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 Anthony Varallo
The Knot

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, okay?"

"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," she mumbled.

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 figures.

"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 will believe."

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 the sleeves.

"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 blade."

"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."

"It was."

"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 to."

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 agreement.

"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 said.

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 okay."

"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.

"I dunno."

"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 you?"

"No," Gil lied.

"Yeah you are," Darnell said. "You're scared."

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 me?"

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 smile.

"Oh, Gil," she said. "We're going to make him believe."

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, softly.

"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. "Stupid."

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. "Ever."

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.

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