Authors: Justin Tussing
“Oh,” he said. There were a couple of cups in the sink and he quickly washed them. He came back in, drying his hands on a dishtowel. “You're upset about something.”
“I'm not upset. I just don't understand where a person can go, in this town, at four in the morning.”
He went back into the kitchen and grabbed a butter knife. Holding it in front of her face, he turned the blade so she saw her reflection. Her eyes were red rimmed, her lashes clumped together.
“I wanted to thank you for fixing the toaster,” she said, emotion choking her throat.
“All I did was clean it,” he said.
“Well, it doesn't make that burning smell anymore.” She stood up suddenly, disappointed in herself.
“I'll be out of your hair in a couple of weeks.”
“Oh,” said Alice. “Are you building another house?”
“I'm returning somewhere.”
“Not at all. The water coming up sent me a message. I used to be very absorbed in myself, but now I'm very absorbed outside myself.”
She found herself nodding.
“You're a really great roommate,” said Alice.
“I ought to be,” said Shiloh. “I'm an anarchist.”
“You're an anarchist?” repeated Alice.
Shiloh was all too glad to explain. “Anarchists make the best roommates. Socialists are shit. They'll rob you blind.”
Alice went to her room and shut the door. She heard him get up and, for a moment, she was afraid that he'd misunderstood her. She was afraid he might knock on her door, or, worse, just come in. She felt stupid. She followed his footsteps into the kitchen. He turned the burner off. Then he returned to the living roomâshe would have sworn she heard him shuffling something, a soft cardboard sound, a deck of cards, maybe.
It was like what, these days, is called an intervention. I'd been in my room daydreaming when Mary and Fran came in. They stood there, between me and the door, sort of looking and not looking at the window.
“Basically,” said Fran, “your mother and I are very patient people. But for some reason you seem bent on discovering the limits of our patience. Let me tell you that we have more patience than you do. Knowing how you spend your time is basically a right we have.”
Mary addressed me. “It might not make sense to you, but, as your parents, we need you to tell us who you've been spending time with.”
“Here's the deal,” said Fran. “Your mother and I have to meet this person, so you're going to invite your little friend over for dinner.”
“We're not offering you a choice,” said Mary.
“It's Shiloh Tanager,” I announced.
“He's kidding. You're kidding, right? The river rat?” Fran leaned over and butted his head against the doorjamb.
Mary called my bluff. “Just find out what night would be good for him.”
What, I wanted to know, were they thinking?
“I doubt he'll come.”
“You still need to ask him.”
Alice and I sat down with Shiloh and explained the situation to him.
He said, “I can't remember the last time I was invited to eat with regular people.”
“Does that mean you'd actually consider coming?” I asked.
“I'm definitely coming.”
“They're very nice,” said Alice. “His mother is very sharp.” And then, to me, “That was my impression at parents' night.”
I said, “It would probably be best if you cut your hair.”
“Fran has said some unfavorable things about men with long hair.”
“Do I know Fran?”
“Fran is his father.”
Shiloh considered this for a moment. “And do I have opinions about how Fran deports himself?”
“You've said that the people who work at the power plant are fascists,” Alice reminded him.
“Well, that's a figure of speech.”
“You're not going to do anything about your hair?” I asked.
“We'll get him cleaned up,” said Alice.
Shiloh looked at her, looked at me, nodded his head, a deal.
Fran put on the three-piece, gray, pinstriped suit that he wore to weddings or when he had to fire someone. He had on a purple rep tie and oxblood shoes and he looked like a greater version of himself.
Mary wore a starched brown dress that made her hair look colorless. My pawpaw had on a yellow corduroy smoking jacket over a pajama top shirt and green civvies. Fran and Mary wanted me to change, to play the part of their son. I disappointed them by refusing to wear my only suit. Instead Fran tied a tie under the collar of a buttoned-up tennis shirt. We scurried around straightening up.
I felt dread.
Pawpaw went out to the back porch to smoke.
I asked Mary what she planned on saying to Shiloh, but she disappeared into the bathroom and left me with Fran.
“Your friend's late,” was what my father said to me.
I opened the refrigerator door and stared at all the food.
“He probably doesn't own a watch,” added Fran.
Mary came down. She wore lipstick and she had changed into a shimmery green blouse. “Don't stand there like an Eskimo.”
I closed the refrigerator.
The back door opened and Pawpaw shuffled in with Shiloh.
I watched Fran as he made sense of the stranger who'd appeared in his house.
He stuck his hand out like he was drawing a pistol. “Shiloh, I take it.”
Shiloh had shaved his beard. He had a baby face. He shook hands with Fran and Mary.
“You surprised us,” said Mary.
“We expected you'd come to the front door,” said Fran.
“I try not to do things like everybody else.”
“Welcome,” said Mary.
“Yes,” said Fran.
Shiloh pulled a knapsack off his shoulder. He rummaged through the bag.
“You lose something?” asked Mary.
“Wait,” said Shiloh. “Are either of you drinkers?”
“I wouldn't say either of us is a drinker,” said Fran, who had opened the oven and was prodding a casserole with a fork.
“On special occasions,” said Mary.
“Well,” said Shiloh. “An associate of mine laid this on me.” From inside the backpack he produced a bottle of wine.
“Look at that,” said Mary, “wine.”
“I guess it's from Italy,” said Shiloh.
“Thomas's grandfather has been to Italy,” said Fran.
“That's right,” said Mary.
“Are you from there, or were you traveling?” asked Shiloh.
“Those my only choices?” asked Pawpaw, heading for the living room.
“You're not still staying by the river, are you?” asked Fran.
“I found a situation in town. My old place has a problem with humidity.”
“He means it's underwater,” I said.
“I think that's awful,” said Mary.
“There are worse things.” He pulled a corkscrew out of his knapsack and opened the bottle. He poured glasses for my parents and Pawpaw.
“You're not going to have some?” asked Mary.
He shook his head. He carried the glass out to Pawpaw and took a spot beside him on the sofa. With his bent legs and bug eyes, he looked like a frog. “I didn't expect you'd get dressed up for me.”
“Well,” said Mary, pushing me before her. She didn't finish her sentence.
There were mud stains on the cuffs of Shiloh's pants and cockleburs sticking to his straw shoes. But somehow, maybe by coming in the back door, Shiloh had managed to make an end run around my parents' defenses. My parents were treating a stranger like a friend. They were doing it for me.
Fran and Mary drank their wine. Pawpaw chased his with blackberry brandy in a cordial glass. Shiloh and I had tap water. At one point, as the conversation was flowing back and forth, he winked at me. It happened so fast, I couldn't be sure I'd seen him do it. What did it mean?
Shiloh told an off-color story about a parrot that was liberated from a brothel and then took up roost across from a church. Mary
laughed so hard that she covered her mouth to hide her bridgework. I'd never known these lighthearted people.
And I had no idea that Shiloh would want my parents to like him. He seemed almost desperate to please them. Out of the blue he said, “What's Thomas told you about his love life?”
“We know he's got his eyes on someone,” volunteered my mother.
“She's a class act,” said Shiloh. “It'll be educational to find out whether she sees him as grade-A material.”
Pawpaw came to my defense. “If Thomas has the good sense to remain quiet on the subject, I don't see how spilling the beans makes you his pal.”
“I'm not telling any secrets,” said Shiloh.
Pawpaw said, “I'm not so old that I need people telling me what I've heard.”
Mary patted Shiloh's arm. “I shouldn't have been prying.” She turned to me. “Sorry.”
I told her there was no harm.
“He's afraid we'd embarrass him,” said Mary. “He doesn't think she'd like us.”
“Sure she likes you,” said Shiloh.
“Wait,” said Mary. “Have I met her?” She looked at me, confused.
“From what Thomas has told her about you, she thinks she'd like you.”
“I'm going to have a cigarette,” said Pawpaw. He got up from the table and headed out the back door.
Fran said, “How old are you, Shiloh?”
“You don't have to answer,” said Mary.
Shiloh shook his head. “I don't actually know my birthday. I have, basically, an educated idea of about when it was.”
Mary bit her lip.
“What, thirty-five?” asked Fran
“I don't like to get caught up with a number,” said Shiloh.
“It's not a number,” said Fran. “It's your age.”
We could hear Pawpaw carrying the food into the dining room.
Mary said, “I'm afraid my husband and I are typical nosy parents.”
“Let me tell you,” said Shiloh, “nosy parents beats no parents.”
Mary did the most amazing thing. She got up from her seat and went over and gave Shiloh a little hug. He tried to pass me a look, but he didn't seem to have control over his face. “Mrs. Mahey,” he said, “please don't touch me.”
“How presumptuous of me, honey. I'm sorry.” She dashed into the kitchen.
I'd never seen a person eat so much at one sitting. He just kept shoveling it in. When it was clear that the casserole wouldn't withstand his assault, Mary ducked into the kitchen. She returned a few minutes later with a pork chop still sizzling on a plate, a lump of applesauce collapsing on top. Shiloh reduced it to a Y-shaped bone.
After ice cream the five of us found chairs in the living room. In no time Pawpaw fell asleep. Fran and Mary were talking in low, happy voices. Shiloh held out, for our inspection, the wine's cork and Pawpaw's Zippo lighter.
“I'm going to show you a magic trick,” said Shiloh.
Mary honked with excitement. “Fun,” she said.
With the lighter Shiloh blackened one end of the cork. Then he asked Mary to extend both her hands. She showed him her palms. He weighed her hands, had her make fists. Did she believe in magic? Her eyes got wide. She did. He had me hold my mother's hands as we sat there in the living room. I jiggled Mary's hands. They were tiny things, as frightened as a toad.
“You're squeezing too hard, honey.”
Shiloh asked me which hand felt more relaxed. The left hand? Fine. I could let go of her right hand. He touched the burned cork to the back of her left hand. It left a dark, silvery mark. He wanted me to rub the mark away. Gently, he said. Mary thanked him. I stroked the spot with my thumb. “There. It's going,” said Shiloh. “It's almost gone. A little harder. Be sure it didn't just move onto your thumb, Thomas.” There was a little color on my thumb. He asked me to rub a bit more.
Mary looked at Shiloh, expectant.
He held his left hand out in front of us and showed us his palm. There, in the center, was a faint mark.
“Cute,” said Mary.
Shiloh shook his head gravely. “Thomas, would you mind checking your hand?”
Somehow the dot had moved onto my hand.
Mary squealed. “I love it!”
“Very clever,” I said.
“Magic,” said Shiloh. “Now, Mary, let's see your hand.”
Of course there was a spot there, too.
“Fantastic,” said Mary.
Fran showed us his unblemished palms. “That's an old trick,” he said.
Mary turned around and swatted Fran on his thigh.
“Count yourself lucky,” Shiloh said, speaking to me. “I'd give anything to know just one of my parents.”
Mary leaned over and bumped her shoulder against mine.
Outside, a car crept along the street. It had to be Alice.
Shiloh stood up. “Thank you for your hospitality, but I think I'd better be going.”
“Oh,” said Mary, pronouncing her disappointment. She grabbed Pawpaw's chair and gave it a little shake.
“All good things must come to an end,” said my grandfather. He shielded his eyes from the light in the room.
I fetched Shiloh's knapsack from the kitchen.
Mary and Fran walked him to the door.
“You get to see the front door,” said Mary.
“Right,” said Shiloh.
“Not the back door,” said Fran.
And he was gone.
Fran and Pawpaw went to bed. I cleaned the kitchen while Mary kept me company.
“Shiloh has sort of an aristocratic face, don't you think?” She got up to pour herself a glass of milk. “I don't know what came over me when I tried to embrace him. Your father thought I'd lost my mind.”
“You just caught him by surprise.”
“Imagine not knowing how to dress for dinner.”
Fresh smoke leaked in from outside. Pawpaw was having a nightcap cigarette.