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Authors: Joyce Maynard

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BOOK: Labor Day
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I understood what he meant, from an assembly we had back in the spring. This was in the days when all people knew was, don’t touch anybody else’s blood, it could kill you.

You came here with that woman over there, right? he said. He was looking in the direction of my mother, who was standing in the garden section now, looking at a hose. We didn’t have one, but we didn’t have a garden to speak of either.

Good-looking woman, he said.

My mom.

What I wanted to ask is, if you think she’d give me a ride. I’d be careful not to get blood on your seat. If you could take me someplace. She looks like the type of person who would help me, he said.

It may or may not have been a good thing about my mother that this was true.

Where do you want to go? I asked him. I was thinking, they weren’t very considerate to their workers at this store, if when they got injured like this, they had to ask the customers to give them a hand.

Your house?

He said it like a question first, but then he had looked at me like he was a character in
The Silver Surfer,
with superpowers.

He put a hand on my shoulder, tight.

Frankly, son, I need this to happen.

I looked at him closer then. He did this thing with his jaw that made you know he was in pain, just trying not to show it—clenched down tight, like he was chewing on a nail. The blood on his pants wasn’t that obvious, because they were navy blue. And even though the store was air-conditioned, he was sweating a lot. Now I could see there was a thin trickle of blood coming down the side of his head too, and clotted in his hair.

They had a closeout on baseball caps. Once he’d picked up one of those and put it on his head, you couldn’t see the blood much. He was limping badly, but plenty of people did that. He took a fleece vest off the rack and put it over his red Pricemart shirt. I gathered, from the fact that he pulled off the tag, that he wasn’t planning on paying for it. Maybe they had some kind of policy for employees.

Just a second, he said. There’s one more thing I want to pick up here. Wait here.

 

Y
OU NEVER KNEW HOW MY MOTHER
was going to react to things. There could be some guy going door-to-door with religious pamphlets, and she’d yell at him to go away, but other times I’d come home from school and there’d be this person sitting on our couch having coffee with her.

This is Mr. Jenkins, she said. He wanted to tell us about an orphanage in Uganda he’s raising money for, where the children only get to eat once a day and they don’t have money to buy pencils. For twelve dollars a month we could sponsor this little boy, Arak. He could be your pen pal. Like a brother.

According to my father, I already had a brother, but we both
knew Marjorie’s son didn’t count.

Great, I said. Arak. She wrote out the check. He gave us a photograph—fuzzy, because it was just a photocopy. She put it on the refrigerator.

There was a woman who wandered into our yard wearing a nightgown one time. This person was very old, and she didn’t know where she lived anymore. She kept saying she was looking for her son.

My mother brought her in our house and made her coffee too. I know how confusing things get sometimes, my mother told the woman. We’ll straighten this out for you.

Times like this, my mother took charge, and I liked it, how normal she seemed then. After the coffee, and some toast, we had buckled the old woman into the front seat of our car—in fact, this might have been the last time my mother had driven it until now—and cruised around the neighborhood with her for a long time.

You just let me know if anything looks familiar, Betty, my mother told her.

For once, her slow driving made sense, because a man had spotted us, spotted Betty in the front seat, and waved us over.

We were going crazy trying to find her, he said, when my mother rolled the window down. I’m so grateful to you for taking care of her.

She’s fine, my mother said. We had the nicest visit. I hope you’ll bring her over again.

I like that girl, Betty had said, as the son came around the other side and unbuckled the seat belt. That’s the kind of girl you should have married, Eddie. Not that bitch.

I had studied the man’s face then, just to check. He was certainly not handsome, but he looked like the kind of person who would be nice. For a second I wished there was a way of telling him my mother wasn’t married to anyone anymore. It was just
the two of us. He could come over with Betty sometime.

Eddie looked nice, I said, after we drove away. Maybe he’s divorced too. You never know.

 

M
Y MOTHER WAS IN THE HARDWARE
section when we caught up with her. Now that we’re here, she said, I should pick up lightbulbs.

This was good news. When a lightbulb burned out at our house, more often than not it just stayed that way. Lately, our house had been getting steadily darker. In the kitchen now, there was only one bulb left that still worked, and not a bright one. Sometimes, at night, if you wanted to see something, you had to open the refrigerator just to shine a little light.

I don’t know how we’ll manage to get these into the sockets, she said. I can’t reach those fixtures in the ceiling.

That was when I introduced the bleeding man. Vinnie. I thought the fact that he was tall would be a plus.

My mother, Adele, I said.

I’m Frank, he said.

Not the first time a person wasn’t who you thought they were in this world. Just wearing the wrong shirt, evidently.

You have a good boy here, Adele, he told her. He was kind enough to offer me a ride. Maybe I could repay the favor by giving you a hand with those.

He indicated the lightbulbs.

And anything else you might need done around the house, he said. Not many jobs I can’t handle.

She studied his face then. Even with the hat on, you could see some dried blood on his cheek, but she didn’t seem to notice that part, or maybe if she did, it didn’t seem important.

 

We went out through the checkout together. He explained to my mother that he was paying for my puzzle book, though he would have to give me an IOU, since at the moment his funds were limited. Evidently he wasn’t mentioning the baseball cap and the fleece vest to the cashier.

In addition to my new clothes and the garden hose, and the pillow and the ceramic hedgehog and the lightbulbs and fan, my mother had picked up one of those plywood paddles, with a ball attached on a piece of elastic, that you try to hit as many times in a row as you can.

I thought I’d get you a treat, Henry, she said, laying the toy on the conveyor belt.

I wasn’t going to bother explaining that I hadn’t played with something like that since I was around six, but Frank spoke up. A boy like this needs a real baseball, he said. Here was the surprising part: he had one in his pocket. Price tag still visible.

I suck at baseball, I told him.

Maybe you used to, he said. He fingered the stitches on the ball and looked at it hard, like what he had in his hand was the whole world.

On the way out, Frank picked up one of those flyers they gave out, featuring that week’s specials. When we got to the car, he spread this out on the backseat. I don’t want to get blood on your upholstery, Adele, he said. If I can call you that.

Other people’s mothers would have asked him a lot of questions probably. Or not taken him in the first place, more likely. My mother just drove. I was wondering if he was going to get into trouble for leaving work that way without telling anyone, but if so, Frank didn’t appear to be worried about it.

Of the three of us, it seemed as if I was the only one who felt concerned, actually. I had a feeling I should be doing something about the situation, but as usual, didn’t know what. And Frank
seemed so calm and clear about things, you wanted to go along with him. Even though really, he was going along with us, of course.

I have a sixth sense when it comes to people, he told my mother. I took one look around that store, big as it was, and knew you were the one.

I won’t lie to you, he said. It’s a difficult situation. Many people would not want to have anything to do with me at this point. I’m going on my instincts here that you are a very understanding person.

The world is not an easy place to get along, he said. Sometimes you just need to stop everything, sit down and think. Collect your thoughts. Lie low for a bit.

I looked at my mother then. We were coming down Main Street now, past the post office and the drugstore, the bank, the library. All the old familiar places, though in all the times I’d passed this way before, it was never in the company of anyone like Frank. He was pointing out to my mother now that it sounded as if the rotors on her brakes might be a little thin. If he could get his hands on a few tools, he’d like to take a look at that for her, he said.

In the seat next to her, I studied my mother’s face, to see if her expression changed, when Frank said these things. I could feel my heart beating, and a tightness in my chest—not fear exactly, but something close, though oddly pleasurable. I had it when my father took Richard and the baby and me, and Marjorie, to Disney World, and we got into our seats on the Space Mountain ride—all of us but Marjorie and the baby. Partly I wanted to get out before the ride started, but then they turned out the lights and this music started and Richard had poked me and said, If you have to barf, just do it in the other direction.

Today is my lucky day, Frank said. Yours too, maybe.

I knew right then, things were about to change. We were headed into Space Mountain now, into a dark place where the ground might give way, and you wouldn’t even be able to tell anymore where this car was taking you. We might come back. We might not.

If this had occurred to my mother, she didn’t let on. She just held the wheel and stared straight ahead same as before, all the way home.

CHAPTER 2

W
HERE WE LIVED THEN—THE TOWN OF
Holton Mills, New Hampshire—was the kind of place where people know each other’s business. They’d notice if you left your grass too long between one lawn mowing and the next, and if you painted your house some color besides white, they might not say anything to your face, but they’d talk about it. Where my mother was the kind of person who just wanted to be left alone. There had been a time when she loved being up on a stage, with everybody watching her perform, but at this point, my mother’s goal was to be invisible, or as close as she could get.

One of the things she said she liked about our house was where it sat, at the end of the street, with no other houses beyond us and a big field in back, opening onto nothing but woods. Cars hardly ever came by, except on those occasions where someone missed the place they meant to go and had to
turn around. Other than people like the man raising money for the orphanage, and the occasional religious types, or someone with a petition, hardly anyone ever came to see us, which to my mother was good news.

It used to be different. We used to visit people’s houses sometimes and invite people to ours. But by this point, my mother was down to basically one friend, and even that one hardly ever came by anymore. Evelyn.

 

M
Y MOTHER AND
E
VELYN MET UP
around the time my father left, when my mother had this idea to start a creative movement class for children at our house—the sort of activity it would have been hard to picture her getting into, later. She actually did things like put up flyers around town and buy an ad in the local paper. The idea was, mothers would come over with their children, and my mother would put on music, and lay out things like scarves and ribbons, and everyone would dance around. When it was over, they’d all have a snack. And if she got enough customers, she wouldn’t have to worry about going out into the world and getting a more normal type of job, which wasn’t her style.

She went to a lot of effort setting things up for this. She sewed little mats for everyone, and cleared out all the living room furniture, which wasn’t all that much to start with, and she bought a rug for the floor that was supposed to be someone’s wall-to-wall carpet only they hadn’t paid.

I was pretty young at the time, but I remember the morning of the first class, she lit candles to put around the room, and she baked cookies—a health food kind, with whole wheat flour and honey instead of sugar. I didn’t want to be in the class, so she told me I could be the one to work the record player and keep
an eye on the younger children, if she was busy with one of the older ones, and later, I’d serve the snack. We had a dry run, the morning of her first class, where she showed me what to do and reminded me, if anyone needed to go to the bathroom, to help the little kids with things like fastening their pants after.

Then it was the time her customers were supposed to start showing up. Then it was past the time, and still nobody.

Maybe half an hour after the class was supposed to begin, this woman arrived with a boy in a wheelchair. This was Evelyn and her son, Barry. From the size of him, I got the impression he was probably around my age, but he couldn’t talk so much as he just made noises at unusual moments, as if he was watching a movie nobody else could see, and all of a sudden there was a funny part, or one time, it was as if some character in this movie that he really liked a lot had died, because he put his head in his hands—which wasn’t all that easy, since his hands jerked around a lot, and so did his head, not necessarily in the same direction—and he just sat there in his chair, making these sobbing sounds.

Evelyn must have had the idea that creative movement could be a good thing for Barry, though if you asked me, he moved pretty creatively to begin with. My mother made a big effort, though. She and Evelyn got Barry on one of the special mats, and she put on a record she liked—the sound track of
Guys and Dolls—
and showed Barry and Evelyn these motions to make to “Luck Be a Lady Tonight.” Evelyn showed some promise, she said. But moving to a beat definitely wasn’t Barry’s type of concept.

BOOK: Labor Day
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