Narrative Magazine's Friday Feature: Ann Packer's "Molten"
In her gut-wrenching story "Molten," best-selling novelist and award-winning short story writer Ann Packer tackles one of the most treacherous subject matters a writer can cover: a mother grieving for her lost child. Through listening to her late son's favorite music in an obsessive, almost inappropriate way, Kathryn begins her rocky journey through the stages of grief, ending up in a territory both unexpected and uncharted.
by Ann Packer
At four-thirty Kathryn chose a last CD and put it into Ben's stereo. Low, gritty guitar chords burst from the speakers, the speed of a terrified heartbeat. She eased herself onto his beanbag chair, her head knocking time. I have a present. It is the present. You have to learn to. Find it within you. She loved this song, the hard, repeated chords, the singer's hoarse voice. Usually she couldn't really enjoy the last CD, she was so busy dreading the moment when she'd have to stop for the day: five-fifteen, five-twenty at the latest, in order to be downstairs before Lainie got home from track practice, followed just a little later by Dave returning from work. Today was different, though. Both of them were going out tonight. Kathryn would be back up here by seven-thirty, and then she'd have hours. A vast opportunity. A bonus. A reprieve.
The verse went on, building to a glorious burst of sound, guitar bright and dirty at the same time, the fierce rat-a-tat of the drums. If you could save yourself, you could save us all. Go on living, prove us wrong. Your leap of faith could be a well-timed smile. Survival never goes out of style.
A philosophy of life. A philosophy of life in a rock song, a wake-up call of a rock song. Kathryn might have been surprised, before. Now she knew. Ben's music contained everything.
She sang along to the next song, impatient without knowing why until the third one started and she understood she'd been waiting for it. It was her favorite on the album, the one she was always happiest to hear, although happy wasn't really the word--ravished was more like it. She was ravished by the opening torrent of sound, by the way it thinned into a rocky stream of notes, and then into the vocals: Dreamed I was a fireman. I just smoked and watched you burn. (The first time she heard it, she thought it was "Jingo was a fireman." Like the opening of a children's story! Ben would've found that hilarious.) Dreamed I was an astronaut. I shot you down like a juggernaut. Dreamed we were still going out. Had that one a few times now. Woke up to find we were not. It's good to be awake.
Actually, the first time she heard it she couldn't tell what the words were. It was just noise, across the board. Racket. This band and nearly every other. (Of course, that was only about a week after the funeral--she could hardly understand her husband then.) Still, horrible as most of it sounded, she kept listening: first to ten-second bits, then to whole songs, whole albums. And it took. There were still bands she couldn't stand, but others: the way one singer sort of half screamed and half laughed; the deep, velvety dee-dee-dee-doo of a bass; the clatter and roll of a drum set.
And the guitars. There'd been a moment early on when she suddenly stopped and asked herself just what instrument she was hearing, and when the answer dawned on her, obvious and shocking, her face actually filled with heat. Guitar. Electric guitar. What had she thought it was, a trumpet? How could she have arrived at the age of forty-five without knowing how an electric guitar sounded? She loved guitar now, the edgy, off-sounding chords, the quick up-and- down wail of a line of notes, the occasional sweet, high, shimmering trill. Guitars could sing, cry, whisper, growl. Awesome, as Ben would have said.
Dreamed I was a dream. I stole you away, away in your sleep. Saved you
from a fire, a gun for hire, I introduced you to a vampire.
A song was a dream. That's what Kathryn thought now. A song was someone else's dream, and when you listened to it you became part of it, and you were linked to all the other people who had listened to it and all the people who would listen to it in times to come. In a phantom space somewhere, she and Ben floated behind dozens of songs together, hundreds of songs--separated by an enormous crowd.
Forty minutes later, the CD was over. She went down to the kitchen. Outside, the sky was the dreary gray of old whites: socks and T-shirts thrown in too many times with a load of jeans. The breakfast dishes were still piled by the sink. She bit into a toast crust, then threw the tail end away. She arranged the dishes in the dishwasher and sat at the table. Just before five-thirty she heard Lainie stowing her bike, and then the front door opened and Lainie passed by the kitchen doorway on her way to the stairs.
"Hi," Kathryn called, and she heard Lainie stop and pause, then turn back.
"Hi." Lainie wore navy blue nylon running shorts and an old T-shirt of Ben's, black with the word Superchunk written on it--the name of a band, obviously, though Kathryn remembered trying for a joke when she first saw him wearing it: What's that, a kind of peanut butter? And Ben . . . well, he gave her a smile, of course. A forbearing smile.
Lainie's muscular legs were red from her workout, and her face was still splotchy. Standing in the doorway, she dropped her backpack, then pulled her ponytail elastic out and shook her head. She'd wash her hair and come down with wet spots on the shoulders of whatever T-shirt she put on next, smelling of the apricot stuff she used as conditioner, an oddly disturbing smell to Kathryn lately--musty somehow, like the inside of a rarely opened closet.
"How was school?" Kathryn said.
Lainie shrugged, though somewhere in her eyes there was a bit of surprise at being asked--Kathryn was a bit surprised too.
"The usual," she said. "Mr. Nadler's definitely got a screw loose. He had us spend half an hour looking at each other's palms and then writing descriptions of them."
"Of each other's palms?"
"It was about metaphors. Describe the palm in terms of something else. He's a few flowers short of a bouquet."
Kathryn felt a smile pull at the corners of her mouth. A few boards short of a fort. A few letters short of a Scrabble game. A Ben and Lainie thing. How had it started? With Dave, now that she thought about it, saying someone was a few hot dogs short of a picnic, to the kids' endless amusement.
"What did you use?" Kathryn said.
"Huh?" Lainie reached up her sleeve and scratched her shoulder, an absent look on her face. At odd moments Kathryn was amazed by her, by her athleticism--her tiny breasts and rough, manly habits. Lainie burped out loud, sat with her legs splayed. Kathryn sometimes thought of her as an emissary from some foreign place, sent to spy on the locals. She imagined Lainie composing her report: "And the mother was so soft. She sat around thinking all the time. Plus I never saw her run--not even when she was in a hurry."
"For your metaphor," Kathryn said.
"Oh." Lainie rolled her eyes. "A desert. Real original, right? Allison did a tree for my hand." She held out her palm and Kathryn looked, but she couldn't really see the lines, just the tawny pads at the base of each finger. "It was all about branches," Lainie went on, "because, like"--and here she switched to a high, fluty voice--"life can go in so many directions, you know?"
A heaviness fell over Kathryn, like a lead apron--on her shoulders, her arms, her heart. Color rushed into Lainie's face, and something passed between them for an electric moment. They were thinking of the same thing. So many directions, meaning so many wrong ones. The fallout of a moment's choice--of an impulse. Kathryn put her chin in her hand and looked away.
Lainie reached for her backpack and stood there for a moment, a shape in Kathryn's peripheral vision. She said, "I guess I'll get in the shower." Kathryn sat. The heaviness sank through her: traveling her bloodstream, outlining her bones. Her body had become a scale, a device for measuring grief. The shifts could still catch her by surprise.
Something orange flashed through the backyard, and she looked up in time to see a tabby cat alight on the fence and then dive into the neighbor's yard. Next she became aware of Lainie moving around in her bedroom. There were footsteps across the upstairs hallway, and the shower came on with a sudden burst. On the other side of the bathroom was Ben's room. Just two more hours and she could go back up. She glanced at the clock: less than two hours. The few other times both Dave and Lainie had been out in the evening she'd sat in there with Ben's windows open--his windows open, his lights off, the night mixing with the music until the combination all but carried her away. Coming back downstairs afterward she'd felt a dark, empty exaltation.
In a few minutes the front door opened again, and Dave appeared in the kitchen with a cautious, measuring expression on his face. He ducked his head a bit, then looked back up at her. "Hi."
She swallowed. "Hi."
There was no reason not to get up and go kiss him, no reason for him not to come over and kiss her, but neither of them moved. Whenever they kissed now she felt either that they were kissing because of Ben or despite him.
Dave set his briefcase down and stretched, then glanced over at the sink. Don't bother, she wanted to say, there's nothing there: no pile of washed vegetables, no Styrofoam tray of meat.
"Hungry?" he said.
"Not really," she replied, although all at once she was, a curved, off-center hunger deep in her stomach.
"Taking a shower."
"I could go get Indian."
"Or Chinese. Will you eat if I get something?"
She nodded again.
He sighed, his face tired around the eyes, grayish. He looked rumpled, in an unironed plaid shirt and khakis that suddenly appeared too short, bits of his dark socks visible between hem and shoe. "My engine's smoking again," he said. "I've got to take it in tomorrow."
"Oh." She tried again: "Too bad."
"What'd you do today?" Before she could answer, he went to the cracker cabinet and fished in a box of butter thins. She figured he was afraid of her reply--afraid she'd say, as she usually did, Nothing. In fact, she'd even left the house for a little while, for the first time in days. Then spent seven hours listening to music.
"Errands," she said. "I picked up your gray suit for you."
"Oh," he said, brightening a little. "Thanks."
Lainie's door opened with a slight creak, and a moment later her footsteps sounded on the stairs, bam, bam, bam, until the final few steps, which she took in one leap, ending with a great thud.
"Hey, Pop." She came into the kitchen with long strides, her hair wet on her shoulders as Kathryn expected, but wearing her new crocheted black sweater over a short burgundy dress.
"What's this?" Dave said. "You look like a movie star, what's the story?"
"Dad," she said, giving him a look. She hated being complimented, had since early childhood, when she was always telling Kathryn and Dave not to make too big a deal when she did something well--rode her bike without training wheels, added numbers in her head.
Kathryn looked more closely. Lainie's cheeks were flushed, and her lips--was she wearing lipstick? A pale matte shade obviously chosen to look like no lipstick at all.
"I told you," Lainie said. "I have that study group tonight."
"Oh, yeah," Dave said, nodding. "I'd forgotten."
Kathryn drummed her fingers on the table. "You'd better call for that Indian so neither of you'll be late."
Dave scratched the side of his neck. "Indian food okay with you, Laine?"
He opened a drawer and riffled through the assortment of take-out menus inside, finally pulling out a light green one. "I guess I'll skip it tonight," he said over his shoulder to Kathryn.
Her heart pounded. "Your meeting?"
"I'd forgotten Lainie needed a car."
"She can take mine, you can take yours."
He gave her an irritated look. "I told you, the engine's smoking."
Her mouth went dry. This wasn't happening, it couldn't be. She'd even figured out what she was going to play first: X, this loud, off-tone band with a screechy female vocalist. Your phone's off the hook . . . but you're not! "That's ridiculous," she said, as evenly as she could. "You drove home with it smoking, you're going to have to drive it to the shop . . ."
"It's thirty minutes on the freeway. I don't feel like standing on the side of the road waiting for Triple-A if it dies."
"Well, then you should take the Trooper, and Lainie can get a ride."
Across the kitchen, Lainie opened her mouth and closed it again. "I told Allison I could drive," she said in a small, shaky voice. "I already know, she can't get a car tonight."
"It's fine," Dave said. "You can take the Trooper as planned." He faced Kathryn. "I don't mind missing it this week. It's no big deal."
Kathryn struggled to maintain her expression, but it was too late: a series of questions was forming on his face. Why did she want him to go? Why did she prefer to have him gone? Why, beyond the fact that it was now impossible for her to be with anyone?
She didn't want him to know--ever. I've been listening to Ben's music. Constantly. And nobody gets to ask me about it! "Well," she said. "It just doesn't make sense, that's all."
He shrugged. "I'm not going to keep going forever, you know."
She looked away, a feeling of desperation coming over her. Of course he wasn't, but it had barely been six months, he couldn't be ready to stop yet. As much as she didn't want to go, she wanted him to. Why? "It makes me feel better," he'd said early on. And she wanted him to feel better. And she wanted herself not to.
She'd gone once. Had let him drive her to the place, the room where even the arrangement of chairs was respectful and solicitous, not too close but not too far apart. She chose one with glossy wood arms, but then she looked around at the other bereaved parents, and the meeting started, and she couldn't do it. She felt molten. She didn't want friends, compassionate or otherwise. She wanted to scream in a padded room, scratch her arms until they bled.
"So?" Lainie said. "Are we having dinner? Because I could pick up food somewhere."
Dave looked at Kathryn, his deep blue eyes bloodshot with fatigue and grief and worry. And impatience: that too. He hesitated for a moment and then reached for the phone. "No, no," he said. "We're having dinner."
After Lainie left, the evening inched along glacially. Dave was in the kitchen while Kathryn was in the bedroom. Then Dave was in the TV room while Kathryn was in the living room. That's how it was now. After a while she picked up her library book, a novel about a woman falling in love with a minister in contemporary rural England. As if she cared. As if she gave a fuck. What a word, what a good word--what an essential word, and how surprising. She used to try to shame Ben out of using it. Not by saying it was bad or dirty--God no, she had subtler tactics than that--but by trying to appeal to his sense of pride. It's clichéd, she told him. But--and here she took some belated pleasure in his willfulness, or his indifference, whatever it was--he didn't give a fuck about that.
All evening his stereo called to her. His room called. At one point she got up and went to the bottom of the stairs and just stood there, looking up into the shadows. Dave appeared at the other end of the hallway and they stared at each other for a long moment. Then she turned and walked away.
In the morning she could hardly wait for them to leave. Lainie's spokes finally twitched through the side yard, but Dave hemmed and hawed about his smoking engine and how the garage guy would take him to work but he might need her to pick him up. Whatever, she wanted to say. Whatever.
Finally, up the stairs to Ben's room. Each morning she entered it with the guilty conscience of a snooper. Each day she had to reclaim it. She wondered about this. Could you snoop on someone who'd died?
Died. It sounded so peaceful. Ben had been killed. Huge, straining train engines haunted her dreams now: movie trains hurtling through tunnels, steam engines puffing around ominous bends. Ironic, because the train that had killed him was your basic commuter, a five-car double-decker shuttling back and forth between San Francisco and San Jose. It was an irony perhaps only Ben would have appreciated, with his finely honed sense of the ironic. "It's an ironic beanbag chair," he'd said when he dragged the bright orange vinyl thing in from a garage sale. "It goes with my ironic studiousness." Which was a reference to something she'd said, a little too naggingly, a few weeks earlier: that she felt like he studied from a distance--that he didn't so much study as watch himself study. At which point he'd given her an ironic smile and put on his headphones.
She did what she always did to start. Crossed to his dresser and opened his drawers. Socks and underwear, shirts, shorts. Sweatshirts at the bottom. She could no longer bear to smell them, but she patted the bulky shapes, old blues, grays, greens. "This girl said I look good in dark green," he'd said once, and she'd smoothed his shoulders and smiled, thinking he always had, since he was a baby.
Back across the room to the closet. She slid open the door, knelt in front of his worn old backpack, and unzipped the front pocket. There was the envelope. Some mornings it was enough just to see it there, but today she took it out and opened it, a security envelope with a scratchy black pattern on the inside. It contained the article from the Chronicle, folded awkwardly to accommodate the uneven lengths of the columns.
Her friend Susan had suggested a scrapbook. "It would be a place you could keep the article, and the note from the little boy's family, and some recent photographs . . ."
Kathryn had demurred politely, but she'd been incensed. Like she'd want bookends for his life, his baby book on one end of a short shelf and a book about his death on the other. Ha.
She pulled the article out, still soft and smudgy, not yet passed into the brittle, yellow stage that was the destination of all newsprint. Unfolding it, she didn't read the words so much as take in the shapes of the paragraphs. She had it memorized. Just as she had the note memorized.
Her chest tightened. She hated to think of the note. The loopy handwriting, the little bouquet of flowers on the return address label. She hated to think of it, but she wanted to think of it. Sometimes she felt she needed to think of it.
Dear David and Kathryn and Lainie: We are so sorry for your loss. Ben
must have been a wonderful son and brother. The death of a family member is
always hard. What happened Tuesday fills our hearts with grief. No one but
a hero would have done what Ben did. We know that he gave up his life so our
Tyler could live. When he is old enough we will tell Tyler that he owes his life to
The nerve. That was all Kathryn could think: the nerve. Because to hell with how it was heartfelt and all that crap--where was We know that our negligence caused this? Where was We will blame ourselves forever? Nowhere, that's where. Nowhere. And The death of a family member is always hard? What happened fills our hearts with grief? It was too bad they were so sad! The thing that got Kathryn most, though, was We know that he gave up his life so our Tyler could live. As if he'd made a conscious choice! Me or this little kid? Okay, the kid. It was enraging: they seemed to expect her to be proud of him--to share their admiration of what he'd done.
Well, she wasn't. She didn't.
They'd actually gone so far as to enclose a photograph of little Tyler, a mottled-background shot from Sears, with the kid looking wet-lipped into the middle distance, a tiny tool belt strapped around his waist. Dave had agreed that there was no reason to save the note, and after a few weeks Kathryn had thrown it away. He didn't even know about the photograph. It hadn't been in the house an hour before Kathryn had put it into a metal bucket and thrown a lit match in after. A lovely gesture.
She looked down at the article again. "Youth Saves Child, Loses Life." Some days the headline had an almost poetic power over her, but today she just felt sour. Youth--it made him sound like an Eagle Scout. And loses life? He hadn't misplaced it. Where is my life? Shit, it must be around here somewhere!
Where is my mind? Where is my mind? That was from a song, but which one?
She put the article back in the envelope, the envelope back in the backpack. The closet was crammed with his stuff--papers, old clothes, his one blazer flattened between ski jackets. Mom, I look like an idiot!
She closed the closet door and went to the stereo. There were hundreds of records, lined up in milk crates. Shelves and shelves of CDs and tapes. He'd spent a fortune, driving up to San Francisco, Berkeley, Oakland. Record stores sometimes called and left messages for him--Tell him we just got a used copy of blah blah if he's still interested. Kathryn would tell him--then overhear him sheepishly asking Lainie if he could borrow twenty bucks, his own wallet long since empty.
What to play? She didn't know what she felt like today. Actually, she did: everything. She began pulling out CDs until she had twenty-five or thirty in a pile on the floor. She pinched open the cases and put the disks into the carousel, which had slots for something like a hundred CDs. In theory, that meant she could listen to music nonstop for about four days. If only.
She pressed Random and sat in the beanbag chair.
Hips like Cinderella. She adored this song! The voice was insinuating, lascivious, close to a whisper. Must be having a good shame. That whispering voice and the bass and drums, full of tension. Talking sweet about nothing. Getting ready for: Cookie, I think you're TAME! And the guy screamed it, and the guitar rushed in, and Kathryn's head knocked around so much she could end up with whiplash.
Sometimes her neck ached afterward, downstairs.
Ben twitched his foot. She used to pass his room, and he'd have the headphones on and be twitching his foot like a madman, and in her mind she'd be like, Go running! Let off some steam! What a fool. Listening was letting off steam. Listening was like sex and eating and screaming, all at once. It was so physical. Looking at a painting, reading a book--you could forget you had a body. Rock and roll existed to remind you of your body. It existed to make your body into an instrument, to play you.
Fall on your face in those bad shoes.
The headphone thing destroyed her. She couldn't count the number of times she'd asked him to wear them, saying something asinine like "It won't matter to you and it will matter to me." Aargh. She'd tried them and it mattered--God, did it matter. Listening through headphones was like talking on the phone long-distance to someone you were dying to see. To touch. All that nagging was just one of the things she'd like to kill herself for.
Dave would sigh and turn away if she said that to him. That she'd like to kill herself. He'd sigh and turn away if she said it, and she'd say it so he'd sigh and turn away.
The song ended. What would be next, what next? Random always gave her a nervous feeling, her heartbeat up in her throat. Aching anticipation. The morning sun moved slowly across Ben's room, and she followed it, ending up sometime after noon on the floor by the closet, her lower body flooded with light while her face and shoulders grew cold. The songs washed over her, jazzed her, ignited her and put her out in the space of three or four minutes. She was hungry, but she waited and it went away. Thirsty--that usually lasted. Whatever. It didn't work to bring stuff to eat or drink in with her. She zoned out, and for a while she didn't even really hear the change from one song to the next. Peace.
A song ended and the next began, and she sat up. A ringing, shiny like bells--she absolutely loved the guitar on this. She'd gone through a phase of listening to this band over and over, one album after another. I fell in love with a hooker, she laughed in my face. So seriously I took her, I was a disgrace. I was out of line, I was out of place, out of time to save face. See the open mouth of my suitcase, saying leave this place. Leave without a trace. Here was her favorite part, the guitar winding. Leave without a trace. And winding tighter, cinching a string around her heart: she actually saw this, a white kitchen string around a fist of muscle, blood turning the white to red, and it didn't disgust her at all, it just--went with the song. Leave. Without. A trace. And there was a dazzling burst of chords, and God, it was sublime, sublime and ordinary, sublime because ordinary--it was rock 'n' roll. She imagined Ben in here, damned headphones on, listening to this--its antic energy, the questioning defiance of its lyrics. I tried to get a good job. With honest pay. Might as well join the mob, the benefits are okay. What was it like to be seventeen, eighteen, and to hear that? Last fall, maybe a week or two before the accident, Ben had joked that he'd go to college next year unless he got a better offer. "It's usually after you've gone to college that you get the better offers," Dave said, and the two of them laughed the thin-lipped Stephenson laugh.
Ben was a Stephenson, no question. Kathryn's strain of high-cheekboned Slavic seriousness barely registered in either kid. Summers in North Dakota, visiting Dave's parents on their farm, Ben fit right in. Tall, rangy. He looked good with a piece of straw poking out of his mouth. He looked good: then he opened his mouth and the illusion pretty much fell apart. "Oh, no!" he cried. "I forgot to worry about nasty microorganisms," and he made a big show of spitting the straw to the ground. Dave's father gave him a slightly irritated glance as he
passed by in his work pants, off to fix the tractor.
Still, Ben was good-natured on those visits. "Bologna salad sandwiches for lunch?" he'd cry. "Yay, Grandma." He even made one at home once: chopped bologna and relish mixed together in a bowl and spread on white bread. Kathryn walked into the kitchen and couldn't believe her eyes. "I'm cultivating my roots," he said. "Also a slight stomachache."
A new song came on, and her chest tightened. She stood up but then didn't move. She couldn't stand to listen to it, but once she'd heard the first chords, how they organized themselves into the beginning of the song, she couldn't really not listen either.
Lay down, Rosey. It's the blue and the orange time. A water and a twist
of lime. I had so much to tell you, I raced through the sky, to touch you for the
last time. So much to tell you, I raced through the sky, to whisper a message into
your morphine drip.
Then a heartbreaking violin passage, an embroidery on the idea of loss.
And: Not a dark boy. A sparkle and a mark boy. Making cake out of trashcan afterthoughts. Death is a spinster. Mortally whacking the funny boys. Till they're not laughing anymore.
She didn't know what it was about. Someone lost to drugs? Cancer? It didn't matter. It was about her, her feelings. The next part was the hardest, and she went over to the stereo, ready to turn it off, then stopped. Don't cry, don't cry, don't cry, don't cry. I'm having fun driving, I'm riding, riding, riding . . . It was the same singer, a woman with a low, scratchy, fervent voice, but now she was singing the boy's part. No need for you to cry. Full-throated, Kathryn pressed the Stop button.
It was too painful, but so gorgeous. Gorgeous music. In the silence, staring at the green light on the stereo, she could almost hear how the song would end, with the single sustained note of the violin wavering over the fading guitar. And how, if she were listening to the CD straight through, the next would begin moments later, deceptively simple: Won't you look inside and see. What's inside a girl like me. Rivers of blood pour from my eyes, your careless heart I do despise. Her voice placid, making its way through the verse, growing. And then, entreatingly, full of feeling: Swim back to me. The cry of a spurned lover, Kathryn supposed, but what did that matter? There was no word for what Kathryn was. No word like widow to convey the exact shape of what was gone.
Her eyes hot, nausea climbing to her throat, she took the disk out and put it away. She couldn't. Sometimes she wanted to, but not today. Not today.
Ben must have been a wonderful son and brother.
She took a deep breath and let it out again. Even. An even keel was what she needed. She hit Random again. Tat, tat, tat, tat. Thank God. This was easy, this next song, starting with a sprightly tapping of drumsticks. She moved away from the stereo and sat down again. Ben had had a drum once. Little drummer boy, four or five years old, marching around the house. It had been a birthday present--a hostile gesture from the other kid's parents, she joked to Dave. Eventually she'd made it disappear.
The mistakes she'd made.
The song got under way, the drums awfully insistent. Then she realized: someone was at the front door. She stood and looked out Ben's window, but there was no car, just the sidewalk and the empty street. And the strip of earth between them where, this year, nothing was planted.
Tap, tap, tap. She left the room and made her way down the stairs, her pulse going fast. She didn't like to have to talk to people without warning. The phone was easy, she just let the machine get it, but the door. . . . Once, maybe just a few weeks after it happened, someone knocked, and it was this woman Kathryn barely knew, a mother from Lainie's school, and she'd come over to see if Kathryn wanted to talk.
She reached the door and put her hand on the knob. Her mouth was dry. She wiped her palms on her jeans and then pulled the door open.
It was Kaz--Ben's friend Matt Kazmann. Tall, black haired, heavy, pale. Dark plastic-framed glasses, a silver stud just below his lower lip. His black T-shirt fell loosely from thin shoulders and then went taut at his plump belly.
He looked past her as he spoke. "Um, I was driving by, and, like, did you know your sprinkler's going over there?" He pointed over his shoulder to the side of the house Kathryn couldn't see. "It's sort of, like, flooded. I mean, I wasn't sure if you knew."
The minute he spoke she became aware of the sound of water running through pipes. Dave had said he'd turn it on as he left; she'd forgotten to turn it off. Which meant it had been going for--what?--five hours? Oh, well.
"Thanks," she said. "You're right, I've got to turn it off."
She moved past him onto the porch, crossed the grass, looked around the corner of the house. God, a pond. She squished through the sodden grass and shut the water off. Much too wet to retrieve the sprinkler now, but she should try to remember before Lainie or Dave got home.
Kaz was still on the porch. He was so pale--as if he never went outside during the day. Not that she should talk.
He tipped his head toward the open front door, a confused look on his
face. "Is Lainie home?"
The music. He could hear it tumbling down the stairs. Why can't I get. Just one fuck. Why can't I get. Just one fuck. I guess it's got something to do with luck, but I . . .
Heat filled her face, a line of sweat on her upper lip. Of all songs. "She's at school," she said. "Shouldn't you be?"
He lifted a shoulder. "Not really. Whatever."
Go. Go. She needed for him to go away. She said, "So you were driving by?" It was a tiny street, no one just drove by.
"Yeah, kind of." He looked out toward his car, parked halfway down the block, and the cluster of pimples on the side of his neck darkened to crimson.
Well, she'd go. She'd go in. She took a step toward the door, but poor Kaz: he carried something around with him, and it wasn't just that big gut. He was always lumbering, psychically lumbering. Lumbering after Ben, lumbering downtown: you'd see him from a distance, black hair and a slopey body, some vaguely reluctant determination to keep on. At the cemetery he'd stood with his arms crossed tightly in front of his chest, hands tucked into his armpits. Slightly away from where the other kids huddled, not quite ostracized but almost.
He and Ben had been growing apart. That's what it was. Ben had been in the middle of a kind of shift, toward a different group of kids. Happier kids? Or just interested in appearing happy? Ben had always worn his darkness lightly. Not a dark boy. A sparkle and a mark boy . . .
She stepped up into the entry hall. "Well . . ."
Kaz squinted. "Are you listening to that?"
"I'm just . . . sorting."
His eyes widened a bit, but he didn't comment. Then: "Ben loved this album."
"Really?" She felt a rush of something through her chest. "Did he talk about it a lot?"
"He played it a lot. He wore out the vinyl and had to buy the CD. I mean 'wore out'--it got a little scratched."
"He didn't like that?"
"He hated it. Dude was beyond uptight." Kaz bit his lip and looked away for a moment. "Sorry."
"It's all right," Kathryn said.
More. She wanted more. "Would you like to come in?" she asked brightly. "I think there might still be some water if you're thirsty."
He smiled. "Uh . . ."
"Come in," she said. "Really." She stepped backward and held the door open wide, and after a moment he came in and looked around uneasily. It was no wonder: the living room was appalling. The blinds were still drawn, and there was dust everywhere. Old newspapers all over the hearth, empty Diet Coke cans cluttering the coffee table, a pair of dirty socks peeking out from under a chair. And was that a smell? Maybe so. Maybe it was coming off her.
The kitchen was a little better. She filled a glass for him and watched thirstily as he drank it standing in front of the dishwasher, his stud glinting below his lip. Gulp, gulp, gulp: a kid hoping to outwit the neighborhood witch. Why had she invited him in? This was all wrong. She wanted to be upstairs again, alone. She could hear the beginning of a new song: Candy says, I've come to hate my body . . .
"Could I go upstairs?"
"To Ben's room?" Her mouth was drier than ever as she searched his paleface.
No, no, no, no, no. He certainly could not. She didn't want anyone in there. Some days she could sense Dave's presence--a whiff of early morning, shaving cream and coffee--and it made her crazy.
Lainie never went in, she was sure of that.
Kaz stared at her. Matt Kazmann. It was his loss too, she knew that--she knew all about that. But now, today, this moment in her kitchen: Matt Kazmann suffered too. No less because he'd been losing Ben anyway. Just like Kathryn.
It was too fierce, the pain of having children. It hurt just to love them, let alone this. It hurt to be impatient, bored, entranced. Always knowing they were on their way away. How could you so much as kiss their tiny toes knowing that? The pain was the exact size of Kathryn's own body. Feeling it was simply feeling the inside of herself.
Kaz set his glass down. "Sorry," he said. "Uh, I'm going to take off."
"No," she said. "Go upstairs. Take some time in there, take as long as you need."
She sat at the kitchen table. She heard the stereo go off, then nothing. He wasn't moving, wasn't making a sound. Just sitting on the bed, maybe. Looking through the CDs, remembering. "Kaz thinks they're rad," Ben had said once, about a band the two of them were going to hear in San Francisco. Kaz thinks they're rad. Meaning Ben didn't, or wasn't sure, or didn't even know the band. Meaning Kaz's wanting to go was enough.
Ten minutes went by, fifteen, twenty. The house was silent, the sun-filled silence of two o'clock in a suburban house on an empty suburban street. Outside were all those lawns to be fertilized, watered, mowed, edged. There was nothing sadder than a little rectangle of lawn on an empty suburban street at two o'clock in the afternoon.
Footsteps on the stairs. Kathryn reached for a section of newspaper, then shoved it away. Why pretend?
He stood at the entrance of the kitchen. Face still pale, belly pushing at the thin black T-shirt. What, she expected him to look different? Or was it that she wanted him to?
"Thanks," he said. "I've been wanting to do that. I mean, I wasn't sure if it would be okay."
He hadn't just been driving by, he'd come over on purpose. That's what he meant.
"Sure," she said. She'd wanted more from him earlier, but not now. What question was there? What single question?
Kaz reached under his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. "Okay, then," he said. "Thanks." He gave her a funny little wave and walked away. As soon as the front door closed she stood up. She hurried to the stairs, then took them two at a time and raced into Ben's room. But: nothing. Not a sign of disturbance, not a lingering smell. Neatly made bed, beanbag chair, records, tapes, CDs. Dresser. She went over to the closet and slid open the door. Backpack. She pressed the front pocket and felt the crinkling of the envelope.
"I've been wanting to do that," he'd said.
Wanting to do that. She knew what he meant.
Blood hurtled through her body, and she stood still for a moment, then
headed for the kids' bathroom. That nausea. She used Lainie's brush on her hair,
set it down again, and opened the medicine cabinet. Nuder Than Nude: that was
the name of the lipstick. She uncapped it and rolled some across her lips, then
yanked some toilet paper off the roll and rubbed it away. Her mouth looking red,
The death of a family member is always hard.
Back in Ben's room she plucked a disk from the CD carousel, dug out its case from the pile on the floor, and hurried downstairs. "Without a Trace," that was the song she wanted to hear, but why? Grief rose up inside her, and she knocked it back.
She fetched up in the kitchen, suddenly unsure of herself. Beached. The breakfast dishes, the toast crusts . . . It was the same as yesterday, the same as the day before. It would be the same forever. An oppression of breakfast plates. That should be the collective noun, like a school of fish, a herd of cows.
She felt--dry of mouth and spirit. She liked the phrase, and as she mustered the energy to push off from the counter, locate her car keys, and head out to the driveway, she muttered it over and over to herself. Dry of mouth and spirit. Dry of mouth and spirit.
The Trooper was a furnace. She got the engine running and immediately lowered all the windows. It reminded her of going to pick up the kids from school, being in the car at this time of day. People driving around in cars, mothers driving children around in cars. It weighed on her, the idea of so many people in so many cars.
She couldn't do what she wanted to do. But she wanted to do it.
She turned onto El Camino and drove alongside the railroad tracks. Mountain Mike's, Baskin Robbins, Lyon's. All virtually empty right now. A few old people shuffling into Walgreens. A good time to buy Depends!
God, what a bitch.
She came to the crossing. RR. Ben, who'd adored trains as a little boy. A sob heaved upward but lodged in her chest. It made her dizzy to think about it. It made her dizzy, and it made her crazy.
On the other side she passed the car wash. The other side of the tracks-- it wasn't lost on her. Smaller houses, smaller yards. Well, they had to play somewhere, didn't they? If they had tiny yards they were going to wander away, weren't they?
She drove alongside the tracks but then braked at the turn, because
really, this was too awful. Monstrous. What was she doing? She glanced onto the
passenger seat and saw the CD lying there. In her mind she leaned toward the
refrain she wanted: Leave. Without. A trace. That was a trace, the song itself. Wholly inadequate, and yet . . . She put the disk into the car stereo and pressed the button.
The guitar rang, and she looked at the house. One in from the corner, she knew from having driven by once, just after it happened.
She couldn't do this.
Shouldn't do it.
Couldn't, shouldn't, couldn't, shouldn't.
He stretched for the child, grabbed him and threw him away from the
tracks. Slipped and was struck.
So said the witness, a man who'd pulled over to see what was going on, why a tall, dark-haired teenager was scrambling from a car to race for the tracks when a train was coming . . .
She stared at the tracks now. Sunlight reflecting blood-brown on steel. A
howl through her mind: Don't.
She was so thirsty. She set her blinker though no one was coming, then turned onto the street and pulled to the curb in front of the house.
It was small, white, neatly kept. She cut the engine, and the stereo fell silent. Maybe no one was home. There was a metal garbage can empty at the curb, which might mean no one was home. Or might not.
She walked up the edge of the driveway. A mass of Johnny-jump-ups grew against the porch: blossoms of dark purple and pale purple and yellow, tiny and so tender.
She stepped onto the porch and the door knocker galvanized her: brass molded into the words Bless Our Home. Bless it yourself, she thought nastily.
She rapped once, hard. It was two-thirty in the afternoon, maybe little Tyler was asleep. Down for his nap. Do you want me to put him down? Dave said, taking the baby Ben from Kathryn and setting him in his crib. Then, murmuring to the baby: Now why did I say that, hmm? We certainly don't want you to feel put down.
The door opened, and there stood a woman, thirtyish, narrow shouldered. She furrowed her brow and stared at Kathryn, then looked out to the curb, where Kathryn had parked the Trooper--the car Ben had been driving that day. Kathryn saw it dawn on the woman, the understanding of who she was.
She peered past the woman into the house. Beige carpeting, a sectional couch in front of a giant entertainment center. The woman's eyes were wide now, her hands knotted together just below her bustline. She still hadn't spoken.
"I came," Kathryn said, but then she stopped. Her mouth was a desert. She sucked her cheeks for some saliva, a way to talk. "I came," she said, "to tell you that I'm sorry he did it." She leaned closer to the woman. To Janette McCormick. Round blue eyes, wispy eyebrows, putty-pink skin.
"I'm sorry he stopped," she went on. "I wish he'd kept on driving."
The woman opened her mouth, then closed it again. Blood sloshed around inside Kathryn's head. The skin around her mouth tingled. Time passed, a second or a minute or ten.
Behind her the day sat still, waiting. Deep blue sky beyond the shade trees. She looked down and saw the woman's feet in flowered Keds, the toe of one shoe covering the toe of the other.
Kathryn turned and walked back to her car. Her big, expensive silver Isuzu Trooper. A train of a car. She was still being watched, but then she heard the door close, and she imagined the woman pressing her back against it, sobbing into her hands.
Settled in the driver's seat, Kathryn started the engine, and the CD started too, right where it had left off. I tried to dance at a funeral. New Orleans style. I joined the grave dancers' union. I had to file. Standing in the sun with a popsicle, everything is possible. With a lot of luck and a pretty face, and some time to waste. Leave without a trace. Leave without a trace. Leave. Without. A trace.
And the instruments burst into conversation, bright and brave and onward, even knowing they'd soon stop. Kathryn pulled away from the curb. She reached for the volume knob and turned it up. No: she cranked it.
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