like a switch turning on a light. I said, "I think your hair looks pretty. I do."
My mother looked at the dressing-room curtain and said, "She's been away a long time. I hope she doesn't think we're going to spend a lot of money."
When the saleswoman came back, she had three more dresses for each of us. "Here we are, ladies," she said. She hung them on two hooks and left us again. Immediately I saw the dress I wanted and took it off the hanger. It was a black knit minidress with a high neck of loosely gathered folds of material. The sleeves were a little long, also bunching at the wrists. There were three round buttons in the back and two each on the cuffs. I put it on. It fit. "I'll take this one," I said.
"Fine," my mother said without even looking or asking the price. I did up the dress she was trying. She glanced at herself briefly. "I'll take this one, too. Unzip me, would you? I want to get out of this tiny room and away from that mirror."
The morning of the funeral, we rode to the church in a limousine. My mother, Grandpa Fred, Nonny, and I sat on the wide back seat; Charles and Lily sat on jump seats. My mother's sister Betty and her husband Mike followed in a rented Buick. They had gotten here from Illinois the night before. My grandfather pushed a button to lower the back window a crack and let out the smoke from his cigarette but not the air-conditioning. A strong, warm wind, a Santa Ana, had blown all night. A small tree was down in our front yard. The wind was fanning new fires in the hills, which were eating up an increasing number of acres. It was too hot for the dress I had chosen and the tights I was wearing with it, but it would only be for a couple of hours.
A man from the church was waiting for us when the limousine pulled up. He led us inside. We had only been here a few times. We had to wait on a bench in a side room in the church, while slow organ music played inside. Charles got fidgety and rolled his tie up from the bottom, let it unroll, then rolled it up again. Grandpa Fred put his hand on Charles's arm, and he stopped rolling. Lily leaned her head against our mother's arm. Then the man opened a door and beckoned us inside. Lily went first, then Charles, me, our mother, Aunt Betty, and Uncle Mike. The front row was roped off for us with one of those velvety red things used for bank lines. The man unhooked this and we all filed in and sat down.
The church was dark and cool. Candles were burning on the altar next to two flower arrangements on either side of a big cross. A few rows behind us, a woman coughed. I wanted to see who had come, but I didn't think I should turn around. The minister walked in silently from a door on the left that I couldn't see. He told us what page to turn to in the hymnal. A few times during the hymn, my voice wandered way off the tune, which was too high for me. I decided to just move my lips as if I were singing, in case I was throwing anyone else off. When we sat down again, the minister read from the Bible, then gave a little speech about my father. "Alan Phipps, cherished husband, beloved father," he began, which sounded strange to me, as if I were hearing about someone I had never met.
When the service was over, I followed my family down the aisle and out the front door of the church. A little crowd formed at the top of the church steps as people came out. Hair, skirts, and the backs of suit jackets flapped wildly in the wind. I stood next to my mother, who was shaking hands with each person and saying, "Thank you for coming," over and over again. Fred and Nonny stood on the other side of her. Aunt Betty and Uncle Mike waited with Charles and Lily in the shade of a big fig tree.
My friend Denise had gotten out of school to come to the funeral with her mother, Charlotte, who was wearing a black hat with a wide brim. First Denise hugged me. She didn't say anything. We weren't used to hugging each other, and it felt awkward. Then Charlotte hugged me.
"Neat hat," I said. She was holding it with one hand to keep it from blowing away.
"Oh, honey," Charlotte said softly, "next time you come over, I'll give it to you."
"Are you coming to our house now?" I said.
"We can't," Charlotte said. "Denise has a geometry test." Denise rolled her eyes.
"Oh," I said, "see you."
"See you," said Denise.
A young woman came out of the church blowing her nose on a white handkerchief and walked over to me. She was pretty, with big blue eyes and blond hair to her shoulders, probably a student. I put my hand out, and the woman took it in both of hers and held it, looking into my eyes. We were wearing the same dress. I was going to say something about this, but the woman spoke first. "You must be Cathy," she said. "I'm Myrna Minnikel." I opened my mouth but didn't say anything. "Professor Minnikel from your father's department?" A strand of blond hair blew across her face and stuck to her lip gloss. She said, "Your father and I were very close." Her eyes filled with tears. "He meant the world to me.
"Oh," I said. I looked at my mother, who was talking to Mrs. Riemer about what a godsend the puzzle was. "Mom?" I said.
Mrs. Rierner hugged her and said, "You're stronger than you think, dear." Then she went down the steps.
It was Professor Minnikel's turn to talk to my mother. In a quiet, soft voice, she said, "We loved a wonderful man," and leaned forward to kiss my mother on the cheek.
My mother drew her head back and made a face, as if she had just smelled something foul. "What are you doing here?" she said. Professor Minnikel held up her hands and tried to speak. "Go away!" my mother said. People who were already walking to their cars turned around. "Go. Now. Get away!" she said, her voice going up as high as a child's. Then she gave Professor Minnikel a push. Professor Minnikel grabbed a banister, but my mother lost her balance and stumbled down three steps. The wind lifted the hem of her dress in back so that, for a second, you could see her legs all the way to the top where her varicose veins were so bad. My grandfather caught her arm to keep her from failing. Professor Minnikel said, "I'm sorry I upset you," and walked down the church steps to the sidewalk.
For a second after she had left, there was a sluggish, dull feeling in my brain as if it were stuffed with cotton and couldn't make way for this new information. My mother's lower lip quivered uncontrollably as she shook the rest of the hands. I pushed rudely past Professor Elkin and his overweight wife without saying hello or excuse me. My father would have yelled at me for that, but he was dead. I went to the limousine. The chauffeur was leaning on the front of it, smoking. I stood by the back door and waited until he saw me and rushed around to open it. "Thank you," I said, climbing in like a member of some deposed royal family.
In the car, I forced myself to imagine my father kissing Professor Minnikel on the mouth, his fingers all over her face. I thought about all the silly schemes I had helped my mother with, trying to pull him out of his unhappiness. What he was so mad about lately had nothing to do with throwing a ball, handshakes, or math. It had nothing to do with student unrest, either. What made him so furious was us, ourselves, and the fact that we were not Professor Minnikel.
When we got home, there were cars parked in our driveway and down the street. It was like a party, I thought, only everyone wore dark clothes and spoke softly and there was no music. The guests didn't stay long, either. After about an hour, everyone had cleared out. Nonny and Aunt Betty collected all the dirty glasses on a tray and took them to the kitchen. Uncle Mike vacuumed up all the leaves and dust that had blown in every time the front door opened. My grandfather told Lily and Charles a story about a pony that bit him when he was little. Then it was time for them all to go to the airport for their plane home.
When they had left, I got Charles and Lily going on the puzzle, then went to my mother's room. She was lying on her side of the bed, still in her black dress, with one arm over her eyes. She didn't move when I came in. "I suppose you want to know how long it was going on, " she said. "Two years. Everything was fine before then. We had a nice, happy family. Remember our treasure hunts? We had such a good time when we all went to Yosemite. Then the damn hippies came along and suddenly black was white and the truth a lie."
"Hippies?" I said. "She didn't took like a hippie to me. And Dad was practically a redneck."
"You know what I mean." She sat up and waved her hands around. "It was in the air. Nothing was good enough anymore. He said the two of them read Fitzgerald stories aloud to each other. Your father didn't read fiction. Ever. And I knew him almost twenty years." My mother's eyes narrowed. "She has a motorcycle. He bought her a helmet."
I said, "Mom, everyone was miserable. He yelled at us all the time. "
"Don't you think I know how miserable you were? I was more miserable than anyone," she said, pointing to her heart. "I did everything I could to keep our family together."
"You made a mistake!" I said. I was shouting at her. "Dad was never part of our family. He didn't know any of our jokes or what kinds of food we hated. He's been gone as long as I can remember. Can't you see anything? He brought a shopping bag full of science journals to Yosemite." I gave her a moment to correct me. She started to cry again. I went back downstairs.
I sat down with Charles and Lily to work on the puzzle. It was starting to get somewhere. Weird little figures were appearing—a screaming man, arms outstretched, failing off the tower, a woman with her hair on fire, a dog vomiting. I couldn't seem to keep my hands off it.
Our mother joined us later in her bathrobe and gardening shoes. She was carrying a tray, which she set on the coffee table. On it was a carton of ice cream, a box of candy that had been in our freezer for months, and a few slices of lemon cake that one of our neighbors had brought over. Our mother said, "Dinner's ready!" She smiled. Lily looked up at her, horrified. "It's been a hard couple of day for all of us, " Mom said. "So tonight we'll just do whatever we feet like. O.K.? I'm going to fix myself a nice big bowl of rocky-road ice cream for dinner. Yes. Because that's what I feel like having. That's what I think will make me feel good. Now you kids take whatever you like, too. Ice cream, cake, candy. Come on. Let's get started!"
My brother and sister looked at me. I looked at our mother, whose smile was the saddest expression I had seen since my father died. "Chocolate for dinner?" I said. "Why didn't I think of this?" I went to the coffee table. Charles and Lily joined us around the sweets. I took a piece of candy. It was cold and hard. I had to bite it with my molars to get to the inside, which was frozen mocha cream.
My mother took a spoonful of ice cream. "Oh, gosh, that's good," she said. "How's that cake, Lily?"
Lily chewed for a few seconds, then said, "Fine."
Charles reached for a pink bonbon. I said, "You're not going to like that." He put it in his mouth, made a face, and put the remainder back in its brown paper.
For a while, we ate without speaking, as grimly as if we had been eating liver. Our mother forgot about smiling. Between bites, she stared at Mrs. Riemer's gardenias, which were now limp with brown creases in them. Their scent had passed over the edge of sweet into rotten. I was afraid she might cry again. After a few more bites of ice cream, she stood up. "I'm tired," she said, "I think I'll go to bed. Cathy, would you see that Charles and Lily are in their pajamas and in bed by nine? Thanks, punkin. Goodnight, kids."
Lily curled up on the couch and fell asleep, while Charles and I worked on the puzzle. At ten-thirty, we straightened the living room and put the dishes in the dishwasher. Charles went to his room and closed the door. I whispered Lily's name until she was awake enough to walk, then led her up to bed, where she lay down in all her clothes. I folded up the sides of the bedspread to cover her.
I went outside, climbed up on top of the garage, sat down, and started to cry. I had been crying off and on for the last few days, but this was different. The tears seemed to rush up through my chest into my throat, which became so choked and tight that there wasn't enough room to swallow. I sobbed and gulped, making sounds I hardly recognized as my own.
I was not crying because I missed my father. I was not crying about my mother, either, or because I was worried about whether she would know what to do if the car broke down on the freeway or the gutters on the house got clogged with leaves or we ran out of money. I cried about Professor Minnikel's motorcycle helmet. My father had bought someone a present.
I wiped my wet face on my T-shirt and looked at the view. The fires were still burning up in the hills. I could see a couple of orange spots glowing in the distance. Occasionally the patches of flame appeared to dim, but then the spots brightened again, moving and changing shape as they made their way across the slopes. Some people who lived up there had used the water from their pools to soak the roofs of their houses, hoping to protect them from stray sparks that blew from unpredictable directions.
I pictured what my father might have bought for us, if he had been the kind of person who bought presents for his family: a Frisbee for Charles, a tropical fish for Lily; a nice key chain or an alarm clock for our mother. I would have liked a new barrette.
Text © 1992-2007 by Sara Lewis.