Authors: Drew Perry
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL 2014
Also by DREW PERRY
This Is Just Exactly Like You
May you turn
stone, my daughter,
into silk. May you make men better
than they are.
“Waiting with Two Members of a Motorcycle Gang for My Child to Be Born”
Watch out boy she'll chew you up.
DARYL HALL/JOHN OATES/SARA ALLEN,
I'd agreed to itâthe babyâbecause I'd decided that was what was owed. That if your wife, who you loved beyond measure, wanted a child, you were supposed to think it was a fine and perfect plan. While we were trying, Alice was all the time asking me if I was sure. If I was still OK with it. Yes, I told her, yes, which was not quite a lie: I could easily enough see us having a child, or children. I imagined we'd keep them fed and watered, that we'd find ways not to kill them, or ourselves.
And then I lost my job, Alice quit hers, and we moved, cartwheeling and pregnant, five hundred miles south to a vacation condo her family owned to try to paste some shell of a life back together before the kid arrived. Florida. Like something heavy dropped on us from overhead. We'd been there a week, and the two things left I knew were these: OneâI couldn't understand what it was you were meant to
with a child, past the easy stuff like taking her to ballet practice or Indian Guides or the dermatologist. Twoâevery morning, a man flew up our beach, same time, same direction, in a homemade motorized parachute.
About the first thing I had no answers, no plans. As for the second, we'd taken to waiting for him each day out on the balcony, mainly because it seemed like we should. That if the universe was going to deliver unto us a flying man, we should pay attention. We'd watch the skyâso much of it, so wide-openâand I'd tell Alice we were stranded, we were lost, we were wayward souls. We're not, she'd say. We're luckier than most. Then the parachutist would appear: The wing a black inflated sail that said
on it in tall white capitals, and the guy slung down below, hanging from all these ropes and lines, riding in a kind of grocery cart/dune buggy made of neon green metal tubing. Some days Alice would pull her shirt up over her stomach when he flew by, hold her hands in an open diamond around her just-rounding belly, and say to the baby, “You probably ought to take a look at this.” She'd turn like a lighthouse, tracking the parachutist with her body. “Don't forget about this,” she'd say. Some days he had a
DON'T TREAD ON ME
flag strung out behind him. Some days he wore mirrored goggles. Once, a pale blue leather flight suit, zippered neck to toe. See? I kept telling Alice. We were down the rabbit hole. Stop it, she'd say. I don't know why you think that's funny.
The condo belonged to Alice's great-aunt Sandy, or had until that spring, when she'd died after a series of strokes. The first ones worried everybody the requisite amount, but they were small, survivable. The last one, though, was catastrophicâa whole-system power surge that left her stone dead on the pink chair that was still right there in the bedroom. Everything of hers was still there, actually, except for the clothes. Those we'd taken to Goodwill. We hadn't figured out what to do with the rest of the stuff yet, and anyway, we needed it: We'd sold most of what we'd ever owned when we moved from Charlotte. We'd winnowed. Downsized. We didn't even have our own forks any more. And we didn't need them. We had Aunt Sandy's.
Alice's sister Carolyn and her family lived half an hour north, up near St. Augustine. They were the ones who'd taken care of Sandy, who'd found her sitting there that morning, but they didn't have any use for the placeâthey had four girls. Plus they'd just finished building a huge house, five or six bedrooms and as many bathrooms, a pool with a poolhouse. Mid, Carolyn's husband, showed us the blueprints the last time they were up to visit, went on at length about how they were putting in a wine pantry instead of a wine cellar because there were no cellars in Florida. Water table, he'd said, shaking his head like he'd landed on some universal truth. Water table.
The family plan had been to rent the condo out, make a little money off it, but things turned on me at work. I'd been eleven years at the same regional bank, on the mortgage side. We weren't crooked. We were too small to be crooked. But we got pummeled anyway, right along with the rest of the country, and once I'd started on my six months' severance, it felt like nothing fit us quite right any more: Alice was a counselor for the school system, was more and more weary of having to explain to the kids why huffing gutter glue in the bathrooms wouldn't help get them into community college. Two separate mechanics told me my car needed a valve job and a new transmission. We found fire ants in the lawn, carpenter ants in the eaves. When we called Carolyn and Mid, way too soon, to tell them the drugstore test said positive, they asked how we were, and we told them that other than the baby, we were basically waiting for an asteroid. Carolyn said what we really ought to do was just move down, take the condo. Mid offered me a job working for him. We hung up the phone and sat there in the still of the den and stared at each other and thought, well, what the hell? Why not?
Everything happened in a hurry: We put the house on the market, took a bath on it, threw a couple of yard sales, sold my car to the kid who cut our lawn. He had ideas about converting it to run on fry oil and bacon grease. When the school year ended, Alice sent her contract back unsigned, we figured out a way to wildcat along on the insurance for a while, and we took off with whatever we had left that fit in her hatchback. Oceanfront living. The Sunshine State. Done and done.
And that part of it
exciting, I had to admit. I'd take a cup of coffee out by the pool, find what shade I could, watch the shrimp boats go back and forth out on the waterâwhen it didn't all feel like some kind of wild accident, it almost felt good, like we'd managed to rig for ourselves a completely new life. Conjured it from dust. When the baby came, all that would evaporate in a hail of mirror-bellied crib toys, but still.
I was convinced it was a girl. Alice was holding steady, said she didn't have a sharp feeling one way or the other.
I hadn't gone to work for Mid yet, hadn't hammered out what to do with my days other than buy limes and check the tide tables. Alice had plenty to do: Take naps for the baby, eat sandwiches for the baby, start thinking about what to do with the baby's room. She'd stand in there and twirl the blinds open and closed, and I'd walk the rest of the condo, staring at the pictures and paintings of birds hung up all over the walls. Sandy had been a birder. We'd found lists of birds in the kitchen drawers. I'd been wondering what you might tell a daughter about birds, once she got old enough to want to knowâhow they had hollow bones, how some were migratory and others weren't. And I'd been wondering, too, what you might tell a daughter about strokes and seizures, or about bundling securitized loans, or about selling off your whole life and moving to Florida. I guess I'd been wondering what you might tell a daughter about anything at all, how you'd ever learn to stand there and answer all the questions she was bound to have. I was pretty certain the hollow bones thing was right. So I had that. For everything else, I figured what you'd want to do was look up what you could, lie about the rest, and hope she'd never learn to tell the difference. Or at least that she'd forgive you when she did.
“We have to bring them
” Alice said. We were riding up A1A, the only real road on the island. She had the shoulder part of the seat belt hooked behind her, convinced that if we rear-ended an ice-cream truck, the baby would be safer without it.
“Flowers? Or a plant?”
We came up on a guy selling shrimp out of a cooler by the side of the road. The sign hanging off his tent said
I put the blinker on.
“No,” she said. “Please, no.”
“Because we can't show up with something we have to cook. Or peel. Also, you'd eat shrimp you bought from some random stranger?”
“I think that's how it goes every time I eat shrimp.”
“Can't we just stop somewhere and get a bottle of wine? And maybe something for me?”
We were due at Mid and Carolyn's for dinner. They'd been over a couple of timesâonce with the girls to make sure we were moved in OK, and once just the two of them to have a drink on the balcony, but this was our Welcome Home dinner, or Welcome Down, at least. This was also supposed to be when Mid explained to me exactly what it was I'd be doing for him. On the phone, when we'd talked about it, all he'd said was, “Don't worry, Big Walter. You kids just get yourselves here, and we'll work on finding you something.” I was supposed to start sometime that week.
Mid owned things. He owned a sea kayak rental place, a locksmith service with a few vans, a sunglasses-and-beach-umbrella shop out by the interstate. He owned Island Pizza. What he did was find some place he liked, but that he thought could do better, and he'd buy in, make suggestions. Then he'd get back out of the way, start taking his cut. He was an almost-silent partner, was how he put it. He was rich. I liked him fine. He'd always treated me well. I don't know if we were friends, but we were buddies. And I had no idea what he had in mind. Maybe I'd drive around and scout out potential investmentsâlemonade stands and bake sales and hot dog carts. Maybe I'd answer the phones.
I found a grocery store, picked up a couple bottles of white wine and some sparkling water. I grabbed a half-dozen ears of corn because they looked good. “What are you doing with those?” Alice wanted to know when I got back in the car.
“I thought we could have them for lunch tomorrow,” I said.
She shook her head. “I'm not feeling so hot.”
She'd been bad the last few weeks, morning sickness in high gear. I felt awful for her, but there hadn't been much I could do other than bring her damp washcloths, try not to make too many sudden moves. “You need me to find you a bathroom?”
“Let's just keep going.”
“We don't have to eat the corn,” I said.
“Maybe that would be best.”
“I'll throw the corn away. Or we can give it to Mid and Carolyn.”
“Thanks for inviting us over,” she said. “Thanks for moving us down. Thanks for saving our lives. Here is some corn.”
“Something like that,” I said.
“Drive,” she said. “We're late.”
We hadn't seen their new house yet, only had half an idea where it was. Alice navigated. I watched us get farther and farther away from anything that looked like somewhere people would live. They were well inland, in a subdivision called Pelican Pines, and they'd warned usâtheirs was the only house in there. “Only
house,” Mid said. “We got in on the ground floor.” We made our turns, drove off the island over a bridge and another bridge and through plenty of nothing, and then there was the development, planted in what seemed like five thousand miles of pine and palm and kudzu. We stopped up front at a guard house with no guards in it, no gate. Just a brick hut with holes where you imagined somebody'd eventually want to hang windows. Alice checked her directions, looked at the hut. “Jesus,” she said. “Is this it?”
There was a stone Pelican Pines sign, and a smaller wooden sign that said
PRE-SELLING! WHY WAIT?
“It looks like it,” I said.
White sewer cut-ins and green electrical boxes stuck out of the ground at regular intervals stretching back along a main road, bright new grass growing knee-high in the empty lots. There weren't any houses except for one at the far end of the street, which ran straight in and ended, we could see even from there, in a cul-de-sac. “I guess that's theirs?” she said. It was a brick-and-stone three-story, rambling and enormous, two tiny trees in the gaping front yard.
I said, “I guess.”
“It's huge,” she said. “And creepy.”
“It's OK, isn't it?”
“I don't think I quite believe she did this.”
“Maybe Mid knows what he's doing.”
“I wouldn't have done this,” she said. “I mean, does this seem like her to you? They don't have any neighbors.” She kept looking back at the sign, at the rock fence that edged the front of the property. She said, “Would you live here?”