Once when I was in the eighth grade, my mother showed up at the school and told the principal there was a family emergency and she had to pull me out of class for the day. I didn’t have any family except her, but I kept my mouth shut. I walked out with her and climbed in the car and waited to see what she’d do. Mostly she didn’t do crazy things. She was old when I was born. She worked at the pharmacy and didn’t have any hobbies or anything.
“Something I wanted to show you,” she said in the car, giving me a sidelong look. She was wearing a blue and white dress and looked kind of nice, not fancy, but nice.
“You going to tell me what it is?” I asked.
“Nope,” she said.
“Guess it’s some kind of big mystery then.”
“Guess it is,” she said.
“And you haven’t lost your mind,” I said. “That’s not the mystery, right?”
She threw another sidelong glance at me, this time with an eyebrow raised. That nearly broke me up, but instead I turned away and looked out the window as the town rolled past, pretending not to be too curious. She took us past the Shop’n Save and the two thrift stores and the pharmacy where she worked, what she called the Business District. That always made her laugh even though I couldn’t see the joke in it. After that we turned onto Edgewater, which ran past the Starlight. The Starlight had been closed as long as I could ever remember but I always checked the marquee anyway, just to see. It looked the same:
KI GDOM OF THE SP D RS
I never knew if that three was supposed to be there or if they’d lost one of the Es, same way they lost some of the other letters in Kingdom of the Spiders. Either way I figured it’d probably been a damn good double feature. I wished I’d seen it.
Edgewater ended at the riverbank, and that’s where we got out. I followed her through the trees, struggling to keep up with her, until we came to a picnic area by the water. There was a stone overlook with a clear view of the river, and that’s where she finally stopped. She straightened her dress and looked out toward the West Virginia side of the Ohio River. I looked too, but the only thing to see was an old factory that had gone to seed. Ivy grew up and down brick walls already darkened with graffiti, and all the upper windows were broken. You could see tree limbs snaking over the edge of the roof.
She looked down at her watch. “Ought to be soon,” she said. “Paper said it’d be one o’clock.” She was shifting her weight from one foot to the other, the way she did sometimes when she was nervous. But she was smiling, too. I thought of asking her again if she’d lost her mind, but I didn’t. We waited.
I didn’t know what we were supposed to be looking at. But after a couple minutes there was a sound like a dozen firecrackers going off across the river. Then the bottom floor of the factory crumpled in on itself like its legs were cut out from underneath. All five stories of the factory came crashing down. You could hear it from the other side of the river, a great whoosh of sound that hit you like a blast of wind whipping across the water. A dust cloud bloomed where the factory had been, rising up and spreading over the water, blocking the sun.
I was holding my breath. Next to me I heard a sound like I’d never heard come from my mother before, a great whooping war cry. I turned to see her spinning around with her arms flung in the air, blue dress whipping in the afternoon light, hopping from foot to foot and hooting like she’d just cast a spell to bring down the sky itself. Gray dust fell all around us. She grabbed my hands and laughed and made me dance with her, and so I danced and I hooted along with her, yelling at the sky like a madman. She smiled at me, and I thought she looked a lot younger then. And I thought how nice it’d be if the two of us could stay like this. Not on the riverbank with the sky falling around us, but just the way it felt right then.
Or maybe I didn’t think that, not at that moment. Maybe it was only looking back when it seemed that way to me. Because it was only a couple weeks later that Dutch showed up.
He was leaning against a post on the front porch when I got home from school. I recognized him from the pictures even though he was older now and he was losing his hair. He was thin and had a tan, leathery face, and he smiled too much just like in the few pictures I’d ever seen of him. He was chewing a toothpick as I walked up.
“The man of the house,” he said, with a grin. “You probably don’t remember me.”
I looked at him and didn’t say anything.
He shifted the toothpick from one side of his mouth to the other. “No harm if you don’t. You know who I am, though?”
“You’re Dutch,” I said.
His face clouded a bit, but then he smiled again. “Dutch’ll do fine. So you’re thirteen now. That’s something.”
“Fourteen,” I said.
“Fourteen, that’s right.”
I was thirteen still. But I wanted to throw him off. I was off balance and I guess I wanted him to be, too. “Where’s my mother?”
“Fixing some dinner,” he said. “That’ll be nice, won’t it? Give us a chance to get comfortable with each other.”
“It’s three-thirty,” I said.
“Just got here from Jacksonville,” he said. “Long trip, your mom knew I’d be hungry. Jacksonville’s some kind of town. You want to hear about Jacksonville?”
I went inside. There was a suitcase in the hallway, that was the first thing I saw. In the kitchen my mother had three skillets going on the range, cooking red potatoes and broccoli and something that might’ve been chicken in a brown goop. She’d put some make-up on and was wearing a necklace I’d never seen her wear before, and she smelled like perfume. I didn’t think she even owned perfume.
She saw me and had to blink a few times, it looked like, to recognize me. “Tell your dad it’ll be ready in twenty minutes,” she said.
“Dutch,” I said. “His name’s Dutch.” I was furious at her then, but I didn’t really know why. I was as furious as I would’ve been if I’d come inside and found her setting the house on fire.
“I didn’t mean to say that, I wasn’t thinking. I’m flustered,” she said. “He just showed up, is all. Called an hour ago and said he was at the train station, asked if he could come by and see us. Can you believe that?”
“No,” I said.
“We’ll give it a try,” she said. “How about we give it a try. Be nice to him, Bo. He’s had a hard life too.”
“You can’t even cook,” I said. That was true. She was a lousy cook.
“I’m inspired,” she said. And she flashed a smile that broke my damn heart.
Dinner was rotten. Not the food, just the company. I didn’t say much. When Dutch asked me a question I thought long and hard about whether it was worth answering, and then if I did answer, I tried to be as unhelpful as possible. Mostly the two of them looked at each other across the table and made googly eyes at each other, and Dutch told stories. He talked about trying his hand at farming in Colorado. He talked about a stint with the Merchant Marines when he foiled a mutiny. He talked about driving a rig in Florida and training elephants for a traveling carnival in Louisiana. He talked about being one of those painted statues on the wharf in San Francisco and witnessing two different murders because he was so good at being a statue. Everything was pretty interesting and most of it sounded like a lie.
After dinner I helped bring the dishes in. “None of that’s true,” I said to my mother. “Jesus Christ please tell me you know that.”
“Course I know that and watch your mouth,” she said. “He sure is entertaining though, isn’t he?” Then she started humming some old song, and I knew it was hopeless. You can’t talk sense to anybody when they’re humming some damn old song.
I went into the living room where Dutch was settling onto the couch with a cigar. There was a brand new glass ashtray on the table. I looked at that glass ashtray and I hated it. I knew that my mother ran out to the store to buy that damn ashtray soon as she found out Dutch was coming.
“So here we are,” said Dutch. “We don’t got to like each other, I guess.”
I thought about saying something then. I thought about saying we were doing just fine without his leathery face. Instead I picked up the ashtray, holding it up for Dutch to see. He didn’t react. I flung it toward the living room window. Only I never could throw worth a damn, so it struck the wall beside the window instead. And it wasn’t even glass, just that kind of plastic that looks like glass, so all it did was scuff the wall and land on the floor in a pile of ashes, which made me even angrier.
My mother came into the room and saw the mess. She glared at me.
“Little accident,” said Dutch, still smiling. “No harm, no foul. This’ll work itself out.”
I looked around the room and my eye fell on a ceramic lamp on the end table beside the sofa. I lifted the lamp and Dutch gave me a look.
“Alright now,” said Dutch.
I threw the lamp at the window. This time, my aim was true. It cracked the window and made a nice satisfying sound when it smashed against the floor.
My mother screamed and Dutch jumped to his feet, but he didn’t move toward me. Instead he held out his hands and said, “Everything’s still good, Nora. It’s all good. Boy’s acting up. Nothing but a temper tantrum here. A lot to process for the boy, is all.”
“It’s too much,” my mother said. “I need to sit down.” That was the first time I’d ever heard her say that, that something was too much. Maybe she’d thought it before. But I hadn’t ever heard her say it.
“Course you can sit down. Sit down, Nora,” said Dutch. He looked at me and said, “Think about your mother now, Bo.”
That sickened me, to hear him say my name. I turned my back on them both. I went into the kitchen and took a couple or seven plates out of the cupboard, and stacked a few mismatched soup bowls on top. It was hard to carry but I walked the stack back into the living room.
“Oh dear god,” my mother said. “Dutch.”
“This is what you think a good son does,” said Dutch, and he shook his head.
I was going to take my time and throw them one by one. I thought that’d be the right way to do it, for maximum devastation. But I hated Dutch saying that and shaking his head like that. So I tossed the whole stack all at once. It was pretty heavy and I couldn’t get a lot of air underneath, but it didn’t matter. They made a sound like a bomb going off in a china factory as they hit the wood floor.
Dutch yanked my arm and dragged me off to the bedroom while my mother screamed louder than ever. He threw me down on the bed. He got in a few good licks on my ass, and some of them hurt some, but I didn’t make a sound. Eventually he stopped. I couldn’t see him because I had my face down in the pillow. But I could hear him breathing hard.
“You’re a tough bastard,” he said. “You got some of your old man in you after all.” I must’ve made some sound then, because he said, “You don’t want to hear it, I get that. I respect that.” And he put his hand on my shoulder. I had a thought about shrugging his hand off. But I felt too ornery to do even that. I didn’t want to give him the satisfaction.
I expected there to be some repercussions the next day. But they were too preoccupied with each other to yell at me. Dutch picked up a new set of plates and bowls at the thrift shop, and he had the window fixed before I even came home.
He took up residency after that, I guess. It was mid-June and school was letting out. I tried to be out of the house early so I wouldn’t see him much. I’d pack a thermos and some sandwiches and set off on my bike to the creek. Later in the day there’d be a few kids there, around the old wooden trestle bridge, fishing or horsing around. But early in the morning it was quiet and real pretty there. I’d sit by the creek and think on things. Or I’d ride across town to the Starlight and sit in the overgrown parking lot and run through Kingdom of the Spiders in my head, the way I figured the movie played out. Later I’d ride out to the ball field behind the school and meet up with whoever had a game going on. Then I’d ride some more. Eventually I’d make it home, tired and sore from riding and using that as an excuse not to be sociable.
Dutch said he had a friend who was a construction foreman. He wanted Dutch to be a co-foreman on a new apartment building going up in Elkton, only they weren’t breaking ground till sometime in August. I had my doubts that a co-foreman was a thing. But Dutch kept busy. He fixed the shower curtain, and he painted the baseboard trim, and he patched up the drywall in the hallway where the front door had banged into it for years. He re-grouted the bathroom even though the grout seemed fine to me. I thought the drywall was a little lumpy and the painting was sloppy, but I guessed he was trying. He didn’t talk about it. I’d just notice the things he’d done and that’s how I knew how he was spending his days.
One night I came home and found Dutch alone on the porch with a glass of whiskey. He and my mother had a routine where they’d sit out on the porch with cocktails and listen to jazz music on my mother’s battery-powered radio. He said he’d spent a year living in New Orleans with a roommate who was a jazz trumpeter—this was after he left that traveling carnival—and he wanted to share what he called his love of the art form with my mother. Tonight it was just Dutch, though. The sun had gone down but there was some redness left in the sky. I asked him where my mother was, and he said she was laying down. “Few too many mint juleps,” he said, and winked at me.
He was listening to a country station on the radio. I asked him what happened to the jazz, and he waved the glass in front of him. “Needed a break,” he said. “Sometimes you need a break, is all.”
“From what?” I asked.
“Being somebody,” he said. He stared at me for a bit, then held out his glass. “You want a sip?”
I wanted to say no, but I thought he’d expect me to say no. So I took a sip. It was foul, and burned going down, but I made myself take another. The second sip was worse.
He took the glass back and laughed. He had an easy laugh. “You’re okay. You’ll be okay. You just need—you know what you need?”
I shook my head.
“You need to be more generous,” he said. “You know what I mean, generous?”
“I know what it means.”
“You’ll have a poor life if you go through it like that, not being generous with people.”
I didn’t say anything, because it didn’t seem like he was expecting me to.
He sat back and looked out over the streets, which were growing summer dark. “This place,” he said. “It’s kind of special, isn’t it?”
I didn’t answer him. I thought it was special in some ways. I liked the way the train tracks outside of town were all overgrown like they were from some ancient civilization, and I liked the look of the trestle bridge down by the creek even though it got condemned a while back. I liked the abandoned drive-in theater and how you could imagine, when you were there, that there’d really been an apocalypse and there were giant spiders just beyond the trees, marching on River Oaks to take back their kingdom. But Dutch wouldn’t know anything about those things.
“Seemed nice enough when we came here, your mom and me,” said Dutch. “Seemed like the kind of place to settle down.”
“But you didn’t,” I said. Not accusing him. Just curious what he’d come up with.
Dutch tilted his head to look at me. “I had too much in me,” he said. “That fair enough?”
I shrugged. I didn’t know what that meant. It sounded like a thing you said when you didn’t ever look too hard at yourself.
He leaned back in the chair. In the dusk I couldn’t see his face too well. “This is a fine enough place,” he said. “Only when you’re young like I was, maybe fine doesn’t seem so attractive. Got to get some living under your belt is the thing. Then maybe you reassess. Then maybe you get a little worn down at the edges, and ‘fine’ starts to look good.” He laughed again. “Maybe ‘fine’ starts to look damn good.”
I had a weird idea then. I had an idea that he wanted something from me but I didn’t know what it was. It wasn’t love. I don’t know that he ever thought of me as his boy or would’ve felt much for me even if he had. But there was something he wanted right at that moment on the porch. Maybe if I knew, I would’ve given it to him.
“I’ll tell you about a place,” said Dutch. “Monterey. Ever heard of Monterey?”
I shook my head.
He didn’t say anything more for a bit. I thought maybe he decided not to tell me his Monterey story after all. Either way was fine with me. Then he did speak again, only his voice was different, quieter. He talked like somebody telling a story, some particular story, for the very first time. “Monterey is the edge of the world,” he said. “That’s what I read once, in a magazine. It was some kind of travel magazine and there was an ad for Monterey and it said, ‘Come to Monterey, at the edge of the western world.’ With a photograph of these pretty cliffs leading down to an ocean that was, Jesus, bluer than anything you ever saw. Bluer than the idea of blue.” He whistled softly. “‘The edge of the western world.’ I read that and I thought, ‘There’s a place to go someday, Dutch. Even if you don’t have a dime when you get there, Dutch, that’s a place where you’ll never feel anything but rich.’”
“You ever make it there?” I asked.
“I did,” he said.
I waited for him to go on. I had questions, but I didn’t want him to think I was all that curious.
He said, “Mostly you’ll find that places don’t measure up to your expectations. Mostly that’s the truth. But Monterey measured up.”
“Because the ocean was all blue,” I said. That sounded like I was making fun of him, and right away I was sorry I said it.
“You can stand there by the cliffs in Monterey and feel the whole continent behind you,” he said. “The water’s blue, that’s for sure. But there’s something grand and dark about the world stretching out behind you like that.” He paused and seemed to think about what he’d said. Then he said, like he was clarifying: “There’s something momentous about that. Like you’re close to something. You don’t even know what it is, only that you’re close to it. And that’s an exciting place to be.”
I hadn’t ever seen the ocean except on television shows and in movies. But I closed my eyes and tried to picture it like the way Dutch was telling it. I pictured it with the sky like it was now, the color drained out of it, so I couldn’t even see the water. I could just hear the waves dying on the rocks below.
“I had more than a dime when I got there,” Dutch was saying, “but not a whole lot more. I ran a few scams to make some money. Nothing too far out there. Just enough to get me going, get me a place to stay. Mostly I was running pretty straight. I liked it there and I didn’t want to cause any problems for myself, or for anyone else either. Eventually I took a job at a shoe store by Cannery Row—that sounds like it’d be a low-class sort of place, but the canneries all closed way back. It’s an upscale part of town. And this store was upscale too. Respectable.” Again he was quiet for a few seconds. I shifted my position against the porch post and waited.
“There was this woman,” he said. “Anamarie. Came over from Spain, from Madrid, a few years before, but she spoke English better than I ever did. She owned a vineyard. Owned a couple vineyards. She had long legs and a cool, dark face, and I thought she was a model when she first came into the shop. I’d been in town about three months by then. I sold her a pair of three hundred dollar shoes and didn’t stop talking for one second while she was there. I wanted to keep her there as long as I could, I guess. Finally I asked her if she wanted to get dinner, and she said yes. I don’t know why she did. I never knew why.” He turned his head to look up at me even though he couldn’t see my face now any more than I could see his. “You know that saying, that somebody’s above your station? You ever heard that saying?”
“I’ve heard it,” I said.
“We ran together for a little while,” he said. “We drove down to Big Sur on the weekends. She showed me the vineyards and taught me a few things. We drank a lot of wine together. But she was above my station and I knew it. I couldn’t ever quite—I couldn’t wrap my head around it. What I was doing with her. She liked the way I talked. I’d sing to her sometimes, too. I’d sing old things, like I’d sing ‘In a Sentimental Mood’ by the Duke. Or Hoagy Carmichael, ‘The Nearness of You.’ My mother used to sing Hoagy Carmichael all the time. I couldn’t really sing but it must have sounded nice enough. Anamarie didn’t grow up in this country so she didn’t know how the songs were supposed to go anyway. Anyhow, we’d sit out on her balcony on a night like this, but we’d have the Pacific right there.” He gestured toward the road, which was dark enough by now that if you squinted right it could’ve been the ocean. “She looked—I thought she looked as much like a part of that landscape as the ocean, or those rocky cliffs. She belonged to it. Even though she grew up on the other side of the world, she belonged to it. She’d pour herself a glass of champagne—she drank champagne the way I drank everything else—and she’d say, ‘Sing me a song, Dutch.’ Or she’d say, ‘Tell me another story, Dutch.’ I knew it wasn’t anything permanent. I knew I’d run out of stories to tell sooner or later. But I kept her entertained for a while. For a good while.”
He stopped, and this time he didn’t start up again, so I knew he was finished telling me whatever it was he wanted to tell me.
“So you ran off,” I said.
He thought about it. “I didn’t measure up,” he said. “If I’m looking at it square, then I’d say I didn’t measure up.” He finished the last of his whiskey and set the glass down beside the chair.
I told him it was late and I was going inside.
He put his hand on my arm as I walked past, and leaned his head toward me. “You want to hear a funny thing?” he said.
The smell of whiskey washed over me. His hand felt hot against my skin, but I didn’t move it or shrug it off.
“River oaks,” he said. “They don’t even have river oaks in Ohio. We’re a thousand miles from anywhere that’s got ’em. I looked it up once.” He let go of my arm. “It’s just a name, is all it is. Just something to make the place sound like something else than what it is. They’re just swamp trees anyway.”
He dropped his hand then and turned away from me, and I went inside.
For the rest of the summer, things were mostly okay. Dutch talked a lot. He kept trying to ask me questions even though I didn’t give him much reason to keep trying. I knew he was going to run off again at some point, because that’s what he did.
I watched my mother to see how she was taking it all. Some days she seemed happy enough to me. Other times I thought I wasn’t seeing her right at all. I’d catch her standing in the kitchen with her hands on the countertops, just looking out the window with a hard look on her face. I thought that couldn’t be a good thing, to have that kind of look when you were just standing and looking out a window. That couldn’t mean she was pleased with Dutch coming home and living with us after so many years of it just being her and me. Then an hour later she’d be on the sofa with her feet up in Dutch’s lap, and they’d be watching television and talking as if they were an old married couple again, instead of whatever they were. Or I’d watch Dutch make her mint julep and carry it out the porch, where they’d sit until the sun went down. And there were nights when all three of us were out there. She’d tell Dutch to play that jazz for her again, because she thought she was getting the hang of it. And somebody walking by might’ve thought there wasn’t anything out of the ordinary going on, that it was just a thirteen-year-old boy hanging out with his mom and dad. Sometimes I’d think about it like that myself. I’d picture it the way a stranger would picture it. And I’d be tempted by that picture even though I knew it wasn’t a true one.
Now and then that summer, when it was late and I’d gone to bed, I thought back on that day by the river, and I remembered the way she danced. Not even a dance, but like she was casting some damn spell. And I’d think maybe that’s what it really was, and somehow she’d brought Dutch back. In the morning I’d forget about thinking these things. But some of it must have stayed with me into the daylight hours, because I’d catch myself looking at her. Letting that idea settle in. Judging her, I guess. For letting Dutch stay, and for bringing him back to us in the first place.
It was in the last week of August when I woke up to find him packing his things.
He was wearing just some wrinkled khakis and a t-shirt that he’d already sweated through pretty well. The suitcase was open on the sofa. I looked inside and saw that he didn’t have much in it other than his clothes. A coffee mug, a Louis L’Amour book, a couple bottles of booze. He was in the kitchen pulling a souvenir highball glass down from one of the shelves when I walked in.
“The farewell party arrives,” he said. He walked past me and tucked the glass in with his clothes in the bottom of the suitcase.
I asked him where my mother was.
“In her room,” he said. “Said she doesn’t want to see my damn face.”
I said, “Do you blame her?”
He looked at me then, and I could see he hadn’t slept. His face looked older and more leathery than usual, and his eyes were glassy. He hadn’t combed his hair.
“I don’t,” he said.
“Nobody needs you here,” I said. I felt like I’d been waiting all summer to say that and have it come out the way I wanted, with some authority behind it.
He nodded. “I know it,” he said. “So I’m leaving.”
For a few seconds I didn’t get it. Then it hit me that she’d kicked him out.
He laughed. “I deserve that too,” he said. “That look.” It was the same easy laugh. It wasn’t a happy laugh, either. I wondered if it wasn’t ever a happy laugh, and if I’d just never paid any attention to it other than seeing how easy it came to him.
I didn’t say anything more. What could I have said that wouldn’t have sounded hollow? He knew I didn’t want him around. Better not to say anything, I figured. I just stood nearby and watched him gather up the last of this things.
A taxi pulled up outside, and I walked him out.
“Where will you go,” I said. Because suddenly I did want to know. I wasn’t ever planning to visit. I just sort of wanted to know where he’d be in the world.
The taxi driver opened the trunk and Dutch tossed his suitcase inside. He stopped by the open passenger door and gave me a long look that I couldn’t read at all. Finally he said, “You’re a tough bastard, all right.” That’s all he said. Then he slid down into the cab and tapped the roof, and the car drove off.
It was ten in the morning before my mother came down. She didn’t seem tired or beaten down. She had a hard look on her face that I hadn’t seen before.
“He’s gone?” she said. I nodded.
The day was a quiet one. I asked her if she wanted to talk about anything and she said she didn’t. I hung around the house anyway. I thought maybe she’d be down even though she was the one who’d kicked Dutch out, but she wasn’t. She wasn’t herself, I could see that, but she wasn’t down. I figured she was resolved. I figured that was the word for her. And that had to be a good thing.
After dinner I helped her clean things up.
“We could sit on the porch,” I said, when we were done. “There’s a game on. We could sit on the porch and listen to the game, if you want.”
She gave me a weary look that lasted only a second or two. Then she got that look of resolution back on her face. Like it was something she maybe didn’t want to do but she was willing to go along. She said, “Listening to the game sounds good, Bo.”
We went and sat outside. There was a breeze and the streetlamps were just coming on as the daylight bled away. The game was already in the third inning so we listened and caught up on what was happening. I looked at her now and then and thought she didn’t look great. Her face was sort of pinched, and I thought she was clenching her jaw. I wished I had something to say.
I went inside for a Coke. When I opened the fridge door, my eye fell on a little plastic bag of mint leaves. I stood there with the door open, thinking. It seemed like maybe it could be a good thing, but I didn’t know. I took the leaves out, washed them and laid them out to dry on the counter. There wasn’t much bourbon left but I figured there’d be enough. I pulled down a highball glass and put some sugar and water in it, then set about muddling the mint the way I’d seen Dutch do it. Taking my time, trying to get it right. After I added the bourbon and ice, I stirred it up and threw in a couple of extra mint leaves. It looked like a mess, but I thought I’d done it right.
She turned to see me come back out on the porch, and she spotted the glass before I could say anything. She drew in a sharp breath and looked up at my face. I didn’t know what she’d do, then. I thought she might yell or knock the glass out of my hand.
Instead she smiled. It was a smile I hadn’t ever seen before and I didn’t know what to make of it. Maybe it was just the time of day and I couldn’t see her eyes so well. But it seemed to me like she was looking right through to the other side of me. Like she was smiling at something she could see on that other side, but I’d never be able to see.
“Well thank you, Bo,” she said. She accepted the drink, and took a sip.
“I hope it’s okay,” I said.
“Oh,” she said, “it’s just fine, Bo.”
We listened to the game without saying anything more for a while. I was feeling better about things. I felt like the summer was only just starting, even though that wasn’t true.
“I like it here,” I said. I meant I liked it here on the porch. I liked having the radio on with the game, and watching the night slip over everything, and things feeling still and settled at the same time.
She didn’t say anything for a time. When she did speak, there was an edge to her voice that made me look over at her. She was holding the mint julep but she hadn’t taken another sip since that first one. She was holding it in both hands, the way a baby might hold a cup.
“This place,” she said. “This goddamn place. You know what I think?”
I shook my head even though she wasn’t looking at me. She was looking out at nothing. Or maybe at whatever she’d been looking at before, when she smiled at me.
“I think,” she said, “there are places you go to, and there are places you go past on your way somewhere else. And River Oaks is one of those other places, Bo. You speed by and maybe you wonder what kind of lives those people have, the people who live there. Maybe you wonder. But mostly you thank god you’re still driving.” She looked at me then, and I was glad I couldn’t see her too well. “Only there are people living in those places who can’t keep on driving. And when you figure out it’s you—that you’re one of those people, Bo, living someplace where other people are just happy to speed past—well, Bo, that’s a bitter thing. That’s a bitter thing to come to know.”
She didn’t say anything more. The game kept going on the radio. I was afraid to say anything more, so I only sat thinking. A pick-up drove past, heading east out of town, its headlights sweeping across the porch. I thought about that day on the riverbank. And I wondered if I’d been wrong to blame her, for thinking she’d cast a spell to bring Dutch back. Maybe she’d cast a spell to keep him gone. And it just hadn’t worked.
I knew there was something for me to say. It couldn’t be right, what she’d said, that couldn’t be all of it. I knew there was something. It felt close. But maybe I only wanted to believe that.
The trees shook in the night breeze. The fall was all of a sudden coming on. I put my arm around her shoulders and asked if she’d come inside with me. Her body stiffened for a second or two, like she was still caught up in whatever it was that made her say what she’d said. But I kept my arm around her. Finally she put her head down. She didn’t anything, just put her head down and rested it on my arm. I was okay with that. The night was coming down, and we stayed like that, on the porch, for a good long time.
Tom Howard’s recent fiction appears in The Cincinnati Review, The Open Bar at Tin House, Booth and Willow Springs, and individual stories have received the Willow Springs Fiction Prize, the Robert and Adele Schiff Award in Fiction, and the Tobias Wolff Award in Fiction. He lives with his wife in Arlington, Virginia.