Authors: Sere Prince Halverson
SERÉ PRINCE HALVERSON
The Underside of Joy
About the Author
About the Publisher
I recently read a study that claimed happy people aren’t made. They’re born. Happiness, the report pointed out, is all about genetics – a cheerful gene passed merrily, merrily down from one smiling generation to the next. I know enough about life to understand the old adage that one person can’t make you happy, or that money can’t buy happiness. But I’m not buying this theory that your bliss can be only as deep as your gene pool.
For three years, I did backflips in the deep end of happiness.
The joy was palpable and often loud. Other times it softened – Zach’s milky breath on my neck, or Annie’s hair entwined in my fingers as I braided it, or Joe humming some old Crowded House song in the shower while I brushed my teeth. The steam on the mirror blurred my vision, misted my reflection, like a soft-focus photograph smoothing out my wrinkles, but even those didn’t bother me. You can’t have crow’s-feet if you don’t smile, and I smiled a lot.
I also know now, years later, something else: The most genuine happiness cannot be so pure, so deep, or so blind.
On that first dawn of the summer of ’99, Joe pulled the comforter down and kissed my forehead. I opened one eye. He wore his grey sweatshirt, his camera bag slung over his shoulder, his toothpaste and coffee breath whispering something about heading out to Bodega before he opened the store. He traced the freckles on my arm where he always said they spelled his name. He’d say I had so many freckles that he could see the letters not just for Joe, but for Joseph Anthony Capozzi, Jr – all on my arm. That morning he added, ‘Wow,junior’s even spelledout.’ He tucked the blanket back over me. ‘You’re amazing.’
‘You’re a smart-ass,’ I said, already falling back to sleep. But I was smiling. We’d had a good night. He whispered that he’d left me a note, and I heard him walk out the door, down the porch steps, the truck door yawning open, the engine crowing louder and louder, then fading, until he was gone.
Later that morning, the kids climbed into bed with me, giggling. Zach lifted the sun-dappled sheet and held it over his head for a sail. Annie, as always, elected herself captain. Even before breakfast, we set out across an uncharted expanse, a smooth surface hiding the tangled, slippery underneath of things, destination unknown.
We clung to each other on the old rumpled Sealy Posturepedic, but we hadn’t yet heard the news that would change everything. We were playing Ship.
By their pronouncements, we faced a hairy morning at sea, and I needed coffee. Badly. I sat up and peeked over the sail at them, both their spun-gold heads still matted from sleep. ‘I’m rowing out to Kitchen Island for supplies.’
‘Not when such danger lurks,’ Annie said.Lurks?I thought. When I was six, had I even heard of that word? She bolted up, hands on hips while she balanced on the shifting mattress. ‘We might lose you.’
I stood, glad that I’d thought to slip my underwear and Joe’s T-shirt back on before I’d fallen asleep the night before. ‘But how, dear one, will we fight off the pirates without cookies?’
They looked at each other. Their eyes asked without words: Beforebreakfast? Has she lost hermind?
Cookies before breakfast . . . Oh, why the hell not? I felt a bit celebratory. It was the first fogless morning in weeks. The whole house glowed with the return of the prodigal sun, and the worry that had been pressing itself down on me had lifted. I picked up my water glass and the note Joe had left underneath it, the words blurred slightly by the water ring:Ella Bella, Gone to capture it all out at the coast before I open. Loved last night. Kisses to A&Z. Come by later if . . .but his last words were puddled ink streaks.
I’d loved the previous night too. After we’d tucked the kids in, we talked in the kitchen until dark, leaning back against the counters, him with his hands deep in his pockets, the way he always stood. We stuck to safe topics: Annie and Zach, a picnic we’d planned for Sunday, crazy town gossip he’d heard at the store – anything but the store itself. He threw his head back, laughing at something I said. What was it? I couldn’t remember.
We had fought the day before. After fifty-nine years in business, Capozzi’s Market was struggling. I wanted Joe to tell his dad. Joe wanted to keep pretending business was fine. Joe could barely tellhimselfthe truth, let alone his father. Then he’d have a moment of clarity, tell me something about an overdue bill or how slow the inventory was moving, and I would freak out, which would immediately shut him back down. Call it a bad pattern we’d been following the past several months. Joe pushed off from the counter, came to me, held my shoulders, said, ‘We need to find a way to talk about the hard stuff.’ I nodded. We agreed that, until recently, there hadn’t been that much hard stuff to talk about.
I counted us lucky. ‘Annie, Zach. Us . . .’ Instead of tackling difficult topics right then, I’d kissed him and led him to our bedroom.
I feigned rowing down the narrow hall, stepping over Zach’s brontosaurus and a half-built Lego castle, until I was out of view, then stood in the kitchen braiding my hair in an effort to restrain it into single-file order down the back of my neck. Our house was a bit like my red hair – a mass of colour and disarray. We’d torn out the wall between the kitchen and living room, so, from where I stood, I could see the shelves crammed to the ceiling with books and plants and various art projects – a Popsicle-stick boat painted yellow and purple, a lopsided clay vase withHappy Mother’s Dayspelled out in macaroni letters, theMlong gone but leaving an indent in its place. Large patchworks of Joe’s black-and-white photographs hung in the few spaces that didn’t have built-ins or windows. One giant French window opened out to the front porch and our property beyond. The old glass made a feeble insulator, but we couldn’t bring ourselves to part with it. We loved its wavy effect on the view, as if we looked through water at the hydrangeas that lapped at the porch, the lavender field waiting to be harvested, the chicken coop and brambles of blackberries, the old tilted barn, built long before Grandpa Sergio bought the land in the thirties, and finally, growing across the meadow from the redwoods and oaks, the vegetable garden, our pride and glory. We had about an acre – mostly in the sun, all above the flood line, with a glimpse of the river if you stood in just the right spot.
Joe and I enjoyed tending the land, and it showed. But none of us, including the kids, were gifted at orderliness when it came to inside our home. I didn’t worry about it. My previous house – and life – had been extremely tidy, yet severe and empty, so I shrugged off the mess as a necessary side effect of a full life.
I took out the milk, then stuck Joe’s note on the fridge with a magnet. I’m not sure why I didn’t throw it out; it was probably the sweetness of the previous night’s reconciliation that I wanted to hang on to, theElla Bella . . .
My name is Ella Beene, and as one might imagine, I’ve had my share of nicknames. Of all of them, Joe’s was one I downright cherished. I’m not a physical beauty – not ugly, but nothing near what I’d look like if I’d had a say in the matter. Yes, the red hair intrigues. But after that, things are pretty basic. I’m fair and freckled, too tall and skinny for some, with decent features – brown eyes, nice enough lips – that look better when I remember to wear makeup. But here’s the thing: I knew Joe liked the whole package. The inside, the outside, the in-between places, the whole five foot ten of me. And since all my nicknames fit me at their appointed times, I let myself bask in that one: Bella. So there I was. Thirty-five years old, beautiful in Italian, on a Saturday morning, making strong coffee, preparing a breakfast appetizer of cookies and milk for our children.
‘Cookies. Me want cookies.’ The sailors had jumped ship and were trying to make their eyes bulge, taking the glasses of milk from the kitchen counter and a couple of oatmeal squares. Our dog, Callie, a yellow Lab and husky mix who knew how to work her most forlorn expression, sat thumping her tail until I gave her a biscuit and let her out. I sipped my coffee and watched Annie and Zach shove cookies in their mouths, grunting, letting crumbs fly. This was the one thingSesame Streettaught them that I could have done without.
The sun beckoned us outside, so I asked them to hurry and get dressed, then went to pull on a pair of shorts and finally stick a load of darks into the washer. As I added the last pair of jeans, Zach ran in buck naked and held up his footed pyjamas. ‘I do it myself,’ he said. I was impressed he hadn’t left them in the usual heap on the floor, and I picked him up so he could drop in his contribution. His butt was cool against my arm. We watched until the agitator sucked the swirl of fire trucks and blue fleece below into the sudsy water. I set him down and he careened out, his feet slapping down the wood hall. Except for shoe-lace tying, which Zach was still a few years from, both kids had become alarmingly self-sufficient. Annie was more than ready for first grade, and now Zach for preschool, even if I wasn’t quite ready for them to go.
This would be a milestone year: Joe would save the sinking grocery store that had been in his family for three generations. I would go back to work, starting a new job in the fall as a guide for Fish and Wildlife. And Annie and Zach would zoom out the door each morning on their ever-growing limbs, each taking giant leaps along that ever-shortening path of their childhood.
When I first met them, Annie was three and Zach was six months. I had been on my way from San Diego to a new life, though I wasn’t sure where or what it would be. I’d stopped in the small, funky town of Elbow along the Redwoods River in Northern California. The town was named for its location on the forty-five-degree bend in the river, but locals joked that it was named for elbow macaroni because so many Italians lived there. I planned to get a sandwich and an iced tea, then maybe stretch my legs and walk down the path I’d read about to the sandy beach along the river, but a dark-haired man was locking up the market. A little girl squirmed out of his grasp while he tried to get the key in the lock and balance a baby in his other arm. She pulled loose and raced out towards me, into my legs. Her blonde head grazed my knees, and she laughed and reached her arms to me. ‘Up.’
‘Annie!’ the man called. He was lean, a bit dishevelled and anxious, but significantly easy on the eyes.
I asked him, ‘Is it okay?’
He grinned relief. ‘If you don’t mind?’Mind?I scooped her into my arms and she started playing with my braid. He said, ‘The kid doesn’t have a shy bone in her body.’ I could feel her chubby legs secured around my hips, could smell Johnson’s baby shampoo, cut grass, wood smoke, a hint of mud. A whisper of grape juice-stained breath brushed my cheek. She’d held my braid tight in her fist but she hadn’t pulled.
Callie barked and, from the kitchen, I saw Frank Civiletti’s police cruiser. That was odd. Frank knew Joe wouldn’t be home. They’d been best friends since grade school, and they always talked over morning coffee at the store. I hadn’t heard Frank coming, but there he was, slowly heading up the drive, his tires popping gravel. Also odd. Frank never drove slowly. And Frank always turned his siren on when he made our turn from the main road. His ritual for the kids. I looked at the microwave clock: 8:53. Already? I picked up the phone, then set it down. Joe hadn’t called when he got to the store. Joealwayscalled. ‘Here.’ I grabbed the egg baskets and handed them to the kids. ‘Check on the Ladies and bring us back some breakfast.’ I opened the kitchen door and watched them run down to the coop, waving and calling out, ‘Uncle Frank! Turn on your siren.’
But he didn’t; he parked the car. I stood in the kitchen. I stared at the compost bucket on the counter. Coffee grounds Joe had used that morning, the banana peel from his breakfast. The far edges of my happiness began to brown, then curl.
I heard Frank’s door open and shut, his footsteps on the gravel, on the porch. His tap on the front door’s window. Annie and Zach were busy collecting eggs at the coop. Zach let out a string of laughter, and I wanted to stop right there and wrap it around our life so we could keep it intact and whole. I forced myself out of the kitchen, down the hall, stepping over the toys still on the floor, seeing Frank through the paned watery glass stare down at a button on his uniform.Look up and give me your Jim Carrey grin. Just walk in, like you usually do, you bastard. Raid the fridge before you say hello.Now we stood with the door between us. He looked up with red-rimmed eyes. I turned, headed back down the hallway, heard him open the door.
‘Ella,’ he said, behind me. ‘Let’s sit down.’
‘No.’ His footsteps followed me. I waved him away without turning to see him. ‘No.’
‘Ella. It was a sleeper wave, out at Bodega Head,’ he said to my back. ‘It rose out of nowhere.’
He told me Joe was shooting the cliff out on First Rock. Witnesses said they shouted a warning, but he couldn’t hear them over the wind, the ocean. It knocked him over and took him clean. He was gone before anyone could move.
‘Where is he?’ I turned when Frank didn’t answer. I grabbed his collar. ‘Where?’
He glanced down again, then forced his eyes back on me. ‘We don’t know. He hasn’t shown up yet.’
I felt a small hope look up, start to rise. ‘He’s still alive. He is! I need to get out there. We need to go. I’ll call Marcella. Where’s the phone? Where are my shoes?’
‘Lizzie’s already on her way over to pick up the kids.’
I ran towards our bedroom, stepped on the brontosaurus, fell hard on my knee, pushed myself back up before Frank could help me.
‘Listen, El. I would not be saying any of this to you if I thought there was a chance he was alive. Someone even said they saw a spray of blood. We think he hit his head. He never came up for air.’ Frank said something about this happening every year, as if I were some out-of-towner. As if Joe were.
‘Thisdoesn’t happen to Joe.’
Joe could swim for miles. He had two kids that needed him. He had me. I dug in the closet for my hiking boots. Joe was alive and I had to find him. ‘A little blood? He probably scraped his arm.’ I found the boots, pulled the comforter off the bed. He would be freezing. I grabbed the binoculars from the hall tree. I opened the screen door and stepped out on the porch, tripping on the dragging blanket. I called back, ‘Am I driving myself ? Or are you coming?’
Frank’s wife, Lizzie, loaded Zach into their Radio Flyer wagon with their daughter, Molly, while Annie stuck her arm through the handle and shouted through her cupped hands, ‘We’re taking the rowboat to shore. Watch for pirates.’
I waved and tried to sound cheerful. ‘Got it. Thanks, Lizzie.’ She nodded, solemn. Lizzie Civiletti was not my friend; she’d told me that, soon after I came to town. And yet neither was she unkind. She would protect the kids from any telltale signs of panic. As much as I wanted to go to them, to gather them up to me, I smiled, I waved again, I blew kisses.
Frank drove the winding road with his lights spinning circles. I closed my eyes, didn’t look at the rolling hills I knew would be shimmering, dotted with what Joe called the ‘Extremely Happy California Cows.’He’s fine. He’s fine! He’s disoriented. He hit his head. He’s not sure where he is. A concussion, maybe. He’s wandering the beach at Salmon Creek. That’s it! The wave pulled him out and dashed him down the coast a ways, but there he is. He’s talking to some high school boys. They have surfboards. Dude. Did you ride that gnarly wave? They’ve built a fire even though the signs prohibit it. They offer him beer and hot dogs. They forgot the buns, but here’s mustard. He’s famished. He has a flash of memory. It all comes back to him.
Us. Making up. Just the night before. Standing in the kitchen, easing our way back together, then falling into bed, relieved. We were lousy fighters, but we could win medals for making up. He had kissed my stomach in a southbound line until I moaned, kissed my thighs until I whimpered, until we both gave in. Later, as I drifted off, he propped himself up on his elbow and looked down at me. ‘I have something I need to tell you.’
I tried to fight the pull of sleep. ‘You want totalk?Now?’It was a noble effort to be more open, but, Jesus, right after sex? Wasn’t that womankind’s most annoying tactic? So I was a man about it and said, ‘You can’t go and get me this blissed out and then tell me we have to talk.’ I figured it was more bad news about the store.
‘Fair enough,’ he said. ‘Tomorrow, then. We’ll make it a date. I’ll see if Mom will take the kids.’
‘Ooooh. A date.’ Maybe it wasn’t about the store. Hell, I thought. Maybe it’sgoodnews.
He smiled and touched my nose. I hadn’t said,No, we have to talk now.I hadn’t fretted. I had immediately fallen asleep.
So, no. Joe could not be dead. He was eating hot dogs and drinking beer and talking surfing. He still needed to talk to me about something. I opened my eyes.
Frank sped through Bodega Bay – with its seafood restaurants and souvenir shops, the pink-and-white-striped saltwater taffy store the kids could never get past without insisting we stop – along the curved bayside road and its hand-painted sandwich signs advertising the latest catch, the air a mingle of smoked salmon and sea and wildflowers, up the curved ridge to Bodega Head, Joe’s favourite place on the planet.
There was the trailhead to the hike we’d taken so many times, along the cliff. On one side the sea down below, on the other a prairie of shore wildflowers – with the yarrow, orAchillea borealis,the sand verbena, orAbronia umbellate– down to the grassy dunes. Joe was always impressed with my ability to not only identify the birds and wildflowers, but rattle off their Latin names too, a gift I’d inherited from my father.
The parking lot was full, including several sheriff’s cars, a fire truck, paramedics, and there at the end by the trail, Joe’s old truck. He called it the Green Hornet. I grabbed the binoculars, got out of Frank’s cruiser, and slammed the door. A helicopter headed north, following the shoreline, its blades thumping, a thunderous, too-rapid heartbeat fading away.
I had no jacket, and the wind whipped against my bare arms, burned my eyes. Frank draped the comforter around me. I said, ‘Please don’t make me talk to anyone.’
‘You got it.’
‘I need to go alone.’ He pulled me into his side, then released me. I walked to Joe’s truck. Unlocked, of course. His blue down jacket, stained and worn in, just the way he liked it. I slipped it on. Warm from the sun. I left the blanket in the car so it would be warm for him too. His thermos lay on the floor. I shook it: empty. I lifted the rubber mat and saw his keys, as I knew I would, and stuck them in my pocket.
Through the binoculars the water flashed a multitude of lights, as if taking pictures of its own crime scene.
In March and April, we’d packed a picnic and brought the kids out to watch for whales. We’d searched the horizon with the same binoculars, marvelled at the grey whales’ graceful sky hopping and breaching. We told the kids the story of Jonah and the whale, how one minute Jonah was tossed overboard into the sea, and the next minute swallowed by the whale, along for the ride. Annie rolled her eyes and said ‘Yeah. Riiiiight.’ I’d laughed, confessed to them that even when I was a little kid in Sunday school, I’d found the story hard to swallow.
But now I was willing to believe anything, to pray anything, to promise anything. ‘Please, please, please,please . . .’
I headed down the lower trail, seeing Joe taking each step, strong, alive. An easy climb up First Rock, the white water swirling far below, unthreatening.But you broke your own rule, Joe, didn’t you? The one you always told me and Annie and Zach: Never turn your back on the ocean.The Coast Guard boat moved steadily, not stopping. I glanced over my shoulder at the cliff. It looked like the clenched fist of God, the clinging reddish sea figs its scraped and bleeding knuckles.Please, please. Tell me where he is.
I climbed down the rock. The sun’s reflection off the water made me wince. Farther down, I saw it wasn’t the water, but metal wedged deep between two other rocks. I stepped over to investigate. Was it . . .? I scrambled down closer. There, waiting for me to notice it, lay Joe’s tripod. His camera was gone.
Wait. That’s it. That’s what he’s doing. He’s hunting for his camera. He’s sick about it. He’s in the dunes somewhere, lost. All those deer trails, confusing, every dune starts to look the same and it’s hard to tell what you’ve covered and the wind is whipping and you’re tired and you have to lie down. So cold. A doe watches tentatively but she senses your desperation and she approaches, lies down to warm you and she licks the salt off your nose.
You are fine! You’re just trying to find your way back. ‘Don’t be angry,’ you’ll say, wiping my tears with your thumbs, holding my face to yours, your fingers locked in my hair. ‘I’m so sorry,’ you’ll say. I’ll shake my head to tell you all is forgiven, thank you for fighting that wave, thank you for coming back to us. I’ll bury my nose in your neck, the salt will rub off on my cheek. You’ll smell like dried blood and fish and kelp and deer and wood smoke and life.
I wandered the dunes past dark, long after they called off the search for the day. The half-moon disclosed nothing. Frank said even less. Usually he never shut up.
Joe’s Green Hornet sat empty, the only vehicle in the parking lot other than Frank’s cruiser. I wanted to leave the truck for Joe, so I unlocked it, replaced the keys under the mat. I slipped off his jacket and left that for him too, along with the blanket.
I climbed in with Frank, quiet, as the dispatcher gave an address for a domestic dispute. I wanted to be with the kids but I didn’t want my face to let on, to drive a spike through their contented unknowing.
Frank offered to keep Joe’s parents and extended family away at least until morning. I nodded. I couldn’t hear his parents or brother or anyone else cry, couldn’t hear anything that would acknowledge defeat. We needed to focus on finding him.
Once home, I called the kids. ‘Are you having fun?’ I asked Annie.
‘Oh yes,’ she said. ‘Lizzie let us take off all the cushions on all the furniture and build a house.Andshe said we can even sleep in it tonight.’
‘Too cool. So you want to spend the night?’
‘I think we better. Molly will only sleep out here if I’m with her. You know Molly.’
‘Yeah, then you better.’
‘Night, Mommy. Can I talk to Daddy?’
I leaned over, pulled the lace on my boot, swallowed, forced my voice to sound light. ‘He’s not here yet, Banannie.’
‘Okay, well then, give him this.’ I knew she was hugging the phone. ‘And this one’s for you . . . Bye.’
Zach got on the line just long enough to say, ‘I muchly love you.’ I hung up, kept sitting on the couch. Callie lay down at my feet and let out a long sigh. The hall light picked up objects in the dark room. I’d set up Joe’s tripod in the corner to welcome him. Its three legs, its absent camera now seemed a terrible omen. I stared at the Capozzi family clock ticking on the end table. Yes. No. Yes. No. I opened the glass. The swinging pendulum: this way. That way. I stuck my finger in to stop it. Silence. My fingertip steered the hour hand backward, back to that morning, when this time I felt Joe stretching awake, kissed the soft hair on his chest, grabbed his warm shoulder, said, ‘Stay. Don’t go. Stay here with us.’
The next day a Swiss tourist found Joe’s body, bloated and wrapped in kelp, as if the sea had mummified him in some feeble attempt at apology. This time I opened the door for Frank and hugged him before he could speak. When he leaned back, he just shook his head. I opened my mouth to sayNobut the word sank, soundless.
I insisted on seeing him. Alone. Frank drove me to McCready’s and stood beside me while a grey-haired woman with orange-tinted skin explained that Joe wasn’t really ready to be viewed.
‘Ready?’ A strange, high-pitched laugh eked past the lump in my throat.
Frank tilted his head at me. ‘Ella . . .’
‘Well? Who the hell is everready?’
‘Excuse me, young –’ But then she shook her head, reached out and took both my hands in hers, said, ‘Come this way, dear.’ She ushered me down a carpeted hallway, past the magnolia wallpaper and mahogany wainscoting, from the noble facade to the laboratorial back rooms, the hallway now flecked green linoleum, chipped in places, unworthy of its calling.
How could this be? That he lay on a table in a cooled room that resembled an oversize stainless-steel kitchen? Someone had parted his hair on the wrong side and combed it, perhaps to hide the wound on his head, and they covered him up to his neck with a sheet – that was it. I took off my jacket and tucked it over his shoulders and chest, saying his name over and over.
They had closed his eyes, but I could tell the way his lid sunk in that his right eye was missing.
I used to tell him his eyes were satellite pictures of Earth – ocean blue with light green flecks. I joked that he had global vision, that I saw the world in his eyes. They could go from sorrow to teasing mischief in three seconds flat. They could pull me from chores to bed in even less time. Their sarcastic roll could piss me off, too, in no time at all.
His amazing photographer’s eye with its unique take on things – where had it gone? Would Joe’s vision live on soaring in a gull or scampering sideways in a nearsighted rock crab?
His hair felt stiff from the salt, not soft and curly through my fingers. I pushed it over to the right side. ‘There, honey,’ I said, wiping my nose on my sleeve. ‘There you go.’ His stubbled face, so cold. Joe had a baby face that he needed to shave only every three or four days, his Friday shadow. He said he couldn’t possibly be Italian; he must have been adopted. He’d rub his chin and say, ‘Gotta shave every damn week.’
He was handsome and sexy in his imperfection. I ran my finger down his slightly crooked nose, along the ridge of his slightly big ears. When we first met, I’d guessed correctly that he’d been an awkward teenager, a late bloomer. He had an appealing humility that couldn’t be faked by the men who’d managed to start breaking girls’ hearts back in seventh grade. He was always surprised that women found him attractive.
I slipped my hand under the sheet and held his arm, so cold, willed him to tense the thick ropes of muscles that ran their length, to laugh and say in his grandmother’s accent:You like, Bella?Instead, I could almost hear him say,Take care of Annie and Zach.Almost, but not quite.
I nodded anyway. ‘Don’t worry, honey. I don’t want you to worry, okay?’
I kissed his cold, cold face and laid my head on his collapsed chest, where his lungs had filled with water and left his heart an island. I lay there for a long time. The door opened, then didn’t close. Someone waiting. Making sure I didn’t fall apart. I would not fall apart. I had to help Annie and Zach through this. I whispered, ‘Good-bye, sweet man. Good-bye.’
I don’t even pretend to know what might happen to us after we die because the possibilities are endless. I have a degree in biology and feel most at home in nature, yet I’m confounded byhumannature, by those things that cannot be observed and named and catalogued, a woman of science who slogs off the trail into mystery and ponders at the feet of folklore. So I often wonder if Joe had watched us that morning while we were playing Ship, in those bridging moments between before and after. Had he watched us from the massive redwoods he so revered, then from a cloud? Then from a star? The photographer in him would have delighted in the different perspectives, this after-a-lifetime chance to see that which is too deep and wide to be contained by any frame. Or was that him, that male fuchsia-throated Anna’s Hummingbird,Calypte anna,that hung around for days? He flittered inches from my nose when I sat on our porch, so close, I could feel his wings beating air on my cheek.
‘Joe?’ He took off suddenly, making giant swoops like handwriting in the sky. I know the swoops are part of their impressive mating ritual. And yet now I can’t help wondering if it was Joe, panicked, attempting to write me a message, frantically trying to tell me his many secrets, to warn me of all that he’d left unsaid.
Frank drove me home from McCready’s, then left to pick up the kids. I sat at our kitchen table, staring at the pepper grinder. A wedding gift from someone . . . a college friend of mine, I think. Joe had made a big deal about that gift, thought it was the perfect pepper grinder, and I’d made fun of him, said, ‘Who knew? That there was a perfect pepper grinder out there and that we would be so lucky as to be its proud owners?’
Zach and Annie pranced onto the porch, in the front door. Their singsongMommymommymommy!broke through to me, through my new watery, subdued world, and with them, a slicing clarity. I forced myself up, upright, steady. I said their names. ‘Annie. Zach.’ Joe told me once that they were hisAtoZ,his alpha and omega. ‘Come here, guys.’ Frank stood behind them. I knew what I had to say. I would not try to sugarcoat this, like my relatives had with me when I was eight and my own father died. I would not say that Joe had fallen asleep, or had gone to live with Jesus, or was now an angel, dressed in white with feathered wings. It would have helped if I’d had a belief system, but my beliefs were in a misshapen pile, constantly rearranging themselves, as unfixed as laundry.
Annie said, ‘What happened to your knee?’
I touched it but couldn’t feel the bruise from the fall I’d taken in the hallway only a day ago.
‘You better get a Band-Aid.’ She gave me a long look.
I knelt down on my other knee. I pulled both of them to me and held on. ‘Daddy got hurt.’ They waited. Frozen. Silent. Waiting for me to reassure them, to say where he was, when they could kiss him. When they could make him a get-well-soon card and put it on the breakfast tray.Say the words. They have to hear them from you. Say them:‘And he . . . Daddy . . . he died.’
Their faces. My words were carving themselves into their sweet, flawless skin. Annie started to cry. Zach looked at her, then sounding somewhat amused, said, ‘No, he didn’t!’
I rubbed his small back. ‘Yes, honey. He was at the ocean. He drowned.’
‘No way, José. Daddy swims fast.’ He laughed.
I looked up to Frank, and he knelt down with us. ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘Daddy is a good swimmer . . . Daddy was. But listen to me, Zach, okay? A big wave surprised him and knocked him off the rock. Maybe he bumped his head; we don’t know.’
Annie wrung her hands and cried, ‘I want my daddy. I want mydaddy!’
I whispered into her hair, ‘I know, Banannie, I know you do.’
Zach turned to Frank. ‘It’s not true. He’ll swim back, won’t he, Uncle Frank?’
Frank ran his hand over his crew cut, covered his eyes for an instant, sat back on his heels, and took Zach onto his lap. He held him. He said, ‘No, buddy. He’s not coming back.’ Zach whimpered against Frank’s chest, then flung himself backward while Frank maintained his hold. Zach let out a howl that rang with the rawness of unfathomable loss.
I don’t remember what happened next, or I should say, I don’t remember the sequence of things. It seems that at once our long gravel driveway filled with cars, the house and yard with people, the fridge with chicken cacciatore, eggplant Parmesan, lasagna. Joe’s family took up most of the house. My extended family was just my mom, and she was still on a plane from Seattle. In a strange, sad way, the day reminded me of our wedding two years before, the last time all these people had caravanned up our drive, gathered together, and brought food and drink.
Joe’s family was loud – as they had been in the celebration of our marriage, and now in mourning, even in the early hours of disbelief. His great-aunty, already draped in black, was the only family member who still spoke Italian. She beat her shrivelled bosom and cried out,‘Caro Dio, non Giuseppe.’
And then periods of stunned silence washed into the room while each person sat, anchoring his or her eyes on a different object – a lamp, a coaster, a shoe – as if it held an answer to the question, Why Joe?
His uncle Rick poured stiff drinks. His father, Joe Sr, drank many of those drinks and began cursing God. His mother, Marcella, held Annie and Zach in her large lap and said to her husband, ‘Watch your language, Joseph. Your grandchildren are in the room and Father Mike will be walking in that door any goddamned second.’
I sat in Joe’s favouurite chair, the old leather one handed down from Grandpa Sergio. Annie and Zach climbed up on me, curling themselves under my arms, the gravity of their small bodies like perfect paperweights, keeping me securely in place. Joe’s brother, David, kept calling from his cell phone in tears, as he and Gil, his partner, inched along in traffic on the 101.
Later, while the kids napped, David found me in the bathroom. He said through the door, ‘Sweetie, are you peeing or crying or both?’ Neither. I had stolen away for a few minutes and was staring at myself in the mirror, wondering how everything on my face was still as it always had been. My eyes sat in their assigned places above my nose, my mouth below it. I unlocked the door. He came in, shut the door. His arms hung at his sides, palms towards me. His face was ravaged and unshaven, but he was, as always, utterly beautiful; his Roman features so perfectly chiselled and his body so carved that his friends referred to him as The David. We leaned into each other. He whispered, ‘What are we going to do without him?’ I shook my head and let my nose run onto his shoulder.
That night, in bed with each arm around a sleeping child, my tears slipping back into my ears, I wondered how we’d get through this. But I reminded myself that I’d survived another grief that had threatened to undo me.
I had come to think of my seven-year marriage to Henry as The Trying Years. Trying to push a boulder up a hill. Trying to push Henry’s lackadaisical sperm up to my uterus. Trying to coax my stubborn eggs through my maze of fallopian tubes. The urgent phone calls to Henry to meet me at home for lunch. The awkwardness of sex on demand. And afterwards, lying on my back with my feet in the air, I’d will egg and sperm toMeet! Mingle! Hook up!(I was convinced by then that my eggs had shells, that I had tough eggs to crack.) I wanted children so badly that the want spread itself over me and took me hostage; it tied me up in it so that my days became as dark and knotted as I imagined my uterus to be: a scary, uninviting hovel.
Then I finally got pregnant.
And then I lost the baby.
I lay on the couch with old towels underneath me and listened to Henry make the phone calls in the kitchen, feeling as inadequate as the terminology implied. Ilostthe baby – like keys, or a mother-of-pearl earring. Orspontaneous abortion,which sounded like all of a sudden we didn’t want the baby, like we had made a quick, casual choice. And then there wasmiscarriage.The morphing of a mistake and a baby carriage.
More trying. Trying to get pregnant, trying to stay pregnant. Trying shots, gels, pills, hope, elation, bed rest, more bed rest. In the end, despair.
Again. And again and again and again. Five in all.
And then one Easter morning – while the neighbourhood kids ran up and down the dwarfed aprons of lawns, their voices pealing with sugared-up joy, wearing new pastel clothes and chocolate smears on their faces, filling their baskets with a plethora of eggs – Henry and I sat at our long, empty dining room table and decided to quit. We quit trying to have a baby and we quit trying to have a marriage. Henry was the one who was courageous enough to put it into words: There was no us left apart from our obsession, and perhaps that’s why we’d kept at it with such tenacity.
At that time, it seemed I would always be sad. Little did I know that the universe was about to shift just six months later, when I drove through Sonoma County and took the winding road someone had aptly named the Bohemian Highway. ‘Good-bye, Bio-Tech Boulevard!’ I shouted to the redwoods, which crowded up to the road like well-wishers greeting my arrival. At the bridge, I waited as a couple of young guys with dreadlocks, wearing guitars on their backs, crossed over to head down to the river’s beach, and they waved like they’d been expecting me. I turned into Elbow and stopped at Capozzi’s Market. Good-bye, Sadness in San Diego.
Joe and I were the same height; we saw things eye to eye. We slipped into each other’s lives as easily as Annie’s hand slipped into mine that evening in front of the store. We didn’t sleep together on our first date. We didn’t wait that long. I followed him home from the parking lot, helped him change diapers and feed baby Zach and tell Annie a story and kiss them good night, as if we’d been doing the same thing every night for years. Though neither of us was pitiful enough to whisper the cliché that we usually didn’t do that sort of thing, we both admitted later that we usually didn’t. But the deepest wounds have a tendency to seep recklessness. He helped me carry in my suit-case, found a vase for a bucket of cornflowers – myCentaurea cyanusthat I’d set on the passenger-side floor, brought along for good luck. We talked until midnight, and I learned that the wife whose paisley robe still hung from the hook on the bathroom door had left him for good four months before, that her name was Paige, that she had called only once to check on Annie and Zach. She never called in the three years that followed. Not once. We made love in Paige and Joe’s bed. Yes, it was needy sex.Amazingneedy sex.
But now I lay in bed thinking,All I want to do is go back.‘We want you back,’ I whispered. I slipped my arms out from under Annie’s and Zach’s heavy heads and tiptoed into the bathroom. There was Joe’s aftershave, Cedarwood Sage. I opened it and inhaled it, dabbed it on my wrists, behind my ears, along the lump in my throat. His toothbrush. His razor. I ran my finger along the blade and watched the fine line of blood appear, mixing with tiny remnants of his whiskers.
I turned on the basin taps so the kids wouldn’t hear me. ‘Joe? You gotta come back. Listen to me. I can’t fuckingdothis.’ The sleeper wave had come out of nowhere, and now I felt that wave in the bathroom, the inability to breathe, fighting the thunderous slam that ripped away Joe . . . Annie and Zach’s daddy.They’d already been abandoned by their birth mother. How much could they take? I had to pull it together for them. But at the same time I knew that their very existence would help hem me in, keep all my parts together.
I dried my face and took a few deep breaths and opened the door. Callie pressed her cold black nose into my hand, turned and thumped me with her tail, licked my face when I bent to pet her back. I wanted to be there for the kids when they woke, so I climbed back into bed and waited for the sun to rise, for their eyes to open.
Annie stood on a stool, cracking eggs. Joe’s mom was going at my fridge with a spray bottle, the garbage can full of old food. I went over and hugged Annie from the back. The yolks floated in the bowl, four bright, perfect suns. She broke them with a stab of the whisk and stirred them with concentrated vigour.
She turned to me and said, ‘Mommy? You’re not going to die, are you?’
There it was. I touched my forehead to hers. ‘Honey, someday I will. Everyone does. But first, I’m planning on being around for a long, long time.’
She nodded, kept nodding while our foreheads bobbed up and down. Then she turned back to her eggs and said, ‘Are you, you know, planning onleavinganytime soon?’
I knew exactly what she was thinking.Whomshe was thinking about. I turned her back around. ‘Oh, Banannie. No. I will never leave you. I promise. Okay?’
‘You promise? You pinkie promise?’ She held out her pinkie and I looped mine in hers.
‘I more than pinkie promise. I promise you with my pinkie and my whole big entire self.’
She wiped her eyes and nodded again. She went back to whisking.
People kept arriving and fixing things: the unhinged door on the chicken coop, the fence post that went down in a storm months before; someone was changing the oil in the truck. Who had driven it home from Bodega Bay? Who had put Joe’s jacket back on the hook, and the blanket back on our bed, and when? The drill started going again. The house smelled like an Italian restaurant. How could anyone eat? David, the writer in the family, who was also one helluva cook, was working on the eulogy out on the garden bench he’d given us for our wedding, while some of his culinary masterpieces graced the table. Everyone seemed to be doing something constructive except me. I kept telling myself that I had to be strong for the kids, but I didn’t feel strong.
My mom, who’d arrived from Seattle, hadn’t let Zach out of her sight and was digging in the dirt with him and his convoy of Tonka trucks and action figures. Joe’s mom and Annie kept busy cleaning, stopping to wipe each other’s tears, then going back to wiping any surface they could find. I found myself wandering back and forth between Annie and Zach, drawing them in for a hug, a sigh, until they would slip down off my lap and back into their activities.
While she cleaned, Marcella sang. She always sang; she was proud of her voice, and rightly so. But she never sang Sinatra or songs from her generation; she sang songs from her kids’ generation. She loved Madonna, Prince, Michael Jackson, Cyndi Lauper – you name a song from the eighties and she could sing it. Joe and David had told me that when they were teenagers, blaring stereos from their bedrooms, Marcella would shout up from the kitchen, ‘Kids! Turn that crapup!’
While she scoured the grimy tile grout in my kitchen with a toothbrush, she started singing in an aching soprano:‘Like a virgin . . . for the very first time.’I let out a strange, sharp laugh and she looked at me, shocked. ‘What, sweetie? You okay?’ She hadn’t intended to make a crack at my housekeeping, was so preoccupied with sadness that she didn’t even realize what she was singing. But I knew Joe would have got a kick out of it, that on another day, in another layer of time, we both would have pointed out the lyrics, laughed, and teased her. She would have responded by swaying her big bottom back and forth, adding, ‘Oh yeah? Take this:The kid is not my son . . .’But instead she searched me for further signs of grief-stricken insanity to accompany my shriek of laughter. I shook my head and waved to say,Never mind.She took my face in her thick hands. ‘Thank God my grandchildren have you for their mother. I thank God every day for you, Ella Beene.’ I reached my arms around the massive trunk of her.
‘Why don’t you sit down?’ I said, then started to take the spray bottle from her hand. ‘Rest. Let me pour you a cup of coffee.’
She pulled it back. ‘No. This is what I do. This is all I can do. Resting, it makes it worse for me.’
I nodded, hugged her again. ‘Of course.’ Marcella always believed in the clarity of Windex.
The next morning, I slid my black dress from its dry-cleaning bag and lifted my arms and felt the cool lining slip over my head. I considered slipping into the plastic instead, letting it tighten against my nostrils and mouth, and letting them lay me in the same dark hole with Joe. It was the thought of the kids that helped me push my feet into the black slings my best friend, Lucy, bought me –’You cannot wear Birkenstocks to a funeral, my dear, even in Northern California’ – and find both of the silver and aquamarine drop earrings Joe gave me our first Christmas together.
At the church, thirty-six people spoke. We cried, but we laughed too. Most of the stories went back to the time before I knew Joe. It seemed odd that almost everyone in the church had known him much longer than I had. I was the newcomer among them, but I found a certain comfort in telling myself that they didn’t know Joe the way I did.
Afterwards, I remembered having conversations I couldn’t quite hear and receiving hugs I couldn’t quite feel – as if I’d wrapped myself in plastic after all. The only thing I could feel was Annie’s and Zach’s hands slipping into mine, the solidity of their palms, the pressings of their small fingers, as we walked out of the church, as we stood at the grave site on the hill, as we walked down towards the car. And then Annie’s hand pulled out of mine. She walked up to a striking blonde woman I didn’t know, standing at the edge of the cemetery.Perhaps one of Joe’s old classmates,I thought. The woman bent down and Annie reached out, lightly touched her shoulder.
‘Annie?’ I called. I smiled at the woman. ‘She doesn’t have a shy bone in her body.’
The woman took Annie’s other hand in both of hers, whispered in her ear, and then spoke to me over her shoulder. ‘Believe me, I know that. But Annie knows who I am, don’t you, sweet pea?’
Annie nodded without pulling her hand away or looking up. She said,‘Mama?’
Annie had called herMama.She and Zach called meMomandMommy.But notMama.NeverMama.I’d never questioned it, or really even thought of it, but the distinction rang out in that cemetery:Mamais the first-word-ever-uttered variety ofmother.The murmur of a satisfied baby at the breast.
I recognized Paige then. I’d once found a picture of her, gloriously pregnant, that had been stuck in a book on photography entitledCapturing the Light– it was the one photo Joe had forgotten, or maybe had intended to keep, when he purged the house of her. I was astounded at her beauty and said so. He’d shrugged and said, ‘It’s a good picture.’
Now I could see that Joe liked his wives tall. She was taller than I, maybe five-eleven, and I wasn’t used to being shorter than other women. I had what some people referred to as great hair, those who happened to like wild, red and unmanageable. But Paige had universally great hair. Long, blonde, straight, silky, shampoo-commercial hair. Computer-enhanced hair. Women comfort themselves when they look at magazines, saying, ‘That photo’s been all touched up. No one really has hair like that, or skin like that, or a body like that.’ Paige hadall that,along with Jackie O sunglasses, the single accessory our culture associates with style, mystery and a strong, grieving widow and mother . . . or in her case, mama.
Annie called herMama.
These thoughts bungee jumped through my mind in the eight seconds it took her to rise gracefully on her heels, holding Annie in her arms, and walk towards me, extending her hand. ‘Hi. I’m Paige Capozzi. Zach and Annie’s mother.’
Mother?Definemother.And her name was still Capozzi.Capozzi?Joe Capozzi. Annie Capozzi. Zach Capozzi. Paige Capozzi. And Ella Beene.One of these things is not like the others; one of these things doesn’t belong.
Zach hid behind me, still holding on to my hand.
‘Hey, Zach. You’ve grown so big.’
I heard Marcella mutter next to me, ‘Yeah. Children grow quite a bit in three years, lady.’
Joe Sr said, ‘What’s she – Oh, for Christ’s sake.’ He reached his arm over Marcella’s shoulders as they turned and walked away.
I thought about telling Paige my name.Hi,I’mElla, Zach and Annie’s mother.Like we were contestants onWhat’s My Line?I said nothing. People gathered. Joe’s relatives, excluding his parents, all took their turns saying reserved, polite hellos to her, but you’d think it was a family of Brits, not Italians. David stood next to me and said, ‘Why, nice to finally see you, Paige. You’re looking quite radiant . . . ,’ and then under his breath, he whispered to me, ‘for afuneral.’
Aunt Kat, who always acted like an entire welcoming committee bound up in one tiny woman, did manage to say, ‘Come to the house. We’re all going to the house.’ Everyone turned to me.
David said, ‘How hospitable of you, Aunt Kat, to invite Paige to Ella’s home for her.’
I felt my mouth turn up in a smile; I heard myself say to Paige, ‘Yes, of course, please do.’ By then she’d set down Annie, who stood between us looking back and forth, like a net judge in a tennis match. My heels sank into the grass.
Paige said, ‘That would be lovely. My flight doesn’t leave until tomorrow. Thank you.’
I didn’t want to know anything about Paige – not where her flight was returning her to, not what she did for a living, not if she had more children, and if so, not if she would hang around this time to help raise them. But okay. She was leaving. She would stop by the house for an hour at most to pay her respects to a man she had clearly not respected while he wasalive,and then she would drive off, and by tomorrow she would fly far, far away, back to the Land of Mothers Who Left.
Gil and David drove the kids and me home. David turned around to say something, then looked at Annie and Zach leaning into my sides and evidently decided to shut up and face front. I stared at the oval scar on the back of Gil’s domed head, wondering how long it had been hiding under his hair before he’d shaved it all off. Was the scar from a childhood wound, from a bike accident in his teens, or had it happened more recently? A quarrel with a crazy lover, before he’d found David?
Annie sighed and said, ‘She’s pretty!’
Annie was three when Paige left. How much could she possibly remember? I asked her, ‘Do you remember her, Banannie?’
Annie nodded. ‘She still smells good too.’
She remembered her scent. Of course. I’d inhaled every one of Joe’s recently worn T-shirts, grateful now for my tendency to let laundry pile up. I sunk my face into his robe every time I walked by where it hung in the bathroom, dabbed his aftershave on my wrists. Of course Annie remembered.
At the house I kept my distance from Paige. It was easy to tell where she went, because the floor seemed to tilt in her direction, as if we were on a raft and I was made of feathers and she was made of gold. Annie came up and leaned against me, and I smoothed back her hair, ran my fingers through her ponytail. Then she was off, taking Paige by the hand, leading her into the kids’ room. My fiercest ally, Lucy, whispered in my ear, ‘That woman’s got nerve,’ but no one else broached the subject. At funerals, it seems most people leave old grudges at home.
And yet. I certainly didn’t want to chat it up with Joe’s ex-wife on the day of his funeral, or any other day. What did she want? Why was she here? Annie kept dividing her time between the two of us, as if she felt some sort of obligation when she should have been thinking of no one other than her six-year-old self and her daddy. Zach wore his path between Marcella, my mom, and me.
Once I walked around a corner to find Paige and Frank’s wife, Lizzie, embracing, crying. My face went hot, and I whirled back around to the crowd in the kitchen. Even though Frank had been Joe’s best friend since eighth grade, I had been in Frank and Lizzie’s house only a handful of times. She and Paige had been close friends. And so, she’d explained to me the first time I met her, she and I would not be. When I’d reached out to shake her hand, she held mine in both of hers and said, ‘You seem like a nice person. But Paige is my best bud. I hope you understand.’ And then she’d turned and walked away, joining in another conversation. Since then, we’d greeted each other, made a few stabs at small talk about the kids, but never once had a real conversation. Joe and I had never so much as had dinner with Frank and Lizzie, always just Frank. Everyone else in Elbow had welcomed me, but Lizzie’s rejection reared at times, chaffing, a sharp pebble in a perfectly fitting shoe.
I fixed Annie and Zach paper plates of food, but it wasn’t long before they started showing signs of utter fatigue; Zach lay across my lap, sucking his thumb, holding his Bubby, his name for his beloved turquoise bunny that had long lost all its stuffing, and Annie was amped up, running in circles, which she frequently did right before she passed out. ‘Come on, you two. Tell everyone good night and I’ll tuck you in.’
‘No!’ Annie whined. ‘I’m not tired.’
‘Honey, you’re exhausted.’
‘Excuse me? Are you me or amIme?’ She had her hand on her jutted hip, and the other finger pointed to her chest. Paige peeked around the corner.
I took a deep breath. Annie could sometimes act like a six-year-old adolescent. The truth was, we were all exhausted. ‘You are you. And I am me. And me is Mommy. As in Mom.’ And I pointed to my own chest. ‘Me.’ I stood up. ‘And what Mom-mesays,youdo.’
She laughed. I sighed relief. ‘Good one!’ she said, delighted. ‘Yougotmeon that one.’ I looked over to see Paige turning away. The kids made their good-night rounds, Paige hugging each of them and crouching down, talking to them. God, it was weird to see her there, in our house, chatting with our people, holding our children.
In the old rocker in their room, the kids climbed onto my lap and I read to them and stayed until they fell asleep, which was only about five minutes. I noticed a crate of old books that I’d stuck in the back of the closet, now sitting by the rocker. Had the kids dragged that out, looking for something? Most of them were books they’d outgrown or just got bored with, but maybe they seemed new to them again. Or maybe Annie had shown them to Paige.
I slipped out, quietly closing the door. David handed me a shot of Jack Daniel’s and whispered, ‘She left. She’s outta here.’
I wasn’t much of a Jack Daniel’s drinker, but I raised the shot and gulped it, then grabbed Joe’s down jacket and went outside. The fog had unfurled, chilling the air and sending home everyone but the closest friends and family, who had crowded inside, looking at photo albums and getting drunk. Through the picture window I watched them, a portrait of a family enduring; the warm lamplight surrounded them like soft, old worn-in love.
I pulled on Joe’s jacket and headed for the garden. I wanted the company of tomatoes, of scallions, of kale. I craved lying down between their rows, burying my face in their fragrant, damp dirt. Maybe later I’d go down to the redwood circle and lie there, in the middle of that dark arboreal cathedral, Our Lady ofSequoia sempervirens.Joe had told me that the Pomo Indians believed that on a day in October, the forests could talk, that they would give answers to the people’s wishes. But October was still a long way off.
Lucy came running up behind me. ‘No wandering off alone.’
‘Pray tell, why not?’
‘You need a friend. And a good bottle of wine. Even better, a friend with her own vineyard.’ She held up a bottle of wine without a label; the designer was still working on it.
‘Okay, but let me bum a cigarette.’
She shook her head. ‘Don’t have any.’
‘Liar. You’re PMSing.’ I’d kicked a vicious habit fifteen years before in Advanced Biology at Boston U when they showed us a smoker’s lung. I’d transformed into a typical ex-smoker: a zealot who self-righteously preached about seeing the light of not lighting up. But that night a cigarette sounded like salvation. And Lucy was one of those rare breeds who could smoke a few cigarettes a few times a month when she was stressed, usually right before her period. I knew her cycle because it was the same as mine. Moon sisters. We’d met only when I’d moved to Elbow, but we immediately fell into an easy alignment that went way beyond our cycles. She had long black hair, but she said she should have been the redhead because her name was Lucy. Sometimes she called me Ella Mertz. She and David had become my closest friends. Besides Joe.
We ended up sitting on the bench by the garden, smoking without talking. The cigarette hurt my throat, made me light-headed. She handed me the bottle.
‘What, no glasses? Is this the latest craze in Sonoma wine tasting?’
‘Yeah, but usually we wrap it in a brown paper bag too.’
‘Distinguished.’I tipped the bottle back and took a swig of pinot noir.
A voice came from behind us: ‘I just wanted to say good-bye.’ I jerked around to see Paige, who reached out her hand to me. I couldn’t extend my own because I was holding the bottle of wine in one hand and a Marlboro Light in the other. Class act if there ever was one.
‘Oh, sorry, here . . .’ I stamped out the cigarette and shoved the bottle back at Lucy. ‘I thought you left.’
‘I realized I hadn’t said a word to you since we got here, so I wanted to thank you for letting me come over. I know this must be a difficult time for you.’
I studied her, saw the origins of Annie’s eyes, Annie’s wilful chin, Zach’s noble forehead. ‘Thanks.’
‘You’ve done a good job with the children,’ she said, her voice cracking the slightest bit, a hairline fracture in the marble goddess. ‘I should be going.’
I stood. She raised her chin. I did not want a hug from her and figured she probably did not want a hug from me. But we had been hugging people all day – it was what you did at times like this – and so we gave each other stiff pats on the back, a stiff not-quite hug. She did smell good, much better than I did. Better than cigarette smoke and booze.
When I finally made it to bed, both kids had already left theirs and climbed into ours – mine – and were asleep. I was glad for their company. About two in the morning, Annie sprang up in bed and cried out, ‘Hi, Daddy!’ I jolted awake, expecting to see him standing over us, telling us it was time to get dressed and head out for a picnic.
Annie smiled in the foggy moonlight, her eyes still closed. I wanted to crawl inside her dream and stay there with her. Callie sighed and laid her head back down over my feet. Zach sucked noisily on his thumb while I tried to let the rhythm lull me back to sleep. Exhaustion had settled into my muscles, bones, and every organ – except my brain, which zigzagged incessantly through moments of my life with Joe. Now I tried to guide it to the few conversations we’d had about Paige, digging up the same information I’d once tossed into the No Need to Dwell pile. Back then, I didn’t want to live in the past, not his or mine. I didn’t ask the questions because I didn’t want to know the answers.
But I had wanted to make sure their ending was final, that there was no chance they could get back together. The last thing I wanted to be was a home wrecker.
At the house that first night I met Joe, the only evidence of Paige that I’d noticed was her bathrobe, and when I returned the next evening after a day of job hunting, the bathrobe was gone. Joe must have emptied the house of everything Paige, because I never found another indication that she existed, except for the one photograph of her pregnant.
‘Four months ago,’ Joe had said in his one offer of explanation soon after we met, ‘while the kids and I were at my mom’s for Sunday brunch, she packed up all her things.’ We had been lying in bed, a candle flame still creating moving shadows on the wall, long after our own shadows had stilled. ‘She took all her clothes except her bathrobe, which she’d practically been living in.’
He said Paige had been depressed. She got to the point that she’d forget to change clothes and take a shower. She went to live with her aunt in a trailer park outside of Las Vegas, so at least he knew someone was taking care of her. It was hard for me to imagine someone choosing a trailer park in the desert, leaving behind all the natural beauty of Elbow, the cosy home, let alone Joe and Annie and Zach. But she wouldn’t see him, wouldn’t talk to him. She’d left him a Dear Joe letter.
‘She said she was sorry but that she wasn’t meant to be a mother. That the kids would be better off without her. She said she loved them but she wasn’t good for them. She told me she knew I could do this, that I was a natural father in all the ways she wasn’t a natural mother, that my family would help me . . . blah, blah, fucking blah.’
‘It’s ironic,’ I told him. I thought about keeping my own failures, well, myown,but I’d already blown every dating rule, so there was no point in stopping then. ‘I’ve wanted to have children, but I haven’t been able to. I was depressed and lethargic, too . . . My ex-husband could tell you similar stories about me wearing the same clothes for three days and forgetting to bathe.’
I told him about the five babies that didn’t make it. We held each other tighter, as if our embrace could serve as a perfectly fitted cast that could help heal all the broken parts of us.
My mom had slept on the couch, had a fire going in the woodstove, and was already making coffee and oatmeal, toast and eggs, when I got up. My mother stood in my kitchen in her robe and moccasins, looking like an older version of me – tall, slim, a bit of a hippie – except her braid was salt-and-pepper. I got my red hair from my dad. She held out her arms to me, her silver bracelets clinking, and I entered her hug. Because her husband – my dad – had died when I was eight, she’d been through this, she knew things, but some of them couldn’t be spoken. I loved my mother, but we’d never had the kind of mother–daughter relationship my friends shared with their moms. I’d never screamed that I hated her; we didn’t go through that necessary separation of selves where I declared my individuality, because, truth be told, the shadow cast by my father’s death always loomed between us, keeping us polite and slightly distant. Still, I loved her. I admired her. And I wished, in a way, that I’d felt passionate and comfortable enough to dump my rage and teenage angst on her. Instead, I’d pecked her on the cheek and closed the door to my room and finished my biology homework.
I poured myself coffee and refilled my mom’s cup. Outside, the fog hadn’t budged since the previous night; the cold grey shroud wrapped itself through the trees, as if trying to comfort them from the very cold it was inflicting upon them. The house, though, literally sparkled. I’d inherited my lack of housekeeping skills from my mother, so she hadn’t had much to do with the cleaning. The night before, Joe’s mother had crouched on her arthritic knees, wiping the hardwood as she crawled out of the front door. She’d washed all the dishes, emptied the compost bucket, and thrown the bags of recyclables into the recycling bin. The only remnants of the funeral were the stuffed refrigerator, the stack of sympathy cards from old friends and new, and the proliferation of calla lilies, irises, lisianthus, and orchids that lined the counters and the old trunk we used as a coffee table.
While my mom and I drank coffee by the fire, I asked her in the most casual voice I could muster, ‘So? What did you think of Paige?’
She shrugged, somewhat carefully. ‘A bit . . . I don’t know . . .Barbiecomes to mind, I guess. Or maybe it’s insecurity. She’s awfully stiff. And her ankles are a bit on the thick side, don’t you think? Anyway, she’s nothing likeyou.’ As only a mother could say.
‘Insecure? She’s so . . . composed.’
My mom made a dismissive wave of her hand, then said, ‘It had to be difficult to show up like that . . . But people need to make themselves feel okay. So I can understand why she came. Lord knows all kinds of people came to your father’s funeral.’
She rarely mentioned my dad. ‘Really? Like who?’
‘Oh, you know. I don’t remember who, exactly. It was a long time ago, Jelly.’
Door closed. I knew better than to press further. ‘But what does Paige want? I’m worried about the kids.’
‘You’ve been their mother for three years. Everyone knows that. Including Paige. And with Joe gone, you’re the one constant parent in their lives.’
‘She could come back.’
She sipped her coffee, set down her cup, which read photographers do it in the darkroom. A present Annie had innocently insisted on getting for Joe. ‘I doubt Paige is going to step up now. After three years of doing nothing. And if she did? Like I said, anyone can see you’re their real mom.’ She reached over and grabbed my hand and gave it a long squeeze. She said, ‘We’ve got to talk business. I know it’s the last thing you feel like doing . . .’
‘I don’t feel like doing anything.’
‘I know. But I can help you with the paperwork. And I’ve only got a few more days.’ She said we needed to check into the life insurance policy, call Social Security, request the death certificate. She sat up straighter and smoothed her robe over her lap. ‘Jelly, I can make the preliminary calls, but they’re all going to want to talk to you . . . okay?’
No. It was not okay. But I nodded anyway.
She patted my knee and stood. ‘It will get your mind off that Paige woman.’
Marcella came by to watch the kids while my mom and I drove into Santa Rosa to take care of the paperwork side of death. I stared out of the car window at people going about their business – crossing the street, emerging from buildings, from parked cars, putting change in parking meters,laughing– as my mom drove us back towards Elbow, towards the store. I hadn’t told her that Joe had an old life insurance policy that we were in the middle of updating. As in thebeginningof the middle. As in he’d talked to Frank’s dad’s insurance guy, but I hadn’t heard anything else. I thought the old policy was around $50,000, which would buy me a little time to figure out what to do, but not a lot, and this would worry my mom.
Back in San Diego, I’d worked in a lab in what we used to call the ‘cutting foreskin of biotechnology’ , but I hadn’t kept up on it, hadn’t wanted to, really, since I’d discovered almost my first day on the job that I hated working in a lab. When I was a kid I readHarriet the Spyand felt certain that I wanted to be a spy, or at the least, an investigator. I walked around with my dad’s birding binoculars bouncing on my chest, a yellow spiral-bound notepad jammed in my back pocket. I spied on the mailman. I spied on the neighbours. I spied on our houseguests. I wrote down descriptions just like my dad did when we went bird-watching. But after my dad died, I lost my curiosity about people. They were too complex to capture in a few hastily scribbled notes, too unpredictable and perplexing in their behaviours. I turned my attention to the plants and animals he had started teaching me about just before he died, and later, I majored in biology. Somehow I’d taken a wrong turn and ended up staring at cells under a microscope in that biotech lab instead of tromping through field and lake and wood.
Now I had the guide job for Fish and Wildlife lined up, but it was part-time, not enough for the three of us to live on and keep the store running. The store was Grandpa Sergio’s, Joe Sr’s, and Joe’s legacy.
Sergio had started it as a place where the Italian immigrants could find supplies and keep their heritage alive, fulfil their nostalgic longings for their mother country. But during World War II, some of the Italian men, including Sergio, had been sent to internment camps. When Joe had told me, I’d stupidly said, ‘Sergio was Japanese?’
Joe laughed. ‘Ah, that would be no.’
‘I’ve never heard of any Italian internment. How can that be?’
But Joe explained that, yes, some Italians and Germans, too, had been sent away to camps, though in much smaller numbers than the Japanese Americans. And Italians living in coastal towns had to relocate. Many from Bodega came to Elbow. But there was a reason I’d never heard about Italian internment: No one ever talked about it. The Italian Americans didn’t talk about it, and the U.S. government didn’t talk about it.
‘But it happened,’ Joe said. ‘Grandpa never liked to discuss it. Same with Pop. But that’s why Sergio and Rosemary insisted we call them Grandpa and Grandma instead of Nonno and Nonna. There had been a big push during the war not to speak Italian. Another one of the fallouts was that Capozzi’s Market lost its “Everything Italia” motto and became an Americanized hybrid. The mozzarella made room for the Velveeta. I think the store – along with Grandpa Sergio – kind of lost its . . . passion.’ He shrugged. He took a long pause before he added, ‘Trying to be what it thought it was supposed to be. Playing it safe.’ I wondered, the way Joe’s voice trailed off, if he was talking about himself as much as he was Sergio. But I didn’t ask. Part of me didn’t want to know.
My mom turned into the parking lot where Joe and I had first met. The wooden screen door slammed behind us when we walked in; the floors creaked hello. Joe was everywhere. Every detail, no matter how mundane, now held significance. The store – hybrid as it was – had composition, like his photographs. Somehow, and I don’t quite know how he did it, the way he arranged everything – from the oranges and lemons, the onions and leeks, the Brussels sprouts and artichokes and cabbage in the produce section, to the aisles of canned and boxed goods and even the meat and fish behind the glass case – every item complemented another, so that when you opened that ancient screen door, felt the fan whirring up above and smelled the mixture of old wood and fresh vegetables and hot coffee, saw his scrawl on the chalkboard with the day’s specials, you felt as if you were walking into a photograph of a time when everything was whole and good.
But the store that had been Joe was already fading. His cousin Gina had tried, but her careful handwriting on the chalkboard reminded me of a classroom, not the deli. The produce looked tired. I smelled bleach, not soup. Down one of the aisles, I noticed something that couldn’t have just appeared in the past few days: a layer of dust on the soup cans and boxes of pasta.
I hugged Gina, who was as limp as the lettuce, then went upstairs to Joe’s office. I let my hands linger over his desk before I opened the right-side drawer, pushed back the other files, pulled out the one markedLife Insurance.There it was: $50,000. Marcella and Joe Sr had bought him the policy when he and Paige married, years before the kids were born. We had changed it, naming me as the beneficiary, but increasing the amount became a work in progress. I found the forms from Hank Halstrom Insurance that Joe had started to fill out, but that wave came out of nowhere, and the forms were still here, waiting to be finished, waiting to be sent, waiting for business to pick up, so we could afford the higher payment.
There, on the first page only, was the handwriting that should have been on the chalkboard, the boyish quality of it. I traced the letters with my fingertip. Not long before, he’d sat in the same place, hunched over the same forms, just in case . . . someday . . . Had he wondered about his death then? About how? Or when? Or how the three of us would have to find a way to get up the next day without him, and the next?
I pulled a tissue out of my pocket and blotted the tear that had fallen on the form. I was not going to start that again. I held the tissue against my eyes, as if I could push the tears back inside their ducts. In some ways it was harder to be in the store than at home. Had I even set foot in this office before without Joe? He was the last person to sit in this chair, to rest his rough elbows on this desk, to punch our phone number into this phone, to speak into the receiver, to say, ‘Hey, I’m heading home. Got the milk and peanut butter. Anything else?’
My mom was waiting. I took the insurance file and a thick stack of unopened envelopes that had been shoved in the to-do file.
I hadn’t got involved with the bills. Joe had his system in place when I moved in. Besides, I was a mess when it came to paperwork. My mother would tell me this was an opportunity for personal growth. Time toembracepaperwork. Time to stop blubbering and get home to Annie and Zach.
I walked down the stairs, waved, and thanked Gina. She nodded, her eyes still a bit puffy behind her wire-framed glasses. She’d recently returned to Elbow after leaving Our Sisters of Mercy. At age thirty-two, she’d realized she didn’t want to be a nun and was still reeling from that decision. Joe and I had privately called her his ex-sister cousin.
As I held the door open for my mom, I realized not one customer had come into the store while we’d been there, and it was noon. I knew it had been slow, but notthatslow.
‘Find it?’ my mom asked as she backed the Jeep out.
I nodded. Within a couple of minutes we were pulling up the gravel drive, Callie running to meet us. A Ford Fiesta sat parked in my spot. My mom and I looked at each other and both lifted our eyebrows. Neither of us felt up for company, but people were being kind.
The kids’ shoes were set out in a neat line by the front door.How efficient of them,I thought, picking up one of Annie’s pink high-tops. They weren’t even muddy. Probably something they’d learned when they stayed at Lizzie’s. I guessed she might be the type who would have a hand-painted sign that said, mahalo for taking off your shoes. I’d been there so few times and so long ago, I couldn’t remember what their shoe policy was; besides, who was I to argue with a little less tracked-in dirt? But there on the other side of the umbrella stand was a pair of Kenneth Cole leather pumps. I’d never seen Marcella wear any heels higher than an inch. I opened the screen door and said in the cheeriest voice I could muster, ‘Banannie, Zachosaurus, I’m ho-ome!’ No one ran to greet me. No one shouted,Hi, Mommy.
I walked in and set the files on the desk and looked through the window to see if I’d missed them playing in the yard. Annie’s giggle spilled from their room. I walked down the hallway and opened the door. There, in our rocker, were Annie and Zach, sitting on Paige’s lap. Zach was brushing a whisk of her silky hair against his cheek. Paige’s arms looped in a fence around both of them; her hands held out an open book, like a gate. The book was by Dr Seuss, one that had been in the crate from the closet. The cover screamed at me:Are You My Mother?
‘I missed my plane,’ she said, closing the book and holding it face down. ‘Marcella should be back in a minute. She went to check on Auntie Sophia.’
I nodded, kept nodding. My body shook so hard that one of my knees buckled. A crow shrilled,Caw-caw-caw,through the still damp air, staking its claim on a favourite branch or fence post.
Annie grinned at me, but Zach had already slid off Paige’s lap and grabbed my leg. I picked him up, inhaled his fresh, loamy scent, now mixed with the increasingly familiar scent of Paige’s perfume – jasmine, I was pretty sure. And citrus. But it had echoes of Macy’s, not a garden or an orange grove.
My mother, who’d walked in behind me, placed her hand firmly on my back. ‘Hello,’ she said to Paige. ‘Will you be needing a taxi to the airport, then?’
Paige shook her head. ‘I’ve got the rental car.’ She looked at her watch. ‘And it’s just about time to go.’
That, I thought, is an understatement.
I said, ‘It can take a couple hours if you run into traffic . . . Where are you flying to?’Siberia? Antarctica? TheMoon?
‘Las Vegas. I left my card on the coffee table . . .’
Why the hell would I want your card?
‘. . . so the kids can call anytime.’
Why would they want to call you? They don’t even know you. They know the plumber better than they know you and they don’t call him.
She hugged Annie for an excruciatingly long minute. My mom raised her eyebrows again. The crows cawed again. TheCorvus brachyrhynchos.Crows have a bad rap, but they’re highly intelligent, extremely adaptable birds, and I’m always defending them when people complain. Their calls all have many different meanings. I was pretty sure this one was sounding out a warning of some type. Paige finally let go of Annie, got up, and reached for Zach, whom I held a bit too tight. His smile was shy, but he went to her. ‘Bye, Zach.’ Her voice cracked again. Tears magnified her blue eyes, those eyes that looked so much like Annie’s. She kept them from spilling, intent, it seemed, on not making a scene. I gave her credit for that much.
‘Good-bye, Lady,’ Zach said.
She handed him back to me. Finally, finally, Paige stepped out the door, slipped into her high heels, and clicked down the porch stairs.
Her perfume stuck around. I followed Annie to the great room, which Joe had fondly dubbed the not-so-great room. She sat at the watery glass window and watched Paige drive away.
‘Banannie? Are you okay?’ I went to her and knelt beside her.
‘I . . . want . . . my . . . daddy,’ she said in a whisper.
‘I know, honey. I know.’ I held her, but she turned her head so her gaze stayed on the empty gravel river of driveway and the dust clouds Paige left behind. I didn’t know what to say about Paige. She’ll be back? I didn’t know what she was planning on doing . . . or being . . . for Annie and Zach.
Zach tore in the room. ‘Hey, mister!’ he said, pointing to my boots. ‘Shoes go outside. Come on, I’ll show ya.’
My mom raised her eyebrows once again. She could never have Botox; her chief mode of communication lay in her forehead. I said, ‘Hey, mister? I’m no mister, mister!’ He laughed. ‘And these boots were made for walking, not for sitting out on some old porch.’
He stood for a minute with his head tilted, looking up, pondering my statement. ‘Oh, for Christ’s sake,’ my little boy said, an expression he’d learned from his grandpa. Then he went outside and pulled on his Batman battery-powered tennies and stomped back into the house, flashing red lights with each step.
After we fed the kids reheated tuna casserole à la the Nardini family, according to the masking tape on the bottom of the glass pan, we set them up for their naps. TheAre You My Mother?book lay in the rocking chair. I dropped it back in the crate, shoved the crate back into the closet, and readLittle Bearinstead. Neither of them said anything about the Dr Seuss book, and they were both asleep before I got six pages intoLittle Bear.They were as worn out by everything as I was. I tiptoed to the closet and plucked the other book out of the crate, took it outside, and threw it in the trash can.
Back in the house, I picked up Paige’s business card.
The Home Stager
executive real estate and rental properties
‘When it’s time to stage, call Paige.’ 800-555-7531
‘A home stager,’ I said to my mom, who was doing the dishes.
‘Ahh. An interior decorator type, who comes in and tells you to get rid of all your clutter.’
‘A Grandma Beene.’
‘Exactly. Shirley hired one when she put her house on the market. She had Shirl rent a few pieces of furniture and get rid of that old peach recliner, thank God. She put fresh flowers around and an apple pie in the oven. Had her take down all the family photographs.’
‘Why? That sounds kind of cold.’
‘She said it was so a family coming in can visualize themselves there without being distracted by all your personal stuff. Guess you want to make them feel like they can make it their own simply by stepping in, not having to block out the evidence of your life. She also did a lot of feng shui placement to create positive energy.’
‘Did it work?’
‘Her house never looked so good. She sold it in two days. For above the asking price. You know real estate these days. It just keeps going up. Shirl had to stop herself from buying it back.’
‘I always pictured Paige as this crazy woman living in a trailer park, zoning out on soap operas.’ I looked around the house, saw it through Paige’s eyes. I saw her clearing the shelves, filling trash bags and boxes markedGoodwill.The few shoes she didn’t pitch, she would place out on the porch, in obedient lines. ‘What the hell does she want, Mom?’
My mom shook her head. ‘I don’t know. But most likely, nothing. Except, perhaps, to find a way to forgive herself.’
My mom said she wanted to lie down too. I told her to stretch out on my bed. I hadn’t slept much but knew I was too ramped up to close my eyes. I had to at least look at those files.
A thick stack of bills, all stampedPast Due,filled the payables folder. What? Joe was not a past-due kind of guy. He was a fanatic about paying his bills on time. If there had been a religious cult called Pay for Your Sins on Time, he would have been appointed their pope, or at least a most honourable guru.
But there it was, right in front of me. Evidence of slack. I leafed through the invoices. He hadn’t paid Ben Aston for three months? Ben Aston had been his main produce supplier for years. He was a friend. Ben had scrawled across the bottom of the most recent bill,Hey, Joey, Can we take care of this?The amount due was highlighted: $2,563.47. The bakery bill saidLast Notice before Termination of Service.In two weeks, the electricity would be shut off if a payment of $1,269 wasn’t made. We owed Teaberry’s Ranch, Donaldson’s Dairy, the beer and wine supplier, and the telephone company. I started sweating. I needed to get outside.
I walked down to the garden and started pulling weeds, but not the way I usually did. Not carefully digging up the root. No. I clawed at them, wildly tearing them, and threw them in a pile.What in the hell? You die on me? You up anddieon me? On Annie? On Zach? And you fail to tell me what a god-awful mess you’ve gotten yourself into?‘You’ve gottenusinto?’ I stomped on the pile, releasing droves of dandelion and sour-grass seeds to spread in the wind and multiply all over our land. Let them take over. Why should I care? ‘Oh! And Paige shows up? Really? Now? After three years of, uh, let’s see . . . that would benothing? “Hi, I’m Annie and Zach’smother”. What in the hell isthatabout?’
A car door slammed. Over my hissy fit I hadn’t heard Marcella’s Acura pull into the drive. I took deep breaths to calm myself down while Callie cocked her head at me, held her ears back, and asked with her eyes if I’d gone raving mad. I wondered if Marcella had seen my tirade, as I watched her take careful steps down the path. Everything about Marcella was big: her meals, her zest for cleanliness and order, her body, her voice, her faith, her heart, her love for her family, and – everyone knew it – especially her love for her sons. So now it was sadness that was the biggest part of her, and it showed in her slower walk and, as she got closer, in her face. She’d tried putting on lipstick, but it looked as futile as a painted-on smile – too bright and artificial against the pale sorrow of her skin.
‘Ella, honey . . . I’m sorry about Paige. I tried to call you. Did you get my message?’
I shook my head. Elbow was the Bermuda Triangle of cell phone reception.
She took a deep breath. ‘Auntie Sophia had one of her episodes. I didn’t know what to do. Paige offered and I –’
‘It’s okay.’ I shrugged. ‘It’s okay.’
‘She – Paige – seems so different now.’
‘So . . . capable. She was whiny. Spoiled. She drove me crazy. She was no mother at all – all she did was whine and complain and mope around. Certainly no wife to Joseph.’
His name came out like a squeak. She said, ‘Oh no. I wasn’t going to do this. I’m sorry, honey. You have your own tears.’
I put my arm around her. ‘You,’ I said, ‘of all people, are entitled to cry. We’re going to get through this. Come on. Let’s eat.’
She patted my hand. ‘You sound so Italian when you say that.’
Marcella had brought minestrone and I made a salad with the lettuce from our garden – one thing I’d picked and managed not to trample into the ground. Joe’s dad came over too, carrying a warm loaf of cheese bread from the bakery in Freestone. When the subject of the store came up, I got busy putting ice in Zach’s soup.
‘One thing about our son,’ Joe said. ‘We were proud of the way he carried on that store. In this day and age, it’s not easy. Those big-box stores. Everybody’s gotta have fifty rolls of toilet paper just because it’s cheaper? Then they gotta build bigger houses to hold all that toilet paper? All those tree huggers living in these parts should know better. They put solar panels on their goddamn mansions.’
‘Joseph. Your grandchildren.’
‘It’s craziness. But Capozzi’s lives on.’ He poured more wine. ‘Not many years after my father opened, we almost lost his store.’ He and Marcella shared a long look. I knew exactly what he was referring to. The unspoken internment camp. ‘But we persevere. I was worried that Joey didn’t have what it takes. When he was younger, always off snapping pictures, head in the clouds.’ He thumped his chest. ‘But he did the right thing. That boy loved my father. He honoured his grandfather’s name. Joey made us proud.’ Marcella dabbed her eyes with her napkin, and Joe Sr changed the subject, asking Annie what she’d done all day.
Annie looked at me before saying, ‘I played with Mama.’
Joe Sr asked, ‘In the garden?’
‘No . . . notMommy. Mama.’
‘Mama, Mommy. What’s the difference.Mamma mia,that’s what I say.’
‘No, Grandpa.Thisis Mommy.’ She poked my shoulder. ‘But the other lady is Mama. You know what I mean, silly.’
As much as I loved Marcella’s soups, especially her minestrone, each bite sizzled in my stomach, threatening anarchy. And the bread would not go down. Fear had parked itself in the middle of my digestive system.
Marcella said, ‘Paige came by today, Grandpa.’
‘What the hell for? Oh, for Christ’s sake, that woman, if you can even call her –’
‘Joseph Capozzi. Stop.’
‘Well? That’s what he got for marrying a non-Italian.’
‘Hey,’ I said, ‘I’m not Italian, either.’
‘Honey, the way you cook and garden and heap love on your kids, you’re an honorary Italian. Which is just as good. Almost.’ He tore off his bread and chewed, his eyes on me. He reached out and put his rough, calloused hand gently over mine.
After Joe Sr and Marcella left, I put the kids to bed and told my mom I wanted to check on something at the store. The parking lot was still almost full from the two restaurants in town. I wanted to get into the store without seeing or talking to anyone, so I went around back and climbed the stairs before turning on any lights.
I opened and shut the desk drawers, ran my finger over the carved words on the underside of what had then been his father’s desk, when Joe and David were bored nine- and seven-year-olds, waiting for their father to quit talking to a customer and close the store for the evening. Joe had shown me the carvings with a penlight, laughing as he told the story. He had used his pocketknife – a recently received Christmas present from their parents that David coveted but had been denied due to his younger status. Joe had carvedJoey’s Market.Two days later, David had got hold of the knife, drawn a line through Joe’s name, and carvedDavy’s.And so it went, back and forth numerous times, a lopsided column forming, until they got distracted and started fighting about something else. If tenacity had been the indicator of whose market Capozzi’s would become – according to the carvings, at least – the store would have been David’s, the last name without a line carved through it.
At first, going through the books was like trying to read Russian, but eventually the message was clear in any language: The store was in worse trouble than I’d thought. It wasn’t just therecentlyunpaid bills I’d found in the files. How could I not know this? Joe had refinanced and pulled money out right before we got married. The store was in deep, deep trouble. The last few months had been the most brutal. No wonder he hadn’t sent in the application for the new insurance policy.
I knew things had been tough. Joe had discussed some of it with me. But he hadn’t told me the whole story. The store was losing money every day and had been for who knew how long? His parents didn’t know – I was sure of that. But maybe Joe had told his best friend.
I dialled Frank and Lizzie’s number, hoping Lizzie wouldn’t answer. Lizzie, of course, answered and, in the middle of my apology, handed the phone to Frank. Frank mumbled a hello.
‘Did you know about this?’
‘Ella? Do you know what time –’
‘Did you? Know about the store?’
‘Where are you?’
‘Here. At the store.’
‘I’ll be there. Give me a few minutes.’
I made coffee. The coffeepot said three a.m., and I’d thought it was still only ten or eleven. I tried to think: Frank’s face when I’d told him I planned to keep the store. Had he changed the subject? Yes. I remembered. I’d thought it was too difficult for him to picture the store going on without Joe. He’d looked away, asked if Annie was getting excited about starting school, said that Molly had already picked out her Pocahontas lunch box.
I unlocked the front door and let Frank in. He’d pulled on a Giants sweatshirt and his jeans and Uggs. I poured him a cup of coffee.
My teeth chattered, though I wasn’t cold. ‘Tell me,’ I said. ‘Did you know about this?’
‘Whatthisare we talking about?’
‘How manythisesare there?’ My voice shook while I tried to keep it low, keep it from screeching.
‘Look. Back up, Ella. I know you have everything in the world to be upset about. But which exact thing are you talking about?’
I took a breath. ‘The store, Frank. The fact that it’s going under, and has been.Wayunder.’
‘He kept thinking it would turn around, that it was just a slump.’
‘Why didn’t he tell me how bad it was?’
‘Look. Calm down.’
I leaned towards him. ‘Do not,’ I said, ‘tell me to calm down.’
‘Financially, you’ll be –’
‘It’s not about the money!’ I slumped into the chair. ‘He was struggling all alone. I thought thatrecentlythe store had hit a slump – but he never told mehowbad it was – unless I just had my head too far up my own ass to see it.’ I got up and paced. There was that time he flipped out over Callie’s vet bill. That hadn’t seemed like him, but I’d shrugged it off. And it was true he’d recently let me in on concerns over the store, but it had been struggling for years. ‘How could I havenotseen this? I loved this man. I talked to him every day, Frank. And his whole business and livelihood is barrelling down the tubes?’
Frank set down his coffee and pulled me into a hug. His chin moved against my shoulder as he spoke, just like when he came to tell me they’d found Joe’s body.
‘Don’t you see?’ he said. ‘He didn’t want to bring that shit home. He felt optimistic that it would turn around. “People will get tired of driving to Costco,” he said. I told him that was the beauty of Costco; you only had to drive there once a month and you could load up with every little thing you could ever want for at least a month, if not six. He thought business would turn around any day. He didn’t want it to interfere with what you guys had at home. He wanted your marriage to be different . . . than, you know, what it was like for him and Paige. Look, don’t be mad at Joe. There was a lot of pressure on him to keep that store going.’
Joe had told me that before Grandpa Sergio died, he willed the store to Joe. Sergio said the store would be Joe’s to run, and eventually he would also inherit the land it was on when his parents were gone. Joe quit college and his dream of travelling the world as a photojournalist, and returned home to help his dad run the store. Several years later, he bought the cottage that had once been Sergio’s and Rosemary’s – at a family-discounted price – and married Paige.
‘I’m mostly mad at me, for not seeing it. I mean, I have to admit, I got upset when he did try to talk to me about money. I just had no idea how much he wasn’t saying.’
He shrugged. ‘Everyone’s different, I guess. Lizzie would have been on my ass about it every day.’ That didn’t help. I must have flinched, because then he said, ‘But that’s just Lizzie. Financially, you’ll be fine. My dad’s guy Hank fixed Joe up with a sweet life insurance policy. You need to go home and get some sleep.’
I nodded, pressed my lips together. I didn’t tell him that sweet policy never quite happened. ‘Frank? Thank you. I’m sorry I woke you up and then dumped this all on you.’
‘No worries. Come on, I’ll walk out with you.’
‘You go ahead. I’m going to put stuff away upstairs, and then I’ll head home.’
But I went back upstairs and looked through every file again and again. Everything was exactly where it should be; it was just that there were numerous payables files. I drove back home in early morning light and finally felt like I could sleep. I would figure out something.
When I walked into the kitchen, Annie sat on the kitchen counter talking on the phone, clicking her feet together, pink fuzzy socks ricocheting off each other. She giggled. Callie sat alert at my feet, thumping her tail on the floor, hoping doggy treats were in the grocery bags I carried, but they held only the store’s books. Joe had always remembered Callie’s treats.
Annie said into the phone, ‘Okay. I love you too. Bye.’
She hung up. I picked her up off the counter and held her. Her soft tangles of hair tickled my neck. She smelled like the peach girly powder she’d talked me into buying her at Target. My angel of mercy in SpongeBob SquarePants jammies. ‘Morning, Glory.’
‘Was that Nonna?’
She shook her head.
‘Is this a guessing game?’
She shook her head again.
‘Then spill it, buster. Uncle David?’
‘No, silly.’ She reached up and ruffled the hair on the top of my head, like she was the grown-up. ‘It was Mama.’
Annie quit ruffling my hair and said, ‘What’s wrong, Mommy?’
I shook my head and forced the smile that had been refusing to show up and do its job. ‘Nothing.’
‘You don’t like Mama, do you?’
‘Well . . .’ I chose my words, plucking a few out of my internal tirade so thatDamn right, I can’t stand the sight of her, I don’t want her to call you or touch you or know yougot edited down until I strung together ‘I don’t . . . know her.’But how could I, when she never visited or even called once in three years? Nice mother. Seems like she couldn’t care lesscame out ‘But . . . she . . . seems . . . nice.’ The effect was less than genuine.
But Annie, sweetly, genuinely, held up an honestly hopeful conversation on her end. ‘She is very nice. She likes you. I think you could be friends like you and Lucy.’ She held both hands out and shrugged, as if to say,Where’s the hard part here?
‘Oh, you do, do you!’ I tickled her until she squealed, then set her down. ‘How about some breakfast?’
‘Zachosaurus!’ Annie said, all big sisterly, and ran, then skidded over to Zach, who had just appeared in the kitchen in his fleece-footed jammies, dragging his Bubby and brontosaurus, his hair sticking out like a confused compass. I picked him up and breathed him in. Zachosaurus. No one ever called him that but Joe and Annie and me. I wondered if Paige would now too.
While the kids gathered eggs and my mom slept, I sat on the back porch drinking more coffee, my mind pinging from the kids to Paige to Joe to the store to our bank account. I looked to the trees. They always calmed me. The redwood grove stood like our own appointed guards; their trunks rose straight and solid from the land, their branches so large, we had seen wild turkeys perched in them. The birds huddled, as big as Labradors, barely able to scrabble up from one branch to the other, letting out shrill laughter that kept startling us, as if a bunch of old British ladies were up there, gossiping. We watched them for hours one winter afternoon, a giant’s version of a partridge in a pear tree.
Our oaks were more like wise, arthritic grandparents. If you pulled up a chair and sat awhile and listened, you usually learned something useful. The fruit trees were like our cherished aunties, wearing frilly dresses and an overabundance of perfume in the spring, then by summer, indulging us with their generosity, dropping apples and pears and apricots by the bucketfuls, more than we could ever eat, as if they were saying,Mangia! Mangia!
By the time my mom woke up and joined me with her coffee, I felt somewhat better from my group-therapy session with the trees. I wasn’t as worried about starving, anyway.
‘Wow,’ she said. ‘I conked out. I didn’t even hear you come in last night.’ She took a sip from her cup. ‘Jelly Bean.’ She leaned over and moved a strand of my hair off my face. ‘We need to talk. I have to head back tomorrow, and we haven’t really had a chance to talk about the insurance and your whole financial picture. I can help you figure it out, but they need me back at the centre the day after tomorrow.’
I didn’t tell her that although she had slept, I hadn’t, and I was in no shape to discuss what I’d discovered. I hadn’t even begun to wrap my mind around the whole situation. And as stoic as she could be about some things, like the time Zach wiped the contents of his diaper all over the crib, systematically covering each wooden slat with baby poop, this little financial dilemma would positively and completely freak her out. My mom worked as a bookkeeper for a nonprofit. She didn’t make a lot of money, but she lived simply and, with the help of my dad’s life insurance, had managed to never go broke. And so I said, ‘It’s all fine. I just need to talk to an accountant in the next few weeks.’
She looked at me, sipped her coffee, kept assessing me. ‘You’re exhausted. Are you sleeping?’
I shrugged, teeter-tottered my hand.
‘Why don’t you try to rest today, then, and I’ll take the kids and go do something. We’ll go to Great America or someplace that will exhaustthem,and then everyone will be in the same boat.’
I was tired. But the kids needed me and I needed them. Their birth mother had begun circling and I didn’t know if she was looking for a place to land, or preying, ready to snatch up Annie and Zach, or at best, keeping a distant watch on the nest she’d abandoned years before.
‘Let’s all go. I want to hang out with you guys.’
‘You’re going to have plenty of time with Annie and Zach, honey. Puh-lenty. And I’ll be back as soon as I can. You need to take care of yourself.’
‘I need to be a mom. I can rally. Let me have another three cups of coffee and a shower and I’m there.’
When I came back out, my mom was looking through one of our photo albums, shaking her head. ‘You guys really perfected the art of the picnic, didn’t you?’
I sat on the arm of the sofa. The only time the kids ever went to theme parks was when grandparents were involved. Joe and I avoided them. But we went on picnics whenever we could. It was something all four of us loved equally, but for different reasons. Joe liked to pursue his photography and still spend time with his family. I was enthralled with all the redwood-lined hiking trails, the abundance of animal and plant life. The kids loved to catch bugs and see if I could name them. Annie kept a little bug, flower, and bird book in which she painstakingly printed each letter I spelled out to her.
And of course, we all loved to eat. These were not your basic PBJ types of picnics. We made salads and spreads using whatever we could from our garden’s stash, and I discovered an untapped joy of cooking. We had two kids who would eat anything, so I kept trying new ideas and we’d lie back in the sun and groan at how good everything tasted.
‘Honey, would you rather go on a picnic today? It might be easier. We have all that food.’
I shook my head. Going on a picnic without Joe right then would feel like taking a dull knife and cutting a hole through the centre of me . . . and it wouldn’t feel any better for Annie and Zach. ‘No. Great America it is! Land of the expensive! Home of the brave moms and grandmas! Let’s do it.’
After that day, whenever my mother and I referred to Great America, we called it Ghastly America – and it wasn’t a political statement. It had to do with my lack of sleep and my dead husband and the ninety-five-plus-degree weather and the kids amped up on too much cotton candy and ice cream sandwiches. It had to do with me getting my period, and my body using the occasion to purge my emotions – which suddenly included being extremely pissed off. The heat baked everything, so the only ride that sounded good was the roller coaster called Big Splash. We waited in line for one hour and thirty-five minutes before we realized that Zach was way too short. Annie and my mom went ahead while I stayed behind with Zach, who had a screaming tantrum, not because he couldn’t go on the ride so much as because he couldn’t go with my mom, whom he’d become more and more attached to during the past week.
Zach had been such a laid-back kid, I had very little experience in how to handle a tantrum like that – he screamed and jumped up and down and then splayed himself on the ground, refusing to get up. A blur of people shook their heads and stared. I stood there, unmoving. What did the experts say? I tried to remember something, anything, from one of the parenting magazines I’d read in the doctor’s office. Walk away? Yeah, right. In a crowd of hundreds. Don’t give in. Don’t reward. But I finally got down and yelled over his screams, ‘Zach! Listen! Stop screaming and I’ll buy you another cotton candy! Would you like that?’ He kept wailing. ‘Cotton candy, Zach! Do you hear me?’
He stopped suddenly. He swiped his nose along his arm. ‘And a Slushee?’
‘And a Slushee.’
He got up and took my hand. I heard one woman say, ‘No wonder,’ and a man said, ‘Way to work the parents, buddy.’
I stood and stuck my face about three inches from the guy’s bloated, sweaty one. I said through clenched teeth, ‘He no longer has parents, plural, buddy. Because, you see, his father justdied,buddy.’
We walked away and I didn’t look back. I bought Zach another cotton candy and a cherry Slushee and watched his lips turn as red as the rims around his eyes.
While my mom took Zach to a table to finish his treats, I took Annie on the Ferris wheel. Why I thought it might be fun to sit sizzling in a metal basket escapes me now, but that’s what we did, and when a disgruntled operator deserted her post, we sat for ten minutes and willed another operator to take over or at least for God to stir up a breeze, or rain. Where was the fog when you needed it? Someone yelled up in a megaphone that a replacement operator would be there shortly. Great. I’d worked in a doctor’s office in college, and they trained us to say the doctor will be with youshortly,neverin a minute. Shortlywas subjective.Shortlylacked any concrete commitment.
At first Annie was happy to point out the different rides, enjoying the view, but then she started whining. ‘How much longer? I’ve gotta pee. I’m hungry. I’m hot. I wanna go home.’
I wanted to know: How could someone just walk away and abandon us, leaving us suspended in midair? I’d have to ask Paige about that one. How do you say to your babies and your husband, ‘I’m done. Buh-bye,’ and never look back? Leave them suspended, unable to move forward until a replacement operator by the name of Ella came up and pushed the right buttons. The replacement mother, the replacement wife. Is that how she saw me? Is that what I was? Is thatallI was? But after sitting up there for ten minutes, I loved the replacement operator; when she let us off that ride, I wanted to hug her. I said, ‘Thank you! We wouldn’t have survived another minute without you.’ She nodded, looking bored, directing us back into the hordess of people. Annie said, ‘Mommy, aren’t you being a littledramatic?’
Despite our being saved, the day kept on its downward spiral. I shuffled around, squinting. Too bright, too many primary colours, too many loud noises. And one of the loudest? Zach, who threw a tantrum whenever my mother let go of his hand. Her trip to the bathroom cost me a churro and another Slushee – this time grape.
On the way home we got stuck in five o’clock traffic, which, anywhere in the Bay Area or its ever-outstretching vicinities, begins at three o’clock. The kids fought over every toy like wild dogs over a porterhouse, and my mom, who always received compliments on her youthful appearance, looked every one of her sixty-two years and then some. The air-conditioning malfunctioned so that it felt like a person with a high fever was blowing at us through the vents, while in the rearview mirror I watched Annie rip Zach’s Bubby from him until my mom screamed, ‘Ella!Stop!’ I slammed on the brakes just in time to stop us from smashing into a yellow Hummer. You know who would have survived that crash. Not us in the Jeep.
I calmly and quietly said to my mother, ‘We almost got into an accident. Accidents happen randomly and with no warning. Joe was killed in a drowning accident, and now we could have been killed in a car accident. Just. Like. That.’
‘Jelly? Are you okay?’
I shook from top to bottom, and the kids kept right on fighting. I hit the steering wheel with both hands and shouted, ‘Goddamnit! I can’tdrive! Now, you two shut up! Shutup!’
And they did. No one said another word the entire drive home except the voice in my head, which told me over and over,You, my dear, are the very worst mother on the planet.
When we pulled up our driveway, Callie loped up to greet us, but the kids were out cold. Annie’s cheeks were pink despite the sunscreen I’d covered them with. The side of Zach’s face stuck to his car seat; drool ran down his T-shirt, which now held red and purple splotches that coordinated with his lips and chin. The Slushees had left what looked like bruises, but I felt I’d done far worse damage with my own temper tantrum. I could almost see their wings, so angelic were they in sleep, certainly incapable of causing an adult to scream at them at the top of her lungs. I carefully pried Zach from his seat; his arms and legs hung loose and heavy; his head lolled before resting on my shoulder. He let out a long, stuttered sigh. These were my angels who had just lost their dad. Whose birth mother had decided it was okay to poke and prod from a distance, enough to do little more than remind them that she’d left them. And now their evil stepmother had yelled at them for being kids.
We got them settled in their beds and tiptoed out to the kitchen. ‘I’m sorry,’ I said to my mom.
‘You know. For losing it in the car.’
‘Well, honey. It’s understandable. They were acting up. You’re exhausted. Give yourself a break.’
‘But they’re bound to act up right now.’
‘That doesn’t mean you let them scream and fight in the car. It was an intense situation. You didn’t have time to remind them, “Use your inside voices and nice words, children.”’
‘I didn’t remindmyselfto use my nice words. I don’t remember you ever yelling at me like that.’
‘I didn’t?’ She knit her eyebrows. ‘Didn’t I? Well, after your dad died, you hardly made a peep. You’d been such a yacker, always into everything, disappearing for hours with that little notebook of yours. You know how the kids started saying “Why? Why? Why?” when they turned three? You were still asking that all the time, even when you were eight.’ She shook her head. ‘Such a character, you were. And a handful! But then you got really quiet. All that happy hoopla just drained out of you.’
She stopped talking, pulled a bracelet back and forth over her hand.
We were a pair of skaters trying a new leap, a new twist, but it was time for one of us to pull back into our familiar routine, each of us depending on the other one to stay clear of obstacles or warm spots. ‘You’ll all get through this.’ She smiled. ‘I’ve been where you are. And you’ve been where they are. And we got through.’
Now she made it sound like it had been easy. Out the window I saw a squirrel stop on our porch railing to inspect some kind of pod, turning it in its paws. ‘I still think about Dad all the time. All those camping trips on the Olympic Peninsula, how much he taught me in eight short years.’ She reached out and squeezed my hand. ‘So, Mom, how did you make it through that?’
She opened the refrigerator and took out a bottle of pinot blanc.
She smiled. ‘Tempting, I admit, but no.’ She poured us each a glass.
‘Actually, at first I did check out, as you probably remember . . . But then I kept thinking about my grandmother. Your great-grandma Just. She waited in Austria while her husband went to America. He said he’d find work and send for her. She waited a year and never heard from him. So she sold every single thing she had and took her two children and got on a boat bound for America. She didn’t speak English. She didn’t know a soul. I can see her as if I were there: a tiny woman with a braid past her waist, an arm around each child, freezing and miserable, holding on to them for dear life. Can you imagine? Huddled on that ship, bound for the great unknown . . .’ She shook her head and looked at me. ‘And when I felt bad about my situation, I drew strength from her.’
‘What happened to her?’
‘Well. She found him. She actually found him! He’d drunk away everything he’d earned. Penniless, sleeping around, and worse,violent.So she kicked him back out and, ironically, set up a moonshine business during Prohibition, and raised those two kids – my mom and Aunt Lily – with a trapdoor covered by a braided rug under the kitchen table. It’s the same kitchen table I still have.’
I didn’t say anything. I was trying to figure out what part of the story she and I could relate to. Not the secret trapdoor. Not the moonshine business. Not the tiny mother with the two kids on the ship. Not the sneaky drunk husband. Callie barked and I turned to see the squirrel dive for the trunk of an oak and disappear.
‘Ella.’ My mother held my shoulders. ‘We come from a line of strong women. I see that strength in you.’
‘Thanks,’ I said, our faces only inches away, almost too close to each other, too close to all the unspoken. I could have asked more right then, but I knew better; I’d learned my lesson long ago. I stepped back and picked up my wine, and she did the same. ‘Hey, does that mean I get the old pine table? I love that table.’
She raised her glass. ‘Not while I’m still breathing you don’t.’ We clinked our glasses. A wordless toast to another success: once again, we’d talked about my dad without talking about my dad.
The next morning I dropped my mom off at the airport shuttle bus, but not before she offered to postpone leaving and get someone else to cover for her at work.
I didn’t want her to go. But I knew postponing her departure wasn’t going to help us all get to the other side, or wherever the hell we were headed.
And so we drove her to the DoubleTree Inn, where she stepped onto the shuttle bus to the San Francisco airport and I pulled out cookies and juice to distract Zach, who otherwise would have definitely run up and grabbed her. We all waved, and I felt inspired by the fact that Zach’s tantrums from the previous day had vanished. I buckled the kids into their car seats and headed home. At a stoplight, I turned to them and said, ‘I’m sorry I yelled in the car yesterday. That wasn’t a nice way to tell you to stop fighting. I’m sorry. Will you forgive me?’
Zach nodded big exaggerated nods and said, ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh.’ I’d never heard him dothatbefore.
Annie said, ‘Of course we forgive you, silly. But if you need a break, now might be a good time for us to visit Mama in Lost Vegas.’
The person in the car behind us honked, and I just made the light as it turned yellow again. Need a break?That was an odd thing for Annie to say,I thought, but the kids started singing ‘I’ve Got Sixpence’ and seemed almost happy. I didn’t want to ruin the moment by drilling her. I just said, ‘Annie, believe me, I don’t need a break.Being around you and Zach is what I love most in this world.’ But the thought niggled at me. Either Paige was asking Annie to visit, or perhaps Annie had come up with the idea all on her own. I wondered what Paige wanted, but I wondered more what Annie wanted. It made sense that she might want to spend time with Paige. But what if Paige built up something with the kids and then pulled her disappearing act again?
We drove up the driveway, past Joe’s truck parked in its spot; the empty, hollow house waited, hungry, ready to swallow us whole.
Callie trotted up wagging her tail, but I felt as if we walked on a movie set, and everything was an illusion, and once I got closer and looked and prodded a bit, I’d have to face the truth. Maybe the cute, cosy house was just a cardboard façade. The vibrant garden, plastic and dusty silk. Word had got out that the director had abandoned the film and the studio was pulling out of the financing and there the three of us were, standing outside the pretend door without a script. I unlocked the door anyway, and we went inside.
The screen door slammed behind us. ‘Well,’ I said. Annie and Zach stood in the not-so-great room and looked at me, expectantly. ‘Are you hungry?’ I asked. They shook their heads. It was only nine thirty a.m. and my mom had fed us breakfast before she left. The house still smelled of toast and coffee. ‘You want to go out and play?’ They shook their heads again. Outside, the sun made everything sparkly and phony. The birds sang praises. The birds needed to give it a rest.
‘Well,’ I said again. I went to the armoire and pulled open the drawer and picked out three movies.The Sound of Music, Toy Story,andBeauty and the Beast.I walked to my room and closed the blinds and popped inThe Sound of MusicDVD. I took off my jeans and pulled on my sweats. The kids stood as if they were in a stranger’s house. Movies were for night; they knew the rules. In the kitchen I made popcorn, then climbed into bed with the bowls. After a few minutes, I patted both sides of the bed. ‘Come on.’ And then I sang,‘Let’s start at the very beginning . . .’and they climbed up onto the bed, giggling, plugging their ears. Another family joke Joe had started. Apparently, I didn’t have the world’s best singing voice.
Zach held Bubby with one hand and took his bowl of popcorn with the other. Callie jumped up and stuck her nose in Annie’s bowl, then lay across the foot of the bed, chomping. We didn’t get up to answer the phone. We didn’t get up to answer the door. ‘Shhhh,’ I said when we heard a knock, and they stifled their giggles in the pillows. Even Callie agreed not to bark. She just whined and thumped her tail against the mattress and cocked her head at us as if to say,You know, it could behim . . .
With Joe’s picture gazing at us from the nightstand, we watched movies and we slept and we watched more movies. For dinner, I ordered a pizza delivered from Pascal’s and stuck inThe Little Mermaid.I almost got up to change it as soon as I remembered that Ariel saved Prince Eric from drowning. But I left it in. It might upset them, but better that it happened when they were with me than somewhere else, like at a friend’s house. Or with Paige.
The storm came up. I wrapped my arms around each of them as Prince Eric fell to the bottom of the sea. I wondered again what it had been like for Joe. Had it been like Frank had thought, that he’d hit his head right as he was pulled under, that he didn’t even know he would never see us again? I hoped so. I hoped his last frame of reference was the frame through his lens of the rusty ragged sea cliff against deep blue sky, not thoughts of Annie and Zach crying in my arms. When Ariel lifted Prince Eric up, up, up to the surface, and brought him back to life with her beautiful voice, all three of us had tears streaming down our faces. Annie planted her wet cheek into my neck and said, ‘I wish mermaids were real.’
I said, ‘Yeah, Banannie, me too.’
Zach said, ‘If I were King Triton, I would haveROAREDso that all the fishes and mermaids would lift Daddy back up to theAIR! I muchly would.’ He laid his head in my lap and I smoothed his hair back. But then Zach started to sob, ‘I want myDADDY! I want myDADDY!’ and Annie broke down too, yelling even louder than Zach, the same words, over and over.
I held on tight. I thought of Great-Grandma Just and her two children on that big ship, headed for the great unknown. Eventually Annie’s and Zach’s yells and tears dissipated, their stuttered breaths evened out, and they finally slept, their small faces streaked with trails of dried salt.
The people of Elbow hung up their black clothes one day, and by the next week they were donning red, white, and blue. It was not out of disrespect for Joe, but in many ways in honour of him. In fact, Joe Sr and Marcella upheld their civic duty by being the first to swaddle their porch columns in Fourth of July banners, while the rest of the town soon followed their lead. Elbow does the Fourth of July like New York City does New Year’s Eve. And if we keep that exaggerated analogy going, Joe was our own Dick Clark, and the front porch at Capozzi’s Market was our own little Times Square. The Beach and Boom Barbeque was a forty-three-year tradition begun by Grandpa Sergio after the war, and it wasn’t going to stop now. Yes, the man who had been sent to an internment camp apparently celebrated the Fourth with a vengeance. Joe had told me that it was such a part of their family’s and town’s tradition, he’d never questioned it.
Lucy found us in the garden. Zach’s superheroes were taking over some long-lost planet from their spaceshipTomato Basket,and Annie had converted Callie into a horse.
I stretched my back and gave Lucy a hug. ‘Your hair’s warm,’ she said. ‘I thought you guys would be in your costumes by now.’
I shrugged. ‘It’s too weird. I can’t even picture it without him.’
‘I know. You’re going, though, right?’
Annie said, ‘I think we should wear our costumes, Mommy.’
‘I thought you didn’t want to, Banannie.’
‘I didn’t. But now I do. And I bet Zach does too.’
Zach nodded and did hisuh-huhthing while he threw Batman into the cucumbers. Since Joe had been the town crier who led the songs and read from the Declaration of Independence, the four of us had dressed up in period costumes every Fourth. Annie and I wore long dresses and bonnets; Zach and Joe had pantaloons and vests and black hats.
David was going to take over the emceeing, so he had already picked up Joe’s costume.
‘Okay, then,’ I said.
‘Okay, then.’ Annie hopped off Callie. ‘Let’s get this show on the road, people.’ And she led us up to the house to get changed.
A year ago, I had swayed in the front row, holding Zach on my hip, blowing a plastic kazoo, while my husband stood on the front porch of Capozzi’s Market and led the crowd in ‘You’re a Grand Old Flag’ and ‘America the Beautiful’ and ‘Yankee Doodle Dandy’. When he got to the line ‘I’ve got a Yankee Doodle sweetheart, she’s my Yankee Doodle joy,’ he’d pulled Annie and me and Zach all up onto the porch and twirled us around and around while the crowd cheered and the patched-together band played on. The whole day was one ultra-corny, amateur ode to nostalgia, and I’d loved every minute of it. Can you see me? I was the one leading the march to the beach barbeque as if I were leading a top-university marching band, my happiness twirling up in the treetops and landing obediently in the solid grip of my hand.
None of us could have imagined then that the jovial man who’d sung out, holding his hat to his heart in front of his grandpa Sergio’s store, would soon be a part of the history we celebrated. Or that he’d been dancing on the front porch of his hidden failure. Now I languished towards the back, sweating in my long, heavy dress, nodding and smiling to those who offered hugs or squeezed my arm; there was nothing left for any of us to say. I got through the moment of silence held in Joe’s honour, and ‘Yankee Doodle’, but it was when David started us in on ‘This Land Is Your Land’, and we got to the line, ‘From the redwood forest to the river’s waters’ – those last lyrics Joe had changed to fit Elbow – that tears ran down my cheeks. Lucy handed me a tissue. The tears weren’t all sadness, though. Joe was gone. But his land was my land, his town was my town, his kids were my kids. I really had found home when I’d found Joe, and it was my home still.
‘I’m scared,’ I told Lucy later, while we sat on a rock watching Annie and Zach build a sand castle that looked more like a sand Quonset hut, the crowd dispersing to head upriver for the fireworks. Across the river, hungry cries echoed from the large osprey nest on top of a dead tree that Joe had photographed less than a month before. ‘I suddenly feel constantly aware of how much I can lose.’
She put her arm around me. ‘Most people in your circumstances can’t even see anything past what they’ve already lost.’
‘Yeah. But not everyone has them.’ I jutted my chin towards the kids. ‘I never let myself think like this before. It all feels ridiculously fragile.’
‘Youwerekind of la-tee-da,’ Lucy admitted. ‘I mean, no one’s life is quitethatcarefree.’
‘What do you mean?’
Lucy blushed. ‘I didn’t mean . . . well, you know. Nothing. Too much wine and too much sun make me blabber nonsense.’
It stung. La-tee-da? But I didn’t want to ask. Maybe Frank had told her about the store. Frank could be a blabbermouth, with or without wine and sun. While Annie and Zach scooped river water into their plastic pails, Callie and a border collie raced down the beach towards the water. ‘No!’ I called out. But it was too late. They landed smack-dab on top of the kids’ sand creation and flattened it.
If Elbow was still my town, Capozzi’s Market was now my store, and the bills were now my bills. Julie Langer, one of the school moms, insisted on taking the kids for a play date that Saturday, and so I was left to worry about finances while I dug in my garden.
If only my garden were a true reflection of the workings of my inner soul. All that rich, fertile abundance in precise and ordered rows! No wasted space, no shrivelled stems. And that life-affirming fragrance of clean dirt. I loved the paradox and truth of those two words:Clean. Dirt.
I set down my hand weeder and picked up the compost bucket and headed over to the bins. Our compost was the secret to our garden. And the secret to our compost was keeping the moisture down, giving it enough nitrogen and just the right amount of stirring. This batch was heating up nicely and soon would be ready to spread on the garden. I stirred in the coffee grounds, the egg shells, and the rest of the kitchen waste, along with some magical chicken manure. I added dry leaves I’d saved from the fall. Leaves Joe had raked.
The store, the store. What to do about the store? I didn’t want to just let it die too. It had been so clear to me on the Fourth that along with being the family’s legacy, the store was the heart of our town. Albeit a heart with badly clogged arteries. The tiny town of Elbow could no longer support its own store, and Capozzi’s wasn’t snazzy enough to bring in the wine connoisseurs and the foodies. But the ever-expanding wine country surrounded us, and tourists flocked. Joe had been bugged that everyone in Sebastopol was chopping down their apple trees and putting in grapes, but after living down south, I’d told him, ‘Hey, vineyards beat the heck out of strip malls.’ Still it was a change he didn’t welcome; he called wine countrywhinecountry.
I turned the compost, dark as coffee. What did I know about running a store? Absolutely nothing. I could go on with my plan to start working in the fall as a guide. I’d just have to see if they could hire me full-time instead of part-time. Did they even hire full-time guides? And then I’d need to hire a babysitter for Annie and Zach, when they got home in the afternoons. But what would become of Capozzi’s Market? A vacant, cobweb-infested eyesore, the retro sign hanging by its corner, the screen door banging off its hinges while children dared each other to run up to touch the front step, scared by tales of lurking ghosts? If we could somehow save it . . . with the family’s help . . . maybe Gina could keep filling in . . . David and Marcella might be able to work some hours . . . then I’d have more flexibility. Annie and Zach could hang out sometimes in the afternoons, do their homework in the office and help when they got a little older, like Joe and David had. I added more leaves. But hello? The store was not making it. It was as withered as the oak leaves I stirred into the compost.
Joe’s meal scraps were in there too, decomposing and reincarnating. The last bagel, the last banana peel. The scraps from our last picnic together. I turned the shovel, full of compost. God, he loved those picnics.
He used to say that he wanted to bring back the picnic, that this area was founded on the pleasure of picnics.
That wasn’t how it happened, exactly, but I liked the sound of it, and there was some truth to it: Whites first came to the region not to lay out a blanket under the redwoods but to chop them down. And yet, a hundred or so years ago, San Franciscans started building summer cabins and houses by the river so they could come up to picnic and swim.
There was an old photograph at the Elbow Inn of a group, the women wearing high-necked dresses with long skirts, the men wearing hats and suspenders and trousers, everyone relaxing on a huge blanket – or looking like they weretryingto relax as much as possible in those getups – with a spread of food out before them.
The store had once offered ‘Everything Italia’ . . . before the wartime paranoia set in. But now, all these decades later, everyone adored Italian everything – art, food, wine, lifestyle. Dining alfresco, outdoors. Using the freshest ingredients. Growing your own garden. Slow food as opposed to fast food. The whole slower food and farm-to-table way of eating that I believed in had even sprung from Italy, jumped an ocean and a continent, and landed in Sonoma County. I knew the rest of the country would eventually catch on, but so many people in Elbow, and the surrounding communities like Sebastopol, which people referred to as Berkeley North, already ate organic foods and supported local farmers.
And then I saw it. I saw the store, the same, but different, and wholly formed. I could even hear the bell on the creaky door, ringing on and on, as a steady line of customers came and left with full arms, full baskets, the chiming becoming incessant, like blessed church bells, clamouring on about resurrection and new life.
‘Holy shit!’ I shouted. That might just be the answer. I dropped the lid on the bin, pulled off my gloves, and ran up to the house. It was a crazy idea. But it might just work. I needed to call David. I needed to call Lucy. I probably needed to call a psychiatrist.
‘“Life’s a Picnic”? Isn’t that a bit ironic, considering the circumstances?’ Lucy stood at my kitchen counter, pouring a glass of wine each for David and me, a smooth pinot noir from her vineyard in Sebastopol. The label now had a black Scotty terrier catching a red Frisbee against a white background. I loved the label. Wineries were getting so creative all of a sudden. So why shouldn’t grocery stores too?
David said, ‘Another lemonade-out-of-lemons story?’
‘Exactly,’ I said. ‘Only we’ve got sandwiches to go with that lemonade, and salads and spreads . . . all made from local organic vegetables, of course, and gorgeous picnic baskets and maps and blankets.’ I sounded like an overly zealous radio announcer, but I needed both of them to think it could work. And I needed David to help memakeit work.
Lucy and David were my closest friends. Long before I met them, they’d attempted to sleep together. They were in high school, back when David was still trying to convince himself he was straight. He told me all his doubts had been erased that night; if Lucy couldn’t do it for him, with her long black lashes, alabaster skin, and downright amazing breasts, no woman could. Lucy, on the other hand, told me she planned to stay single until George Clooney proposed to her.
Lucy sat on the couch and said, ‘Before I forget, you both have to come see the vineyard again. It’s magical right now. Absolutely . . . Okay, Ella, you were saying? Lemons?’
David swirled the pinot noir in his glass and raised it to the light. ‘A crisp, vibrant mouthfeel. Blackberries and rhubarb lingering in a long finish. Yes. The vanilla and spices add lovely complexity. Exceptional, really, Lucy.’
‘Oh God,’ I said. He could be such a lovable snob.
‘I feel more comfortable if you just call me David.’ He spread his fingers, examining his nails. ‘I can almost see this . . . picnics in the orchards, the vineyards, the redwoods, by the river, along the coast, we have it all. We team up with other businesses, inviting weekenders to come up and stay at the Elbow Inn, have a family-style dinner at Pascal’s or Scalini’s, and have an incredible picnic in the natural setting of your choice. It’s not just about going wine tasting anymore . . . But it’s a long shot, El. And it sounds expensive.’
I had called them, spilling over with ideas to transform Capozzi’s Market into a store that catered mostly to tourists, a place they could stop and get all the fixings for an incredible picnic. We’d carry things you couldn’t get at the box stores. Local artisan organic everything. Heavy on the Italian, but not locked into it; I could also see California cuisine and Pacific Asian influences. We’d have an olive bar and some of Marcella’s stuffed sandwiches and salads – from baby beet with orange zest and dandelion greens to old-fashioned potato – that were perfect for picnicking. Bread from the bakery in Freestone, of course. A kick-ass wine selection, with a weekly featured winery hosting tastings on the store premises on Saturdays and Sundays. Lucy’s would be the first. I hoped David might be interested in taking on the role of full-time chef. And we’d have detailed, beautifully illustrated maps to the best local picnic spots, by our local recluse artist, Clem Silver, which might take some doing, but I was willing to try.
Yes, the store would be called Life’s a Picnic – perhaps a bit tongue in cheek, perhaps a sort of middle finger to fate. Widowhood be damned. Lacking life insurance policy be damned. Collection notices be damned. I was going to figure out a way to do this. Plus, I was afraid to go off to a job when Paige was lurking around every corner. I needed to be able to work and have the kids close. Saving the store felt necessary in so many ways, some of which I was afraid to articulate to myself, let alone to Lucy and David.
He stared at his empty wineglass. As I reached for the bottle to pour him more, he said, ‘I get it. Earthy sophistication. What this area’s known for. Fine wine. Hemp picnic blankets. Caviar and alfalfa sprouts. But I don’t know . . . I’m not really big into starvation. Do you think it would actually make, you know,money?’ he asked. ‘Oops.’
I followed his gaze out of the window to see a mouse dashing across the porch railing. In broad daylight.
‘You need a kitty cat.’
‘David. I do not need a cat right now. It’s one little mouse.’
‘Honey, they multiply.’ He stared at me, but I didn’t respond. He sighed. ‘The knowledge of which seems to do nothing beneficial for us today but provides the perfect segue: We’ll need to talk numbers.’ David and Lucy were both good with numbers. Lucy had just bought a vineyard with a boutique winery. David had been a media buyer for an ad agency in San Francisco. But Gil had sold his dot-com company, happily retired, and now volunteered at the animal shelter. They’d bought a beautiful house up the river. David quickly grew tired of the two-hour commute, quit his job, and was looking for something local, but it wasn’t like the area was teeming with ad agencies.
Everyone knew he needed something to do. At Easter, Gil had pulled me aside and said, ‘I’ve gained nine pounds this month. He’s cooking three gourmet meals followed by dessert – yes, dessert even after breakfast – every fucking day. The man needs a job.’ Now I had just the job for the man. If I could convince him it was a good idea.
I smiled, trying to exude confidence. ‘Yes, we can make money. You’ve got connections. You could have us in every wine and foodie rag on the West Coast.’
He nodded. Swirled his glass. ‘You know Joe. He was such a purist about that store. He hated anything touristy.’
‘I know. But that attitude was making us pure broke.’
Lucy said, ‘She’s got a point.’
‘And this would be classy, David, not tacky – but not uppity, either. The food would be local and from scratch. With a big nod to what Grandpa Sergio started. Joe would like that.’
Lucy stood. ‘Unfortunately, I’m tapped out money-wise right now with the vineyard. But I think this idea is spot-on. And I want to help every other way I can.’ She came over and hugged me.
David finished off his last sip of wine. ‘I don’t know.’
‘Aw, come on, David,’ I teased. ‘Didn’t you always want the store when you were kids? Wasn’t there a bit of sibling rivalry going on there? You know,Davy’s Market?’
David’s face took on the colour of the pomegranates I’d set in a bowl on the counter. ‘What, when I was, like, five? I outgrew that obsession around the same time I quit wearing my Winnie-the-Pooh undies because Joe called them my Poo Pants.’ He stood up. ‘I’ll think about it. And I’ll need to see the financial information in black-and-white.’
You mean red?I almost asked, but didn’t.
The rest of the week, while I wrote fourteen measly checks accompanied by notes that promised I’d send more as soon as possible, I tried to think of ways to convince David that the picnic store was a good idea. Sure, it was a little touristy for Joe’s taste, but he’d mentioned how he wished he could somehow regain the original charm of Grandpa Sergio’s store. And Joe would appreciate the ode to our picnics.
I had to convince David that this was a way to pay homage to that history, keep the store running, and make it profitable too. I needed David. I could cook up a storm for my family, but he could take it to a whole other level, and I obviously had some things to learn about the money side of a business. I felt desperate, and I still hadn’t mentioned the life insurance problem, not to anyone.
I would definitely need the family to get on board. And that meant disclosing to everyone just how bad things were financially. I knew I should have already come clean, but it seemed like a betrayal. I needed to talk to Joe.
One night I picked up the phone and dialled the number at the store. I had done it before, many times, just to hear his voice, to hear him say, ‘Thanks for calling Capozzi’s Market. We’re tied up with customers right now. Leave a message and we’ll get back to you.’
But this was different. This time, I actually called totalkto him. Some part of me, my arm and fingers at least, momentarily forgot that Joe was dead, and picked up the phone and dialled his number so I could say,Honey, what should I do? Come home, have dinner – I madelentil soup – and we’ll figure this mess out. Oh, and can you bring some coffee?
When the answering machine picked up, his voice knocked me into the present. I hung up the phone, then checked it. The dial tone, flat and lifeless, droned through my ear, through my head, my throat, my heart. Changing the store would mean changing the answering-machine recording, something I hadn’t been able to bring myself to do.
The next week David, Lucy and I were out touring her vineyard, walking up the hill between the rows, the vines like outstretched arms greeting us in the late afternoon sun. Lucy was in love with this spot of earth and excited to share it in all its phases. She wore work boots and a broad-brimmed hat, tenderly touching the grapes and vines as she talked.
‘The pinot noir grapes are starting to change from green to purple. If you look closely enough, each grape displays a different intensity of colour. Aren’t they gorgeous?’ She told us the process was called verasion. This was also the time in the growing season for stripping away some of the leaves in order to control the canopy. ‘The more sun these lovelies get, the drier and more flavourful they’ll be. By fall they’ll be perfectly plump and ready for crush.’ She mentionedterroir,the big buzzword among vintners and winemakers that was constantly debated.
‘Terroir is that sense of place that you experience when you drink a glass of wine. This hillside has a history.’ Lucy held her hands out as if she were giving a blessing. ‘There is the climate, even the certain way the sunlight slants against this hill. And the geology – the layers upon layers of rock and volcanic ash from millions of years ago. The parent materials break down to make the soil what it is today, its mineralogy, the chemical balance.’
‘I have one of those,’ David said. ‘Oh, wait, mine is a chemicalimbalance. My mistake, go on.’
Lucy rolled her eyes. ‘As I was saying . . . terroir is the expression of the land the grapes come from. Others say terroir is about viticulture, the influence on the grape. It’s the way the vines are hand pruned, the type of barrels, the whole winemaking process as well. And some say it’s everything – from what occurred here throughout the ages to the moment the bottle is uncorked.’
‘I’ve always thought,’ I said, ‘this might sound strange – but Annie and Zach, this place, Elbow, permeates them. I always want to breathe them in. It must be their terroir.’
Lucy said, ‘The terroir of people? I can hear all the debating they’ll get out of this one. Do go on.’
‘It’s . . . I can smell the land, this place, in their hair, in the creases of their necks, and on their fingertips. This wonderful loamy scent mixed with wood smoke, the tanoak and redwoods, the rosemary, the lavender. And okay, a little garlic from being at Marcella’s . . . I don’t know. It sounds funny when I try to explain it.’
David patted my back. ‘Nothing a little bathing wouldn’t fix.’
‘Ha-ha. Very funny.’
‘No,’ he said. ‘I actually get what you’re saying. And I could even take it a step further. I’ve been thinking about your idea for the store.’
‘Grandpa Sergio died years ago, but that grocery store still smells like him when I walk in the door – it’s faint, but it’s always there. Especially up in the office. His cherry tobacco pipe smoke. And it’s mixed with Pop’s Old Spice.’
‘Nothing opening a window wouldn’t fix,’ Lucy said.
‘Touché.’ He shook his head. ‘But no, that wouldn’t get rid of it. Nothing will. Even changing the store, even remodelling it and turning it into a slightly different kind of store – it will still be Capozzi’s Market. You’ll still be able to feel the familyhistorywhen you walk in. Maybe even more so with the big nod to the mother country, as Grandpa used to call it. That’s what’s important. If we don’t try Ella’s idea, we’re probably going to have to let the place go and lose everything my grandfather, my dad, and my brother worked for all these years.’
I was afraid to say anything. Some kind of spell seemed to be on us there on that symmetrically furrowed hillside, surrounded by old gnarled vines and young grapes.
‘Change can be good. You know, I always told Joe to quit fighting the tourist thing. Tocelebrateit. But I was just the baby of the family, not anyone who’d ever run the store. Grandpa made that clear,’ David finally said. ‘I still want to talk numbers. But I think you might be onto something, Ella. Let’s talk about what you would need from me. I think I want a place at this picnic.’
I grabbed the both of them and let out a victory holler. We ambled arm in arm down the hill to the small stone winery to celebrate. Despite the fact that now we had to talk numbers.
Lucy poured wine. We toasted to terroir, to Life’s a Picnic. I told them about my life insurance problem. I also explained just how bad I thought the store’s financial situation was. I could see them bothnot gaspingas if their lives depended on it. Lucy poured more wine. David drummed his fingers and made a ticking sound with his tongue – a habit of his whenever he was thinking something through. I usually only noticed it when we were on the phone, but at that point in the evening David’s tongue ticking was the only sound in the room.
Finally he said, ‘Let me break the news gently to the folks, about the store and about the insurance. I know why Joe didn’t fess up to Dad.’ He seemed far away. ‘Because he was always trying to make him and Grandpa proud. We both were. Even me with my desperate lack of Italian machismo. My dad seems to still desperately need that . . . pride in the store, pride in his father, pride in us.’ His eyes filled and he stood up. ‘In his two sons.’
The next morning while I washed dishes, I felt a tug on the leg of my jeans and looked down to see Zach staring up at me, sucking his thumb and holding Bubby, rubbing the turquoise satin of the bunny ears on his cheek.
He started swatting Bubby against the kitchen drawers. I turned off the water and knelt down. ‘What is it, Zachosaurus?’
He sighed. ‘When is Daddy coming home?’
‘Oh, honey.’ I hugged him. ‘Daddy died. Remember? Daddy’s not coming home.’
‘I know. Butwhenis he comingback?’
‘He’s not coming back.’
‘When I’m a big boy?’
I shook my head. ‘No. Not when you’re a big boy.’
‘That mama lady came back.’
‘She did. But she didn’t die. She just lives somewhere else and came to visit. Do you understand the difference?’
He nodded and sighed again. ‘Can I have a oatmeal bar? A whole one?’
‘Sure. But do you understand about Daddy?’
He started flipping Bubby up and down and doing a silly dance, saying ‘Uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh, uh-huh! And some milk. Pleeeeeeeze.’
The now familiaruh-huhsong, which had started shortly after Joe died, seemed to be Zach’s way of saying that he was done talking for the time being. He was three and having trouble understanding. Hell, I was thirty-five and still didn’t get it some days. But I wished I knew how to help him.
Later that afternoon, Paige called and said something that shocked me, her words like big flashing signs emerging from the fog, finally telling me where we were headed if we continued down that road. She would often call to speak to Annie. I’d wanted to question Paige, but I could never get out the words; I always felt a physical barrier, as if something lay lodged in my throat, blocking any questions that carried the possibility of ruining our world. But that day when she called, I took a deep breath and squeezed out some words, asking her what her intentions were. I sounded like some grumpy father questioning a teenage boy about dating his daughter, which hadn’t beenmyintention, but my own anxiety clamouring out.
‘My intentions?’ Paige asked. ‘I beg your pardon? I’m Annie’s mother. And I would like to speak to my daughter.’
I took another deep breath. ‘Yes, I understand that you gave birth to Annie. But you’ve been gone a long time, and Paige, I’m just worried about Annie getting hurt.’
‘Really? If you’re so worried about hurting Annie, perhaps you should be more careful when you drive so you don’t almost cause a car accident and then scream obscenities at my children.’
I opened my mouth. No words would come out, but my heart beat so loudly, she could probably hear it echoing up through my throat.
She continued. ‘Please put Annie on the line. Or do I need a court order?’
A court order? Did she say a court order? ‘Paige, I just – Okay, I’ll get her.’
Whatdid she want? What did shewant? Part of me understood that a relationship with Paige could be good for Annie. But part of me was scared of what that might mean for Annie and me and Zach. And what if, once they’d got used to her, Paige vanished into thin air again?
Still, she was Annie and Zach’s mother – their birth mother, at least – and if knowing her did make them feel more secure in this world, and if she was serious about not disappearing again, that was far more important than any jealous, territorial feelings of mine. That’s what I kept telling myself, anyway, as it became difficult to take a deep enough breath, which had been happening more and more often. Especially around two in the morning.Breathe in.
Paige. The kids. The bills. The store. Tomorrow. The next day.
‘Mommy?’ Annie said behind me. ‘Why are you blowing so much noise and letting out such big long breaths?’
I turned to her. She was six, but she’d matured so much in the last few months. She’d had to. I didn’t want to ask her, but the words came out before I could clamp my mouth shut.
‘Banannie? Did you tell your mama about our trip to Great America?’
She nodded, big nods so her ponytail flipped up and down.
‘What did you say?’
‘I told her about the rides and how fun it was except for the Ferris wheel and how we got stuck up there forever.’ She laughed, but it was a nervous laugh. ‘Remember that?’
She stuck her hands in her pockets.
‘Did you mention, possibly, that we almost got in an accident?’
The big head nod again. ‘That was scary! Remember how the tires screeched?’
‘Why do you sound so funny?’
‘Annie? Did you mention that I yelled at you and Zach?’
Annie started whimpering and nodding, barely now, her chin tucked into her chest.
‘Honey, it’s okay. You’re not in trouble. I just need to know.’
‘She was asking me and asking me! She kept asking me questions and you and Daddy told mealwaystell the truth, no matter what. So I did. You did say the G-D word Grandpa always says before Grandma gets mad at him. Remember?’
I couldn’t help but smile. Even though fear pulsed through me. ‘I do, though I’m trying like crazy to forget. I’d kinda hoped you’d forgotten.’
‘Nope. I remember it perfectly. You know’ – she tapped her forehead – ‘elephant memory. You said, “You kids shut up! I can’t goddamn drive!” And you hit the steering wheel really hard. And then you held your hand and said, “Ow.” Did I do something wrong, Mommy?’
‘No, sweetie. You didn’t do anything wrong, I did.’And Paige,I thought but didn’t say. Grilling Annie to get information. Shame on her. But then, I’d done the same thing by asking Annie about it. Shame on me.
Despite the scare from Paige, I pressed on. We called a family meeting. David had already filled Joe Sr and Marcella in on both my idea for the store and the financial situation. Joe Sr cut to the chase: ‘Ella, you listen to me. This family has been through hard times before. Shortly after my papa opened Capozzi’s, he had to go away, due to circumstances beyond his control. But this town, it pulled together and helped my mama, and the store, and our family survived. This store is my papa’s, our family’s legacy. And it will go to Annie and Zach someday.’ He grabbed both my shoulders and looked me straight in the eye. ‘Mother and I will do whatever we can to help save the store. We’ve got some money socked away for a rainy day. We’ll help you remodel it. It’s for our grandchildren. What grandparent can say no to that?’
If only Joe had known that’s how his dad would react.
One thing Joe and I had managed to get right was our wills. We’d written them up when we got married, and he willed the store to me, with the understanding that I would be taking care of Annie and Zach if anything should happen to him. Now I agreed to invest most of the insurance proceeds and to sell an interest in the store to Marcella, Joe Sr, and David. In return, they would kick in money, and we’d remodel and add a commercial kitchen. Things would be tight for a while, no one was going to be making big bucks, but we were all willing to think of it as an investment.
Besides, everyone agreed that weallneeded a big project, that we would do it to honour Joe. David patted Marcella’s arm and said, ‘I’d be honoured to be the chef, but only with Ma’s help.’ Marcella beamed – the happiest I’d seen her since before we’d lost Joe.
I wanted Annie and Zach to be in on the plans, so a few days after we settled everything, I took them on a picnic.
When Joe was alive, he was always the planner, the one who’d come home and say, ‘Let’s go,’ always an element of surprise along the way. He loved to surprise us, to surprise just me sometimes too. He arranged for the kids to stay with his parents and made reservations at a bed-and-breakfast up in Mendocino or had the truck packed for camping. I’d never see it coming. His surprises had a kaleidoscope quality to them, revealing something new at each turn. A drive turned into a stop at an inn, which turned into dinner, which turned into an overnight, which turned into a weekend away, with picnics and packed clothes and books and thermoses of hot tea. He didn’t plan expensive trips – he knew the owners, or Joe Sr did, or they were related in some way that always meant big discounts and extra desserts. The few times I’d tried to surprise him, I’d accidentally leave some clue – a phone number lying on the counter, or a message on the machine from the camera store. But he always covered his tracks. Once I’d joked, ‘You cover your tracks way too well. You better not ever have an affair.’
I unbuckled Zach from his car seat, still thinking about how carefully Joe planned his surprises, how much I’d loved that about him, and how at the time, I’d known that was one thing that made our romance possible, even though it grew in the midst of needy young children. Surprise dates. Time alone. Knowing he cared enough to plan. Me, distracted enough to surprise. Distracted enough to think everything was okay, even when it wasn’t.
Now it was my job to plan the outings and fix the things I hadn’t noticed. Callie led us down the path into Quilted Woods, a place sacred to Joe and me, and one I wouldn’t include on the picnic map. It was private property, but the owners didn’t mind if the locals used it. They’d even built a wooden platform for people to give performances or have weddings under the redwoods.
I loved the way redwoods grow in circular groves, reproducing through ‘suckers’ – shoots that root in the ground and form new trees – which draw nourishment from the mother tree, even from its roots after the tree is long gone . . . hundreds, even thousands of years. And yet, if you were to take the younger shoots away from the mother tree and attempt to replant them, they would most likely wither and die.
The kids ran up to the stage area while I spread the blanket in a clearing. The redwoods canopied a forest of Douglas fir, western hemlock, tanbark oak. Moss carpeted the rocks and fallen trunks, and a rich array of plant life – ferns, bleeding hearts, oxalis, wild ginger, to name a few – spread between them. Once, when no one was around and we’d drunk a little wine, Joe and I had made love in these woods. I’d worn a long skirt, which I kept on, lowering myself onto him. He unbuttoned my shirt, and I remembered how warm and buttery the slant of sun and his hands felt on my nipples, how hard and full and slow he was inside me. Now I felt a pull I hadn’t felt since he’d died.
A bird, a mama killdeer, white-breasted with dark rings like necklaces, had seen me and was pretending to have a broken wing. She’d take a few tiny steps, dragging her wing on the ground. Then take a few more steps. What an actress. Her babies must have been close by, and she was doing a great job distracting me. I wish it could be that simple with Paige. Just pretend I broke my arm and then she’d somehow completely forget about the kids.
I jumped up. Annie and Zach were gone. I looked towards the bridge, where they liked to throw sticks and run to the other side to watch them rush by. They weren’t there, either. And what about Callie? I called out, but no one answered. The creek wasn’t deep enough for them to slip in and drown – was it? I started to run, to call their names. Callie didn’t even bark a response.
I found them too far past the bridge. How long had I been thinking about making love with Joe? Watching the killdeer? They were throwing handfuls of blackberries up in the air, yelling, ‘Here you go! Here you go!’ and laughing wildly.
‘What in the world are you doing?’ My fear and ready reprimand dissolved. Besides, I didn’t want Annie to realize I’d lost track of them and then tell Paige. But what were they doing? Even Callie sat watching them, cocking her head in wonderment.
They kept snatching more off the bush, oblivious to the thorns, the juice and blood from their scratches mixing in tiny rivulets down their arms. Annie laughed again. ‘Don’t you know? We’re sending Daddy berries.’
‘To heaven!’ Zach yelled. ‘And someday I’m going to go to heaven to visit him! On Thomas the Tank Engine!’
‘Actually,’ Annie said, stopping to aim her grin directly at me. ‘We’re sending himRubus fruticosus.’ It was one of the first Latin plant names my father had taught me. And I had taught Annie. And like me, she had a knack for remembering.
Later, as we ate lunch, I told them how we were going to make the store a place to get picnic baskets and good lunches and games. I reminded them how Daddy’s grandpa had built the store, how it had been in the family, and told them how it was ours and Uncle David’s and Nonna’s and Nonno’s. That we would always remember Daddy whenever we were at the store. That now they were going to be a big part of it too, because I would need their help, and that someday it would be theirs, if they wanted it when they grew up.
‘Daddy loved picnics,’ Annie said.
‘Yes, he did.’
‘Daddy was the picnicCRUSADER!’ Zach said, bolting up, while I reached out to keep a couple of cups from spilling all over our lunch spread.
‘Yes, he was.’
‘Mommy?’ he asked. ‘I want to be a picnic crusader too. Can I use this picnic blanket for a cape?’
‘No, bud. You can’t.’
‘Because our stuff is all over it?’
‘That’s exactly why. You are one smart crusader.’
‘Even without my cape?’
‘Even without your cape.’
The overhaul of Capozzi’s Market began immediately. The whole family joined us – all the aunts and uncles and cousins. The next weekend, close to everyone in Elbow turned out. I hauled away boxes of canned goods and disassembled shelving until my arms and legs and back throbbed, and then woke up the next day and did it again. Frank helped a crew working on a greenhouse-type addition at the back of the store for the winter months, when the rain would deter even the most diehard picnickers.
Frank told me he was looking forward to having his coffee by the fire in the mornings. We stared at each other for a long moment, his eyes saying how much he missed Joe. I hadn’t seen him enough since Joe died; he’d come by a few times, but it had just felt awkward and sad, both of us lonely for the same person, neither of us able to be that person for the other. Lizzie even stopped by with a big cooler full of drinks and snacks. She nodded in my direction but talked to David, not me, then slipped back out, waving to and hugging one person after another. I wondered if she’d talked to Paige, if they’d mocked myWhat are your intentions?question.
But Paige had called Annie only a few times since our conversation, and I hoped that she might be pulling back a bit. At least I kept telling myself that she was.
At first, the fact that we were taking apart Joe’s store lay thick and cold as the morning fog, and we moved hesitantly, quietly. Me wondering: Why didn’t we do this a long time ago, together? Why did Joe have to die before we fixed this? But the mood lightened when I began to feel Joe cheering us on. I saw what it must have been like for him to feel it slipping away, that it had begun to represent failure and that perhaps from wherever he was now, he might be relieved. Maybe even proud.
I was taking down the family photographs when Joe Sr came up and said, ‘Where are you going to put those?’
‘I’m not sure, but definitely in a prominent place. Where do you think they should go?’
He took one from me. It was an old black-and-white. Someone had written in black in the corner,Capozzi’s Market, 1942.Grandma Rosemary stood with two boys in front of the store.
‘Which one was you?’ I asked.
He pointed to the youngest, a boy of about seven or eight wearing a tilted cap and a smudge on his face. The other boy looked like a teenager. ‘I didn’t know you had an older brother.’
He nodded. ‘He died in the war. Fighting for this country.’
‘I’m sorry. That must have been hard.’ He nodded again, still staring at the photograph. ‘Hey, where’s Grandpa Sergio? Is he taking the picture?’
He shook his head. ‘No. He gave his son to fight against Italy, but he wasn’t a citizen yet, so . . .’
I held up another photo, also dated 1942. ‘He’s not in this one, either.’
‘No, honey. My papa wasn’t around when those pictures were taken . . . Like I’ve said, he had to go away for a while.’ These photos were taken when he was in the camps. I knew but I didn’t ask. And with that, Joe Sr handed back the photo and turned and walked out the door. I understood. I’d grown up in a family that didn’t talk about certain things, and I felt most at home not asking the questions.
I shuffled through the frames until I came to one, taken later, on the same front porch, with Sergio, Joe Sr, and Joe, as a toddler. Joe’s arms were up, as if he were about to call a touchdown. Both men smiled down at him.
I forced myself to get up in the morning to do not only the things I needed to do, but also some of the things I loved. I fulfilled my duties at the store and spent time with Annie and Zach. Sometimes, in moments that felt a bit like grace, I combined the two, having them help me with restocking, deciding what picnic spots would be featured on the Life’s a Picnic map, which Clem Silver had agreed to draw; he’d even ventured down to the store for a meeting.
At the store, I kept pulling out craft projects for the kids, and in between sanding and painting and hammering, I’d sit down to join them. I found an odd satisfaction in making messes and cleaning them up. I tried to keep my mind clear of anything but the task at hand, whether it was mixing shrimp and mango curry salad or deciding on a pattern for a beaded necklace, then following it exactly: two blue wooden beads followed by three green glass beads followed by one silver. No surprises. As predictable as the minutes ticking by. Until the time I pulled too hard and the string broke, scattering beads under the refrigerator case so that I could retrieve only enough to make a bracelet. And I remembered that even time – especially time – was far from predictable.
We worked in the garden too – harvesting more vegetables than we could ever use. I took bags of artichokes, tomatoes, basil, and more to Marcella and David, who added them to our menu creations.
I made juice Popsicles for Annie and Zach like my mom had made for me, in her old Tupperware Popsicle mould. I even filled Dixie cups with a Milk-Bone and chicken bouillon and froze them for Callie. I was on top of things in a way I never had been. Certainly, I assured myself, in a way Paige had never been and never could be. I was the poster woman for the perfect widow/mother/store saver/dog lover.
But then something would remind me that I really wasn’t all that.
One day I opened the freezer to find Zach’s action figure frozen in a plastic cup of solid ice. Batman lay cold, masked, unmoving, his right arm reaching out for me, urging me to set him free. Zach ran in, sweaty and smudged, asking for apple juice. I held out the human Popsicle, and he said, ‘Mr Freeze zapped him.’ For days, whenever I opened the freezer, I found another victim of Mr Freeze’s in a pie plate or plastic container: Spider-Man, Superman, Robin; apparently even villains like the Joker and Catwoman could not dodge Mr Freeze’s ice machine.
I left them, but soon there was no room in the freezer. ‘Zach,’ I said. ‘Honey? What do you want to do with all these frozen guys? We don’t have any room.’
He shrugged. ‘Ican’t do anything. Dr Solar has to rescue them.’
I asked him when he thought Dr Solar might show up.
He looked out at the fogless morning. ‘Today probably.’
Later, as I hung up clothes on the line, admiring how Grandma Rosemary had held it all together with Sergio gone – part of me tempted to pretend Joe was unfairly locked behind a chain-link fence with barbed wire instead of under a headstone – I heard Zach let out a scream that gave me goose bumps, even in the warm sunshine. I ran up to the house. Zach stood on the back porch, face red, tears streaming.
‘Look what you made me do!’ he wailed.
On the porch, in the direct sun, were the seven plastic containers Zach had lined up that morning, action figures floating facedown in the melted ice.
‘Now they’ve allDROWNED!’
‘Oh, honey . . .’ Why hadn’t I thought this through?
‘And they’reDEAD! And they’re never, ever, ever coming back! Even when I’m a big boy.’
I wanted to save every one of the masked hard bodies, the Caped Crusader, the Boy Wonder. I dumped out the water, pointed out that they all had superhuman powers, anyway, and could defy their untimely deaths. Zach had spent hours playing with them every day, and I wanted him to keep enjoying them. But he insisted on burying them. He wanted to have a funeral for them. And I didn’t try to fix this for him, because I couldn’t fix the rest.
So I held him while he sobbed, and I helped him bury the plastic bodies out behind the chicken coop. Zach never asked me again when Daddy was coming back.
He began to understand, bit by bit, then more and more, the difference between Joe’s death and Paige’s departure, and life’s never-ending track of good-byes.
By mid-September, the kids had started school, and we were ready to reopen the store.
We kept the old capozzi’s market sign and, just under it, hung the new sign, life’s a picnic. There was still plenty of picnic weather during the Indian summer, and then the mostly pleasant fall days before the rains set in. But even in the winter, there would be plenty of sunshine between storms that would be perfect for picnickers. The greenhouse addition would provide a backup spot for when the rainstorms came in the deep of winter, and we also set round café tables and chairs on the covered front porch and in one corner of the store, near the woodstove.
Most of the aisles were gone. The deli counter ran along one entire wall. We’d stocked it with an abundance of cold salads – everything from curry chicken to eggplant pasta, and of course Elbow’s famous elbow macaroni salad, which was your basic macaroni salad with salami thrown in, but we called it famous because of the Elbow connection. We offered sandwiches of every kind imaginable, including our Stuffed Special, made from hollowed-out bread rounds and filled with layers of meats, cheeses, vegetables, and pesto. Everything was made from scratch with fresh ingredients, locally grown whenever possible, grass-fed beef, free-range chickens, no hormone additives, and a whole lot of organic. I knew enough about biology and growing vegetables that I had become a pesticide paranoid, and I wanted to make sure that I was nourishing our customers, not slowly poisoning them. Yes, it was more expensive to use top-quality ingredients, and yes, our prices reflected that, but my gut – which happened to be fairly healthy, as far as I knew – was telling me people were ready for Life’s a Picnic.
In the centre of the store, Peruvian and Guatemalan picnic baskets of different shapes and sizes were on display. Blankets and tablecloths hung from hooks down the sides. Retro board games of all kinds – Sorry!, Scrabble, checkers, and more – were set out to play; new ones were available to buy. There were four half aisles between the eating area and the deli counter, stocked with wines, crackers, and speciality food items. Behind those were the glass-doored refrigerator cases, stocked with beer, soft drinks, juices, and twelve different kinds of water. Bottled Cokes cooled on ice in the newly restored old-fashioned Coke machine, which I’d unburied from a corner of Marcella and Joe Sr’s barn. Joe had always intended to restore it and use it at the market but hadn’t got around to it. With my new appreciation for not putting things off until ‘someday’, I’d called a place in Santa Rosa called Retro Refresh.
We’d painted the walls a pale goldenrod that took three tries to get right, but as I stood in the middle of the store the day before we opened, the sun-washed plaster was warm and cheerful and actually made me smile. I stood in the middle of it all, aware that the corners of my mouth both turnedup;there I was, a smiling fool of a woman about to open a store called Life’s a Picnic only a few months after her husband had died. Life’s atripwas more like it.
We’d sent out press releases to every publication and radio and even TV station within California. Just in case, David had said, it was the slowest news day in history and someone wanted to do a story on us.
The only thing missing was the map of the picnic sites. Clem Silver, who was a nationally recognized illustrator and painter, had said he’d have it ready, but we were opening in less than twenty-four hours, and no one had heard from Clem. The problem was exacerbated by the fact that Clem never answered his phone. When I’d questioned him on that one, he’d said, ‘What kind of town recluse answers his phone?’ He had a point. Clemwasknown to keep to himself. He lived up in the forest, in the dark shade of the redwoods. He had long white hair he wore in a ponytail, he had long fingernails stained with paint, and he smoked long ladies’ cigarettes – Virginia Slims menthol. Apparently, he also took a long time getting his work done.
The door chimed and David and Gil came in carrying boxes and bags with Annie and Zach dragging in metal buckets of kindling to set by the woodstove. Marcella followed with armfuls of hydrangeas. Lucy brought more wine.
I said, ‘Lucy, I’ve got to track down Clem Silver. I know he lives up in the shadies, but I don’t know where exactly.’
‘Just follow Spiral Road all the way, past the sign that says beware of artist. It’s the last house, about a quarter mile past what you’llthinkis the last house.’ She pointed to the door. ‘You’re doing great. I’ve got the kids and everything here covered. Go.’
‘Are you sure? You’re dealing with harvest.’
‘Crush will go on without me. And I needed a break from jeans and boots and purple stains. Go. And, El? Take your time. Take a break. Please.’
Lucy straightened her cream velvet hat, turned around with a swirl of her long paisley skirt, and called Annie and Zach to help with the tablecloths.
I ducked out the front door, glad to get away for a walk. I headed up the street, passed the tiny postage stamp-size post office and the two restaurants and the Elbow Inn, passed the Nardinis’ house and the Longobardis’ and the McCants’, then crossed the busier road that divided the town of Elbow from the forest.
I walked the steep single-lane Spiral Road, which did, indeed, spiral the hill. The founders of this town had certainly been literal with some of their names. But it was the Southern Pomo Indians who had first referred to this area as the Shady Place. They would set up only temporary camps in the dark redwoods; they preferred to live in the sun-drenched oak-studded hills. The Kashaya Pomo even called themselves ‘the People from the Top of the Land’, as if to boast, ‘We live in thenice, sunnyneighbourhood.’
Then the whites started moving in to lumber. After they built the railroad, San Franciscans began taking the train up to fish and play along the river. Some of them built summer homes in the forest, but few lived there yearlong, and that was still true. A lot of people who had houses in the shadies fled to places like Palm Springs for the winter.
I kept walking, taking the hairpin turns and pausing now and then to catch my breath. The houses sat farther and farther apart, the higher I went.
Finally, ahead, a sign that said, sure enough, beware of artist. Farther up I could see a house, but it was not the house I’d expected, not that of a man who rarely cut his hair or his fingernails.
This was a house that had been built with care and concern for every planed piece of wood, for every river rock fitted perfectly in the massive chimney and foundation. It was positioned so that it was never going anywhere. The hill could slide in an avalanche of mud and trunks, but the destruction would likely divide into two forks to go around this house, leaving it untouched. The front door held panes of stained glass and greened copper detailing and was flanked with pots of tiny white flowers trimmed in red, called lipstick salvia. A row of different sized and shaped chimes seemed to stir in their sleep, then settled back into the quiet. I knocked and set off waves of barking from somewhere deep inside.
A raspy voice said, ‘Petunia! Pipe down, girl. No need to get your britches in a bunch, Jerry.’ He opened the door and took a long look at me. He had on an old Cal sweatshirt, covered in paint stains, a pair of grey baggy sweats. His ponytail was draped over his shoulder and lay like a skinny mink stole down his chest. ‘Oh! Ella Beene! Come in, come in.’ He turned and scuffed down the hallway in lambskin slippers. The dogs, who had stopped barking, took an inventory of me too, then, seemingly unimpressed, turned to follow Clem. I stepped inside.
It was warm and golden with lamplight. ‘Wow,’ I said. ‘I love your place.’
He turned, pleased. ‘Why, thank you. I like it too.’
‘It’s beautiful here in the forest.’
He nodded, kept nodding. ‘Yes, yes! Makes you understand how this was all under the sea three hundred million years ago.’ He smiled. ‘Wait, I should offer you tea. Or coffee?’
I opted for tea, and while he fixed it, he talked. ‘People think I live up here to get away from the river, because of the flooding and what I went through as a child.’
‘What was that?’ I asked.
‘Oh . . . I forget you’re not from around here . . . It’s an old story. Old, old story. But actually’ – he pulled down a box of tea bags – ‘because of what happened to Joe Jr . . .’ He looked at me, nodding. ‘Yes, I think you might like this story.’
So Clem Silver told me about the flood of ’37, back when he was a toddler. His family had lived on the river, three houses down from where Marcella and Joe Sr lived, where the Palomarinos lived now. Clem wandered off and no one could find him. Everyone evacuated except for his mother and father, who were frantically looking for him. The river rose, and just as his mother picked him up from his study of a spiderweb behind the woodpile, a surge of water broke through and tore him from her arms, passed him downriver, out of her reach, then out of her sight.
‘I remember hearing my mother’s screams and being afraid, and then my ears and eyes and mouth filled with churning, followed by a beautiful quiet, like I’d never heard before. And up above me, this beautiful beam of light.
‘Now, you hear people talk about their near-death experiences, about going towards “the light” and all that. But in my case, being down in that dark river water, the light was all I saw, all I needed to see, and it led me to the surface, to air, to more years of life – not some heavenly encounter – which suits me just fine.
‘But, Ella Beene? I’ve gotta tell you this: I almost drowned that day, and it was the most peaceful feeling I’ve ever had. I’ve been looking for that feeling ever since. And I think that in some peculiar way – and let’s face it, I’m peculiar in every way – that’s why I settled in this forest. It’s the closest thing I can come to being at the bottom of that river.’
‘You felt peaceful down there?’
‘Yes.’ He crossed his arms. ‘I know it seems strange, but yes, I did.’
I stared at his grey whiskered chin, his pale moist eyes. ‘Thank you for telling me that story,’ I said, looking away, glancing around the room, trying to keep from blubbering. ‘Andthisdefinitely feels peaceful here.’
He said his ex-wife couldn’t take the darkness. ‘“You’re an artist,” she kept after me. “Don’t you need a light-filled studio?” I guess I was just as stubborn about staying put, a barnacle on a rock. But I appreciate the light that has to push its way through. The contrasts are what interest me the most. I notice the light more here, how it pours down like an elixir. Darkness forces our focus on the relevant, while the irrelevant fades away. How’s that for artsy-fartsy talk? Here, Ella Beene, let me show you your map. I imagine this is what you came all this way for.’
I followed him, Petunia and Jerry out to his studio, which was more of the dishevelled shack I’d pictured him living in. There, on his table scattered with paints, old Orange Crush cans, and stuffed ashtrays, was the map.
I held it out before me: a fairy-tale-style treasure map to magical places, in colours and textures that were both natural and luxuriant. ‘This isit. Thisis going to make the whole concept of Life’s a Picnicwork.’
‘So you like it, then?’ He chuckled. ‘I can go ahead and make the copies?’
‘I love it.’ I hugged him, this old wizard who smelled of stale cigarettes and turpentine and knew enough alchemy to get inside my head and put on paper what I had blindly been working towards, who’d told me a story that had somehow made me feel better.
I left the golden warmth of Clem’s house, and my mind slowed to absorb the cool, still quiet, to feel and see it fully, as I hadn’t on the hasty walk up. Rusty pine needles carpeted the narrow road, muting my steps. The sloped land was a tangle of thick ivy, sword ferns, elk clover, redwood sorrel, blackberries, and poison oak. Bay trees and Douglas fir and tanbark oak looked more like bushes than trees next to the redwoods, which grew so high, I had to crane my neck back just to see the blue patch of sky floating at the top of this shadow world. Some of the houses were hobbit-like, clinging to the hill, glowing light from tiny windows in the noon darkness. Two shacks had slid with part of the hill, probably years ago; they had ivy growing through the siding, staking its claim. One house was recently burned hollow, charred black inside like the burned-out stumps of redwoods that still stood from fires long ago. Some of the places were lovely – older summer homes built at the turn of the century that had been kept up, while others were more modern, with lots of windows and skylights to let in the few shafts of filtered light.
Vines of ivy climbed and hung from the trees, almost like seaweed. It was dark and so quiet.
Like being underwater.
It had been almost three months. Three months! How was it possible? That I would never see him again, wiping his forehead with the back of his hand in the garden, grinning – or pointing his camera, his body curved like a comma as if to sayPause here andseethis moment? Or juggling oranges at the market? Did we have oranges at the new store? Did I forget the oranges? Joe would have remembered the oranges.
There was the way he’d pick up Annie and Zach in one fell swoop, one in each arm, their laughter, their delightedDaddy Daddy Daddys. The way he’d swing them around the room and trot them on his knees, saying Grandpa Sergio’s old ditty:Giddy-up, pony, We’re on our way to Leonis, To pick up some macaroni, So don’t give me any baloney, Just giddy-up, pony . . . giddy-up!and right at that point, launch them into the air.
Was he somewhere, watching? Did he know about the store? Did he approve? Was he happy, relieved, pissed off ? Had I freed him to go on to be reincarnated or reach nirvana or become an angel or whatever it was he was supposed to go do?
There in those woods, I understood whyenchantedso often precededforest.There is a sense of the mystical, of the otherworldly, when you’re surrounded by ancient living grandeur. When one beam of particled light looks celestial and another looks like it might be the product of a sorcerer’s experiment. The air smelled of bay leaves, of loam, of wood fires and pine needles and mist – even though it was a warm, sunny dayout there . . .andway, wayupthere.I remembered reading that in the redwood canopy, scientists had discovered copepods – crustaceans that were part of the diet of grazing baleen whales. No one knew exactly how they got there, but anyone could imagine. The sparrows that flew by could have been a school of minnows. It was that kind of dreamy place; I could be walking on a sea-floor; Joe could come swimming by.
How long had it been since I’d passed a house? Where was I? I was fantasizing about my dead husband swimming through the forest, and I had a store full of food and relatives depending on my return, not to mention my sound mental health. I didn’t want to be the woman who got lost on her way back from picking up amap.But what was all this about, really? I’d spent months remodelling the store, a new beginning that was also trying to save some part of Joe. It had felt good to have a project, to be so busy, so distracted. To act the part of a redwood, towering above, reaching for the sun.
But some part of me wanted to hide here under the fern fronds. To sleep with the slugs.
A twig snapped and my head jerked up. Above the road, a black-tailed doe stared me down with her huge ink-puddle eyes. Another snap, and I saw her two fawns below me, their spots fading in the early autumn, their legs still as fragile as wineglass stems. I stayed very still while the mama deer held my gaze.I know how you feel,I wanted to tell her.We are one, you and I.But I realized she saw me as the intruder, the one in between her and her babes. I didn’t move. She must have finally signalled to them, because the fawns pranced across the road, right in front of me, so close I could have reached out to touch them, before the three of them bounded up the hill, disappearing into the forest.
I ran the rest of the way back to the store. Back to Annie and Zach.
The next morning, I lay in bed thinking about Clem’s story, when I felt Zach climb under the covers and let out one of his long, meandering exhales until I opened my eyes. He rubbed his cheek with Bubby’s ear and stared at the ceiling.
‘I miss Batman. And Robin. I want them to come to the big, big party but theyCAN’T.And DaddyCAN’T.And I’m allALONE.’
‘I’ll be there, and Annie will be there.’
‘I mean boys.’
‘Uncle David? All your buddies?’
He sighed again. It seemed cruel that his favourite toys lay unnecessarily buried behind the coop when he needed them more than ever.
‘Well?’ I was winging it as I went. ‘Daddy died for real, so he can’t come. But Batman and Robin are pretend, so maybe, just maybe, they didn’t really drown.’
He jumped up, eyes wide. ‘Really?’ I nodded. He said, ‘But we sawed them. They were drowned for real.’ He fell back on the bed and buried his head in Joe’s pillow.
‘Well? Yesterday? I heard an amazing story that a wise old man told me.’
‘A true story? Or a pretending story?’
‘True. Absolutely. When he was a little boy, even littler than you, healmostdrowned.’
Zach gasped, and for a minute I was afraid the whole thing would backfire. ‘Did he die like Daddy?’
‘Well, no, he didn’t. He almost died. He was under a lot of water. And he said he felt happy, even though he was almost drowned. But then he came to the top of the water and breathed in air and he lived.’
‘Did a mermaid save him?’
‘No. Remember? True story.’
‘So I was thinking . . . Maybe Batman and Robin onlyalmostdrowned.’
‘And Catwoman? And the Joker too?’
‘Every plastic being you can think of.’
Now he was jumping up and down on the bed, whooping and hollering. We raced outside, still in pyjamas, the dewy meadow grass licking our feet. I grabbed the shovel, with Callie joining in the digging once she saw what we were up to, and we had our own little action-figure Easter celebration, as we dug up one mud-caked plastic body after the other – the heroes and even the villains – redeemed now from their sins, born again the very morning that Capozzi’s Market would experience its own joyous and miraculous rebirth.
Most of the town of Elbow turned out for the opening. They filled the store, spilling out onto the porch and the street, and even Clem Silver walked down to sign maps. The owners of the Elbow Inn brought their large historical photo of the picnickers on the river, framed and tied with a bow, to hang on the wall. I was glad and appreciative to see everyone, but I also knew that Life’s a Picnic was not going to survive on neighbourly goodwill alone. For one thing, each one of them could go home and pack their own picnics at a fraction of the cost. We needed hungry tourists. We needed wealthy out-of-towners.
We needed a boatload of publicity.
I grabbed David’s arm. ‘So where are the hordes of press?’
He patted my hand. ‘Oh, don’t worry. They’ll trickle in over the next few weeks. But I’m expectingsomeonewill show up today. Isn’t it marvellous? Everyone loves it!’
‘I heard Ray Longobardi talking about how he might need to take out another mortgage so he can go on a frickin’ picnic.’
‘Ray Longobardi is hardly our target market. Don’t pay attention tohim.His idea of a picnic is a Spam sandwich on Wonderbread with an Old Milwaukee.Iheard Franny Palomarino raving about the luscious raspberry-painted porch furniture, and that this was the best chicken curry salad she’d ever tasted in her entire life. Do your lurking by Franny and maybe you’ll calm down.’
Frank walked in carrying a basket of handmade soaps. Lizzie had her own very successful soap-making business she operated from their old barn. ‘Lizzie couldn’t make it,’ he said. ‘But she sent these.’
I took the basket. ‘That’s nice.’ We both knew that she could easily have made it to the opening, but what she couldn’t do was be my friend. ‘Tell Lizzie I said thank you.’ Frank hugged me and set off to overload his plate.
Annie wore an outfit similar to mine that she’d picked out, clogs with leggings, a long peasanty top. She’d asked me to pull all her hair back into a French braid, so her perfect pearl of a face glowed as she said to one of her friends from school, ‘You would notbelievehow long it took to get these tablecloths arranged just right.’
I went over to her and said, ‘You’ve done a great job with the place.’ She beamed even brighter. Zach whizzed through with Batman and Robin and a trail of little boys following him. I opened the door. ‘The fresh air is calling.’ They ran out.
Lucy sat on the front porch. ‘Don’t worry, I’m still watching him. They just made a beeline before I could lay my body down in front of the door.’
‘Thanks.’ I looked around. ‘Seen anyone jotting down notes, maybe carrying a microcassette recorder?’
She shook her head. ‘Not yet.’
I shrugged, then started setting up glasses, filling them with champagne and apple cider, and passing them out. I gathered everyone outside, in front of the porch like they had been on every Fourth of July. I stood on the porch like Joe always had and raised my glass. ‘To get this done? In just a couple of months? A downright miracle. You are people who not only show up, but work harder and longer than humanly possible. Who even bring food! Who babysit! I know I didn’t grow up here in Elbow. But I hope you consider me one of yours. Because I sure do. Here’s to you, Elbow, California. Here’s to Grandma Rosemary and Grandpa Sergio, who planted the seeds, Marcella and Joe Sr, who nourished with their blood, sweat, and tears. And finally, to Joe, who loved picnicking, loved this place, loved all of you. Thank you.’ We hung his apron and the photo of Joe, his dad, and his grandfather, and toasted to the great success of Life’s a Picnic.
Walking home, with the kids’ hands in mine, I felt both giddy and bone tired. Everyone – with the exception of Ray Longobardi – had raved about the food, the store, the map, and how this was going to boost business for the restaurants, the canoe and kayak rentals, and the Elbow Inn. The only disappointment had been the lack of any press coverage, but I realized opening a picnic store wasn’t page-one news. Just then a young, slightly overweight man bustled towards us. He wore slacks and skater shoes, a windbreaker. ‘Ella? Ella Beene?’ he asked.
He had reporter written all over him. Finally! ‘Yes, that’s me. And yes, I am the owner, or I should say,oneof the owners. But the original idea came to me when I –’
‘So you’re Ella Beene? I need to give you these.’ He unzipped his windbreaker and pulled out a manila envelope. ‘Sorry. It’s just my job,’ he said, in an awkward attempt to sound friendly. He turned and jiggled back across the street, crouched into his Hyundai, and drove off.
I stared at the envelope. It had my name handwritten on it, with my address and the address of the store, nothing else. I knew what it was.
Annie tugged on my arm. ‘Mommy? Was that the man with the news?’
I settled the kids into bed and fired up the woodstove. I plopped down on the couch, braced my feet on the trunk, told myself the envelope held something other than what I feared most.
Maybe just another loose end of Joe’s, more financial bad news.Let it be that. I can deal with that.The tirade I had in the garden when I’d first realized how deep the money problems ran seemed silly now. I considerednotopening the envelope, set it down, picked it back up. The fire popped and I jumped. Taking a deep breath, I pulled out the papers and began reading the petitioner’s, Paige Capozzi’s, declaration:
I am the mother of two children, Annie Capozzi, age six, and Zach Capozzi, age three. Their father, Joseph Capozzi, was recently killed in a drowning accident. I am asking that the children be allowed to live with me, their mother, and that full custody be granted to me.
And why in the hell do you think anyone would let that happen? Why you? The whole town of Elbow knows Annie and Zach better than you do.
I suffered severe postpartum depression after the births of both of my children. When Zach was an infant, I became unable to function as a mother, and, although it was extremely painful for me, I felt it was in the best interest of my children to leave them in the care of their father in order for me to get the medical and psychological treatment I desperately needed.
My condition was temporary, but months later, when I attempted to resume contact with my children and their father, I was ignored. I wrote numerous letters, both to the children and to the father, but only the first few were answered.
Letters? Right, lady. You abandoned your children and your husband because you had a little case of the baby blues? And now you’re so desperate, you’re willing to lie?
I was recovering from illness and did not fully understand my rights with respect to custody, nor did I have the financial means or physical and mental stamina to fight the father for custody when he asked for a divorce. I concentrated on rebuilding my life with the intention of eventually reclaiming my right as the children’s mother. I have become a successful home stager. My job is lucrative, my schedule flexible. I have an office set up in my home and so am in the position to provide financially and emotionally for Annie and Zach. Although their stepmother has done an adequate job as a caregiver, Annie and Zach are suffering the loss of their father and need to be with their only living parent. I can give them the depth of love and support that only a real mother is capable of.
Oh, do not even get me started on what makes a real mother. Adequate? And let’s talk about exactly what it was that you were capable of doing, what you did to Annie and Zach, the one thing that no mother in her right mind would do to her children.
I am asking that they be allowed to live with me in Las Vegas, where I own a beautiful home in a neighbourhood full of young children, and that full custody be granted to me.
I declare under penalty of perjury that the foregoing is true and correct.
A mediation date was set for October 1; an order to show cause hearing, whatever that was, was set for November 3. And a demand for some documents, including the fictitious letters.
Joe hadn’t let on about just how much the store was struggling. I was shocked by that, but I couldalmostunderstand how it might happen; the store was Joe’s business, literally. He’d thought he could turn it around and no one – even me – would have to know how bad things had become. I hadn’t been involved in the day-to-day operations of the store. But the kids – that was different. When it came to Annie and Zach, Joe and I told each other every single thing. We went to their doctor’s appointments together, took Annie to her first day of kindergarten together, shared each of Zach’s new words – including the most colourful. Joe would have told me if Paige had tried to correspond with the kids. And I knew without question that Joe wasn’t cruel.
I threw the packet as hard as I could, but it wiggled feebly three feet in the air before slumping to the ground.
I think I slept twenty minutes that night. The next morning, as soon as I got back from taking the kids to school, I called the troops – all of Joe’s family, Lucy, my mom, Frank – and told them Paige had filed for custody. No one let on that they were worried. ‘No judge in his right mind would give custody to that woman,’ Marcella assured me.
Joe had handled the paperwork for his divorce without a lawyer, but I knew I needed one. Frank recommended someone, and I called her as soon as I hung up. She could squeeze me in during her lunch hour – could I make it? I left the kids with Marcella and made sure David and Gina could cover the store.
Driving in, I remembered the last time I’d gone to see a lawyer. It was when Henry and I decided to divorce. Henry, who had once, long ago, turned up as my cute lab partner in my Protists as Cells and Organisms class, said my name reminded him of L.L.Bean. He said he could picture me on a page from the catalogue, on the front porch of a cabin in Vermont, wearing a down vest and jeans and fishing boots, living a simple life. A couple of acres, a couple of kids. Sounded like a plan, and I was all for it.
But after Henry and I married, great jobs in the biotech industry lured us to San Diego and we moved into a peach stucco palace with easy freeway access amid hundreds of other peach stucco palaces. The joke around the Olympic-size pool in our gated community was that the houses stood so close together, when you wanted to borrow a cup of margarita salt, your neighbour could pass it to you through the bathroom windows.
‘We can alwaysretirein Montana,’ Henry said. While I floundered, then withered as a research assistant, aching to be wearing that down vest in the woods instead of a white coat in the lab, Henry thrived. He loved his job as a biochemist, loved the vast array of beaches and the non-array of weather, loved the sparsely furnished peach palace and our virgin SUV that never once ventured off the pavement to climb a mountain. It never even hauled kids to soccer games.
Then came all the miscarriages, all the misery that left us staring at each other on opposite ends of an empty, long dining room table. At Henry’s insistence, we each talked to lawyers. One said to me, ‘At least you don’t have children.’ I stared at her. I watched her flick a pea of lint off the sleeve of her expensive-looking jacket and fold her arms on the desk. ‘You’d be tied to him forever. You’d have to deal with him and then the stepmother, if he should remarry . . . which they always do. Immediately. Men want to be saved from single parenting and women want to save them.’ She raised a perfectly plucked eyebrow, her own Arc de Triomphe. ‘It’s a nightmare. The most you could hope for is someone who tolerates the kids.’ She shrugged. ‘Few people can really love a child the way a natural parent does. Consider yourself lucky.’
Henry’s meeting must have been just as dismal, because we both agreed to call off the lawyers and conquered the dividing on our own. I hadn’t remembered that lawyer’s words, how much they’d stung me then, and now they stung me again – for opposite reasons.
Gwen Alterman’s offices took up most of the third floor of a brick building in downtown Santa Rosa. She was older than she sounded on the phone, maybe in her early fifties, and larger than I’d pictured her. Photos of her and her husband and their three kids caught my eye. I wanted to ask her if she was a stepmom or their natural mother, but I didn’t. While she ate a Burger King chicken sandwich I told her my story. She handed me a box of Kleenex, which I gratefully took. I was on the clock, so I kept talking through the tears, apologizing, blowing my nose, telling her everything I could think of, even the fact that I was broke. She wrote notes and nodded, and once reached across her massive desk to pat my hand.
‘So,’ she said after I’d handed over the court documents and Joe’s divorce papers. ‘You’ve been hit. And hard. Let me ask you, were you ever appointed the children’s legal guardian? In case something did happen to your husband?’
‘No . . . no. We’d talked about it, but we never got around to it. Because it would require giving notice to Paige . . . and it didn’t look like she was ever coming back, anyway.’
‘I see. Well, that’s too bad. But even so, if there’s a God in this world, that woman shouldn’t have a chance. Judges usually look harshly on abandonment cases.’ She lifted her chained glasses from her matronly chest and set them on her face and began poring over the papers. I looked at the family photos and saw the unmistakable resemblance of both her and her husband to all three of their kids. No broken-blended family there.
Now Gwen Alterman looked at me over the top of her glasses and cleared her throat. ‘She claims to have attempted contact numerous times? That puts a different slant on things.’
‘Yes, but she’s lying,’ I said.
‘Do you know for a fact that she didn’t try to contact the children or their father? Because we’ve received a subpoena for those letters. If you have them, you have to turn them over.’
I shook my head. ‘I’ve been there since shortly after she left. I’ve never seen a trace of her.’ Except in Annie’s and Zach’s blue eyes and silky blonde hair, I thought. The one picture of her glowing and pregnant that I found in Joe’s Capturing the Light book. The paisley robe that Joe got rid of after the first night we were together.
‘What about your husband’s family? Have they had contact with her?’
‘No. They’re angry at her for leaving.’
‘Why, exactly, did she leave? Depression? A little funk and she leaves her kids for three years?’
‘That’s all I really know,’ I admitted. Gwen waited, peering at me over her glasses. ‘You’ve gotta know Joe’s family. No one really talks about this kind of thing. They’re warm, loving people. But they don’t like to talk about . . . you know . . . difficulties.’
I sighed. ‘Well, for example, I know Joe’s grandfather was sent to an internment camp during World War II, but no one talks about that. And our store was going under and Joe never told anyone how bad it was.’
‘Was Joe’s grandfather Japanese?’
I smiled. ‘No. But that’s what I thought when Joe mentioned it. Italians were sent too, just not nearly as many.’
She shook her head. ‘I had no idea . . . Really?’ Her phone buzzed once. She told her receptionist that she’d need another few minutes. ‘Tell me, did it ever occur to you to ask Joe about the details concerning why she left?’
I stared at her. ‘Um. No.’ I didn’t tell her how much I still, deep down, didn’t want to know any of those details. ‘Does she have a chance?’
‘There’s always a chance. But’ – she glanced over one of the divorce papers – ‘it looks like Joe’s request for custody was completely uncontested. She signed off on everything without any fight. Do your children even know who she is?’
‘Well, yeah – Annie remembers her. Zach doesn’t, but he’s certainly not afraid of her. He seems to like her. She’s very . . . pretty . . . and she’s okay with them, I guess.’
‘Pretty is as pretty does, honey, and leaving your babies is never pretty. Or okay. The children know you first and foremost as their mother. You’ve fed them and diapered them and been there for them for the past three years while she’s been God knows where? No. It is not in the best interest of the children for them to be taken away from their home, their loving stepmother, their relatives – I’ll need letters from every one of them, by the way – in order to live in a strange place with a stranger. Especially since they’re dealing with the trauma of losing their father. I think we have a strong case.’
I took a deep, shaky breath. ‘You don’t know how good that is to hear.’
She smiled again and took off her glasses. ‘So. Tell me. Are you sleeping? Eating?’
I shrugged. ‘Not much sleep. Some food.’
‘Try yogurt. Milk shakes. Whatever you can, because, honey, you are going to need every ounce of your skinny self. And your kids are going to need you too.’
‘I hate to lay this on you right now with everything else. But you’re going to have to find a source of income. And fast. It looks like she’s making bank – or at least she’s painting that picture. From what I’ve heard, that’s probably accurate if she’s involved in any aspect of real estate in Vegas right now. If your financial picture is as dismal as you’re saying it is, you might not appearableto support the children. If that new store of yours doesn’t start making money right away, you might have to come up with another plan. But I will say it shows initiative and pluck, and you’re preserving their family heritage, more than I can say for her.
‘And one more ugly detail: My retainer fee is five thousand dollars. I’ll need that to proceed. We should try to avoid a trial because that gets expensive. Then they’d do an investigation, get a social worker involved, interview teachers, doctors, family, friends – even the kids. But I really don’t think we’ll need to take this that far.’
I nodded again and tried not to look as hopeless as I felt. Why had I poured all my money into the store so soon? And my energy?
I could barely drag myself to the Jeep. I sat in the parking lot with my forehead on the steering wheel, my eyes burning with lack of sleep, and made myself turn the key in the ignition.
On the drive home the despair began rising. Notnow.I needed a plan. I needed to eat. And sleep. I needed to take care of my kids. What were they feeling right now? I had a flash of memory: how confused and lost I felt after my own father died. That night after the Great America fiasco, my mom had reassured me, saying how she and I had made it through Dad’s death, and we had. But I remembered those first months, how much I wanted my mom, and how blank her eyes went when I tried to talk to her. The sound of her TV through my wall all night, and when I came home from third grade, the drapes still closed, the porch light still on, the newspaper still on the front step, and my mother still in her nightgown. I could not do that; I needed to get the kids through this.
I needed to fight Paige. Make money. Stop sweating. Get my chest to stop hurting. Breathe. I wasn’t even doingthat.Why was I sweating? Did I have a fever? My chest hurt. My arm hurt. I still couldn’t breathe.
And then it all became clear: What I needed most was to get to a hospital.
Memorial Hospital was just around two corners, but I was afraid to keep driving, afraid I might run my car off the road and hit a pedestrian. I parked and cut across the street, almost getting hit myself. The sweat continued pouring down my face, my chest crushed with pressure. I was a thirty-five-year-old skinny woman who ate a boatload of organic vegetables. I was also the daughter of a man who’d died at age forty of heart disease. I walked into the emergency room, up to the check-in desk.
‘I think . . . I think I’m having a heart attack,’ I whispered.
She took one look at me and picked up the phone and shouted into it. ‘Possible cardiac arrest. Female. Thirty . . .?’
‘Five,’ I said. Within seconds I was on a gurney, answering questions. What were my symptoms? When did they start? How severe was the pain? Who should they contact?
Who should they contact?Joe,I thought.Contact Joe.‘My husband,’ I said. ‘But he’s dead.’
Who should they call? They asked again. Not Marcella – she was taking care of the kids. My mom was too far away. Who else was there? Lucy. They could call Lucy. I gave them her number along with my insurance card.
Four hours and five test results later, Dr Irving Boyle explained the fine intricacies of an anxiety attack, why I was the perfect candidate. He had a straggly grey beard that made him look more like a professor of philosophy than a doctor of medicine. He said, ‘Your heart is fine.’ He sat down on his stool and stuck his pen behind his ear and placed both hands on his knees. ‘Except for the fact that it’s broken. Sadness and depression can result in anxiety. Anxiety can result in the kind of attack you experienced today. Your husband’s recent death is taking its toll on you, both physically and emotionally. I’m very sorry for your loss. I want to suggest you try an anxiety inhibitor and possibly an antidepressant to get you over this bump.’
Thisbump? But I knew by the gentle sympathy in his eyes that he wasn’t minimizing anything. ‘So what you’re saying is, the good news is I’m not going to die of a heart attack, and the bad news is I’m not going to die of a heart attack?’ The look on his face made me add,‘Kidding.’
‘We take suicidal references seriously around here. And especially in folks who’ve suffered losses like you have. I can understand why you might be feeling that way, but you have your children to think about. You have a lot of life – and wonderful times – ahead of you.’ I nodded. ‘I know that. I do. There’s no way I’m bailing on my kids.’ I didn’t tell him that someone was trying to take them away from me. That the grief was only part of what I was feeling. That I was also terrified of losing Annie and Zach. He asked me if I was tired and I asked him if it was possible to die from sleep deprivation.
He prescribed Xanax to help me sleep and help with the anxiety. I told him I wanted to wait on the antidepressant, that it seemed natural to let any grief I was feeling run its course. I wasn’t depressed, I told him. Just tired and sad.
Lucy drove me home. Marcella had fed the kids and put their pyjamas on them, and the house smelled of eggplant Parmesan – Joe’s favourite – and SpongeBob bubble bath. ‘I’m sorry,’ I told her, but she waved her hand.
‘No worries. We had fun. How you doing? You doing okay?’
I squeezed her hand and nodded, but I felt so Not Okay. I’d spent most of the day in the hospital only to discover that I was a nervous wreck. A head case. Not completely unlike Paige.
Annie came running out of their room. ‘Mommy! Mommy!’ she sang. I hadn’t seen her that happy since before Joe’s death. I scooped her up in my arms. Her delight in seeing me worked like a salve for my soul. ‘Can I tell her now? Can I?’ she said to Marcella. Marcella shrugged, turned, untying her apron. ‘Mommy? Guess what!’
‘You cleaned your room?’
‘No, silly.’ She ruffled my hair again. She’d been doing that a lot lately. I wasn’t quite ready for parent-child role reversal. ‘Mama invited us to Lost Vegas! She wants Zachosaurus and me to visit her next weekend!’
The next morning, at the store before it opened, while I made risotto cakes and brought the puttanesca sauce to a boil, I called Gwen Alterman and asked her what I should do about Paige’s request. ‘And I can’t stand that she’s manipulating Annie. That’s got to stop.’
Gwen agreed. ‘Making the request through the kids is fighting below the belt. I’ll send her counsel a letter today to put an end to it. Now. You could say no about the visitation . . . and then they’d probably file a motion to compel. We’d need a psychological evaluation to show that she’s not wacko, or that she won’t steal the children. But you also don’t want to look like you’re antagonistic to a relationship between the children and their birth mother.’ She paused, and I pictured her taking a multiple-choice test, weighing the answers, while I turned the burner down to let the sauce simmer. ‘You don’t want to come across as a jealous, overbearing type. You’re loving. You’re open to some visitation. But it’s best for the kids to live with you. Period.’
I listened. I remembered to breathe. I held the phone with my shoulder, set down the copper mould for the risotto cakes, poured a glass of water, and opened the bottle of Xanax from my purse under the counter. Joe used to tease me about my reluctance to take medicine, even an aspirin. But after my afternoon in the emergency room, the Xanax felt necessary. As I took one, it occurred to me for the first time that even if everything went my way in this case, Paige was still going to be a part of our lives. Forever. Unless she decided to disappear again. But visitation meant her and the kids . . . hanging out. On some kind of regular basis.
‘Look,’ Gwen said. ‘I’ll request a psych evaluation. They’ll say no. I’ll get a court order. At least it’ll buy us some time.’
But that evening, as I chopped a bucketful of kale at home, she called me back. ‘I don’t believe this, but I’ve got a psych evaluation in my hand. Faxed over by Paige’s attorney. She had one done a week ago, and she checks out. We’re talking flying colours. Of course, we can order another psych eval from a doctor we choose, but then they’ll want to have one done on you.’
I took another Xanax and wondered how I’d fare on a psych eval right then. ‘Oh,’ I said.
Gwen sighed. ‘We can fight this and win.’
That sounded good – but for whom? Not for the kids, and I told her so.
Zach bellowed from the next room, ‘I’mtelling!’ and I waited for him to bolt into the kitchen, but he didn’t follow through.
‘Zach is too young to go on the plane without me. How about this? She can come here and visit them in the area.’
‘Say within a thirty-mile radius? What about overnight?’
I sighed. ‘Okay . . . Yes.’
‘Then we cross our fingers that this is a wake-up call and she’ll realize being a mommy is way over her head.’
I went to check on the kids. Annie had pulled out the little pink suitcase Marcella had bought her for overnights and was filling it up with the dresses she rarely wore.
‘I’m packing for Mama’s house. It’s not in the country like this one is,’ she explained.
‘Hence the dresses?’ I asked.
She nodded. ‘Hence the dresses.’
Zach said, ‘I don’t wanna wear dresses. They’re barfy.’
‘Banannie, I think your mama is going to come and visit you here –’
‘What? No!’ She stamped her foot. ‘That is so boring! I want to go on the plane!’
‘You will . . . someday. But for this first time, she’s going to come here. Maybe you’ll get to stay at a hotel.’
‘A big hotel?’
‘Hotels are barfy too.’
‘Zach, what’s with all the barf ? Do you have a tummy ache?’
‘No! I’m just packing myBAR FYjay-jays and myBAR FYclothes.’
‘I see . . . Annie, I don’t know if the hotel is big. You’ll have to ask your mama.’
‘At a big hotel, I could wear my dresses. I want to looksophisticated.Like Mama.’ She added her black patent leather shoes that she’d worn to the funeral. She didn’t pack her little Birkenstocks and clogs that matched mine. She stood with her hands on her hips, scanning the closet. ‘I have nothing to wear,’ she said, pushing a blonde strand of hair off her face. Zach stood up, carried over his brontosaurus and an armful of Matchbox cars, and dropped them in his Thomas the Tank Engine suitcase. I picked him up and kissed his ear, and he laid his head on my shoulder and let out a long, tired sigh.
‘I know,’ I said. ‘Let’s watchThe Sound of Music.’
‘Again?’ Annie asked.
‘Sure,’ I said, shrugging. ‘Why not?’ I was hoping they’d fall asleep in my bed. I didn’t want to sleep alone.
‘Okay . . . I can finish this tomorrow, I guess.’
‘Sure you can. Get your jays on. I’ll make the popcorn and meet you in our room.’
Both kids did fall asleep early, by the time the storm hit the Von Trapp house and Maria sang ‘My Favourite Things’. When the dog bites. When the bee stings. When I’m feeling sad . . . When the husband dies. When the ex-wife tries . . . to take away my kids . . . I simply remember my favourite things. Then her confrontation with gorgeous Captain Von Trapp, Maria plotting to make play clothes out of the curtains.
Lucy called to check in. I told her what I was watching.
‘Maria. What a stepmom. What a role model. But then, she didn’t ever have to worry about their mother coming back, because she was dead.’
‘Itisa true story,’ I said. ‘I could use a Mother Superior who could tell me, in a moving rendition, what I should do. No, I need tobethe mother, superior. The superior mother, as judged by the court of the County of Sonoma.’
‘You, my dear, are clearly the mother superior. Oh, I love that gazebo scene. God. Christopher Plummer. I’ve loved him since I was, like, six. Call me later.’
I hung up. Joe was gone, but I did still have some of my favourite things. Digging in the garden with my kids, collecting eggs with the kids, walking into town with the kids on their bikes, Play-Doh and finger paints and beads, ironing crayon shavings between sheets of wax paper – all the messy things that I loved to do with them. Many other things besides watchingThe Sound of Music . . .again, as Annie and even Lucy had pointed out.
Dr Irving Boyle was right. Because of Annie and Zach, I had a lot to live for. I was not only their mother; I was a good mother, a superior mother. We just needed to keep doing our favourite things. A weekend with Paige wasn’t going to threaten what we’d taken three years to establish. Gwen Alterman was right too: It would only help our cause. Imagine Paige with her perfectly manicured nails covered in barfy finger paints. Ha!
Annie and Zach and I sat on the couch in the not-so-great room. Callie went from one to the other of us, pushing her head and her backside into us, thwacking us with her tail, panting. The pink suitcase was packed to the gills, along with Zach’s Thomas the Tank Engine suitcase; they waited by the door. At 10:15 a.m. – precisely when she said she’d arrive – Paige’s rental car turned up our drive. Callie galloped down the hallway with Annie, while Zach, holding his Bubby, stood and watched me. I wiped my palms on my jeans and tried to smooth my hair down.
Zach jumped into my lap. ‘Bella,’ he said, planting a kiss on my cheek, ‘you lookgorgeous.’
I laughed and planted my own kisses all over his face. I knew he’d taken that line from Joe. My insecurity must have been bouncing off the walls for a three-year-old boy to be prompted to flatter me. He wriggled free, and I stood up, remembered to breathe a few abdominal breaths, then walked into the kitchen and picked up a dish towel so it looked like I was busy doing something. I’d been cleaning all morning, but the house still looked cluttered. She probably wouldn’t even come in.
But she was already walking down the hallway and into the kitchen.
‘Annie let me in.’ She looked across to the great room. ‘I’ve been meaning to tell you, I like how you tore down that wall. It looks much better. I knew it would. Do you mind if I use the bathroom?’
I had started to clean the bathroom but got distracted and then forgot about it entirely. I considered telling her no, she could use the bathroom at Ernie’s Gas, but knew I couldn’t get away with that. ‘Oh? Oh, okay. It’s through – Well, you know where it is.’
‘I do,’ she said. While she was in there, I was kicking myself for not cleaning the bathroom. Ofcourseshe’d have to use it. She’d driven all the way from the airport. I thought of my new prescription in the medicine cabinet and the hard-water ring around the toilet. Joe’s aftershave that I kept on the counter for quick fixes. Would she open it, inhale it like I did, press some on her wrists? Or would she dump it down the toilet? Had I left my underwear on the floor? The old ones with the two rips around the elastic?
When she glided out, Zach ran over to me and grabbed my leg. I rubbed his back and handed her the kids’ health insurance cards, their pediatrician’s phone number, and some instructions including Annie’s allergy to Ceclor and Zach’s attachment to his Bubby. She didn’t smell like Joe’s aftershave, just her own jasmine citrus perfume, her signature scent that kept permeating my house. She took the insurance cards but handed me back Dr Magenelli’s number and the instructions. ‘Thanks. But I know Doc Magic and his number. Along with Annie’s allergy. And as far as instructions, Annie’s such a smart girl. I think she can help me with any questions that arise. But thanks, really. It was thoughtful.’ She tucked the insurance cards in her streamlined wallet, snapped it shut, slipped it back into her streamlined shoulder bag. She wore white pants and a peach silky shirt that looked perfect against her skin. She must have never covered herself with baby oil and baked in the sun on one of those foil-coated space blankets when she was a teenager. She looked slightly different from the last time I’d seen her. She’d cut her fringe, wispy, framing her eyes, making them look even bigger.
‘Let me get you their car seats,’ I said.
‘No need. The rental car has them built in. We’re staying at the Hilton in Santa Rosa.’ She turned to the kids. ‘Did you two pack your suits?’ They nodded.
Annie said, ‘And quite a few dresses.’
‘Excellent.’ Paige looked at her watch.
I said, ‘What a long day for you . . .’
‘Oh, I don’t mind. I’m thrilled to be able to see them. Okay, Annie, Zach, say good-bye to Ella.’
Ella? Nice try. And she didn’t need to tell my kids to say good-bye to me.
Zach said, ‘I wanna stay here.’
I bent down and smoothed his hair back. ‘You can call me anytime. And Annie will be with you. And Bubby. And you’ll be back tomorrow.’ He started hitting the ground with Bubby. ‘Okay, honey?’
He looked at Paige and slowly nodded. Annie took his other hand, and the three of us followed Paige down the porch steps. I knelt down and hugged them both maybe a little too long, and willed the tears to wait.
‘Bye, Mommy!’ they shouted from the car, waving as she drove them away. I watched until they disappeared around the bend, then watched the dust from the gravel dissipate in the morning air.
I slipped on Joe’s jacket, and Callie and I went down to the chicken coop, Callie zigzagging in front of me. We had four hens, Bernice, Gilda, Harriet and Mildred. When I reached under them, they’d each left me an egg, except for Mildred. She hadn’t been laying as much. I wondered if she was in mourning too. I slipped the three warm eggs in the pockets of Joe’s jacket and followed Callie back to the house.
I had a plan to keep occupied, to look for the documents Paige had requested. Gwen had said, ‘You’ll need to be able to tell the court that you’ve conducted a diligent search and you did not find the letters.’ I would go through the boxes and files in Joe’s office so I could sign off on that and be done with it.
I sat in his old office at Life’s a Picnic and went through the files, flipped through the books, and pulled up tax records I’d once blindly signed without even reviewing. The signs of financial doom flashed from documents I’d never bothered to look at. Like some kind of fifties housewife, I’d stayed out of the finances and spent my days tending to the children. It naturally happened that way; it hadn’t been a decision. It seemed to work for us then, but now I could see that it really wasn’t working at all. Joe hadn’t told me the truth, but some part of me clearly preferred it that way.
The door behind the file cabinet led to a storage area. The cabinet was too heavy to move, but I didn’t want to ask David for help, so I emptied out the drawers and then pushed and shimmied the shell until I could open the door. I pulled the string to turn on the bare lightbulb that hung from the rafter. The air smelled of mould – and memories. Stacked boxes, a few pieces of old dusty furniture; a mirrored dresser and a secretary’s desk that probably belonged to Joe’s grandparents. If there were any letters, I’d find them there.
I started going through boxes. Not the marked ones that said things likeJoey’s Baseball TrophiesorDavy’s Schoolwork.But the unmarked boxes in the corner. In the first one I opened, I found the paisley robe.
I recognized it immediately, the swirls of teal, of honey and periwinkle, and now I could see how it would highlight Paige’s eyes and complexion – even if she did wear it every day, all day, she still had looked amazing. Joe had saved it that evening after we met. He’d taken it from the hook on the back of the bathroom door, but he hadn’t thrown it out or given it away or even sent it to Paige. He’d kept it. Because he missed her? Because he hoped for her return? Had he locked his office door as I had just done, and moved the file cabinet and opened the box to take out the robe and inhale her perfume the way I’d inhaled every one of his shirts?
Or maybe he had just stuck it back there with some of her other belongings, not wanting to deal with any of it. Maybe he’d forgotten about it all.
There were other things that I could bet he didn’t care about. Old bottles of makeup. A box of tampons. A worn copy ofWhat to Expect When You’re Expecting.Some loose change and a brush still tangled with golden hair.