Authors: Mary Beth Keane
“Hey, Kate,” he said now. A thought had occurred to him when Mrs. Duvin was putting the homework on the board, of his mother coming into his room at dawn to look for something on his bookshelves. She’d been worked up about something through breakfast. He knew better than to ask. But then, several hours later, when everyone in class bent over their papers to copy what Mrs. Duvin was writing on the board, he drew a line between that morning and the last time he’d seen the model ship she’d given him after dinner the week before. It wasn’t his birthday yet. Christmas had just passed. It was as seaworthy as any real ship, his mother had said proudly, an exact replica in miniature of Sir Francis Drake’s Golden Hind, every mast and sail as it was on that great ship, everything historically accurate down to the long beak, the pintle and gudgeon rudders. His mother ignored his father when he asked how
much it cost. His father looked at the box it had arrived in, examined the postage marks, looked for a packing slip. It was heavy, solid. Not a toy, exactly, but what?
“You know that model ship I showed you the other day?” Peter asked. “Do you remember if we left it outside?”
“No,” Kate said. “Why? Can’t find it?”
“No. And I think my mom was looking for it this morning.”
Kate dropped down to sit on her heels. “We had it by the rocks. Oh, but then we floated it. Was that the same day?” There was a pile of snow that had melted in the sun, and they’d placed the gleaming wood boat in the narrow stream that flowed from the top of Kate’s driveway to the street.
“I think I had it after that.”
Kate turned, her wide hazel eyes looking at him steadily. It was like watching choppy water go smooth as glass. There was a time—kindergarten or first grade—when one of them might have idly taken the other’s hand to crack the knuckles, to measure the breadth and length of their fingers against each other, to lock fists and declare a thumb war, and even then he could feel something in her settle, go still, when he had her full attention. But they’d gotten too old for thumb wars. She brushed her hair from her face and tucked it behind her ears. The others were calling her from the back of the bus. “Will you get in trouble?”
“No, it’s fine,” Peter said. He had a scab on his knuckle and he pried up the edge with his fingernail.
“But we’d better find it,” she said.
Peter shrugged. “Yeah.”
Over the years, whenever the subject of Peter’s parents came up, Kate studied him and was uncharacteristically quiet. Only once, when they were sitting out by the rocks—Kate wearing black wool tights on her head so she could pretend the legs were two long ponytails that reached her waist—had she hinted that she noticed anything was different about his mom, compared to other moms. That day, they’d looked up
in unison as his mother drove up the street. They watched her park her car, hurry into the house without looking left or right or saying hello to anyone. Kate’s mother was outside pulling weeds. Mr. Maldonado was painting their mailbox post. Two houses down Mr. O’Hara was digging a hole to plant a sapling and had invited the kids on the block to help fill it in when he’d gotten the tree in place.
“Why is your mother like that?” Kate asked that day. The yards were small, shaded by heavy trees. Peter knew by the cracks of light between the branches and the rising chorus of cicadas that it would soon be time for all the kids to go inside. He had been hoping Mr. O’Hara would call for their help before his mother came home.
“Why is my mother like what?” Peter answered after a moment. They were in second grade, had just made First Holy Communion. Peter opened his hands as if in prayer, leaned over the tall grass between the two largest boulders—impossible to reach with a lawn mower no matter how hard Mr. Gleeson cursed and rammed his up against the crevice—and bringing his palms together he caught a grasshopper. He held the wings together with his thumbs so Kate could look at it more closely, and when he brought his hands to her face he could feel her warm breath on his wrists. They’d spent the summer trying to catch one, and there one was, sitting right beside them when they’d just about given up.
“Like she is. You know.”
But he didn’t know, really. And neither did Kate. So they let the subject drop.
After Central Ave. came Washington, then Madison, then Jefferson, and once the bus rumbled past the Berkwoods’ pine tree, Peter could see his own driveway.
“We’re gonna have a war,” Kate said as she leaned into him to get a better look out the window. Half the kids had taken out their lunches
and fished out the snacks. The bus smelled like potato chips and Hi-C. “Two teams. Twenty minutes to make ammo and then the war begins.”
The bus bounced them up and down, jolted them forward and back. Branches, sky, and then he saw it: the maroon of her car. Beside him, he knew Kate spotted it, too.
“Okay, well, you’ll ask, right?” Kate said. “You might be allowed.”
“Yeah,” Peter said.
They tumbled down the bus steps, one after the other, into the afternoon. “See ya maybe,” Peter said, hitching his backpack up on his shoulder. The clouds were backlit, phosphorescent. Kate stood there for a moment like she’d forgotten something, and then she ran up her steps and into her house.
He found her in the near dark of the kitchen, pulling the yellow skins off a pile of chicken drumsticks. The cuffs of her shirt kept brushing the raw meat. “You can do this, can’t you?” she said without turning around. It was twelve twenty in the afternoon. They wouldn’t eat dinner for another six hours. She usually twisted her hair away at the top of her head when she was cooking, but today her hair was loose around her face, stringy. He tried to read what was coming in the set of her shoulders. He put down his backpack, unzipped his coat. She’d not eaten anything at dinner the night before, and he’d watched his father glance at her as he told a long, drawn-out story about something that had happened at work. He made himself a drink and then rattled the ice cubes around the bottom of the glass. She had a way of cringing and closing her eyes as if against the sight of something too painful to look at straight on, except it was just Peter, just his father. They were just sitting at a table. Just talking about stuff that had happened to them that day.
“Mom’s not feeling great,” Brian Stanhope said when she finally went upstairs to lie down. He seemed to not notice her leaving, but once she
was gone he made himself another drink and then broke open a baked potato, dropped a slice of butter on the steaming white inside. “She’s on her feet all day, you know? Not like an office job.” He reached for the salt.
“You’re on your feet all day, too, right?”
“Ah, not all day,” Brian Stanhope said. “And it’s different for women. They need—I don’t know.”
Peter wondered if the way his mother acted sometimes was related to the reason Renee Otler was allowed to go to the bathroom in the middle of assembly even though no one was ever allowed to go during assembly. Kate wouldn’t talk about it on the bus. When they were alone out at the rocks, she said that he better not tell any of the boys, but Renee had gotten her you-know-what on the playground the day before and the school nurse had showed her how to use a pad. She was the first of the girls, as far as Kate knew. “I’ll probably be last,” she added as she pulled her T-shirt tight across her chest and frowned at what she saw there.
When Kate said “pad,” Peter felt a shock go through him and he could feel his face burn. Kate tilted her head with interest. “You know about periods, right?”
“Sure. Just like this?” Peter said now, pulling at the edge of the slippery chicken skin. The kitchen was so dark that Peter had trouble making out the bowls she’d set up on the table: eggs beaten in one, a pyramid of breadcrumbs in another. As she made her way upstairs to her bedroom, he tried to find the rhythm that she seemed to have when she made their dinner. He oiled the baking sheet, as he’d often seen her do, lined up the breaded chicken drums. He could hear the kids assembling outside. He washed his hands, and as he listened to the soft tick-tick-ticking of the gas stove heating up, he stood at the back door and glimpsed Larry McBreen’s red-and-blue striped jacket as he stomped along the cut-through behind the Gleesons’ house. The Maldonados would be out.
Kate’s sisters. The Dills. The Frankel twins, who went to public school. Everyone.
When he found that ship, he’d go up and show her that he had it, that he’d not lost track of it. She’d been so excited to give it to him. Together they’d read the certificate that had come with it, and she said she’d bring him to the library to find a book on Sir Francis Drake, or about woodworking, or about shipbuilding, or all three. That night, when he went to the fridge to get out the carton of milk, she’d pulled him toward her like she used to when he was five or six, and whispered that it had cost six hundred dollars, plus another seventy-five for shipping. Then she made her eyes big, as if she let the information slip out by accident and had not, in fact, been dying to tell him, and by that he knew he should never tell his father. She’d seen it in a catalog one of her patients had left behind at the hospital and decided Peter had to have it. When she’d pictured having a son, she’d always pictured him playing with things like that ship. It was made in London, she continued, her eyes full of delighted mischief as if he knew what that meant. She’d lived in England for nearly two years, a long time ago. They had the loveliest things there, she told him. What had gotten into her head about New York? She couldn’t remember. A job? Some notion that it would be better than England? She’d told him all of it before. It was her favorite subject when she was in a talkative mood. He got a restless feeling when she spoke of those years. It was a tragedy, clearly, from her view, that she’d left one life and ended up in another. A path had diverged in a wood and she chose the one she’d regret forever. And yet there Peter was, very glad to have been born, listening to her, thinking she looked prettier than the other mothers when she dressed up a little and washed her hair. Anyway, she said, smiling faintly. She was so happy he liked the ship because that said something about him, it really did. It said something about his taste and his intelligence. And then, when she went to work on Monday morning—the only morning she had to leave before his bus—he’d brought it outside to show Kate and he hadn’t seen it since.
The thing was, the ship was fun to look at, but after a few days of looking, there was not much more to do with it. It floated, just as she promised it would, but when they sent it sailing down Kate’s driveway with the rushing meltwater, it had gotten a pair of scratches that ran parallel to the hull. He’d pulled off his mittens and rubbed at the scratches with his thumb, but there they were, glaringly obvious in the polished mirror finish of the wood. Kate wanted to send it downstream again, this time with an old Barbie on board, but he was afraid it would get more scratches. So he’d put it somewhere safe. But where?
The quiet of the house when she kept to her room was not the peaceful silence of a library, or anywhere near as tranquil. It was, Peter imagined, more like the held-breath interlude between when a button gets pushed and the bomb either detonates or is defused. He could feel his own heartbeat at those times. He could track his blood as it looped through his veins.
His father seemed to go on with life as if his mother were merely at work, or at the store. He didn’t seem to notice when she began to skip meals, when her teeth became dull and thick with plaque, when her posture changed. Even if she stayed mostly up in her bedroom for three, four, five days, his father still ate his cereal standing at the sink. He still read the headlines of the
out loud. When he reached for the little paper package of ground coffee and found it empty, he still said to Peter, “We’re out of coffee,” and then he’d go write it on the list Anne kept on a pad by the telephone, as if she’d merely stepped out. When Peter was little—first and second grade—his father sometimes spoke to her before he left for work, shutting the door to their bedroom so that Peter wouldn’t come in. “Look out for your bus, buddy,” he’d say, and Peter—bundled in his winter coat, his backpack straps securely looped across both shoulders—would keep an eye on the clock over the table. When the little hand was nearly on the eight and the big hand was between nine and ten, he knew to go stand outside.
Then, around third or fourth grade, Peter noticed his father didn’t go
in and talk to her anymore. Sometimes he’d glance up the stairs before he left for work. Sometimes he’d say goodbye and then circle back, as if there was something he’d forgotten. It occurred to Peter that his father actually liked these periods where she disappeared to her room for a few days. He seemed lighter, more relaxed. He sat on the couch after work and left his drink on the coffee table. One night he told Peter that it was his thirty-sixth birthday, and Peter felt terrible that probably no one had said happy birthday to him all day, but his father didn’t seem to mind. He let Peter have toaster waffles for dinner. He watched basketball on TV and stayed up all night. The drone of the television at three o’clock in the morning was somehow more upsetting to Peter than the fact that his mother hadn’t come downstairs in a week, and Peter would wake up disoriented, panicked, like he’d slept through his alarm and missed the bus. Sometimes, he’d bring his pillow to the hall and wait. She went to the bathroom, he knew. She would lean over the bathroom sink, put her mouth on the lime-scaled faucet, and take long slugs of cold water before heading back to her room.
“Mom,” he’d say when she stepped out, and she would stop, put her hand on his head, completely unsurprised to find her child lying in the hall in the middle of the night. He’d remind her—two weeks ahead of time, a month—he had a birthday party to attend, a present to buy, a family tree project at school he needed her help on. He’d inform her that he’d eaten a grape jelly sandwich for both breakfast and lunch, hoping to draw her out. But she’d just close her eyes as if the sound of his voice was abrasive, and retreat again to the cave of her room until she was ready to emerge.