Green Hills Literary Lantern

Holding On

 

 

 

 

When Marlene’s son and his family drove up, she was in the trailer, scrubbing the sink. She wondered why they had come and, briefly, the idea of entertaining them exhausted her. Dickie was out back, behind the shed and the chicken coop, in the side garden, probably checking his marijuana plants that grew in the tall weeds close to the woods. Imagine a sixty-five year old man checking his marijuana plants. Marlene shook her head, put the sponge down, and wiped her hands on a small towel. The dogs were already barking, racing across the lawn to David’s new car. The sun reflected off the polished exterior. Marlene glimpsed Suzette, David’s young, pretty wife, frowning as the dogs leapt around them, and then the car was parked, and Marlene was headed for the porch.

“Down Brandy, down Buddy,” David said as he got out of the car. Marlene hesitated on the porch, blinking against the fierce July sun. The dogs, big German shepherds, both males, came to David’s voice as Suzette slipped out of the car. In the back, Marlene saw the girls, Heather and Grace, yawning, but Heather shook herself awake and stepped out of the car. As was her way, Grace waited for her mother to open the door and help her out. Marlene stood clutching the stair rail, shocked not by how the girls had grown, she had expected that, but by how old her son looked, holding the dogs back, his lined face set. As they came toward her, she said to herself Let me get through this day.

Dickie strode toward the trailer, whistling for the dogs.  They went to him and heeled. David came up onto the porch and kissed her cheek. “Hi Mom,” he said then briefly hugged her. He shook Dickie’s hand. David’s real father was dead and Dickie had never been a substitute, having come into Marlene’s life when David was in college. The dogs circled each other and curled beneath the shade of the porch. Grace clung to Suzette’s hand; Heather kneeled down to examine the violets growing wild at the side of the driveway.

“Hi girls,” Marlene said. “Don’t you both look pretty.” Grace put her fingers into her mouth; Heather furiously picked the violets and brought them to Marlene.

“These are for you,” she said, holding out the already wilting violets. Marlene took them carefully and made a show of smelling them. “They’re beautiful,” she said. “Now give me a hug.” Heather hugged her fiercely, with none of her father’s reluctance. Of course, Heather didn’t have her father’s memories of abandonment. “Sweetheart, I sure did miss you.” Heather smelled of the earth, fresh air, the dark woods after a long rain.

“Can I go down to the pond?” Heather asked, already heading down the steps.

“All right,” Suzette said. “But take your sister with you.”

Heather frowned but waited patiently for Grace to let go of her mother’s hand. Grace went to the edge of the stairs, took one step down then came back up and caught Marlene around the knees. “Love you Gramma,” she said then she disappeared down the steps and raced down the long sloping lawn to the pond. Marlene coughed into her fist and blinked to clear her eyes.

“We were just passing through,” David said.

Marlene glanced at the woods pressing in around them and thought that “passing through” didn’t happen in such an isolated place, but she smiled and said, “Come in. Let me get you a drink.”

“Oh,” Suzette said. “It’s such a lovely day. We should stay outside.”

Marlene continued to smile, but she knew that what Suzette was really saying was that she couldn’t stand being inside the trailer.

“Let me help with the drinks,” David said as he followed Marlene inside.

The curtains were pulled against the punishing sun, but dust motes floated in what light pushed through. The sagging recliner and narrow couch looked yellowed and aging fast despite the bright throws she’d tossed over the cushions. David and Suzette’s wedding photo sat on top of the TV. She remembered she had stood up front with Dickie, but had felt like she didn’t belong there; it had been such a long time since she and her son had spoken. That had been nine years ago and they talked now—Christmas, Easter— but Marlene knew it wasn’t much just as she knew it was exactly what she deserved.

“How are you doing, Mom?” David asked as she dug into the refrigerator. Four Michelob Lites and grape sodas for the girls. She passed them back to David without taking her head out of the coolness of the refrigerator.

“Mom?”

She closed the refrigerator and looked over at her son, who stood cradling the cans and looking down at her with his brown-gold eyes. His father’s eyes.

“I’m fine,” she said. “Been fine.” Should she tell him about the doctors and the tumors? But why bother? The doctors agreed that there was nothing they could do.

She started out of the kitchen to the front door but David wasn’t behind her. He stood at the sink now, the cans on the counter. “David?” she asked, but he didn’t turn.

If they hadn’t been separated from each other for so long she might have gone to him and touched his arm. Probably she should anyhow, simple human comfort. There was grief there in the rounded shoulders, in the hands that gripped the edge of the counter. But what did she know of offering comfort? She had always been the type of woman who told people to move on, get over it, there was too much living left to do to leave time for wallowing. The trailer’s roof seemed just inches from the top of her head.

“Suzette wants to leave me,” he said. Marlene stood still. “I told her I couldn’t live without her.”

“Sure you could,” Marlene said then bit her lip so hard she tasted blood.

He whirled around. “All right, then,” he snapped. “I don’t want to live without her.”

Marlene waited.

“She says I don’t give enough,  that I don’t talk enough. She says maybe counseling will help.”

“So she wants to work it out,” Marlene said. “That’s good.”

David shook his head. “I don’t know. I keep thinking all she wants is for me to admit I’m wrong. But I don’t know what about.” He crossed his arms over his chest and dropped his chin. By the set of his mouth she knew he was done talking. Again Marlene saw his father in him and was swept by a memory so fierce that she had to grab the back of the chair to steady herself. With all that fighting she and John had done, neither one of them had ever backed down; neither one of them had ever reached out to the other. In the end, the only thing left was to walk away.

“Tell her you’re sorry,” Marlene counseled because it seemed the only option. “Tell her you’ll try to change.”

The small clock on the dining room paneling ticked the passing minutes. At night, when Dickie was out late with the boys, the sound of that clock was a comfort to her, like feeling the beat of her heart. Now the clock’s ticking seemed to clang inside of her; she wanted to press her hands against her ears and shut it out.

“But I’m not sorry,” David said.

Marlene just looked at him, her hand still on the chair. He looked back and in his gaze she thought she saw his charge against her: You never said you were sorry, why should I? All she could think was, “You’ll be sorry if she leaves you,” but she said nothing. Outside, the dogs barked and Suzette laughed; Dickie had always been a charmer.

“We better go out,” Marlene said with a heavy voice and David nodded, gathered the cans and followed her onto the porch. When she closed the door behind him, she glimpsed the shadows inside the trailer and shivered

“So I tell him we’ve got to get the flag down before anyone sees us. Thanks.” Dickie took a beer from David and popped the top.  After a long swallow, he wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “So we’re up there on this old ladder at three in the morning trying to get this flag down, but damned if Bernard hadn’t nailed it up there. He must have known we were coming. Then the ladder starts to sag, and we’re sure as shit it’s gonna break. We’re like a comedy routine out there in the dark, me tugging at the nails and almost falling off the ladder, Jess down below whispering, ‘Can you hear that?’  It was Bernard, snoring like a hound dog.  We got to laughing so hard, we didn’t have a chance with the flag.  Never did get the damned thing down.”

Suzette laughed. She sat in a lawn chair and held the beer can between her knees. Her summer sundress was tied at the neck revealing smooth shoulders, too pale to have seen much of anything. A sorority girl, that’s who David had married. How did one ever keep a woman like that happy? At least poor Dickie knew all Marlene expected was loyalty and good times. But it seemed that all the things Suzette expected couldn’t be contained by anything short of the universe. And yet, maybe she too only wanted loyalty and good times. Certainly David, now standing stiffly near the trailer, rarely kicked off his boat shoes and danced.

Dickie sat at the edge of the porch, leaning up against the stair rail. Nearly twenty years out here and they hadn’t yet railed in the entire porch and so the stair rails, one on either side, stood alone like defiant wood sculptures. There had been a time when Marlene would have sat right there next to Dickie, her feet dangling over the edge and kicking air but it was so damned hard to get back up these days. Dickie had put out another lawn chair and she took it silently, sipping her beer and wishing for an umbrella. David towered over them. Occasionally he seemed to listen to Dickie’s stories, but mostly he kept his gaze on the pond where Heather stalked the reedy edge and Grace trotted behind, still sucking her fingers.

“We can’t break her of it,” Suzette said. “Heather never even sucked her thumb.”

“Neither did David.” Marlene took another sip of her beer. “It doesn’t do much harm.”

Suzette frowned and ran her finger along the top of her unopened beer.

“It’s been a hell of a summer,” Dickie said. “Hell of a day.” He looked up at the hazy sky. “Looks like barbecue time.”

“Oh no,” Marlene said. Barbecue time meant calling most of the boys on the hill and having them come over ’til all hours of the night, drinking and yelling near the barbecue pit, acting like it was the first ever Fourth of July.

“Now, Marlie, I’m sure David and Suzie wouldn’t mind a little party. ’Sides, it’s only two o’clock, if we start this early there’s no way we’ll last the night.”

Marlene knew better.

“A barbecue sounds nice,” Suzette said. She finally popped the top of her beer and she tipped it in Dickie’s direction. “It has been a hell of a day.”

Dickie threw back his head and bellowed his gut laugh. Despite his years, he got easily to his feet and patted Suzette’s knee as he walked past. “Hell of a girl,” he said then disappeared inside.

“You don’t have to stay for this,” Marlene said, looking directly at David.

He shrugged. “It’s all right. It’ll be good to see your friends.”

“What about the girls?” Marlene asked. Heather was on her knees now peering into the water, her hands at the certainly muddy edge. The heat had sucked some of the water from the pond and the lack of rain hadn’t helped, but there was still enough to it to keep the banks wet. Grace stood behind Heather, peering over her shoulder. She had abandoned her fingers in favor of the tips of her hair.

“They like new people,” Suzette said. She tipped her head back and drank greedily. “It’s so hot. I might just go swimming.”

“We didn’t bring our suits,” David reminded her.

“I’m sure I’ve got one you can borrow,” Marlene said at the same time that Suzette said, “Why bother with a suit?” Marlene had never heard her say anything like that, unless she counted what she’d just said, that it was a hell of a day.

David glared at Suzette and turned his back on them. “Girls, get away from there,” he yelled. Obediently they moved away from the water. Heather wiped her hands on the lawn and then clapped them together. She began calling “Buddy! Brandy!” Under the porch, the dogs stirred, moving the dirt around, but not heading into the sun.

On the porch, the silence extended. Suzette sipped her beer, her crossed leg thumping the air as if she wanted to land a kick on David’s backside.

“I better go in and see what we’ve got for this barbecue.” Marlene, still holding her beer, pushed herself up using both hands. Suzette stopped kicking and glanced over at her. The question was in her eyes, but Marlene frowned and Suzette did not ask.

When she stepped inside, the coolness wrapped around her. Dickie sat at the dining room table, scarred and stained wood that she had covered with a plastic cloth. It was easier to slide cards along plastic than cotton. With the phone tucked between his chin and his ear, Dickie shuffled a deck of well-worn cards and began dealing a hand of solitaire. As she walked past to the kitchen, he reached out and stroked her thigh, winking when she looked at him. “All right then,” he said into the phone. “All right. See you then. Ah no, you don’t have to bring a damned thing; Marlie and I have got it covered.”

They always had it covered, and it was damn near like burning money. She gathered hot dogs, buns, chips, and pickles for the barbecue then sat beside Dickie.

“I just invited Jess and Belinda; I didn’t want to tire you out.” He grinned at her and continued playing cards.

“That’s good.” She rested her arms on the table. She’d lost so much weight that the wood pressed against her bones. The doctors said she needed more calcium, more greens but she knew what it was: her heart was failing her, trying to slip from this life because it didn’t really want it anymore, not the pond, not the dogs, not the guilt of leaving David when he was a boy, not even Dickie. She didn’t want any of it anymore.

“How’re you doing?” Dickie asked.

“I’ll make it,” she said.

“That’s what I like to hear,” he said. “You know, it is good to see them.” He went back to the cards. Marlene could see that all he needed was the nine of hearts and the whole deck would come together.

 “Enough lecture,” she said. “Now how about you come outside and start the fire or else we’ll never get to eat?”

“Yes, ma’am.” He gathered the cards quickly, not seeming to care he had almost won. They went together into the hot sun. Dickie held the door for her and even patted what was left of her behind when she walked through.

 

When the afternoon was at its hottest and the coals in the fire had just begun to glow, Jess’ Harley rumbled up the road and down to the trailer. His stomach was so broad all you could see of Belinda was her hands on his shoulders. The dogs raced to greet them. Jess tossed them a treat, which he always carried. Belinda hung her helmet on one of the handlebars, then dug into the saddle bag and pulled out a Tupperware container, a bottle of wine, and a six pack of beer. They walked past the trailer toward them. Belinda gave a little wave, but the dogs were barking too loud to say anything. Dickie told the dogs to shush and they sat down near the fire, looking hurt.

“It’s all about timing,” Jess said as he handed Dickie the six pack. He kissed Marlene’s cheek and gravely shook Suzette’s hand. “Now let’s get the food on.”

Dickie laughed and handed Jess a beer.

“Belinda, it’s good to see you.” Marlene half-rose from the picnic table, but Belinda gently pushed her down.

“Rest,” she said as she kissed Marlene’s cheek. Suzette had left the table to stand by the fire with the men and so Marlene was able to settle back with a groan.

“It’s nothing much,” Marlene said when Belinda sat beside her.

In her short shorts and halter top she was dressed like a young girl, skinny like one too, but Marlene could see the lines along her neck and eyes hidden by skillful makeup. Belinda pulled a cigarette out of her purse and lit it quickly, snapping her purse shut and blowing the smoke to the cloudless sky. “My doctor gave me some pain pills a few years ago for my back. Remember that time Jess and I laid down the Harley?”

Jess could barely walk, he’d been so drunk, and Belinda hadn’t been better off. It had been a crash, one that neither should have walked away from.

“I remember,” Marlene said and a wave of dizziness grabbed her. How many times had their friends left, stumbling down the porch stairs, and they’d happily said good night and closed the nearly weightless trailer door?

“Hey, honey, you don’t look so hot.” Belinda had ringed the cigarette in lip gloss and she sucked at it again. “You want me to get these people out of here?” She glared at Dickie, Jess and Suzette equally, as if they had come uninvited to Marlene and Belinda’s party.

“Maybe some water?” Marlene put a hand to her chest, felt the rising cough and fought it but not before Suzette noticed and came over to them.

“She’s got something caught in her throat,” Belinda said quickly, patting Marlene’s back. “I’m just gonna run and get her some water.”

Suzette settled into Belinda’s empty seat. Dickie was carefully placing hot dogs on the grill as Jess buttered the buns with a plastic knife. Jess had wrapped an apron around his belly and pointed at the dancing girl on the front. The men laughed easily. The angles of Dickie’s face were sharper than they’d ever been. The green cotton work shirt he’d pulled on was faded from wear, the collar nearly white where it folded over. When he caught her looking, he lifted his beer to her and winked.

The cough that had caught in her chest settled in her stomach, a deep ache from the tumor, letting her know for the rest of her life she would never be without it. There was no comfort in thinking of the tumor, or of her past, so she turned away as if from a bad hand of poker. The garden was in shade now and the corn, not yet knee high, beckoned, and the tall grasses that hid the marijuana, all of these plants seemed easy to Marlene, and welcoming. She could lie on the earth and have them watch over her as the afternoon wore itself out.

“The girls would like to stay with you a week this summer,” Suzette said. “David and I thought it might be nice.”

Marlene’s eyes fluttered open. When had she closed them? “That would be nice.” She cleared her throat and watched Belinda come out of the trailer.  With her slight hip, she checked the door was closed then she stood on the steps for a few seconds, like testing the wind before setting sail.

“But I don’t know,” Suzette continued. She had discarded her beer and was drinking one of the girls’ grape sodas. She picked at the tab with a manicured nail. “I think there’s something going on that you’re not telling us.”

Belinda’s shadow fell across them. “Don’t be silly,” Belinda answered for Marlene.  “It’s just the heat today. Not anything at all but the heat.” Belinda handed Marlene the water glass and pressed something small into her palm. A pain pill. Was Marlene really in pain?

“Go ahead, honey, drink up.” Belinda lit another cigarette and blew the smoke away from them. The hot dogs had started to sizzle on the grill. Marlene was surprised she could hear them so clearly, as if she was standing right above them. She took the pill and drank the glass of water down like a shot of whiskey.

Belinda sat across from them, leaning on her elbows, her cigarette dangling between her fingertips. “Those girls sure are cute,” she said as they leapt out of the woods, David racing after them. Heather screeched as David caught her and they tumbled to the grass. Grace stood over them uncertainly until David grabbed her by the knees and brought her down on top of them. They rolled across the lawn and Marlene almost stood up and told David to be careful of grass stains, which was unnatural for her. She’d been the kind of mother who’d never said no to anything, the kind that offered treats instead of punishment when he came home after dark; she’d been so glad he’d come home at all. Beside her, Suzette scowled and Marlene imagined her thoughts: He’s so relaxed with the girls; why can’t he be that way with me?

“Could I borrow a cigarette?” Suzette asked. Both Marlene and Belinda paused and studied her. She brushed her sleek hair behind her ears and waited.

“Why, of course you can, hon.” Belinda extracted a cigarette and offered her silver lighter along with it. Suzette took them both familiarly and smoothly lit the cigarette. Inhaling deeply she started to cough, bending over it, briefly putting her head between her knees. Belinda arched an eyebrow at Marlene, who shrugged; she had never seen her daughter-in-law smoke.

“Hey, beautiful,” Jess called from the grill. “We’re just about ready for round one.”

“I’ll call the girls.” Belinda got up from the table and went down to the edge of the lawn. For the first time, Marlene noticed that she wore flat suede sandals, the kind the hippie girls wore.

Suzette managed another inhale, this time without coughing; then she quickly stubbed the cigarette into the ashtray on the table. “Don’t tell David,” she said, but Marlene knew she wouldn’t have to. David could smell smoke from ten paces.

“It’s not something I do very often,” Suzette said. “Really. I’ve just been so tired . . . I’m sorry. You’ve been tired too. I could see it all over you when we got here. Are you going to tell David what’s going on?”

“Nothing’s going on,” Marlene lied, and she lied knowing that if she told the truth the girls would never be allowed to spend a week with her. “Life’s going on,” she amended and that seemed nearer the truth, nearer to something she could live with.

The girls were coming up the hill now, both tugging on David’s arms. He paused and swung Heather onto his back. Grace clung to his fingers and he managed somehow to gather her up and rest her on his hip.

“How was it for you when you left them?” Suzette asked. She kept her head down. Her fingers kept working the soda tab until it snapped off.

Marlene touched the side of her face with shaky fingers.  She looked past the tall garden weeds that hid Dickie’s marijuana, looked into a vast distance.  How was it for her when she left her husband and son? Marlene didn’t know how to answer that question. She wasn’t even sure she could say how it was for her. A desperate need for fresh air, that’s what she remembered, as if she’d been trapped indoors through twelve summers without one window to crack open. When she’d stepped out onto that porch, David still asleep in his bunk bed, his tenth birthday cake barely eaten, she had been clutching the suitcase she used when she was a girl. It had the weight of the past about it, dragging her arm down and down. It seemed it couldn’t hold anything that she would need for the future, so instead it carried some of her clothes, her makeup, a small bottle of perfume, and a photo of David with his dog, Yankee, who was curled up on the rug in David’s bedroom. That air out on the porch that morning had been so sweet, so alluring, it had been like breathing in a drug. She knew she was hooked, even as she knew she was leaving part of herself in the house. But she took that first step anyway, knowing the hurt she was leaving behind, another step and another, and then she was walking away, not once looking back. That’s how it had been when she left John and her son.

“I’m not sure I would do it again,” Marlene said finally and Suzette did look up. Had Marlene ever noticed how pale Suzette’s eyes were?

“Honey,” Marlene said in a breathless rush, “I’m not saying you’ve got to stay. Lord knows I didn’t. But this is David we’re talking about. I hate to see it happen to him twice in one lifetime. Isn’t there some way you could work it out?”

“Really, it’s none of your business,” Suzette said sharply, dropping the broken tab into the soda can. “What would you know about making it work?”

Weighted down by the girls, David began to lurch across the lawn.

“I don’t know a damned thing about making it work,” Marlene said. Belinda’s pain pill was beginning to take hold, softening the light, the hot dog smell fading, the sharpness of the bench fading. “But I wish I did.”

“Hey.” Belinda came back to the table and sat close to Marlene. “What are you two talking about?”

“All the things we’d do differently if we could.” Marlene rested her cheek on her hand.

“Ah,” Belinda said. “No wonder you both look like you’ve been kicked. Hell, I’ve got a list so long we could waste the whole night.”

“All I’m saying,” Suzette said as if Belinda had interrupted her, “is some things can’t work.”

“You want too much,” Marlene said and she wasn’t seeing Suzette’s angled face but her own young face, the smooth skin and brilliant blue eyes. “You always did.”

“Marlene, honey, maybe you need to lie down.” Belinda pressed her hand to Marlene’s shoulder.

When David and the girls reached the path, the girls released him. They ran to the fire and stood close to the men, staring up at Dickie and Jess. It seemed to Marlene they were seeing these great men for the first time and their eyes were wide with the wonder of how different people could look on the outside. The dogs drooled nearby but didn’t come close.

The pain pill had loosened Marlene’s clenched stomach and she was able to imagine a week this summer with the girls beside her. Early in the morning, they would search for warm eggs in the chicken house, the girls’ pale hands digging in the sweet-smelling hay, coming up with the brown spotted eggs, laying them gently in the basket Marlene carried.

David came up to the table and stood across from his wife and his mother. Marlene let him stare at her a while, knowing that what he would see etched on her face was the apology she should have uttered decades ago. It didn’t seem to make any difference, and that hurt her in a way the tumors hadn’t.

Finally, after so long that Marlene lost track of the light, he looked at the ashtray, at the half-smoked cigarette butt that had no lipstick markings. Then he looked at his wife. They said nothing at all to each other. As the silence stretched, Marlene felt herself spinning backwards. Hadn’t John once looked at her that way: puzzled, hurt, yearning? She’d turned her back on him, unable to bear it. And by turning her back on her husband, she had turned her back on her son.

Marlene began to pray, for hope maybe, maybe even for forgiveness. As if in answer, Suzette reached out and circled David’s wrist with her fingers. Suzette held on tight and Marlene let go the breath she’d been holding on to.

 

 

Jenney Izzo holds an MFA from Vermont College and teaches online for the University of Vermont.  Her work has appeared in the Potomac Review and the Onion River Review.  She lives in Vermont with her husband, son, and very fat cat.