Twenty three years had passed since the last time they sent birthday cards in the mail; twenty one since they saw each other in the flesh—rather than in old yellowed photographs of the black and white days of their youth—birthday parties with little white gloves on all the girls and bow ties for the boys, and beach getaways in the tropics of Florida with sun-bleached hair and “watch out for alligators” warning signs. And it was twenty years since they’d last spoken. Even then it had been a brief conversation over the impersonal electrons of telephone wires, the words useless and long since forgotten. By no accident, they missed seeing each other at their father’s funeral, didn’t wish each other ‘best of luck in the future,’ lived only half an hour apart and made no efforts to communicate. Daniel hated his sister for many years more than he’d ever loved her and would have been better off, he thought, if they’d continued on in mutual silence.
But on a cold Sunday in October, when the leaves had just about reached the climactic peak of their chameleon beauty, his sister Lucy called him to say that her son was dead. So many years of silence between my sister and me, Daniel thought, and the regret I have is that I lost contact with my nephew. I wish it had been her that had died.
“He shot himself, Gerdy,” Daniel said. He sat down slowly on the couch next to his wife; she moved the pillows off his seat so he wouldn’t crush them. With eyes unfocused he continued, “In the head. He died immediately. Paramedics didn’t even bother trying to revive him because it was already too late.” By the time he finished the last sentence, he was no longer talking to Gerdy at all, but to himself. Every syllable of every word was a reassurance that he would be okay, that the shock of Clint’s death wouldn’t kill him.
Gertrude, or Gerdy, as Daniel affectionately called her, knew when she saw Lucy’s name on the caller I.D. that it had to be something serious to break twenty years of silence. The truth was that Gerdy had been relieved when Daniel vowed never to speak to his younger sister again. “She’ll never get better, Daniel. And she’ll only try and drag us down with her,” Gerdy had told him all those years ago. Lucy, she thought, had always been a hopeless cause, a woman that never asked for help because she didn’t think there was anything wrong.
Now, Gerdy just wasn’t sure what to say to Daniel about the death of their nephew, afraid that saying the wrong thing would make him feel responsible. She too had loved Clint, at one time, as she loved her own children. In fact, she’d desperately wanted Clint to be a part of her family.
“It wasn’t our Clint that died, Daniel,” she said. “It’s awful that he’s gone, but for us, he was gone a long time ago. The Clint that died was not the same Clint who lived with us that summer.”
“He was only thirty four years old,” he said, and Gerdy knew he hadn’t really heard her. “My mother used to tell us that no matter what, life can always get better.” Daniel had never been embarrassed to cry in front of anyone, and his voice cracked a little. He wet his lips. “The flowers may die but they always come back in the spring.”
Gerdy nodded, even though he wasn’t watching her. She asked rapid fire “Was he married, Daniel? Did you ask Lucy that? Did he have any children?” She made herself take a breath and reached her arm around his lower back to gently rub his side. Waiting for him to answer, she thought, please don’t tell me he had babies.
Daniel shook his head slowly, once to the left, once to the right. Gerdy still hadn’t seen him blink. “No children,” he said. “A girlfriend. Authorities think their may have been an argument. Lucy didn’t even know if he left a note.”
“Figures,” Gerdy said. It came out angry but Daniel didn’t notice. After a few moments of silence, she said, “We hadn’t seen Clint for so many years that hearing about his death…doesn’t feel much different than reading about someone else’s tragedy in the newspaper. Clint could have been the thirty year old man who died in that house fire down the street and it would feel just the same.”
Daniel finally blinked and said, “I know. And I’m ashamed because I feel the same way—like it’s a tragedy, it's just no longer our tragedy. And maybe it should be.”
Daniel looked down at his arthritic hands—the hands that had held Clint, the baby; the hands that had held each of his own four children, the hands that had painted, hammered, and loved all through his life—and held them, resting on his lap, palms up to his wife. She put her own in his bigger ones and squeezed them, urging him to continue.
He said, “You don’t think—”
“No Daniel, there was nothing more we could have done for him.” She said.
“I wasn’t even sure if he was alive at this point, anyway.” He replied. “I thought he might have been dead after we found out when he was eighteen that he had cancer. Lucy mentioned something about that on the phone.”
“About the cancer?” Gertrude asked.
“She said he might have had another bout of it right before he killed himself. Maybe he was depressed, Gerdy, do you think he was depressed? Anti-depressants can do wonders these days, don’t you know?”
I know, Gerdy thought, you’ve been on them for years. She watched Daniel fidget; twisting the gold wedding band he wore on a chain around his neck. She looked at her own matching ring—the etchings in the bamboo stalks had worn off long ago. His ring was making soft rasping noises as it rubbed over the links in the chain, back and forth. She didn’t want to be thinking about cancer, or depression, or death, so she thought about when they took Clint to Two Brother’s Pizza House, for his very first meal out, when he was four years old.
“Daniel,” she said. “Something had to kill him eventually. If he hadn’t shot himself, it would have been tumors, or a car accident, or a drug overdose. It was the sad path he chose for himself.”
“At least cancer wouldn’t have been so sudden,” Daniel said. “Like when Mumma died. Maybe we could have seen him in the hospital one last time.”
Talk of cancer reminded Gertrude of the study she’d read about a few years ago. She vaguely recalled details, couldn’t remember where she’d seen it, and didn’t know any of the names that had been mentioned. What she did remember, was all the important stuff. How during World War II when all the horrible human experimentation was going on, a couple of German doctors, as they liked to be called, wanted to see what would happen if babies grew up having all the basic necessities of life, but in the face of emotional neglect. They took over an orphanage and the nurses were allowed to feed them and clothe them—but no one loved them. Within six months, all of the infants were dead. Within a year, the rest of the younger children suffered failing physical health. Many got cancer.
Cancer, Gerdy thought, thrives on emotional neglect, like mold in a dark place.
But Gerdy didn’t tell her husband any of this. Instead, she went to the kitchen to put on the kettle for some tea. Daniel followed her—he didn’t want to be alone.
“I would imagine that Lucy, Wonder Woman that she is, hasn’t even known where Clint was for the past few years. She was always too dense to know what he was up to,” Gertrude said. She filled the kettle with water from the tap and turned the gas on. The stove clicked and whirred until, with a gasp like the last breath of a dying man, the flame caught. Daniel stared into the blue flame that licked at the bottom of the kettle. From the opposite side of the room, he could see a shrunken, upside down image of his head on the mirror-like side of the kettle. Being as far away as he was, he couldn’t see the details, but he knew what his face looked like anyway, he’d had fifty six years of seeing it in puddles, glass covered picture frames, windows, and doorknobs—the trimmed graying beard he’d had since he married Gerdy, the silver hairs on the side of his head that seemed to creep up higher every year, until they were now at his temple. “Platinum blond” was the color of his hair, he told his kids. He had crow’s feet at the corners of his blue eyes—when he coached his daughter’s softball team, parents called him “jolly.” His eyes were more gray then blue—aged like everything else. He wondered what Clint looked like before he died.
“Lucy only found out he died because the police came and asked her to identify the body,” Daniel told her.
Gerdy leaned up against the counter, crossing her arms over her chest and said, “Isn’t it awful? A mother not even caring whether her son is dead or alive? And it was her own damn fault, Daniel. Lucy didn’t know because she didn’t want to know.”
“Apparently, she hadn’t seen Clint for several years,” Daniel said. “He could have been living out of a cardboard box again and she wouldn’t have known.”
“Or cared,” Gertrude added with a sigh. “We shouldn’t be surprised, Daniel. It’s the way your sister is, the way she has always been. She makes shitty choices.”
“She’s selfish,” Daniel said, turning his gaze toward Gerdy. “She always was. She’s not like me, never learned how to be selfless.”
“A prime example of a woman who never should have had children,” Gerdy said. She took the whistling kettle off the stove and filled two mugs with boiling water. She handed the one with “Best softball coach! 1992” on it to Daniel and kept the one with hand-painted ladybugs for herself—both gifts from their daughter a few Christmases before.
Daniel watched Gerdy sip her tea—afternoon sunlight poured in through the window beside her. Her hair, which had naturally grown a darker shade of brown over the years, but stayed just as soft, was pulled away from her face gently and clipped into a neat barrette. Little rainbows from the sun catcher danced across her like mischievous nymphs. He caught her green eyes, which unlike his own hadn’t faded with age, and held them. Those eyes, he thought, were the center of so many worlds. His own, his children’s, and at one time however brief, Clint’s.
A few days later, Gerdy had searched for Daniel through out the house, intent on telling him something that was rather important. She found him sitting in their bedroom with stacks of old dusty photo albums scattered around him. There were several plastic bins, about the size of large suitcases open on the floor, overflowing with hundreds of photographs that had never been organized into albums. It was a modge podge of photos, some dating back to the seventies when Daniel and Gerdy had just gotten married—the yellowing pictures displayed a young, smiling couple with perms and corduroy bell bottoms. Gerdy smiled as she flipped through a stack of their first backyard barbeque. Her youngest son Seth had once asked why the shirt she wore in the picture was so short, and why she wasn’t wearing any pants. She had laughed and told him, “Because it’s a dress.”
To Daniel she said, “Haven’t looked at these in a while.” She grinned down at the much younger version of herself before sticking the stack back into its envelope and tossing it on the bed, where it bounced once and landed next to a few other envelopes.
“No not there,” Daniel said. “I’ve already looked through those. Put them back.”
“Please,” Gerdy prompted. She bunched her forehead into a frown, realized he wasn’t looking at her face to see it, and said, “Daniel, what exactly are you looking for?” She was a little concerned by the frenzied pace at which he flipped through the photos. It was no leisurely activity, she realized, but a rather serious project. He had both hands deep in one of the buckets and every few seconds, he’d pull out an envelope, open it, peer inside and then toss the entire envelope into a mound of other on the floor beside the bed. Some of the envelopes had opened up during their short journey, spilling their contents onto the floor in an unsanctioned heap. Gerdy could only hear the crinkling of papers and the soft fluttering of so many memories being tossed to the floor.
“I can’t find it, Gerdy,” he said. She bent over and began picking up the pictures, sighing when she realized that her disorganized memoirs were now even more out of order than before. Daniel continued, “I’ve been through every bucket, every envelope, every box. I’ve flipped through everything here.”
“Don’t panic,” Gerdy replied. She looked up from what she was doing on the ground. The light from the ceiling lamp put her husband’s face in shadow—a golden glow, like a halo painted his face in sharp relief. She wanted to reach out and touch him, touch the beckoning, sure warmth of the aura around him.
“I’m not panicking,” he said. “Just disappointed.”
“In what,” Gerdy asked.
“You mean who,” he said. “Myself mostly. Do you remember Clint when he was sixteen Gerdy? When he came to live with us again after all those years?”
Yes, Gerdy thought, it’s not a memory easily forgotten. She also remembered that just a few years before that, she had learned from Daniel’s mother that Lucy had given Clint up to the state. She’d called up the Department of Child and Youth Services and told them she was practicing “tough love” on her son. Aloud Gerdy said, “He needed a mother, Daniel. And it was already too late for me to be that for him.”
Daniel waved his hand as though he could wave away what she’d just said. “I’m not saying it was anyone’s fault, what happened.” Gerdy, listening, rose from her crouch on the ground, rubbed her knees, and pushed some boxes out of the way to make a seat on the bed. The old box springs groaned and she remembered.
It had been the protesting creak of an old wooden staircase, the shaggy hair on the back of a young boy’s head as he walked up to the porch, the ratty Bass Proshops t-shirt he wore with a couple of holes in it that showed off his too-skinny ribs. Daniel had been flipping through some T.V. stations late one night, twenty two years ago, and he’d seen a snippet of a news broadcast—something about homeless teens living in abandoned buildings in Rolling Rock. And above the scrolling letters at the bottom of the screen, a smiling reporter, giddy in all her blond-haired glory, telling Daniel, “Right here in Rolling Rock. There are young teens, fourteen, fifteen, sixteen years old that are living in these decrepit buildings.” And she’d turned around, indicating with a flick of the fingers that the camera man should follow her, saying, “Here’s one now.” She quickened her step to catch up to the boy who was walking up an old staircase. “Sir,” she called. “Young man, can you tell me why you left your real home?”
“I don’t have a home,” the boy had said without turning around, and he continued, without pause, up the stairs.
It wasn’t the voice that had gotten Daniel. He’d later explained to Gerdy, “It was the walk. There was something about the way that boy walked, and I knew it was CLint.”
Now, Gerdy felt the same way she’d always felt about finding out Clint was homeless at the age of sixteen. “Unfair,” she said. “And that’s why we took him in again, Daniel. Just like when he was four years old. Because we loved him and it was all so unfair and because, if we could have saved him, we would have.”
Daniel bowed his head, hands long since motionless.
He said, “I never told you, but even though I’d been one hundred percent sure that it was Clint on T.V. I was still hoping he wouldn’t be at that shelter when I got there. Even though it was the last time we ever saw him, to this day, I wish I had been wrong.”
“Hoping and wishing can be dangerous sometimes,” Gerdy said. “Look what it did to Clint.”
And he knew, he knew all too well what Clint had been like that summer, after he was rescued from life on the streets. Daniel had driven to the shelter, alone, in his old Chevy station wagon having to constantly wipe the sweat from his brow because the air conditioner was too ancient to use. He’d played the Beach Boys in the Cassette player and sang along to “Keepin’ the summer alive,” and picked at all the hang tabs on his fingers until they bled.
Once he’d gotten there, he stood at the bottom of the porch steps of the abandoned house. Its white shutters were loose and falling off their hinges. A stale breeze from the doorway a few feet away brought the tang of tobacco, and day-old refried beans, and the sweat of too many bodies in too small a space. Heat waves rose from the pavement in dizzying rhythm and he took a seat on the steps, waiting to see his nephew’s shrunken form come loping up the sidewalk, hands in pockets, head bent forward with his shaggy brown hair covering his face. Daniel had sat and waited for over three hours, the whole time feeling nothing but the wet heat of a record-breaking-heat-index summer and the warm, warped wood beneath him.
Clint walked around the corner of the building just as dusk was settling in among the wrecked metal, warped wood and broken stones of the city. He walked alone with only a burgundy sky trailing him and his own thoughts to keep him company. When he’d reached the porch, he hadn’t even looked up. He’d never taken his eyes off of the cracked sidewalk, but somehow knew that Daniel was waiting for him. “I was hoping Momma would come for me,” he said, and then Daniel took him home to Gerdy.
Daniel hadn’t cried then, and he wasn’t crying now. He wouldn’t have minded crying but the tears just wouldn’t come. Gerdy could see, though, the grayness of his face, the purple half-moons under his eyes behind the rims of his glasses, the crow’s feet that seemed to droop like the stems of dying daisies. “Why don’t you tell me about that picture you wanted to find?” she asked. She decided not to tell him about the sympathy card they had received just a few hours before, self addressed from a Mrs. Lucy Glen, written in excruciatingly bad script. The card showed a picture of a baby deer, sleeping in a curled position by its mother in a deep forest glen. When she’d entered the bedroom, she’d had every intention of telling him, but now, she felt it would be cruel.
Dear Brother of Mine, it began, How sad that you didn’t come to your own nephew’s funeral. How sad that you did not acknowledge his death in any way. He was your nephew, and you felt nothing for him. I have two other children, what about them? Maybe someday we can get over this misunderstanding. All I can think now is how sad your life must be. How sad that you never reached out to help Clint in his time of need. How sad for you, Daniel, how sad. And it was signed, Your sister, Lucy. Now, Gerdy decided, she would tear it up and throw it in the garbage, where it belonged.
Thirty years earlier, Clint had just turned four. He didn’t come to live with Gerdy and Daniel until June. Gerdy had told her husband that they had to get Clint out. Out of a home with an abusive father, out of a home with a mother who neglected him, out of a place that really couldn’t be called “home” at all. So, she’d called Lucy up and offered, “We’ll take him off your hands for the summer, Lucy. It’ll be like a vacation for you.”
Lucy licked it up as though it were sugar.
And in June of 1974, Clint came to live with them. The day that he arrived, he’d come with only one small blue duffle bag, his mother having only packed one pair of pajamas, a toothbrush, a couple of tighty whities, and a few extra t-shirts.
Lucy rolled up in some heap of a car, Gerdy couldn’t tell the make or model, and beeped the horn twice. She was over two hours late to drop Clint off, but didn’t really seem to care. Gerdy, standing at the end of the driveway in a long brown sundress, waved at Clint through the dirty, smoke-yellowed windows of the old rust bucket, until he opened the door and jumped out to greet her, dragging his duffel bag behind him.
As soon as he was out, Lucy rolled down her window and called out, “Bye baby, have a fun time.” She was gone before Clint could even turn around, leaving nothing but a cloud of dried summer dust behind her and the lingering smell of burning oil. The smile on Clint’s face at seeing Gerdy immediately disappeared and he turned around to race back to the end of the driveway, having dropped his bag by Gerdy’s feet.
“Momma, wait!” he called out. “Clint didn’t get to say good bye. Clint forgot to say goodbye to you.” He cupped his little hands around his mouth and tried again, though his mother’s car was just a speck at the end of the street. “Momma, when will you come back for Clint?” But she was too far away to answer, and, Gerdy thought, wouldn’t have answered even if she had been standing right next to him. And, she had never liked that whenever Lucy was around, Clint referred to himself in first person. It was almost as though he thought she might listen to him more if he drew attention to himself.
“Come on, Clint honey, let’s go see Uncle Daniel,” she said. “You can call Momma later, on the phone and ask her then, ok?”
Over the next few weeks, many of Gerdy’s nieces and nephews had birthday parties, and Clint got to attend them all. He was very excited to go to birthday parties, Gerdy noticed. In fact, he was more excited than a child might normally be about attending birthday parties. It got so that when she told him Lonnie’s birthday was a week away, he asked her every single morning if that day was her birthday. When the day finally came, he would be too excited to eat, couldn’t take his afternoon nap, walked himself out to the car and buckled himself in three hours too early. And just a few days after he moved in for the summer, with his pitiful luggage and his tiny Birkenstocks, she realized why.
“Aunty Gerdy,” he’d asked her. “Do I have a birthday?”
Gertrude had been horrified. “Of course you have a birthday, Clint.” His mother had never even acknowledged Clint’s birthday. Had, in fact, pretended it didn’t even exist.
“Will I have a party?” he asked.
“Of course you’ll have a party, hun’,” she told him. “We’ll call it your Un-Birthday, and we’ll invite everyone.”
Gerdy was disheartened, almost sick with sadness, to see the look of pure excitement on Clint’s face. She set about planning a big backyard party for the boy who’d never had a birthday.
Daniel was sure that Clint hadn’t even known he’d wanted a puppy until the very moment his mother came around the corner of their blue ranch with an unused leash balled into her hand and a small brown and white bundle of fluff springing ahead of her playfully. It was like a tiny, furry drunken sailor with it’s pink tongue lolling to the side and it’s tottering, rump-wiggling walk. It pranced to Clint almost as if it was thinking, “I choose this boy!” Some of the other children wanted to see the puppy too, but held off, at a distance, unsure of how to approach the strange woman that had brought him. Lonnie, Emilee, and some of the others were all smart enough to know, even at three and four and five years old, that there was something just not right about Aunt Lucy.
There was no doubt in Daniel’s mind, though, that Clint couldn’t see a thing wrong with his mother. He had scooped the puppy up in his arms, pressed it’s fur to his face and declared, “I love him!"
The puppy wouldn’t sit still for long before it was squirming to turn in Clint’s arms and sniff—the snicker doodle cookies, and dirt, and most recently, Raisonettes on the boy’s face.
Daniel was worried. He thought, what is Gerdy going to think about the puppy? Lucy was invited, but no one actually thought she’d show up. And now…a puppy?
“Happy birthday, baby,” Lucy said to her son. “What do you think?”
“Momma, can I call him Woscoe Peeko Train?” Clint asked, stretching out the long “o’s” in each word. For a moment, Daniel let down his guard and laughed quietly. The real name was, he believed, Roscoe P. Coletrain, from Dukes of Hazzard, a movie that he and Clint watched a few days earlier and had quickly become the boy’s favorite. Clint had not yet taken his cerulean blue eyes off of the warm wiggling body in his arms, which had begun to attack the waistband of his Oshkosh Bigosh overalls.
Daniel was unsure of what to say to his sister. She had, after all, been invited. He looked around for Gerdy, spotted her as she stepped out the kitchen door of their ranch, and jerked his head towards Lucy in a silent plea for help. “Look whose here,” he told her with a flick of his eyes. Turning back to Lucy, he heard her laugh and say, “Baby, you can’t call it that.” She fingered the ragged hole at the collar of her t-shirt and said, “Joe, we’ll call him Joe. Like G.I. Joe.”
Gerdy had noted her husband’s plea for help and made her way over to where he sat on the patio. Though Gerdy had never been afraid of conflict, and could be, at times, confrontational, she wasn’t sure how to address Lucy because she had absolutely nothing nice to say, and didn’t want to say any of it in front of Clint. She nudged Daniel with her hand, but he was lost in thought and didn’t seem to realize that she had finally made it over to him.
Daniel was observing Lucy, who stared at her son as though she were in some sort of a trance. For some reason, he thought of Lucy’s first kitten, Bitter Melon, who starved to death because their mother had accidentally locked it in the basement of their old house in Florida for over two weeks. Lucy, only five at the time, had been devastated.
Gerdy was beginning to feel ill, and it had nothing to do with the fact that she was six months pregnant with her first child. She felt like only a part of Lucy was actually standing in reality, the rest of her was probably revolving in some dizzying vortex of denial. It made her uncomfortable to see Lucy with Clint, yet Clint was obviously excited to see his mother. Unhealthy as it was for him, Gerdy didn’t have the heart to take his mother away yet. She focused on the sounds of the party like one who’s got the spins from drinking will focus on a solitary object in front of her until she is steadied.
Other than Clint, there were several young children running around, enjoying the high of too much chocolate in the tempered heat of a summer afternoon. All of them were chattering in excited shouts and giggles that reminded Gerdy of the days of her own youth—playing kick the can in the backyard with her three brothers and sister. The voices of the party guests spinning around kept her grounded, level-headed, sane.
“Momma, look what G.I. Joe can do.” Clint was tugging frantically at his mother’s pant leg. Lucy, Gertrude noticed, was holding very still, at first keeping her head in a bowed position, so that her shoulders sagged forward and her head was craning over her son. From several feet away, Gerdy thought in despite of her terrible vision, that even Lucy’s eyes remained motionless—not one eyelash quivered. Clint, used to such strange behavior from his mother, continued tugging at her jeans and pinching the tight skin on the top of her bare feet until she stopped staring at him with vacant eyes and actually started seeing him.
Smart boy, Gerdy thought, to realize that the light wasn’t quite turned on inside his mother’s head.
And Lucy finally saw him, actually looked at him, Gerdy could see the recognition in her gaze. Lucy observed Clint for a few moments. He had straw-blond hair, which Gerdy herself had recently trimmed so that he no longer resembled his disgusting father. There was a patch of dirt, something of a permanent shadow that day, which had obviously adhered itself to some sticky substance on his chin. His full lips were covered in chocolate, and crumbs dotted his cheeks. Gertrude knew that Lucy could probably see all of these details, every fine hair, every eyelash, every bit of food left from the party. What Lucy could not see, however, was the intensity—the way he looked at nothing but his mother’s face, waiting for her acknowledgment. How she could have said “jump to the moon” and he would have tried until his legs grew too tired to hold him up. How his eyes begged, “Please, just love me.”
Gertrude turned to Daniel, peeling her eyes away from her nephew and said in a whisper, “Even if Lucy understood what Clint needed, she wouldn’t have a clue how to give it to him.”
As if she heard what Gertrude had just said, Lucy looked up and directed her gaze at her brother’s wife. The rest of the party guests seemed to ignore her as she walked by, or if they noticed her, pretended not to. Clint, having never received any sort of verbal acknowledgment from his mother about his puppy’s new trick, trailed after her with the pup still in his arms. He seemed listless in comparison to his giddy laughter and smiles of just a few hours earlier.
Gerdy sat on a plastic patio chair next to Daniel and waited for Lucy to work her way across the grass. Lucy didn’t smile, just kept tucking the same strand of greasy black hair behind her left ear. It was too short to stay tucked, but she didn’t seem to realize that.
When she was within a three-step distance, just out of arm’s reach, Lucy said, “You’re disgusted with something. I can tell. What is it?”
Daniel looked at Gerdy and thought, “I don’t know what to do, you take this one.” So she did. First, she leaned over, as far as her ballooning belly would allow and said to Clint, “Why don’t you show Lonnie your new puppy? I think she’s wanted to see it since your mother brought it here.” Clint didn’t move right away. He looked up at his mother, then down at the puppy, and finally back at Gertrude. He nodded slowly and silently and then turned around to lug his pet over to the other children.
“Disgusted, Lucy?” Gerdy asked. “Yes, that’s an appropriate word for how I feel about you.”
“You have this look on your face.” Lucy said. “I don’t know what I’ve done to deserve it.”
Gertrude realized that, in all her density and oddness, Lucy could sometimes be rather perceptive. Before Gerdy could say anything else, Daniel said, “Lucy, we didn’t think you were even going to show up today. We invited you, but we didn’t think you were going to show up for your own son’s birthday.”
“And why would we?” Gerdy added. “You didn’t even acknowledge his real birthday, why would you bother to show up after the fact?”
“I love my son,” Lucy said and turned away from them, with her boney hands clenched into tight fists. Once again, she stood still without walking away. The only difference from her last bout of stillness was that this time, her fists shook slightly and began to turn red with the force she was exerting on her palms. Gerdy almost felt bad for her in that moment, thinking how terrible it would be to live in a world so full of denial. But, the feeling passed and soon Lucy was off in the opposite direction.
Daniel blew out a breath and closed his eyes, feeling relieved that she was finally gone. “I hate to say it, but my own sister just makes me feel lousy,” he said as he turned his gaze back towards Gerdy. “Do you feel the same way,” he asked. Gerdy raised her finger to her lips and told him to “shush.” She said, “I need to see something.”
Clint had lost interest in playing with the other children, and was once again vying for his mother’s attention. “Did you see G.I. Joe’s cool trick Mama?” It was a high pitched voice now, not a whine, but certainly close and it demanded attention. The chatter of all the other adults at the party was just background noise to Daniel and Gertrude—they heard every word that Clint was saying. It seemed that everyone at the party just tried to ignore Clint’s voice by just getting louder themselves. Even the drone of grasshoppers in the woods surrounding the backyard increased their volume, in a grandiose attempt to be heard. Clint finally staked his claim on Lucy with the upward lilt he placed at the end of each word. “Mama, Clint has so much to show you.”
Daniel watched his sister back a step away from Clint , giving her leg a slight shake, as one might do to ward off an unwanted insect crawling up her pants.
“Lucy is so young,” he said, to no one in particular.
“Lucy’s youth is no excuse for her stupidity,” Gertrude responded. She placed a hand across her pregnant stomach absently, as though she were trying to protect the baby inside from all the negative energy weighing down the atmosphere around them, like humidity does to hair. Gertrude, Daniel knew, had never liked his sister. Since the day they had been introduced, Gertrude’s attitude had not changed one iota. He recalled her saying, “You mark my words—there’s something not quite right about your sister. For God’s sake, she married that weasily man, that greasy, alcoholic man.” Indeed, Radman Fink, everybody called him Rat, was a dirty man, and Daniel had never had any use for him. Lucy had though, he was Clint’s father.
Now, Daniel mentally willed his wife to relax. He knew that she was issuing silent challenges at Lucy, tiny threats, imaginary daggers to the throat, and that Lucy was completely unaware of it. Daniel mentally smoothed down Gerdy’s hackles, rubbing his metaphorical fingers through her dark hair, easing the tension in her shoulders.
When that didn’t work like he planned, he sighed, leaned his lips into the soft hair at the side of her face and whispered, “If your superpower was laser vision, you’d have melted her into a puddle ten minutes ago.”
“Wish it were that easy,” She said right back, not bothering to lower her voice. She didn’t turn away from Clint and Lucy, watching as Lucy walked around amongst all the adults, and Clint trailed after calling her name. “It’s disgusting, Daniel. I don’t know how you can sit here and let it go on. She’s your sister. You have to do something.”
“I told you,” Daniel said. “Mother won’t let me interfere most of the time. She didn’t want us taking Clint here in the first place, said we should never take a child away from his mother.”
“That,” she said nodding in the direction that Lucy had wandered, “is no mother.” Having said that, Gerdy sat back and pursed her lips, knowing it was unfair to take out her anger with Lucy on her husband. The truth was that not only had she never liked Lucy , and couldn’t stand the way she treated her son, the worst part was that the stupid woman was in too much denial to realize that every single choice she made was wrong. Unhealthy. Just plain idiotic. She’d married a man whose name, as everyone knew it, was Rat Fink. The man was a rotten-toothed, greasy-eyed piece of trailer park trash who beat his wife when he was drinking, and threatened to shoot her when he was not. Then, she’d had a baby she couldn’t take care of and let the man beat her in front of him.
“You know what?” Gerdy asked. “God damn that woman. She doesn’t love Clint and she never will. The woman doesn’t know how to love.” Gerdy, Daniel could tell, was trying her very best not to cry. Her eyes were red-rimmed with the effort, voice shaky.
After a few moments, she seemed to calm down more. Daniel didn’t know if it was because Lucy was out of sight, or because she was actually feeling better. He noted that her hands were no longer covering her belly, and though her eyes were still red and cheeks still a bit blotchy, she didn’t seem on the verge of tears. The sun, just beginning to set, fell in golden rays on her face, illuminating the copper highlights in her hair, and making her green eyes seem to glow, as if with an inner light all their own. Some days they were bluer, some days more gray, but today they were a vibrant shade of green, like the color of a mid-summer maple leaf if you look up through it under the glare of the sun.
Out of the corner of his eye, Daniel saw Clint, no longer paying attention to the puppy at all. As the pup gnawed at a tree root protruding from the ground, Clint stood up and began following his mother around once more. Like a tiny procession, Clint followed right behind her, wherever she went, face nearly touching her legs. The puppy must have thought it was a game and followed too, chewing on the rubber soles of the boy’s Birkenstocks.
If it wasn’t so sad it would be comical, Daniel thought of his sister’s silent shadows.
“Mama, Clint is gonna be a ninja,” he told her.
Lucy finally stopped walking, so suddenly, in fact that Clint bumped into her and the puppy bopped its head on Clint, landing with a sniff on his rump.
She looked down at him and said, “I’ll go get the marshmallows. We’ll make s’mores.” She turned and headed for the house.
“How can she just ignore him?” Gerdy whispered. Daniel saw her raise her hand softly to cover her open mouth. But when she lowered her hand back down to her lap, her mouth was set in a no-nonsense line, her eyebrows scrunched over her eyes. Gertrude called out Clint’s name. His small head was bowed low, toward the ground, both hands clasped behind his back in silent effigy of his mother’s exact posture from only a short time earlier. He hadn’t even moved from the spot his mother left him in, and though his lips remained perfectly still, Daniel wondered if he was praying.
The party continued to swirl around these three people—two newlyweds, ready to bring a new life to the world, and one small boy, ready for someone to love him. And the party became just a blur around them. The tree frogs croaked their mournful tune, guests smoked and talked and laughed, the burning sulfuric smell of a bonfire tickled the insides of their noses. In this swirl of activity, of smoke rings and balloons and confetti poppers fast forwarding around them, Gertrude called out to her nephew—and he answered. Gerdy held her arms open for both boy and puppy, and scooped them up into her embrace as they came running over to her.
Daniel watched his wife speak to Clint and felt a great surge of love for her. He’d found a good one, he thought, one who’d be a wonderful mother. For the first time since Lucy had shown up, he heard Clint’s laugh, the giddy, high pitched harmony that only little children could make.
What he didn’t know, was that Clint’s laughter signified only a momentary salve for what would be a lifetime of hurt.