The boy says I found him at a bus station in New Albion, that the shovels were already in the backseat of Nick’s Subaru. They were spotless. He has a soft, patchy moustache and a tattoo on his neck of the lion cub from The Lion King. He keeps a spliff tucked behind his ear—stabs the air with it when he hopes to convey an air of hard-earned street smarts.
It is not convincing.
The boy radiates unease. He says he is not a boy. He says he is nineteen. He says promises were made: money, sex? I cannot recall. The days blur. Mostly, I believe I will remember his skin.
Digging for hours, a moonless night, air so crisp there are too many stars, still we’ve worked up a sweat. The boy is shirtless and I am stripped to a grimy chemise. Our breaths fog the air. The boy leans on his shovel, arches his back. The skin on his chest is so tight I can count ribs.
A child’s chest; it glows like a glass of milk.
Mother had called the previous May to inform me she was dying. Ovarian cancer. Didn’t see it coming. With fortitude and luck, aggressive chemo, she could survive two-to-three years.
She died in October.
In hindsight, we would have made different decisions.
That summer, I risked questions: Your regrets?
“Your father. My father. Your childlessness,” she said. “Also, sometimes, Emma, how everything is only a piece, and the bigger thing doesn’t even…” A moment later she murmured, “This is not the death I deserve.”
That’s how she spoke that summer: chimney smoke vanishing into sky.
Another time, we watched my husband, Nick, pack his car. I’d moved into her apartment, more or less, a studio in an assisted-living community. Nick had driven down for a weekend, insisted on it over my objections. He’d slept in the kitchenette, on an air mattress, then complained about back pain. Come Sunday, he volunteered to return to our farmhouse in High Falls with my dirty laundry. He’d wash it. He’d return soon. He promised.
Mother watched him wrestle the sacks into the trunk of his car from her bedroom. It was August but drizzly, unseasonably cool. Fifty, maybe forty degrees. Nick was dressed in a sweater that rode up his back as he struggled. His belly swung over his belt.
“That man is a beached whale,” she said.
I assumed she meant Nick’s girth. Nick’s tall, heavyset, one of those people who’ve always been too big. Always elbowing lamps, glasses of water. Later, I wondered if she’d meant something different. I thought of whales that ground themselves on beaches for reasons no one can fathom, their eyes, the guilt you feel looking at them, like it’s your fault they made poor decisions.
Granted, I’ve never seen one in real life. A beached whale. That’s how they seem on TV.
Sometimes, my marriage felt that way.
“I’m sorry you had to marry him,” mother whispered.
Her words unsettled me as she’d often bragged to her scarce acquaintances about how I’d married the man of her dreams. Nick was bookish, painfully polite, the kind of guy who waits his turn to speak in a conversation, makes a show of pulling out a woman’s chair. We’d started sleeping together in graduate school, when I was a student in his seminar on European Comparative Literary Studies. He’d completed a post-doc in Austria, still spoke with traces of an accent. Mother was smitten.
He was the kind of man she’d come to idealize after my father left and we’d inched up the Hudson Valley, from one town to the next, Beacon to Hudson to Troy, living in attic apartments of once-stately manors converted into duplexes and falling into disrepair, with warping floorboards and small windows so high the only thing to be seen was the moon, or mobile homes propped on cinderblocks in secluded trailer parks, a caretaker’s cottage on an estate lined in stonewalls and orchards of wasted apple trees.
She worked for doctors, city lawyers, a university president, a children’s book illustrator. She quietly fell for them all. How could she not? Getting down on her knees to wax the floors of their homes, those big rooms with their abundant silences and beautiful uselessness. Fireplace brushes with polished brass handles and spotless bristle. Soap beads in porcelain saucers. Pantries lined with tins of European biscuits.
She’d look for excuses to postpone her returns.
I picture her, alone in the house of a soft-spoken doctor and his wife, coat and scarf, clutching her keys, but lingering, sitting on the edge of a bed in a master bedroom. She has stolen a few sips from the nips of schnapps she keeps in her purse. She glares at her reflection in an antique dressing table’s mirror. That woman: her narrow face, her bitter stare. She looks away, tries to imagine the sounds to be heard when there are others than her there to hear them.
“Goddam. Davy’s tired,” the boy says.
“Dig,” I say
He smirks, rifles through his pockets for fresh rolling papers.
I searched for clues when we arrived: the forsythias, remnants of picket fence on the perimeters of the yard. It was too dark. Mother’s landmarks were gone. Also, there was more than one 341 Lake Drive in Pompton Lakes. East 341 Lake Drive was a Cape Cod with faded aluminum siding.
It looked like it could have been mother’s home.
“Here,” I say, and the boy harpoons the earth with his shovel, hauls up platelets of grass. “There. Now there.”
By the end of the night the lawn looks like it has been shelled. The sky greys. Neighbors’ lights flicker on. Holiday decorations can be seen in the windows. A man in a bathrobe appears in the kitchen of a ranch house on the other side of the yard’s chain link fence. He fiddles at something under the sill, pauses when he sees us.
“I’ll tell you what, Davy’s hungry. Let’s quit.”
“Can’t quit. Keep digging.”
“Davy needs a break.”
“Dig. I’ll make breakfast.”
The front door of 341 is locked but there is a screened-in porch on the far side of the house. I rake my shovel. The boy is distant enough that he doesn’t hear the glass break on the interior door.
Two months after mother’s thinly-attended funeral Nick took me to the movies. Too much sadness in our lives, he said. “We need to get out of this house, Emma.” Distractions were in order: bright lights, big Hollywood explosions. Doctor’s orders, Nick said.
It was all I could do not to slap him.
Nick drove us to a Cineplex in Kingston, pointed out a roadhouse along the way. Best wings in the Catskills. That’s what people said. We should try them on the way home. I studied his beached-whale eyes.
Nick chose a spy movie full of car chases across cobblestoned European cities and well-dressed men in disguises. I couldn’t focus. There was a scene in a meadow of drab-colored grass, an American explaining to a librarian, French perhaps, his doubts as to whether he would survive his mission. A blackbird perched on a tree in the background. It croaked as they embraced, only the sound engineer hadn’t bothered to include its squawk. It looked as though it was choking.
I walked to the lobby. Teens flirted under fluorescent lights. A soft rain blossomed the sidewalk.
Among mother’s possessions I’d found a hand-drawn map on the back of an old soup can label. It was a story I knew so well.
How her parents fought. Out of sight, after she’d gone to bed, mother would hear them downstairs, her father’s voice, low and vicious.
How she watched the day he left.
June. Mother was hiding among the forsythias, a hollow she’d dug, a shady place to read books, stories about Trixie Belden, a girl detective who, unlike Nancy Drew, was neither pretty nor rich nor smart but solved the mysteries of Sleepyside-on-Hudson all the same, when the door banged open and she spotted her father pacing in the driveway, hissing to himself. He tossed a suitcase onto the front seat of the Ford.
Mother emerged from her hiding spot, waved as he backed out the drive. He’d seen her. She was sure. Only, he hadn’t returned the wave. Just stared with vacant eyes, like she was someone else’s child.
She wasn’t surprised. She’d prepared.
It started with Hank Aaron.
Evenings, around dinnertime, mother would be sent to retrieve her father from Duffy’s. Wasn’t allowed to set foot in the bar, which she attributed to rumors she’d heard of the barmaid, who owned a python and never wore a bra, and sometimes wore the snake draped over her shoulders as she poured drinks for the men, workers from the Teflon factory fresh off their shifts. Mother would wait for someone to fetch Billy Keyes. She’d peer into the gloom.
She could barely see them: the filthy men, silhouettes like carnival animals in a darkened tent. The air so musky with tobacco and sour beer she’d swear she could feel it clotting on the back of her throat.
Some nights, they’d stop at a five and dime, and Billy Keyes would treat his daughter to gifts. Penny candy. A plastic comb. Most often it was baseball cards, though she had no interest in the sport, and Billy Keyes would lilt about batting records as they sauntered home. Often, he’d forget to pass along the cards, absentmindedly pocketing them as they walked up the drive.
One night he’d set fire to Jackie Robinson. Exploded into the kitchen, bellowing about the injustice of Jackie’s being traded to the Giants before setting a match to the card. Used it to light a cigarette before tossing the cinders into the sink and settling in for a plate of goulash.
Mother figured she’d better rescue them.
Hank Aaron was first.
Then Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Ernie Banks. She’d rescue them based on their smiles.
She’d hide them in her books—Trixie Belden and the Mysterious Visitor, Trixie Belden and the Gatehouse Mystery—a collection of mementos she’d compiled in unconscious anticipation of her father’s departure. Anticipatory revenges perhaps. There’d been an eerie thrill when she’d snuck into her parents’ bedroom, slid her hands into the pockets of her father’s denim pants. It was like stealing gold from a sleeping giant. She felt like a runaway kite.
She was prepared when her mother explained they’d be returning to Yonkers.
Couldn’t afford 341 Lake Drive but Aunt Dottie and Uncle Jimmy had a spare room where they could stay, too small for anything but the clothes they could fit in their suitcases. So, she’d left them behind, Trixie Belden and her all-stars.
She’d scratched a treasure map on the back of soup can label. Six crooked dashes west of the forsythias. That’s where she’d find them when she returned.
After my father left us too, around the time we’d fled to Beacon, that was when mother began keeping the Heritage Price Guide next to her bed. It was the closest we owned to a Bible. At night, she’d study its listings the way a wavering believer might pour over Psalms. “We aren’t poor,” she’d say, jabbing a page. We just needed to find our way home. If only we could find them again, Trixie Belden and her all-stars, mother would say, everything would be okay.
I find egg substitute and Taylor ham in the refrigerator. I set the pork slices frying in butter. Then I explore my mother’s home.
It’s clean. There’s IKEA furniture in the living room and a framed photograph on a bookshelf, a young couple, smiling and dressed in matching sweaters. The husband’s face is round and childlike. The wife wears thick-rimmed glasses. Her hair is dyed wine-red.
Upstairs, the air is pungent with the smell of fresh paint. A nursery: canary-yellow walls, a dresser full of unworn baby clothes packed in neat rows. No photographs as yet of a child. I shed my clothes, set the shower in the bathroom to a blistering heat, sit on the bed in the master bedroom while I wait. There are voices outside, the neighbor shouting from across the fence, the boy, Davy, answering.
Time passes. I listen.
Two hundred thirty-eight holes.
Never found Trixie Belden.
I hear sirens. Lights flicker on the window. I smell smoke. I smell steam. I keep listening.
Joshua Shaw is a philosophy professor at Penn State Erie, The Behrend College. He began writing fiction mid-career because story-telling made him glad to be alive. His stories have appeared in Hobart, James Gunn’s Ad Astra, Booth, and Split Lip. His short story, Cure Light Wounds, was recently nominated for a Pushcart Prize. More information about him can be found here.