Temporary Landscapes ~ Lawrence Coates

She remembered this:  The time she stepped onto the roof of her childhood home in San José, the time she felt the tilting shingles under her feet as her father held her tiny hand in one of his and kept his other hand broad and strong at the small of her back.  Katherine was five, and her brothers, eight and ten, had been throwing a Frisbee across the back lawn while she sat on the cement slab patio and toed the soft grass with her sneakers.  “You’re too young to play,” they’d said.  She watched with some resentment the disc spinning back and forth in the lowering sunlight as they all waited to be called in to dinner.

It was the end of August, 1961, and the air in California was still and full, broken only by the distant chirr of power lawnmowers.  In a week, her brothers would begin school again, and she would be left behind.  Katherine missed her brothers when they were off.  Even if they treated her like a pest and left her out of games, she still liked to study what they were doing, plan what she would do one day when she was their age.

The backyard was narrow and completely fenced in by six foot lengths of cedar running along the property lines, separating it from similar backyards on either side and behind it.  As the boys grew bored, they began to throw the Frisbee in elaborate curves out over the fence and back into the yard.  They called to Katherine to watch, then spun it up at a steep angle so that it descended right back into their hands.  They tried for diving catches, leaping catches, they sprang straight up and grabbed the Frisbee between their legs.  Katherine felt a little happier they were at least including her as an audience.

Then her oldest brother tried to curve the Frisbee over the roof, and it caught on the low peak and skidded against the wooden shingles and came to a rest three feet from the gutter.  The two boys looked at each other.

“Who’s going to tell Dad?” the older one asked.

I didn’t do it,” the younger one said.

Katherine’s oldest brother looked at her, as though considering the possibility of including her in the blame somehow.  He looked up at the roof, hoping for a sudden gust of wind.  Then he trudged into the house through the sliding glass patio doors.

After a minute, Katherine heard the side door to the garage open and saw her father appear through the gate, carrying a wooden ladder over his shoulder like a heroic fireman.  The tips of the ladder were swaddled in cloth fixed with tape, and he laid the ladder gently against the eaves above the stucco siding.  Then he scaled it nimbly, bent forward as he stepped from the ladder, and stood up against the sky, high as a tower.  He was taller than anyone Katherine had ever seen, and now, on the roof, he looked colossal.

He walked easily over to the Frisbee, tossed it down, then shaded his eyes with a flat hand.

“Hey,” he said.  “You can see a blimp from here.”

There was something special about seeing a blimp in the early sixties.  Only a few blimps were in existence, all owned by Goodyear Tires, and unlike airplanes that appeared only as vapor trails, a blimp flew low and lazy and dreamlike.  It took up a piece of sky, like a planet you could visit.  And it usually had a message, in electric lights across the side.  When they saw a blimp, they would all gaze as it floated toward them, and Katherine would wait impatiently for the moment when her father would clear his throat and state “Here’s what it says…”

“Is it coming this way?” the older brother asked.

“It’s going toward the bay.”

“Can we climb up?” the younger brother asked.

Her father hesitated.  “Keep one hand on the ladder at all times,” he said.  “And let me help you over the edge.”

Katherine’s older brother scrambled up and within seconds was standing next to her father.  Her middle brother climbed to the top of the ladder, then waited until her father grasped his hand strongly before he stepped out.

“Don’t stand close to the edge,” her father warned.  “And don’t forget you’re standing on an incline.”

“Daddy,” Katherine said.

“You’re too small to come up,” her older brother said.

Her father looked down at her.  She stood next to the ladder, twisting on one foot, hoping to be taken up.  She could see her brothers, watching the blimp, and she looked in the same direction, but she could see nothing but empty sky.

Then her father was climbing down.  “Promise me you’ll be careful,” he said.  “I don’t ever want to see you hurt.”

“I promise,” she said.  It was an easy promise to make.  She didn’t really believe she could be hurt with her father near her.

He picked her up and placed her on the fourth rung, then climbed up behind her so that his body sheltered her.  He helped her to the next rung, then climbed up one himself.  Rung by rung, she rose up.  Her older brother’s head loomed over the edge of the roof.  He seemed an obstacle at first, but then he held his right hand out to her.  Her middle brother was sitting on the roof as an anchor, holding her older brother’s left hand in his.  The sky grew larger as she reached the top of the ladder.  She took her brother by one hand, while her father held her other hand, and with a step she was on the roof.  The wooden shingles crunched and felt oddly fragile, even under her soft-soled Keds.

Her father stood beside her, and she felt utterly safe as they all watched the blimp meander to the north.  Katherine could see some lighted lettering on the side, even though it was far away.  The lights were flashing on and off, and would show up better in the twilight and early evening.

“Here’s what it says…” her father said.

They all looked at him.

“It says, the Watson family is ready for dinner.”

Her two brothers objected.  Katherine smiled and looked about.  The view from high up was new and different.  Stretching to the north, to the west, to the east, there lay a plain of roofs, all low-peaked shingled roofs like her own.  The roofs extended as far as she could see, humping up and down, an uneven shingle prairie, until the roofs no longer belonged to distinct houses but simply blended in with each other.  Here and there, the green crown of a tree broke the line of weathered cedar wood in the still-recent housing tract, and the Coast Range rose to the west.  But it was mostly roofs, a landscape of roofs, with a slow blimp floating free above them.  Had the person who drew these streets on a map imagined this strange landscape?

She heard the patio door slide open, and her mother call that dinner was ready.  Then the voice stopped.

“Where is everybody?” her mother asked.

*

See her now:  In the late afternoon, Katherine parks her ten-year-old Saturn in the driveway of the same house.  She stands, forty-seven years old, fifteen pounds heavier than when she was twenty, highlights in her blondish hair, dressed in colors of rust and green with long earrings of silver and onyx dangling in the late sun of September, 2003.  She takes from the car two plastic sacks of groceries and walks to the front porch, concrete with a peeling wooden park bench filled with odd potted plants sheltered by a low overhang.  From the eaves, there hangs a redwood sign her father had custom-made in Felton that reads Peaceable Isle.

When she walks in, she feels that odd sensation of being a teenager again, walking into her old living room.  But also the sensation of being her mother.  Her mother always disliked the way the front door opened right onto the living room, with no entry foyer that would allow her to put down her bags, hang up her coat, and not track right over the carpet to get to the kitchen.  Katherine finds herself displeased in the same way.  She walks in with groceries now, not schoolbooks, and she feels oppressed by having to decide what to make for dinner.

Katherine had moved into her father’s house ten months earlier, in debt, with a missing husband, with Betty, her disdainful daughter of seventeen, and with Carter, fifteen, becoming secretive and withdrawn.  An events planner by profession, in charge of organizing the annual user’s conference for BPI, a software firm in Milpitas, but unable to plan for the events in her own life.  Her own mother dead when she was her son’s age, absent and therefore eternally wise and silent, always keeping to herself some bit of guidance that would have kept Katherine from error.  Her father, a Pearl Harbor survivor, still living in the house that he had bought with a V.A. loan after the War, now eighty and beating back lesions every three weeks with chemotherapy.

When she moved back in with their father, her two older brothers were delighted.  One brother was working in story development in Los Angeles.  The other was a college professor in Ohio.  They had moved on, they were successes, blight had not touched their well-fashioned lives.  The national mourning of 2001 they wore lightly, and neither had a child in the Army, or nearing eighteen years of age.  They had moved on, and looked back at the house on Catesby Street as old and squat and not the kind of place they would ever live again.  And she wondered if her brothers didn’t think sometimes that it had all fallen into place rather nicely:  her missing husband, her need for a place to live, their father’s need for a caregiver, the tract home that was all paid off with low property taxes.  She was the daughter, and she was convenient.

Now she hears her father, Henry, rumble from the sunken den.  “By God, who is that in the house?”  He is up and walking toward her before she can put down the groceries, wearing one of his bright Hawaiian shirts covered with flowers.  He likes wearing Hawaiian shirts, and shirts open at the throat with a silk scarf, and a beret to hide his hair loss.  He takes her in his arms and hugs her roughly, as he often does.  Then he turns her loose and looks at her.

“You’re losing too much weight,” Henry says.  “You’re wasting away.  Soon there won’t be anything left of you.”

“Ha,” Katherine says.  “I feel like a water buffalo.”  She has been trying to stay a size 8 for years, sometimes coaxing her weight down so that she can fit her clothes and sometimes finding her weight floating up so that half her wardrobe is too tight.  When she is thinner, she tends to buy clothes that are brighter in color, cornflower blues and turquoises and aquamarines.  When she is forced into the rack of tens, she finds herself buying plainer stuff, beiges and creams and blacks.  Her closet looks like a struggle between her aspirations for how she should look and her frequent admissions of defeat.

“You have a secret admirer,” Henry says.  “Water buffalo or no.”

He points at a gift-wrapped box on the dining room table.  Katherine crosses to the table, picks the box up, shakes it.  Something shifts inside, heavy and muffled.

“Not a bomb, is it?”

“Hope not.”

“This was on the front porch?”

Henry shakes his head.  “It was right there.”

It takes Katherine a moment to process what her father has said.

“He broke into the house?”

Henry shrugs, nods.  Katherine sits down heavily.  She picks up the envelope, the paper thick and textured, and flipped it to look at both sides.  Her name is on the front.  She slides a finger in and rips it open.  The card slips out, a romantic card with heart and flowers and the Eiffel Tower on the front.  Inside, it reads “I’ll be seeing you in all those old familiar places” and it is signed “Love, Scott.”  There is no phone number, no address.

Inside the box is a small, expensive, cut glass bottle of perfume.

“So he’s back,” she says.  “And this is what he thinks is a good way to get back in touch.  Break into the house and leave gifts.”

Henry sits down opposite his daughter, at the same table where he had once sat with his wife to talk over what to do.  The table has a cloth spread over it because it was old and the finish worn through.  It is a solid maple table, the first part of a maple dining room set he and his wife began but never completed.  He has never wanted to replace the table.  He once thought about refinishing it, but never quite managed to do it.

“What do you think we should do?” he asks.

“I don’t know,” Katherine says.

She lifts up the bottle of perfume, looks at the label.

Passion,” she says.  “Incredible.”

*

Scott Claussen, Katherine’s husband, had run through their money, including retirement accounts, investing in Internet startup companies.  It was that time in Silicon Valley.  Every day, there were stories about twenty-four year olds who had made millions overnight.  The largest legal creation of wealth in history!  Scott read and re-read these stories, and convinced himself that those kids didn’t deserve all that money, certainly not any more than he did.  He began to feel old at forty-eight, as though he had been born twenty years too late, as though the golden opportunity had somehow skipped his generation.

He found his first investment through some cassette tapes he listened to while doing the Stairmaster at the gym.  It was an Internet store that would grow through word of mouth.  Each store owner would have a portal which would offer name brand products at rock bottom prices that could be drop shipped from a secure location.  Name Brand.  Rock Bottom.  Drop Shipped.  Secure.  But the real genius was that each storeowner could sign up additional storeowners.  If you had a friend or neighbor who needed a Sony television, you could ask them to buy it through your store at a better price than they could get at Target.  You then asked them if they would be interested in owning their own store.  As they began to sell things, some small percentage of their profits would come to you.  And as they signed up storeowners, you would get a percentage of their percentage.  If you were in on the ground floor, the profits would soon be tremendous.

With each store you bought, you also received a number of shares in the company.  Pre-IPO shares.  Scott listened to that on the tape as well.  Pre-Initial Public Offering.  And when the IPO came through, and each of your shares was suddenly worth thousands, you would read about yourself in the newspaper.

Scott listened to the tape as he worked out, taking one of the elliptical trainers in the big front windows and wearing classic black Ray Ban Wayfarers so that he would look good from the parking lot.  The words Name Brand, Rock Bottom, Ground Floor, Limitless Potential, hypnotized him.  He bought one portal, and then another, since he couldn’t buy more shares in the company without buying more portals.  Katherine never paid much attention to the financial statements, and didn’t notice when the balances began to go down.  She trusted him for that.

They had moved to a new house in a development called Oak Commons in 1999, where Carter and Betty, their son and daughter, could go to better schools.  Betty was beginning high school that year, so it seemed like the right time.  The house had a two story front foyer that opened onto a great room with a fireplace and vaulted ceilings.  The master bath, on the ground floor, had a Jacuzzi tub with a garden view, and the bedroom had a walk-in closet large enough to sleep in.  They were able to sell their first house for three times what they’d paid for it, and they had a down payment and money to spare.  Scott told Katherine they were being smart, could afford it, and deserved it.  And she trusted him for that as well.

While waiting for his stores to make good, Scott began to make other investments.  There were always tips in Internet chat rooms, and he decided that buying lots of different recommended stocks was a way to be safe.  If even one hit it big, it would make up for dozens of losers.

Then, early in 2002, he was laid off.  He had an engineering degree from Chico State, but for many years he had worked in the marketing side of a company that created software to teach people how to use computer programs.  The company had been acquiring other firms that sold training software, expanding into online education products, and reporting record profits.  But when clients began to reject the standard three-year license deals, and competitors cut prices, it turned out the record profits were an illusion.  Sales orders had been booked on products still in development, defective products were returned and the returns never recorded, phony invoices were created by sending orders between fax machines in the same office.  The company announced that revenues were down one third from the previous quarter, and marketing personnel were the first to go.

That same year, Scott and Katherine were hit with a huge tax bill.  There were penalties for withdrawing funds from retirement accounts, but Scott had decided that the penalties could be easily paid for with the profits he would be making.  He asked for one extension for filling out their income tax, and then another.  He spent time at an outplacement firm, posting resumes to Monster, Career Builder, Hot Jobs, and also checking his investments.  At the end of each three-month extension, the actual value of the stock he had bought was less.

Scott tried to avoid telling Katherine until he at least had found another job, but a job offer never materialized.  His engineering skills were considered out of date, and his marketing skills tainted.  When he finally told her, he said one option was to sell the house.  It turned out there were no other options except bankruptcy.  They had refinanced once to pay off credit cards and a car loan with home equity, and there wouldn’t be much from the house after the bills were settled.  And Katherine refused to go into bankruptcy with a man who was so ready to hide the truth from her because he was convinced he knew better.

Scott disappeared soon after the house closed, before Katherine could move forward with a divorce.  The studio apartment he’d rented in Cupertino, one small box among many others overlooking a small landscaped commons, was empty after a month.  He’d left the house on Catesby Street as a forwarding address, and for months, overdue bills for electricity and gas came, red lettering on the envelope stating 2nd Notice or Final Notice.  Katherine wrote not at this address on the envelopes and left them outside for the letter carrier.  Sometimes she wrote He’s not here and I don’t give a damn where he is.  Other times, she wrote If you see him, say hello, he might be in Tangiers.  She was certain he would turn up sooner or later.

*

Scott had gone back to a barely remembered time of his life, a phase that was over before he even met Katherine.  In 1974, he’d enlisted in the Navy just in time to aid with the evacuation of Saigon, and after his hitch he put in a year working aboard combat support ships as an Able Seaman with the Military Sealift Command.  He’d been aboard a fleet oiler in the Indian Ocean in 1979, when the Iranian hostage crisis struck, and had spent months servicing aircraft carrier battle groups.  Some part of him was disappointed that no action was taken, that he hadn’t come back with stories to tell.

The attacks on New York and Washington coincided with his investments dwindling toward zero.  After he lost his job, he began to follow the military buildup in the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, the same waters he’d sailed in twenty-three years earlier.  He visualized the aircraft carrier battle groups converging on the region, and wondered if the same great names were there that had been there in 1979:  the Kittyhawk, the Nimitz, the Enterprise.  And he visualized the fleet oilers, like the ship he’d sailed on, standing off over the horizon, ready to rendezvous at dusk to fill a carrier’s vast tanks with jet fuel, while fighter jets swarmed overhead to provide cover.

The war in Afghanistan resolved itself quickly, according to reports.  But the war in Iraq, foretold in newspapers and magazines and network news, was just ahead when he had to admit to Katherine how much money he had lost, how much they owed, what a mess he’d made of things.  He was broke and living in a one-bedroom apartment.  He was unemployed.  He saw the age of fifty looming, a narrow doorway to a narrower corridor.  He was still seeking a life of consequence.  And he found a website for the Military Sealift Command.  With battle groups in the Indian Ocean indefinitely, he knew there would be a need for experienced seamen.

*

Katherine received the first letter from Scott soon after the war began.  After that, they came weekly.  Scott’s letters described the long hours of work, the nights when they stayed at the refueling rigs until dawn with an aircraft carrier to port and a destroyer to starboard.  They described the empty sea between refuelings, the kinds of routine maintenance he was always occupied with, slushing the rigging, chipping rust and painting with red lead and a top coat.  They described the sunsets over the Indian Ocean, and how bright the stars were at night, the sound the ship’s wake made as it spread out from the stern.

Katherine wrote him back and told him that he should under no circumstances consider himself welcome to stay at her father’s house.  It wasn’t his home.  She wrote that she hoped he would stay safe, and settle somewhere nearby when he came back, so that he could stay involved with the children.  Money was also a problem, since her father had to keep most of his money for his own medical expenses, and she’d like to be able to help with college for the kids.

His letters back didn’t acknowledge her letters at all.  He told of watching a helicopter hover over the ship’s flight deck, forward of the bridge, and lower canvas bags of mail, and pick up bags of outgoing mail.  And he told of his hope, as he watched, that the mail contained a letter from her.  He didn’t mention that she’d written him that he wouldn’t be welcome.  It was infuriating.

Then, in August, the letters stopped.  A week went by without a letter, and then another week.  Carter was getting ready to begin high school, seeming a little adrift since they’d had to move.  Betty had graduated and moved to Aptos, living with her boyfriend in a house owned by his parents, waiting tables at a small Szechwan restaurant on West Cliff Drive.  Henry had his chemotherapy sessions.  Katherine didn’t notice that weeks had gone by without a letter until the month turned and she stopped to wonder if he was well.  The news coverage of the war rarely showed ships, but she thought she would have heard if a support ship had sunk.  She watched CNN several nights in a row but didn’t see anything.  There was news from the Middle East, but it was contradictory and confusing and didn’t tell her anything about the man she was still technically married to.

After a few days, she forgot to wonder about him.  A phone call would come, sooner or later, and he would be over his big adventure, and they would settle some things.

*

Most afternoons when he felt well, Henry had lunch with a regular group in the Garden Spot Café at the Blue Skies Bowl, a bowling alley surrounded on one side by subdivisions and tract homes and on the other side by the Western Horizons Shopping Mall.  The Blue Skies Bowl was built in the early sixties, the name chosen to appeal both to those ‘Blue Sky’ families moving to San José to be part of the aerospace industry and to those older residents who remembered the Irving Berlin song from the Bing Crosby movie.  After four decades, the bowling alley was slated for demolition, to be replaced by townhouses and condominiums, and the regulars at the café had not yet decided where they would gather once it was gone.

In the café, Henry had a Reuben or a hot pastrami sandwich, bad for his heart, he knew, but since his prostate was going to kill him first it didn’t matter much.  The group he met there were all of an age more or less, some city workers, some in real estate, one who had managed the produce section at a Safeway.  They were veterans, all had served overseas during World War Two.  They weren’t the sort who joined the VFW or the American Legion, but they held that time in common, and though they didn’t discuss it amongst themselves, a number of them gave talks about the War through a Veterans-in-the-Schools program.

Henry’s prostate cancer wasn’t the first in the group, and probably wouldn’t be the last.  A man who liked a dirty joke, Al Dayton, told them all that it was the pissing that first let him know he had a problem, the pissing and the backaches that weren’t just the routine.  And he said he finally understood a limerick he’d laughed at as a kid:

There was an old man from Stamboul

Who soliloquized thus to his tool:

“You stole all my wealth,

“You ruined my health,

“And now you won’t pee, you old fool!”

 

Henry found the gift box of perfume one afternoon when he came back from The Garden Spot.  He knew it wouldn’t be hard to tell that nobody was home.  He kept his Buick LeSabre in the driveway, since the garage was filled with things he’d never thrown away, and he drove the few blocks to the bowling alley.  When he was younger, he had enjoyed the walk, but the chemotherapy left his feet swollen and tingling, like a thousand small knives were cutting into the soles.  Neuropathy, he was told.  And so he began wearing oversized slippers with rubber bottoms and driving over.  Anyone could see that the driveway was empty during the day, anybody could see when the house was vacant.

*

Katherine had thought about support groups when Scott left, but she decided against it.  There were probably support groups for women whose husbands had blown all their money on Internet stocks.  She was sure of it.  But there wouldn’t be support groups for women whose husbands had run off to sea at the age of forty-seven.  Pretending they were twenty-five again.  That’s not normal.  Running away to sea.  The whole thing seemed archaic.

When two days passed since the perfume was left, and Scott didn’t try to contact her like a normal human being, she decided to try to catch him in the house.  Perhaps they could talk to each other like adults.  Her father insisted that she take him with her, and so she left work at noon and met him at The Garden Spot.   She liked seeing her father sitting at the same round table in a vinyl-lined booth in the corner.  He always seemed perfectly content there, happy that his little haven hadn’t yet changed, happy to meet old friends, even if the talk was no longer about problems with business or the kids and now centered on doctors and medical bills and retirement accounts.

Henry stood up when Katherine came in.  “See?” he said.  “I told you an attractive young woman was going to be picking me up today.”

The other men laughed and asked Katherine to sit down, join them, have a cup of coffee, but she told them next time, when she wasn’t so busy.

They left together in his Buick.  Henry still liked to be the one driving.  When they went in for his chemo treatments, he drove to the oncology unit and they took his car, even though they both knew that she would be driving back after he’d had the shunt in his chest hooked up for three hours.

They saw an old green Plymouth Fury in front of the house.

“Look at that beater car,” Henry said.  “You think he’s driving that?”

“I don’t know, Dad,” Katherine said.  “But I guess I’ll find out.”  She flipped down the sun visor and looked at her hair in the mirror and grimaced.

When she moved back into the house, she had to adjust to opening the front door.  During the years of living on her own, and then with Scott, she had evolved from just walking in as though she still lived there, to giving a quick knock and then walking in, to ringing the doorbell and waiting for her father to let her in.  After moving back, it took her some time to be able to simply open the door.  At first she felt some reluctance about it – she didn’t want to admit that, yes, she had moved back home at the age of forty-seven, and those other houses and apartments she’d lived in were only temporary.  But after months of unloading groceries or walking in with two briefcases and bracing the screen door open with her hip while she fumbled with her keys, her resistance vanished with the press of the everyday.

Now, absurdly, she knocked three times before turning the key, as though Scott had some rights over the house she was entering.  She patted her hair once more and opened the door.

*

Scott had been at sea longer than he expected.  Baghdad fell in May, and he thought that the aircraft carriers and their battle groups would soon head for their home ports, and his own ship would make the long voyage back to Subic Bay, in the P.I., and he could get paid off and back home.  But after May, the carrier groups stayed in the region, circling around, and he heard they were still flying sorties day and night.  And his ship stayed in the area too, having its own massive tanks refilled by a commercial tanker out at sea.  The only land they saw in months was the coast of Oman, which looked like a giant sand dune to Scott.  They sailed east out of the Arabian Sea only after another oiler came out to relieve them.  The nearest he’d been to Iraq was hundreds of miles south.  The war continued on without him, without the promised end.

The first thing Scott did after he flew in to San Francisco was buy a car.  He knew his credit was short.  He didn’t have a bank account.  He had no place to live.  But he had six months wages, almost twenty thousand dollars, in cash in a pouch hung around his neck.  He picked the Plymouth Fury because it was the biggest thing on the lot.  It reminded him of something his father would have owned, with a hood that stretched out long in front of the windshield and covered a V-8 engine, sharp lines and square corners, a roar when he turned the key that the dealer couldn’t guarantee was not due to a faulty muffler.  The vinyl top had peeled, and the metal underneath showed rust, but the air conditioning worked, and the radio was tuned to KNBR, the San Francisco Giants station, and the utter rightness of sitting in a big car listening to the pre-game show in late September sold him.

Scott’s insurance had expired, but the dealer arranged to sell him two weeks worth of coverage through the Internet, so he could get off the lot and have something until he got settled.  Then he took off on Highway 101 and headed toward the Santa Clara Valley, San José, home.

He checked into the El Rancho motel, about ten miles from where Katherine was living with her father.  The El Rancho was one of a few old motels, built along freeways in the fifties in California, that had survived into the age of franchises and centralized registration systems.  He took a room on the second floor, paying for a week in cash.  The room had heavy plastic drapes covering a single window, a sheet metal box that controlled both the heat and air conditioning, a lowboy chest of drawers with a twenty-three inch T.V., and a king-sized bed.

Scott had only a large duffel bag for luggage, and he threw it onto the dresser, kicked off his shoes, and fell back into bed.  He breathed in and out deeply, softly, trying to feel he was at a homecoming, trying to feel he had accomplished something, trying to feel he was in control.

The following afternoon, he drove by the house on Catesby Street.  The driveway was empty, though he noticed one oil spot that looked fresh.  Katherine probably still hadn’t repaired the oil leak in her Saturn.  The blinds were drawn, and the aluminum frame windows were cracked open.  That told him the house was probably empty.  The lawn was a little ragged, and the rose bushes along the side of the house were growing tall and awkward, with spindly sprays of faded blossoms hanging down, and the other shrubs needed pruning.  There was work he could do.

Next to his father-in-law’s house, someone had bought two of the old ranch houses from the original subdivision and razed them, and was erecting a two-story house in their place.  This had happened since he left.  The house was already framed up and sided, and it pushed out close to the property lines on both sides with a steep-pitched roof towering over everything else on the street.  Scott looked at it as he drove by slowly, wondering about the square footage, the number of bathrooms, the number of bedrooms.  But he had no doubt, he was looking at a million dollar house.  Once a house was grand enough to deserve that title, any further precision about the actual price seemed superfluous.

At the end of the block, he turned the Fury around and cruised back by his father-in-law’s house.  He envisioned rising from the land a house even larger than the one being built.  And he thought that if the old slab house could be torn down, or if a fire should strike it, it could be worth a fortune.  A fortune.

Scott left for an hour and came by one more time close to five.  A Buick LeSabre was in the driveway; his father-in-law was home.  Scott looked at his watch.  He knew his father-in-law’s habits, and he knew he had been at the Garden Spot all afternoon.

The next day, Scott parked the Fury right in front of the house, so that anyone who saw him would think he had nothing to hide.  A narrow walkway alongside the garage where the garbage can sat led to a gate into the fenced backyard.  A single-paned, aluminum sash window opened from the sunken den onto the cement slab patio.  It was simple to jimmy the screen – the aluminum bent easily, and he would re-shape and reinstall it before he left.  He grasped the window frame and hoisted himself up, ducked his head through and put a foot down on a black sofa before stepping onto the floor.

The house was weirdly quiet.  He had been in his father-in-law’s house many times, but never alone.  He took two steps, then stopped.  His steps seemed loud, loud enough for someone outside to hear him, and he sat down on the edge of a step and took off his shoes.  In his stocking feet, he made a round of the house, crouching down near any windows that faced the street.  He saw that Henry remained in the master bedroom.  His wife’s room held objects he knew from their own room together.  A wooden tree that held bracelets and necklaces, a frame screwed to the wall with earrings hanging from it, three bottles of perfume, a small lamp shaped like a tulip.  There was nothing from Betty.   She must have moved out, as Katherine said in one of her letters.

He wondered whether Katherine slept in the upper or lower bunk bed.  Both of them were neatly made with bedspreads that probably dated from the time she’d lived here as a girl, purple chenille with a fringe of small dangling balls.  He lifted a corner of the bedspread on the top bunk carefully and saw that there were no sheets underneath.  The bottom bunk had sheets, and Scott smiled, pleased with himself.  He sat down on the edge of the bed, and swung his feet onto it, and lay still.

He felt the house breathing all about him.  The stillness that earlier had seemed weird and threatening now felt warm, enveloping.  He didn’t feel like a sneak or a thief.  He felt like he was right where he belonged.  He felt he could go to sleep peacefully here, and wake up peacefully.

His watch beeped, and he opened his eyes.  He had set the timer to remind him when he had an hour left before he had to go.  He made the bed carefully, so that the bedspread was arranged identically to the one on the upper bunk, and he went into his son’s room.

There was a twin bed on one side of the room and a cheap computer desk in the corner.  Nothing on the walls except a poster with a saying by Chief Seattle that he remembered from Carter’s room in their old house.  He looked in the closet and didn’t see anything that would let him know what his son had been thinking or feeling while he had been gone.  Just jeans, t-shirts, a windbreaker, sweatshirts.  One sports coat that he wore to church, with a clip-on tie attached to the lapel.  Scott made a mental note to teach Carter to knot a real tie as soon as possible.

He looked at the computer on the desk, a bulky Dell in black plastic.  There might be more of Carter’s mind in the computer than anywhere else.

He looked at his watch.  Then he tiptoed back to the den, put his shoes on, and replaced the screen, pushing it back into shape.  He left by the back door, walked back out to his Fury, and drove back to the El Rancho.

The next day, Scott entered the house the same way.  He went to Katherine’s bed and lay down for half an hour.  Then he went into his son’s room and turned on his computer.  As the screen brightened, he got down on his knees and looked at the back of the computer tower.  They still had dial-up Internet service.  At their house in Oak Commons, they had always upgraded to the fastest possible service as soon as it was available.  For the kids.  Was this a measure of how Carter was suffering?  Slow and outdated Internet service?

He clicked on Explorer to look at the favorites, what was bookmarked, what sites had been recently visited.  There were a couple of sites related to Shakespeare.  A school project.  Scott nodded approvingly.  He opened up Word and looked at the documents Carter had recently written.  There was one on The Tempest opened last night, probably still in progress.

He began to search through other documents on the hard drive.  He didn’t admit it, but he was looking for something about himself.  Some kind of journal, a letter never sent.  He was searching for the profile he formed in his son’s imaginative horizon, the dark cutout figure of the absent.  He wanted to know he was missed, and he wanted to know exactly how he was missed, the quality of his son’s regret for his departure.  He felt he didn’t know his son very well, felt he had only completed the forms and ceremonies of being a father.  If he knew how his son missed him, he might know how his son needed him to be.

When his watch beeped again, he had found nothing, and he had to shut the computer down.  On his way out, he stopped where keys hung from a row of hooks and found a ring with a number of similar keys.  One fit the back door, and he took it with him.  He could make a copy and return it before anyone noticed.

Scott continued in this half-life for several weeks, occupying during the day the space his family would occupy at night.  He came every two or three days after replacing the key, so that his car wouldn’t become too conspicuous.  He grew comfortable with the routine.  The house changed about him as he spent time in its rooms, mellowed into a warm, familiar place.  He left his Fury, walked around the back, opened the door, kicked off his shoes.  He glanced at the books on his father-in-law’s desk in the den, looked at the catalogs and magazines that had come in the mail since his last visit.  He peeked inside the refrigerator, always pretending to himself that he might want a snack of some kind, always pretending that he wasn’t really hungry.

He circled back continuously to his wife’s bed and his son’s computer.  In other places, the bad moments could suddenly rear up, force themselves before him with their awful presentness:  the way he’d managed to lose money, the way he’d been laid off, the way he felt when he received the tax bill and knew that he couldn’t hide anything from Katherine.  But he found, when he lay in the lower bunk, where Katherine had slept a few hours earlier, his mind quieted.

At his son’s computer, he felt more urgency.  He was continually hunting for how Carter felt about him.  He read school papers Carter had written six months ago.  He visited the websites Carter had been on.  He tried logging onto his son’s email a number of times, thinking that somehow he would guess the password.  But it all remained obscure to him.  He wanted to find something magical, like a golden key in a children’s fairy tale, which would let him into the tower.  So that when he saw Carter again, they could share a perfect understanding.

On a hutch by the dining room table, there was always a stack of unopened mail addressed to Katherine.  Offers to open new credit card accounts, offers to transfer balances, envelopes full of coupons, bulk mailers promising to help you lose weight, promising a face cream that made wrinkles disappear, promising an herbal supplement that would cure the terrifying diseases that threatened you.  There were statements from credit cards, unopened bills.  Scott began to rifle through the envelopes on every visit, shaking his head when he found the same unopened statements in the pile after three days.  This had always driven him crazy about Katherine.  He didn’t understand why she couldn’t just open up junk mail right away, glance at it, and toss it.  He didn’t understand why she couldn’t just open up a credit card statement when it came, instead of waiting, as though the amount due was going to go down if she let it ripen a bit.

After three weeks, he found in the pile a bank statement addressed to himself, forwarded from the address in Oak Commons.  He had finally opened a bank account and deposited the thousands of dollars in cash he’d been carrying, and he’d used the Oak Commons address since it was the address on his driver’s license and passport.  In Katherine’s hand, he saw ‘not at this address’ scrawled.  He pocketed the envelope.  He was at this address, even though she didn’t know it yet.  He wondered if she would notice the missing envelope, and found himself hoping she would.

Two days later, he found a credit card statement of hers that had been opened but remained in the pile.  Carefully, he slid the statement out of the envelope and scrutinized it.  He saw where she had shopped last month, the kinds of things she had spent money on.  Clothes for herself, clothes for Carter, school supplies, new tires for the Saturn, gasoline.  It all added up.

Then he saw that last month, she had paid only the minimum on the balance.  That was crazy.  She had never been good at managing credit.  That was something else that had always frustrated him.  They were going to have to sit down and talk over how to manage money.  He found himself beginning a conversation with her right there, completely convincing her of the need to pay off balances every month, the foolishness of considering clothing ‘an investment,’ the vicious cycle that the credit card companies were sucking her into.  The responses he imagined from her tended to be questions he was able to answer, and she never brought up the fact that he’d cashed out their retirement accounts.  The entire conversation was very satisfactory.  So satisfactory that he promised to pay part of her balance if she would change her ways.  And he wrote down the payment address and her account number.

Her obvious need for him made him feel like he was already part of the household again.  They had just been having such crazy schedules that they had hardly seen each other.  But that was something they could work on, spending more time together, quality time.

When he left, he forgot about paying her bill and instead drove to Macy’s to buy perfume.  A woman about Katherine’s age was behind the counter, and he told her that the perfume was a gift for his wife, that he gave it to her only on special occasions, like their anniversary.  She misunderstood, and thought that their anniversary was coming up, and he found it easy to go along with her mistake, so easy to talk about their twenty-third anniversary, two children (teenagers, you know), a cozy house.  As he talked, it all sounded right and good, and he loved the approving smiles she lavished on him.  When he left, she said “She’s gonna love it,” and even though he had been telling her lies, he believed she was speaking the truth.

The next day, he left the perfume, gift-wrapped, on the dining table.  Something was going to happen now.  He was sure of it.

*

After Katherine knocked, she opened the door.  The living room was empty.  She glanced at the kitchen and down into the den, but he wasn’t there.  She had expected him to be waiting for her.  What else could the perfume have meant but a desire to meet.  And the knocks on the door were a way to alert him, so that he’d be standing, ready to talk.

But he wasn’t standing, ready to talk, and as she paused in the kitchen, she grew furious.  Everything about the way Scott was going about this was so typical.  He could never be open and up front about anything.  He always expected things to fall into place, expected Katherine to fill in the gaps in their relationship, and then he turned passive and whiny when something went wrong.  He hadn’t told her about their money troubles up front because he thought she’d just know somehow.  He avoided agreeing to a divorce because he would rather have things work out, and then disappeared after losing his job without telling her that he was leaving.  When she was young, that attitude that something magical would happen for them was enchanting, but now it just pissed her off.  And his bright idea of breaking into her father’s house was just a way to provoke her into recognizing his presence and his right to be here instead of being an adult, a man, and taking some god damned initiative.

She stalked into Carter’s room.  Nothing.  Then she looked into her bedroom.

Incredible.  He was sleeping on top of the bedspread of her bunk.  As she stood in the doorway, he stirred but didn’t open his eyes.  She had seen this face in this attitude thousands of times over the years.  It occurred to her that she had seen this face asleep more than she would ever see any other face in her life, more than either of her children, more than any new love she might find.  This face would stay at the gates of her dreams.  It was still a handsome face, sharp black eyebrows and a straight nose and a jawline that somehow evaded the sagging fleshy wattle that came to men in their forties.  And his body seemed tauter, as though some months at sea had tanned him like leather.

Then she thought of his card – I’ll be seeing you in all those old familiar places – and here he was, in that most familiar place, without even bothering to ask, without even bothering to say hello first.  It was too much.

She snatched the pillow from the upper bunk and hit him across the face with it.  He sat up, startled, and she smacked him again.

Sitting outside in the Buick, Henry witnessed a miraculous sight.  There was his son-in-law, bursting out the front door and running with his arms raised about his head.  Followed by his daughter, splendid in her anger, raging after him with a pillow in both hands.  When he slowed to try to speak, she whaled away at him, buffeting him about the shoulders, until he finally broke into a run for the Fury.  He locked the doors and started the car with a smoky roar while she beat upon the driver’s side window.  As the Fury pulled away, she raised both arms, like a goddess rampant and triumphant.