| Anthony Varallo
When JoAnne Knox saw Mo McDonough dragging Gil up her front
walk, she immediately stepped away from the window and crouched behind her
dresser, wondering, suddenly, if Mo could still see the top of her head. The
idea both pleased and terrified her, and she giggled into the tent of her hands,
but this sounded rehearsed, so she slid the phone off the dresser and called
Linda Jennings instead.
"Linda, it's JoAnne. Hey, look out your front window,
"JoAnne? Why are you whispering?"
"I don't know," JoAnne whispered. "Just look
outside and tell me if you see Mo McDonough coming to my door. Quick."
Linda sighed and put the phone to the floor. In the background
JoAnne could hear the television, and the ticker tape of the Jennings' sheltie,
Nipster, padding across the linoleum floor. When Linda returned to the phone,
JoAnne thought she'd had an asthmatic attack, until she realized it wasn't
Linda, but Nipster nuzzling the receiver like it was a plucked truffle.
"Christ," JoAnne grumbled. "Fetch. Linda."
"JoAnne?" Linda said, startling her. "I'm on the
upstairs phone. Oh, God, it's Mo, and she's got Gil with her. I can see them
right now. Jesus, you can tell she's in a state just by looking at her."
"What's she doing?"
"She's . . . oh, she's looking in your front window. Right
in front of the kid."
"What's he doing?"
"He's sitting on the porch step. It looks like she's got
him dressed up in a suit or something."
"The poor kid," JoAnne whispered. "She's probably
got him—" she began, but at that moment the doorbell rang, and the two of
them burst into giggles. "Sh-sh-sh . . . stop it," JoAnne said,
meaning the doorbell, but Linda burst out, "I, sh-sh-sh . . . can't!"
Downstairs, the doorbell rang again, followed by an insistent
triplet of knuckle-knocks against the door.
"Oh, God!" JoAnne said, then swiftly cupped her hand
to her mouth.
A remarkable sound loosed itself from Linda's nose. "There
oughta be a law," she said.
Outside, Gil pulled the untied ends of his necktie through his
hands, absently, as his mother beat against the door. The small end reminded him
of a hamster's tail passing through his fingers and, for a moment, he wished he
had gotten some kind of pet for his birthday instead of the black pin-striped
suit he'd found draped across his bed earlier that day. He'd come home from
school to find his mother sleeping at the kitchen table, still in her nurse's
uniform, as ice popped unspectacularly inside a glass of ginger ale she'd
forgotten on the counter. She had her arms folded beneath her head, and, looking
down, Gil could see that she'd gotten herself a new pair of white nurse's shoes
with wide, oval-shaped buckles. Of all the things that saddened him at that
moment, the newness and fatness of the buckles saddened him the most.
"You should be dressed up," she'd said, regarding him
with one squinting eye. "You should be wearing a suit, so when your father
gets here he'll really think it's something." She turned her head the
opposite direction and dozed again. "That's what . . . he'll think,"
Gil left her and went upstairs, where the discovery of the suit
was as pleasing and unsurprising as finding a quarter in the dryer. He sat next
to the suit and petted the sleeves of the jacket, gingerly. "A suit,"
he whispered, acting out a scene in his head where his mother and father—reunited—were
watching him from the doorway. "My very own suit." He plucked the tie
from the shirt and draped it around his neck. The double pendulum of its ends
extended well past his waist, and he wrapped them around once again, wondering
if this was right. He was about to try on the jacket when the telephone rang,
and he ran into his mother's bedroom, diving across the bed to intercept it
before the second ring.
"Hey there, birthday boy," his father said, meaning,
Gil knew, from his high, cheery tone, I'm calling to disappoint you. To
compensate, Gil burst into a long, disjointed account of finding the suit—it
was surprising to him how good he had gotten at this sort of thing—knowing
that this would help put his father at ease. He told him about the tie, with its
funny little stripes, and rhapsodized about the smoothness of the jacket's
lining, which hid a deep, mysterious pocket he planned to stuff with action
"I bet they'll like that," his father said.
"Yeah," Gil said.
"Like a sleeping bag."
"Yeah," Gil said, a little shakily, for in that moment
he had felt his father to be a foolish person he did not really love, and the
idea frightened him. "Like a sleeping bag."
Now, sitting on the Knoxs' front step, Gil pulled an action
figure from his pocket and wondered how to break the news that his father was
not coming after all. He pushed the figure's arms upwards into a chin-up grip
and listened to his mother banging away at the door. Looking up, he saw a car
approaching and felt embarrassed when it slowed to pass, as the Gregory twins
regarded him from the back window then immediately ducked out of view.
Gil's mother turned to watch the car disappear around the
corner. "You know," she sighed, "it's getting so hard just to be
a crazy person anymore."
Gil closed his eyes and tried to imagine himself living inside
the pocket, but he knew this was silly, and he stopped imagining it.
"First, the kids stop coming on Halloween," she
continued. "Then, all of a sudden, the Girl Scouts don't remember your
address. Now you've got neighbors hiding from you. Hiding." She
gave a little laugh. "I'm telling you, it's enough to make you put the
house up for sale."
"You've been saying that forever," Gil mumbled.
He could hear her new shoes groaning as she stepped away from
the door. "That," she said, "is a ridiculous proposition."
She moved towards the walkway and stood next to Gil. When Gil looked up, he
imagined that he saw his mother the way others might have seen her, and he felt
a rush of embarrassment. She looked, in her various stages of dress, like
someone who had appraised herself in a rearview mirror, unaware that her long,
navy raincoat—twenty years out of style if it was a day—was noticeably tight
underneath the arms and that her white nylons sagged dramatically above her
too-new shoes, like two dollops of toothpaste squeezed beneath the cap.
"It's getting hard just to be, anymore," she
whispered. "It really is." For a moment Gil was afraid she was going
to cry, until she looked down at him, and he saw a change in her expression.
"But your father is really going to think something when he sees that
suit," she said. "That's something he won't believe." She nodded
her head, as if responding to an inner question. "That's something no one
Gil nodded, feeling a window closing within. "Sure,"
he said. A late afternoon breeze took the ends of his tie, slightly, and for the
first time that day it began to feel a little cold outside. He returned the
action figure to its pocket and hugged his arms to his chest.
His mother put a hand on his head. "Come on," she
said. "We're leaving." She cupped her hands to her mouth. "Did
you hear that, JoAnne?" she announced. "We're leaving."
Gil looked back over his shoulder, certain that he discerned a
shape moving behind the upstairs curtains, then stood from the step. His mother
brushed the back of his jacket, picking bits of whatever from the undersides of
"See?" she said, to no one in particular. "I'm
being a good mother."
The Jennings' home, with its wide, windowless garage, had always
reminded Gil of a fortress, and, on those few occasions when he'd stood in the
driveway as the door rumbled open, he had felt himself poised on the edge of
something vague and spectacular. The last time he'd been there was over the
summer, when he and his mother couldn't figure out how to start their push
mower, and the two of them had wheeled it over to the Jennings for an
inspection. The garage had opened, majestically, and Mr. Jennings appeared from
within, carrying a toolbox and a white rag, as Mrs. Jennings kept Nipster at bay
with a long red leash.
"Well," Mr. Jennings said, peering underneath the
mower as Gil pushed on the handle, "it looks like Dan forgot to clean out
the gunk at the end of last season. There's gunk caked all around the
"Gunk," Gil's mother replied, sleepily. She laughed in
a way Gil feared was incorrect.
Mr. Jennings chiseled away the hardened grass with a screwdriver
as Gil struggled to keep the mower steady. He could just make out the pile of
gray-green clumps forming, dismally, beneath the blade as his mother watched
with a loose smile across her lips. "So much gunk," she said.
Now, as the two of them approached the front door, Gil hoped
that it would be Mr. Jennings who would answer, and his disappointment was
complete when he saw Mrs. Jennings part the front curtain, giving the two of
them a ridiculous look of surprise, then unlocking the deadbolt and partially
opening the door. "Mo," she said, putting a hand to her chest. "I
thought that was you."
"I was just getting ready to take Nipster on a little walk
when I looked outside and saw you coming up the drive. And I thought, Who is
this handsome young man coming up my driveway dressed in such a nice suit?"
"It's a birthday present," his mother said.
"Well, happy birthday, Gil," Mrs. Jennings said.
"How old are you now?"
Gil was about to answer when Nipster darted out from beneath her
legs and began barking at the two of them.
"Nipster!" Mrs. Jennings said. She pulled Nipster by
the collar, dragging him back inside. Gil moved behind his mother, hoping that
Mrs. Jennings wouldn't see how frightened he was. He felt tears forming in his
eyes and was suddenly angry with himself.
"I'm sorry," Mrs. Jennings said. "He gets a
little feisty when he hasn't had his walk."
"That's okay, Nipster," Mo said, quietly, as Mrs.
Jennings tried to nudge him back inside the door. "I know you mean to say
hello." She raised her arm and offered him a little wave. "I know it's
getting harder and harder just to say hello anymore."
"Oh, he's bad," Mrs. Jennings said, closing the door.
Nipster moved to a low window and put his nose to the glass, growling. "I
really should be taking him on a walk," she continued, giving a
sharp click of the tongue. Gil noticed that she kept one hand on the doorknob,
turned, and the knowledge of this saddened him.
"We were wondering if you could help us," Mo said, a
statement. "Dan's coming to take Gil out to dinner, and we don't know how
to tie his tie." She stepped aside to afford a full view of Gil in his
untied tie. "I figured someone would know," she explained.
Mrs. Jennings clapped her hands together and gave a silent
laugh. "Is that what this is all about? Oh, Mo," she said, "his .
. . tie." She gave the two of them a bemused look, then
stepped from the door, taking the ends of the tie and wrapping them once around
each other. "Well, let's see," she said. "I think it's twice
around, then down through the middle and . . ." She shaped the knot into a
lopsided square, then pulled it towards the collar. Gil could see that the small
end was longer than the wide and that the entire tie curved inwards from the
knot down, looking like a tongue tasting a lemon wedge.
"Well, that's not right, is it?" Mrs. Jennings said,
undoing the knot and starting over again. "Maybe it's once around, then up
and through, then around again." She stopped and put a hand to her mouth.
"Do you know, I can't remember." Her voice drifted to a remote key.
"I honestly can't remember. Isn't that terrible?"
"Oh," Mo said, "a lot of things are terrible. I
bought Gil a nice birthday cake last night, and now I can't find it. Can you
believe that? A birthday cake." She shook her head. "Terrible."
A strange silence settled upon the three of them as a car passed
in the distance. Gil watched the two women, happy to note a similarity in their
expressions—his mother with her lips drawn tightly together, Mrs. Jennings
with her hand on her chin—as if whatever it was that accounted for their
silence might be the exact same thought. The idea pleased him.
"Maybe you left it in the car?" Mrs. Jennings said.
"Sometimes I forget groceries in the corners of the trunk."
"I'm afraid of the trunk," Mo replied, without
explanation. "Besides, I remember taking the cake inside and hiding it
somewhere. I just can't find it."
And this was the truth. After talking to his father, Gil
returned downstairs to find his mother standing on a kitchen chair, digging
through the cabinet above the refrigerator. She pulled out item after item—an
empty coffee tin, an unopened box of Christmas napkins, two weedy serving
baskets—as Gil went around the room, closing all of the cabinet doors she'd
left open. It felt good closing them.
"Useless," Mo whispered. She banged one of the baskets
against the top of the refrigerator. "I'm . . . useless." She put her
hands to her face, accidentally knocking one of the baskets off the side, which
landed in an amazing fashion on top of a discarded soda bottle below. Gil went
to retrieve the basket and offered it to his mother, who took her hands from her
face and regarded him with a surprised expression.
"You found your suit," she said. "Oh, just look
at you, would you? I mean, just look at you."
Gil smiled and performed a little modeling spin, knowing this
would please her.
"Your father won't believe it. But he's going to have
to." She added, nodding, "He's going to have to believe it."
Gil handed her the basket. "Yeah," he said. "He's
going to have to."
Gil followed his mother through the Jennings' backyard,
observing the shavings of cut grass sticking to his new dress shoes. In a little
while they would need to hop the Gregorys' hedge—it was scarcely higher than
Gil's knees—and Gil prayed that the Gregorys wouldn't be looking. He very much
wanted to be done with this, to be home again where he could figure out a way to
break the news to his mother, and the thought of another encounter depressed
him. Ahead, he watched his mother lift her skirt and hop the hedge, Mo laughing
as the zipper of her raincoat caught a twig in its teeth.
"Oh, hello," she said, and for a moment Gil thought
she was addressing the twig, until he hopped into the yard and saw the Gregory
twins—Pete and Roy—staring back at him. They were standing around a running
garden hose, nozzle-down in the muddy lawn, as a plume of brown water percolated
above the surface. Pete, the skinnier one, had the guiltiest face Gil had ever
seen, and Roy's wasn't much better—he made a lame attempt to stand in front of
the fountain as soon as he saw them.
"We're drowning the Devil," Roy explained, and Pete
nodded in agreement.
Mo moved closer to the gurgling hose and clapped her hands
together. "Well, it's about time," she said. "Somebody had
The twins nodded, nervously, as the four of them watched the
water as if it were a campfire. Gil didn't mind the Gregory twins seeing them;
they were too young to really worry about and didn't have many friends besides
each other. "I'll bet he's drowning," Gil said, and Roy squeaked in
"Uh-huh," Pete said.
After a while, Roy looked at the two of them and said, "How
come our mom's scared of you?"
Pete pushed him, and Roy tried to grab Pete's shirt.
"It could be a lot of things," Mo offered. "It's
getting hard for people not to be afraid of everything anymore. I know I'm
afraid to drive at night. And of parades."
The twins released each other—Pete had Roy by the sleeve—and
looked to Gil for some kind of explanation. Gil met their eyes and realized,
sadly, that they were afraid. A silence was broken when Roy muttered,
"You're wearing a suit."
"Yeah," Gil said.
Roy prodded the hose with his shoe. "That's dumb," he
As long as Gil could remember, the Pattersons had been his
parents' friends. Gil's father, especially, had been close with Mr. Patterson,
who often watched basketball games with him in the downstairs study while Gil
sat in the living room pressing the pedals of a Baldwin grand, mystified by the
yawning of the hammers within. His mother sat on the back deck with Mrs.
Patterson and Colleen, the Pattersons' college-aged daughter, Mo doing all the
talking as the other women made knowing, understanding nods and laughed at
things Gil supposed must be funny. He liked to hover about their conversations,
hoping for some kind of acknowledgment from Colleen, who drove a Mustang
convertible and whom he had once accompanied on a last-minute cigarette run, the
sense of their mission and the white noise of wind combining to make him just a
little bit in love with her.
After his parents' separation, though, it seemed that the
Pattersons had disappeared. True, he sometimes saw Mrs. Patterson driving her
white sedan up the main drive, but even when he offered a little wave, her eyes
looked past him, and the person behind the wheel seemed to him someone he no
longer knew. He watched the car disappear around the corner, wishing for things
he could not name.
Now, standing in the Pattersons' driveway, he watched his mother
peer into the window of a brown station wagon, which was parked against the
garage. There were half-moons of rust around the wheel wells and a vacuum
cleaner hose slung across the backseat.
His mother stepped away from the car and gave a long, low
whistle. "Things must be getting hard for the Pattersons, too," she
said, and Gil thought he detected a sob in her voice. It was clear that the walk
had tired her out more than usual, and she leaned against the car, placing her
hands on the hood. Gil saw that her new white shoes were now grass-stained and
muddy, and for the first time that day he was truly afraid, afraid that he'd
been wrong to mislead her, afraid that the truth was coming, and that the truth
would kill her. "Mom," he mumbled, knowing she was too far to hear.
She moved from the car to the front door and rang the bell. Gil
stood behind her, feeling like a piano was about to drop on top of him.
The door opened, partially, then jerked back on a security
chain. Near the bottom of the opening, the face of a little boy appeared.
"I'm not supposed to open the door," he said. " But I did."
Behind him, the sound of a woman's voice could be heard.
"Darnell! Get away from that door!"
"Uh-oh," Darnell said.
A moment later Darnell was whisked away and the chain removed,
as the door swung open to reveal a woman dressed in gray sweatpants and a
long-sleeved T-shirt, the sleeves rolled to the elbows. "I'm sorry,"
she said, "how can I help you?"
"You have no idea," Mo said, then laughed.
The woman looked at Gil, who managed to ask if the Pattersons
were home. The woman told them that they were away for the week and that she was
the housekeeper and would be glad to leave a note if they wished.
"You are so . . . helpful," Mo said. "I mean
that. I really, really do." She looked as if she'd forgotten that the woman
was standing there at all, and Gil lowered his head in embarrassment. "We
were just talking about how hard it is not to be afraid of everyone anymore. We
think it's getting harder and harder for people just to be kind and caring to
one another. It really is."
"Isn't that the truth?" the woman said. "It's a
messed-up world anymore." She looked at Gil and in an instant did something
he did not expect: she winked. "I was just telling Darnell not to go
answering the door when I heard you ringing and then I saw you through the
window and saw what nice-looking people you were, and I thought, Now what am I
doing getting so upset over two nice people knocking at the door?"
"Oh, it's true, it's true," Mo said. Then, "The
Gregory boys were afraid of us, too."
"Isn't that awful?" the woman said. "And you two
being so nice."
Darnell, who'd been hiding behind his mother's leg, poked his
head out and said, "Your clothes are messy."
His mother crouched down, whispered something sternly in his
ear, and nudged him back inside.
"Oh," Mo said, looking down at Gil's shoes and slacks,
which were both spotted with mud. "And his father is coming to take him to
his birthday dinner," she said, then broke down in tears. "And I can't
find . . . the cake." She knelt to the ground and tried rubbing out the
spots of mud, which only smeared across the fabric.
"Mom," Gil said. "Don't. It's okay. It's
"His daddy's coming to take him to dinner?" the woman
said, leaning down with Mo. Mo nodded.
"We'll get him ready," the woman said. She helped Mo
to her feet and led the two of them inside. "I promise."
She told Gil to go into the laundry room and take off his shoes
while she sat Mo on the living room sofa and talked with her awhile. Gil could
hear his mother crying as the woman comforted her, saying, "I know exactly
what you mean" and "You're right about that, you're absolutely
right." When he entered the laundry room, he found Darnell racing toy cars
inside an open dryer. He was embarrassed to have Darnell watching him, but he
took off his shoes anyway and shook them over the sink.
"Is your mom crazy?" Darnell said.
"How come?" he said, but Gil couldn't tell if he meant
how come she was crazy, or how come he didn't know. He turned the water on and
carefully ran the heels under the faucet.
Darnell gave a little laugh. "You're scared of me, aren't
"No," Gil lied.
"Yeah you are," Darnell said. "You're
Gil was about to respond when Darnell's mother walked in and
yelled at him for playing with the dryer. She picked him up by his arm and said,
"Don't tell me you need an attitude adjustment, or I'm gonna ad-just it
with the back of my hand." Darnell made a pouty face as she led him out of
the room and closed the door behind him.
"Now," she said, "let's see if we can get you all
fixed up." She pulled out a wooden step-stool and had Gil stand on it.
"You shouldn't have been out there walking through the grass," she
began, but she had barely touched a cloth to Gil's leg when he put his face in
his hands and burst out, "Don't let her know that no one's coming . . .
please. Please." He could feel himself trying to wipe away tears, but his
fingers were dumb little fish at the end of his hand, and he felt an awfulness
arise within his stomach. "She's going to be . . . so upset," he said.
The woman put a hand to his head. "Listen," she said,
"we're not going to say anything that's going to upset her. You understand
Gil wiped his eyes and tried to imagine himself living inside
the pocket. "She's going to be sooo upset," he said. "I should
never have . . . never."
"Hey, listen to me," the woman said. She took his
hands in her own and crouched down to meet his eyes. "We're not going to
say anything that's going to upset her, okay?"
Gil tried to wipe his nose across his arm.
"Tell me," she said. "What's the thing we're not
going to say?"
Gil looked at her and for a moment it was like living inside the
pocket. "Anything that upsets her," he said.
"That's right," she said, and wiped his face with the
cloth. "That's the thing we're never going to say."
After she had cleaned him up, she took the ends of the tie in
her hands and expertly tied a Windsor knot. Gil was fascinated by the folding of
the ends over and around each other and by the solidity of the knot beneath his
chin. He smoothed the tie into place, straightening the knot.
"There," the woman said, and patted his shoulders.
Gil buttoned his jacket and hopped off the stool.
"There," he said.
They found Mo asleep on the sofa, hands tucked underneath her
head, as Darnell sat on the piano bench, watching. "She's asleep," he
said, a little too loudly, and Mo turned the other way.
"Don't," the woman mouthed, and put a
finger to her lips.
"I know," Darnell whispered.
Gil sat next to her and put a hand on her shoulder.
"Mom," he said. "I'm ready." When she looked up, Gil could
see pink cushion marks across her cheek. She blinked at him and gave way to a
"Oh, Gil," she said. "We're going to make him
Outside, it was now nearly dark as the two of them arrived home.
Gil pried the garage door open with a garden tool (his mother had broken a key
in every lock) and turned on the interior lights, saddened to see the sight of
baskets still on top of the refrigerator, the cabinet door swung wide. He pulled
a chair to the refrigerator and put the baskets away, then closed the door,
"The cake," his mother said. "I'd forgotten about
. . . the cake." She looked at him as if he were proctoring an exam, then
moved to the family room and sat on the sofa. "What a stupid thing,"
she said, absently.
Gil put the chair back and watched his mother curl up on the
sofa. "Dragging you around the neighborhood," she mumbled.
Gil went into the room and sat next to her. "Don't say
that," he whispered.
"It's true," she said, and her voice caught, suddenly,
horribly. "I'm a stupid person." She put her face in her hands and
cried quietly. "I'm crazy," she said.
Gil pulled her hands from her face and held them in his own.
"Don't say you're crazy," he said. His voice was a stretched band.
She looked at him, disbelievingly, then turned away. "It's
true," she said.
Gil tightened his hold on her hands. "Listen," he
said. "That's the thing we're never going to say anymore. Understand?"
She didn't respond.
"Tell me," he said. "What's the thing we're never
going to say?"
She turned to look at him and he knew. He knew how he looked to
her, in his new jacket and striped tie, all knotted and nice. He looked okay
saying it and he knew it.
"That I'm crazy," she whispered.
"That's right," he said, and kissed her on the
forehead. He took a blanket from the end of the sofa and draped it over her,
carefully, making sure it covered her stocking feet. "That's right."
When he left the room, he could hear the heavy sound of her
breathing, heartbreaking and steady.
Upstairs, Gil took off his dress shoes—he was startled by how
good this felt—and searched his bedroom closet for the right kind of hanger to
hang dress pants on. He knew the kind he needed, wood, with a funny metal bar
across the middle, and went into the guest-room closet to find one. The room had
been the one his father had lived in during his last few weeks in the house, and
a few of his things remained. Gil opened the closet door, setting off a chime of
hangers within, and peered inside.
High on the top shelf, wrapped in thin, translucent grocery
bags, was the veiled shape of a birthday cake.
Gil reached underneath the wrappings and lowered the cake to his
chest. Through the opening of the bags, he could just make out the lettering of
his name and the blue haze of confectionery flowers around the border. "The
cake," he said, imagining a scene in which his mother was watching him from
the door. He could feel a nervousness inside his stomach.
Downstairs, Gil placed the cake on the kitchen table and slid
the bags away. He looked into the family room to see if this had woken his
mother, but she did not move. Gil sat at the table and turned the cake towards
him, reading its blue, loopy lettering like it was a kind of puzzle he was about
to solve. Then he turned the cake the other way, facing it out towards the
family room, and positioned himself behind it, neatly, in the arrangement that
would be most pleasing to his mother.
He folded his hands and waited.