Copyright 2016 by Anna Scott Graham
Shakespir Edition, License Notes
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This is a work of fiction. Names and characters, incidents and places are either products of the author’s imagination or are used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
For my husband. And for my Father.
For the rest of her life Lynne would recall learning how President Kennedy had been assassinated. Seated at the kitchen table, Marek to Lynne’s left, Laurie had answered the telephone. It was Sam, who had just heard the news from his father. Marek toted Jane into the living room as Laurie clutched Lynne’s hand, walking slowly. Once Lynne was seated, Jane on her lap, Laurie turned on the television. The adults remained on the sofa for much of the afternoon, although Laurie did speak to Stanford, who called an hour after Sam did. Only after Jane was in bed would Laurie share the particulars of their conversation, but other subjects had also waited to be discussed in detail. That afternoon all Lynne, Laurie, and Marek could do was sit in amazement, often in silence. It seemed unfathomable to consider that the president had been killed, yet such mayhem was utterly true.
As a mother, Lynne’s heart immediately went out to Mrs. Kennedy, followed by fervent prayers. Lynne also considered Renee, whose children were about the ages of Caroline and John-John. Lynne wondered how the Aherns and their families felt considering the Catholic connection. Had that been what drove this despicable action, or was it merely a political assassination, as Marek noted. Laurie wondered about the timing; Kennedy would have run for a second term, was that the motivation, or was it engineered by the Soviets? There were many possibilities, but regardless of why, the awful reality couldn’t be dimmed. A man not much older than Stanford had been shot dead in broad daylight with his wife seated beside him. The governor of Texas had also been struck, but it seemed he would survive. Lynne prayed for Governor Connally and for those who loved John Kennedy most. Theirs was a large family, but close-knit, and here was another lost before his time.
What Lynne knew about the Kennedys wasn’t much different than what most realized; oldest brother Joe had died in World War II, eldest sister Kathleen lost in a plane crash a few years later. But it was the second born who shone the brightest and now that man, the first Catholic elected to the highest office in the country, was ripped not only from his clan but also his nation, and as Lynne had glanced at Marek, the world at large. Then Lynne pondered the violent manner in which her president had been murdered; what sort of world was Jane inheriting? As Lynne laid her daughter to sleep, she prayed for her children, and those that day made fatherless. Lynne closed the nursery door, taking careful steps downstairs. Reaching the living room, she gazed overhead, also praying for Eric’s safe and swift return.
When she entered the kitchen, Laurie and Marek stopped speaking. Laurie stood, then embraced her. Lynne was grateful for his presence; she couldn’t imagine waking with only Jane in the morning. As they parted, she smiled at Marek, who nodded. Then she sat between them, grasping their hands. Strong squeezes were exchanged and Lynne took a deep breath. Releasing the men’s hands, she exhaled with another sigh of relief, in that Stanford had felt compelled to call. “So,” she began, “what did he say?”
She looked at Laurie as he rolled his eyes. “Just wanted to share the news, or that’s what he said.”
“How did he sound?” Marek spoke softly, then leaned back in his seat.
“About as you’d expect. Shocked, but….” Laurie shrugged. “Maybe it’s wishful thinking, but he seemed a little chastened. He said Agatha had come to work, but he’d sent her home as soon as, well, she was able to leave.” Laurie cracked his knuckles, then sighed. “It doesn’t seem real. How in the world can he be dead?”
Lynne nodded, then grasped Laurie’s hands in hers. “I think about the Aherns and their families, what this means to Catholics all over. We’ve gotten so attached to that family in a few short years. And now Mrs. Kennedy’s a widow and….” Lynne shut her eyes, then she opened them. “The children are so little, only Caroline might remember him.”
Then Lynne gasped, breaking into unexpected sobs. Laurie pulled her close and she wept hard. Marek patted Lynne’s back, speaking in Polish. She didn’t wonder what he was saying, for it sounded like the Lord’s Prayer. Funny how that could be discerned, and she grew calm as Marek’s gentle tone filled the room. When he was done, Laurie released her, and she stared at her pastor. “That was just what I needed.”
He nodded, then smiled, blinking away a few tears. “I have a sermon to craft, but all good notions start with that prayer.”
“I suppose you’ll have a church full,” Laurie said, also wiping his eyes.
“Indeed. I think I’ll open up tomorrow as well.” Marek looked around the room, then returned his gaze to Lynne and Laurie. “I’ll call Sam and Renee in the morning. I’m sure they’ve been speaking with relatives all day.”
Lynne nodded. “Will you write to….”
“I’ve been thinking about that.” Marek folded his hands in his lap. “I don’t have her phone number, otherwise I’d be tempted to call. But I am glad Stanford telephoned.”
Lynne gazed at Laurie, who seemed nonplussed, although he tried to hide a grin. Finally a smile formed on his face. “We’ll see what comes of that. Maybe between this and when Eric gets back, Stan might change his mind. My God, what the hell’s this world coming to?” Laurie stood, then stepped to the far kitchen counter, crossing his arms over his chest. “I’ll tell you both this: I have no idea what happens now, not in my life or yours, other than your baby and Eric coming home.” Laurie stared at Lynne, then at Marek. “And as for you, write to Klaudia, tell her there’s no time to waste. We just have no, no….” Laurie threw up his hands, then shook his head. “No guarantees about anything. Last year during the Missile Crisis I felt helpless, but this is beyond anything I can dream up. Your husband Lynne, that’s one thing. But this’s….” Laurie grew angry. “This’s a fucking waste, excuse my French. He was a good man, not perfect, nobody is, but he was a damn good president, a father, a husband, someone’s son. They’ve already lost one and now another’s dead. Thank God there’s a lot of them, but you can’t just replace him, he was….”
Marek stood, then approached Laurie. “He was blessed by God for this task. And now we’re left in dismay, and in pain.” Marek grasped Laurie’s hands. “But from these ashes a better America will rise, of that I am certain. His legacy will go far beyond his call for space travel and such marvels. It will start here on this night, and in so many other places around the globe. Evil might triumph for a moment, but in the morning, hearts will recall his goodness and courage. In our confusion and sorrow, those are the traits we must gravitate to, making them our own.”
Lynne felt as if the gist of Marek’s Sunday sermon had been spoken. She joined the men, then grasped their hands. Marek again spoke the Lord’s Prayer, this time in English. Lynne said it with him while Laurie remained silent, but he offered his affirmation by firmly gripping Lynne’s hand. After Marek and Lynne said Amen, Laurie did too. Then he hugged Lynne, wiping her damp cheeks. His green eyes were cloudy, but he managed a brief smile. He said goodnight to Marek, taking his leave for the evening.
Marek didn’t stay much longer, noting that he would reply to Klaudia, most likely as early as tomorrow. He would include his telephone number, which made Marek’s eyes twinkle. Lynne nodded, her smile unhidden. “I hope she calls you, or at least writes back soon.” Then Lynne patted Marek’s hand. “I’m not surprised she named her son for you. But I am sorry he’s….”
“Yes, it’s a bittersweet honor. But as I said, God blesses us in myriad ways. Now I will be off for you need your sleep.”
“Not sure how much I’ll get tonight.”
“I think it will be a restless night for many.” Then Marek gripped Lynne’s hands. “Eric has no idea this has happened. I wonder….”
“I was thinking that too. Nothing to this scale has ever occurred while he’s been away. I suppose I’ll tell him once he’s cognizant enough.”
“Yes, all in due time. Right, that’s my cue.” Marek walked to the coat rack near the door, then put on his jacket and scarf. Lynne met him there, a tin in her hand. Taking the slices of pie, Marek smiled, then kissed her cheek. “We’ll speak soon.”
“We’ll see you Sunday.”
Marek nodded, then opened the door, shutting it behind him. Waiting a few seconds, Lynne then locked it. A few dishes remained in the sink, but she left them. She was tired, but her mind buzzed. Turning off the lights, she checked the fire, only dying embers remaining. She placed the grate in front of them, then took the stairs, seeing no light from under Laurie’s door. Lynne listened for Jane, but only heard soft snores. Then a mother headed to her room, shutting her door for the evening.
In Oslo, Klaudia sat in her kitchen, no sleep having been found. She had smoked half a pack of cigarettes, and her eyes burned. News that had greeted her long after her work day was done still seemed unreal, but America’s late president wasn’t the only man on her mind. What did Marek think of all this, she wondered. And had he yet received her letter?
Perhaps this would further delay him from writing; he was probably trying to soothe parishioners. She smirked at that idea, but soon she shivered. If she knew his telephone number, she would make a very long distance call and damn the charges. Sigrun would love that tidbit, but Klaudia wasn’t sure if she would share such an impetuous notion, for then Sigrun would never let it drop. But that Klaudia felt so compelled was significant, yet the terrible news almost demanded an evocative response. Not that Klaudia was political, nor was she pro-American. But she couldn’t get the images from her head, those of President Kennedy in West Berlin, of Jackie Kennedy in France, or countless photos of the couple and their small children. Their little boy reminded Klaudia of her son before Marek was so far behind his peers that Klaudia could imagine he was fine. Then she trembled. Marek Jagucki knew about his namesake and perhaps Klaudia hadn’t needed to share any other detail to describe her feelings. Yes, her son was a teenager now, but Klaudia’s heart was just as inclined as all those years ago. And on that early morning, her heart was exceedingly tender. Rare were such moments, she mused, lighting another smoke, inhaling deeply. She hadn’t felt this way since…. Not for a very long time, she sighed, placing her cigarette in the ashtray. She turned around, staring at the phone near the kitchen counter. How difficult would it be to call him? She wouldn’t need to use English, the operator would handle that. Then they would speak in Polish, which would utterly confuse anyone trying to eavesdrop. That notion made Klaudia smile, then chuckle out loud. But what would she say once the pleasantries were made? He wasn’t a native of The United States, she wasn’t trying to console him. How did he consider himself, she then mused. She didn’t think of herself as Norwegian, was she still Polish? Maybe they were citizens of the world, transplanted abroad due to a horrific….
Was what had happened to President Kennedy any worse that what she had suffered, or Marek? Why were they so touched by one man’s death? He was merely one person, flawed of course, yet he was vital, or he had been. Charismatic indeed, with a beautiful wife and adorable children and a vast family who all seemed blessed. She frowned with that word, for how could one be blessed and cursed at the same time?
Unlike Americans, Klaudia had the good fortune to know a little more about the Kennedys, or at least about their eldest daughter. Kathleen had married an English aristocrat, who had not been Catholic. Klaudia didn’t recall his name, but he’d been killed in the war, and Klaudia assumed the older Kennedys hadn’t been overly troubled by his death. Klaudia hadn’t been in Norway long when Kathleen died in a plane crash, Marek only a baby when it happened in May of ’48. Then Klaudia shivered, for she clearly recalled reading about that incident, in an English newspaper no less. Gunnar had just taken away their ailing infant, leaving a distraught mother much time to contemplate other miseries.
Klaudia hadn’t told Marek Jagucki any of that, would she ever share such intimate memories? While pining for her child, Klaudia had wondered if Rose Kennedy at all mourned her daughter, who had gone against the family in marrying a Protestant. Maybe their situations weren’t that dissimilar, for even though Klaudia’s son was less than a month old, his health was precarious. Gunnar had told her he was doing this for her benefit. The baby would die soon enough, he’d said coldly, and best that she not grow attached.
But fifteen years had passed, and Klaudia’s son was still alive. Would Rose Kennedy have ever forgiven Kathleen for marrying outside their faith? What rubbish, Klaudia mused, picking up her smoke from the ashtray, taking a long drag. Religion was for the weak, although Klaudia had never thought Marek Jagucki was delicate. How was he that night, she wondered, again turning around, staring at the telephone.
Did he know anything about that family, did he feel a great loss had befallen a nation, was he thinking of her? Klaudia finished the cigarette, then stubbed it out. It was nearly five in the morning; how many hours back was it where Marek lived? She wasn’t sure, but it certainly was enough that if she called, most likely he would be awake. Maybe he was having an equally hard time finding rest. How much would a call to America cost, and might the lines be jammed what with so many trying to contact loved ones? Did she still love him popped into Klaudia’s head. He loved her, she knew that implicitly, and she had signed her letter with that sentiment attached. Could she be so bold as to….
The telephone rang, making her jump. She trembled all over as it rang again. On the third ring she stood, deciding that yes, someone was trying to reach her at this ungodly hour. Picking up the receiver, she coughed. “Hello?” she said.
She didn’t think how hello was similar in Norwegian, Polish, and English. Only as the speaker said the same did she realize the coincidence. And as that man asked to talk to Klaudia Lisowski Henrichsen she then knew exactly who was on the line. “Marek?” she said, her inflection distinctly Polish. “Is that you?”
Those words were said in her native tongue, and were answered exuberantly in that language. “Klaudia, oh my goodness. Yes, it’s me.”
“Oh my God, oh Marek!” She began to cry, feeling silly, also giddy, and so thankful that he’d had the same idea. “I was just about to pick up the phone to see if I could get in touch with you.”
His chuckle warmed her all through. “Well, that is wonderful to hear. I received your letter today, this morning actually, before….” His pause was brief, but Klaudia felt a great power in that short silence. “Before I learned what happened in Texas. You have been on my mind a great deal today, and before I went to bed, I just had to, well, try to contact you.”
“Marek, I just can’t believe he’s dead.” She sighed, for while that was true, even more strange was speaking to a man who for ages Klaudia had assumed was also deceased. “I suppose it’s been taken very hard over there.”
“Yes, it’s an enormous blow. I spent the evening with friends and even now it’s still quite unbelievable.”
A small sliver of jealously reared within Klaudia, but she ignored it, gripping the receiver. “Well, I suppose as a pastor it’s your job to look after others.”
“Indeed, but one can only do so much.” Again he paused and Klaudia concentrated on the sound of his breathing. She easily recalled their last conversation, joking about trivial matters only youngsters would consider. Then she had told him to sleep well, and he had grasped her hand, looking right into her eyes. How brown were his, she had thought at the time, and how warm was his touch upon her skin. That memory hadn’t faded, although his voice was somewhat deeper. But the inflections were as she recalled. Did she sound differently, she wondered, then he spoke, but she missed the beginning of what he said. “….and so I’ll be writing back soon.”
“What?” Klaudia cleared her throat. “What was that?”
“I asked if you might consider a holiday to America. I realize it would be a long trip, and I don’t want to take you away from responsibilities. We haven’t seen each other in ages, but I’m willing to brave some initial awkwardness. I would be happy to pay your fare if you felt….”
She tried choking back sobs, but the idea of seeing this man not within a painting or as a ghost in her kitchen was overwhelming. Then she grew angry at herself, for this call was costing him a fortune and she was bawling on the other end of the line. But she couldn’t speak, for never had she imagined actually laying eyes on him. Months ago Sigrun had mentioned such an outlandish idea, but only as a joke. “I, I….” Klaudia wasn’t sure what to say, but she had to speak or Marek might think she had gone off the deep end.
“Just think about it. Like I said, I’ll be writing you soon. Maybe a trip after Christmas, if your schedule allows.”
“Yes, I’ll think about it, certainly.” She took deep breaths, but she coughed, wishing to blow her nose. “Marek, thank you for calling. I, I….”
“I just needed to speak with you this evening. I wouldn’t have gotten any sleep if I hadn’t.”
“Well, maybe now I can sleep.” But she wondered how, although she yawned loudly. Then she giggled, which turned into a languid sigh. “Marek, again, thank you so much for this. I know it’ll probably sound silly, but….” She bit her tongue, dare she say it? Then she smiled at herself. She had wanted to talk to him, but he had beaten her to it. “I kept thinking how this might keep you from answering my letter. I mean, that at this time, you’d be busy with your….” She sighed again. “Church. I’m sure you’ll be very busy now.”
“Tomorrow I do plan to accept anyone in need of comfort. But you have been in my thoughts all day. This evening a good friend reminded me that time is short and as he put it, there are no guarantees.” Marek took a deep breath, then let it out with a chuckle. “I would like to see you again Klaudia, if you’re amenable to that, and sooner would be better than later.”
“Yes, oh yes.” She spoke quickly and only for a second did she inwardly berate herself for that impertinence. “Marek, I’ll tell you right now, I would very much like to see you.”
Within the passing silence, she could feel his joy as if indeed he stood right beside her. “That would be delightful. For now let’s agree on a 1964 reunion, perhaps in January?”
“Yes, January. Uh-huh, certainly.”
“Might the end of January be all right? A sibling to the girl in the painting is due in the middle of the month. I’d love to introduce to you Jane and her little brother or sister.”
Klaudia hesitated only for a moment. “Of course, that would be fine.”
“Wonderful! And please let me know if another time would be better. We can make the arrangements in a few weeks.”
“Yes, of course.” Klaudia felt slightly numb. “Marek, thank you.”
“Thank you for writing back to me. You can practice your English in the interim,” he chuckled.
“Uh-huh, I’ll do that.”
“All right, I’ll say good morning to you, although my prayers are for both of us to sleep at some point soon. Keep well and warm.”
“Yes, uh-huh, I’ll do that.” She had already said those words, but nothing else came to her brain. Then she stared at the clock; it read 5:15. “Take care Marek and again, thank you for the call.”
“You’re welcome Klaudia. We’ll talk again. Goodbye.”
“Goodbye.” As she finished speaking the line went dead. But she didn’t hang up, as though the echoes of his voice could travel throughout her kitchen. Then she gazed at the receiver; instead of a phone it was like she gripped Marek’s hand. She shut her eyes, then inhaled deeply. Exhaling, she opened her eyes, then hung up the receiver, wondering if that conversation was another figment of her imagination. She would say nothing about this to Sigrun, merely wait for a letter. If Marek put an invitation in writing, then Klaudia would consider it as real.
A little girl snuggled beside her mother as Friday turned to Saturday. Renee wasn’t aware that Ann had joined them in bed until nearly four o’clock, but then Renee wasn’t sure when she and Sam had actually gone to sleep. Ann lay in the middle, but how had she gotten there, Renee wondered, her daughter’s small body warming her left side. All Friday afternoon and evening Renee had felt chilled, even when she curled next to Sam in bed. But Ann provided a different balm, although it had been hard for Renee to act like a mother when her heart seemed so broken. That pain again shot through Renee, yet Ann seemed to mute a good portion of it. Still, confusion swirled, as well as a need for the bathroom. Carefully Renee slipped out of bed, not bothering to put on her robe. She would return to this cozy nest as soon as possible.
Minutes later she was back under the covers, cuddling with her daughter, who over the last several hours had been cemented as Renee’s offspring as though the last few weeks were a trial run. Would Paul appear differently as well, Renee mused, stroking Ann’s hair, which lay haphazardly across the pillow. Many considerations had crowded Renee’s thoughts as soon as Sam hung up the phone, looking sick to his stomach. The news still didn’t seem real, although Ann had never slept with them. Now it was as though Ann often snuck in this room, quietly cajoling one of her parents, probably Sam, Renee decided, to plop her in the middle of the bed. Renee was certain she would recall such an action, or maybe after yesterday’s events, Renee had been so altered that her past had simply been wiped away.
She wanted to go to mass that morning. She also wanted to fly to Dallas, find where Lee Harvey Oswald was being kept, then shake him so thoroughly, perhaps slap him as she had Sam years ago. But no matter what Renee might do, the president would still be dead, a loss Renee had never considered occurring in her lifetime. It didn’t matter whether John Kennedy had been assassinated due to his faith or political views or an enemy’s hated. The reason for his death was known only to God, and the fallout was a dark curtain that instead of providing heat had wrapped the cold tightly around Renee. Yet now she felt warm, even if Ann was wriggling in her sleep. Renee released the little girl, who then scooted beside her father. And Sam was this child’s father, Renee observed, for unconsciously he placed his arm over his daughter, a smile creeping on his face.
Renee blinked away tears; had Caroline and John-John known such parental comforts, even within the White House? John Junior had been a baby when his father was elected and that mansion was the only home he knew. Within a matter of days, weeks perhaps, he, his sister, and their mother would move to some other residence where they would live without…. Renee closed her eyes, concentrating on Sam and Ann’s breathing patterns. Sam’s were much slower, deeper, lasting. Renee would always sleep with her husband, but on what Renee might consider one of the darkest mornings of her life, she couldn’t ignore the sweetest gift in the guise of a little girl, not to mention the boy snoozing across the hall. Renee had heard Paul’s snores when she scurried back from the bathroom. Yet, how was all of this possible?
Life, Renee decided, was a strange mix of the predictable constantly butting heads with the improbable. Husbands and wives woke together each day, but here she was with a child between her and Sam like she’d given birth to Ann herself. Renee still thought it slightly odd how quickly the kids had acclimated to this house, new parents, even with the small wobble of the station wagon. Renee had assumed that vehicle would set back Paul severely, yet once Laurie drove it away it was as Paul’s tender mind and delicate soul forgot those days with Beth and Roy. Or was that loss so painful Paul had chosen to block it out, and once the station wagon was no longer seen, it was as if his Colorado life had never happened. Would Caroline Kennedy heal in a similar manner? Renee didn’t think that would be possible, for her father had been a towering figure representing a nation and a religion. Jack Kennedy wasn’t equal to Pope Paul, but Catholics worldwide would never forget America’s first Catholic president.
Renee wasn’t sure what had haunted her more upon learning this news; was it that fact, or that now Jackie was a widow? That issue was solely related to Renee’s status as a mother, made even more stark by the similarity of Paul and Ann’s ages to Caroline and John Junior. John-John would be three on Monday, while Caroline was nearly six; easily Renee recalled when Jack Kennedy had been elected, his son born shortly afterwards. That was only three years ago, three years! Renee stroked red hairs from Ann’s face, which looked perfectly at peace. She was cradled against Sam as if he’d been snuggling with her like this since the day they brought this child home from the hospital. How tremendously awful that Caroline would never again feel the security of her father’s love, and what a tragedy that John Junior would possess no memories of such a wonderful man.
And how blessedly fortunate was it that Ann and Paul seemed to have escaped virtually unscathed from a comparable catastrophe. Renee wouldn’t pretend to understand why that was, although one day she might pose a query to Father Markham: why did God permit madness alongside miracles? Renee quietly took a deep breath, letting it out softly. Neither her husband nor daughter noticed, still slumbering peacefully. When they woke, Ann would continue to dwell in that calm state, or be relatively staid for a three-year-old. Sam, however, would assume the mantle of a husband, father, and mourning American. A Catholic American, Renee inhaled, exhaling a sense of extreme loss. But as she took another breath, a healing scent accompanied, that of a little girl in need of a bath. Last night Renee hadn’t felt up to the task. It had been enough trying to explain what had happened, then attempting to continue with normal duties while watching the television, but struggling to keep the children occupied. Renee had considered calling Lynne, but instead spent most of her telephone conversations with her mother and siblings, Sam’s family too. Frannie was especially downcast and Renee would call her later to see how she was faring.
For now, Renee didn’t want to stir her family. In these fleeting moments, all was well, if not different. But renewal was a part of life, and sometimes it was painful. Renee prayed for Eric, who should be arriving home any day. How would Lynne tell him about what had happened, perhaps Sam, Marek, or Laurie could break the news. That news would linger beyond what any of them might want, yet, in those seconds, Renee could pretend yesterday’s events hadn’t occurred. Her life was this man, their daughter, and a little boy who was calling for his mother. Paul’s small voice echoed along the hall, then reached Renee’s bedroom door. She leaned forward, seeing him rubbing his eyes. Tears fell from hers as she nodded, then motioned for him. Paul ran to Renee’s side of the bed, then hopped up, stirring Sam and Ann. Paul hugged Renee as Ann mumbled something. Then Sam’s yawn made Paul giggle. Casually Renee wiped her face, but Sam reached for her cheek, removing what remained. He nodded, then gripped Ann, making her squeal in delight. The Ahern family didn’t leave that bed for many minutes as parents steadied themselves for another day of sorrow while children soaked up another day of familial love.
Stanford met his father for lunch at their favorite restaurant, but few other diners joined them. The men spoke in low tones, only one topic on their minds. Well, Stanford couldn’t stop thinking about Laurie, but he talked of what had usurped practically the entire world’s attention. It wasn’t only America mourning a president, and Michael remarked upon this, wondering how Catholics across the globe were handling such a loss. Stanford gazed warily at his dad, who usually didn’t speak about religion. Then Stanford sighed heavily. Michael hadn’t asked where Laurie was, but before the day’s end, some sort of answer would need to be proffered.
In the meantime, Stanford noted that he would call the Aherns, although Stanford didn’t give a timetable for that action. He’d considered contacting them that morning, but every time he went for the phone, he remembered Laurie’s tone from yesterday, picking up at Lynne’s. Laurie hadn’t merely expressed sadness, but a more debilitating sense, which Stanford had been feeling all week. Having Agatha back was good, in that Stanford’s home was orderly, but her bearing was that of a wounded woman. And when she left on Friday, Stanford had nearly escorted her to the subway station, for she had seemed to age suddenly, her shuffling steps like those his mother took before she became bedridden. Kennedy’s death didn’t only affect Catholics; he had reached across much of American society, now leaving great emptiness in his wake. The restaurant would normally be packed on a Saturday, yet Stanford could count on one hand the number of busy tables. It was as if the city was under siege, people staying within their homes, not willing to brave the attack.
What kind of world would emerge, Stanford mused, as his father sipped coffee. Stanford had coffee as well, but would have preferred a stiff drink. Maybe later, then he sighed inwardly. He wanted to speak to Sam, also to Lynne, but to again call the Snyders’ house would arouse suspicion. He didn’t want to hear Laurie’s voice, or not that of a man so pained. Stanford merely wished to express his condolences to…. He frowned, then sighed aloud. The Aherns weren’t any more deserving of consolation than anyone else, yet Stanford couldn’t ignore his need to reach out to them as if they had personally known John Kennedy. He had voted for that man, but no one was apologizing to him. Yes, it was a terrible incident, and deserved an appropriate amount of deference. However, politicians were often targets for lunatics. That Kennedy was relatively young compounded the situation, his age and family and….
Why did Stanford feel such loss; was it the manner in which Kennedy had been killed, that it had happened in bright sunshine, his wife beside him? Was it that more than a leader had been murdered, but hope in the guise of…. Stanford wanted to ask his father, but Michael looked tired. And as they never discussed such emotionally charged events, it would seem strange. Stanford could have hashed this out with Laurie, but Laurie…. Then Stanford stared at his father, who was now gazing at him. “What’d you say Dad?”
“I asked if Laurie was in Brooklyn. Or is he still not feeling well?”
Stanford shook, he couldn’t help it. “He’s, uh, he’s….” Then Stanford exhaled loudly. “He’s not here. He went to see Lynne.”
Michael nodded like he already knew this, but had been waiting for confirmation. Stanford quickly wondered if his father had spoken with Agatha, or maybe he’d called Rose. Michael again sipped his coffee, then placed the mug on the table. “Are Eric and Lynne all right?”
Stanford almost shrugged. He assumed Lynne was upset, but was her mood only tied to Kennedy’s death, or was Eric still missing? Then Stanford shook his head. “They’re okay. Eric has been….” Now Stanford trembled. “He’s not been well lately, so Laurie and I decided Lynne needed support. The Aherns have been busy, with the children you know, and now that Seth’s….” The words fell from Stanford’s tongue as though he fully believed all that Laurie had told him, what Lynne seemed to accept as well. Then Stanford stopped speaking, for his father was nodding, but not making eye contact. Laurie hadn’t tried to convince Stanford’s father of this hogwash had he?
“It’s been such a hard time,” Michael said softly, finally meeting Stanford’s gaze. Michael’s face was ashen, how he’d appeared this time last year when Constance was still alive, but the end had been in sight. “Well, hopefully Eric will take this news all right, and everyone will be where they’re supposed to by year’s end.”
Stanford nodded, but wasn’t sure if that was possible, not for the Snyders, nor for Laurie. Stanford had dreamed of his partner every night since Agatha had returned to work, dreams that at the time were pleasant, but upon reflection carried great pain. In the dreams, Stanford had accepted without question all Laurie had claimed, going as far as speaking to Lynne in depth about how this phenomenon had affected her life. But as soon as Stanford woke, the awful truth had returned like a smothering blanket. And this morning it had felt to suffocate him, yet he knew the reason for that additional anguish. A man much admired had been ripped away. What happened now was anyone’s guess.
Suddenly Stanford felt ill and he stood from his chair. “I’ll be right back Dad.” Before Stanford could hear Michael’s reply, he was sprinting toward the men’s room, where he reached a toilet just as bile lurched up his throat. The taste was bitter and he closed his eyes for the room spun. Kneeling in front of the bowl, Stanford gripped cold porcelain. He shivered, then hoped his father wouldn’t come looking for him as he had at Eric’s exhibit this time last year. They had spoken about the world tour, which would continue through next March. Would Eric be home by then, Stanford wondered, not wishing to mull over where Laurie might be.
Five minutes later, Stanford rejoined his father, who didn’t inquire about Stanford’s well-being. Perhaps Michael chalked it up to yesterday’s news, which wouldn’t trouble Stanford in the least. Much better that he had fallen ill due to that event than anything else. Michael paid the check and Stanford left a larger than usual tip. Then they exited the restaurant, hailing a cab for Michael’s building.
Stanford spent the rest of the afternoon there, watching television, thinking about Laurie and Lynne, trying not to consider Eric. Michael sat beside him on the sofa, or he answered phone calls, most of which were from Stanford’s sisters. Yet, Michael didn’t ask his son if he wished to speak to Louise, Claire, or Melanie. At four o’clock, Stanford announced he should head home, that he wanted to talk to Sam Ahern. Michael told his son to give that man his best, and Stanford said he would. They didn’t exchange any undue affections; Michael walked Stanford to the front door, then told him they would speak in another day or so. Stanford nodded, then left his father’s apartment, heading to the elevator.
It wasn’t until Stanford was in the taxi that he considered how odd it was that while he hadn’t spoken to any of his blood relatives, more than once he had made the point of needing to call Sam Ahern. Michael hadn’t questioned Stanford, which made Stanford wonder if his actions were so strange his father hadn’t known what to say or…. Yet, Michael was the most tactful man Stanford knew. If he had felt any sense of impropriety, he would have discreetly steered Stanford to whatever direction a father knew was best. The only personal aside Michael had made was concerning…. The cabbie pulled up in front of Stanford’s building and Stanford paid him, then walked into the lobby, which other than the doorman was deserted. That fellow appeared stricken and they nodded at one another, then Stanford headed to the stairs.
Taking the elevator seemed too easy and he could use the exercise. Several floors later, Stanford was winded, and his steps along the hallway were slow. He reached his door, unlocked it, then stepped into the foyer, closing his door behind him, locking it again. The apartment was silent and cool, making Stanford shiver.
He hung up his coat, then went into the kitchen, starting the kettle. A hot cup of tea would ease the chill, but as for the loneliness…. Stanford ignored that, considering what he would say to Sam. He hoped that man wouldn’t have the audacity to mention Eric; this call was merely about…. Was Eric dead, Stanford wondered. He shook his head; Laurie would have sounded far more morose if that was the case. According to Laurie, Eric was on his way home because Seth had left the hospital. Stanford felt a little queasy, but if nothing else, John Kennedy was the only casualty over which to worry.
The kettle whistled and Stanford retrieved a cup and tea bag. Pouring the water, he inhaled the steam, which seemed to clear muddy thoughts. Stanford let the tea steep, then he threw the bag in the trash. He took the mug to the kitchen table, sitting against the wall where Laurie usually sat. Stanford did this without thinking, then he stared at the counter, appliances catching his eye.
Typically on a Saturday afternoon, the men were milling about in this space, either reheating leftovers if they weren’t going out, or clearing up that morning’s dishes. Well, Laurie did the washing while Stanford looked over what parts of the newspaper he had saved for that moment. If they were staying in, they would share dinner at this table, then perhaps retire to the living room, where Stanford might read a book as Laurie did the same, or on occasion something on television might capture their attention. But Stanford didn’t want to turn on the TV; he’d heard enough about Kennedy for one day. More would be reported tomorrow, he was certain.
He needed to call Sam, then…. The rest of the evening loomed like one black endless night. Stanford sighed, tried his tea, which was too hot to drink. A few leftovers remained in the fridge from Thursday; Stanford would heat those up when he grew hungry. He would call Sam, then drink his tea, then…. The silence overwhelmed Stanford, maybe he would turn on the television, try to find something unrelated to…. Loss had seeped into every crevice of Stanford’s life. Laurie was gone, Eric was too, and now another man had been shot dead. Placing his hands gingerly around the cup, Stanford wished for the heat to reach past his fingers, perhaps restarting his heart. He felt hollow inside and not even extending his condolences to Sam would warm him.
Eric was out of Stanford’s reach and Laurie was…. Laurie was gone because Stanford had sent him away. But what was Stanford supposed to do with such ridiculous insinuations? And yet, if Stanford accepted that claim, everything that had troubled him regarding Eric would make perfect sense. Stanford shuddered as his hands grew warm from the tea cup. The reason his dreams had seemed so correct was that within those dreams, all of Stanford’s long-held misgivings were answered.
Those questions had been swimming within his head since the first time he’d visited the Snyders years ago. Why had they chosen such a concealed property, in such poor condition no less? Yes, the studio was perfect for Eric, but the house had been in a derelict state, and Stanford had even waived a few commissions so the couple could finish the guest room to the dealer’s standards. Why had Eric been so fascinated with hawks, and why after that long absence in 1960 had Stanford thought Eric’s eyes were…. They hadn’t looked right since that day, Stanford would swear to it. Then there was Eric’s foot, which allegedly had been the impetus for that absence, although months later Lynne was pregnant. Too many details filled Stanford’s head, things he shouldn’t know, things that were strange when considered apart from one another, but when bound by a single explanation seemed reasonable. For, if Eric did turn into a hawk, then all these pieces made up one completed puzzle.
Stanford closed his eyes, sighing in disgust. When he opened them, the emptiness was a stark reminder of the actual truth, which was that Seth had somehow convinced Laurie of a most harmful falsehood. Laurie had taken it a step further, persuading Lynne, allegedly Sam, Renee, and Marek too. Why had they all embraced this, this, this…. It was lunacy, for Stanford knew of no other way to describe it. It was madness and reality and…. What was real, he wondered, gripping the mug. Reality was John Kennedy lying in state in Washington. Reality was Lyndon Johnson as president, reality was a murder in Dallas having reached into practically every soul in this country, and how many more abroad. But how could that be real, even though Stanford had watched it unfold on television. Perhaps it was merely another cover-up for yet another conspiracy.
Except that for as ugly as it was to accept, Stanford knew President Kennedy was indeed dead, that Lyndon Johnson was the new commander -in-chief, that Eric was…. And there the equation stopped, even if Stanford’s heart throbbed in his chest. If he could just accept that information, then after he spoke to Sam, he could call Lynne and tell Laurie to come home. How easy would it be, Stanford mused, toying with the cup’s handle. Just take a deep breath, empty all plausible notions from his mind, and…. Bile again crept northward, burning Stanford’s esophagus. He took a sip of tea, forcing it back down, as well as any possibility that Laurie had told him the truth. The truth was that Eric was hospitalized somewhere, that John Kennedy was dead, that America had a new leader, and God help them all. Stanford finished his tea, singeing his tongue in the process, but laying a soothing salve along Stanford’s teeming mind. His heart still ached, but once he called Sam, Stanford assumed the pain would be lessened. If it wasn’t, Stanford would simply make another cup of tea. And if he still wasn’t appeased, then Stanford would retreat to the living room and turn on the television. Better to drown one’s sorrows in a collective pool than to delve too deeply in one’s psyche, he permitted.
The Snyders and Aherns were at church on Sunday morning when Jack Ruby shot Lee Harvey Oswald, which was inadvertently broadcast on live television as Oswald was being transferred from Dallas’ city jail to the county jail. Stanford and his father viewed that event as millions around the globe watched, equally horrified. In Karnack, Texas, which also happened to be the childhood home of President Johnson’s wife Lady Bird, Walt Richardson wondered what the world was coming to, unable to answer his son’s question of why no one was stopping that man from killing who allegedly had shot President Kennedy. Walt then stepped outside, not wishing to see any more turmoil.
It had been two days since life had turned upside down, not only for the Richardsons, but all they knew. Suddenly everyone Walt spoke to had voted for Kennedy, which of course was a bald-faced lie. Walt had gritted his teeth, for to air his views would be downright rude, although it was hard hearing these folks falling all over themselves about what a good president had been cut down in the prime of life. At least LBJ was a Texan, Walt wanted to say, his wife born in this tiny town. Yet Walt kept all those thoughts inside, just as he did most of his considerations. He hadn’t breathed a word of this to Dora. She was as broke up as everybody else.
Only a few felt as Walt did, that the damn papist got what he deserved. Yes, it was awful that it had happened right in front of his wife, nothing fair about that. However Walt didn’t ponder much beyond that when it came to the Kennedy family. They were all a bunch of…. Walt stared at what constituted his front yard, which wasn’t much more than sand-covered hardpan, although grass grew around the back of the house. His truck was parked near the start of the driveway. Even though Oswald had been arrested, and was now dead, Walt hadn’t wanted the kids getting far from the house. He had moved the pick-up further away, however, when Luke and Tilda got noisy yesterday afternoon, and he hadn’t wanted to hear any more out of them.
Walt ran a hand through his thick black hair, some gray creeping in along his temples. He was only thirty-two, but he felt old, yet he didn’t chalk that up to what had happened in Dallas. It was from further back, but maybe the assassination had aggravated what Walt never spoke aloud of, not even to Dora. Not that she was ignorant; they had known each other since grade school, dated since they were in high school. He married her two weeks after she graduated, then he was shipped off to basic training and…. Three weeks after he got home, she fell pregnant. She’d had two miscarriages, one between Luke and Tilda, another between Esther and Gail. They didn’t talk about those either, what was there to say? Dora was six weeks along now, but they wouldn’t announce it until after the first of the year. Maybe this one would be a boy, which made Walt smile. As quickly as he did, he grimaced. All this upset in Dallas might cause Dora to lose it. If that damned papist made Dora lose another baby…. Walt spat past the porch, the spittle landing in the dust. Dora and the girls had gone to church that morning, but Luke had asked to stay home. The boy had been unusually quiet all weekend, but Walt had too many other things to think over to worry about his son. Luke was a good boy for the most part. At least he wasn’t like that Hiram Bellevue, then Walt turned around, looking at the front door. Luke stood there, watching him.
“Whatcha looking at?” Walt said flatly.
“Nothing Daddy. Are you gonna tell Mama what happened today?”
Walt spat again. “Gonna hafta.” Then Walt turned around. Luke had stepped out of the house, his hands shoved in his pockets. Luke had Dora’s coloring, but Walt saw his own face on this boy. It was like looking in a mirror, which chilled Walt, for no child should carry such anguish. “What?” Walt asked his son.
“Nothing.” Luke took his hands from his pockets, then walked to the edge of the porch, near where Walt had been spitting. Luke sat down, his legs dangling over the sides.
“I’ll tell her when they get back. Don’t you say anything, you hear?”
Luke’s plaintive voice made Walt shiver. Dora had insisted on leaving the television on ever since Friday, when her mother called with the news. Walt wasn’t sure if listening to all that was good for his wife, but he hadn’t had the heart to tell her to turn it off. And now here was Luke, acting like the world was falling apart. Damn better for Oswald to get his, Walt thought. No trial would have to take place, dragging it out even further. “Luke, c’mere.”
The boy went to his feet, then stood in front of his father. Walt stared at this child, and prayed that the coming baby would be another boy. “What’s wrong son?”
“Nothing Daddy. When’s Mama coming home?”
Walt sighed. Church was probably over now, but what with everything that had happened, Dora would be gossiping with any and every one. Her mother had come for her and the girls, maybe they would have lunch together. Was that why Luke was asking when the rest were returning? “You hungry son?” Walt asked.
“What, oh yeah, a little.”
Walt spat once more, then nodded. “All right, let’s go see what’s in the icebox.”
“Yes sir,” Luke answered, following his father into the house.
The rest of the Richardsons didn’t return until nearly two o’clock. Luke spent most of the time loitering near his father’s truck, wishing Hiram would wave from the trees near the road. Other than thinking about Lee Harvey Oswald getting what was rightly coming to him, all Luke pondered was what had happened to that hawk.
Yet, Hiram hadn’t been seen since the boys split up on Friday afternoon. And since school was cancelled for tomorrow, Luke wouldn’t get a chance to talk to him until Tuesday. If that hawk hadn’t been killed right off, it must be dead by now. Thinking that way made Luke’s stomach ache. Why had that bird stayed on the branch, didn’t it know how surly Hiram could be, how determined? Hiram often got his way at school; he wasn’t more than a bully, but Luke had always been nice to him, in part to save his own skin and that something about Hiram was attractive, maybe that underneath Hiram’s bluster was a boy much like Luke himself, someone who wanted others to like him but was afraid of being made fun of. Hiram’s daddy beat Hiram with a strap; Luke had seen the bruises, welts too on occasion. That was why Hiram was mean to other kids, although Luke wasn’t sure how he understood that. Maybe it was just how things worked; if you were pleasant to others, they were usually nice back. Hiram had never known much kindness, so it wasn’t surprising he acted as he did.
Luke had been born with a fair amount of common sense, a trait his parents and grandparents attributed to him being the eldest child. Tilda was smart too, but she could be impetuous, and of course, the menfolk noted, she was female. Esther and Gail were too little for their characters to yet be determined, but at least Walt and Dora’s first child had his wits about him. However, sometimes it was a burden for Luke to be so perceptive, although none of the adults realized it. Luke was aware his mother had lost two babies, and how much that had hurt her, as well as his daddy. Yet at this juncture of Dora’s confinement, Luke was as ignorant as everyone else, save Dora, Walt, and Dora’s mother Hannah. If Luke had known about the coming baby, he probably never would have accompanied Hiram to Caddo Lake.
What had happened at the lake preyed on Luke’s tender mind. He considered Hiram’s behavior, as well as his language. He wished he had seen that hawk first, then somehow had changed Hiram’s mind, or at least moved them further along the shore. Ultimately, Luke accepted that Hiram had killed that hawk for no better reason that it was perched high in a tree where Hiram could see it. And since it was way up there, what else would Hiram want to do but bring it down as meanly as possible. Was that why Lee Harvey Oswald had shot President Kennedy, Luke had wondered, although he didn’t feel that was why the other man shot Oswald. That was purely for revenge, Luke’s daddy had said, during lunch, out of the blue. Luke had been thinking about Hiram and the hawk when his father made that statement. Then Walt had cleared his throat, telling Luke that when he was done eating to go outside until his mother got home.
But even after the Richardson women returned, Luke was still obsessing over the hawk. His mother had cried a little when she learned what had happened, and it was all Tilda wanted to talk about. Luke brushed her off, then went outside, walking until he reached his father’s truck. His daddy was right, just revenge. Then Luke swallowed hard; that’s why Hiram shot that hawk, like it was his father, getting ready to swat his backside with a strap. Luke felt chilled, then turned around, facing his house. He needed to find that hawk for by now it was dead and deserved a decent burial. President Kennedy’s coffin was on display at the White House where thousands of people were waiting to pay their respects. The only way Luke could start to forget about that hawk was if it received a similar send-off. But what excuse could he offer his parents to suddenly want to walk to the lake, with a shovel in hand no less?
It had been larger than any other bird Luke had ever seen. Then Luke shivered; after two days in the wild, there might not be much of it left. How could he have let Hiram shoot it down? Luke was so lost in thought he didn’t hear Tilda calling his name. It wasn’t until she stood a few feet away that he acknowledged her. “What, what is it?”
“Daddy wants you to come inside.” Tilda stepped toward her brother. “You looking for Hiram?”
“No, I’m not looking for Hiram.” Luke scowled, then kicked the ground, stubbing his toe. He bit his lip, then gazed at his foot where a thin trail of blood now ran. “You see him at church today?”
“He was there, had a black eye. Said he ran into a door.” Tilda raised her eyebrows. “He asked where you were, but Mama called for me, so I didn’t hafta answer him.”
Luke’s stomach churned. “Daddy say what he wanted me for?”
“Nope. Hey Luke, Luke?”
Luke was already halfway to the house, but he stopped, waiting for Tilda to catch up. “Yeah?”
“Hiram looked scared.”
“Well, no fun running into a door.” Luke could picture Hiram’s father causing that injury, but he wasn’t sure if Tilda was that smart.
“Not about his eye.” Tilda huffed, then put her hands on her hips. “When he asked about you, his voice was strange. He sounded like a girl.”
Luke fought a smile. “What’s that mean?”
“What’d you two shoot at the lake?”
“Nothing, we didn’t shoot nothing.”
“I don’t believe you.”
Inwardly Luke trembled. “I don’t care what you believe.”
He stalked toward the house with Tilda on his heels. As they reached the porch, Tilda called his name. Luke looked up, seeing his father standing in the doorway. But his daddy wasn’t looking at Luke, he was staring at Tilda. Don’t say it, Luke thought. Don’t you dare….
“What’d you shoot, huh Luke?”
Luke wanted to turn right around, run up to his sister, then push her squarely into the dust. Instead he found his father now stepping onto the porch, gazing at him. “Yeah Daddy?” Luke’s voice wasn’t more than a squeak.
His father never took his eyes off of him. “Tilda, go in the house. Now.”
“Yes sir.” She ran past her brother, letting the screen door slam, which made their mother holler from inside. But Luke didn’t hear more than his mother’s curious tone. All his attention was on his father’s face.
“Did you skip school on Friday?” Walt asked.
Luke tried shaking his head, but he couldn’t. “Yes sir.”
“Why’d you do that?”
Now Luke squirmed. “Because, well, you see….”
Walt grabbed Luke’s arm, then walked him toward the truck. Walt didn’t stop until they were past it, no way for anyone in the house to see them. Now Luke trembled, for the few times his father had spanked him it was out of his mother’s view. “Daddy, I just wanted to, we were just gonna go, Hiram said he’d let me….”
“What’d you shoot?” Walt’s voice wasn’t more than a whisper.
“A, a, a….”
“Oh sweet Jesus!” Walt released Luke’s arm, then shook his head. “A hawk? What in God’s name for?”
“It wasn’t my idea. Hiram was just gonna let me shoot his new gun. But there was a hawk in a tree and he seen it and all he wanted was to….” Luke started crying. “He wanted to kill it and I tried to scare it away but it wouldn’t leave. Oh Daddy don’t, please don’t….”
Walt’s right arm was suspended in the air as if to strike Luke. Then Walt dropped his arm to his side. “What the hell were you thinking boy? Skipping school’s bad enough, but what’ve I told you about guns?”
“I know, I just wanted….” Luke kept crying, shocked that his father hadn’t slapped him. “I’ll never touch a gun again Daddy, I promise.”
Walt shook his head, then hit the side of his truck. “Well damnit, now we gotta go see if you boys killed that…. A hawk Luke, a hawk? Good lord.” Walt kept shaking his head. “Might as well’ve shot your mother.”
“No Daddy, don’t say that!”
Walt had been heading toward the house, but he turned around, returning to where Luke still stood. Now Luke assumed his eye would be as black as Hiram’s. But Walt didn’t hit him; roughly he grabbed Luke by the shoulders. “If I ever hear you’ve touched a gun before you’re eighteen years old, I will, I’ll, I’ll….”
Walt’s face was beet red, dark eyes wide in his face. Luke nodded, uncertain what his father might do, but no matter what it was, Luke would deserve it. “I won’t ever touch a gun Daddy, I promise, I promise!”
For a few more seconds father and son stared at each other. Then Walt let loose of Luke’s shoulders, stomping away. “Stay here. I’ll be back.”
“Yes sir,” Luke said, still shaking. He wanted to see if his father was going to the house, wished they weren’t so far, or else Luke might hear something being said. Within a minute, his father had returned, his keys in one hand, a shovel in the other.
Walt set the shovel in the back of the truck. “Get in,” he ordered.
Luke nodded, then headed for the tailgate. As he put one foot on the bumper to climb in, his father pointed to the other side of the truck. “No, get in the front.”
The last place Luke wanted to sit was next to his dad. “Yes sir,” he said, swallowing a hard lump in his throat.
By the time Luke was in the cab, Walt had started the engine. A few seconds later, they were peeling out of the driveway. From the side mirror, Luke could see Tilda and Esther standing on the porch. Tilda looked to be nodding while Esther waved the men goodbye.
As the Richardson men drove to Caddo Lake, Laurie joined Sam and Marek in the Snyders’ kitchen. Renee sat in the living room, reading to Paul and Ann. Lynne and Jane were upstairs asleep and while Laurie could hear Renee’s gentle cadence, he didn’t worry she would wake Lynne or her daughter. Laurie’s main concern was when Eric might return; Lynne had taken the morning’s news hard, and while Renee had soothed some of Lynne’s upset, Laurie felt the expectant mother was on the verge of collapse. He gazed at the men seated near him, their faces showing the same worry. Sam’s blue eyes were pale while Marek’s brown irises were as dark as Laurie had ever noticed.
“I’m so glad you’re here,” Sam said softly as Laurie took a seat. “My God, I feel like we’ve all been through the wringer.”
Marek placed his clasped hands on the table. “I wonder if Lynne should see her doctor this week.”
“I asked her about it yesterday, said she’d think about it.” Laurie sighed, then shook his head. “She woke this morning feeling pretty down. She’s trying to keep a brave face, but….”
“It’s hard, but he should be home any time.” Sam inhaled, then let it out slowly. “Laurie, I don’t know how much she’s told you….”
Both men glanced at Marek, who nodded. “We’ll be here for whatever they need.”
“Well, someone’s gonna have to be with him twenty-four seven. Unless he’s smart enough to just go to sleep.” Sam cracked his knuckles. “He needs lots of sleep, as much as he can get. Not sure how Jane’s schedule will fit into that, but….”
“Laurie, you bring Jane to St. Matthew’s. Mrs. Kenny and I will look after her.”
Sam stood, then went to the kitchen doorway, closing that door. He returned to his seat. “Renee can watch our kids, it’s mostly a matter of, well….”
“What?” Laurie asked.
Sam fidgeted, then gave Marek a distinct look. Then Sam faced Laurie. “Bedding will need to be changed and often. Lynne has plenty of sheets, so you shouldn’t have to worry about that. He doesn’t eat much right off the bat, then he’ll just want soup, vegetable soup. I’ll take care of the cooking, but there needs to be someone here besides Lynne. She’s in no shape to….”
As the door opened, Sam stopped speaking. Lynne joined them, then she motioned for both Sam and Laurie to stay seated. She poured herself some water, then sat next to Laurie. “Couldn’t sleep,” she said. “Renee’s outside with the kids.”
“Jane too?” Marek asked, clasping Lynne’s hands in his own.
“No, she’s still napping.” Lynne tried to smile, but she shivered. “I might have slept a little, I think I had a bad dream.” Then she sighed. “So, what’s being discussed in here?”
“Sam was just telling us some particulars for when Eric gets home.” Laurie patted Lynne’s shoulder. “Marek’s offered to keep an eye on Jane, Sam’s on cooking detail, and I’ll be your personal assistant.” He smiled, but it was forced. “Between all of us, we’ll manage.”
Lynne nodded, but a few tears fell. “I’m sure everything’ll be….” She shook her head. “I know this sounds silly, but with all that’s happened, I just want him to land, you know?” She gazed at Marek, then at Laurie. Finally she looked at Sam. “It’s not gonna be easy, and to tell you the truth, I’m about ready to say that Jane and I will spend Thanksgiving here. If he doesn’t get home by tomorrow, he’s not gonna be in any shape to….”
“We’ll work around it, don’t worry.” Sam reached across the table, placing his hands atop Lynne and Marek’s. “Vivian won’t ask questions, neither will Frannie. All that matters is….”
Squeals from outside made the four adults look to the kitchen door. Laurie stood first, Sam right behind him. When Laurie opened the door, he saw Ann running away, Paul after her, both children giggling. Then Laurie heard a mother’s reprimand, for the kids to get back to the patio immediately.
Laurie closed the door, then turned to find Lynne weeping in Marek’s arms. Sam shook his head, then pulled Laurie aside. “He usually lands in the scrub, you’ll hear a big screech, you can’t miss it.”
“Are you sure?” Laurie asked.
Sam nodded. “Listen, I better take them home. Just call any time, day or night.”
“I’ll do that.” Laurie sighed. “I don’t know how much more she can take.”
“You’d be surprised. But hopefully he’ll come squawking in another day or two.” Sam spoke softly, then cleared his throat, walking back to the table. “Lynne, we’re gonna go. I told Laurie to just call us, okay?”
“Thanks Sam.” Lynne gazed up, her face streaked with tears. “Are you gonna watch the funeral tomorrow?”
“Uh, yeah, we were.”
“Well, so are we. If you wanna come over, I mean….”
Sam knelt next to Lynne. “We might. I’ll call in the morning, see how you all are. If the kids don’t mind, yeah.” Then Sam glanced at Marek. “What about you, Pastor?”
“I’ll be at St. Matthew’s.”
“Oh yeah, um, well….”
“But you could join us for dinner, right?” Lynne’s tone was teary.
“Of course. That would be a good way to end the day.”
“I agree.” Laurie appreciated the inclusive nature. If he was in New York, he wasn’t sure where he would be. “Any idea what time the service starts?”
“I’m sure it’ll be televised all morning,” Lynne said. Then she looked at Sam. “Just come over when you’re up to it. We’ll be here.” Lynne glanced at Laurie, who nodded at her.
“Sounds fine.” Sam went to his feet, then squeezed Lynne’s shoulder. “Okay, gonna round up the troops.”
“Need any help?” Laurie asked.
Sam gave Laurie a quizzical gaze, then led the men from the kitchen. Laurie closed the kitchen door behind him, then stopped Sam in the living room. “I wasn’t sure how much Marek wanted to know. I just….”
Sam nodded. “He wasn’t here when Eric left, although Eric invited him.” Sam stared at the closed kitchen door. “We’ll just play it by ear.”
“I feel like everything is a play it by ear situation.”
“These days it is.” Sam looked at the dark TV screen. “Not sure I wanna turn it on tonight, no idea what’s gonna happen next.”
“Well, between us, I’m glad he’s dead.” Laurie shook his head. It had been unbelievable to hear, once they were out of church, and to think it had been shown live made Laurie shudder. “As soon as I know anything, I’ll call you.”
“Thanks.” Sam gripped Laurie’s hand, then shook it firmly.
“I wish I could say my pleasure, but….”
Sam smiled. “You will, one of these days.” Sam stepped toward the French doors, then motioned to his wife. Laurie watched as Renee approached the house, then Sam swung wide the door with the new pane. Laurie never failed to notice it and he hoped Sam was right. Lynne needed this to end and only God knew how Eric was faring.
As the Aherns drove away from Lynne’s front gate, Luke pointed to where he thought the boys had been stalking game. While Walt knew this side of the lake well, darkness was falling. Luke had wondered aloud if the hawk had landed in the lake and Walt was starting to assume that had to be the case. Yet, he didn’t want to leave the bird’s carcass, or what might remain of it, out in the open for another night. A hawk deserved more than that, along with a memory stirred within Walt’s subconscious. Rare were the times he thought of that day, but now it seemed all around him, what with eerie shadows being cast as the sun’s last rays reflected upon the water.
“It’s gotta be here,” Luke mumbled, shaking his head. Then he met his father’s eyes. “Unless you think something took it away.”
“That’s probably what happened.” Walt shrugged, but only for effect. Then he squinted. “Show me again where you boys were standing.”
Luke motioned toward a small grove of trees. “At first he tried from there, but he was too far away. Then he came here, I think it was here.” Luke looked at their surroundings. “Yeah, this was where he shot from. It musta fallen into the lake.”
“But you said you never heard a splash.” Walt’s boots were wet, for the ground was spongy around the tree itself. He walked toward it, then stared up, like he could see the hawk in the uppermost branches. Luke had said it was a large bird, but even a small creature would have made a plopping sound.
Then Walt gazed to the right where another clump of cypress trees stood. “It might’ve flown over there once it was hit.” If Walt was right, Hiram’s gun would have shot a hole clean through the bird, but if he had only grazed it, maybe it had managed to get away, or at least not fallen into the water. Walt didn’t want his son to see the remains, if there were any. “You stay right here.”
“Yes sir.” Luke seemed to understand.
Walt nodded, then walked toward the trees, the shovel slung over his left shoulder. If he found anything, he’d bury it with a few swift motions. The ground was soft and it wouldn’t take more than a minute to dig the hole.
Luke watched, but by the time his father reached the trees, it was nearly dark. He wished they had a flashlight, but his dad probably knew how to get back to the truck without getting lost. Luke just wanted to go home. He never wanted to see a gun, much less fire it. And as for Hiram…. On the way to the lake, Walt had sternly lectured Luke that playing with Hiram at recess was one thing, but Luke was expressly forbidden to associate with Hiram outside of school hours. Luke appreciated that decree and if Hiram didn’t like it, all Luke had to do was….
“Oh for the love of God!”
Luke’s heart beat hard, hearing his father speak that way. “Daddy, Daddy? What is it?”
“C’mere son, quick!”
Luke ran toward the trees, just enough light left to make them out. He saw his father kneeling on the ground next to what looked like a stump. “Daddy, did you find it?”
A sickly moan rose from where Walt still knelt. “Luke, you carry the shovel, you hear?”
“Uh-huh. Daddy, what is it?”
Walt stood, hoisting something large in his arms. Luke grabbed the shovel, then followed his father. “Daddy, what is that?”
The creature moaned again, making Luke shiver, then he stopped. “Daddy, what’d you find?”
“It’s a man,” Walt said sternly. “Now c’mon or it’ll be too dark to get back to the truck.”
Luke trembled, then ran to catch up to his father, who was taking long strides. Soon they had reached the truck. “Open the tailgate,” Walt said quietly.
The tailgate often was stuck, so Luke leaned the shovel against the side of the truck. With two hands he did as he was told, then watched as his father carefully placed the man in the back. Walt didn’t bother to close the tailgate, but he did put the shovel in the back, away from where he had laid the man. Then Walt approached his son, kneeling in front of him. “Luke, I’m only gonna ask you once, and I want you to tell me the truth. Did Hiram shoot a hawk or a….”
“It was a hawk, I swear Daddy!” Now Luke started to cry. “It was just us out there, nobody else. We made sure ’cause we didn’t wanna get caught skipping school.”
Walt nodded, then brushed Luke’s hair from his eyes. “I believe you. Luke, I don’t want you talking about this to no one. If Hiram asks, just tell him I buried the hawk. I found it, then buried it, you understand?”
Luke nodded. “Yes sir. You found the hawk and buried it in the trees off to the right.”
“Okay. Now get in the truck. I’m gonna hafta go slow, and when we get home, you go in and tell your mother to come out. Keep your sisters in the house and don’t say anything to them, you hear me?”
“Yes Daddy, uh-huh.”
Walt was in the cab before Luke was, and as Luke got in, shutting the door, Walt pulled away from the dirt road. It took them several minutes to get home. Once Walt turned into the drive, he stopped, then motioned toward Luke’s door. “Go get your mother.”
Luke hopped out, running to the house, where light blazed from the front window. Reaching the porch, Luke slowed considerably, but he panted as he opened the door. His mother and sisters were seated on the sofa and Tilda met Luke where he stood. “Well, you find it?” she said.
He ignored her, finding his mother’s gaze. “Mama, Daddy wants you.”
Dora raised one eyebrow. “He say why?”
“He just needs to….” Luke almost said show you something. Instead he cleared his throat, giving Tilda a sharp glance. “He just needs to talk to you.”
Dora stood, handing Gail to Tilda. “All right.” She ruffled Luke’s hair, but Luke didn’t turn around to watch her leave. He stepped to the sofa, sat down, then looked at Tilda. “Sit,” he said with a definite air of authority.
“You don’t tell me what to do,” she said.
“Just sit, unless you wanna stand and hold Gail.”
Tilda scowled, then joined her brother on the sofa. Esther scooted next to Luke and he put his arm around her, wishing he could see that man in the back of his father’s truck.
Ten minutes later Dora entered the house. Luke turned to see her, but what he noticed first was the blood staining his mother’s jacket.
“What happened?” Tilda asked. “Oh Mama, are you okay?”
Luke stared at his mother, her face ashen. Then Walt stepped inside, motioning for Luke, who got off the sofa. “Tilda, Luke and I found a wounded man on our way back. He’s hurt bad and I don’t know if he’s gonna make it. He’ll sleep in the shed for tonight and I’ll be out with him. Now Tilda….” Walt approached the children, then knelt in front of his daughter. “You need to keep quiet about this. You know Luke and Hiram were out shooting on Friday, and Luke swears that all he saw was Hiram aiming at birds. The boys split up after while, who knows what Hiram did afterwards. In the meantime, I don’t want you saying nothing to nobody about this, you understand me?”
Tilda could be sassy to Luke, but she nodded solemnly at their father, her eyes stark in her face. “I won’t say anything Daddy, I promise.”
Walt nodded, then gently caressed her face. “That’s a good girl.” Walt stood, then sighed. “Tilda, you keep an eye on your sisters. Luke, you come with me.”
“Yes Daddy.” Luke followed his father, but Walt paused at the table where Dora sat, her head in her hands. He whispered something to her and she nodded, sighing as she did so. Then Walt headed to the door and Luke was right behind him. Walt went around the left corner of the house, not stopping until he reached the large shed in the back. Tools were stored there, wood for the upcoming winter too. And sometimes Walt slept out here when Luke’s parents were fighting.
Walt opened the door, then pulled on a string hanging from the ceiling. A dim bulb flickered, putting off just enough light that Luke could see a figure in the corner, lying where sometimes his father slept. The man was covered by blankets, looked to be shivering. Walt motioned for Luke to stay where he was and Luke nodded. The man moaned in pain and while Luke was curious, he wasn’t sure he wanted to get too close.
Luke observed how his father checked the man’s pulse, then Walt sighed. “Not sure you’re gonna make it, but if you do, you’re a stronger man than me.” Walt turned Luke’s way. “Son, bring me some water.”
A bucket sat on a table along the wall and Luke dipped a cup into it, then brought it to his dad. The man was hard to see, for Walt’s shadow fell over the bed. Luke could make out light colored hair, but the man smelled like he’d been in the wild for a long time. “Daddy, is he a….”
“A what?” Walt said, taking the cup from Luke’s slightly quivering hands.
“Is he a sasquatch or something?”
“No Luke, just an injured man.” Walt set the cup to the man’s lips. “Here, drink this if you can.”
Luke couldn’t tell if the man drank any of the water. All he noted was how gentle was his father’s voice and how poorly the man sounded, still moaning. “Daddy, what’re we gonna do with him?”
“I don’t know yet. Luke, run and get me some old towels. And the alcohol from the bathroom. If you can’t find it, ask your mother.”
“Okay.” Luke walked away, trying to snatch a glimpse of the man. As he reached the door, he bumped into the wall, then turned around, seeing a figure approach. It was his mother, a finger to her lips, the items Walt had requested in her hands.
“Oh Mama, Daddy was just asking me to get these.” Luke wore a brief smile, but quickly it turned to a frown as the man let out a sickly cry, which sounded more like a squawk. Luke turned back, seeing his father still at the man’s side. Then his mother handed him the towels.
“Give those to Walt,” she murmured. “Go on now, he needs them.”
Luke returned to where his father and the man were, then heard what sounded like retching noises from just outside the door of the shed. His mother was sick, but Luke felt a little ill too, from the scent of the man and from the smell of blood.
“Here Daddy.” Luke gripped the towels and bottle, which he assumed was alcohol. “Mama just brought them out.”
Walt turned around. “Where’s your mother?”
“I think she’s sick outside.”
“Jesus Christ. Luke, just wait here. Dora, you okay?” Walt stood, then ran out of the shed. Luke could hear his parents speaking, their voices soothing his mind. Then he gazed at the man, who was moaning in pain.
The light was bad, but Luke’s shadow was smaller than his father’s. Setting the supplies on the ground, Luke stepped closer, making out that indeed the man seemed to have blonde hair, but his body looked strange, like his right arm was missing. Then Luke swallowed back bile; someone had shot this man, blowing away his shoulder. Luke wondered how anyone could survive such an injury, and was the man’s arm still attached? “Hey mister, it’s gonna be okay mister. My name’s Luke and you’re gonna be all right.”
The words were borne of a hopeful but not expectant heart. So much had already been lost that weekend, but Luke didn’t think this man would want to live with the right side of his body so badly deformed. Then Luke wondered about Mrs. Kennedy; her husband had been shot in the head. What if the doctors could have saved him? He probably wouldn’t have been able to be president anymore, but at least he would be alive. “Hey mister, you got a bad shoulder, but don’t die, all right? Not tonight, and not this weekend. Listen, just go to sleep. You just sleep and you’ll feel better tomorrow okay? Mister, you hear me? Just go to sleep and….”
Now Luke only heard his mother’s tears, for the man was silent. Luke wondered if he was still breathing, and with great courage, he reached for the man’s left shoulder. His skin was warm but grimy. To Luke’s surprise, the man’s chest rose, then fell, erratic breaths being taken. Luke remained in that place until his father returned. Walt whispered for Luke to go inside and eat. Luke nodded, then headed for the house. Tilda was waiting for him, holding open the door. Luke looked at her, but didn’t see their mother. “Mama went to bed,” Tilda said softly. “Is he alive?”
“Yeah, for now.” Luke stared at his hands, he needed to wash them. Then he glanced at his feet, a feather caught between his toes. He removed it, then held it up to the light. It was the same color as that hawk, which made Luke shiver. But he didn’t ponder it for long. After Luke washed his hands, he put Gail in her chair, then told Tilda and Esther to sit at the table. Luke said a brief grace, inwardly praying for the man in their shed. Then he filled four plates, telling his sisters it was suppertime.
While three children played in the Snyder living room, Lynne watched John Kennedy’s funeral procession with Renee on one side, Laurie on her other. Sam was in and out, fixing soup and praying when not watching TV. Those prayers encompassed his family and nation, the Kennedys, and one man over whom Sam felt an inordinate amount of dread alternating with formidable peace.
Those opposing waves were similar to sensations Sam recalled while in Korea, in the midst of fierce battles where he wondered if he would survive, then marvel at that very miracle. He didn’t delve too deeply about how those sentiments related to Eric, although he knew his friend was the basis for those feelings. Yet they could also be applied to what Sam glimpsed on television as a family and country tried to comprehend a magnitude of loss. Sam was struck by how formal were the proceedings, yet also graceful, from the riderless horse to Mrs. Kennedy flanked by her brothers-in-law, to two youngsters in blue coats standing out amid a sea of black. When young John Kennedy saluted his father’s coffin, Sam stared at his son, Paul happily chatting to Jane, who seemed to understand all Paul said. Sam strained to listen, but Paul’s voice was muffled, yet it was cheery as though nothing being broadcast could possibly be true. Then Sam met his wife’s eyes, tears falling down Renee’s cheeks, also tumbling down Lynne’s and Laurie’s. Sam wondered where Stanford was, hopefully with his father. Sam gazed across the room to the French doors, where one clear pane stood out from the rest. Please let Eric come home today, Sam prayed inwardly.
By noon, the television was turned off, all gathered in the kitchen for lunch. Sam had briefly spoken to his parents, his father’s voice shaky. Joe asked if Sam, Renee, and the children would like to join them for dinner, but Sam declined, in part that Renee had turned down a similar offer from her folks, and that after lunch, Sam wanted to take his family home. Lynne looked exhausted, but Laurie would look after her, for which Sam was exceedingly grateful. He didn’t like thinking about the New Yorkers’ separation, but at least Lynne and Jane were benefitting. Then Sam sighed, for later Marek would join this group, but that too was good, for Marek shouldn’t be alone, and if Eric came home today…. Since Friday, Sam had been too overwhelmed to count the days, but the number popped in his head. Ten days ago Seth had left the hospital, Eric finally on his way westward. Weather along the Bible Belt had been relatively mild, it truly was only a matter of….
Renee patted Sam’s shoulder, her cheeks still splotchy, her eyes bloodshot. Laurie had played hide and seek with the children while the ladies stepped into the sunroom, having had a good cry. Sam had heard their soft sobs over Paul and Ann’s shouts and Jane’s giggles, making him wonder about the acoustics within this home as well as his developing paternal intellect. Before Friday, Renee had joked that she was waiting for the eyes in the back of her head to emerge, while Sam felt his hearing had improved, for he discerned the children’s murmurs where before no sound had swirled. The last four days had cast a pall over those considerations, but perhaps after Thanksgiving, and once Eric was home, Sam wouldn’t be so distracted. He kissed his wife’s forehead, then stroked her cheek, which felt soft and slightly damp. Sam ached for Eric’s absence, but he had Renee, two children, and good friends with whom to break bread.
Sam said a brief grace, then lunch was served, the children chatty while Lynne and Renee said little. Laurie seemed to have bonded with Paul and Ann; he was Uncle Laurie, and Paul peppered him with questions about New York and the rest of Laurie’s sisters. Sam didn’t mind that small fib and Laurie was animated, which balanced the quiet proffered by the women. Then Paul coughed, staring at Laurie. “Where’s your wife?”
“I’m not married,” Laurie smiled.
“Oh.” Paul thoughtfully ate a bite of soup. He gazed at Sam, as if seeking approval to inquire further. Sam coughed, then gazed at Laurie, who nodded first at Sam, then at Paul.
The little boy smiled shyly. “How long are you gonna stay here?”
“Until Eric comes back. Maybe until I’m an uncle again.” Laurie was seated beside Lynne, and he gave her a one-armed hug. “Is that okay with you?”
Paul nodded with enthusiasm. “Oh yeah. You’re nice.” Paul drank his milk, then gave Laurie a sharp stare. “Are you ever gonna get married?”
“I don’t think so. But I am thinking about looking for a little house out here. Winters in New York are pretty cold, and the summers are pretty hot. I have a lot of family in this town, not a bad place to settle down.”
Laurie’s tone was light, but Sam was stricken by his message, which didn’t sound at all glib. Paul and Ann were delighted by the news and Jane laughed from the conversation’s overall tenor. Then Sam looked at Lynne, who now leaned against Laurie’s shoulder. A few tears rolled down her face, then Laurie kissed the side of her head. They didn’t look at all like siblings, then Sam ruffled Paul’s hair as Renee urged Ann to finish her sandwich. No one would guess these children weren’t the Aherns’ biological offspring, then Sam found himself staring into Jane’s wide eyes. He smiled at her, then peered around the room as if seeking one more. Yet Eric’s whereabouts remained a mystery.
Cookies were served for dessert, but only the children enjoyed them. Lynne apologized for not having baked, but Renee said pie would be a treat on Thursday. Sam wasn’t sure how Thanksgiving would go, regardless of Eric’s condition. But he kept that to himself as Renee gathered the children’s coats. Laurie toted Jane, standing beside Lynne in the kitchen as goodbyes were said. Sam and Laurie merely exchanged glances. Sam could see the same unspoken worry festering in Laurie’s green eyes.
Once at home, Ann took a nap while Paul and Renee worked on a child’s puzzle in the living room. Sam had taken pork chops from the freezer and he stood near the counter, watching condensation form along the packaging, Renee and Paul’s harmonious voices in the background. Sam wondered what Jackie Kennedy and her children were doing that evening; it was John’s third birthday, newscasters had pointed out, and Caroline would be six on Wednesday. Sam doubted that Paul would remember much of this weekend, Ann and Jane carrying no recollections he was certain. John Junior would probably be spared, but the late president’s daughter might think back to her childhood, noting the demarcation. That day’s events were so stark, then coupled with the eventual move from the White House, how could that little girl not realize the change?
Yet, youth would lessen the trauma, although her father would always be dead. Sam shivered with that notion, then grasped the counter’s edge, keeping himself upright. Rare were the times he considered the worst occurring, and even if it did, Lynne would never have full closure. They would always be wondering, hoping, praying…. Would Laurie actually move west, Sam mused. Much of that depended on when and if Stanford came round, which of course hinged on Eric’s return. And strangely, the longer Eric was gone, the more credence would fall to Laurie’s assertion. Sam trembled, then stood upright, gazing at water droplets along the cellophane. Each passing moment led to another; here it was, Monday evening, after one of the most dismal weekends in Sam’s memory. Yet tomorrow Paul would go to school, Sam was scheduled for time at the VA hospital. Thursday would be another interruption, then it would be nearly December. Eric had been gone for coming on five months. How much longer was he supposed to be away?
The phone rang and Sam jumped, then smiled. “Hello?” he answered.
“Hi Sam, it’s Brenda. Is Renee busy?”
Quietly Sam sighed. “Uh, just a minute.” He poked his head around the side of the doorway, meeting Renee’s gaze. “It’s Brenda,” he said softly.
Renee nodded, telling Paul she had to take the phone call. Then she stood, stepping into the kitchen. Sam handed her the receiver, then went to take her place in the living room. He tried to ascertain the mood of the conversation, but Renee spoke softly when she did any talking. Sam wondered if Brenda had needed to vent, sometimes she called Renee just for that purpose. It was as if both sets of their siblings and in-laws still thought of them as before, with unlimited free time on their hands. Yet, Ann remained asleep and Paul was happy for Sam’s attention. Sam focused on his son. Later that night, Renee would share what she felt was appropriate.
It didn’t take long, for as soon as Renee was off the phone, she turned on the television, then gave Sam a look. He stood, telling Paul he’d be right back. Paul nodded, then sat cross legged a few feet away from the TV. Sam followed Renee into their bedroom, where she closed their door most of the way. “What?” Sam said.
“I might need to go over to the folks’ later, seems Ritchie got really drunk watching the funeral. Mom called Brenda, I think she was hoping Brenda might talk to him, but he’s in no shape to listen to anyone. Brenda was just giving me a heads-up. She sounds even more convinced she wants a….”
Divorce popped into Sam’s head and he nodded as though giving his support. “Well, I don’t know how much more she’s supposed to take, not that he’s living with her, but….” Then Sam frowned. How much more could Marie and Gene handle was another question. “Whatever you need to do honey. We’ll be fine here.”
Sam didn’t worry about caring for the kids alone. Renee wouldn’t leave until after the children were in pajamas, and honestly, Sam didn’t expect Renee’s parents to call unless Ritchie required a nurse. After that day’s events, families needed to end their evenings peacefully, and Ritchie would probably sleep off his bender. Tomorrow was another matter, but if Renee was needed at the Nolan home, she could take Ann to either Frannie or Lynne’s. Sam could collect Paul from school, and while he’d need to excuse Renee’s absence, Paul was young enough not to question vigorously.
He had taken Laurie’s explanations without further inquiry, although at the time, Sam had squirmed, yet not merely for Paul’s inquisitive nature. But what was worse, covering for an alcoholic or fibbing about…. Sam thought Brenda’s situation was more embarrassing, and that was why Sam felt they wouldn’t get a call from Marie that evening. Not that Ritchie’s problem was his parents’ fault, but it wasn’t anything the Nolans would wish to publicize.
Renee nodded like she understood all Sam had considered. “Well, I just wanted to tell you what’s going on.” Then she shook her head. “For a second I thought Brenda was gonna say she’d decided to take him back. I gotta wonder how much this weekend might have made her think twice, but if he’s drunk again today….” Renee sighed, then sought Sam’s embrace. He wrapped her close, having briefly pondered the same. Yet Brenda was doing the right thing, at least Sam saw it that way. She couldn’t keep waiting for Ritchie to….
Sam’s heart raced. How long had Renee held out hope for a family, how long might Lynne wait for Eric? How long had Eric waited for Sam to…. Josh’s voice rang in Sam’s ears, but living with a drunk wasn’t good for Brenda and her children. “I love you honey,” Sam whispered. “We’ll just see what happens.”
Renee sniffled, then pulled away, stroking Sam’s face. “We should check on Paul. My goodness, too much drama for me.”
Sam nodded in complete agreement, yet one loose end remained. Sam prayed for Eric, then led Renee back into the living room. Paul smiled at them, then patted the carpet. Sam motioned to the sofa and the boy scrambled to where his parents sat, snuggling between them.
In Texas, Luke had spent much of the day running between the shed and the house, wondering if that man was going to die on their property. Tilda, Esther, and Gail had been forbidden to approach the shed, but a few times Luke had seen Tilda and Esther peeking around the front of the house, their eyes wide, mouths open. The man had been in terrible pain until after lunch, then had spent much of the afternoon sleeping, although sometimes he cried out, making Luke’s flesh crawl. The sounds weren’t altogether human, and now as evening approached, again the man was making noise. Luke’s father had taken care of him for most of the day, while Luke’s mother spent time in the bathroom, often throwing up. Luke wondered what was making his mother unwell, for the man still smelled badly, and while Luke hadn’t gotten another look at him, the memory from last night was fresh in his mind. The upper right side of the man’s body had sloped downwards, like he had no right arm. But Walt hadn’t mentioned anything so gruesome, only telling Luke to keep an eye on his sisters and to let Walt know how Dora was doing.
Now Luke wondered if his mama was having another baby, for how concerned his daddy was about her and how sick she was. Tilda didn’t seem to have made the connection, which pleased Luke, for she acted like she knew everything. He wasn’t sure if Tilda was aware of the two lost babies, then Luke shuddered. Taking care of a sick man was the last thing his mama needed, and tomorrow it would all fall on her, for Luke and Tilda would go to school, their father to work. Luke stood on the porch, inhaling the cool night and a large responsibility. Even if the man died, the Richardsons would carry the knowledge of his brief stay, maybe as meaningful as thinking to what had happened last Friday. Then Luke gripped himself. The man in the shed was even more striking, for Luke had never met President Kennedy, he was just a picture in the paper or on television. Luke would never forget how the man smelled, like he was a woodland creature, or the terrible sounds he made, like his body was being ripped apart. Then Luke trembled. Those sounds were similar to ones made by his mother when she lost the baby between Esther and Gail.
Luke clearly recalled when that had happened, and he’d overheard his parents talk about the other child they lost, between him and Tilda. Luke tightly shut his eyes, then prayed that if his mother was pregnant again, this baby would be all right. If God had to take someone, then take that strange man in the shed. Luke felt no shame in that request, for that man was hurt so badly, he shouldn’t continue to suffer. It would be like putting down a mad dog, Luke surmised. Sometimes that was just what happened.
Opening his eyes, now the sky was black, a few stars twinkling overhead. Luke stepped off the porch, then looked toward the shed, where light shone through cracks in the walls and under the closed door. Luke could hear the television, his sisters’ chatter, but his mother was quiet in the kitchen, other than the sound of dishwater sloshing in the tub. Luke had offered to help, but she had gently shooed him away, probably keeping him free if his father called for assistance. But Walt hadn’t stepped foot from the shed since before supper was eaten. And he hadn’t joined his family for that meal, taking his plate to the shed. Luke wondered if the man had eaten anything; he hadn’t made much noise lately, perhaps he was dead. Luke tiptoed along a worn path that felt cool under his feet. He rarely wore shoes, especially since he’d been growing so fast over the last year. Plus in his bare feet, Luke’s steps wouldn’t be detected; he wanted to know if that man was dead or still living.
He reached the shed, could hear his father murmur something, which made Luke sigh; the man must be alive. Then a wave of guilt washed over the boy; he hadn’t wanted the hawk to die, but this man’s life wasn’t anything so majestic or beautiful. From where had this man come, Luke then wondered. Who would have shot him, then left him to die near the lake; not Hiram, Luke decided. Hiram could be mean, but he wasn’t that cruel. No one in Karnack possessed that sort of heartlessness, well, Hiram’s father was a bad man, but Luke couldn’t equate beating one’s son with murder. For, if the man died, that would be why, just like President Kennedy. Someone had shot him, then left him for dead.
“My God,” Walt said, making Luke jump. “What’n the hell?” Walt added. Luke inhaled, then exhaled, wishing to ask if his father needed help. Luke tried to peer through a large crack in the shed wall, but all he could see was what looked like his father leaning over the figure in the bed.
“Holy Jesus!” Walt stood, then shook his head. Then he turned around and stared at where Luke stood. Luke shivered, for it seemed as if his father could see through the crack, finding Luke’s eyes, beseeching him to step into the shed. But Luke was afraid; he’d never seen a dead man, only roadkill. Now suddenly he didn’t want this stranger to die, especially not in their shed. It would be bad luck, Luke felt, and certainly not good for his mother.
“Luke, you there?”
Luke nodded, then realized he needed to answer his father. “Yes Daddy.”
“Come in here son.”
Taking a deep breath, Luke let it out as he blinked, then opened the shed door. Walt stood a foot from the bed, but the distance loomed large to the boy, like his father was on the other side of the Red Sea. Luke moved in that direction, not sure how his feet were being propelled other than by a divine hand, the same way God had held back the waters while Moses led the Hebrews from Egypt. Luke had paid special attention a few weeks back when their pastor told that story. Then it had been the Egyptians’ destruction to catch Luke’s attention, but now he imagined how the Hebrews had felt, water raging at their sides, but an amazing power had kept it from drowning them.
As Luke reached his father, Walt grabbed him, holding him close. Luke was grateful for that hug, pressing his face close to his dad, who now smelled like the man, although alcohol was strong, both in what came from their bathroom as well as whiskey, the origin of which Luke had no idea. But he understood what it was for, to numb the man’s pain. “Is he dead Daddy?” Luke whispered.
“No, in fact, look here.” Walt pulled back the blanket, releasing a foul odor into the air. That scent was then overwhelmed with a more pungent aroma which was new to Luke, a mixture of mop water the school custodian used alongside something that might be what heaven smelled like. Luke would keep that part to himself, but he stared first at his father, seeing Walt’s small smile. Then Luke gazed at the man; his shoulder was still badly wounded, but now he had a shoulder. Luke trembled, then again sought his father’s gaze.
“But Daddy, last night he looked different.”
“I know. Don’t ask me how, but sometime during the afternoon it healed.” Walt sighed, but not in sadness. “I checked him after lunch, thought we’d lose him by suppertime. But I just looked now and by God, I just can’t say what’ll happen next.”
“Daddy, did he have an arm last night?”
“Yeah, just hanging by a thread.” Walt cleared his throat, then knelt beside his son. “I gotta work tomorrow. I’ll come home at lunch to check on him. When you get home from school, I want you to keep an eye on him. Don’t let Tilda in here, you understand?”
Luke nodded. “Will Mama, can she….”
Walt blinked, then gazed at the man. “We’ll see what happens. In the meantime, go tell your mother to come out here. Take my plate with you.”
Luke noticed that Walt’s dish was empty. “Did he eat anything?”
“No, but that’s all right. He’s had some water, right now that’s enough. Go on and don’t forget to send your mother out here.”
“Yes Daddy.” Luke walked to the table, gathering the plate and fork. Then he gazed back at his father, who sat on a low stool next to the man. “Daddy, will I see you before bedtime?”
Walt nodded, but kept his back to his son. “Go on now Luke.”
“Yes sir.” Luke left the shed, but heard moans behind him. Then a loud groan resonated through the air. How had that man’s shoulder gotten better, Luke wondered, reaching the porch. He took the steps, seeing Tilda waiting behind the screen door.
“Is he dead?” she whispered, opening the door for her brother.
“No, in fact….” Luke whispered the changes, making Tilda’s eyes grow wide. “But Daddy says you have to stay back,” Luke added. “Not sure what’ll happen tomorrow.”
As Tilda nodded, Luke looked for their mother. “Where’s Mama? Daddy wants to see her.”
“She’s putting Gail to bed.”
Luke nodded, then walked to the sink, where he put his father’s dish and fork. Then he turned around, seeing his mother approach. Her face was pale and he sucked in his breath. She was having another baby, he was sure of it.
“Daddy wants to see you,” Luke said softly. “The man’s shoulder’s better,” he added.
She nodded, then took a deep breath. “Gail’s sleeping, so you kids be quiet.” Dora stroked Tilda’s hair, then ruffled Luke’s. She kissed the top of his head, then walked from the house. Luke stared at his feet until he could tell she had left the porch. Then he grabbed Tilda’s hand, leading her to the sofa where Esther sat, watching television.
It was an hour before Dora returned, Walt at her side. Esther was asleep as they came in, but she stirred, then Walt carried her to bed. Dora sat between Luke and Tilda on the sofa and when Walt returned, he knelt in front of them.
He gazed first at his wife, their conversation in the shed having been brief. What had taken so much time was the walk they shared afterwards, once Walt was sure the man was resting comfortably. He’d had two decent swallows of whiskey, followed by a cup of water. Again Walt would sleep on the floor in the shed, but he hoped by tomorrow evening he could fall into his own bed.
Dora nodded at him, then grasped his hands. They had stared at the stars, silently wondering from where this man had come, then remarking upon that fact, making the other chuckle. How many years since Walt had felt so connected to this woman, as if they weren’t much older than Luke. Part of it was the baby, the other was…. Some strange innocence had been recovered, like his tour overseas and their two miscarriages had never happened. So much had been stolen from them both, for Walt had never dreamed of being drafted and of course Dora hadn’t imagined losing…. He wiped tears from her cheeks, then smiled. “Luke, Tilda, you need to help your mama tomorrow. Come straight home from school. Luke, you’re in charge of the shed. Tilda, you keep an eye on your sisters.” Walt gazed first at his son, then at his eldest daughter. Both children nodded at him.
“I have no idea how long we’ll be caring for him, maybe just until he’s on his feet, but that might be a week or two. And most important, you keep this to yourselves. I don’t want anyone snooping around here, especially not Hiram Bellevue.” Walt stared at Luke. “He make any kinda fuss, you tell me and I’ll take care of it.”
Walt stood, then shook out his shoulders. As he did, the right one ached, then he shuddered. How in the world had that man’s body healed itself? Luke had been right in asking if the man’s arm was attached; last night Walt had half a mind to take it off, but the man had seemed to sense Walt’s intentions, moaning loudly every time Walt reached for it. Walt set that from his head, walking to the stove, pouring himself what was left in the coffee pot. He drank it slowly, watching how Dora clutched their two oldest kids in her arms. She’d said she was feeling okay, but Walt had made her promise that at the first sign of trouble, she would call her mother. Hannah wouldn’t go poking around the shed unless she heard something, but Walt was going to give that man more whiskey in the morning. Maybe he would sleep until Luke and Tilda came home. Walt swallowed the last of his coffee, then put the cup in the sink. “All right,” he said, “I’ll see you in the morning.”
Tilda and Luke got off the sofa, going to where Walt stood, hugging him tightly. “You two go to bed now, school tomorrow.”
“Yes Daddy. I love you Daddy. Goodnight Daddy.” The kids walked to where Dora remained on the sofa, kissing their mother goodnight. Then Luke headed to the back of the house, Tilda on his heels. They went into the room where all four children slept, closing the door behind them. Dora stood from the sofa, then joined where Walt waited.
“If you need something in the middle of the night….” she started.
Walt set a finger to her lips. “I just want you to sleep. Too much commotion, and you need your rest.”
Then he set his hand to the small swell of her belly. His heart raced, for the other issue they had discussed was how much each wanted a son. But Walt didn’t speak to that now. Perhaps their words had been reckless; another six weeks remained until they were out of the woods. Yet Walt felt strangely optimistic. “I love you,” he said tenderly. “I’ll see you before I leave.”
She nodded, then kissed him. Dora pulled away first, but she walked him to the front door. He stepped onto the porch, their gazes not parting until he reached the steps. Right before he passed the side of the house, again Walt met her eyes. How he could see her staring back at him he wasn’t sure, for the light was behind her. Yet he knew she was, and that knowledge warmed his heart and lightened his steps as he reached the shed, where for whatever reason that strange man still lay, taking one ragged breath after another.
In another state to the west, a different man was having trouble breathing; Ritchie Nolan was trapped behind the wheel of his car on the road halfway between his parents’ home and where his wife and children resided. The car had flipped upside down, but had resettled on its tires, yet the steering wheel was pressed firmly against Ritchie’s chest. Blood ran down his face, his hands trembled, but trying to draw air into his lungs was the hard part. Ritchie had been arguing with his father, who had called him a no-account drunkard. After what they had lost on Friday, Gene had hollered, what did Ritchie think his own life was about? Ritchie tried to focus on breathing, but his chest ached terribly, his mother’s wounded cries resounding in his head, echoing with the faint memory of his wife’s similar tears: you’re gonna kill yourself, Brenda had wailed. Now it seemed his estranged wife might be correct.
If he did die, Ritchie hoped Brenda would forgive him. He also prayed that his folks wouldn’t blame themselves, for he had ripped the car keys out of his father’s hand, then staggered to his ancient sedan, peeling out of his parents’ driveway like the devil was on his tail. Yet, that was the truth, Ritchie smiled at himself, although he coughed, then tasted blood. He spat that out, then tried inhaling through his nose. Perhaps this was for the best; Brenda wouldn’t have to live with the stigma of divorce, neither would his parents. All nine of his children would never again feel the shame of his drunken behavior, and maybe this would keep them sober. Maybe Tommy would quit, Ritchie hoped, taking as deep of a breath as he could. He closed his eyes, feeling weary. He was an alcoholic and better for him to die now than cause his loved ones more pain.
He didn’t hear the siren approach, little oxygen reaching his faltering lungs. As sleep beckoned, Ritchie’s last thought was that Renee’s little girl wouldn’t remember him. Her hair was so red, just like his sister’s. But that child, her name having slipped from his mind, would carry no memory of an uncle that spent his last moments considering her. How ironic was that, Ritchie mused, again straining for air. How ironic was this life indeed.
It took several rings for Marek to hear the telephone, but as he reached the kitchen, the ringing stopped. He prayed it was Laurie and that Eric had returned. Or maybe it was Klaudia, just needing to hear his voice. Marek shivered, for the hallway was cool and he only wore pajamas. Then the phone rang again and he picked it up immediately. “Hello?”
“Marek, it’s Laurie. Sam just called; Renee’s brother was in a car crash tonight.”
“Oh my goodness, is he all right?” Marek knew that two of Renee’s older brothers were drinkers, and that one had been living with her parents. “Do you know his name?”
“Well, that’s the main reason I’m calling. Sam asked for specific prayers, it doesn’t look good.” Laurie relayed the details and Marek made mental notes. Then Laurie sighed. “Also I have a favor to ask. Can I drop Jane off with you tomorrow? Lynne wasn’t feeling well tonight and she’s gonna call her doctor in the morning.”
“Of course.” Marek gripped the receiver. “Laurie, if you need to take Lynne to the hospital….”
“No, I think she just wants to, you know….” Laurie cleared his throat. “Have someone tell her it’s okay, I mean, the baby’s moving around, it’s not that.”
“I understand. Bring Jane over whenever Lynne can get an appointment. And if you hear back from Sam tonight, do let me know.”
“Thanks. He said he’d only call….” Laurie paused, then continued. “If Ritchie didn’t make it, which unfortunately seemed to be Sam’s understanding.”
“I see. Well, I’ll wait to hear from you, and my prayers are with us all. Give Lynne my love.”
“I’ll do that and we’ll see you in a few hours.” Laurie had another sigh. “Speak to you soon.”
“Yes, goodbye.” Marek hung up the phone, then glanced at the clock, which read three fifteen. He had gone to bed somewhat early, exhausted from all that weekend had wrought. Yet, now another crisis had emerged. Marek gazed at his coffeepot, then again at the clock. Perhaps just a cup of tea, he considered, not feeling sleepy, yet fatigue lingered. He filled the kettle, set it on the burner, then lit the flame. Then he prayed, wondering what one more death might accomplish. As that thought left his mind, he shuddered. The kettle whistled and he fixed his tea. Another long day loomed in front of him.
Walt Richardson spent Tuesday morning making subtle inquiries, but no one seemed aware of a man left for dead along the shore of Caddo Lake. It seemed an odd subject when only yesterday the nation’s president had been laid to rest. Walt went home for lunch, which raised no eyebrows, and to his relief the man was still sleeping and Dora seemed better. Walt checked the man’s right side, but it appeared as it had last night, bones and muscles intact, if not askew. Walt and Dora discussed if they should notify the doctor, but Walt still wasn’t certain if maybe Luke could be blamed for the man’s injuries. Walt assumed that Hiram had shot more than only a hawk, but probably not on purpose. Yet, the man had been stark naked when Walt found him, and feathers had been stuck to him. If Walt had time, he would stop at the lake on his way home to examine the ground where that man had laid. But Walt didn’t relate any of this to Dora. If she felt up to checking on the man, Walt didn’t mind, but if he kept quiet, then Luke could look after him when he got home from school.
As Walt returned to work, Lynne was ushered into Dr. Salter’s office. Lynne excused her presence due to emotional weariness, but the doctor didn’t scold, taking Lynne’s blood pressure, which was normal, then listening to the baby’s heartbeat, also fine. The doctor gently inquired about Mr. Snyder, which brought Lynne to tears. Eleanor Salters had heard stories that the painter had abandoned his family, but having witnessed that man at Lynne’s side during Jane’s arrival, the doctor discounted the rumors. The women discussed where Lynne wanted to give birth, which was still at the Snyder home. Renee and her sister-in-law would be present, not to mention those supporting from downstairs. Dr. Salters asked if there might be custard again, to which Lynne nodded, adding a brief chuckle. The doctor wished Lynne a happy Thanksgiving, then told her to make an appointment for right before Christmas. Lynne shook her doctor’s hand, then went to the lobby where Laurie waited. After making the appointment, Lynne led Laurie to the car, where they debated upon where to go next. Ritchie was still alive the last they had heard, right as they were leaving to drop off Jane. Laurie felt Lynne should rest, but Lynne asked if he minded taking her to the hospital. “I just wanna see Renee,” Lynne said softly.
Twenty minutes later, Laurie escorted Lynne into the same hospital lobby where she and Jane had sat when Fran lost the twins. This time the waiting area was packed with Nolan relatives, and Lynne wasn’t familiar with any of them. Many were young, maybe the offspring of Renee’s siblings, Laurie whispered. Their parents were probably upstairs, closer to Ritchie’s room. Laurie went to the front desk, inquiring about Renee’s brother. Then he stepped toward Lynne, who waited near the elevator. “Well?” she asked.
“He’s in intensive care, that explains everyone down here. I told her you were Renee’s sister and she said we could go upstairs. If Renee’s not there, I’ll just find a pay phone and call Sam.”
Lynne nodded, appreciating Laurie’s acumen. Eric would have been just as astute, but Lynne barely had enough working brain cells to know her name. “All I wanna do is see Renee.”
“Me too.” Laurie smiled, squeezing Lynne’s hand. “Then we’ll go get Jane and take you two home.”
“Or maybe stop and see Sam,” Lynne added as Laurie hit the button for the elevator. Then she sighed, tapping her foot.
“What?” Laurie asked.
Lynne gazed at those gathered in lobby; were any of them Ritchie’s children? Then she stared at Laurie. “I know this might sound silly, but when we get home, I’m gonna call Stanford. He needs to know about this and….”
Laurie smiled wanly, then led Lynne into the elevator. As the doors closed, he spoke. “Honey, he’s not gonna care about Renee’s brother.”
“No, but he needs to know that in the blink of an eye life changes, lives end. Oh Laurie, you shouldn’t be here holding my hand. You should be in New York, getting ready to celebrate….”
“You hush.” Laurie smiled, then kissed Lynne’s cheek. “I’m right where I’m supposed to be and we’ll think about Stan later.” The doors opened and Laurie gripped Lynne’s hand, then patted it, gazing at her. “Let’s go find us a carrot top.”
As they followed the signs for Intensive Care, a few redheads passed them, men and women in their age group. Lynne had met most of Sam’s siblings, but Eric had sketched the Nolan clans either at their homes or at Sam and Renee’s house. People looked familiar, but Lynne couldn’t put a name to a face. Then she stopped Laurie as they passed the restrooms. “I’ll be right back,” Lynne said.
“I’ll be right here.” Laurie released her hand, then shoved his in his coat pocket.
When Lynne emerged from the ladies’ room, Laurie was speaking to an older fellow, then they were joined by a woman who looked like Renee. Laurie turned, then waved Lynne in their direction.
Laurie made the introductions; Renee’s father Gene was pleased to finally meet Mrs. Snyder, while Renee’s older sister Sandra smiled, then excused herself. Lynne didn’t speak as Laurie carried their side of the conversation. Gene was grateful for their prayers, but they had just missed Renee. And as for Ritchie….
“It’s touch and go,” Gene sighed, then coughed loudly. “Doctors can’t tell us much more than to wait. Renee said the same when she got here, but I sure appreciate your coming over. Marie’s with him now and I’ll tell her you stopped by.”
Lynne nodded, but her heart felt stuck in her throat. How many times in her career had she been approached by anxious family members, but often there was little concrete news to give. She wanted to speak, but if she did, tears would accompany. Gene seemed to sense that, for he smiled, grasping her hand. Then he let her go. “You take care now Mrs. Snyder. Renee will be in touch when there’s something to share.”
“Thank you sir,” Laurie said. “Let’s go Lynne.”
She nodded as Laurie shook Gene’s hand. Then Laurie put his arm around Lynne and they turned around, heading back the way they came.
By the time Lynne and Laurie collected Jane from St. Matthew’s, Luke and Tilda were nearly home from school. They had run most of the way, then paused to catch their breaths, then back to sprinting they went as if making it a race. But only Luke would get to see that man, although he knew Tilda was tired of hearing about him second hand. Maybe if he was better by the end of the day, Luke could ask their father if Tilda could have a peek at him.
They reached their driveway at the same time, but Luke hadn’t been trying hard to beat his sister. Now the thought of that man’s care falling on Luke’s shoulders was somewhat daunting. He let Tilda reach the house first, where their mother waited. Luke ran, seeing how she held Tilda’s hand, Gail in her grasp. “Where’s Esther?” Luke asked, once he was to the porch steps.
“Grandma’s looking after her,” Dora said. “She was asking too many questions.”
Right before Luke took a step, he looked to the side of the house. “How is he?”
“Been sleeping all day. Your daddy checked on him at lunch, he was okay then. But he’ll probably need some water now, and I made chicken soup. If he’s awake and wants something to eat, you can try that.”
Luke nodded, but trembled inwardly. The prospect of trying to feed that man was scary, but as Tilda stared his way, Luke straightened his shoulders, hoping she couldn’t detect his fear. “Yes Mama. I’ll go check on him now.”
“Thank you Luke. Tilda, you take Gail. I’ll be laying down if you kids need something.”
“Uh-huh.” He took a deep breath, then left his books on the porch. Tilda held their youngest sister, who pointed to the side of the house. Luke nodded as if Gail was prodding him. “I’m going, I’m going,” he said.
“You wanna trade?” Tilda asked, a spark in her tone.
“No, I don’t wanna trade.” Luke stuck out his tongue, then headed for the shed.
The day had been cool, similar to the mood on the playground. All that everyone wanted to talk about was how Jack Ruby had shot Lee Harvey Oswald, or maybe that was what the boys discussed. If Luke had a minute, he’d ask Tilda what she talked about with the girls. Luke had stayed away from Hiram, but then Hiram seemed to feel the same. No one asked about his black eye, which Tilda had said looked a little improved from Sunday. It had looked ugly to Luke; maybe Hiram’s father had beaten him on Friday, then Luke shivered. He could hear the man moving about, hopefully he would just go back to sleep after a drink of water.
Carefully Luke opened the door. “Hey mister, it’s me, Luke Richardson. Daddy’s still at work, but he told me to check on you.” Luke didn’t need to turn on the light, for a dirty window near where the man rested provided enough illumination. And now Luke could see more than blonde hair; the man’s eyes were open, and they were gray. He was slender, his jaw sharp, his cheekbones protruding. The right side of his upper body was concealed by a blanket, but his left shoulder was bare, his skin almost yellow in appearance. “Hey mister, you thirsty, or maybe you’re hungry. Mama made chicken soup and….”
The man had been nodding, then shook his head slowly. Luke wasn’t sure what that meant. “So are you thirsty or….”
He nodded again and Luke brought over a cup of water. The man couldn’t sit up, so Luke dribbled the water onto his lips. “Listen mister, I gotta get you upright.” Luke breathed through his nose, for the man smelled terrible. Using all of his strength, Luke sat the man forward just enough to then put the cup to his mouth. The man drained the glass, then sighed, but to Luke it sounded like a squawk. Luke set the cup on a little table near the head of the bed. Then Luke eased the man back into a horizontal position. Luke wanted to study him, but the stench was overwhelming. “You need a bath mister, my goodness.”
The man nodded, a small smile forming on his face.
Now Luke smiled. “Can you talk mister? What’s your name?”
The man shook his head, then he let out a little moan, which again to Luke sounded like a bird’s cry. “Goodness mister, you’re in a world a’hurt.” Luke peered toward the man’s right shoulder; the blanket had fallen down when Luke sat him forward. Walt had bandaged the injury, but blood had seeped through the gauze. Still, it looked as if one day the man might be able to use his arm, although Luke still found that damage puzzling. Then he sighed. Everything about this man was strange. “Mister….” Then Luke sighed. “I don’t like just calling you mister, that’s not mannerly. I’ll say some names and you nod if I guess yours. Is it….” Luke rattled off all the names of his classmates, excluding Hiram’s. The man slowly shook his head for each one.
“Well that’s all the names I can think of right now.” Luke stood. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
The man nodded, then closed his eyes. As soon as Luke stepped from the shed, leaving the door open, he took several deep breaths. How had his father slept in there last night, Luke wondered, for the smell was dreadful. Luke walked to the house, but just as he went to open the door, Tilda waved him away. “Don’t you come in here smelling like that.”
“It’s not my fault,” Luke sighed. “It’s worse in the shed.”
Tilda scowled. “You tell me what you want and I’ll put it on the first step. You get any closer and I’m gonna vomit.”
Luke rolled his eyes. “Well, all I want is to tell you and Mama that he doesn’t want no soup. He can’t talk neither. He can nod though, but I asked him what his name is and he couldn’t tell me.”
“Well, if he can’t talk, how’s he supposed to tell you his name?”
“I said some names and he shook his head at all of them, that’s how.”
“Oh,” Tilda said, tapping her foot. “Well, it was a good idea.”
“Thanks.” Luke sighed, then sat on the bottom step. “How’s Mama?”
“She’s resting. Luke, she’s not acting right, I mean….” Tilda stepped from the house, holding Gail’s hand. They sat on the first step, then Tilda wrinkled her nose. “My goodness you stink.”
Gail giggled, pointing at Luke. “You ’tink,” she said.
“All right, all right.” Luke stood, then sat five feet away, pulling his knees to his chest. He could see the shed, and if he squinted, he could just make out that someone was lying on the bed. Then he gazed at Tilda, who looked like she still had something to say. “What?” he asked.
“Something’s wrong with Mama. She was sick a lot just now.”
“Well, she had to take care of him and he doesn’t smell good, or so you say.”
“Maybe,” Tilda shrugged. “I’m gonna ask Daddy if she needs the doctor.”
Luke shook his head. “If Daddy brings the doctor out, he might hear him.” Luke pointed toward the back of the house.
“Daddy can take Mama to the doctor, you know.”
“It’s none of your business Tilda.” Luke peered at the shed; he felt very proprietary about the man, as well as his mother. Then Luke went to his feet. “Take Gail inside. Oh, and bring me some soup. If he doesn’t want any, I’ll eat it.”
“What kinda man doesn’t like soup?” Tilda asked, again grasping Gail’s hand.
“I dunno, but I like soup just fine.”
Tilda clucked, leading her sister into the house. Luke waited until Tilda returned, but she waved him back. “Don’t you get any closer than that. Gonna make Mama really sick if she smells you.”
Luke grumbled, then picked up the bowl. Carrying it with two hands, Luke slowly walked back to the shed, then cleared his throat. “Hey mister, I’m back. I left the door open, some fresh air might suit you. I know it suits me.” Luke said that quietly, then entered the shed. He put the bowl on the main table, then stirred the soup with the spoon. Luke approached the bed, seeing the man’s eyes were open. “You sure you don’t want any chicken soup?”
The man shook his head, closing his eyes.
“Okay, well, more water?”
Again the man shook his head, but he opened his eyes, staring right at Luke.
“Do I know you mister, you sure seem familiar. Don’t know how though, hmmm.” Luke crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m gonna call you Mr. Doe. Mrs. Thompson, she’s my teacher, she was reading us this story about a man who didn’t know his name, and everybody called him John Doe. So until you can tell me your name, will that be okay?”
The man nodded, but Luke saw something was troubling him. “Mr. Doe, do you know your name?”
Now the man’s lip trembled and tears fell from his eyes. Again he shook his head, then he tried to speak, but only managed some bird-like squawks. Luke pulled up the low stool, then sat beside the man, grasping his left hand. Luke squeezed gently and the man reciprocated. “It’s okay Mr. Doe. We’ll take care of you until you know your name. You’re not going anywhere anyway, not with that bad shoulder. Just about lost your right arm, Mr. Doe, but God healed it, can you believe that? Don’t worry Mr. Doe, it’s gonna be okay.”
The man continued to weep as Luke offered more soft squeezes. Then Luke looked to where Tilda and Gail stood not ten feet from the shed’s open door. Tilda was wiping her eyes while Gail squirmed beside her. Luke nodded at his sisters, then motioned for them to leave. Mr. Doe didn’t need two girls invading his privacy, Luke thought, even if he had no idea who he was.
Leaving work early, Walt stopped at the lake, finding no trace of a hawk other than feathers. He could smell blood, which didn’t surprise him, for that man’s wounds had been severe. Walt didn’t ponder the nature of the man’s odd healing; perhaps he hadn’t been as badly injured as Walt had first thought. By the time he reached home, all he considered was sleeping in his own bed and making love to Dora if she felt better.
He had thought about her for much of the afternoon, all the talk about Kennedy spurring Walt’s considerations. As welding sparks flew, slivers of remorse had pierced Walt, for when he stopped to inspect his work, voices spoke about what a good man they had lost, his poor wife, and those fatherless children. Never mind that half of those men had previously berated Kennedy for this or that action; now all of them tripped over themselves to praise the damn papist as if The Second Coming had been in the guise of a Catholic president. Walt had kept his mouth shut, again hoping all this uproar wouldn’t cause Dora to lose the baby, then feeling guilty for not realizing more sorrow. But he couldn’t help it, he hated Catholics. And with that injured man to tend to, Walt had his own burden to carry.
Parking his truck, he had come to the conclusion that Luke and Hiram couldn’t have shot that man. Hiram probably had a .22 rifle, more powerful than the BB gun Luke sometimes used, but nowhere close to whatever shotgun had nearly torn off the man’s right arm. Walt stared at his house, lit now that dusk was falling, then he shivered. The man’s arm had been hanging from what barely resembled a socket; Walt could have severed it with no more than his pocketknife. But the man had gripped it with his left hand, although Walt had no idea how, for Walt hadn’t spoken, but the man seemed to have understood Walt’s mind. Then that arm was firmly, if not poorly, attached, like a surgeon had come to their house in the middle of the night, sewing that man back together. At lunchtime, Walt had again glanced at that ghostly handiwork, but a more thorough inspection was necessary, if nothing else to give Walt peace of mind. He’d seen plenty of carnage, but had never witnessed a spontaneous healing.
He looked up, finding Luke coming from the back of the house, Tilda and Esther standing on the porch. Esther pointed at her brother, waving him off. Tilda did the same, and Luke crossed his arms, then all the children gazed toward Walt’s truck. Luke came running and Walt got out of the pick-up. “Daddy, oh Daddy, I’m glad you’re home!”
Luke stopped ten feet from where Walt stood. “What happened?” Walt said, wondering why his son didn’t come any closer.
“Mr. Doe’s awake, but he can’t talk. And he needs a bath.”
Walt nodded, relieved but curious. “How long’s he been awake? And why’re you calling him Mr. Doe?”
As Luke answered the first of his father’s questions, he maintained the ten foot distance until Walt stopped in the middle of the front yard. “Luke, c’mere.”
Luke gave his father a cautious stare. “No Daddy, I don’t smell good.”
Before Luke could move, Walt stepped right beside him, taking a deep breath. “You don’t smell that bad.”
Luke’s eyes went wide, then he pointed to his sisters, still on the front porch. “Daddy, can’t you smell it?”
“Well, you need a bath, but….” Walt gazed at the girls, who were snickering. “What?” he called to them.
“Daddy, Luke stinks! So does that man.” Tilda crossed her arms over her chest, then Esther copied her sister.
“I didn’t smell nothing that bad at lunchtime.” Had the man soiled himself, Walt wondered. He pulled Luke away from where the girls could hear. “Did that man have an accident?”
“I don’t think so. It’s not that kinda smell. He’s just really dirty and….”
“He smells like blood. Mama can’t get near him, it’s that bad.”
Inwardly Walt trembled. Patting Luke’s shoulder, he motioned toward the shed. “Let’s go check on him. Girls,” he called, “tell your mama I’m home, and that we might be out here a while.”
“You gonna give him a bath?” Tilda asked.
“Maybe,” Walt said, leading Luke around the side of the house.
It took Walt a few minutes to finally notice what everyone else could smell within seconds. Even the man, who Luke referred to as Mr. Doe, seemed aware, but like Walt, the scent didn’t make him ill. Walt wondered if this man, who seemed about Walt’s age, had been in Korea, for that was all Walt could think about once he remembered the origin of that odor. It was of men living for weeks on end without bathing, surrounded by death. The blankets the man was using would have to be burned, Walt realized, and the pallet was probably beyond use too. Not that Walt felt he’d be sleeping out here anytime soon; he hadn’t had a nightmare since Dora told she was expecting. But what would this man, or Mr. Doe, as Luke kept calling him, sleep on that night after Walt gave him a sponge bath?
Dora might have a few spare blankets left, but now that Gail was out of the crib, sleeping next to Esther, no extra bedding remained. Tilda and Luke had their own twin mattresses, and Walt sighed; he would have to add onto the house in the new year, no way to cram one more child in that space. Besides, Luke was getting too old to be sharing a room with three girls. If the next baby was a boy, they could have a room together and….
“Daddy, where’s he gonna sleep tonight?” Luke’s voice was a whisper, but as Walt gazed at his son, he felt other eyes on him. He stared at the man, who nodded, then shook his head.
“I mean,” Luke continued, “if we give him a bath, he can’t sleep on this bed no more. He’ll smell just the same in the morning.”
Walt nodded absently, then knelt beside the man, finding the bandages were damp, but the blood wasn’t fresh. “I don’t wanna move you more than I hafta. Gonna need to clean this up anyways, probably call the doctor too, smells a little nasty.”
“Do you smell something different Daddy?”
“Yeah Luke I do.” Walt stood, then scanned the room. Nothing resembling a mattress caught his eye, then he smiled briefly. “Luke, you stay here with Mr. Doe. I’m gonna see if Mr. Bolden has any spare beds.”
“Okay.” Luke sighed, then he looked at the man. “Mr. Doe, you mind if I sit near the door?”
The man shook his head, a small smile on his face. Walt chuckled to himself, for now that he recognized the scent, it wasn’t pleasant. He disallowed the memories, concentrating on Luke’s displeasure. And that the man felt well enough to understand the joke. “I’ll tell your mother where I’m going, might take a while.” Then Walt gazed at the man. “You hungry?”
The man shook his head as Luke spoke. “He didn’t want no chicken soup, doesn’t seem to like it. Daddy, am I gonna have to take a bath tonight too?”
Walt nodded, but kept his gaze on the man, who seemed to have made a vast improvement in only two days. That he couldn’t talk didn’t trouble Walt, but other notions were puzzling. “Yeah Luke, we both will.” Then Walt faced his son. “The women won’t let us inside unless we hose off out here first.”
“That’s what I figured.” Luke sighed, then sat cross legged beside the open door. “Well, ask Tilda if she can bring out some soup. Sorry Mr. Doe. Maybe you don’t like it, but I’m starving.”
“I’ll do that. Actually, Luke, you follow me.” Walt gently patted the man’s left shoulder. “I’ll be back soon,” Walt said to him, then he headed for the door, Luke on his heels. As they reached the front of the house, Walt pulled his son aside. “Why do you call him Mr. Doe?”
“He doesn’t know his name, I don’t think he knows who he is.” Luke explained the one-sided conversation from earlier, making Walt shudder. But it was dark out, and Luke hadn’t noticed his father’s reservations, for he kept speaking, that Mr. Doe had fallen asleep after Luke ate the first bowl of soup, and that he had only stirred right when Walt had gotten home. “He seems a lot better after he naps,” Luke added. “Maybe once he gets a bath, he’ll sleep real good, then tomorrow he’ll know his name.”
“We’ll see.” Walt looked up, finding Dora standing on the porch. “How’re you feeling?”
“Better,” she smiled. “But you two aren’t coming in till after you….”
“We know,” Walt chuckled. “But first, that man needs a new bed.”
“Mr. Doe, Daddy,” Luke gently corrected.
“Where you gonna get a bed from?” Dora asked.
“Gonna go see Callie.” Walt cleared his throat. “In the meantime, Luke needs some supper, just put a bowl out here for him.”
As Luke backed away from the porch, Dora nodded. “But what about him, isn’t he hungry?”
“Doesn’t seem to be. I’ll take care of him, you just….” Walt ached to hold her, but that wouldn’t be for hours, and only unless she felt the same. He sighed, then gazed at the starry sky. “Gonna be a long night. Better be on my way.”
Dora nodded, edging her way to the end of the porch. “Be safe,” she said softly.
“I will. Luke, eat your dinner and keep, uh, Mr. Doe company.”
Walt inhaled, only detecting a hint of that odor. He wondered if Callie would smell it, he probably would. Both men had served in Korea, although not in the same units. If Callie Bolden asked, Walt wasn’t sure what he might say. Callie would be neighborly and discreet. Right now, discretion was nearly as important to Walt as any kindness Callie might offer.
Walt returned with several ragged blankets, but they were clean, what Dora acknowledged with thankfulness in her voice, standing inside the house, the screen door separating her from Walt, who placed the makeshift bedding on the porch. “He say anything to you?” she asked her husband.
“Only talked about the weather and Thanksgiving.” Walt smiled. “Said Susie would bring us a pie tomorrow.”
Dora shook her head. “I got nothing to give her.”
“He said don’t worry about it, I think we’re ahead of them anyways.” Walt looked toward the shed. “Did Luke eat?”
“Two bowls,” Dora smiled. “You hungry?”
“Just leave me some bread. Gotta get him cleaned up first.”
“Walt….” Dora sighed. “Luke says his shoulder’s, that it’s….”
“I know. Don’t understand it, but I ain’t gonna question it neither. Just leave some bread on the corner, I’ll send Luke for it.”
She nodded, then watched as he slipped around the side of the house. Then Dora stepped onto the porch, but that smell lingered. She wondered how Walt hadn’t noticed it yesterday, although she knew why. Yet, it had been so bad…. Dora collected the stack of blankets, not wanting them to pick up any trace of that foul odor. She inhaled them; they smelled like the Boldens, warm and friendly. Then Dora smiled, thinking of Susie’s good sweet potato pie, and how that woman wouldn’t ask a single question about why the Richardsons needed what amounted to practically a new bed. When Walt got paid next, Dora would buy some fabric and start a quilt for the Boldens, maybe setting aside scraps for a baby blanket. Then Dora shook her head, too soon to be thinking such thoughts. She left the stack on the far side of the porch, then went inside, slicing off a hunk of bread for her husband. As she took it out, Luke approached. He grinned at her, but stayed back. “Daddy got the man to his feet,” Luke said. “Hope he doesn’t mind a cold bath though.”
“You neither,” Dora smiled.
“Yeah, I know.” Luke shrugged, then moved toward the porch. “Hope I don’t smell like this tomorrow. Nobody will play with me.”
“Don’t worry ’bout that. Take that to your father. Maybe the man will have some.”
“I told Mr. Doe I was going for some bread, he looked interested.”
As Luke picked up the bread, Dora breathed through her nose, but she still detected that odor. She hid her tears as Luke trotted off, praying that none of this would stir Walt’s nightmares. There was no place for him to sleep them off now, what with that man in the spare bed. Mr. Doe, she thought, stepping into the house, no longer smelling anything but chicken soup and her own home.
Luke didn’t fall asleep until well past his usual bedtime, his sisters all snoring loudly. Those sounds didn’t hamper Luke’s slumber, for he was weary, also clean. So was Mr. Doe, he thought, as unconsciousness fell over him like a warm blanket. Luke dreamed of that strange man who couldn’t talk, but by evening’s end no longer smelled worse than a dead skunk.
Walt came to bed smelling of rubbing alcohol, but that was better than other things, Dora considered, as her husband pulled the comforter over their naked bodies. They made love, then he held her as she wept, for she had missed him, and had spent the evening thinking of melancholy events within their marriage. Her miscarriages were top of that list, followed by his spells of insomnia, always triggered by his nightmares. His tour in Korea had left no visible injuries, but his days as a sniper would haunt Walt until he died. Dora stroked his face, wondering if there was some way he could ever release that weight. Maybe caring for this man might ease his conscience, as he started falling asleep within her arms. His hand rested on their baby, and she didn’t move from his touch. The only time he was soothed from those terrible dreams was during her pregnancies, not that she was again carrying a child simply to ease his mind. But it seemed more than a coincidence that when she was pregnant, he was calm, or more calm than usual. Maybe something about making a baby erased all the killing he had done over there.
Out in the shed, the man had started thinking of himself as Mr. Doe; he’d appreciated Luke’s intellect for bestowing that name. But try as he might, the man had no idea of who he was, how he had gotten there, and why he was so injured. Although, he sighed, at least his arm was still attached. He couldn’t feel anything along his right shoulder, but as Walt had pointed out while redressing that area, at least he had a shoulder now. The man took Walt’s word for it, yet a memory lingered, that of his arm dangling loosely along his body as if one false move would sever it for good.
Now having been bathed and with a little food in his stomach, the man tried to remember what had happened; all he recalled was being watched, then wounded. But who had shot him and why? He was in Texas, Luke had told him during the afternoon, although it meant nothing; it was as if the man’s entire history had been wiped from his brain. Yet, a few items had caught his attention; the thought of chicken soup made him nauseous, although the bread had been delicious. He couldn’t talk, for he had tried when alone, and the only noises to escape his lips were animalistic. He had stood only when Walt supported him, otherwise he was extremely weak, but that was most likely from having been shot. The man glanced at his heavily strapped right shoulder, which now sloped awkwardly, through no fault of Walt. That man possessed a rudimentary knowledge of medical skills, yet no doctor had been called. The man wondered if that was due to suspicion on the part of the Richardsons; maybe fearing they were harboring a criminal, it was better to do what they could. The man also appreciated their wariness; maybe he was an escaped convict, a murderer even. That would explain his amnesia, he sighed to himself. Yet, within his heart, the man didn’t think he was evil, only unlucky. Or perhaps blessed to have been found before he’d bled to death. Walt had mentioned that after Luke went inside for the night. Walt had spoken bluntly, that if they hadn’t found him when they did, he wouldn’t have survived. But Walt’s voice carried a hint of astonishment, for after clearing his throat he noted how quickly healing was progressing. For now, the man would take Walt’s word for it; he could just wiggle his fingers, but beyond that the arm was useless. Maybe in the morning, he yawned, a little more healing would have occurred. Luke’s last words to him had been to sleep good. As the man closed his eyes, he prayed to do that, and tomorrow to at least remember his name.
On Wednesday morning, Renee woke to Ann again asleep in the middle of the bed. Then Renee recalled how just hours ago, Ann had stood next to Renee, calling for her mama. While half conscious, Renee had lifted Ann onto the mattress, then quickly fallen back to sleep. Maybe Ann’s presence had stirred Renee from a bad dream, plenty of reasons for fretful rest, she mused, staring at Ann and Sam, both still with eyes closed. Renee blinked away tears, then rose from bed, careful not to disturb them as she grabbed her robe, then put on her slippers. That morning she wouldn’t rejoin them. Her rosary waited on the coffee table where she had left it last night. Ritchie was still among them, no one had called to tell Renee otherwise, and her prayers were necessary to keep him alive.
After using the bathroom, Renee headed to the living room, finding her rosary lying next to Sam’s. They had sat out here until late, offering their supplications not only for Renee’s brother, but Brenda, the couple’s children, the rest of the Nolan clan, and for the Snyders. Renee had spoken to Lynne yesterday afternoon, hearing how fragile Lynne sounded. Yet other than prayer, there was little Renee could do, not that Lynne had sought more than Renee’s appeals on Eric’s behalf. Lynne knew what Renee’s priorities were and as Renee collected her beads from the table, she immediately laid those concerns at Jesus’ feet. Grasping the beads, she ran her fingers over them, mentally preparing herself for whatever the day brought. She hoped it was closure for Lynne in the guise of Eric’s return. And as for the Nolan family…. Renee inhaled deeply, uncertain what would be best for Brenda, Marie, Gene, and the rest. Ritchie had serious internal organ damage, as well as a badly broken left leg and hip. Several broken ribs would take ages to heal, if Ritchie managed to pull through. Renee’s nursing instincts told her that this patient might be better off dead, but that information was tainted by her knowledge of his drinking. What Renee had often feared had come true, but thankfully no one else had been harmed in the crash.
Renee tried to pray, but couldn’t concentrate; Brenda had seemed disconsolate yesterday when Renee saw her in the hospital. Only Renee and Sam realized it was the same one that Frannie had been in over a year ago, although Renee was sure Lynne had considered that when she and Laurie had stopped there right after Renee left. Renee had been touched by Lynne’s thoughtfulness, for her father had mentioned it to her when she returned to see her brother. Ritchie had looked so helpless, a tube taped to his mouth, for he couldn’t yet breathe on his own. Renee had held his hand, offering gentle squeezes, wondering if he was aware of any of them. Brenda had sat on Ritchie’s other side, which had surprised Renee for how strongly Brenda had spoken about the impending divorce just days ago. But in that room, Brenda looked as if an alternate reality beckoned. If Ritchie survived, did Brenda think he’d stop drinking? He would leave the hospital sober, but Renee didn’t expect that would last longer than it took him to realize a long rehabilitation loomed. Renee wanted to be optimistic, but her knowledge highlighted the stumbling blocks in Ritchie’s way.
Yet, why had this occurred? She gazed at beads she’d had for years, a gift from Sam when he came home from his own stint in rehab. Renee had always assumed Ted had chosen this rosary on his brother’s behalf, for Sam had been in the hospital all that time. The beads were periwinkle blue; sometimes Sam said they matched her eyes. She smiled, then wondered if that was sacrilegious. Then she closed her eyes, thinking of how great was her parents’ sorrow, as though they had allowed this accident to happen.
Marie had gripped her beads all morning, then again that afternoon when Renee returned. Sam had accompanied Renee, but they had left the children with Frannie. Paul and Ann didn’t know about the accident; yesterday morning they had been told that Renee was visiting her parents, and in the afternoon Sam had simply said they had errands to run for Thanksgiving. Neither child had complained, for they were happy at the Canfields, and the Aherns hadn’t been gone long, plenty of others wanting to support Marie and Gene, Brenda and the kids. When Renee and Sam arrived to collect their children, Frannie had hugged Renee tightly, then grasped Renee’s hands not merely like a sister-in-law or a woman who had spent time in that same hospital a year ago. Frannie regarded Renee as another mother who might pray with a heart similar to that of Mary.
Tracing her beads, Renee wondered how Mary felt throughout her life with the subtle awareness that her only son was…. Early on she had been told Jesus would be the most high Son of God. But even though Mary was without sin herself, she was also that man’s mother, loving him with her beautiful, willing heart, then watching him die so painfully. Tears fell from Renee’s eyes onto her beads as she considered her own mother and Frannie. Then Renee gazed toward where her husband and children still slept. This newfound vulnerability was another facet of parenthood; had Lynne ever felt it, Renee wondered. Of course Lynne knew it as a wife regarding Eric, but Jane’s life had never been threatened. Renee went to her knees and the first supplications she made were for herself and her best friend, that while their husbands had been in perilous circumstances, may their children be spared such harm. And for them to accept God’s will no matter what it might be.
Renee spent much of that morning at her brother’s side or comforting those in the waiting areas. She also pondered how to tell Paul and Ann what had happened; Sam had taken Paul to school, then planned to do the last-minute grocery shopping with Ann in tow. When Renee returned for lunch, she and Sam would share this situation with their children. Not that either child knew Ritchie very well; they had only met him once. But if he pulled through, Renee would spend some of her time assisting in his recovery. She didn’t want her children to revisit what was still fresh in their minds, but with the Canfield kids already aware, there was no way to shield Ann and Paul from this truth.
Maybe they would take it as well as they had the station wagon, or Paul would again quickly forget the significance. If the children were older, they might understand the reason their uncle had crashed his car. Renee wasn’t going to explain Ritchie’s drinking problem, perhaps the basic truth would be best; he had gotten into an accident, was under doctor’s care. Renee would exclude the what if’s until absolutely necessary.
Driving home, she wasn’t sure if she would go back later that day. Sam would probably appreciate a break, even if it was just to double-check their kitchen cupboards. When Renee arrived, Lynne’s car was parked in front of the house, making Renee smile, then wince. She would be glad for the company, but most likely Eric was still away. Renee parked in the driveway, and as she approached the house, she saw Paul peeking through the curtains, a smile on his face.
He opened the door for her, was wiggling with excitement. “Uncle Laurie’s here,” he said. “Aunt Lynne and Jane too. Can they stay for dinner?”
Renee hugged her son, then kissed the top of his head. “They’re coming for dinner tomorrow.” She glanced at where Lynne sat on the sofa, Laurie beside her. Ann and Jane played with dolls on the floor, then Sam stepped into the room. He looked tired, but his smile lifted Renee’s heart.
“Hello,” he said, stepping her way. He picked up Paul, then put his other arm around Renee. Usually Sam wasn’t that demonstrative, but Renee coveted the affection. “Lunch’s about ready,” Sam added. “You hungry?”
Renee nodded, then looked at Paul. “What’d Daddy fix?” she asked him.
“Um, sandwiches?” He gazed at Sam, then shrugged. “I dunno, but I’m hungry too.”
Renee glanced at Lynne, who blew her a kiss. Then Laurie did the same, making Renee giggle. “Seems you’re having a party. Good thing I’m here.”
“Yeah, good thing. Mama, where were you? Daddy and Ann walked to school all by themselves.”
Paul sounded worried and Renee stroked his cheek. “I’ll tell you after lunch. Let’s eat, I’m starving.”
Paul laughed, then wriggled to be set down. Sam did so, then embraced Renee, whispering in her ear, “I love you.”
“I love you too.” As they parted, Renee blinked away tears. Sam headed to the kitchen while Renee walked toward the sofa. Laurie went to his feet, giving her a hug. Then he helped Lynne to stand.
Laurie and Renee traded places, and the women simply held each other’s hands. Lynne was too large for Renee to embrace properly, and if they had, Renee might truly fall apart. Lynne’s eyes were red, also haunted. Renee’s brother might be injured, but at least she knew where he was. “How’re you feeling?” Renee asked, her voice no more than a squeak.
Lynne tried to smile, but she ended up shaking her head. “How’re you?” she asked.
“Okay.” Renee gazed at where all three kids now played together, Laurie squatting beside Paul, blocks in their hands. “It’s good to see you.”
“I needed to get out so Laurie called Sam and….” Lynne placed Renee’s hands on the baby. “Starting to feel a little stir crazy, I’ll tell you.”
“I bet. A few others are feeling like that too.” Renee thought of how shaky Tommy had been yesterday, not to mention some of Brenda’s relatives, women as well as men, looking in need of a drink. “Let’s eat, we’ll feel better after that.”
Lynne nodded, then looked at the children. “Do you want us to go afterwards?”
Renee also gazed in that direction. Then she met Lynne’s eyes. “Actually, do you mind staying? It might be easier with you here.”
Lynne wore a small smile. “Of course.”
“Good. Oh, but if you wanna go home, I mean….” Renee sighed, not wishing to keep Lynne away from her house.
“If he comes home and I’m not there, he’ll manage. Maybe that sounds a little selfish of me, but it’s not cold out and we left the sunroom doors unlocked. He can make his way inside and fall asleep on the floor if he likes. Right now I need to be around people.”
As the baby rolled under Renee’s touch, both women nodded. “Well I need to be around you. And you too,” Renee said, gently patting Lynne’s belly. “Let’s go see what culinary feats await us.”
“I brought a pie,” Lynne said.
Renee stared at her friend. “What about for tomorrow?”
“I’ll make more this afternoon, or tomorrow morning. But I woke up feeling so, well, you know.” Lynne sighed, then glanced at her daughter. “I felt like I did when Eric was back, but wouldn’t see me. Oh, I was so cross with him,” she chuckled. “Then I baked and he got better. Maybe that’s all I need to do.”
“Maybe.” Renee quickly offered a prayer on Eric and Lynne’s behalf. “Well, if there’s pie, I wonder if there’s something to go with it.”
“I think there is,” Laurie said, then he laughed, getting off the floor. “C’mon kids, let’s wash up.”
Paul and Ann were on their feet, running toward the bathroom. Jane was right behind them as Renee and Lynne headed into the kitchen.
After lunch and dessert were eaten, Sam ushered everyone into the living room. He broke the news gently, but Paul started to cry while Ann trembled in Renee’s grasp. Jane began to whimper due to the bleak mood, but Laurie noted that Uncle Ritchie was in a very good hospital; Laurie had been there and had talked with their Grandpa Nolan. And that while there wasn’t much they could do but wait, they could pray, and know that their prayers were being heard.
Paul stared at Laurie. “Are you sure about that?”
“You bet. God hears all our prayers.”
The little boy went from his father’s grasp toward where Laurie sat in a corner chair. “Are you Catholic?” Paul asked Laurie.
Laurie smiled, shaking his head. “No, but I talk to God pretty often and since your uncle’s accident, I’ve been talking to him every day. Actually, since I heard about you and Ann.” Laurie placed his hand along the top of Paul’s head. “When Lynne told me you were coming to live with Sam and Renee, I prayed for you, because I know it’s been a hard few months. I asked God to take care of you, just like I’m asking him to take care of Uncle Ritchie and his family. And while I don’t know what’s gonna happen, here we are all together, and tomorrow’s Thanksgiving, and we’ll be together then too. Your daddy is the best chef I know, and believe me, in New York there’s a lot of good ones.” Laurie chuckled. “I can’t wait to taste your dad’s Thanksgiving turkey.”
Paul smiled, then looked back at Sam. “Are we still having Thanksgiving dinner?”
“Of course,” Sam said.
“And are Johnny and Brad still coming over?” Paul asked.
“Yup,” Sam said. “And Aunt Vivian too.”
Paul nodded slowly. Then he gazed at Renee. “What if Uncle Ritchie dies tomorrow?”
Renee sighed softly. “If he does, we’ll be with those we love most. I’ll go to the hospital to say goodbye to him. But I won’t be gone long.”
“Can I go with you?” Paul asked.
Renee glanced at Sam, whose eyes were wide in his face. Then she gazed at Laurie, who offered a gentle nod. Renee stood, then walked to where Paul remained near an uncle he knew well. She knelt in front of her son, wiping away his few tears. “Yes Paul, you can say goodbye to Uncle Ritchie.”
As Renee spoke, Lynne quietly gasped, but Renee didn’t take her eyes from the child who nodded vigorously. Maybe this would be the closure Paul needed, if indeed Ritchie didn’t make it. Renee felt a wound was healing as she embraced her son, who gripped her tightly. Laurie joined their hug, then Ann ran toward them, adding her frame. As Jane and Sam became a part of the scrum, Renee could hear Lynne’s soft cries. Renee would comfort that woman in due time. For now she consoled a little boy being further knit into this clan.
As Luke woke, his first thought was he didn’t have to go to school that morning. Then he smiled at what smelled like turkey roasting. Then he frowned; Mr. Doe didn’t seem to like anything connected with poultry. Good thing there would be a lot of other food for him to eat.
Ten minutes later Luke was dressed, seated at the table, having breakfast as his parents bustled about the kitchen, Walt with a cup of coffee in his hand while Luke’s mother stirred something in a big bowl. Baked beans, Luke assumed; would Mr. Doe eat those? He wanted to ask, but his folks wouldn’t know any more than Luke did. “Can I go see if Mr. Doe’s awake?” Luke asked, his mouth half-full.
Walt turned around, sipped from his cup, then gazed at the clock. “Pretty early still. You let him sleep as long as he can.”
Luke nodded. Sleep seemed to work wonders for their guest, although Mr. Doe still couldn’t speak, nor did he know who he was. His arm was better, in that the nasty smell from the wound was gone, and while Mr. Doe couldn’t move his arm up or down, he could bend his wrist. Walt had decided against calling the doctor, what Luke had overheard his parents speak about last night. Luke understood their hesitation; while they knew he hadn’t shot Mr. Doe, they weren’t so sure about Hiram. Luke thought they were being kind to Hiram, but then Luke had been there, and nobody had been around. If Hiram had shot Mr. Doe, it had been after they split up from Mr. McKinney’s barn. But Hiram would have had to go back for the gun and…. Luke looked up, seeing both of his parents staring at him. “What?” Luke said.
“Go see if he’s awake. Until he can make some noise, we’ll have to check on him. And if you wake him up, well then we’ll see how he’s doing.”
Walt’s tone had been flat and Luke stood, not asking questions. Leaving the house, he was grateful for something to do. He didn’t like considering last Friday, but didn’t think those memories would fade for a long time.
As Luke headed down the steps, Walt took a deep breath. He exhaled, finished his coffee, setting the cup on the table. Then he embraced his wife. “Not sure what we’re gonna do next,” he whispered. “Kids aren’t gonna keep this quiet much longer.”
Dora nodded, gripping Walt tightly. “Thank goodness he was sleeping when Susie brought the pie.” Dora released her husband, then glanced at the counter where that pie waited. “You never said if Callie asked you….”
Walt smiled, then caressed her cheek. “He didn’t say nothing. Gave me a look, that was about it.” Walt sighed. “If he knew who he was, at least we’d have some idea of what do to with him. I checked him out pretty well last night, no bumps on his head. Other than that shoulder, he looked okay, a little jaundiced still….” There was something strange about the man’s skin beyond that yellow tint. It felt soft in places, prickly in others. Walt had noticed it when he gave the man the sponge bath, but last night, inspecting that shoulder, the light had been poor. Today, Walt would be home, and he’d give that man a proper once-over, maybe another bath, depending on how the shoulder looked. But there was still the issue of what to do with him. It was as though the man had been abandoned at the lake, no clothes, no possessions, and no memory. Walt had never met someone with amnesia, although a few fellows in Korea had acted like they’d lost all their wits. That was from shell-shock, but what had happened to the man in the Richardsons’ shed?
“Daddy, Daddy!” Luke’s voice was soft but urgent, his footsteps making the most noise as he entered the house. “Mr. Doe’s awake, sitting on the bed!”
Walt ran from the kitchen, sprinted down the front steps, then raced around the house. Reaching the shed, he found the man gripping the side of what constituted a bed with his left hand. His right arm was strapped to his side, but it appeared he was trying to grasp the blankets with his right hand. The men stared at each other; Mr. Doe wore some of Walt’s old clothes, although the shirt and trousers were much too big on him. Walt knelt beside him, then steadied the man’s trembling right hand. “What’n the world are you doing?” Walt said gently. “Need to take a leak?”
Mr. Doe nodded.
“Luke, bring me that jug.” Walt motioned to floor near the foot of the bed. “Musta put it too far for you to reach. Here.” Walt handed the jug to the man. “Luke, go tell your mother to make up a plate for Mr. Doe. Just some toast for now.”
Once Luke was gone, Walt helped the man relieve himself. Walt gazed at the urine; it was still streaked with red, but was mostly yellow. “Looks better than yesterday,” Walt said, getting to his feet, putting the jug on the ground. “Gonna hafta figure out some way of communicating until I trust you’re not gonna fall on your backside sitting up.” Gazing around the shed, Walt saw a small wrench. He brought it to the man. “Ain’t too heavy, but if you rap on the seat here….” Walt placed an old metal chair next to the bed. “Here, you try.”
Mr. Doe gave the chair a couple of whaps. The noise resounded within the shed. Walt wondered if Luke and Dora had heard it. “I’ll be right back,” he told the man.
Walt got as far as the porch when Luke met him. “What was that noise?” Luke said.
“How Mr. Doe’s gonna ask for something when he needs it.” Walt explained, and Luke smiled. “Toast about ready?”
“Oh, lemme go see.” Luke stepped back into the house as Walt waited. The morning was cool but pretty, a golden sky to the east with pink rising around it. By now Walt would be inside the garage, a helmet over his head protecting him from sparks but shielding him from all else. Rare were the times he enjoyed the sunrise or the sunset. He inhaled deeply, giving thanks for this view and for the woman who stepped onto the porch, a plate of toast in her hand.
“Here,” Dora said. “You think he wants any coffee?”
“Doubt it, but I’ll ask.” Walt smiled at her, then pointed to the horizon. “Pretty, ain’t it?”
She gazed up, then gripped her upper limbs. “Yeah, it is.”
Her tone was melancholy and Walt joined her on the porch. “Dora, what?”
She met his eyes, tears falling from hers. “Go on before it gets cold. I’ll send Luke out in a minute, see if he wants some coffee.”
Dora stepped back into the house, wiping her face as she did so. Walt didn’t worry that her sorrow was connected to the baby. Another notion weighed heavily, but he didn’t share her feelings. Gripping the plate, he didn’t look at the sunrise again, taking swift steps toward the man in the shed.
From the living room French doors Lynne gazed at a similar sunrise, although it was less pink, more orange-yellow. Her heart ached, although she tried not to think about where Eric might be. Yet her dreams had been full of various moments from their past; when they met, finding this house, watching him paint hawk after hawk. Then her dreams had become awash in color as he created her portraits, from those of her using blue yarn to depicting her as a lush field and coral reef. Finally the dreams had appeared in sepia with faint flashes of brightness; the silk scarves at Christmas after his awful illness, the daffodils when Jane was born, a gold glittering chain that still displayed that cherished opal, tucked safely under her nightgown, further obscured by her robe. When she’d stirred that morning, Lynne had noticed a deep chill, although she was covered by blankets. Her prayers seemed to be falling on deaf ears, although she didn’t feel she was alone. God was requesting her faith, but unlike Christmas two years ago, Lynne was having a difficult time giving that trust. She shivered, then placed her hands on the glass panes. “Where are you?” she whispered, tears building in her eyes. She blinked them away, shaking her head at herself. “Why aren’t you home yet?”
Taking a deep breath, she placed her hands on the baby, who moved about slowly. Lynne gazed at her belly, the robe tied off above it. Would Eric be here when…. Lynne sighed, then wiped her face. As she turned around, Laurie was coming downstairs, Jane in his arms. Lynne smiled, then approached them. “I didn’t hear her.”
“She was just babbling.” Laurie kissed Jane’s cheek, making her laugh. “Happy Thanksgiving,” he said.
“The same to you.” Lynne sighed, feeling little joy, although she was glad for Laurie’s company, and that Jane seemed in a good humor. Lynne turned back to the French doors, wishing to see Eric walking toward the house, or perhaps he was a bird swooping past. She would run from this room, waiting at the edge of the scrub, which now went well past the studio. But something within her knew a different day loomed ahead. “I need to start the pies,” she said absently. “Then we can head over to….”
She didn’t want to be here on this day, easily recalling the warm camaraderie of last year’s gathering, spent only with Eric, Jane, and their pastor. How simple yet complete that had seemed, but now Lynne ached for others. She faced Laurie, wondering how he felt, far away from his loved ones. “I’m sorry, I know this isn’t easy for you either.”
“But I know where Stan is.” Laurie sighed, then gripped her hand. “How long will pies take?”
“A couple of hours.” She patted his hand, then caressed Jane’s face. “I was thinking about making a sweet potato instead of pumpkin. And maybe a peach or….”
Yesterday she had baked an apple pie, hoping somehow that would usher in Eric’s return. Now she wanted to flee this house, and if pies made the journey, so be it. Then she sighed. “Sorry I’m so moody.” She gave a wan smile. “Let’s get some breakfast and….”
Laurie gripped her hand again, then cleared his throat. “No one expects you to do more than you can. Hell, right now, we’re all about at the breaking point. But I meant what I told Paul yesterday.” Laurie flashed a quick grin. “God is listening to us and I know he’s with Eric, wherever he is. He’ll come home Lynne, I know he will.”
Laurie nodded. “He gave me back my brother. Maybe Seth’s halfway around the world, but he’s whole, he’s healed. God wouldn’t give him back to my family and keep Eric from you.”
The conviction in Laurie’s voice was sincere and while Lynne wanted to cling to it, something held her back. This crisis of faith felt isolating and Lynne closed her eyes, trying to rekindle that flame. Then another memory came to mind. “Laurie, would you start a fire?”
“Sure.” He smiled, then glanced at Jane. “You want her?”
Lynne giggled. “Actually, take her to the kitchen. I’ll start breakfast, but if you could build a fire….” She gazed at the dark hearth, then at her daughter. “I know we won’t be here that long, but it’d make the living room warmer and….”
“Whatever makes the pregnant woman happy,” Laurie chuckled, heading to the kitchen.
Lynne followed, smiling at his accommodating tone. She then prayed for more faith, tracing the opal pendant under her nightgown.
Sam called as Lynne put a sweet potato pie in the oven. Laurie spoke to Sam, confirming they would come over once the second pie was done, the contents of which Laurie declined to say. Sam chuckled at the mystery, noting that the turkey was roasting, and there was no change on another front.
Laurie wanted to note a similar story, but it would embarrass Sam if Laurie mentioned Stan. Instead Laurie asked if Renee had gone to the hospital, to which Sam said yes, but he expected her back any time. Paul had accompanied her, not that Ritchie had taken a turn for the worse, but Paul had asked, and neither Sam nor Renee had the heart to tell him no. Laurie was touched by that child’s interest, then he closed the call as Jane needed attention. While Lynne prepared the second pie, Laurie entertained Jane, but he couldn’t get his mind from all that was happening, most of which Stan was ignorant of.
Taking Jane into the living room, Laurie set her near some toys, then he added wood to the fire. Lynne had been right, for even though they would be leaving relatively soon, the house felt homier with the pops and sparks, which seem to echo as if calling out to loved ones far away. Laurie did feel that Eric would be home, although when was elusive within his mind. Yet, that point didn’t worry Laurie, for as he’d said to Lynne, God had given Seth back to their family. That he was in Israel and not Brooklyn was simply a matter of logistics. Laurie imagined Seth had called his mother already, and while it wasn’t the same as if Seth was sharing that meal with the Gordon clan, it was the first time in how many years that Seth was in his right mind. So much tragedy had filled the last week, but Laurie clung to that blessing. Laurie had written a brief note to Seth yesterday, would mail it tomorrow. Laurie wanted to write something far more encompassing to Stanford, but for now he had to give Stan space. Maybe he wouldn’t try to reach out until Eric returned. Only then might Stan be willing to consider….
Jane’s laughter caught Laurie’s attention. He stared at her, she sounded like her father. Laurie walked to where she sat, surrounded by blocks and books and dolls. Kneeling beside her, he stroked her head. “He’ll come home, I know he will. I wish I could tell you and your mother when though.”
The toddler gazed at Laurie, her eyes wide, and so much like Sam’s that Laurie chuckled. “You don’t look a thing like him, but my God, you sound like him. Maybe you’ve got that same magic right here.” Laurie gently touched Jane’s right arm. “I always wondered how he did it, but I never imagined….” Now Laurie shivered. He sat beside Jane, taking her in his arms. “He’ll come home honey, I promise you that, but….”
Eric’s message in the sand pit flashed before Laurie’s eyes, which now sported tears in the corners. He shook his head; had Eric known the true meaning of those words, a weight that now bore down on Laurie’s shoulders as if Seth was again in the throes of depression. But it wasn’t fair, Laurie wanted to shout, not for Lynne or the girl in Laurie’s grasp or for…. Or for the man on the other side of the country, yet Laurie wasn’t thinking of Eric. If Stan ever accepted this, a steep price would have to be paid.
Laurie tried to reconcile these feelings, which tumbled inside his chest like sharp rocks. Was this due to his renewed belief in God butting against his previously secular self or was this…. He had felt so torn when Seth told him about Eric; maybe indelible truths were what philosophers spent their lives analyzing, but Laurie had never asked to deduce the world’s mysteries. He was an art dealer far from home, but as he looked up, finding Lynne’s tender gaze upon him, another identity was discovered, that of one initiated in a most exclusive club where the improbable was indeed most possible.
He knew Lynne wouldn’t join them on the floor, but she did pull up a chair, seating herself, then setting her hands on the baby. Her smile was a mix of emotions, similar to those within Laurie. She gazed at the fire, then caressed Jane’s head. “What’re you thinking about?” she asked.
“Oh my God, way too much.” He chuckled, trying to concentrate on all that was tangible. For some reason this was his reality, which made him laugh out loud. “I’m an art dealer, not some….” He almost said family man, but that might have hurt Lynne’s feelings. “What the hell am I doing here?”
Lynne smiled, but didn’t meet Laurie’s gaze. She continued to stare at the fire, taking deep breaths. Then she spoke. “One night when he was gone in 1960, I went upstairs, he was storing all his paintings in one room. There was one of a fire and Laurie, I swear to you it put off heat.” She stared at Laurie, nodding her head. “Renee and Sam noticed the same about it, maybe it’s just us,” she giggled. Then she patted the baby. “The last week has been so hard, and so long. My goodness, I feel like December’s never gonna get here. Maybe we’ll still be waiting for him, and maybe you’ll still be here, but that’s, well, it’s….”
“God’s will?” Laurie said, raising his eyebrows.
“Yeah,” she smiled, but she sighed afterwards. “It’s funny, because sometimes I feel like I could wait forever for him, but lately I just feel like every day is forever. And sometimes I consider how maybe we’ll never know. Maybe he won’t come back and we’d have no idea if he was….” She paused, but didn’t cry. Then she stared at Laurie. “He’s real, I know that, but maybe he was only for this.”
She pointed to Jane, then glanced at the baby, giving another resigned sigh. Laurie trembled, then went to his knees, moving toward her. “Lynne, as God as my witness, I know he’ll be back.”
Laurie knew that like he knew his name, although Eric’s physical condition wasn’t certain. “I wasn’t gonna tell you this, but right before I left Miami, Eric came to see me at Uncle Mickey’s.” Laurie explained the circumstances of that encounter, then he paused. That message was so cryptic, was it right to share it with this woman? Laurie stroked Lynne’s face, then placed his hand on the baby. Then he sighed. “He left me a message in a sand pit, and basically it was a warning. I’ve been assuming it was about me and Stan but now….”
Lynne placed her hands atop Laurie’s. “Do you really think he’ll come back?”
“I swear to you Lynne, I know he’s gonna come home.”
As Laurie spoke, a dam burst within Lynne as if a river of fear poured from her eyes. Jane looked up and as Laurie tried to comfort one bawling woman, he set a hand upon an inquisitive child. Yet, Jane didn’t join in her mother’s tears. She stood, then leaned against Laurie like a pillar of support while Lynne continued to wail. Laurie crooned it was okay as flames popped in the background, the fire’s warmth a healing balm Laurie wished to send eastward for two men. He began to recite Psalm 100, how he remembered his dad used to say it, snatches of verse murmured in between bites taken from his mother and aunt’s cakes. Laurie chuckled while he spoke, like his father stood beside him, acting as a prompt. As Lynne calmed, Jane left Laurie’s side, stopping in front of her mother. Laurie watched as the Snyder women made eye contact. Then Lynne nodded, first at her daughter, then at Laurie. The fire crackled then hissed. “Shall I add more wood,” Laurie said softly.
Lynne shook her head. “No, it can die out now. I just needed….” Her voice trembled, then she took a deep breath, exhaling as she picked up Jane, placing her on what remained of her lap. “Thank you Laurie, so much.”
He smiled, then patted her leg. “I think I will call Stan before we go. He probably won’t be home, but….”
“You could try him at Michael’s,” Lynne said, clearing her throat afterwards.
“Indeed I could. Maybe that’s what I’ll do.” Slowly Laurie stood from the floor. “But first I have to call my mother. I’ll never hear the end of it if I don’t.” He laughed, then squeezed Lynne’s shoulders. “Should I check the pie first?”
“I’ll be in there in a minute. Give her my best.”
“Will do.” Laurie kissed the top of Lynne’s head, then went into the kitchen, where the fragrance of sweet potatoes made his stomach rumble. He wouldn’t say more than Happy Thanksgiving to his mom, but when he saw her next perhaps he would relate some of that morning’s revelations. The Abrams weren’t overtly religious, but faith wove deeply through their family, connected by good food and better memories, he smiled, as Lynne checked the pie, a delicious scent wafting into the room.
After Laurie talked to his mom, he called Michael Taylor. They spoke briefly, but Laurie was glad to have made the overture; Michael didn’t ask how long Laurie would be at the Snyders, but he told Laurie to give Lynne his best, and that he hoped Laurie would be home soon. The way Michael enunciated home soon led Laurie to believe Stanford could hear everything his father said. Laurie told Michael he’d return to New York when Eric was back safely. Michael reiterated that part of the message, making Laurie stifle a chuckle as well as inwardly shiver. Right before Michael closed the call, he paused. “Will you be watching the President’s address this evening?”
For a second, Laurie pictured John Kennedy seated in front of the official seal, then he shook his head. “What? Johnson’s giving a speech tonight?”
“Yes, at six fifteen Eastern Time. It sounds like all the networks will be broadcasting it.”
“Well, that would be three fifteen here. I’ll mention it to Sam, I think he wants to eat around two.”
“We’ll be thinking of you all then,” Michael said.
“We’ll be thinking of you too.” Laurie wore a bittersweet smile. “Give him my best, all right?”
“Of course. And Laurie, happy Thanksgiving.”
“Happy Thanksgiving Michael.” Laurie hung up the receiver, then stared at the phone. He turned toward Lynne, who wore a quizzical gaze. “Seems the new president’s giving a speech on television tonight.”
“Well, that’ll be something to see.” Lynne smiled. “Was he there?”
Laurie chuckled. “I think so. God, I love that man, both of them,” he added. “Michael’s father was….” Laurie paused, then told the story. Lynne looked greatly surprised, then she giggled, and Laurie joined her. “So while Michael and Constance weren’t exactly jumping for joy when Stan introduced me, a precedent had already been set. Plus it wasn’t like we were gonna get married. Better for Stan to fall in love with a Jewish man than a Jewish woman.”
Now Lynne laughed out loud. “Well, when you put it like that, what else is there to say?”
“Exactly, and to tell you the truth, I’m sure my mother felt the same.” Laurie wiped his eyes, but the tears weren’t from sorrow. “Good lord, that’s a lot to ponder after everything else that’s happened.”
Lynne nodded, taking a seat next to Jane. “But you know, like I said it’s been a very long week. We’ll never forget these days, but after today, I’m ready for something different, something good.” She sighed, then looked at her belly. “Not you, you hear? You still have a few weeks to stay right where you are.”
Laurie stood behind Lynne. “You tell that baby. And as for my sweetheart, if I don’t see him until Junior arrives, there you go.” Laurie sighed, then smiled, gazing at the counter where the sweet potato pie cooled. “So, what’s the other pie?”
Lynne chuckled. “Apple-peach-boysenberry.”
“Jesus Christ, we’ll never forget that either!” Laurie laughed. “All right, on that note, I’ll take a quick shower, then if you wanna bathe, I’ll watch Jane. No promises though if you find a slice of the sweet potato missing.”
“I’ll tell Agatha on you,” Lynne teased.
“Oh, she’d fully understand,” he smiled, tickling Jane’s chin as he left the kitchen.
Laurie parked in front of the Aherns’ house, then took Jane from the backseat. As Lynne got out, Renee joined them, Paul’s hand in hers. “Need some help?” Renee called.
“Yes and happy Thanksgiving,” Lynne said as Paul ran to meet Laurie and Jane. That threesome chatted as Renee reached Lynne. The women didn’t speak, but grasped each other’s hands. Then Renee gave Lynne a one-sided hug.
“Happy Thanksgiving,” Renee said softly. “Pies in the back?”
Lynne nodded. “How’s Ritchie?”
“The same.” Renee collected the pies, then faced Lynne. “They’re thinking of removing the tube today, see if he can breathe on his own.”
“And how’s Brenda?”
“This morning she said that if he wakes up and apologizes, she’ll take him back.” Renee sighed. “Not sure that’s the best idea, but he’s not my husband.”
“What if he wakes and doesn’t apologize?”
Renee stared at Lynne. “I dunno. She never mentioned that option.” Then Renee smiled. “How are you feeling?”
“Better today. Laurie and I had a long talk and….” Lynne looked at the sky. “Did you see the sunrise this morning?”
“We did actually. Looked a lot like….” Renee paused. “I’m glad you’re here.”
“Me too. Looks like we’re only waiting on Marek.”
Renee gazed at the cars gathered near her house. “Have you heard from him lately?”
“Not since we told him about Ritchie.”
“Well, this isn’t easy on any of us. C’mon, decaf’s waiting.”
“I’d love a cup,” Lynne said, matching Renee’s steps toward the house.
Pastor Jagucki arrived shortly after the Snyders and Laurie were settled, and Sam introduced Marek to Vivian as children were sent outside to play. The three youngest stayed indoors, but Ann, Helene, and Jane raised little fuss in the living room while Marek made small talk with Vivian, Louie, Laurie, and Lynne. Sam was the only man in the kitchen, but his wife and sister spoke about topics compatible to his nature, mostly to do with how the Nolans were coping that day, as well as the Kennedy family. Sam wanted to watch President Johnson’s speech, and would serve dessert afterwards. The turkey was nearly done, potatoes peeled and sitting in a pot on the stove. Both Laurie and Marek had volunteered their services in the kitchen, bringing to Sam’s mind that evening at St. Matthew’s when Marek had gotten all the men to do the washing up. But Sam didn’t consider what had happened after that meal; as Frannie and Renee laughed softly, Sam concentrated on his first Thanksgiving as a father. While Eric and Ritchie’s conditions were precarious, many blessings sat in Sam’s view. He gazed at his wife, who smiled at whatever Fran had just said. Fran chuckled, then she stepped Sam’s way. “Time to start the spuds?” she asked.
He nodded and Frannie turned on the burner. Sam watched as Renee stood next to Fran, both talking at the same time. He didn’t hear their words, only the tenor, a lovely blend of motherly tones, one a little wiser than the other. Sam inhaled the wonderful fragrance of his family, and not merely that of his sister and her large brood. He stepped to the doorway, gazing at Ann playing with Helene and Jane at the end of the sofa where Lynne sat. When it was time to eat, there wouldn’t be a free seat, but maybe that was how holidays at the Aherns would come to be remembered. Then Sam met Marek’s gaze, which made Sam tremble inwardly. That man was how Sam used to be, even if Sam was married. Marek had a parish to oversee, but often he was alone. Sam longed to speak to that Pole, but there wouldn’t be time today. Maybe in the next week, Sam considered, as Marek smiled, then joined Lynne on the sofa. Sam returned to the kitchen finding Frannie and Renee in a tight embrace. Fran motioned for her brother to join them, and as he did, Fran began reciting the Lord’s Prayer. Sam added his voice, but Renee only sniffled.
Savoring his last bite of turkey, Marek gazed at those near him, the older Canfield children and Laurie, with Jane at Laurie’s side. She seemed blissfully unaware of who was missing, but Eric’s absence was glaring to the pastor, in part for having spent this holiday with the Snyders last year. Laurie’s presence seemed to exacerbate Eric’s nonattendance, although Marek knew Laurie longed for his other half. Lynne had invited Marek for supper tomorrow night, and while it wouldn’t be leftover turkey, he relished the chance to speak openly to Lynne and Laurie, but not about the expected topics. He wanted to ask Lynne if she might be willing to play hostess to a particular guest even if the new baby was but a few weeks old.
When Marek wrote to Klaudia, proffering a written invitation, he left no question as to where he would prefer her to sleep, in the spare room at St. Matthew’s. However, if she desired, he could find her alternate accommodations. Marek didn’t care if his flock knew he had invited a guest to stay over, not even Mrs. Harmon’s objections would change Marek’s mind. If anyone raised an eyebrow, Marek would gladly inform them of his connection with Mrs. Henrichsen. And if further queries were broached, he wouldn’t hesitate to reveal how precious was this reunion, that for over twenty years Klaudia had thought Marek was dead, alongside his entire family, at the hands of the….
Marek didn’t believe it would come to that, nor was he certain just where Klaudia might feel most comfortable. Staying at the Snyders might actually be harder on her than if she slept a few doors down from Marek’s room. But he would let her decide, and he smiled, hoping his written invite would reach her soon. He had nearly called her that morning, but it would have done little good; she was at work while he was celebrating an American holiday with an interesting assortment of Catholics, Protestants, and one Jew.
Yet Laurie’s faith seemed to weave harmoniously among these people. Only Vivian Kramer stood out, not leaning toward the heavily Catholic side, nor did she seem aligned with Lynne and Marek. She wasn’t Jewish, Marek smiled to himself, but she chatted amiably with Laurie, assuming he was Lynne’s brother. Did she even know Laurie was Jewish, Marek wondered. Paul called him Uncle Laurie, and Ann had too. But Vivian had affirmed her relationship with her niece and nephew, bringing to Ann a stuffed bear. That toy had been given right before everyone sat to eat. Marek didn’t know the story behind it, but Ann had seemed subdued afterwards, yet she’d clutched the bear all through the meal. Marek could see her seated beside Renee, that bear now laying across the youngster’s lap. Marek would ask Lynne about it tomorrow if they needed a break in the conversation. Then Marek gazed at Ann, who was whispering something to her mother. Marek had no trouble assigning that term to Renee, not only for how much mother and daughter resembled one another. Motherhood had been lurking right under Renee’s skin, and now she could freely claim that role, as she whispered something to Sam.
He leaned over Renee, then spoke to his daughter as naturally as Louie had admonished his youngest children throughout the afternoon. Marek hadn’t minded sitting with mostly teenagers, for Laurie sat across, and tomorrow Marek would enjoy a pleasant discussion with Lynne and the man who filled Eric’s shoes with aplomb. Not that Laurie was any substitute for Eric, but since Laurie’s arrival, Marek hadn’t worried about who would look after Lynne. That thought had troubled him all summer and fall, especially after Sam and Renee became parents. Marek wouldn’t shirk from defending Klaudia’s visit, but he had to maintain a reasonable distance from Lynne and Jane or risk starting rumors. Laurie had seamlessly woven his way into the Snyder household and most at St. Matthew’s believed he was Lynne’s older brother. Marek doubted than any of them knew Laurie was Jewish; he didn’t wear a yarmulke on Sundays, only his New York accent set him apart. Marek smiled, for Laurie and Stanford had only come to St. Matthew’s together once, for Jane’s baptism. The Snyders hadn’t yet been members of the church, and Marek rightly predicted that no one would recall Laurie’s earlier visit, on Easter no less, when many unfamiliar faces filled the building.
Sam stood, catching Marek’s attention; maybe Sam wanted to make a little speech. He had already announced that pie would be served after President Johnson’s address, which Marek was eager to hear. He’d found himself quite wrapped up in all that had occurred last week, the outpouring of grief remarkable. Many parishioners had gathered at St. Matthew’s last weekend, needing to mourn their president, a Catholic president even. But John F. Kennedy was remarkable on many levels, his religion merely one aspect of his character, although it was exceedingly important to most within that home. The teenagers had spoken of Kennedy with great admiration in their voices and Frannie had wiped away tears when Marek hugged her. That sorrow wasn’t solely connected to Renee’s brother, although Marek felt Frannie must have considered her stay at that hospital over a year ago. Even Louie had seemed touched, strongly shaking Marek’s hand. To these people, Kennedy had been a shining example of religious equality. His death was a crushing blow not only to his family, but to Catholics at large.
Marek waited for Sam to speak aloud, but Sam merely walked to where Lynne sat on the other side of their table. They were seated in the living room, while Marek and Laurie were in the kitchen. Laurie had his back to the others, but Marek could see how Sam knelt beside Lynne, then seemed to ask her a question. Lynne gazed at Ann, who nodded, then took the bear from her lap. She got off her chair, walking to where her father and Lynne waited. Ann handed over the bear, pointing toward Lynne’s baby. Marek met Laurie’s gaze, then motioned to the other room, where now silence had fallen over the table.
“Are you sure?” Marek heard Lynne say.
Ann nodded again, placing the bear beside Lynne’s empty plate.
Lynne looked up, finding Marek’s gaze. She seemed to seek his attention, and as he stood, Sam also waved him in their direction. Marek patted Laurie’s shoulder as he headed into the living room.
“Yes?” Marek asked, as he stood next to Renee.
“Ann wants to give her bear to the new baby. And she’d like to know if you could bless the bear.” Sam’s tone had been sincere at first, then had turned tentative. Then Sam shrugged, making Marek smile.
“What a lovely gesture.” Marek looked at Ann as he spoke. Then he winked at Sam. “I’d be happy to bless that bear.”
As Marek made his way around the table, he noticed that Laurie had collected Jane, and now stood near Renee, the Canfield teens also joining the rest. Marek placed one hand on the bear, the other on Ann’s head. He spoke seriously, but with an underlying joy for Ann’s kindness. And that the baby would find great pleasure not only for this gift, but in Ann’s friendship for years to come.
Ann looked especially pleased with Marek’s comments and she happily skipped back to her chair. The rest appeared in various moods, from astonishment on Vivian to appreciation upon Fran and Louie. Helene looked intrigued, while from across the table, Jane seemed perplexed. Renee blinked away tears, then Marek met Sam’s gaze, which was a mixture of all those reactions. Marek chuckled; Sam was probably most surprised that he was willing to bless a stuffed animal.
But it was the proper response on a day where counting one’s blessings was paramount. Marek then glanced at his watch, noting it was nearly three o’clock; didn’t they want to watch….
Before he could finish speaking, Sam nodded. “Oh yeah, thanks Marek.”
“Should I turn on the TV?” Laurie asked Sam.
Fran and Sally had started clearing plates, then Will, Jaime and Denise began to assist. Renee tried to stand, but Fran waved her off, and quick work was made of the table, which was folded up, then placed in the hallway. Marek assumed it would be pulled out again for dessert, but as everyone found a place to sit, attention was focused on the television, where for the last week most of the news had been disseminated. Even Marek had turned on the little black and white set in the library, usually covered by a cloth, as Mrs. Kenny thought it disrespectful to keep a TV where books should be feted.
As the presidential seal appeared on the screen, a hush fell over the living room. Marek had never heard Lyndon Johnson speak and was immediately struck by his Texas accent. Mostly Marek was drawn into how genuine were his words; Johnson probably hadn’t written this speech, but it was delivered as though he had labored over every sentence. The sentiments weren’t oppressive, but respectfully optimistic. And full of God’s presence, which Marek found interesting. He observed those with whom he was gathered; even the teens paid attention. Lynne seemed at peace, although Marek was curious; did she empathize with Jackie Kennedy, wondering about Eric’s well-being? Marek inwardly shivered, then as President Johnson concluded his remarks, Marek prayed for those with whom he stood and for those loved by these people, some of whom were gone. He glanced at Vivian, who showed no outward effects from her niece’s death. Then he gazed at Renee, her brother’s condition still uncertain. Then Marek thought of Klaudia; that she was alive was perhaps the biggest blessing within his life, even if she was far away. Would he see her in 1964? He smiled, then sighed, as murmurs wafted through the room, opinions about the speech mingling with requests for dessert. Marek headed for the kitchen where Sam already stood, slicing into pies. “Need a hand?” Marek asked.
“Sure,” Sam said. “Can you get out the ice cream? I wonder what kind of pie Lynne brought besides the sweet potato?”
“I don’t know,” Marek chuckled, for neither she nor Laurie had revealed what fruit lay under that crust. Marek retrieved one container of vanilla, then closed the freezer. “What else can I do?”
“Just be ready to grab a plate and fork.” Sam smiled, then motioned for Marek to have a seat. Others entered the kitchen, offering their assistance, and Sam told them much the same, although Fran started scooping ice cream as Renee set forks on plates with slices waiting. Within minutes dessert had been distributed, Marek taking his piece of sweet potato pie into the living room, sitting next to Lynne, who only had a caramel slice on her plate.
“No pie for you,” he asked.
“I can have pie anytime,” she smiled.
“Indeed. This is truly my favorite, you know.”
She chuckled, then patted his leg. “I know.”
Marek savored his pie, not missing the bear, sitting on the coffee table. “What a lovely gift,” he said quietly.
“There’s a story behind it,” Lynne said.
“I imagine there is. Perhaps you can share it with me tomorrow.”
She nodded, then finished her caramel slice. “That was delicious. You’ll have to show me how to make them.”
“It’d be a pleasure.” Marek looked at those gathered near, most of whom were Canfields. “Such a nice afternoon this has been.”
“Yes, but I think we’ll be on our way soon.”
She sounded weary, which didn’t surprise him. “Well, you let me know what time tomorrow.”
“Anytime is fine.”
He gazed at her, peace shining in her brown eyes. “How about mid-afternoon? That way if you can rest….”
“That’s fine Marek.” Lynne grasped his hand. Then she met his gaze. “He’s safe, wherever he is. I have to believe that until someone proves otherwise.”
Her voice had gone to a near whisper, but conviction rang through that quiet tone. Marek offered a solid grip, then released Lynne’s hand. He agreed with her, but didn’t need to note that affirmation.
In Texas, Dora Richardson stepped from her house, staring into darkness. She had watched President Johnson’s speech with a heavy heart, although she found his cadence much easier to understand than President Kennedy’s had been. Yet Lyndon Johnson’s tone had been so subdued, even if his words were meant to lift this nation. Dora was glad the space center in Florida was going to be renamed for John Kennedy. She also agreed with Johnson’s assertion that God had created all men, and of course women, in his image. Then she smiled. Walt believed that too, he was as neighborly with Negroes as he was with whites. The Boldens were probably their closest friends, but then Walt and Callie had Korea in common. Yet Susie had tended Dora when she suffered both of her miscarriages, and Dora had helped Susie when she’d birthed her youngest child. Dora’s mother wasn’t too keen on how friendly were the two families, but what if Hannah knew about the stranger still recuperating in the shed?
Dora and Walt had agreed that Hannah would have to be told, but hopefully as soon as Mr. Doe was walking on his own, he wouldn’t stay much longer. Unfortunately, his memory was still gone, and while Dora had overheard Luke and Tilda speculating on possible reasons, Dora had decided the stranger wasn’t much different than her own husband. Maybe he was luckier, she thought, for if you couldn’t remember the past, it wouldn’t hurt you. Dora gingerly ran a hand over the baby. This child was keeping Walt’s nightmares at bay, and filled a hole in Dora’s heart that maybe one day would heal. Then Dora blinked away tears, thinking of Mrs. Kennedy; had she and the president’s family watched Lyndon Johnson’s address? How in the world was Jackie Kennedy supposed to find any peace?
A breeze blew around Dora, and she shivered. She couldn’t say any of this to Walt, yet it bubbled inside her. Then she flinched as a flashlight’s glow appeared to her left. “Well,” she said, clearing her throat, but not moving those notions from her mind. “How is he?”
Walt joined her on the porch, then grasped her hand in his. “He spoke, could barely make it out though.”
“What’d he say?”
“Just thank you, he said thank you. Sounded like a bird chirping, but maybe tomorrow he’ll be stronger.”
“My goodness,” Dora sighed, placing her hand over her heart. “Well, at least he ate a little today.”
“Yup, seemed to like Susie’s pie all right.”
“He’d be a fool to turn down sweet potato pie,” Dora smiled.
Walt tapped his foot. “He’s still real weak. I know it’s gonna be tough, but there’s no way he’s gonna be in any shape to do more than lay there for another good week. And if he still doesn’t know his name….”
“I know, I know.” Dora didn’t like hiding him, but on this topic she felt the same as her husband. Then she sighed.
“Dora, you want me to, well, ask around some more?”
“Oh no, I mean….” She sighed again, then led her husband toward the front window. “I’m just tired, been a long day.”
He nodded, then stroked her cheek. “I think he realizes it’s Thanksgiving, Luke probably said something to him, not sure how much he understands though.”
“Does he know about….”
“About the president.”
Now Walt sighed. “Well, I didn’t tell him. Not sure if Luke did.”
Dora nodded, then looked at her feet.
“Honey, if he doesn’t know his own name, he probably doesn’t remember other stuff, much less who the president is.”
“I was just asking.”
“I know, I know you were.” Walt grasped her hands again. “We’ll give him a few more days, then I’ll tell him. Let’s see if he talks more tomorrow. I’ll probably only work a half day, so we’ll see how he’s doing in the afternoon.”
“Oh Dora….” Walt pulled her close, and she permitted that embrace. But instead of collapsing against him, Dora held back a part of herself. Walt sensed that separation, for he let her go, sighing as he did so. “We’re not gonna fight about this, are we?”
“What’s to fight about? He’s dead. Nothing for you to worry about anymore.”
“It’s cold out here. I’m going inside.” She walked around him, then stepped into the house, hoping that she was right. Kennedy was dead, nothing more for Walt to hate about him.
On Sunday morning Lynne, Laurie, and Jane attended services at St. Matthew’s, then stayed for lunch. A newfound closeness was realized between the three adults; Marek had shared his invitation to Klaudia while Laurie had mentioned his thoughts regarding Eric’s return, upon which all three agreed. Lynne had told the story of Ann’s gift to the coming baby, and both men had been silenced at that tale, also how initially that bear had been a way for Renee to finally address looking into adoption. But on that first day of December, conversations centered on more immediate concerns; Jane needed a new bed, which Laurie and Lynne would choose that coming week. And Marek had a recipe to share, those caramel slices quickly becoming a favorite of Laurie’s. Then the talk turned to Renee’s brother, who seemed on the road to recovery. Ritchie was breathing unaided and Brenda had agreed to take back her husband. That was qualified by several caveats, the main being that Ritchie wouldn’t simply go right back to their marital home. A lengthy stay in rehab was necessary, for his left leg had been badly damaged in the accident. The last Lynne knew, doctors weren’t sure if he would be able to walk unaided, perhaps requiring a cane. Yet for how severe were his injuries, it was a miracle that he was alert, also contrite. Once he’d been able to talk, Renee informed Lynne, all he wanted to do was apologize.
Those apologies had been extended beyond Brenda and their children; Ritchie sought his parents’ forgiveness, also his siblings’ clemency. The family’s priest had been visiting daily, but while Ritchie had taken communion, only the bread had been shared. Laurie had heard these details, but Marek was amazed, also cautious, as was most of Ritchie’s family. Renee didn’t believe her brother could stay sober once he was back home. But Lynne would continue to pray for that man’s recovery, both physically as well as from alcoholism. According to Renee, Ritchie had confessed that ailment almost in the same breath as seeking Brenda’s mercy. Renee had been there, on Friday morning, when her brother had finally regained consciousness, making that plea. Fortunately, Renee had told Lynne, Paul had been happy to stay at home when those declarations were uttered.
Eric wasn’t mentioned during lunch, but as the foursome exited the church, Marek glanced upwards, finding a sliver of blue amid the clouds. It had been nearly five months since Eric had headed to Florida, and over two weeks since he’d left that state. Marek sighed, then met Lynne’s gaze. She nodded as though realizing the same details.
Yet, what was there to say? All three adults felt that Eric would return, or as Lynne had aptly said on Thanksgiving, until she had proof otherwise, she had to trust he would come home. Marek patted Lynne’s shoulder, then smiled. “Thank you for joining me on this first Sunday in Advent.”
“It was our pleasure,” Lynne said. “Christmas will be here before we know it.”
“Hanukkah’s right around the corner,” Laurie smiled.
“Indeed. How will you celebrate?” Marek asked.
“You know, I haven’t really thought about it.” Laurie looked at Jane. “Suppose I’ll need to pick up a few treats for this girl. And maybe something for Ann and Paul too.”
Lynne chuckled as Jane looked intrigued. “That will be quite fascinating to hear you explain,” Marek said. “Please include me in those festivities.”
Laurie laughed. “Eight nights’ worth of pajamas whether I needed them or not.” He stroked Jane’s cheek. “But for this girl, something special, maybe a dress or new shoes or….”
“A piece of pie or a very small caramel slice.” Lynne brushed aside Jane’s curls. “Perhaps some new hair bows.”
“That sounds perfect.” Laurie winked at Lynne. “But in the meantime, Miss Jane needs a new bed. We’ll take care of that this week.”
“Indeed.” Lynne patted the baby. “And on that note, time for two of us to take an N-A-P.”
Marek chuckled. “Has it come to that already?”
“Oh yes,” Lynne smiled. “In fact, I may have you teach me some Polish. She might find going to sleep is more easily brokered in that tongue.”
Marek nodded, then spoke in Polish to Jane. At first she seemed surprised, then she nodded. Laurie laughed. “What’d you tell her?”
“Only that the baby was tired, and she could be a big girl and show her younger sibling how good it was to rest.” Marek kissed Jane’s cheek. “And with that, I bid you all a snoozy afternoon.”
Embraces were exchanged, then Laurie and Lynne headed to the Snyders’ car. Lynne got in the front passenger seat as Laurie put Jane in the back. Laurie waved to Marek, then got in the car, pulling away from the curb. Marek observed them leave, wondering when it would be Eric again behind the steering wheel, ushering his family to and from church.
As Jane was laid in her crib, John Doe stirred from his nap. He wasn’t sure of the time, for the shed was mostly dark, although the window near his bed had been washed; Luke had done that on Friday, but since then the weather had been dreary, not much to see from where John rested. He had started to think of himself as John, although the way Luke said Mr. Doe also reverberated through the man’s mind. So respectful was that youngster, his accent with a sing-song quality that had alerted the man to one part of his identity. John Doe was clearly not from this part of the country, which was east Texas, he’d also learned, Karnack being the childhood home of Lady Bird Johnson. Then the man sighed, for immediately that evoked a terrible incident which had deeply affected Luke’s mother. Luke’s father, however, seemed less troubled that President Kennedy was dead. Perhaps Walt preferred a Texan in charge.
John Doe had accepted that news with a modicum of sadness, although he had no idea if he’d voted for Kennedy or Nixon. Walt had told him about the assassination not long after Luke had washed the window. The family had been in and out over the weekend; John Doe had been introduced to Luke’s younger sisters, then told of Walt’s neighbor, who had provided the clean bedding. That man was named…. While John Doe couldn’t recall any of his past, some new information was also hard to retain. From what Walt had said, John had been found near the lake when Walt and Luke went fishing. But the days had blended together, so the man wasn’t exactly certain how long he’d been in the Richardsons’ care. He’d be staying here indefinitely, mostly due to his amnesia. Walt couldn’t fathom letting him depart until he knew who he was, not to mention his shoulder, which was healing, but still a mess. The man didn’t need anyone to tell him that, for he couldn’t move his right arm, and while he had been able to bend his wrist a few days ago, now he could barely wiggle his fingers.
At least he could talk now, although his voice was still squawky. While his tone wasn’t similar to those of his hosts, neither was his language. He’d overheard Luke’s sister tell her brother that Mr. Doe sounded like a teacher, although Tilda’s voice had been kind. And if John remembered correctly, Dora had spoken something similar in regards to his hands. They weren’t those of a laborer, had that been how she’d phrased it? But now only one of John’s hands was worth anything; he made a fist with his left, staring at his fingers as he released it. Then he gazed at his right hand. He curled it as tightly as possible, but he couldn’t close it into a fist, mostly due to pain. His entire right arm was affected, either numb near his shoulder or very tender further along the limb. He tried bending his wrist, but the ache was excruciating, and he closed his eyes as tears formed. The pain wasn’t merely within his arm; his heart ached alongside that action, as if a great loss had been incurred. John sighed heavily, wiping his face with his left hand. Then he reached for the wrench, tapping it on the seat of the metal chair.
Within minutes Luke appeared, but as usual, he waited at the door. John knew it was decorum that held back Luke, although the little boy still joked about how badly Mr. Doe had first smelled. “Hey there Mr. Doe, how you feeling after your nap?”
“Fine,” the man said. His voice was still hoarse, and he wondered if Luke had heard him.
The boy stepped inside the shed. “Oh that’s good. You’re sounding a little better too.” Luke stood on the other side of the metal chair, a smile on his face. “You always seem better after you sleep. How’s your arm feeling?”
The man sighed. “About the same.” Actually the pain was worse, but he didn’t wish to upset the child. “Is your dad here?”
“Daddy’s at Mr. Bolden’s, but he’ll be back pretty soon. What do you need Mr. Doe?”
John stared at Luke, those blue eyes reminiscent to something in his past. Luke looked like his father, although his coloring was all from Dora, as was his sisters’. Yet the girls appeared like their mother, or at least Tilda did. But Luke’s eyes had stirred something deeply within the man, maybe it was just how kind was this boy, also responsible. John rarely saw his mother, although eventually his care would fall upon her. “What day is it?” he asked Luke.
“Sunday sir. Going back to school tomorrow.”
Then Luke sighed, which made John smile. “Do you not like school?” he asked.
Luke shook his head, then he chuckled. “No, it’s okay. You sure talk funny Mr. Doe.”
“Yup. You have this funny accent, but it’s also the words you say: Do you not like school?” Luke tried to imitate John’s accent, then both laughed. “My goodness Mr. Doe, where’re you from?”
“I sure wish I knew. But I don’t think it’s anywhere in Texas.”
“No sir, I agree with you.” Luke sat on the chair. “So Mr. Doe, what can I get for you?”
“Maybe some lunch, or dinner? What time is it?”
“It’s two. Mama made a plate up for you, I’ll go fetch it.” Luke stood from the chair, ran to the door, then stopped. “Mr. Doe, are you still off chicken?”
John inhaled deeply, then let it out. The idea of poultry had bothered him yesterday, but as Luke spoke, that notion wasn’t offensive. “You know what, let’s try some. Leftover turkey?” he asked.
Luke chuckled. “Nope, it’s a surprise. Be right back.”
John smiled; the boy’s exuberance was a tonic, yet it contrasted sharply with his parents’ moods. John wasn’t sure if that was due to what they understood about him and his injury, or perhaps they weren’t as gregarious as their eldest. Tilda was a little shy around him, but from what John had overheard when she stepped from the shed, she was as lively as her brother. Then John concentrated. She reminded him of someone, but not from her looks. Her mannerisms were just like those of.… He closed his eyes, but nothing emerged, not a face or a name or any hint to his past. He sighed in frustration, then shook his head. Yes, he’d known John Kennedy was president, that Lyndon Johnson was the vice president, but nothing attached to John’s history was accessible. He hadn’t yet considered if those details were permanently lost, but he had accepted that his right arm would probably never serve any useful purpose. He was right-handed, or had been; he wasn’t adept at feeding himself, but was making progress. When Luke returned with lunch, John expected the boy would ask if he wanted assistance. And depending on how badly his right arm ached, John might let Luke do the honors. Sitting up for extended periods made him dizzy. Just how long would he be indebted to this family for his care?
Luke stepped into the shed, the savory scent of meat alongside him. “Okay Mr. Doe, this’s one of Mama’s special dishes, so if you don’t like it, I’ll be happy to finish it for you. It’s chicken and dumplings, and oh my goodness, it’s probably my favorite meal.”
John took another deep breath, but this time he smiled. “It smells delicious.”
Luke grinned broadly. “I’m glad to hear you say that. I mean, I’d have eaten it, don’t misunderstand. But you need something more than just bread and vegetables. Here, let me help you….”
“It’s all right, let me see if I can do it.” John used his left hand to push himself forward. He moaned slightly, for to move his upper body was painful, but he had to start exerting himself as if in rehabilitation. He smiled thinking of it like that; if he said those words, Luke might laugh, or maybe not understand. As John leaned back against the wall, he sighed. “My God that hurts. But that smells so good. Luke, can you help me?”
The boy nodded, but looked subdued, spooning up a bite. “Here Mr. Doe.”
John ate what had been offered, then gazed at Luke. “What’s wrong?”
“Do you swear a lot Mr. Doe?”
John stared at the boy, then shook his head. “I don’t think so. Did I say something wrong?”
“You took the lord’s name in vain.”
“Oh yeah, I guess I did. I’m sorry.” John pondered his statement, then wore a small grin. “I’ve heard your dad use that word sometimes.”
Luke nodded. “He does. Makes Mama angry though.”
“I’ll try not to. Can I have another bite?”
“Oh yeah, sorry ’bout that.” Luke offered another spoonful and John ate it thoughtfully. The taste wasn’t overwhelmingly that of chicken; it was salty, although not brackish. Then he smiled at himself; that was a vocabulary word if ever he’d heard one. Maybe he had been a teacher, or someone well educated. “It is delicious. Your mother is a fine cook.”
Luke nodded, then chuckled. “I’ll tell her you said that. I think she was starting to worry that you didn’t like her cooking.”
“I guess my aversion to poultry is gone.”
John used aversion on purpose, then waited to see Luke’s reaction. As expected, the boy stared at him, then shook his head. “Mr. Doe, you sure like big words. What’s aversion mean?”
“Not liking. But Luke, I very much appreciate chicken and dumplings.”
“Me too,” Luke smiled, holding out another spoonful. “Aversion, aversion. I’ll have to use that in school tomorrow, see what Mrs. Thompson thinks.” Now Luke laughed. “She might give me extra credit for spelling, well, if I could spell it.”
“How do you think it’s spelled?”
“Um, I dunno.” Luke pondered it, then gave it a try. John shook his head, then explained the S-I-O-N ending. Luke shrugged. “My goodness Mr. Doe, you must be a teacher, or maybe a professor, like at a college or something. Mama doesn’t think you work with your hands, she says….” Luke abruptly stopped speaking, then cleared his throat. “You want more dumplings?”
“That I would, thank you.”
Quickly John took a bite, which was followed by several more offered in rapid succession. He finished what was on the plate, which made Luke chuckle. “Guess you were pretty hungry Mr. Doe.”
“I guess I was. Please tell your mother she’s an excellent cook.”
Luke nodded. “I’ll do that right now.” He stood, gripping the empty plate. “You need anything else sir?”
“Just have your dad come out when he gets home.”
“Okay, I sure will.” Luke stepped away, but paused at the door. “Mr. Doe, what do you think you used to do?”
John sighed. “I wish I knew Luke, I wish I knew.”
“Me too. I bet it’s nothing I ever heard of before.” Then the boy skipped away, humming to himself.
As John ate lunch, Walt shared a slice of pie with Callie Bolden. They had been discussing that strange man still dwelling in Walt’s shed. As Callie heard the tale, he imagined that stranger would be hanging around the Richardsons’ for a good while. “You sure nobody heard of him?” Callie asked, although he’d posed this question already.
“Nobody’s ’fessed up to it.” Walt sighed, then set his empty plate on the overturned box in Callie’s small barn. “Who’s gonna admit they shot a man? No one with any brains,” Walt snickered.
“You think that Bellevue boy did it, doncha?”
Walt sighed again. “At first I did. Now….” Walt crossed his arms over his chest. “He’d have to have done it after he and Luke split up, but I’m sure Hiram just went home. Luke says Hiram was as scared as he was afterwards.”
“Not surprised about that,” Callie said slowly.
Walt nodded. “Heard he went to church last Sunday with a shiner. Now, if Pop thought Hiram’d done more than shoot a bird, good lord. That kid’d be buried six feet under.”
Callie rolled his eyes. “Pop Bellevue’s crazy.”
“I agree with you. That’s why I don’t think Hiram went back to the lake. Someone else shot that man there, and I mean right there. No blood anywhere but right where I found him, and there was a lot of it. Damn surprising he didn’t bleed to death, he barely had a shoulder when I….”
Walt paused, but Callie didn’t act as if he noticed. There was something odd about this man, and not just that Walt had found him at the lake. But Callie knew Walt well enough that if Walt wanted to tell him, Callie would have to be patient. Callie had seen the man just last night, but he’d been asleep. Walt had done a good job dressing his shoulder, or what was left of it. But the way Walt acted, it was as if something else had been wrong with him, although Callie knew he had amnesia. Callie had hoped the man might be awake, he’d never met anyone with that ailment. Again, patience was necessary, although like Walt, Callie didn’t think anyone around Karnack would confess to having shot the fellow. And other than Pop Bellevue, Callie knew no one, Negro or white, with that much anger, or reason, to do something so cold-blooded. Especially now, Callie considered, the sting of President Kennedy’s death still at the surface.
“Well, I should be going.” Walt stood, then smiled. “Need to thank Susie for the pie before I leave.”
Callie smiled. “You know Susie, any reason to bake.”
Callie went to his feet, then followed Walt from the outbuilding. Walt headed to the Boldens’ front porch, from where girls’ voices could be heard. “Miss Susie, thank you for the pie,” Walt called.
Susie Bolden stepped onto the porch, wiping her hands on a dishcloth. “You’re surely welcome Walt. Give Dora my best.”
Walt grinned. “I’ll do that. Have a good afternoon!”
“You too Walt, you too.” Susie waved, then stepped back inside the house.
Callie rubbed his balding head as Walt turned his way. “All right, well again, thanks for those blankets. Not sure when I’ll get ’em back to you but….”
“No hurry. Lemme know if I can be of help.”
Walt nodded. “I’ll do that.” Walt gazed at the sky, then stared right at Callie. “You gonna be around tomorrow?”
“Could you stop at the house? Dora’s a little under the weather and I know work’ll be busy.”
“I’ll stop around mid-day. Can he get to his feet yet?”
Walt shook his head. “I’ll tell him that you’ll be by.”
Callie nodded, then cleared his throat. “He won’t mind that it’s me, will he?”
Walt inhaled, then let it out slowly. “I don’t think so. But I’ll bring that up.” Then Walt wore a funny smile. “He knew who was president, so he’s aware of a few things. Wonder what he’ll make of you.”
Callie had a mischievous grin. “We could surprise him.”
Walt smiled. “Oh, that would be something to see. Dora’d have my head though if I didn’t tell him properly.”
Callie chuckled. “I’ll knock first at the house, make sure you’ve laid the groundwork.”
Walt nodded. “You do that, but I bet it’ll be fine.” He shook Callie’s hand, then stepped toward his truck. “Sleep good tonight.”
“You too Walt, you too.” It was the men’s usual farewell regardless of the time of day. As Walt started the pick-up, Callie waved, then watched as Walt drove away. Only when the dust had settled did Callie turn around, praying for Walt and that stranger as he stepped inside his house.
Susie sent her husband to the Richardsons’ with an apple pie, the scent of which filled the cab of Callie’s old truck, making his mouth water as he reached Walt’s driveway. Callie parked at the start of the driveway, although his truck was known all over that part of Harrison County. It was better to be reserved when approaching any white man’s home, especially when the man of the house was away.
Callie didn’t consider the stranger any representative of the Richardson family; he and Susie had talked about it last night once their daughters were asleep. Susie felt God had sent that man to Karnack, although she didn’t know the reason. Callie assumed his wife was correct, she usually was about things like this. She had accurately predicted the gender of all four Richardson offspring, although Dora’s two miscarriages hadn’t been expected. Susie seemed to think Dora was again in the family way, but Callie wouldn’t insinuate anything so personal. He’d wait for Walt to tell him, which if Susie was right wouldn’t be until well after the new year.
Carrying the pie in two hands, Callie hummed as he walked, staring toward the back of the Richardsons’ house, but the shed door was closed. Callie wore a small smile, which widened considerably as Dora stepped onto the porch, little Gail in her mother’s arms. Callie was fond of all the Richardson children, but after that last miscarriage, to see Dora with a healthy child…. “Good morning Miss Dora,” he called, holding out the pie.
“Morning Callie. Now, what’d Susie do this time?”
He approached the house, but wouldn’t step on the porch. “Oh you know Miss Susie. Too many apples in the barrel, she says.” He put the pie on the front step, then backed away, taking off his cap and wringing it in his hands. “How you feeling today Miss Dora?”
Her smile was slow, then she chuckled. “Okay. And you?”
“Oh, you know, doing all right.” But he didn’t smile. Around Dora, Callie could let down a little of his guard, especially a subject about which he would never speak with Walt. “Still quite a shock you know. We’re all just tore up over it.”
Now Dora looked stricken, and for a second Callie regretted mentioning it. Then she sighed, kissed Gail’s head, setting the child on the porch. Gail toddled toward the pie, making her mother giggle. “Don’t you think about it girl.” Dora picked up the pie, then smiled at Callie. “This’s just beautiful. Susie’s such a blessing.”
“She is a blessing indeed.” Callie grinned, letting the previous subject pass. Then he cleared his throat. “So how’s he doing this morning?”
Dora looked to the side of the house. “Ate all his breakfast, urine’s clear, finally.” She sighed, then smiled. “Seems eager to meet you.”
Dora nodded. “I was standing by the door when Walt told him about you coming to check on him. Must know a few Negros wherever he’s from. Says that sweet potato pie tasted just like home.”
Callie laughed. “Well, that’s a surprise. I’ll hafta see if Susie’s the best baker.”
“Well, you let her know if he thinks she is. Otherwise, his opinion doesn’t count in my book.” Dora again gazed at the pie. “Callie, thank you. And please tell Susie….”
“She’ll come with me tomorrow afternoon if Walt wants more help.”
Now Dora looked pained. “Yeah, I’ve been not feeling so good lately.”
“Well, you just take care Miss Dora.” Callie looked at Gail. “And you take care of your mama, okay?”
“Pie?” Gail asked both adults.
“No pie now, but after supper….” Then Dora giggled. “Actually, Mama’s got Esther for the morning. Maybe we’ll have a slice when they come back.”
“Well, give Miss Hannah my regards.”
Dora had a sly grin. “Oh I’ll be sure to tell her you said hello.”
Callie laughed. “Indeed. All right, off to meet Mr. Doe.” Callie tipped his cap to the ladies, then put it back on for the short walk to Walt’s shed.
The first knock was soft, then was followed by two more. Those stirred the man, who had been dreaming about something from his past. He blinked, trying to recall the memory, then grunted in frustration. “Yeah, come on in,” he mumbled.
“Mr. Doe? I’m Callie Bolden. Mr. Walt told you I’d be stopping by today.”
“Come in, sorry, I was taking a rest.” The man hadn’t thought of himself as John since Luke left for school. He smiled, then looked up, a large Negro grinning back at him. “Nice to meet you,” John said, then he chuckled. “I’m John Doe, at least for another day.”
“Well Mr. Doe, it’s a fine pleasure.” Callie Bolden gripped a weathered cap in his hands, then stuck out his left, which at first confused John. Then he realized the significance and shook it warmly.
Their eyes met and John could only gape at the man. He looked so familiar, but the precise manner of similarity eluded. “Please, sit down,” John said softly.
“All right, I will.” Callie pulled the metal chair back a few feet, then sat, still gripping his hat. “How you feeling today sir?”
“Uh, okay.” John hesitated, for that wasn’t the truth, but only with Walt had he been completely honest. From his right elbow down, his arm felt as if on fire, while the upper part was totally numb. That numbness extended into his chest and neck, although sometimes he could feel his collarbone. That morning he had stood on his own for nearly a minute, but then had felt so weak, he thought he might pass out. Walt had stayed right beside him, then demanded that he not get up again unless someone was present. John took that to mean maybe Luke, certainly not Dora. But around this man, John thought it might be time to again get to his feet.
“Are you really feeling all right?” Callie asked, raising his eyebrows.
John chuckled. “No, actually I’m….”
He sighed, then explained his symptoms. Callie nodded, then placed his hat on the little table near the head of the bed. “All right, let’s get you up, see what happens.”
John nodded, then sighed loudly. “What?” Callie asked.
“It’s just that it’s gonna hurt. But I don’t have much choice, do I?”
“No sir, I’m afraid you don’t. Why don’t you sit up as best you can, then I’ll lift you on this side.” Callie gently tapped John’s left shoulder.
“Yeah, that’s probably the best way.” Using his left arm, John maneuvered himself in a mostly upright position. Then he slowly swung his legs over the bed, letting them dangle until he found the floor. He pressed his feet onto the bare ground, which felt cool under his toes. He was still dressed in Walt’s old clothes; did this man know that Walt had found him undressed? John stared at Mr. Bolden, how he thought of him. “How long’ve you known Walt?” he suddenly said.
Callie looked taken aback. “Um, well, we both was born and raised here, so I guess I’d say all my life.”
John nodded. “Do you have any idea how I got here?”
Callie shook his head. “No sir, I surely do not. Mr. Walt don’t have no idea neither.”
“He said when he found me my arm was hanging by a thread.” John looked at his bandaged shoulder. “Said he could’ve taken it off with a pocket knife. Then the next day it was like it is now. Except now it hurts like hell and I kind of wish he’d have cut it off.”
Callie nodded. “Yes sir, I imagine it’s pretty sore. But let’s try and get you up sir. You’ll feel a lot better if you can be up and about, yes sir.”
John didn’t try to move. “Mr. Bolden, something terrible’s happened to me. I don’t know my name, someone shot me and left me for dead, and now this family’s, they’re, they’re….” John inhaled deeply. “I don’t wanna cause them any trouble, you know what I mean?”
“Yes sir, I do understand. But you’re not gonna get better by lying in bed.”
John sighed, then nodded. “I know, it’s just….” Now he shook his head. “Go on, lift me up, let’s see what happens.”
“There you go sir.” Callie smiled, then gently hoisted John to his feet. John’s legs wobbled, but it was easier to lean against Callie’s bulk than on Walt’s tall but slender frame. “Let’s take a few steps Mr. Doe,” Callie then said. “But just a couple, don’t wanna overtire you now sir.”
John chuckled. “You’ve done this before, haven’t you Mr. Bolden?”
John took a step, then one more, then stood still. “You know how to get someone to do your bidding.”
“Oh now sir, I’m just a friend of Mr. Walt’s, just helping him and Miss Dora you know.”
John laughed. “And you have a wife who makes excellent pies.”
“Well, Miss Susie does have a knack for pie crust, yes she does.”
John chuckled, then he paused. “Something about that doesn’t fit.”
John faced Callie, looking him up and down. “You remind me of someone, oh my God, someone I know well. Jesus, who is it?” John closed his eyes, then opened them, staring at Callie’s head. “I don’t mean to be rude, but when did you start losing your, well, your….” John raised his eyebrows, then looked at the top of Callie’s head.
“Oh sir, I was just eighteen when this happened.” Callie laughed, running a hand over his mostly bald head. “Well, maybe seventeen. Most of it was gone when I got home from….” He paused. “Let’s get you back in bed sir, that’s about all you need to do this morning.”
“From Korea, you were gonna say Korea, weren’t you?”
Callie was just easing John back onto the bed. “How’d you know that?”
“I don’t know. But whoever you remind me of went to Korea too.”
Callie pulled up the metal chair, then sat right across from John. “Don’t tell me he was a Negro.”
John smiled, shaking his head. “I don’t think so. I do think he was in a need of a hat though.”
Both men chuckled, then Callie again rubbed his head. “Well, if you remember anything else, be sure to tell Mr. Walt.”
John nodded. “I’ll do that.” John studied Mr. Bolden’s face. “Something about Luke’s eyes are familiar too, they’re so blue. And his sister, Tilda, she reminds me of someone else, Christ, it’s so damn frustrating!”
John slammed his left hand onto the bed. Then he inwardly shivered, recalling how Luke had chastised him for swearing. “I’m sorry, excuse my language.”
“Don’t bother me none sir. I heard much worse in the army.”
Now John smiled. “I guess you did. So did my friend, he doesn’t swear much either. But then he’s Catholic so….”
John laughed, then he gasped. “Oh my God, I remember, his name is, it’s…. Oh come on, come on!” John closed his eyes, but other than a balding white man, nothing more emerged. John sighed, then opened his eyes. As he did, he gasped again. Callie was shaking his head, twisting his cap tightly in his hands.
“What’d I say now?” John inhaled sharply, then let it out slowly. “Please Mr. Bolden, I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to….”
“Whatever you do, don’t tell Walt, you hear me? Oh good lord, don’t you tell him at all.”
“I’ll tell you why not, because Walt can’t stand Catholics. He finds out your best friend’s Catholic, he’ll up and think you are too.” Callie stood, setting the chair beside the bed. Then he looked at John. “Are you Catholic?”
“I, I dunno. I guess I must be if my best friend is.”
“Well now, let’s not get in a rush. Walt’s probably my best friend and I ain’t white.”
John smiled. “You must not be Catholic either.”
Callie laughed out loud. “Oh no, I ain’t no papist, that’s what Walt calls them. But between you and me, if I coulda, I woulda voted for Mr. Kennedy. But that’s the past. Now like I said, you keep this fella to yourself, you understand? Although you said he was in the army, right?”
“Yeah, he served in Korea. God, how can I remember that and not my own name?”
“I don’t know sir, but it’s a start. You just keep all that to yourself and I’ll tell Miss Susie how much you liked your pie. I brought another, apple. Maybe you’ll remember something after you have a bite.”
“Maybe. I’ll tell you though, your wife makes one of the best sweet potato pies I’ve ever had.”
“One of the best?” Callie acted insulted, then he grinned. “I won’t tell her that part.”
“It’s very good, but I’ve had it before and….” Now John’s head ached. “Too much for one day. But thank you, it felt good to get up.”
John smirked. “It hurt like hell, but I gotta start somewhere.”
“Now that you can share with Walt. But not about your friend, you remember?”
“Yeah, I’d gotten the feeling he wasn’t too upset about what happened.”
“No, he wasn’t. Now let me also tell you that while Walt is one of my very good friends, we don’t share all the same views. As I said, if I coulda, well….” Callie shrugged. “It was a pleasure meeting you Mr. Doe. Maybe I’ll come by tomorrow, we can continue our little therapy session then.”
John nodded. “Mr. Bolden, that would be my pleasure.”
“Oh now sir, you call me Callie.”
“Only if you’ll call me John.”
Again their eyes met. “John it is,” Callie smiled. He extended his left hand, which John shook with all the strength he had. Then Callie clasped John’s hands in his own. “John, you take care today and I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“You take care too Callie.”
“That I will do.” Callie grabbed his hat, tipped it John’s way, then waved as he exited the shed.
As soon as he was outside, he put back on his hat, then walked to the front of the house. Dora stood on the porch, but Gail wasn’t with her. Dora’s mouth twitched and she looked frightened. Callie glanced back at the shed; had she overheard them? “Well, I got him on his feet,” Callie said flatly. Then he met Dora’s eyes, which were large in her face. “Can’t be up for long, but if you and Walt want, I’ll stop by again tomorrow, maybe in the afternoon. I’ll bring Susie with me if she’s done teaching.”
Dora nodded, then stepped to the edge of the porch. She peered around the corner, then gazed at Callie. “Did he say his best friend was….”
“Oh my lord!” She clasped her hand over her mouth. “You think he’s….”
“I don’t know. Neither does he. And for now, what he doesn’t know is just fine regarding that matter.”
Dora shivered, then nodded. “Callie, I can’t stop thinking about it. Can’t tell Walt that, but….” She sighed, then folded her arms over her chest. “It’s just so terrible.”
“It is indeed. Miss Dora, all we can do is pray for Mrs. Kennedy and those children, pray for President Johnson, and pray for that man in there.” Callie motioned toward the back of the house. “We’ll pray he remembers who he is and then he can be on his way.”
“Yeah, yeah, you’re right.” She wore a half smile, then she swallowed, covering her mouth with her hand. Before Callie could speak, Dora ran to the side of the porch, then vomited. Callie walked to where she still leaned over the porch, then he handed her a handkerchief.
She wiped her mouth, then stood, staring at him. “Thanks Callie, thank you.”
“You’re welcome Miss Dora. You gonna be all right?”
Her lip trembled and she gazed at the shed. The door was mostly closed, but Callie imagined John had heard Dora being sick. “I’ll be all right. Give Susie my best.”
“I’ll do that. See you tomorrow?”
She nodded. Then she reached out her hand, the handkerchief grasped in her fist.
“You keep that,” he said. “Might need it later.”
Now she chuckled. “Did Susie tell you?”
“Tell me what?” Callie feigned ignorance.
“Go on,” Dora smiled. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“See you then,” Callie said, heading to his truck, hoping that if John was Catholic it would remain lost to the man, or at least unknown to Walt.
The first two nights Jane slept in her new bed held little rest for a mother and uncle, but not due to a toddler’s distress. By the third night, the adults were thoroughly exhausted, and if Jane had decided to raise a fuss, they might not have heard her. Yet Jane slumbered with ease, and by the end of the first week of December, it was as if Lynne lived with a different little girl.
At nearly twenty-one months old, Jane was stringing together two and three words, eating with a fork and spoon, and had started using her potty chair as more than a spare seat. Jane preferred walking everywhere, although when she was tired, Laurie was permitted to carry her up the stairs. Lynne allowed Laurie that task, for she was eight months along and feeling every day of her confinement. She still did the cooking, although both she and Laurie joked how pleasant it would be if Agatha decided to take an impromptu vacation west. Yet they knew how vital was Agatha’s current station; she was Stanford’s only connection to this somewhat inexplicable world.
Lynne still wrote Stanford a weekly note, slipping in a photo of Jane. Did he notice the changes Lynne couldn’t ignore, how Jane’s curls were turning into large waves as hair settled along the middle of her back. That her once chubby arms and legs had grown muscular as she tried to keep up with Helene and Ann. That her blue eyes were turning a tiny bit gray, or maybe only Lynne saw that alteration. Sometimes when she gazed at her daughter, Lynne felt as if she was peering at her husband, or maybe she missed Eric so much she was tricking herself. But Lynne didn’t speak of that, for she wasn’t the only one separated from her beloved. And while Stanford had Agatha with whom to talk if he chose, both Lynne and Laurie knew that man would keep his feelings private. Laurie had recently chatted with Agatha, but she only reported that Stan was working long hours, then spending his evenings with his father. Agatha was worried about him, but other than prayer, her hands were tied.
On Friday, the Snyder-Abrams clan met with most of the Aherns for morning mass. Jane and Ann stood quietly, coloring books and crayons strewn across the pew, while their parents and uncle absorbed the Advent readings. All six trooped to the altar, Laurie receiving a blessing right after Father Markham blessed Jane and Ann. Lynne relished taking communion, gripping Renee’s hand as they returned to their seats. After Father Markham dismissed them, Lynne didn’t immediately stand, although her back ached. She admired her surroundings, wondering when Eric came home, might they attend morning mass together.
“You okay?” Renee asked softly.
Lynne nodded, then she sighed. “I always feel at home here. Wonder what that means.”
Renee squeezed Lynne’s hand, then began gathering crayons. “Just that regardless of the place, your heart’s aware of what matters most.”
“That must be it.” Lynne went to her feet, then laid her palms along the middle of her back. Sam and Laurie were waiting in the aisle, each with a girl in his grasp. Lynne smiled at them, Sam with Jane while Laurie held Ann. He was telling her he had a surprise for her and Paul, which would start next week. Laurie had already spoken to Sam and Renee about celebrating Hanukkah with the children; Marek had found a menorah at St. Matthew’s, and while no one could imagine what it had been used for, Laurie felt it was auspicious. The first candle would be lit next Wednesday after an early supper shared by those with whom Lynne called family. Then she had a droll giggle, a Lutheran considering a Jewish holiday within a Catholic church.
Perhaps she would ask Father Markham if he would like to join them. He had given her a warm smile as the bread and wine was shared, then offered blessings in an equally sincere tone, even if Ann was the only one who would eventually join this church. Yet Jane would grow up with this faith as part of her spiritual heritage, then Lynne glanced across the room, flickering candles catching her eye. She looked forward to lighting those Marek had found, tucked alongside the menorah in a closet at St. Matthew’s like they had been waiting for this particular Hanukkah. But their meaning wasn’t the same as those lit at St. Anne’s. Lynne’s heart ached, but she took a deep breath, exhaling slowly. Then she gazed at Sam. “I’ll be right back.”
He nodded, adjusting Jane in his arms. Then Lynne caught Laurie’s eyes. “Wanna light a candle with me?”
“Uh sure.” He smiled at Ann. “Shall we light some candles together?”
“What for?” she asked.
“For those we love who’re far away, like Jane’s daddy and Laurie’s….” Lynne hesitated for only seconds. “Other half.”
Laurie smiled, but Ann looked confused. “Who’s that?” she asked Laurie.
“Stanford,” Laurie said.
“Oh, okay.” Ann smiled.
Renee’s soft giggle followed a trio heading across the church. A few older ladies were praying as Lynne found two tea lights. She lit them, saying a brief prayer for Eric and Stanford. Then she grasped Laurie’s free hand, placing her other hand where the baby kicked from within.
“Are you all right?” Laurie said quietly.
“It’s funny how little things make it easier. I didn’t grow up with any religious symbolism, but I find such comfort in….” She blinked away a few stray tears. “They’re just candles, yet….”
“All together there’s a lovely glow in this part of the church.” He chuckled softly. “Shall we come again on Monday?”
Lynne stared at him. “You wouldn’t mind, would you?”
“As long as Father Markham puts up with me.” Now Laurie laughed. “I just won’t tell my mother.”
Lynne nodded, then leaned against Laurie. Ann pointed to the flickering lights, then called for her mother as Sam, Renee, and Jane joined them.
That afternoon Lynne wrote Christmas cards while Laurie spoke to Rose. Jane napped during those activities, then she and Laurie walked in the garden while Lynne cooked dinner. The weather was relatively mild, although cold temperatures were forecast for next week. Laurie didn’t miss ice and snow, but other longings stirred within his heart. Rose had asked when he was coming home and he had finally admitted he had no idea, also telling her that he would be celebrating Hanukkah. She had given him her recipe for latkes, but hadn’t asked about his separation from Stanford. Not that Laurie had wished to speak about it, but he had been ready with a reply. Yet now, as he put Jane into her tall seat, Laurie was grateful for his mother’s discretion. Was Stan spending that evening again at Michael’s, or was Laurie’s other half alone in the apartment?
Was Stanford still Laurie’s…. Laurie sighed, then sat next to Jane. Her cheeks were pink, as they had explored as much of the backyard as Laurie felt was safe. He’d avoided the studio, but no longer was Sam’s unfinished portrait on display. At Lynne’s request Laurie had put all the canvases into the storage building. Other than the sofa, stool, and a few tables, the studio now looked abandoned.
Laurie gazed at Lynne, who wore an apron over her clothes. He smiled, for she appeared enormous; had she been this large with Jane? Then Laurie sighed; for as sure as he felt about Eric’s return, no such certainties existed when it came to where Laurie would go once that man stood in this house. Laurie clasped his hands on the table, then shook his head, folding his arms over his chest. Then he gazed at Jane, who stared at him. “I wonder what’ll happen,” he said absently. Then he inwardly chided himself. “My goodness, but I’m getting old.”
“Are you now?” Lynne brought two plates to the table, setting one near Laurie, the other in front of Jane. Then Lynne sat at the table, her own dinner in hand. She took a bite, then patted Laurie’s shoulder. “None of us are getting any younger.”
“No, I suppose not.” He took a bite, then chewed thoughtfully. Then he gazed at Lynne. “This’s delicious.”
“Thank you. Maybe you should call him tonight.”
“He’s probably at Michael’s.”
“There’s only one way to find out.” Lynne wiped her mouth with a napkin, then gripped Laurie’s hand. “If nothing else, I’ll call him this weekend. Haven’t heard from him about the exhibit lately. He hasn’t written me since….” She sighed. “The assassination.” Lynne released Laurie’s hand. “I was giving him this week, sort of how Marek is still waiting to hear from Klaudia.” Then Lynne smiled. “We’re a funny threesome, all pining for those we love.”
Now Laurie chuckled. “I sort of hope I’m still here when she visits.” Then he sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“To be honest, I hope you are too. Even if Eric comes home tomorrow….” Lynne again gripped Laurie’s hand. “Stanford may very well not wanna accept the truth. Besides, two kids would be greatly disappointed if suddenly you weren’t here for next week.” Lynne giggled. “Have you decided how you’re gonna explain Hanukkah?”
“Not yet. My mother sure thought it was interesting though.” Laurie had a wry chuckle. “It sounds like Seth’s doing well in Tel Aviv; Aunt Wilma got a letter from him. She’s taking his decision to go over there better than Mom is.”
“Maybe it’s easier for Wilma than for your mother.”
“Oh, I know it is. For how long did she….” Laurie paused, then he gazed at Lynne. “Aunt Wilma’s a lot like you, living like someone she loved so much was always just beyond where she could reach him.”
Immediately Laurie regretted his words, but Lynne squeezed his hand again. “You’re right,” she said, tipping his head to where their gazes met. She smiled, then she looked at Jane. “But I never thought I’d have his baby, two of them even.” She patted her belly, then released Laurie’s hand. “I can’t begin to fathom all that’s happened, maybe that makes it easier for me to accept faith. There’s no rational explanation, not for any of this. It’s just….” She smiled. “A miracle, more than a few of them. But who believes in miracles these days?”
Her tone was teasing, making him laugh. “Indeed. I’ll try Stan at home and if he doesn’t answer….”
“Then I’ll try him tomorrow. And we’ll just keep trying until one of us gets through.”
Laurie nodded, taking a deep breath. Jane giggled, making Lynne chuckle. Laurie relished their mirth, praying for others to know this joy.
By Saturday night neither Laurie nor Lynne had reached Stanford, but as Sunday dawned in Norway, Klaudia had started to believe she might travel to America in the coming year. Marek’s written invitation had finally arrived, and her affirmative reply had been sent. Sigrun hadn’t verbally said I told you so, but in so many other words that sentiment had gently been placed upon Klaudia’s kitchen table, where the women casually spoke about the pastor’s request as though weekly Klaudia received such offers. Klaudia had appreciated Sigrun’s relatively subtle reaction, although once an actual date was set, Klaudia expected Sigrun’s excitement would increase forthwith.
The women had discussed how Klaudia would travel; Klaudia didn’t care, as Marek had said he would pick up her fare. Klaudia did wonder where she would stay, not overly keen on sleeping at the church, nor was she interested in staying with that painter and his family. She had enough vacation time for a ten-day trip, twice as long as she was away from home when she visited her son. She had no worries that something might happen to him while she was gone, and Sigrun would collect Klaudia’s mail. But ten days away from her routine, even with its usual disruptions, would be the longest stretch since…. Klaudia sat in the kitchen, smoking a cigarette and drinking coffee. For over a decade the mundane had ruled, for other than visiting her son, Klaudia never went anywhere outside of the city. There had been nothing to interest her, she sighed, finishing what was in her cup. But now an adventure beckoned.
In writing back to Marek, Klaudia had revealed some of her excitement; she looked forward to a break in the frigid weather, and while she was terrified of using her English, she couldn’t wait to hear Marek speak that language. Would he sound differently, or would it be as if he had adopted a slightly altered dialect? Might he call her on Christmas, she had also wondered, but not put within her reply. She couldn’t deny a hopeful sense, but didn’t wish to raise those expectations too far.
Sigrun had asked if she would buy some new clothes, attire more weather-appropriate, Sigrun had then quickly added. Klaudia had sniffed at that, then later considered some new trousers might be useful, maybe a pair of boots too. She rarely spent money on her wardrobe, for there had been no one to impress. Then she had chided herself; did she wish to entice Marek? He was a minister, after all. Then she had found herself blushing; they were adults, and why else did he want her to travel all that way if not to…. If he asked, she wouldn’t hesitate, and to hell with any of his uptight parishioners. Klaudia had laughed at that thought, and Sigrun had chuckled alongside her. Now reconsidering such a notion, Klaudia couldn’t dismiss what might occur if they did sleep together. It wasn’t another child she feared, only what making love with Marek might do to her heart.
As she toyed with the handle of her mug, she could picture him sitting across from her like this was his church kitchen, and they were sharing coffee on the morning after. His smile was…. She couldn’t imagine how he might seem, for her recollections were from their youth. All she had to go on was that painting, his beard making him look much older, also causing him to appear vulnerable, or maybe that was due to the baby in his arms. Her heart started to pound, and she shut her eyes, but that image was burned onto her brain, how calm was the infant, how peaceful Marek seemed. Then Klaudia shook her head, opening her eyes. If they slept together, she would take precautions. Perhaps she would be so bold as to pack rubbers. Then she giggled, which turned into laughter. If Sigrun happened to remark upon such an idea, Klaudia would act as if she hadn’t given it a single thought.
But what if Marek did ask her? He was a pastor, yes, but also a man, and…. After Gunnar’s death, Klaudia had enjoyed a few flings, but none had turned into anything serious, not that the opportunity hadn’t presented itself. Klaudia was single for a reason, and while she might use her son as the excuse, it wasn’t his fault that she never remarried. Had she subconsciously been assuming one day a figure from her past might reappear? She pondered that while getting up for more coffee. Then she stared out the kitchen window, the street covered with a fresh layer of snow. Thankfully it was Sunday, no need to leave the house. Tomorrow the street would be cleared, at least enough for the buses to run. She smiled, having forgotten what she’d been considering. This was her life, in a country where winter lasted forever.
As she returned to the table, she glanced at the seat across, then trembled. A man’s outlines hovered in that chair, as though Marek Jagucki was trying to get her attention. “I said I’d come,” she spoke aloud. “What more do you want from me?”
The figure blinked, then vanished. Klaudia set the cup on the table, then retrieved a cigarette. She lit it, taking a long drag. Still holding the smoke, she sat down, setting the cigarette between her lips, again inhaling deeply. As she exhaled, the apparition seemed to flicker, then it faded away. Klaudia shook her head, then gripped her mug. She sipped slowly, for the brew was still hot. But the idea of being intimate with Marek made her shiver. Better that she stay with the painter’s family than be close to someone so dangerous.
On Monday morning, Renee and Sam dropped off Ann at the Snyders. The Aherns were meeting with their lawyer, a few papers to sign for the pending adoption, which would take effect in two weeks, two days before Christmas. But before they headed to the attorney’s office, they stopped at the hospital where Ritchie was still receiving care. Renee’s brother was healing at a rapid clip, and could be transferred to the rehab facility by the end of the week. He was also sober, which to Renee was as big of a surprise at how fast he was recuperating. Sam chatted with Ritchie as Renee spoke with the nurses, and the couple shared their conversations once in their car. Sam claimed it was as if Ritchie had been given a new lease on life, while Renee mentioned something along the same lines; the nurses had a hard time believing this man had previously been a drunk. Renee still wasn’t sure her brother could maintain that sobriety, but Sam seemed to give Ritchie the benefit of the doubt. Just as Renee was going to question Sam’s attitude, they arrived at the lawyer’s office. The process was straightforward, as Vivian had already signed all the necessary forms. No other relatives could challenge the Aherns’ request to make Paul and Ann Hamilton their children. In fourteen days, those orphans would legally be Sam and Renee’s offspring.
On the drive back to Lynne’s, Sam held many thoughts, but kept quiet as Renee noted how exciting it was, and what good timing. Her tone was giddy, then she grew hushed. Sam grasped her hand. “Honey, what?”
She sighed. “You don’t think the timing is bad, do you?”
“Well, just that it’s been….”
At the end of the week, Eric would have been out in the wild for one month. Sam couldn’t get that from his mind, regardless of what he was doing, be it caring for the kids, cooking, or counseling vets. He did very little of that now, but even when speaking with Ritchie all Sam could think was what if it had been Eric in that bed? Something had happened to him, although none of them had stated what was obvious. Sam squeezed Renee’s hand, then he slowed for a yellow light. Then he glanced at his wife, a few tears along her cheeks. “Honey, he’d have wanted us to do this, of that I have no doubt. Maybe it seems a little strange, but we’re the only ones to see it that way.”
Renee nodded, for that was true. Their families were thrilled for them, even the Nolans tackling Ritchie’s accident. Then Sam cleared his throat, for an issue he needed to broach. The light turned green and Sam hit the accelerator. “Renee, when Ritchie’s out of the hospital, I wanna give him and Brenda the Bel Air.”
“You wanna what?”
Sam stifled a chuckle for the shock in Renee’s voice. “I’ve been thinking about it for a while now. They can use it and we’ll still have two vehicles.”
“But why not give them the old car? Sam, are you sure you’ve thought about this?”
He nodded. “I have, and I’ll tell you why.” Sam took a breath, then shared what had been weighing on him over the last…. He sighed often as he spoke, for it wasn’t just Eric’s extended absence or President Kennedy’s assassination. It was about giving Ritchie the benefit of the doubt, which Sam had not done for Lynne years ago, nor was Stanford doing it now for…. Sam stumbled over Laurie’s name, but he continued, noting how maybe he’d be proven wrong, but it was better to err on the side of forgiveness than to assume the worst. Sam coughed as he said that, for every day Eric remained missing made Sam wonder if that man could possibly get home. He wanted to believe Eric would return, and while he’d never say anything to Lynne, doubts were creeping into Sam’s head. He didn’t allude to that with Renee, but his tone was that of a man torn by wishing to hope while facing reality. Sam would go to mass tomorrow, lighting a candle for Eric. Maybe he would do that every day until Eric returned.
Renee mumbled her assent, although Sam thought she was crying. As he reached the Snyders’ road, Sam pulled over. Renee was in tears and he leaned over, taking her in his arms. “Honey, we have so much and your brother and Brenda….” Sam didn’t know how that couple would pay for Ritchie’s medical bills. If they needed help, Sam was ready to offer assistance, and Lynne had said the same. “The old car runs fine and we’ve got the Impala. It’s just a car Renee, but they could use it. No use taking up space in front of Lynne and Eric’s house, although I know Laurie likes tooling around in it.” Sam wore a small grin, then he kissed Renee’s cheek. “You can ask Brenda, see what she says. I can’t imagine they’d look a gift horse in the mouth and….”
“Samuel Ahern.” Renee shook her head, then caressed his cheek. “Just when I think I’ve got you figured out, my goodness.” She giggled, wiping tears from her face. “What’ll you think of next?”
He rolled his eyes, then grinned. “Just that in two weeks Paul and Ann will have our last name, what could be better for Christmas than that?”
Renee nodded, then her tears restarted. Sam felt sheepish, then pulled her close again. He stared ahead, seeing their old car in the distance. Only one thing would be better than what Sam had considered, but that was out of his hands. He prayed for Eric’s eventual homecoming, whispering to his trembling wife that it was going to be okay.
In Manhattan, Agatha returned from shopping, then ate a late lunch. She missed Laurie; occasionally he would join her for the noon meal. The few weeks he had been back seemed hard to recall; it was if Laurie had never come home, which made her teary. How many years had she been in Stanford’s employment, taking it for granted that this couple would always be together. She didn’t ponder where Eric was, only that Laurie was far away from where he should be.
After lunch she wandered around the apartment, but there was nothing to clean. She stopped in the library, admiring the figurines. How funny that Seth had chosen to go to Israel, but it was probably for the best. She left that room, then headed across the hall, stepping into the guest room. She turned on the light, but nothing was amiss. She sighed, then went to leave. As she did, she saw the sketch on the dresser.
She picked it up, feeling a chill. But the warmth from Eric’s vision traveled through the image, winding its way under Agatha’s skin. Then she thought of another drawing, of herself, Belle, and Lynne. Indeed that woman had been expecting, but Eric hadn’t realized it consciously. Agatha giggled, unable to hide the joy she’d felt when asking Lynne how she was feeling. Now she was probably very tired of being pregnant, but that was typical. Good that Laurie was there lending a hand.
Yet, why wasn’t he here? Not that anyone could be two places at once, but…. Agatha placed the sketch back on the dresser, then turned off the light. That morning Stanford had told her she needn’t stay once she had finished the shopping, for he was dining out with his father that evening. While Don might appreciate her home early, Agatha felt compelled to remain in Manhattan for a few more hours. She had something to tell her boss and if he fired her afterwards, at least she had spoken her mind.
Stanford was surprised by Agatha’s presence; he was also pleased, but kept that to himself as he thumbed through the mail. No letters from Lynne had arrived, which also maintained the art dealer’s good mood. When Eric returned, Stanford expected to hear of it via the telephone, although he wasn’t certain who would make that call. Stanford would prefer Lynne, Sam Ahern even. But Sam wouldn’t call unless Lynne wasn’t well enough to speak, and that would only be the case if the baby had arrived or…. Stanford grimaced, then looked at Agatha, who was staring at him from across the kitchen. “Yes?” he said, forcing an authoritative tone.
“I have a question to ask you, that’s why I’m still here.”
“Well, ask.” He sighed inwardly, having hoped she had stayed merely to make small talk. Yet Agatha wasn’t that sort. He glanced at her, finding she had crossed her arms over her chest, a pose so unlike the one Eric had drawn of her in that sketch. Stanford hadn’t seen it since the day he’d left it in the guest room, but assumed he would never forget the image regardless if he ever laid eyes on it again.
Agatha hummed for a moment, then she cleared her throat. “Do you not love Laurie anymore?”
Stanford trembled at her words, then coughed hard for her plaintive tone. “What did you just ask me?” he sputtered.
“You heard me. Now just answer the question. Do you not love….”
“How dare you ask something so, so….” He nearly stomped his foot, yet gazing at her, he also felt a great weight attached to her query. If he lied, he might as well give her two weeks’ notice, although it would be more like she was firing him. They stared at each other, then he blinked. “What business is my personal life to you?”
“Oh for goodness sake!” Agatha threw up her hands, then placed them on her hips. “Do you love him or not?”
“I, I, I….” He shook his head. “I am not going to speak about this with you or anyone else. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to change for dinner.”
He turned around, but his legs wobbled. All he had to do was reach the dining room, then if he had to crawl to his room, at least he could do it behind that closed kitchen door. As he took one shaky step, tears could be discerned. He shut his eyes, but that didn’t mask a sound he wasn’t sure if he had ever heard before. Was she crying, and did he dare investigate?
One awkward sniffle gave him pause, then he couldn’t help himself, facing the strongest woman he knew. Lynne Snyder was another, but she had never confronted the obstacles that Agatha met daily, then rose above. Stanford couldn’t bear to hurt her, yet her question had been intrusive. Or had it, he mused, as he approached her, then gave her his handkerchief, which she took, then used to dab at her eyes.
Then she met his, and the sorrow etched deeply along her brow and around those brown eyes took his breath. It was if someone had died, and he gasped, then shook his head. “Agatha, really, it’ll be….”
“Don’t tell me it’s gonna be all right, because until he’s here giving you hell, it’s not gonna be anywhere near fine.” Her voice was tight and he had never heard her swear. Then she continued. “He still loves you, didn’t wanna go, although he’s being put to good use. But Stanford, you have to let him back in. In this house and inside….” Gently she placed her palm over Stanford’s heart. Her touch lasted for seconds, yet the sensation was so intense that Stanford expected to feel it resonate for…. He wasn’t sure, although for the first time since that awful argument in the library Stanford’s heart didn’t throb.
The quiet lingered as Agatha shook her head, again folding her arms over her chest as if she was cold. Then Stanford cleared his throat. “He said things that couldn’t possibly be true. How am I supposed to permit that?”
“Has he ever lied to you, ever given you any reason to doubt him, has he?”
Against his will, Stanford shook his head. “But I simply can’t forget this, this incident.” He sighed, then tapped his foot. “Unless he can apologize….”
Now Agatha caressed Stanford’s cheek. “As long as I’ve known Laurie, all I’ve ever seen is how devoted he is to you. He loves you unreservedly, you know he does. Now maybe he said something that defies belief. But can you stand there and tell me that he said those things to purposely hurt you? Because I just can’t believe he’d ever wanna hurt you.”
You have no idea how I’ve tried to protect you… Those words wafted through Stanford’s mind alongside the ragged tone Laurie had used during much of that argument. He’d claimed to be tired, but exhaustion hadn’t been at the root of Laurie’s altered demeanor. Then Stanford shivered. Laurie had changed, and if his assertion was taken as fact, someone else had as well. If Stanford shared that allegation, Agatha would probably roll her eyes, then pat Stanford’s shoulder, offering her regrets. Yet Stanford couldn’t relate that insane rubbish, he had to….
“Stanford, if I know anything in my life, it’s that Laurie loves you. Now, I can’t tell you what to do, but I will say this; you think living is what you’ve been doing for the last few weeks, well it’s not. What you’ve been doing is pretending. And I’ll also say this; if that’s truly what you wanna do, all right. You’re free, white, and well over twenty-one. So’s Laurie. Maybe you’ll find someone else, who knows? Maybe he will too. But neither of you’ll be happy. You’ll regret this for as long as you live. Trust isn’t built in a day, Stanford, it takes years to accrue. Anything else is just empty promises. Has he ever given you any reason to not trust him, doesn’t all of that count for something, or are you really just gonna push him out the door?”
Sam didn’t throw his wife to the street… If Stanford called Sam Ahern, would he corroborate Laurie’s statement? Did Stanford have enough guts to even ask such a nonsensical…. Then his guts rumbled, for even thinking about this made him ill. “Agatha, I do not wish to speak about this. Now as I said, if you’ll excuse me….”
Yet he couldn’t move, for the fear in her eyes pierced him. He hadn’t answered her question, not that she required his verbal reply. But did Stanford still love Laurie, would he, God forbid, miss him if perhaps Laurie moved on? Would Laurie, could he…. Stanford sighed, then shook his head. “What he said was something I can’t reconcile. How am I supposed to move past that?”
“Can you just trust him, can you do that?” she said softly.
“I, I don’t know.”
She nodded, then grasped his hand. “I trusted you.”
He stared at her, momentarily confused. Then he sighed, recalling their first interview. He told her his roommate was a man and that they were…. Together was how he had phrased it. Stanford had decided to be honest with the prospective candidates, all of them Negros whom he most likely would never see again in his life. Agatha had been first on the list, and while she hadn’t been the only one unruffled by his statement, she’d been his preferred choice from the moment she entered this apartment. Yet, was the level of trust comparable, for what Laurie had said was completely unacceptable. Although maybe to those women what Stanford had mentioned was equally unbelievable.
Agatha released his hand, then looked him in the eye. “When you told me, I thought, well, he seems to know his own mind. And he’s honest, God help him. God help you both,” she smirked. “But he has all these years you two’ve been together. I know it hasn’t been easy, but you stayed loyal to one another, you trusted each other. Some of my kids don’t have it as good as you and Laurie, not sure why that is.” She shook her head. “But now, now….” Her lips trembled. “The last thing I want is for you to regret this. It’s not just Laurie I’m thinking about.” Agatha blinked away tears. “It’s hard Stanford, lord don’t I know it. But trust is the foundation of what you two share. Love, yes,” she smiled. “But for you two especially. He trusts you and you need to reciprocate. If you don’t….” Again she placed her palm over his heart, but this time she left her hand in the center of his chest. “You’ll wither into an old solitary man. That’s the last thing I want for you Stanford, the last thing in this world.”
He knew it was Agatha standing in front of him, but in those moments, his mother spoke through her. Stanford forced himself to remain standing, yet all he wanted was to collapse in Agatha’s arms. She nodded as if aware, then removed her hand. The emptiness returned, yet a faint echo beat from far within him, a pulse warm and…. It was the bliss of Laurie’s laughter, or how lovingly he whispered Stanford’s name. It was the possibility of…. Could he, was it even feasible…. Stanford wasn’t sure how he felt, other than incapable of having dinner with his father. Yet hunger gripped him, and his stomach rumbled as if to second that notion. “Why don’t you call Michael, tell him you’ll meet him tomorrow night. I’ll whip up some dinner and….”
Stanford nodded, then stepped away. Reaching the kitchen door, he stopped. Turning around, he saw Agatha opening the refrigerator. From the corner of his eye, he could make out Laurie, seated at the table, reading a book. Stanford blinked, finding Agatha at the stove, her gentle hum drifting through the room. Laurie wasn’t there, although Stanford would have sworn he was present. Stanford shook his head, then walked to the library, calling his father, rescheduling for tomorrow night.
John had known Callie Bolden for one week, but it seemed like all his life. Callie felt much the same, although while Callie reminded John of someone specific, Callie couldn’t place John within previous situations. He’d talked about it with Susie, and some with Walt. Walt thought it must be from Callie’s army days, to which Callie had outwardly agreed. But it wasn’t merely from his tour in Korea, although Callie couldn’t figure from where else memories of this odd man might have originated.
For Walt, the past week had felt much longer, but not all due to John Doe. While Dora was still pregnant, she was also very upset about what had happened in Dallas. The couple didn’t speak about that subject, but when they had a few moments alone, they talked about the baby. Dora was almost nine weeks along; if they could get through Christmas, then New Year’s…. Callie and Susie knew, although Callie hadn’t brought it up with Walt. But Walt was glad for their knowledge; they stopped by when time allowed, giving Dora a break from John’s care. Now that man was like any other wounded fellow Walt had encountered, although the mystery of how his arm and shoulder had reformed continued to puzzle Walt. And it puzzled Luke too.
Luke had managed to keep the secret, Tilda as well. But it was hardest on Luke, for Hiram pestered him to return to the lake. Other boys had heard about their adventure, but Hiram seemed to understand why Luke was avoiding him, for now Hiram treated Luke the way he did other kids, with a cruel eye seeking an advantage. Fortunately Hiram lived on the other side of Karnack. The Richardson youngsters walked home surrounded by their neighbors until they reached their driveway, where Luke would then break into a dead run, Tilda lagging behind.
While Mr. Bolden sometimes stopped by in the mornings, after school John’s care was solely in Luke’s hands. Luke made sure Mr. Doe had a fresh glass of water, that his pee jug was emptied, and that he was on his feet at least twice before Luke’s daddy got home. Mr. Doe still couldn’t remember who he was, although he had a few ideas about those Luke knew well. Mr. Bolden, for example, was like Mr. Doe’s best friend, in part that both men had lost most of their hair. Luke had laughed at that, but something in Mr. Doe’s voice had sounded sad. Luke assumed it was that no matter how hard Mr. Doe tried, he couldn’t recall details that would help them find his family. But sometimes Luke wondered if he reminded Mr. Doe of somebody, for he would stare at Luke with the nicest smile, yet it was like when Luke’s mother had been expecting Gail, something so good you just didn’t know if it would last.
A few nights back Luke had almost asked his father if another baby was coming, but then Tilda had interrupted them. Luke’s mother was still sick in the mornings, but she seemed better later in the day. Luke remembered that from when she’d been carrying Gail, so maybe all would be fine. Then Luke wondered if Mr. Doe knew, not that he’d said anything, but now Mr. Doe could walk around the yard if someone stood right beside him, usually Mr. Bolden when he visited or Luke’s father around suppertime. Mr. Doe was still very thin, and he couldn’t be on his feet for long. And of course he had amnesia. Luke wanted to tell his teacher that he could spell that word, but if he did, Mrs. Thompson might ask how he knew it. Mr. Doe was helping Luke and Tilda with spelling; for all Mr. Doe didn’t know, he was certainly a smart man.
Mr. Doe knew plenty about baseball, the Boston Red Sox especially. He remembered the Cuban Missile Crisis, which Luke had overheard his parents talk about last year, one of the few times his father spoke about President Kennedy. Mr. Doe felt very bad that the president had died, but he thought President Johnson would do a good job. Luke liked speaking to Mr. Doe, for he explained what Luke didn’t understand, whether it was ideas or new words. Then Luke would scratch his head; how in the world did Mr. Doe know all these things, but not his own name?
They didn’t talk about that, for the few times Luke had mentioned it, Mr. Doe became very quiet. Then he would stare at Luke as if Luke had the answer, but of course he didn’t. Once he told Luke there was something familiar about his eyes, but he wasn’t sure if it was the color or…. As Luke walked beside Tilda, he wondered about that. They were almost to their road, other kids behind them. Luke couldn’t wait to see Mr. Doe and he waved goodbye, then ran toward his house. That day Tilda didn’t try to race and Luke was in the shed speaking to Mr. Doe by the time Tilda reached the front porch.
But Luke didn’t ask a question that made his friend uncomfortable. He was starting to think of Mr. Doe as his friend, and friends, or good friends, tried to make each other feel better. “So Mr. Doe, what can I get for you?”
Seated on his bed, the man smiled. “I think I need a haircut. Gonna leave this alone,” Mr. Doe patted his left cheek, now covered by a thin beard, then he ran his left hand through his hair. “But all this could use a trim.”
Luke laughed, then heard Tilda clearing her throat outside the shed. “Well, that’s a job for somebody else.” Luke pondered who might do it; his mother used to cut his hair, but now he sat in the tallest seat at the barber. But they couldn’t take Mr. Doe there. “I’ll ask Mama, see what she thinks.” Luke looked around the shed; the water cup was empty, but the pee jug was full. Tilda was waiting to come inside; Luke could hear her shuffling just beyond the door. “I’ll be right back,” he said.
“Take your time, I’m not going anywhere.”
Luke chuckled. “Indeed Mr. Doe.” Luke walked to the door, then saw Tilda standing a few feet away. “Don’t go in there yet,” he said to her.
“I need to….” He grunted, then grabbed her hand, leading her away from the shed. He didn’t speak until they reached the porch. “I need to do some things before you can go in.”
“Like what?” She put her hands on her hips. “I can help, you know.”
Luke shook his head. “Not with everything. C’mon, you leave him alone.”
Tilda clucked loudly, taking her hand from Luke’s grasp, but she didn’t turn back for the shed. Together they went in the house, where their mother sat at the table, Gail on her lap, Esther in a chair next to them.
“Mama, Mr. Doe wants a haircut.” Luke smiled, then kissed his mother’s cheek. “How’re you feeling today?”
Dora gave him a quizzical look. “I’m okay. A haircut huh. Well, I’ll need to think about that.”
Luke nodded, feeling very grown-up. Maybe that was his favorite part of taking care of Mr. Doe. This wasn’t like keeping an eye on Esther or Gail, which was what Tilda was then told to do as Dora stood, setting Gail on the floor. “Tilda, you mind your sisters. Luke, I’ll be out in a few minutes.”
Luke nearly clapped his hands, for he knew his mother was going to get her scissors. “We’ll be waiting for you Mama.”
She nodded, then walked toward the back of the house. Once she was gone, Luke gave Tilda a triumphant glance, and she scowled at him. He raced out of the house, reached the shed, hollering that Mr. Doe was going to get a haircut. Then Luke emptied the jug behind the shed, and was waiting just beyond the shed door as Dora walked down the path, scissors in one hand, an old sheet in the other.
Ten minutes later John was seated on the metal chair outside the shed, covered by the sheet from his neck down. Dora stood behind him, cutting his hair as Luke stood in front, giving his opinion. In the distance Tilda and her sisters observed the proceedings, which John realized must be quite a show. He was glad, however, that his shoulder was concealed from the girls. While still heavily wrapped, it wasn’t more than a sharp slope from the base of his neck to where his right arm hung limply along his side. Walt had kept the wound free from infection, but no doctor alive could repair that sort of damage.
Dora had only asked how short did he want his hair. John had replied as short as possible without needing his neck shaved. She had giggled, which made Luke laugh, lightening the mood. John had still only seen Dora in passing, not that he could see her now, for she remained behind him, a snipping sound the only proof she was there. She reminded him of someone who preferred keeping themselves aloof. Tilda’s familiar sassiness made John smile, but it was Luke who tugged strongest at John’s heart, the boy’s blue eyes like a calm in the storm. John gazed at those eyes, but other than that familiar hue, John couldn’t place them.
Luke was chatty, making up for what his mother couldn’t, or wouldn’t, say. Luke talked about school, the weather, which was relatively mild for December, even in their part of Texas. He hinted toward Christmas, which was a little over two weeks away. John inwardly sighed; he’d been here for two weeks, and while he didn’t like imposing, there wasn’t much else he could do. Part of it was his injury, but most was simply from not knowing who he was or where he was from. The bits he recalled were fragmentary; he felt as if he’d lived in a rural setting, but not like Karnack. Yet he couldn’t fathom what he did, if he was married, or did he have children. He still wondered if he might be an escaped convict, but Walt had disallowed that, for no reports had surfaced in the news. Walt had pointed out that other than his shoulder, John had no scars or marks that might speak to a violent past. Sometimes John’s left foot ached, or maybe it was the memory of pain. Then John grimaced; why in the world couldn’t he recall anything of significance? His accent was more northerly, or perhaps from the west. Walt couldn’t place it, neither could Callie Bolden. Callie’s wife Susie had given John a good once-over last week, but other than noting that his arm, while healing slowly, was permanently crippled, she couldn’t ascertain from where his inflection might originate. Then John smiled; it wasn’t merely his tone, but the words he used, whether aloud or to himself. Not that these people were ignorant, only uneducated.
“Maybe this is good enough for now. Luke, whatdya think?” Dora stepped to where John could see her, but her arms were folded across her chest.
“Oh Mama, that looks much better.” Then Luke laughed. “Not that you looked bad before Mr. Doe, just shaggy. Yes, he looks pretty smart now.”
“Do you have a mirror?” John wanted to see Dora’s handiwork. Then he realized he hadn’t yet looked at his image. “Maybe just a hand mirror.” He wasn’t sure he wanted to see more than his face, which might appear unusual, what with the beard he’d grown since staying with the Richardsons.
“Tilda, go get my mirror,” Dora called. Then she stepped in front of John. “I hope it’ll be all right.”
He ran a hand through his hair, then smiled. “Feels better, thank you so much.”
She glanced at him, her eyes the same color as her daughters, but not as blue as Luke’s. Then John shivered, for as soon as she turned to the side, he could see she was pregnant. Quickly she faced the house, as if watching her youngest children. John wondered if that was why she’d been avoiding him; on occasion he’d heard her throwing up, maybe his injury exacerbated her condition.
Tilda ran toward them, a small mirror in her grasp. “Here you are,” she said, stopping next to her mother.
Dora didn’t turn to face John. “You can give it to him,” she said to Tilda.
John smiled at the girl, her usual brazenness having disappeared. She grinned shyly, then held out the mirror.
“Thank you very much,” he said, taking it from her. He stared at his face; his eyes were gray, which he hadn’t known, his skin seemed slightly pale, but he’d been indoors for the last two weeks. His beard was the result of not being able to shave by himself, and his hair looked…. Well groomed, he smiled. Then he looked at Dora. “This’s great, wish I could pay you for it.”
Dora met his gaze. “It’s nothing. Been cutting the kids’ hair, you know.”
“Not mine anymore.” Luke approached John, giving him the once-over. “I go to the barber in town now.”
Tilda rolled her eyes, making John laugh. “Well, you look good too Luke. But your mother does a fine job.”
Dora’s soft chuckle didn’t escape John’s hearing, nor did Tilda’s huff. “She cuts mine real good too.”
“Yes she does.” John met Dora’s eyes. “Again, thank you so much.”
She nodded, but her lower lip trembled. Then she walked behind him, taking the sheet from around his neck. She brushed off loose hairs, then balled up the sheet. “You should probably lay down now, been upright a good while. Luke, you help him. Tilda, you take the chair back in there.”
“Yes Mama,” the children answered in unison, but Dora was already walking away as they spoke. John stood, watching her reach where the little girls had stayed, even without anyone close to them. All four were well behaved and another would be added in the coming year.
That evening John ate his supper with Walt for company, although John had urged Walt to join his family. “It’s all right,” Walt said. “Maybe in another few days you can sit with us.”
John smiled. “That would be wonderful.”
Walt nodded, then leaned back in the metal chair. “Not sure what we’re gonna do with you.” Walt took a bite, chewing slowly. He swallowed, then sighed. “Been talking about it with Callie, he has no idea either.”
“I’ve been thinking about this, but I just don’t know.” John had hoped getting a haircut might jog his memory. Then he cleared his throat. “Walt, can I ask you a question?”
“You can ask,” Walt smiled.
John chuckled. “Fair enough.” Then John paused, for while he was curious, it truly wasn’t his business. Yet, if Dora was pregnant, it would explain her demeanor. “Are you and Mrs. Richardson expecting a….”
Walt’s eyes went wide, then he nodded. “But it’s still early days,” he said softly.
“I wondered.” John took a deep breath, then started to cough. He began to choke and Walt gently patted his left shoulder. No food was caught in John’s throat, only a memory, now making him tremble.
“You okay?” Walt asked as John took another breath. “What’s wrong?”
“I just remembered my wife,” John whispered. “Oh God, how could I have forgotten I was married?” He shook his head, then shivered. “She’s expecting our baby and she’s due soon, Jesus Christ!”
Walt leaned forward in his seat. “What else can you remember?”
John closed his eyes, but no image was present. Yet the feeling ran so strongly through him, making him bend over, grasping his knees for support. “Nothing, only that she’s pregnant and….”
John sat up, looking at Walt. “We have a daughter, God, maybe Gail’s age?” He wasn’t sure exactly, but that seemed close. “I have a wife and a child and another on the way, so what the hell am I doing here?”
“I dunno, sure wish I could tell you. Are you certain?”
John nodded, then shook his head. “I guess, I mean, there’s no proof, but….” Then John sighed deeply. “Luke’s eyes are the same color as my daughter’s. I knew there was something familiar about him.”
Walt stood. “Lemme go get him, maybe if you see him….”
“No, don’t.” Suddenly John wanted to be far away from this place, but not to find his family. Why had he abandoned his wife, their daughter, and…. “Just go, I need some time alone.”
John nodded, then met Walt’s cautious stare. “Don’t worry, I can’t get far.”
Walt gazed around the room. “I sure as hell don’t wanna come out and find you hanging from the rafters.”
The idea had already passed through John’s mind. “I can’t tie a decent knot one-handed.”
Walt grunted, then took a deep breath. “Listen to me now. The last thing Dora needs is more upset, so you keep this to yourself. If I even catch you trying something stupid, I’ll, well, just don’t say anything, all right?”
John nodded. “Is she okay?”
“She’s….” Walt cleared his throat. “We’ve lost a couple. Don’t wanna lose this one.”
“I’m so sorry.”
Walt nodded. “Nothing we can do ’bout it now. And as for you, at least you’re recalling something. It’ll come back to you, I’m sure.”
“Well, I can’t imagine you’ll be living in my shed the rest of your life. If you’ve got kin out there, they’re looking for you. Maybe they’ll be showing up before Christmas.”
“But if I have family, why haven’t they found me already?”
Walt wouldn’t meet John’s stare. “Dunno. In the meantime, think hard on it. We’ll see what you remember tomorrow.” Walt picked up John’s empty plate, then his own, still with a few bites remaining. Wordlessly he exited the shed, leaving John with much to ponder.
Without a rabbi to consult, Laurie turned to the Snyders’ encyclopedias, but he found little information about Hanukkah. Memories from his childhood centered on food, gifts, and lighting the menorah, which he had decided would occur as close to sundown as possible once the Aherns and Marek had arrived. Laurie would light the shamash, which in the menorah Marek had found stood above the other candles. Then he would let someone else light that evening’s candle, maybe Paul with Sam’s help. By Hanukkah’s end, Laurie would light all eight, and he prayed that Eric would be present on that evening.
Laurie had purchased a variety of small toys for Paul and Ann, but he’d followed Lynne’s edict for Jane; hair bows would be supplemented by a small piece of pie or a caramel slice. If the Ahern children asked about Jane’s gifts, Laurie would tell them that she wouldn’t remember. Not that Ann would, Laurie had considered, nor did he wonder if this would be his only Hanukkah spent out west. But for the first time, this holiday possessed a significant meaning to Laurie. He’d decided to read part of Psalm 91 that evening, and would read all of Psalm 100 on the last night. He’d explained to Lynne why that Psalm was special, and it had made her cry. But her tears had been accompanied by a smile, for Laurie shared that memory amid other happy recollections of his father. And that his dad would probably be rolling over in his grave that Laurie had grown so close to Lutherans and Catholics.
A motley crew of gentiles, Marek had laughed, also present for that tale, relayed over lunch after church at St. Matthew’s. Laurie wasn’t sure when he returned to New York if his spiritual life would be satisfied merely by attending Friday night services. He joked with Marek and Lynne he might need to hunt down a Lutheran church, although he’d keep that from his mother. Rose was indeed pleased that Laurie was making the effort to celebrate Hanukkah, but she would raise her eyebrows if Laurie sought out a Christian place of worship.
Maybe she would equate it to his relationship with Stanford, but Laurie had kept that observation to himself. Yet over the last few days Laurie had pondered how his life was set to change. Part of it was his newfound interest in faith, but the bulk centered on something he had casually mentioned to Paul not long after meeting that little boy; Laurie had decided to look for a house. Once Eric returned and was well, Laurie wanted to give the Snyders their privacy. Yet, returning to New York wasn’t a priority.
Laurie didn’t want to go back until…. It had little to do with where Seth was, only the massive hole in Laurie’s heart. He was keeping in close contact with a few of his sculptors, but with others, Laurie had encouraged them to find a new dealer. Rose wouldn’t like this news, but Laurie couldn’t imagine living in Manhattan unless things with Stan were back to normal. And as the days passed, Laurie had grown doubtful that they could find a way to bridge this gulf. For all his optimism over Eric’s return, Laurie was deeply pessimistic about his own relationship.
He hadn’t shared those feelings, but he wondered if Lynne could read his mind; more than once she had mentioned calling Stanford, yet the timing had never been right. Lynne slept every afternoon, usually overlapping with Jane’s naptimes. For the next eight nights, dinners at the Snyders would include others; Laurie was making latkes that evening, Sam was bringing chicken cacciatore tomorrow, and Marek had the next meal. The rest would be divvied up accordingly, but other than the occasional baking, Laurie didn’t want Lynne to worry about cooking. They had finished Christmas shopping yesterday, including a few items for Eric. Laurie didn’t contemplate what Lynne would do with those presents if her husband was still absent after the twenty-fifth. They weren’t extravagant gifts, stationary and a new sweater similar to what Laurie and Stanford exchanged. Laurie hadn’t mentioned that either. Thinking about Stan only caused heartache.
If Laurie bought a place here, would he go so far as to move permanently, or would he use it as a getaway of sorts? He considered this while wrapping the last of Ann’s gifts. Then he walked to his bedroom window that faced the backyard; Eric’s studio and the storage building stood out starkly as trees and boysenberry vines were stripped bare. He didn’t need a showplace, merely a cottage, preferably on this side of town. He would be known as Lynne’s older brother, his accent setting him apart, also his solitary nature. He had no desire to replace Stan; Laurie couldn’t fathom ever falling in love again. It might take the rest of his life to get over losing the only one….
He wore a wry smile, then walked back to where gifts sat on his bed. Eight for Paul, the same number for Ann, plus two small packages for Jane. He smiled at how strongly these people were now woven through him. They couldn’t take Stan’s place, but a deep bond had been fashioned, mostly due to the secret shared by the adults. Then Laurie sighed; was that why he had grown so close to Agatha, for she had kept a similar secret. He missed her, but had refrained from calling the apartment. He knew she was doing all she could, but perhaps there was nothing more to be done.
Laurie opened his door, but the house was still; both Lynne and Jane were resting. He walked along the hallway, taking quiet steps downstairs. He added wood to the fire, then found himself staring at that one glass pane. That trip had been over six weeks in length, then Eric was away for five months. Now that length had been surpassed, but according to Seth, Eric hadn’t thought of himself as human since…. Laurie shivered, then said a prayer. He had to set aside those considerations, especially on that day. Maybe the Festival of Lights was only a legend; how could one day’s worth of oil burn for over a week? Laurie thought to his chat with Agatha about miracles. He wanted to call her, but she was already headed home. Perhaps tomorrow morning he would try the apartment; he could tell her about Jane’s first night of Hanukkah, then assure her Lynne was in good health. He wouldn’t ask about Stan; Laurie’s heart pounded simply thinking of that man. Then Laurie closed his eyes, Eric’s message from last month resounding in his head. Taking a deep breath, Laurie opened his eyes, sighing heavily. If Eric could return, Laurie would gladly give up who he loved. Uttering another prayer, he glanced toward the ceiling, where mother and daughter remained asleep. Then Laurie faced the patio, ignoring that one clear windowpane.
As Laurie fried latkes, Marek spoke Polish to Jane while Lynne crimped the last edges of pie crust. A sweet potato pie cooled on the counter, but this of apple, peach, and boysenberry had been a special request from Sam. Once Lynne put this pie in the oven, her kitchen work would be through. Marek had offered to wash dishes and Laurie had agreed to dry. Lynne assumed Renee would fill other gaps while Sam kept an eye on the children. Lynne didn’t think past that evening; she would take each day as it came and be glad for the blessings within her midst.
“All right, this needs about fifty minutes.” She handed the pie to Laurie, who put it in the oven as Lynne set the timer. They would have dessert after lighting the candles, but Lynne wouldn’t attach any sentiments to those lights other than gratefulness for Laurie’s presence as well as small children which at times still seemed a surprise to all of their parents. Three years ago Lynne had been relieved merely for Eric’s return; as she gazed at their daughter, happy tears welled in a mother’s eyes. Jane seemed to be speaking Polish to Marek, or at least a semblance of that tongue. It certainly wasn’t English and Lynne giggled, wiping her face. She joined that twosome, sitting next to Jane, who smiled brightly. “I wonder how many languages she’ll know one day,” Lynne said, softly caressing her child’s head.
“She’s a smart girl, the sky’s the limit.” Marek’s eyes twinkled. “And soon enough she’ll have someone with whom to speak Polish besides me.”
Lynne stared at her pastor, but Marek laughed, pointing to the coming baby. “Actually, Klaudia’s terrified of speaking English, although her written grasp of the language is exemplary.”
“How’s her Polish?” Laurie asked.
“Just fine.” Marek smiled. “I haven’t it spoken with anyone other than Miss Jane, and what a joy that was.” He said something to her and she giggled. “I hope Klaudia will take the opportunity to put her English into practice. I certainly don’t know any Norwegian.”
Laurie laughed. “It’s all Greek to me.”
“Me too,” Lynne chuckled. “Makes me wish I’d kept up the French I took in high school. At least Jane and this baby will know more than one language.”
As the adults laughed, a knock on the kitchen door heralded the Aherns’ arrival. Jane clamored to be set down and Marek obliged as handshakes and embraces were shared. Paul asked what Laurie was cooking and as Laurie gave details, Renee and Lynne went into the living room, keeping an eye on the girls, who settled near a collection of toys by the sofa. Renee looked toward the kitchen, then caught Lynne’s gaze. “Are we eating soon?” Renee asked.
Lynne nodded. “Then we’ll light the candles. Laurie’s so excited.”
Renee smiled. “I have to admit, we’re pretty excited too. It was all the kids could talk about this afternoon. Paul wanted to head over right after lunch, but I told him you and Jane were asleep.”
Lynne laughed. “We were. And I’m already feeling like it’s bedtime.”
Renee set her hand on the baby. “How are you?”
“Just very ready to have this….” Lynne placed her hand atop Renee’s. “Boy or girl, I don’t care which. Once Christmas comes, then so can this baby.” Lynne didn’t want a premature birth, but by the end of the month, the due date would be close enough. “How’s Ritchie?”
Renee sighed. “The doctor thinks he can be transferred to a rehab facility maybe by next week. Don’t know how they’ll pay for it, but….” Then Renee shook her head. “Not like that part matters.” Renee cleared her throat. “One of Brenda’s brothers has organized a fund for them. I guess he’s a recovering alcoholic, so maybe he’s a little less biased than the rest of us.”
Now Lynne gripped Renee’s hands. “It’s hard to be objective.”
“Yeah, but….” Renee hesitated, then shared Sam’s plan for the Bel Air. Lynne’s eyes went wide, then she smiled as Renee nodded. “They’ll get better use out of it than us, and now that I’m home, we really only need the Impala.”
“So many changes,” Lynne said softly. Then she looked toward the kitchen. “And speaking of changes, maybe it’s dinnertime.”
Renee chuckled as Laurie called for them. Mothers rounded up their daughters, then headed to the kitchen where the men were waiting.
A cheese platter was served alongside the potato pancakes, a meal that Paul found very intriguing. During supper, Laurie explained the significance of latkes, how a small amount of olive oil kept the temple light burning for eight entire days. That conversation led into why they would light one candle that evening, right after sunset. Laurie asked Paul if he would like to do the honors. Paul glanced at Sam, who nodded. “Can Daddy help me?” Paul asked.
“Of course.” Laurie smiled. “If everyone’s finished, we can get started.”
Paul was the first out of his seat, followed by his sister. The rest followed into the living room, where on the dining table sat the menorah, with candles already waiting. Laurie led the Ahern youngsters to the French doors. “Looks like the sun’s set.” He knelt beside them, then smiled. “Jewish holidays begin at sundown, which is great for lighting candles.” Then he stood, extending his hands, which both children grasped with their own. Laurie led them back to the table, then motioned to Lynne’s Bible, waiting near the menorah. “I’m gonna read part of Psalm 91. Then Paul, you and your dad can light the first candle.”
Paul smiled, then walked to where Sam stood. As Paul leaned against his father, Renee collected Ann while Jane rested in Marek’s grasp. Laurie smiled at Lynne, then he picked up the Bible, flipping to a bookmark he had placed there earlier. He cleared his throat, then began to read.
“He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High, who abides in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, ‘My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.’ For he will give his angels charge of you to guard you in all your ways. On their hands they will bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.” Laurie took a breath, then looked at Paul and Ann, who solemnly stared back at him. He smiled, rousing their grins. Then he continued reading. “Because he cleaves to me in love, I will deliver him; I will protect him, because he knows my name. When he calls to me, I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will rescue him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him, and show him my salvation.”
Laurie had skipped several verses, but had spoken what to him was the essence of Hanukkah. That it also resonated with Eric’s absence touched all the adults, but Laurie had shared these specific verses with Lynne. He closed the Bible, placing it back on the table. Then he reached for the candle in the center of the menorah. “This’s the shamash candle. We light it first, then use it to light the rest. Sam, would you do the honors?”
Sam nodded, taking that candle from Laurie, who lit it with a match. Then Sam handed it to Paul. “You ready?” he asked his son.
Paul smiled, gripping the candle, then lighting the one Laurie pointed to. Then Paul carefully placed the shamash back in the center of the menorah. The lights twinkled, reminding Laurie of his childhood. He closed his eyes, said a prayer, then looked at those with whom he stood. Now Lynne toted Jane, who pointed at the menorah while Renee kissed Ann’s cheek. Sam was speaking to Paul, who then met Laurie’s gaze. “Why does Hanukkah begin at night?”
Laurie smiled. “Because that’s what the….” He nearly said Torah, but chuckled instead. Then he gazed thoughtfully at Paul. “Well, let’s see what Lynne’s Bible says.” Laurie again picked up the Bible, going to the very front. “Jews call this book the Torah, but Genesis is the same no matter where you read it.” Laurie led Paul to the sofa and the rest followed. Once all were seated, Laurie began to read. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, one day.” Again Laurie had omitted some verses, but as he looked at Paul, the little boy nodded his head.
“Night turns into daytime,” Paul smiled. “That makes sense.” Then he grew somber. “What’s a Jew?”
Now Laurie laughed. “I’m a Jew, like your parents are Catholic. It’s just another way of celebrating God.”
Paul glanced at Sam, who nodded. Then Paul looked back at the menorah, from where a soft glow emanated. “How long will the candles burn?” he asked.
“We’ll give them about half an hour. Then I have something for you, Ann, and Jane.”
“You do? But it’s not Christmas yet.”
“Hanukkah’s different than Christmas. In the meantime, maybe we can have some pie.” Laurie looked at Lynne as he spoke.
“I’m not moving from this sofa,” she giggled. “But I’ll eat whatever someone brings me.”
Marek stood, then was joined by Sam and Renee. “You two stay put,” Marek said. “Laurie, a piece of sweet potato?”
“Please,” he said, grasping Lynne’s hand. “What do you want?” he asked her.
“I’m not picky.”
He chuckled, as now they were the only ones in the living room, Jane having been led into the kitchen by Ann. Laurie placed the Bible on the coffee table, but still held Lynne’s hand. Then he gazed at her. “I remember asking my dad that same question, why all our holidays were celebrated at night. And his answer has stayed with me all this time. He said it was because no matter how dark was the night, the day always came.” Laurie squeezed Lynne’s hand, then he stared at the menorah. “And you know, he was right.” Now Laurie looked at Lynne, a few tears falling down her cheeks. He wiped them away, then kissed the back of her hand. “I’ll call my mother tomorrow, tell her the latkes were a big hit.”
“Will you tell her about the rest?”
He shook his head. “I don’t know if she’d believe me, I mean, why should a bunch of gentiles care about Hanukkah?” He laughed as Lynne added her chuckles. “But this has been the most meaningful Hanukkah I’ve ever celebrated.”
“I don’t think it’ll be our last,” Lynne said, motioning at the menorah. “Marek told me to keep it here. I need to find a proper place for it.”
“Maybe I’ll tell my mother you’re thinking of converting.”
“Would she believe you?” Lynne smiled.
“Nah, but I’m sure she appreciates….” He stood, then walked to where the candles flickered. “Dad always looked at life as why not? Why not give a three-year-old chocolate cake, why not find the good in any given situation.” Laurie turned around. “I have no idea what he’d have thought about me and Stan, but maybe, eventually, he’d have understood.”
“Maybe I’ll try calling Stanford again.” Lynne’s tone was soft.
“Well, I was gonna call Agatha in the morning. I’ll call her, you try him and we’ll see what happens.”
Laurie walked back to the sofa, then sat beside Lynne, embracing her. As they separated, Renee brought each a slice of pie, sweet potato for Laurie, apple-peach-boysenberry for Lynne. Laurie savored his while gazing at the glowing candles, his father’s hopeful voice a balm upon Laurie’s weary soul.
In the morning, Laurie called Manhattan, talking to Agatha for nearly half an hour. Then Lynne and Agatha spoke, even Jane said a few words. Agatha told Lynne that Stanford had no plans for that evening, as Lynne had mentioned trying to reach the art dealer. After goodbyes were shared, Lynne and Laurie wondered if Agatha’s intercessions had done any good. Allegedly she had spoken her heart last week, but Stanford hadn’t tried to contact Laurie. Maybe he had written a letter, Lynne mused, but Laurie doubted it. “I guess we’ll know more tonight,” he sighed. Then he smiled. “But it was so good to hear her voice.”
“She’s such a special lady.” Lynne squeezed Laurie’s hand. “If he’ll listen to anyone, it’d be Agatha.”
Laurie had a brief nod, then he gazed about the room. Lynne sensed his misgivings. He took a deep breath, then stared at her. “I’m thinking of looking for a house out here. When Eric gets back, I don’t wanna be in the way.”
“Oh Laurie, you’re more than welcome. We’ll need you, you know.”
He gripped her hand, then smiled weakly. “You’ll need time alone with your husband and this gorgeous girl.” Laurie tickled Jane’s chin, then he sighed. “I don’t think there’s much chance for things to change, not for me and Stan.”
Lynne’s heart raced, but she understood his pessimism. If Agatha’s words hadn’t moved Stanford’s heart, perhaps it would only be softened by witnessing the miracle Lynne prayed for daily. Maybe she needed to stop those intercessions, in that she had laid that petition at Christ’s feet, time to leave it there. But her heart was so inclined toward the man she loved, and so was Laurie’s for his other half. Then Lynne took a deep breath; Laurie truly felt Eric would return, but nearly a month had passed. Lynne also needed to tell Frannie something, for Sam’s sister knew that Seth had been discharged. “Laurie, please, don’t do something….”
Would it be so terrible if this man relocated, what about his career? Lynne mentioned that and Laurie cracked his knuckles. “I’ve already informed some of my clients to find other dealers. I can represent artists out here, that would be new.” He smiled, patting Lynne’s hand. “I sure don’t miss New York winters, let me tell you. It’s just a thought, we’ll see what happens after Christmas.”
“Please don’t misconstrue my feelings, but you belong in New York.”
Laurie shook his head. “Last night showed me something I didn’t expect. I belong with those who love me, for me as well as all you lovely folks.” He chuckled, then cleared his throat. “I told Marek life is short, and it is. My mother’ll pitch a fit, maybe my sisters will be offended. But honey, this is real, even if it’s pretty unbelievable.” Now he laughed. “You and Jane are my family, so are Sam, Renee, Marek, and those kids, good God. Where’d those two come from, like they dropped straight outta heaven.” Laurie smiled, then sighed. “I need to write Seth, tell him we’re still waiting. He wanted to know, and while a part me worries it might set him back, I can’t lie. I couldn’t to Stan, and I won’t to my cousin. And I’m not gonna lie to myself. I don’t wanna live where I’m constantly making excuses.” He shook his head. “All these years Stan and I lived pretty freely, I mean, as openly as we could. But the last couple of weeks, even though I miss him like crazy, I’ve felt this liberty, and I don’t mean because I don’t have to hide how I feel about him, it’s not that at all. It’s….” He paused, then caressed Jane’s face. “What if my family wasn’t supposed to be me and Stan? I’ll never love anyone else, but maybe we weren’t meant to last forever.”
“Oh Laurie, no!”
As Lynne broke into tears, Laurie stood, then sat beside her, embracing her. “Don’t cry honey, oh Lynne….”
A mother wept hard, making her daughter whimper. Laurie regretted their distress, but he had to face reality. He gave Lynne a handkerchief, then collected Jane from her seat. She snuggled against him, reinforcing what he knew was inevitable. Yes, his mother would be upset, his sisters too. But he didn’t want to return east to live alone. As Lynne began to calm, Laurie stroked her damp cheek. “I’ll have to find the closest synagogue,” he smiled. “Might not go every Friday night, but there’s always St. Matthew’s.”
“Let me talk to him tonight, maybe he doesn’t fully understand….”
Laurie shook his head. “What Stan comprehends is beyond what I can fix. And Lynne, I don’t blame him. What I said isn’t for the faint at heart, and he doesn’t have the most abstract mind. Like I said, with Stan it’s black and white, no room for….”
“But Laurie, how blatant is it that you wanna look for a place to live here? Maybe if he knew that….”
“If he knew that, he’d throw in the towel. It’d be like I was letting him off the hook.”
Lynne sighed. “We’ve all felt that way, trying to come to terms with….” She gazed at Laurie. “Have you ever given him a reason not to trust you?”
Again Laurie shook his head. When Agatha mentioned that point, Laurie had wanted to collapse; nearly twenty years the men had been together and never once had either deliberately hurt the other. Stan wasn’t doing that now, which Laurie accepted. “Lynne, there just isn’t any other way for Stan to take this. The longer Eric’s gone isn’t gonna matter either, because Stan will just become more used to the situation. I wouldn’t be surprised if when Eric returns, Stan drops him as a client. Oh, he’d be very tactful, but if I’m not there, there’s no purpose for him to….”
“All the more reason for you to….” She stroked his cheek. “Go home.”
“Home’s here, Lynne. Maybe I’m not such a New York Jew after all.”
He kept his voice light, but saying those words hurt like no pain Laurie had ever known. Not even over Seth had Laurie ached so deeply. He smiled, then stood, kissing the top of Lynne’s head, then Jane’s. Laurie left the kitchen, putting wood on the fire. He couldn’t feel the heat, but maybe a long shower might help. He took the stairs, his resolve growing with each step. By the time he reached the landing, he considered finding a realtor. But first he needed to stand under the hottest water possible to ease a penetrating chill.
In Texas, the sound of pounding rain woke John from a deep sleep. Against the tin roof, drops sounded like hammers falling, but while the noise was reminiscent of something else, again nothing concrete came to his mind. He had ruminated over the notion of his wife, daughter, and another child due soon, but had managed to keep those details from Dora. Callie knew, for John had needed to speak of those…. They weren’t memories, for he couldn’t recall their names, and the only physical hint was that his daughter’s eyes were the same color as Luke’s. Otherwise they were ghosts, which Callie well understood. His recollections of fallen comrades in Korea were much the same.
Yet those men had names, Callie could picture them. All John possessed was the notion that he was married, had a child Gail’s age, and another…. He felt awful, maybe he deserved what had happened to him, although Callie thought that sort of talk was bad for a person. They had spoken of this a couple of days ago when Dora had spent the morning with her mother. John had relished the privacy, standing on his own, walking as far as the shed’s entry, then gripping the doorframe, staring out at…. He could see trees in the distance, framing the main road where later on Luke and Tilda raced each other, but they didn’t wave at him until they had reached the house. He was still an unknown to the rest of Karnack, not even Dora’s mother was aware. How the little girls had stayed quiet about him, John wasn’t sure.
Maybe they had mentioned him, but their grandmother didn’t believe their tales, for who kept a man in a shed without him being discovered? Yet John’s presence remained undetected, not even his family had found him. That fueled his fears, for he had been missing for at least three weeks. Perhaps his presence wasn’t necessary.
He sat up, which was a slow, painful process. Now his upper body ached when he moved, the numbness more a tingling sensation settling below his right elbow. He could still wiggle his fingers, but often it was as if he had no right hand, for he couldn’t always feel the movements. He no longer drank the whiskey Walt offered, for John didn’t want to rely on it. Turning into a drunkard was a possibility, he mused, as rain still fell, sounding like an echo to his former life. But other than the memory of the reverberation, he had no idea what it signified.
The rain continued for another half hour, by which time John had relieved himself, then walked slowly to the shed doorway. He steadied himself with his left hand, gazing at pools collecting in dips, water dripping off the roof of a house he had yet to step inside. Walt had mentioned him joining them for dinner, but John didn’t feel ready for that, especially now. How long could he keep his family from Dora? Callie had agreed that she didn’t need to know, but he had told Susie, who was praying for John. Callie was too, he had smiled, but their prayers hadn’t seemed to alleviate the situation. Then John wondered if he had shared their religious inclinations. Not that he was Baptist, but merely a believer. He wasn’t sure, then sighed loudly. As he did, the rain suddenly stopped, making him smile. He shook his head, then took a deep breath, the scent of wet earth also familiar. Rain fell wherever he was from and he’d been near it more often than not.
He looked out for another minute, then turned around, heading back to his bed. To his surprise, Dora called after him. He gazed to the doorway, seeing her walking along the path, avoiding the puddles. She was visibly pregnant, making his heart throb. “Good morning,” he said.
“Just wanted to see if you were all right.” She reached the doorway, a small smile on her face. “Been raining all morning, wasn’t sure if you’d floated away.”
“Roof’s tight as a drum in here. Hope you’re just as snug inside.”
“We are. Walt and Callie redid the roof last summer.” Then she took a deep breath. “Sorta gloomy, being out here all by yourself. You, uh, wanna come in for some coffee?”
He stared at her, for while the invitation was welcome, he wasn’t certain how pleasant his company might be. He also wondered if being around Esther and Gail would exacerbate the pain. Or maybe they might spark a memory; he didn’t want to decline what was Dora’s first independent attempt at conversation. Their few words spoken when she had cut his hair was more of Luke’s doing. “I’d be happy to come in for a bit. Not sure how I’ll get up the stairs but….”
“We’ll see what we can manage.”
Her voice was slightly upbeat and John wondered if Walt had put her up to this. Maybe Callie was visiting that morning and could play intermediary. “Let me sit for a minute, been on my feet for a while.” John walked to the metal chair, then sat, taking deep breaths. His shoulder was very painful, but he didn’t want Dora aware.
“I’ll start a fresh pot of coffee, then we’ll see how you feel.”
She smiled again, then turned toward the house. John observed how she avoided the puddles, wondering if where his wife was, was she doing the same.
Ten minutes later, Dora returned, Callie on her heels. John inwardly chuckled, but from how Dora acted, Callie’s presence hadn’t been planned. John leaned on Callie as they walked to the porch, then it was mostly Callie’s strength to get John up the few steps. He was visibly winded, also in great pain. Dora looked worried, but Callie nodded. “Got to get you moving,” he said to John. “You’re never gonna get better lying flat all day.”
“I know,” John said as they entered the house. He gazed up, then smiled, seeing Susie sitting at the table, a little girl on her lap. The child looked to be between Gail and Esther in age, her brown eyes wide. John chuckled. “Is this your youngest?” he asked Susie.
“She is. Marian, say hello to Mr. Doe.”
The child nodded shyly, then wiggled in her mother’s lap. Susie put her down and she ran to where the Richardson girls played on the other side of the sofa.
John smiled, then sat where Callie led him, to Susie’s right. “She’s beautiful,” he said. “Marian’s a lovely name.”
“Named her for Marian Anderson,” Susie chuckled. “Not sure she’s gonna be a singer, but she’s sure got a loud voice.”
“Amen to that,” Callie laughed, sitting on John’s other side. That left Dora the seat across from John, but he kept his eyes from her, instead taking in the Richardsons’ kitchen. It was homey, an icebox and stove the only appliances. He closed his eyes, could just picture where his wife cooked, but their house was much larger. Then he gazed at Susie; she reminded him of someone, but the connection wasn’t linked to their gender, although pies were somehow a part of it. Then he laughed, spotting a pie on the counter. “Miss Susie, you’re a very talented baker.”
She laughed. “I hear you’re a connoisseur of sweet potato pie.”
He nodded, noting her use of connoisseur. “Indeed, it seems I am. Yours is tops.”
“It’s my grandmother’s recipe. I just follow her lead.”
John sipped coffee that Dora had set in front of him. “Well, you come from a long line of great pastry chefs.”
“Not that long,” Callie said softly.
Susie gave him a look, making Dora giggle. “Did I miss something?” John asked.
“Only that the cooking gift skipped a generation.” Callie rolled his eyes.
“My husband is trying to say that my mother didn’t bake much.” Susie’s tone was firm, then she smiled. “Mama had other talents. Which brings me to you, Mr. Doe. Now, where did you first try sweet potato pie?”
“I wish I knew.” John looked at Susie; who did she remind him of? Her accent and speech weren’t like that of her husband, or the Richardsons. For a Negro living in Texas, she was somewhat refined, but it was more than what one could learn from a book. “Miss Susie, might I be so bold to ask if you’re from Karnack?”
She nodded slowly, then smiled at him. “I was born in Chicago.” She clasped her hands together, setting them on the table. “But my family’s from Mississippi. Met Callie when he went north for basic training, then found myself here in Texas.”
John smiled, then he stared at her eyes, so brown, so close to…. He glanced over at the children, playing together, which was also familiar. Marian caught his gaze, her eyes just like her mother’s, just like…. “You remind me of my pastor,” John said slowly, then he smiled. “It’s your eyes, your eyes and….” She wasn’t from here, although she was very much like these people. Her flair with a pie crust didn’t seem relevant, or maybe it was, but not directly. “I can’t tell you his name, but you’re so much like him.”
“Your pastor?” Dora said. “Not your….”
“I agree Miss Dora. Amen that you’re a believer.” Callie’s tone was that of relief.
“You mean that I’m not Catholic,” John said. “Guess I must not be if I have a pastor instead of a priest.” John felt able to speak candidly, even if the children were near. Esther was too little to understand her father’s prejudice.
Susie patted John’s hand. “No matter what your faith is, the main thing is you have it.”
“Or I did.” John sighed. “Not sure what God means by all this.” He looked at his right shoulder, then toward the door.
“Now Mr. Doe, God’s got his reasons for all things. We might not have any understanding as to why or how, but that’s not for us to know. All we gotta do is trust, you understand? Just trust in his will and know it’s for the best.”
Susie looked at John and he met her gaze. Then he saw how the women held hands. Nothing seemed amiss, although Dora was fighting tears. John wanted to shrug, not at all sure. Then Susie gripped his left hand. Her touch was warm and while his right arm still ached terribly, his heart felt a little less pained. “I guess you’re right,” he said.
“Believe me, after the last few weeks, there’s been plenty to make me think otherwise. But even that has to be for some reason.”
John wanted to look at Dora, but he kept his gaze on Susie. “I suppose we have to pray for more faith, right?”
“Oh yes, Mr. Doe. For more faith and more love.”
“Please call me John.” He squeezed Susie’s hand.
“All right,” she smiled. “Now, shall I slice us some good pie?”
“I’ve been waiting patiently,” Callie chuckled.
Dora only nodded but Esther joined the adults. “Miss Susie, can I have some pie please?”
“Of course honey. Here, you take my seat.” Susie stood, helping Esther into the chair. John observed the entire scene, feeling it was so close to something from his past. But the faces and names remained beyond a veil and try as he might, nothing emerged. He sipped his coffee, the mug starting to feel at home in his left hand. Then he gazed at Dora; her eyes were misty, but she didn’t look away from him. He nodded at her and she smiled. Then she stood, putting Marian in her chair as Gail sought her mother’s arms.
Laurie didn’t contact a relator, but he wrote to Seth, detailing his idea of moving west as well as Eric’s continued absence. Laurie didn’t dwell on the latter, but the notion of leaving Manhattan was one he fully explored, both on paper and inwardly. The only reason he didn’t find a realtor was due to the impending holiday. Better to search for a home in the new year.
Throughout Hanukkah Lynne tried reaching Stanford, but her efforts were in vain. She did speak to Agatha, who said that while initially Stanford had taken seriously Agatha’s admonitions, over the last few days he’d crawled right back into his shell. Lynne had nearly smiled at Agatha’s tone, that of a frustrated mother. But the message was being lost as each day Eric failed to return, leaving Stanford free to assume those out west were playing a cruel game. Agatha never asked where Eric was, but she assured Lynne prayers were with them, and asked Lynne to keep trying to contact Stanford. And to give Laurie an extra hug in Agatha’s stead.
Nearly a week out from Christmas, the last night of Hanukkah was celebrated as if no worries existed. Laurie was jovial as he lit all eight candles, Paul and Ann thrilled with their small presents, Jane pleased with a caramel slice. Lynne had spoken with Frannie earlier that day, but no effort to excuse Eric’s absence was necessary, as Frannie seemed perfectly at ease with the status quo. Lynne wasn’t sure why that was, and she asked Renee and Sam if they had said anything. Both Aherns shook their heads, but Sam wore a small smile. Of all his siblings, even Ted and Henry, Frannie possessed a willingness to accept even the most elusive concept. Sam recalled when he was not much older than Paul how it was Frannie to explain communion, both its mystical and concrete elements. He couldn’t recall what she had said, then he smiled. If she remembered, maybe she could tell Paul and Ann the same in the next few years. Lynne still felt a bit uneasy; Fran might be willing to overlook Eric’s non-presence, but what about the rest of the Canfields and others? Renee noted how between Christmas and her brother’s recovery, the Aherns and Nolans wouldn’t raise questions. And if they did, Renee clucked, it wasn’t any of their business.
Yet, one man knew why Eric was missing, and for as hard as Lynne tried, she remained unable to speak with him. Laurie had found it amusing; how many phone calls was Stan refusing in addition to Lynne’s? Laurie joked that Lynne should try Stan at work; there was no way he could decline to speak with her if Emily Harold took the call. But Lynne didn’t want to cause Stanford more anguish, although she knew Laurie was suffering. He might not mention relocating, but Hanukkah had reinforced Laurie’s aspirations. Lynne felt torn, for she loved having him close, but was her need worth his heartache?
Then she considered the same about wherever Eric was; just as he had left to minister to his father, Lynne was certain he must be doing the same now for another needy soul. Waking alone was difficult, although she didn’t sleep for more than a few hours at a time, the baby forcing her out of bed. But when Lynne did manage solid rest, she dreamed of her husband as though he had never left. It was Eric at her side as Jane adjusted to her toddler bed, Eric making breakfast for his family, Eric ushering them to St. Matthew’s. As Lynne stirred from those dreams, she ached upon finding herself alone. Sometimes she cried simply to release that tension. Most times she prayed, seeking peace for her husband as well as herself. Then her intercessions covered those she loved, but no longer did she ask for Eric’s timely return. Eric would come home when his task was done.
But throughout the day, Lynne was reminded of another couple’s separation. Again unable to reach Stanford, Lynne called Michael, who didn’t ask about Eric, but inquired as to Laurie’s well-being. Lynne shared what she felt was appropriate, although she kept Laurie’s moving plans under wraps. Like Agatha, Michael had implored Stanford to keep an open mind, which heartened Lynne, yet it seemed all their efforts were falling on deaf ears. Michael wished Lynne and Jane a merry Christmas, and for Lynne to give Laurie Michael’s love. The older man’s tone was as if Michael had two sons, and when Lynne delivered that message, Laurie smiled, then brushed aside a few tears. He announced he was taking a walk, but as Jane clamored to join him, Laurie only kissed her cheek. He put on his coat, leaving the house from the sunroom’s French doors.
Jane fussed for a bit, then quieted as Lynne led her into the living room. Mother and daughter played with blocks, then Lynne read a few books, Jane growing sleepy. There wasn’t room on Lynne’s lap for Jane to rest, but the toddler was happy to snooze on the sofa. Lynne covered her with a blanket, then carefully eased herself from the couch, taking slow steps across the room to where the Christmas tree stood.
Laurie had admitted an affinity for this symbol; he liked the scent and lights, having strung double what Lynne usually wrapped around the tree. Familiar ornaments dangled from branches, stirring memories of past holidays, but Lynne didn’t brood over those moments. Placing one hand on the baby, she studied the lights, then pondered how the Wise Men had followed a single star. How brightly had it shone, or had it flickered, holding that trio’s attention? How best could Lynne get Stanford’s attention, for clearly that man was doing his utmost to avoid her. She giggled inwardly, then sighed. Then she patted the baby, who wriggled from within. “He can’t hide forever, just like you can’t stay in there much longer.”
The baby kicked, making Lynne wince, but a smile was stirred. “Indeed,” Lynne answered, as if her unborn child had provided an answer. Lynne glanced at Jane, still sleeping. Then Lynne walked to a small desk in the corner of the room. Gathering some stationary, she stepped into the kitchen, then sat at the table, where half an hour later Laurie found her, but only with a glass of milk and pie waiting.
They said little, although Laurie got himself some pie, decaf coffee too. Lynne made small talk, then Laurie cleared his throat. “I’ve made a decision,” he said, cracking his knuckles. “After Christmas, I’m gonna look for a house.”
Lynne nodded. “When will you tell your mother?”
Laurie grinned. “Oh, maybe 1972.”
Lynne chuckled, then reached for his hands. He grasped hers, meeting her gaze. “She’s gonna be, well, not pleased.” He sighed, then released Lynne’s hands. “But I can’t wait around anymore. This’s my life too, and okay, he can’t deal with it, I understand. But you’ve been trying to call him for over a week, what sort of bullshit is that?” Laurie shook his head. “I’m sorry, but he’s not the only person in the world. I’ll love him till I die, but I can’t make him believe what he obviously doesn’t wanna consider. I’m not gonna force him to….” Laurie cracked his knuckles again. “I spent so much time trying to help Seth, but ultimately it wasn’t my job. And while I’m so sorry Eric got dragged into it, neither of us can make Stan, we can’t make him….” Laurie took a deep breath, then ate a bite of pie. He chewed slowly, then had a wry grin. “I’ll ask Sam to recommend a realtor, then in January, we’ll see what’s available. Maybe you’ll be stuck with me for a while, depending what’s on the market.” He drank his coffee, then leaned back in his chair. “I will bring the figurines out here, guess I’ll need to make a trip east, but not until winter’s over. No more snow for me.”
His tone was resolute and Lynne didn’t try to dissuade him. She nodded, finished her pie, then looked at the clock. “Jane’s probably done napping, or she should be if we want her to sleep tonight. Why don’t you get her and I’ll cut her a little slice.”
Laurie chuckled, then ate his last bite. “Sounds like a plan.” He stood, kissing the top of Lynne’s head before exiting the kitchen. Lynne remained in her seat as Laurie gently woke Jane, then told her pie was waiting as soon as she was changed. Once that twosome was in the nursery, Lynne stood, quickly calling Renee, asking if she could stop by sometime tomorrow. The women agreed on lunch, but Sam wouldn’t accompany, for he was scheduled to work in the afternoon. Lynne closed the call before Laurie returned, but noted their impending guests. Laurie asked if Marek was invited and Lynne smiled, saying he could extend that invitation. Laurie went to the telephone as Jane ate her pie, Lynne giving her daughter a knowing smile.
Lunch the following day wasn’t more than peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, but the conversation was lively for now that Hanukkah was over, Paul was ready for Christmas. Plans were made for the Aherns to attend Christmas Eve services at St. Matthew’s, although Renee shared that Sam also hoped to get to St. Anne’s for midnight mass. Renee wasn’t sure if that was necessary, not wishing to be out so late with the children. Celebrating Hanukkah at sundown had been perfectly timed, and even going to St. Matthew’s for a seven o’clock service would make for a late evening. The Aherns were having Christmas lunch with Lynne, Laurie, and Jane, and would stop by their parents’ homes later that afternoon. Vivian wanted to spend some of Christmas Eve with her niece and nephew, but Paul and Ann had most wanted to share the holiday with this side of their family. Renee was pleased for those attachments, then she wondered how the children would react when Laurie eventually went back to New York.
Hopefully they would take to Eric as quickly as they had Laurie, then Renee prayed, seeking God’s will. She stared at those assembled in Lynne’s kitchen; Marek and Laurie spoke about caramel slices while Lynne chatted with Paul about Santa Claus. Ann and Jane laughed together, about what Renee wasn’t sure, yet it seemed Ann understood Jane’s garbled conversations. Renee would tell Sam how nice lunch had been, but she wouldn’t explain these little details. Not that Sam would feel left out, but that Renee understood how God was present even in the most ordinary moments.
In years to come, would she recall this afternoon, as dialogue wove seamlessly around her. The voices were a lovely mix of youth and wisdom, hopes for Christmas blending with appreciation for good food and better friendships. This first Advent season as a mother had been a mixture of intense joy and bittersweet ruminations, what with Eric’s absence and Ritchie’s convalesce. Renee wasn’t sure at all about those men’s fates, but her heart was steadied by the incalculable delight as a mother of two. Just last night she and Sam had discussed that bliss, then made love like they could create another to join them. Intimacy between the Aherns was still hedged by Sam’s limitations, but when they were together, Renee felt a deeper attachment, and Sam had agreed. Renee gazed at Laurie, her heart aching for him. She prayed that he and Stanford could be reunited. Then she looked at Marek. His laughter sounded richer, or maybe her joy conjured that notion. He caught her gaze, and while she momentarily looked away, she returned to knowledgeable brown eyes that hinted toward a good start for 1964.
Renee smiled back, then focused on her daughter, who giggled at whatever Jane had just said. Sometimes Renee wondered why she had been so blessed at a time that for another family was still so aggrieved. Renee shuddered when she heard Lyndon Johnson mentioned as president; she wasn’t sure if she would ever get used to it. President Johnson had established a commission to investigate the assassination, but regardless of what was learned, a black cloud hovered over Renee’s perception of her government. Secret Service agents hadn’t kept John Kennedy safe, stirring anger within Renee’s heart. Then she glanced at Laurie and Marek, her irritation calming. Bad things happened all the time, no one was immune. Renee then looked at Lynne, who smiled as Paul placed his hand where the baby must be kicking. Not that much room remained for such activity, Renee thought to herself. Would Eric be present for that child’s arrival, she wondered.
Lynne met Renee’s gaze, then nodded, but Renee didn’t think Lynne had read her mind. Lynne seemed to have an agenda, although Renee couldn’t imagine what it might be. As the children began to fuss, Laurie and Marek stood, leading the kids into the living room. Renee wondered if the men knew something she didn’t as she took a seat closer to Lynne. “Everything okay?” Renee asked quietly.
Lynne grasped Renee’s hand. “I need a favor.”
Lynne motioned to a kitchen drawer. “There’s a letter I need you to mail. Can you drop it off at the post office today?”
“Well sure, but….” Renee looked in the direction of the living room, from where children’s voices could be heard. “Who’s it for?”
“Stanford,” Lynne whispered. “But I don’t want Laurie aware.”
Lynne sighed, then relayed an idea that made Renee’s eyes grow wide. She stared at the doorway as Laurie spoke about what Santa might leave for Paul. Renee looked back at Lynne. “Are you serious?”
Lynne nodded. “But I don’t want him to know about….” Again she pointed to where the letter waited.
“Of course, I’ll drop it off today.” Renee stood, then collected the envelope, placing it in her purse, which she then covered with her scarf. She retook her chair, shaking her head. “Do you think, I mean….”
Lynne shrugged. “Stanford won’t answer the telephone.” Then she smiled. “But I have a feeling he won’t be able to avoid a piece of correspondence. Agatha will make sure he sees it.”
Renee giggled. “Well, there’s that.” Then she frowned. “But you said Agatha’s tried talking to him already. Maybe he won’t believe it until….”
Eric came home, yet to say those words seemed to tempt fate. Then Renee cleared her throat. Lynne, Laurie, and Marek believed Eric would return, even Sam felt that way. Renee wanted to share in their optimism, but perhaps it was better to expect the worst. Jackie Kennedy probably never imagined losing her husband, bad enough she’d lost two children. Why were some people’s lives so fraught with anguish while others knew little relative heartache? Then Renee’s thoughts were halted by Marek’s deep laughter. She glanced toward the kitchen doorway, reveling in that man’s happiness, which seemed based upon something said by one of the children. He spoke in Polish, which of course was for Jane’s benefit, yet Ann laughed, perhaps only for how different was that language. Laurie chuckled too, then Renee looked at Lynne, who wore a strange smile. “What?” Renee said.
Lynne gripped Renee’s hands, then spoke softly, yet her voice was tinged with excitement. Renee almost couldn’t believe Lynne’s words, yet she knew this wasn’t fiction. “He’s been wanting to find time to tell you and Sam,” Lynne smiled. “I don’t think he’ll mind me spilling the beans.”
“When’s she coming?” Renee asked.
“Sometime after I have the baby. Not sure if she’s gonna stay here or at….” Then Lynne giggled. “We’ll get to hear more Polish if nothing else.”
“Does she speak English?”
Lynne nodded. “But he says she’s not comfortable with it.”
“Well, I certainly don’t know any Polish.” Then Renee clucked. “My goodness, who’d have guessed Mrs. Henrichsen was….” A flicker sparked in Renee’s chest, making her blink away tears. “I should get that letter mailed.” Glancing at her handbag, Renee stood, then stepped toward the doorway. “Kids, about time to go.”
Paul and Ann both complained, but Renee repeated her words, adding that Jane needed a nap. The children trooped into the kitchen, looking slightly dejected. Lynne gave hugs, then Laurie and Marek did the same. Jane whimpered, but Laurie took her upstairs as the Aherns said their goodbyes. Renee smiled at Marek, then she giggled, leaving Lynne to explain. While Paul and Ann chatted about Santa Claus, Renee pondered the possibility of Christmas miracles, also for that goodness to extend beyond December twenty-fifth.
The weekend before Christmas, John began taking his meals inside the Richardson home. Part of it was he felt more comfortable around Dora after that morning with the Boldens. The other reason was Luke; if John spent more time with that youngster, perhaps his memories would return.
The other children didn’t stir John’s past; was his family dead, had he run away from…. He didn’t dwell much on that, although it remained a possibility, regardless of Walt’s continued assurances that no one was looking for him. Not even Hiram, which pleased Luke most of all. John wouldn’t have minded giving that boy a good talking to, for now that he’d spent time with the family, a few secrets had spilled; Luke and Hiram had cut school on the day President Kennedy was killed, and while John wasn’t privy to the boys’ exact whereabouts, he got the feeling they had been at the lake. From Tilda, John had learned that he was found two days later, but that Walt and Luke hadn’t been fishing as Walt originally said. John surmised the boys had gone hunting and most likely Hiram had shot him unawares.
Yet, why had John been at Caddo Lake? He wasn’t from here, which Susie had mentioned before she, Callie, and Marian left the other day. Susie had set her hand on John’s forehead, gazing into his eyes as if looking for answers. During that weekend, John had wracked his brain, recalling nothing, but giving himself a terrific headache. He spent much of those afternoons sleeping, but at suppertime he sat between Luke and Tilda, able to eat with his left hand, his right arm still tightly strapped, occasionally numb, usually painful. After dinner, Walt had asked if John might want a few shots of whiskey, but John had declined. Oddly enough he never had trouble falling asleep, and perhaps the pain might trigger a memory.
He’d been religious, which he had shared with Walt, finding relief in that man’s eyes when John specifically mentioned his pastor. But something else flitted in Walt’s dark irises when John mentioned Susie laying her hand on his forehead. John wanted to ask about that, but he wouldn’t speak to Dora, and Walt hadn’t shown any further interest. The Boldens were coming on Christmas Eve, which also seemed to be customary between the families. John didn’t know if other whites and Negros in Karnack were as close as the Richardsons and Boldens, and there wasn’t much way for him to find out. The Richardsons were going to Hannah’s for Christmas dinner, and John would stay behind, much to Luke’s displeasure. But John agreed with Walt and Dora; he didn’t wish to be seen by anyone else, mostly for how gruesome was his injury.
On Saturday, Walt had removed the bandages; it had been four weeks since John had been discovered, and while Walt was still amazed at how the shoulder and arm had knit themselves back together, the right side of John’s upper body was severely deformed. John had finally looked at the wound, which had never become infected, yet it was as if the corner of John’s shoulder had been sliced off, leaving his arm strangely attached, but useless. John couldn’t lift it, couldn’t bend his elbow, no longer could move his wrist. He was able to wiggle his fingers, but he couldn’t always feel those actions. Walt found it puzzling that for how much initial healing had occurred, now it was a matter of the scabs falling away while John learned to use his left hand for everything. Walt never speculated as to what John’s occupation had been. Whatever it was, he would never be able to do it to his previous skill level.
John had never realized how important were two good limbs; sometimes he still wished Walt had removed that bad arm, for the pain would have disappeared, as well as the sense of futility. Not that John had any hint to his former career, but that arm was now a nuisance in addition to always being sore. And sore wasn’t even close to describing the pain, which at times did make John wish for something stronger than aspirin. Neither Walt nor Dora drank and it didn’t seem the Boldens did either. John probably hadn’t as well, for he never craved it. He ate chicken without issue, and he loved Susie’s pies. Sweet potato was his favorite, but why that was seemed as mysterious as everything else.
On Monday the twenty-third, Luke and Tilda were home, no school for the next two weeks. Walt had to work, but would be off tomorrow afternoon, and might not go back until the following week. While redressing John’s shoulder, Walt had said work was slow and wouldn’t pick up until after the holidays. John didn’t know how this family celebrated Christmas, although wrapped presents were starting to appear under the tree, stockings hung near the fireplace. All four children were antsy, but Luke and Tilda were the most excited. Over the weekend, Luke had confided to John that there was no Santa Claus, but they needed to keep that from the girls. John had nodded, finding himself drawn to these people while trying not to wonder what his own traditions might be. Had he lived with Negro servants, maybe that was where he’d eaten sweet potato pie. Maybe he’d been a writer, trekking about The South, looking for novel fodder. But no matter what John considered, he always returned to the family he’d left behind. As Luke and Tilda headed down the path, approaching the shed, John was reminded of his own clan. Chatter turned to whispers as the kids reached the shed. “G’morning Mr. Doe. How’re you doing today?”
John had left open the shed door, but neither child stepped inside. “I’m doing all right Luke. Hello Tilda, how are you two this morning?”
Tilda smiled, but was still shy around him. She stayed behind her brother as Luke entered the shed, stopping at Walt’s work table. “We’re good, just wanted to see if you’re ready for breakfast.”
John had been awake for an hour, but hadn’t wished to interrupt the family, uncertain how early the children might have stirred what with the two eldest off school. “I am, but I hope you haven’t waited on me.”
“We didn’t,” Tilda said flatly. Then she coughed. “Mama told us to eat, so we did.”
John chuckled. “Well, best to mind your mother.” He still didn’t know how this girl figured into his memories, but her feistiness was a tonic. Maybe he’d had a sister like her or…. He shivered, never considering anyone other than his immediate family and that best friend. Were his parents already dead, did he have siblings? “I could use some coffee, certainly.” He kept his voice upbeat, but enormous sadness filled his heart. “Let’s start the day.”
“Indeed Mr. Doe, just two days till Christmas, I can’t wait!” Luke walked to where John now stood, and while John wouldn’t need help until they reached the porch, he appreciated the boy’s presence. Tilda waited for them on the path, then all three headed to the house, where Luke was used as a crutch while John gripped a wooden beam next to the steps. John could smell bacon, and there were probably eggs and toast waiting, maybe grits. John had come to like them, salted and buttered or with a dollop of jam.
But it was the coffee he craved and Dora always saved him three cups. He smiled at her, then took his seat, where a mug waited. As he sipped from it, a plate appeared, just what he’d expected, although the grits were plain. “Sweet or salty today,” Dora asked.
“How about sweet?” John reached for the jam; the lid had been left off, probably for his benefit. His dexterity was getting better, but there was no way he could open anything with just one hand.
He managed to retrieve some jam, then began to eat, which was still a slow process. But the extra time allowed him to savor more than his food. He watched as Esther tugged on her mother’s apron, which was tied above her growing belly. Was she having twins, John wondered. Walt had mentioned they had lost at least two babies, and he was greatly concerned about this pregnancy. Walt was a mystery to John, for while he harbored an intense dislike of Catholics, he was very close to Callie Bolden. He was gentle with his wife, a loving father to their kids, and he took good care of a strange man with no past. Callie had been in Korea, John considered. Had Walt served? John set down his fork, taking a long drink of coffee. Then he gazed at Dora, who had been staring at him. “This is delicious,” John said, then he chuckled. “Both the food and the drink.”
She smiled, nearly setting her hands on her apron. Then she dropped her arms to her sides. “Thank you.”
She turned back to the counter, for which John was glad; her actions reminded him of his wife; they’d had a hard time getting pregnant. Then he closed his eyes, concentrating. The notion was fleeting, as were most of the snippets he recalled. They had been married for many years, and had only conceived in the last few. Why was that, John wondered, sighing aloud. When he opened his eyes, Luke stood across the table, staring at him. “What’s wrong Mr. Doe?”
The boy’s eyes were like the sky on a hot, cloudless day, as though John could grasp all of his life if he could just step into that blue, letting it envelope him. He smiled, perhaps he was a poet. “Nothing’s wrong Luke, nothing at all.”
The child nodded, then grinned, moving out of John’s view, but now Dora faced him. Yet she could sense more than Luke, for she deftly placed a hand on her belly, then nodded. John smiled, he couldn’t help it. Then he returned to eating breakfast, trying not to remember any more.
After breakfast, John explored the back acreage, Luke as his guide. They walked for twenty minutes, then John headed back, Luke’s chatter a pleasant distraction. John told the boy he was going to rest and Luke nodded, trying to meet John’s gaze. John purposely didn’t look at Luke, not wishing to see the child’s eyes.
John slept fitfully, dreaming of his wife, but as usual when he woke, those dreams were only fragments, causing him distress. He sat up, staring at the closed shed door. No one disturbed him if the door was shut, and fortunately the weather wasn’t dismal, permitting him to stay out as long as he wanted. For the first time since he’d woken here, he didn’t want to see any of the Richardsons. Then John sighed. If not for the harm he might cause Dora, John would consider ending his life. A month had passed, his family not having found him. Maybe he wasn’t a criminal, but perhaps he’d been a terrible person and they were glad to be rid of him.
Yet, that couldn’t be true, for he and his wife had only just started a…. He sighed heavily, then got up, walking to the door, opening it. Sun shone, and his right shoulder would benefit from the warmth, but John didn’t feel like stepping out. Just as he turned, he saw someone approaching. He gazed up, surprised to see Dora walking his way.
“You hungry for lunch?” she called.
He shrugged, which made him wince, both from pain and his previous thoughts. “Yeah, just woke up. I’ll be in soon.”
She stopped a couple of feet from the doorway. “Take your time.” She looked at the ground, then gazed toward him, not meeting his eyes. “I suppose Walt told you about….”
As she spoke, she placed her hand on what John felt was more than one baby. “Yeah, he said it was early still.”
She nodded. “Not yet three months, but maybe it’s twins.” Her voice lifted, then she sighed. “Saw the doctor last week, can’t hear a heartbeat yet, but he thinks the same.”
“When are you due?”
“July, but maybe sooner.” She paused, smoothing down her blouse, leaving her hands at her sides. “I’ve lost two, so who knows?”
Unsure what to say, John smiled. “Well, so far, so good.”
“Yeah, I’ve been plenty sick.”
He chuckled. “I did hear that.”
She huffed, then stepped toward him. “You have children, don’t you?”
He hesitated, then nodded. “A girl Gail’s age.”
He sighed. “I think my wife’s expecting, but….” He shook his head. “It’s only a feeling.”
“I wondered. You’re good with the kids. Plus Susie said….” Dora paused, then cleared her throat. “Lunch’s ready when you are.”
As she turned to leave, John took a deep breath. “What did Susie tell you?”
Dora stopped, keeping her back to him. “Only that she thought you had a family.”
John stepped from the shed, walking to where Dora was still turned away from him. He didn’t face her, but stood close. “Is Miss Susie somewhat psychic?”
Dora stifled a giggled, then met John’s gaze. “She is, but don’t say that in front of Walt. He doesn’t believe in it.”
John nodded. “What else has Susie said about me?”
“Just that you have a family, that your wife’s pregnant, and that….” Now Dora trembled. “Lunch’s getting cold.”
She went to leave, but John reached out for her. He didn’t grasp her arm, but as if he had, she stopped, not meeting his eyes. “Does she know something? God knows I’ve thought about this. If there’s something you all know, please tell me.”
Tears trickled down Dora’s cheeks. “It’s just that whatever you used to do, you won’t be doing it no more ’cause of this.” Gently she traced what remained of his shoulder. “Susie knew what I was having every time, even the ones I lost. Not that she knew what she was expecting,” Dora had a soft chuckle. “Says she gets it from her mother, that her mother told her to marry Callie and come back down here,” Dora added. “Her family’d been up north for more than thirty years, and the last thing she wanted was to leave ’em, but her mother said she had to. Plus she loved Callie and….” Dora sighed, then took a deep breath. “Goodness, running off at the mouth, that’s me.”
As she stepped away, John patted her right shoulder. “Dora, did she tell you anything else?”
This woman had barely said two words to him, and here she was spilling her guts, or most of them. John didn’t consider his previous occupation, but if Susie knew more about his family…. Dora finally met his gaze, her cheeks still streaked with tears. “Just that nothing in your life’s ever gonna be the same. It’s all gonna be different from now on.”
“How?” he asked. “Does she think I’ll get home, what?”
“She didn’t know. That’s why she put her hand on your forehead.” Dora smiled, then frowned. “Don’t tell Walt I told you all this. He never puts any faith in all she says, although she’s never wrong.”
“I won’t. But can I ask you something?”
“You can ask,” Dora said.
John laughed. “Your husband said the same thing when I wanted to know….” John cleared his throat. “Did Walt serve in Korea?”
As Dora nodded, tears poured down her face. John ached to soothe her, but it seemed as if this outburst was necessary, for she wept, then wiped her eyes, continuing to nod her head. “Why in heaven he had to go, I’ll never know. Don’t tell him I told you, he didn’t want you knowing that neither.”
“I won’t say anything. It was just a feeling I had, maybe because Callie went, I guess.”
“They was both drafted. Served in different troops, of course.”
“Of course.” John nodded.
“Plus Walt was a….” Dora paused, then shook her head. “He came home, that’s all that matters.”
“Yeah, certainly.” Something inside John wished she’d continued speaking. He coughed, then softly squeezed her hand, releasing it quickly. “Thank you, I mean….” He met her eyes, silently pleading for whatever else she felt able to say. But maybe there wasn’t any more, maybe….
“He was a sniper.” Her voice was a whisper. “But a Jew saved his life, can you believe it? Some little Jewish guy.” Dora smirked, then looked right at John. “My husband hates Catholics, but don’t ever say nothing bad about Jews, crazy huh?” Dora shrugged. “Not that I’ve ever met one, but there was one in his platoon. From New York, which makes sense.” Her tone was wary. “He never knew what happened to him, said he was sorta, well, not all there.” She rolled her eyes. “But then Walt still suffers from….” Dora sighed. “Forgive me, you’re probably starving by now.”
John was hungry, but not only for lunch. Yet, he wouldn’t press for more information, plenty to ponder with all she had said. “I’ll keep this to myself.”
“Thank you.” Dora bit her lip. “Especially what Susie said. About you, I mean.”
He nodded. “Mum’s the word.”
Dora inhaled, then looked toward the house. “Kids’ll be wondering if you’re all right.” She started down the path, leaving John to follow. When he reached the steps, Dora stood on the porch, but she called for Luke. John glimpsed at the boy’s eyes, but other considerations crowded out those familiar irises. Dora’s revelations were a Christmas gift of sorts, and John slowly ate his meal, wondering when he saw Susie Bolden tomorrow, what else might she be able to tell him.
On Christmas Eve morning Agatha arrived in Manhattan at seven o’clock, finding a quiet house and the mail on the dining table just as she had left it yesterday. Lynne’s letter was still atop the pile and Agatha smiled, the legal-sized envelope not Lynne’s typical correspondence.
By the time coffee was brewed, Stanford had joined Agatha in the kitchen, but he wore his dressing gown and looked disheveled. For a moment she wondered if he’d drank last night. He didn’t act like a hangover plagued him, a more crippling malaise dogging his steps. Agatha didn’t speak, not wishing to hurt him, nor did she think her words would force his hand. She had said her piece, up to him to make the next move.
She fixed oatmeal, then set a bowl in front of him, his coffee and juice untouched. She poured her own coffee, then joined him at the table, taking Laurie’s chair. Stanford glanced at her, then avoided her eyes, but she kept her gaze upon him, gripping her mug for warmth. “Good morning,” she finally said, her voice flat.
“Good morning.” He spoke softly, then cleared his throat, looking her way. “How long are you staying?”
“Just to make sure you eat something. Are you seeing your father today?”
“We’re going to Melanie’s for dinner and….” He sighed, took a bite of oatmeal, then shook his head.
Agatha drank more coffee, then leaned back in her seat, which she had chosen deliberately. She stared at the man across, but he appeared more like a ghost. “Well, I’m glad you have plans,” she said, still in a monotone. “Do you want me to come on Thursday?”
Stanford didn’t reply, but he drank some juice. Then he looked up. “Did you say something?”
Agatha took a deep breath, her heart racing. “I asked if you wanted me here on Thursday.”
“Thursday, Thursday, um….” He gazed around the room, then met her eyes. “Oh yes, Thursday, certainly, I mean, if you want.”
She nodded, but still her heart beat hard. He had read the letter, although he’d taken great pains to make it appear as if Lynne hadn’t written, or had sent only a brief note. “Well, if it’s all the same, I might just stay home. Don wants to….”
She made up a story, for her husband had no plans other than to enjoy the quiet. Christmas at their house was a boisterous affair, especially that year, what with their youngest bringing his girlfriend to dinner. That child had spent Thanksgiving with the girl’s family, about time he introduced her to his own kin. Agatha kept that to herself, although if Laurie had been there, she would have mentioned it. But this man was having a hard enough time just dealing with breakfast. She nearly reached for Stanford’s hand, but left space between them. He was like one of her own, although not that many years separated them. Still she cared about him and it broke her heart that he was isolating himself from those who truly loved him.
He should be out west, for Michael was getting along fine now, and Stanford’s sisters, bless their hearts, held little understanding of this outwardly complicated soul. But Agatha knew what made his heart tick, art yes, and one man who for whatever reason brought Stanford to life. She didn’t know why God had put those two men together, but together they would be until death parted them. Or Stanford’s pigheadedness, she sighed.
That sigh caught his attention. “Did Lynne write to you as well,” he asked.
“She sent a Christmas card last week.” Agatha gazed around the room, then looked at Stanford. “I saw she sent you a letter yesterday.”
He nodded, then toyed with the mug’s handle. He gripped the cup, sipping slowly. Then he set it back on the table, meeting her eyes. “Laurie’s going to buy a house out there.”
Agatha wanted to gasp, but calmly she took a breath, then drank some coffee. “She say anything else?”
“She invited me to visit when the baby’s born. She….” He flinched, then shook his head.
“She what?” Agatha inwardly trembled, yet maybe this sort of ultimatum was what Stanford needed. She had never seen him so rattled, not even when his mother was near death.
“She said she hoped to see me.” He spoke like it was an unbelievable request. Then he looked quizzically at Agatha. “She said….” He ate some oatmeal, washing it down with coffee.
Agatha sighed. “Well, she cares about you, about the both of you.”
He nodded, then slouched back in his seat, staring at his breakfast. “I can’t believe he’d actually….”
Agatha could, but Stanford had a hard time seeing the forest for the trees, although now the view was plain. She wondered what he would do; Lynne had three weeks of pregnancy remaining. Was that a similar countdown to what was left of Stanford and Laurie’s relationship? “So, shall I come on Thursday?” she said as if that subject was all to matter.
Stanford nodded, then looked at her. “No, I mean, not if you already have plans.”
“Plans can be changed, you know.”
His gaze was as if she had spoken a previously unconsidered truth. Then he stared at her, but she knew he saw someone else in that seat. His eyes, often so shielded, were for those moments open windows, which made Agatha blink away tears. He loved Laurie so much, and had tried desperately to hide from that realization, unwilling to face the accompanying pain. Now that anguish was threatening to overwhelm him, but maybe that was essential. Perhaps reaching rock bottom might force this man’s hand.
His slight nod nearly made her gasp, but she remained impassive as he took another bite of oatmeal. Then he looked her way, and she met his gaze, those windows still open. She nodded, then reached for his hand, which he grasped with all the strength he possessed. To Agatha his grip was weak, but she wasn’t surprised. She placed her other hand around his, still nodding as tears fell from his eyes. Then she looked away, praying for peace, joy, and love. It was all any of them needed.
Later that same morning, the Ahern family visited Ritchie, a prearranged gathering as Brenda and the couple’s youngest children were also present. Those kids were older than Paul and Ann, and they minded the youngest Aherns while the adults chatted. Then Sam stood, pulling something from his pocket. Renee observed how her husband handed Ritchie the keys to Bel Air, saying the car was a Christmas gift for the whole Nolan family, even if it would seat less than a quarter of them.
Brenda began to cry, but didn’t bother hiding her tears, which stirred the attention of her kids. Ritchie gaped at Sam, then shot Renee a look, as if this was a joke. Renee nodded while Sam explained the reason, eschewing the short-lived nature of the station wagon. Paul and Ann came to their mother’s sides as Brenda was flanked by her offspring, who asked what Uncle Sam had given their dad. Then Renee gazed at her brother, tears welling in Ritchie’s eyes. Renee stood, leading Paul and Ann from the room, Brenda and her children on their heels.
In the corridor, Brenda and Renee exchanged embraces. Then Brenda asked if Renee was sure and Renee grasped her sister-in-law’s hands, giving Brenda their assurance. Brenda shook her head, but her smile shone, then she stared toward her husband’s door. “It’s like sometimes I don’t know who he is, I mean….” She chuckled, wiping her face. “It’s like he’s a completely different man.”
Renee nodded, feeling a brief tightness within her chest. “I imagine that must be pretty strange.”
“Yeah, but then I look in his eyes, and it’s like he was in there the whole time, hoping for a way out. Not that I ever thought he could do it, and maybe, well….” She glanced at her children, who were again keeping an eye on their younger cousins. “But I gotta believe this’s gonna work. If I don’t, I might as well leave now.”
Renee considered Lynne, then prayed for Eric. Then she hugged Brenda. “You’re not alone, you know.”
Brenda pulled away, laughing as she did so. “My family thinks I’m crazy, that I’m gonna regret not just….” Then she shrugged. “But I love him. For better or worse, I really do.” She took a deep breath. “Maybe you understand, I mean….”
Renee chuckled. “Oh I do, believe me.”
“Everyone’s got some load to carry. And now we’ll have an extra car. My goodness Renee, that’s just, it’s….”
Brenda broke down again, but this time relief echoed through her tears. Renee embraced her, then heard Sam clearing his throat, their children calling for their father. Those sounds strengthened Renee, who still harbored doubts toward her brother’s continued sobriety. As Sam joined them, Brenda went to hug him while Renee picked up Ann, Paul at Sam’s side. They asked what was going on, but Renee didn’t answer as Sam told Brenda it was going to be all right.
The Aherns didn’t speak much on the way home, but Paul and Ann asked when Uncle Ritchie would come out of the hospital as well as where Santa might be. Then Paul asked when they were going to see Uncle Laurie and Aunt Lynne, and Jane of course. Renee giggled, then inwardly shivered for who was missing from that group. “We’ll meet them at church tonight,” she said, grasping Sam’s hand. He gripped back with force and Renee wondered how much of that was for Eric, or what Sam had said to Ritchie.
The adults didn’t get a chance to speak until after lunch, once Ann was napping, Paul resting on the sofa. While the Aherns had decided to skip midnight mass that year, even St. Matthew’s seven p.m. service wouldn’t end until well after eight. Once Renee was sure Paul was still, she led Sam to their bedroom, closing the door. She sat beside him, holding his hand. He gazed at her, his eyes as blue as that night in Vivian’s kitchen once both kids had finally collapsed. Renee leaned toward him, kissing his cheek. Then she laid her head on his shoulder, breathing in a deep peace.
“I love you,” Sam said softly. “Merry Christmas.”
“I love you too.” Then Renee met his gaze. “Sort of unreal, you know?”
“So much to think about, to be grateful for,” he smiled.
She nodded, but didn’t speak. If Sam needed to share his thoughts, he would. Maybe it was enough to absorb the silence, which wouldn’t last long once both kids woke. Then Renee giggled. “We have children Samuel. We actually have kids.”
“That we do.” His voice was light. Then he squeezed her hand. “We have all we need.”
His tone was still jovial, but it was laced with intense thankfulness. Renee fought tears, but they trickled down her cheeks just as Ritchie’s had right as she left his room. Could her brother stay sober, would he and Brenda remain married? Renee gently shook her head, then Sam wiped her face. His eyes were still that stunning shade of blue, but a little misty. Then he chuckled. “I know there’s a lot of uncertainty out there, but you know what? Right in this house God’s given me everything I always wanted. And I can’t ignore that, what I told your brother. And he smiled, said he understood. I have no idea what he really thought, but it’s the truth. I wish Eric was gonna be with us tonight, but Laurie’ll be there, that’s a blessing.” Sam smiled. “And like I said, the kids are….” Sam paused, turning toward his wife. “Our children Renee, what could be a bigger blessing than that?”
She didn’t know, but her heart felt so full. She grasped his hands, then kissed him. Sam pulled away, a little breathless. “Oh my goodness,” he smiled.
Renee giggled, then looked at their closed door. “Do you think, I mean, do we have time?”
His eyes grew wide, but he nodded. “Maybe just enough time.”
“Maybe,” Renee teased.
Within minutes they were under the covers, celebrating a multitude of joys. They lingered only for moments afterwards, then were dressed, but still flushed. Renee remade the bed as Sam opened their door, finding all was quiet. Closing the door most of the way, he met her at the foot of the bed. “Whatever happens next, I know it’s gonna be all right.”
“It won’t be what we expect.” He motioned to the rest of the house. “But if that’s not the message of what we’re celebrating tonight, what is?”
She caressed her husband’s cheek. “You’re right. My goodness but God works in strange ways.”
“Indeed he does.” Sam smiled, then paused, looking at their door. Suddenly a knock was heard.
Both parents giggled as Paul asked if he could come in. Renee opened the door, finding her son smiling widely. As she embraced him, she gazed back at Sam, who blinked away tears. Then Paul asked when Aunt Vivian was coming, to which Sam said soon. Renee nodded in agreement as aloud Paul wondered if she was bringing presents with her. Perhaps, the little boy was told, as he led his parents to where the Christmas tree shone brightly.
While the Aherns entertained Vivian, Marek reread a letter delivered that day. He marveled at how quickly Klaudia’s reply had arrived; she had dated it less than two weeks ago. Marek inspected her handwriting, which seemed like a bright ribbon waving in the sun as she noted how much she wanted to see him, and that she would await further information in the coming year. Again she signed the letter Love, Klaudia, words that Marek allowed into his heart as though she stood beside him, whispering the sentiment into his ear.
He didn’t call Lynne, for he would see her, Laurie, and Jane soon for dinner. Caramel slices waited on the kitchen counter, then Marek wondered if Klaudia would like them. He wanted to speak to her, so much on his mind, but would try reaching her tomorrow. If he called right when he woke, he might get through, but lines would be busy with others connecting with loved ones far away. He briefly thought of Eric, then prayed over that man. Marek stepped into the vestibule, gazing toward the altar. Unlit candles stood on stands, a tree to the left, dark now, but lights would blaze after he returned from supper. He smiled, pleased that the Snyder-Abrams trio would be joined by the Aherns that evening, then all would be together tomorrow for lunch, seated around Lynne’s dining table. Sam was cooking and it reminded Marek of his childhood, a variety of guests, but all were family. Marek walked toward the front of the church, where on the right a nativity scene was staged. Mary knelt over an open space, but Marek would place the baby Jesus in front of her before he lit the candles. He sat in the first pew, gazing at the figures, Joseph next to Mary, shepherds behind them, lambs and cattle framing the group. The main characters were Jews, which seemed an afterthought to most Christians. Since Hanukkah, Marek had felt drawn to that aspect, which now was stark to the Lutheran pastor. Jesus’ Jewishness was more keenly noted at Easter, but on that afternoon, Marek couldn’t escape that facet of his savior.
Was Klaudia at all religious, he wondered. Her family had been Catholic, as were most in their village. She had written nothing related to faith in any of her letters, then he smiled. In a matter of weeks, she would be standing near him, not the girl he recalled, but still she was…. She was the only living link to his past, a woman he had never been able to set aside. How much of a miracle was that, he considered, wishing Eric was there, for only with that man had he noted the depth of his feelings. Lynne understood, not that Marek had shared the inner workings of his heart, but he hadn’t needed to. Klaudia had set the wheels in motion, and indeed Lynne was a perceptive soul. Marek looked forward to watching those ladies interact, if only that around Lynne, Klaudia would have a hard time hiding her emotions. Marek chuckled, then gazed around the building. He hoped she could see the beauty past wooden beams and stained glass, finding within this space such peace. Yet that peace emanated beyond the structure, and he stood, feeling a lasting warmth. He went back into the kitchen, gazing at the caramel slices. Then he looked at the clock; he was due at Lynne’s in an hour. Klaudia’s letter sat on the table and he retrieved it, then took a deep breath. He exhaled, then headed to his room, where he placed the letter with the others. He went to his knees, giving thanks for that blessing as well as praying for God’s presence with one far from home.
Jane stirred from her nap just as Lynne woke. Glancing at the clock, Lynne saw it was nearly four, then she smiled, hearing footsteps along the hall. The nursery door was opened, Laurie crooning to Jane how nice it was to see her. Lynne was pleased that Jane didn’t get up from her new bed, banging on the closed door like she’d been imprisoned. And a mother was grateful for an extra pair of hands to change Jane’s diaper.
As Lynne exited her room, Laurie and Jane were stepping from the nursery. Jane leaned toward her mother, but Lynne didn’t take her. “I wish I could explain why,” she said to Laurie, patting her belly as if for emphasis. Jane looked confused, then leaned against her uncle. “At least she doesn’t seem to mind,” Lynne smiled.
“Nope, she’s a smart girl.” Laurie kissed Jane’s cheek. “Feeling better?” he asked Lynne.
She nodded. “Gonna be a late evening, for me at least. But it’s funny, I feel like….” Had she dreamt of Eric? Probably, yet this time her dreams seemed with a purpose. Or maybe she was appropriating the impending holiday’s significance.
“You okay?” Laurie grasped her hand.
“Yeah, it’s just….” She smiled, then shook her head. “After you two,” she said, motioning to the stairs.
Laurie and Jane led the way, then the trio went into the kitchen. A pot of soup simmered, a recipe from Rose that Laurie had been keen to try, if only to tell his mother he’d made it. Lynne sat at the table as Laurie put Jane in her tall seat, then he brought water to Lynne, milk for Jane, accompanied by thin slices of pie for each. “What’s this?” Lynne asked.
“Just a little Christmas Eve treat. I was thinking about having a piece all afternoon.” He sat between the ladies, a mug of tea in his hand. “Finally about half an hour ago I broke down and ate the last of the peach, well, what was left after I cut some for you sleepyheads. I know Marek’ll be here in a bit, but I couldn’t help myself.”
Lynne laughed, for a quarter of a pie had remained. She glanced at the counter, seeing only an empty tin. “What’ll you eat for breakfast tomorrow?”
Now Laurie chuckled. “Gonna make French toast. Mom sent that recipe too, don’t want her to think you’re doing the cooking.”
Lynne smiled, then ate her pie. Jane did the same, but she finished before her mother. She asked for more, but was told there wasn’t any. Skeptically she looked at her uncle, then at her mother. “I don’t think she believes you,” Lynne said to Laurie.
“Well, it’s the truth.” He took Jane from her seat, putting her on his lap. She was placated, although she stared at Lynne’s plate. “She’s eyeing yours,” Laurie snickered.
Lynne finished hers, then pushed the plate in the middle of the table. She gazed around the room, stopping at the cupboard containing cookbooks. The sketch Eric had made exactly one year ago remained in that cabinet and Lynne stood, walking that way. She retrieved the drawing, studying her image, but what Eric had drawn took on a new meaning. She brought it to the table, placing it out of Jane’s reach. “It looks different today.”
Laurie gazed at it, but he sighed. “I’m glad you think so.”
Lynne wore a small smile, then retook her seat, leaving the sketch on the other side of the table. “Do you remember what I asked you when I first showed this to you?”
He stared at her, then nodded slowly. “Lynne, hell’s gonna freeze over before Stan….”
Lynne laughed as Laurie apologized for his language, on that day of all days. She wouldn’t tell him that she’d written to Stanford, but hope bubbled in her heart, and not only for that couple. “The day Eric drew this was the same day Sam and Renee learned….” She sighed only for a moment, caressing Jane’s face. “Now they have Paul and Ann, my goodness a lot’s happened this year. Laurie, just remember what you promised me.”
“Yeah, yeah.” He rolled his eyes. Then he glanced at the drawing. “Wherever Eric is, he’s thinking about you today.”
“I’m sure thinking about him.”
Laurie put Jane on her feet, then turned his chair outwards. “Lynne….” Laurie paused, then again gazed at the drawing. Then he met her eyes. “He drew you, but not as a sacrifice. You’re a conduit, maybe you’ve always been that for him, but this time it’s different.”
She nodded. “I was just thinking that. When he left before, he always came home so guilty, like he thought it would be his last time. But I knew he couldn’t help it and now….” She smoothed her blouse over the baby. “Before he left for Miami, we talked about how he and Stanford would be alone. You had Seth then, now us.” She picked up the illustration, setting it between herself and Laurie. “This’s what Christmas is about, realizing how necessary is our very existence.” She inhaled, then looked at her daughter. “Jesus came to free us, but he took the form of a helpless baby, asking us to care for him instead. God is magnificent, but I also think he wants our love as a much as a little one needs its mother.”
Laurie motioned for the drawing and Lynne handed it to him. “Assuming that’s right,” he chuckled, “then I should be glad Stan threw me out. That he has to, oh my God….” Laurie laughed, then sighed. “Like I said before, from your lips to God’s ears. But I just don’t see how….”
Lynne placed his hand on the baby. “I was barren for years. Anything is possible, anything we could dream.”
He bit his lip, then nodded, finally meeting her gaze. She smiled, praying for her husband to know not only God’s peace, but her love. I love you Eric, she wanted to say. Merry Christmas, she added, as a baby wriggled under its mother’s skin.
As Marek and Lynne prayed, a man in Texas sensed those intercessions, although he wondered if they were merely sensations stirred by a rather prophetic baker. Yet Susie Bolden’s talent with pie crust was nearly as important as her psychic abilities, although in mixed company Susie kept mum about what she thought. John ached to speak with her about what she had told Dora and whatever else she might know. However, on Christmas Eve night, as children clamored to open just one present, simpler delights ruled.
To John, Susie’s pies were so reminiscent of home that he alternated wishing he could squeeze in one more piece or just flee to the shed. But he remained seated in the Richardsons’ kitchen, the rest in the living room, for to step away seemed sinful. He wasn’t sure if that was due to Susie, the children, or the idea of…. Within that home fragments of his life were displayed, although he couldn’t put a single name to any of the characters. And some were still beyond his grasp; Luke and Callie were clear, as was Callie’s wife, although he couldn’t imagine that his pastor made pies. Tilda was a relative of John’s, but he wasn’t sure how they were bound. Dora was a friend, distant at times, but also close, even if she might prefer to remain aloof. Now that she knew he had a wife and children, she alternated between speaking her heart or avoiding him. Whether or not Walt was present seemed irrelevant. And as for that man….
The more John got to know him, the bigger of a mystery he became. His prejudices, and those of whom he approved, seemed incongruous. He shirked from Susie’s supernatural gift, but heaped praise upon her culinary prowess, seemed indebted to her for what John couldn’t tell. He knew his bed was courtesy of the Boldens and Callie was indeed Walt’s best friend. And now that John knew Walt had served in Korea, the men’s friendship was better understood, even though their races demanded certain separations. Yet on that evening the adults spoke harmoniously as children played together nearby. Luke was the oldest and while the Boldens only had daughters, he got along well with their eldest, Myrna. Noelle was their middle child, a little older than Esther. Her birthday was the day after tomorrow, hence her Christmas-themed name. But she only seemed interested in what Santa was bringing, Luke the only child not to believe.
John gazed at that boy, who nodded as if he had requested John’s attention. Luke’s blue eyes made John’s heart ache, yet that strange peace kept him inside that house. As Luke approached, John’s heart felt heavy. He glanced at the adults, wishing to catch their attention, but none gazed his way. Luke stopped a foot in front of John, smiling widely. “So Mr. Doe, how’re you doing?”
“Just fine. And you?”
Luke peeked over his shoulder, then tapped his foot. “Well, to tell you the truth….” Luke stepped close to John. “I wanna open a present, but we hafta wait till the Boldens go home.”
John hid a smile. “Really?”
Luke nodded, then stepped toward the door. John followed Luke onto the porch. “Yes sir.” Luke spoke softly. “We get to open one present on Christmas Eve, but they, well….” He clasped his hands in front of him. “They wait till tomorrow. They ain’t got much, you know.”
John noticed Luke’s humble demeanor. “Well, they seem to have all they need.”
“Oh they do, I mean….” Luke shook his head. “It’s just that….” The boy sighed. “Mr. Doe, do whites and Negros go to the same schools where you live?”
John wasn’t sure, and he shrugged. “But Luke, do you realize that your father and Mr. Bolden are probably each other’s best friend?”
Luke nodded. “Yes sir, I do. What I don’t understand is….”
Walt stepped onto the porch. “Son, come inside. Time to say goodbye to our guests.”
“Yes Daddy.” Luke ran into the house, but Walt gave John a look.
John nodded, then followed Walt inside. Dora and Susie shared an embrace as Callie gripped his hat, his girls at his sides. Tilda, Esther, and Gail stood together and John studied the two sets of sisters. Then he looked at Luke, who shook Callie’s hand, then received a warm hug. Luke nodded to Susie, who ruffled his hair, then she met John’s gaze.
He learned nothing from her stare other than she was praying for him, but as he was no closer to recalling his past, there would be plenty of time for them to speak. That fact didn’t bother him, which he chalked up to a Christmas miracle, which made him smile as Callie approached. “You have a good Christmas now John. We’ll be seeing you before the new year.”
They shook with their left hands, which made Luke laugh. John then extended that hand to Susie, who clasped it tenderly. Again she didn’t speak, but her warmth was a tonic. John nodded to the Bolden girls, who didn’t meet his gaze, although Marian giggled as she walked by him. He remained in the house as the rest went to the porch, their goodbyes and wishes for a merry Christmas ringing through the air.
After the Boldens left, four children ran back into the house, hollering to open a gift. John took his leave and wasn’t missed by any of the kids. He could hear their delights from the shed, the sound like a tinny recording lodged in the back of his head. He didn’t go back inside once it was quiet, only Luke to come out, wishing him goodnight. John wished the boy a merry Christmas, then after Luke was gone, John closed the shed door, wishing he felt more tired.
Yet sleep eluded him and he stared at his surroundings. Then someone knocked. “Come in,” John said.
It was Walt, who wore a light jacket. “You all right?” he asked.
“Yeah, just tired.” It was a lie, then he sighed. “All the kids asleep?”
Walt shrugged. “They’re in bed. Mind if I join you?”
John smiled. “No, have a seat.”
Walt took the metal chair, facing John, who sat on his bed. “Just wanted to see if you were okay.”
John gazed around the small room. “I’m….” He was weary, the weight of this strange life starting to prey on him. “I’m fine,” he said blandly.
Walt smiled. “Now that’s a lie if ever I heard one.”
John chuckled. “Suppose it is. But I am thankful for your hospitality.”
That was the truth and John smiled. “Tonight was nice, I mean, the Boldens are good people.”
“I’ve known Callie all my life. He is a good man and Susie’s….” Walt raised his eyebrows. “She makes a delicious pie.”
“That she does.” John wouldn’t broach her other specialty, but he grinned. “She’s not from around here.”
Walt glanced at the floor, then met John’s gaze. “Nope. Sometimes that makes it a little difficult. But usually there’s no problems.”
“Well, she and Callie have lovely daughters.”
“They do,” Walt smiled. “Dora helped with Noelle’s birth and Susie named her Noelle Dorie, boy, that was a day.”
As Walt spoke, a memory was triggered, making John queasy. He leaned over, taking deep breaths as Walt asked if he was all right. John couldn’t place how that figured into his life, but the prompt was painful. He sat up, still felt nauseous. Then he gazed at Walt. “Sorry,” John mumbled. “Just that it reminded me of something.”
Walt leaned back in his chair. “Dora said she told you about the…babies.” Walt coughed, shaking his head. “Not so sure about it, but I guess we’ll see.”
“Hopefully they’ll be fine.”
“Maybe,” Walt shrugged.
Silence loomed and John wondered if Walt would simply stand, then say goodnight. Then John was gripped by a clear memory, which again made him sick to his stomach. He doubled over, retching even, bringing Walt to his feet. He then knelt beside John. “You all right?”
The notion of standing beside his wife in a Catholic cemetery was so strong it was as if John was back on that late summer’s day, palpable grief swirling in the shed. Two tiny boys were being laid to rest, but they weren’t his children. Those twins belonged to…someone connected to John’s best friend. John opened his eyes, half expecting to be standing amid a sea of mourners, yet it was only Walt beside him. “What is it?” Walt asked.
“Nothing, it’s nothing.”
“Bullshit! Now you tell me or….”
As John spoke, he expected Walt to stand angrily, then stalk away, maybe slamming the shed door behind him. Yet Walt only nodded as John explained the entire scene. He left out nothing, not even that it was someone related to his best friend. His sister, John suddenly blurted, again feeling that awful pain, although it wasn’t only for the death of premature twins. Some other ominous event was connected, but that remained another mystery.
Walt quietly retook his seat, then folded his arms over his chest. Yet he gazed at John with what appeared like sympathy in his eyes. “Did they ever have another child?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” John sighed. “They named them Simon and Andrew.” He shook his head. “How I remember all that and not my own name….”
“Sometimes we don’t wanna think about the past.” Walt snorted, then grimaced. “So your friend’s Catholic, huh?”
John nodded, then smiled. “Hope that’s all right.”
“There’s worse things.” Walt cleared his throat. “Dora told you about me being in Korea, didn’t she?”
“She tell you about the Jew?”
John smiled. “She mentioned something about that.”
“I figured.” Again Walt crossed his arms over his chest. “I owe my life to that damned bastard.” Then he smiled. “Only one man in that whole platoon was a better shot than me, and it was that little Jew boy. Who’d guess some New York Jew could shoot so good?”
“My friend was in Korea, but he never talks about it.”
Walt raised his eyebrows. “Well, I’ll just say this; I wouldn’t be sitting here today if not for Gordon. He was a crazy bastard, but lord almighty, he could pick off gooks like nobody’s business.”
John stared at Walt. “What was his name?”
“Don’t remember his first name, we just called him Gordon. They all called me Richards, Richardson was too long, I guess. You probably can’t remember if you went or not.”
“No,” John said absently. Then he gazed at Walt. “Gordon doesn’t sound Jewish.”
Walt smiled. “Nope. We used to tease him about that, he never said much though, just kept to himself most of the time.” Walt seemed lost in the memory, then he stared at John. “I went home before he did, never knew what happened to him. Probably not much good.” Walt shook his head, then he stood. “You remind me a little of him, I mean, he was blonde, had blue eyes though. When he looked at you it was like….”
“He wanted to be free.”
“Yeah, just like that.” Walt gripped the back of his chair. “He enlisted, never knew why. The rest of us, most of us anyways, was drafted. But that crazy Jew enlisted. Guess I’m lucky he did.”
“I think I’m lucky too,” John smiled.
“Maybe.” Walt looked at John. “Best let you get some sleep. I’m, uh, sorry, for your friend’s sister. Don’t say anything to Dora about it, you understand?”
“And uh, thanks, you know, for listening. You sure you weren’t in Korea?”
“Who knows?” Now John was tired, also frustrated. He furrowed his brow, gazing at Walt. “That man, was his first name Seth?”
Walt shivered, then closed his eyes. When he opened them, he nodded. “By God, I think it was. How the hell would you know that?”
“I don’t know.” John trembled, then closed his eyes as a warm surge descended upon him. “His name was Seth Gordon from….”
“Brooklyn,” Walt offered, again sitting in the metal chair. “He was from Brooklyn, New York.”
John opened his eyes, but didn’t know what else to say. Yet peace swirled all through him, although it wasn’t merely associated with the tangled thread connecting him and the man seated across. Instead it was as if John’s wife stood behind him, passing these snippets like a lifeline. John looked toward the shed door, wishing she would step inside, whoever she was and wherever she might be. I love you, he wanted to say, but he kept still as Walt spoke, at first in a halting tone, then in a rush as a flood of war-time memories spilled from that small shed in Karnack, Texas.
I started this novel in October 2013; at the time, I assumed I’d be penning another short story, the form I had been working in for much of that year. However, at over three-quarters completed, The Hawk currently stands at over 700,000 words. Never before have I embarked upon such a large project.
Over the last three years, other than poems for NaPoWriMo, I have written nothing else. Quilting has overtaken some of my free time, as has caring for my family; recently I have become a grandmother. I have also nursed my father through the end of his life, which fell upon the heels of my first grandchild’s arrival. Now with time to write and revise, I have chosen to share this behemoth in a beta-type manner. Part Ten will most likely be released in late autumn, but please bear with this author while grandchildren, fabrics, and a new familial normal take precedence. In the meantime, thank you for joining me on this journey, which is a search for my Father as well as Eric’s. As this is a novel in progress, comments concerning this tale are welcome and can be sent to annascottgraham at gmail dot com.
Anna Scott Graham was born in 1966 in Northern California. A mother and grandmother, she lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, some hummingbirds, and numerous quilts.
Other books by [+ Anna Scott Graham+] are available on Shakespir.