Authors: Mary Beth Keane
And when she did emerge after a few days, she usually emerged as Peter’s favorite version of his mother. She’d been tired and needed rest, Peter figured, and she’d gotten it. Often, after seeing only dim glimpses of her for days, he’d wake to the smell of bacon and eggs, pancakes. She’d greet him softly and then she’d watch him eat while she smoked a cigarette and blew the smoke out the back door. She was calm. Serene. Like
a person who’d been through a harrowing experience and was relieved to have arrived on the other side.
Maybe she was coming down with something, Peter thought as he put the chicken in the oven and searched the pantry for what might go along. A can of green beans. Something to make her happy. Maybe she’d caught the flu. He’d go up to her bedroom door and tell her it was all done. No need to worry. He could bring her a plate later or she could come down, whatever she felt like doing. He’d just gotten out a saucepan when he heard his father open the door. “Anne?” he called out, and then “Oh,” when he crossed into the kitchen to find Peter.
“School got out early.”
“Resting,” Peter said. “I was just—” He held up the can of beans.
“We’ll do that later, buddy. That’ll just take a minute when we’re ready to eat.”
Peter put the can down. He left the saucepan on the stovetop for later. “Well, then can I go out to play for a while? Some of the kids—”
“I saw them. Go on. Have fun.”
“The chicken is—”
“I’ll take care of it.”
The first shot of war had not yet been fired. The teams had assembled on the wide stretch of flat yard beside the Maldonados’ house. Kate saw him first. “We get Peter!” she called, and every head turned. “Did you find it?” she asked when he took his spot beside her. They’d drawn boundaries—one team would fire from behind the grove of trees, the other from behind Mr. Maldonado’s Cadillac.
“Not yet,” he said.
A snowball exploded on the front hubcap of the Caddy. In an instant, Peter, Kate, and the rest were returning fire, the cold burning their
hands, their cheeks, while under their coats their bodies grew warmer. As Kate gathered as many snowballs as she could, Peter crouched beside her, hammering them at the other team faster than she could make them. His nose running, his cheeks stinging, he forgot about the ship, about his mother, about the chicken drums he hoped his father would remember to take out of the oven. Kate was laughing so hard she fell face-first into a pile of snow.
Their side ran out of ammo. When half their team broke off to build up a store again, the ones who kept fighting got pelted, had to go lie down in the graveyard. “This sucks,” Kate’s sister Natalie said after a few minutes. “I’m going inside.” When she stood up and walked across the battlefield, skirting the dead bodies like they were nothing, the game collapsed and the battlefield became just a yard again, the soldiers became kids. One by one, the others emerged from cover and headed home. The snow began to fall in earnest.
“You coming?” Sara said to Kate as she headed for their front door. The three Gleeson sisters crisscrossed traits. Kate looked more like Natalie, but Natalie had dark hair and was at least four inches taller than Kate. Sara and Kate were both blond, but other than those two details they didn’t look at all alike. All three of them spoke with their hands, like their mother. “In a minute,” Kate said.
“You going in?” Kate asked Peter when it was just the two of them left.
“I guess,” he said.
“My mom made hot chocolate. We could take a thermos to the rocks.”
“I better not.”
“Okay,” she said, looking past him to his house, to the upstairs window where his mother was looking down at them. “It’s your mom,” Kate said, offering an uncertain wave. Then she dropped her hand and waited, as if giving Peter’s mother a chance to wave back. “My mom?” Peter wheeled around, cupped his hand to his eyes.
“That’s your room, isn’t it? Your window?” Kate asked.
By the time he stripped off his wet mittens, hat, scarf, coat, and boots and bounded up the stairs to his room, the ship was in bits. Some things came off easily as they were made to do in case they needed replacement. The jib, the boom, the crow’s nest. But the entire hull was in splinters. Seeing the raw, broken-open insides of wood that had been varnished to a shine was like seeing something naked and vulgar, and Peter had to look away.
“It was in the garage,” she said evenly. “It was just sitting there on the lid of the garbage can.”
“I know,” Peter said, astonished. He felt dizzy, confused. “That’s where I left it.” It came to him now in full color: hearing the hollow rumble of the school bus’s engine coming around the corner, running into his garage with the ship to place it somewhere safe until his return.
“You left it where it could slide right off and fall? You left it where it could get damaged? Why?”
“I was playing with it. I wanted to show it to Kate. You know, because I liked it. I really liked my present, Mom. And then I left it there because I heard the bus.” Peter looked at the wreckage strewn across his comforter and felt a roar come into his head. His mother put her fingertips to her temples and stood.
“Why would you want to show that girl? Why would you take it outside?”
“I don’t know. I just wanted her to see it.”
“Well that’ll learn you.” She crossed the room and slapped him hard across the mouth. “And that’ll learn you.”
Peter staggered back, his face numb at first and then, on a delay, his left cheek felt as if stung by a thousand needles. He touched the corner of his mouth with his tongue to search for blood. As he clutched his cheek, he looked around at his books, his poster of the solar system. What was he meant to learn? He really tried to see it. He felt like he was breathing through a straw.
“But you broke it,” he said. “It was okay when you found it. And then you smashed it.” His voice felt thick as he spoke and the pressure in his head was so heavy he was afraid something would burst. “You said it cost all that money. It didn’t get broken where I left it.” He felt wild all of a sudden. He flew to his bed and whipped the comforter and blankets off, and all the little bits of ship that hadn’t already been scattered went flying. He toppled the tower of books on his desk. He threw a basket of Magic Markers he kept on a shelf. He went to his windowsill and grabbed the snow globe she’d given him when he was just a kindergartner. Santa flying his sleigh high over the Empire State Building. He held it over his head.
Brian came running up the stairs to Peter’s room, still holding the remote control of the TV.
“What the hell is going on?” He saw the shipwreck. “Christ.”
Anne gathered her robe around her. “Ask him. Ask him how he treats nice things.” She came over to Peter and shoved him. “Ask him.” Another shove. “Ask him.”
“Stop it, Anne,” Brian said, pulling her away. “Stop.” He threaded his fingers behind his head and stood at the window for a moment with his back to them. When he turned he said, “Okay, Pete.” He began opening Peter’s dresser drawers. He grabbed underwear, an undershirt. Sweats. He pushed everything into Peter’s chest and told him to shove it all in his backpack.
His mother watched them. “What are you doing?” she demanded.
“You did this,” Brian said calmly. “The way you act. You did this.”
As Peter followed his father down the stairs, they heard her shrieking after them, though the words were sheared off as soon as Brian closed the front door.
Having to wait for the car to warm up cut down on the drama of their exit, and already, the adrenaline that had left Peter breathless had slowed. His cheek still stung but it was better now. It didn’t feel right, leaving her alone in the house with that stunned expression on her face,
and he circled back to the idea that there’d been a misunderstanding of some kind. There was a piece of the story either she was missing or he was.
Next to him, fiddling with the heating vents so that they were all pointed toward the windshield, his father was caught up in some private riptide that Peter could feel only faintly. Brian banged the steering wheel with the heel of his hand. He did it again. The snow was already thick on the street and mailboxes, the battle scars the kids had left on the Maldonados’ side yard already made smooth again. Once they could finally back out of the driveway, the car fishtailed toward their mailbox, and then all the way down the block. His father leaned forward over the steering wheel to better glimpse the road in between frantic sweeps of the wiper blades. They turned onto Madison, onto Central. A plow flashed its lights at them and passed by, followed by a salt truck. Up ahead they could see that Overlook Drive and its steep hill had been barricaded. All the traffic lights in town had been changed to flashing yellows so that no one would consider stopping short for a red and spinning out of control. Peter was clutching his backpack so hard his hands began to cramp.
His father let the car roll to a stop in the middle of Central Avenue. Everything around them was the perfect stillness of a black-and-white photograph, a ghostly hush that settled over the parked cars, the abandoned playground, the gazebo on Central that hosted jazz quartets on summer Fridays and now held nothing but silence. The wipers beat on.
“Damn it,” he said.
“Pretty bad out,” Peter said.
“Where are we going?”
His father rubbed his eyes.
“I just need to think for a sec, buddy.”
A blue car appeared in the distance and moved toward them. Peter didn’t recognize it as Mr. Gleeson’s car until it was right beside them.
Both men rolled down their windows, and the snow swept into the car like the storm had just been waiting for a chance to scoop them up.
“The roads are a mess!” Mr. Gleeson shouted. “Everything all right?”
“Fine! We’re fine!” Peter’s father answered. It was his cop voice. Sure of itself. Full of authority.
“Is that Peter? Where you guys heading?”
“Wanted to rent a movie!” Peter’s father said. “We’ll be stuck inside from the looks of things.”
“Everything’s closed,” Mr. Gleeson said. “Parkway too.” For a moment Peter thought Mr. Gleeson was going to get out of his car and come peer into theirs.
“We’re too late then! Waited too long!” Peter’s father shouted with sort of a goofy look on his face, like he’d been caught doing something he’d be teased about later on. The snow was belting him in the face and immediately turning into beads of water against his warm skin.
“Take it easy!” Mr. Gleeson shouted into the whirling storm.
“Will do!” shouted Peter’s father.
With the windows rolled up again, the car seemed even more quiet. The storm whistled and every once in a while a gust blew a drift from the ground so that it looked as though snow was falling up and down and every which way. They remained idling in the middle of the street.
Eventually, Peter’s father gestured toward the auto shop on the corner. “Flat roof,” he said. “You see? He’s already got at least a foot up there. I’d shovel that off before morning if I were him.”
“Wouldn’t it be dangerous to go up there in this storm?” Peter asked.
“Sure, but if he doesn’t want it to collapse.” Brian shrugged, placed his hands on the wheel at ten and two.
Peter looked building by building to check for flat roofs. Pies-on-Pizza. Nail Fetish. Heads You Win Beauty Parlor. All closed.
“I can’t have friends over,” Peter said without looking at his father. “Ever. I can’t have them in there. Even when she seems fine.”
“No, that’s true.”
“Your mom, she’s just—I don’t know. She’s sensitive. She gets worked up. But trust me—some kids? They’ve got it worse than you, my friend. Worse by a mile. Some of the things I’ve seen you don’t even want to know.”
“Look. You have a lot. You know what I was doing at your age? I was working. I was delivering papers. My mother? She drank all day long, Pete. You’re probably not old enough yet to know what that means. She put booze in her coffee, in her orange juice, everything. By your age I was getting calls from the neighbors, from the grocery store, ‘Hey, come collect your mother, Brian, she’s in bad shape.’ And she’d be kissing me—‘So sorry, sweetie’—and then I’d have to let her pretend she was helping me with homework so she wouldn’t feel so bad about it.”
“But you said she brought you and your friends to the Polo Grounds that time. That she bought tickets for everyone.”
His face softened as he thought back, and after a moment he nodded. “That’s right. I told you that? Yeah, it was me, your uncle, and a couple kids from the building. One time—did I ever tell you this?—she signed a test my friend Gerald failed. It was snowing just like today and he carried the test in his hand the whole walk home. It was all rumpled and wet, with a big red F over his name. He needed a parent signature, and he was so scared about it he came to our apartment first to think out a strategy. She must have been listening because she told him to hand over the test so she could take a look. Next thing she’s signing his mother’s name big and bold right across the top of the page. ‘Don’t worry so much,’ she says to him. Then she gave us money to go buy ourselves a candy bar. Our teacher never even questioned it.”
“Your friends liked her.”
“They loved her. I wish you could have known her.”
Then he put on the car’s hazards and slowly, slowly drove back home.
N NEW YEAR’S EVE
1990—the year Kate and Peter were in eighth grade—Anne Stanhope walked up to the deli counter at Food King and took a number. She looked beautiful. Her coat was long and narrow. She was without a hat on that cold day but her scarf—a tartan plaid—was looped twice around her neck. Mrs. Wortham, who worked in the podiatrist’s office in town, was also waiting and noted the height of Anne’s heels—four inches, maybe more, dainty things, especially considering the slush and salt-coated streets outside. She thought, Oh, well, she must have come from work, some people don’t get the day off, and then she remembered that Anne Stanhope was a nurse. Maybe she’s going to a party, Mrs. Wortham decided. After taking her number from the spool of tickets and without saying hello to anyone, Anne stood off to the side like the others who were waiting for one of the hair-netted employees to turn the dial on the counter. “Forty-three!” was called. “Forty-four!” One by one various residents of Gillam stepped forward and spoke their orders across the tall glass display. A pound of smoked ham, thickly sliced. A half pound of provolone. The store was crowded that day. People had worked through their Christmas leftovers
and wanted a fresh start for the new year. Anne Stanhope held the number fifty-one.