Authors: Sara Shepard
âSo, do you remember any of this?' my father asked. âHasn't changed a bit. I can't believe it.'
He navigated over a roller-coaster sized bump. We'd been driving down the same gravel road for about five minutes. The road was uneven, with big pits and puddles, and there were spots where the gravel was strewn out over the shoulder, indicating a spin-out. âLast time you were hereâ¦I don't know.' My father scratched his head. âYou were three? Four? It was Christmas.'
âMaybe.' I squinted, pretending like I was trying to remember, but this just looked like a gravel road. A squirrel in a tree eyed us suspiciously as we passed.
âWe were only here for a little while, then it started snowing.' He picked at the side of his thumbnail. He was nervous, I realized. âThere's the creek,' he added, pointing. âIt's clean enough to swim in.'
âSince when do you say creek like
?' I asked.
âI didn't say
âYes, you did.'
He thought for a moment. âWell, so what if I did?'
I glanced at him, then crossed my arms over my chest. âI don't think I could swim in a creek.
a crick. And besides, won't we have, like, funeral stuff to do?'
âYeah, but you're missing out if you don't try it,' he said. âIt's much nicer than swimming in a pool. And Samantha's about your age. You can swim together.'
âI didn't bring my suit.'
Finally, we turned into the driveway of a low-slung house. There were a lot of weeds in the front yard and a very, very old blue pickup truck in the driveway. Off to the left was a white-shingled shed; in front of it was a red, three-wheeled lawnmower, lying on its side. The house had a large, faded wrap-around porch strewn with all sorts of junk-an old television, another lawnmower, a couple of white plastic porch chairs, a dog bed and a fifty-pound bag of dog food, rabidly torn open from the center. There was a dog on the porch, too, eating straight from the hole in the bag. I heard the crick out back, rushing. It could never be clean enough to swim in. My stomach started to hurt.
Actually, a picture would have said way more than words.
A girl was sitting on the porch swing. She had long brown hair, and her old jeans hung loosely on her hips. She narrowed her eyes when she saw us but made no effort to get up. âWe can't see the body until after three,' she shouted. âJust so you know.'
My father opened his door and climbed out. âYou remember Samantha, don't you, Summer? She's Skip's sister's kid's kid. Your second cousin.'
âMy name isn't Samantha anymore.' The girl didn't move. âIt's Sword now.'
âAh. Well. Hello, Sword.' My father, surprisingly, didn't miss a beat.
Samantha-Sword-snorted. My father told me on the way here that Samantha's parents died in a fire nine months ago, and she'd been living here with my now-dead grandmother. Stella, my great-aunt, lived here too, having moved from her own house into this one when my grandmother's health began to decline. This, at least, was what Stella told us on the phone a few months ago, when she suggested that my father come see my grandmother before she passed.
But my father didn't. This was the first time he'd been back here in years.
My father took a few steps away from the car, squinting into the backyard. âWhere's the boat?'
âRuth sold it,' Samantha yelled, starting to swing.
He frowned. âWhen?'
âI don't know. When I came here, it was gone. She said she sold it to spite you.' Samantha smiled greedily. I expected her teeth to be gnarled, yellow, overlapping, but they were beautifully straight and white.
My father ran his hand through his hair. âHuh.'
The screen door slammed, and an older woman tumbled out. Her long reddish hair curled around her head, and she wore cat-eye glasses. âRitchie!' She had loose jiggle on her upper arms and smeared, orange-pink lipstick. âIt's beenâ¦my God. How long?'
âI don't know, Stella,' my father answered, hugging her. âMaybe ten years?'
Stella hit him-hard. âYou're
Samantha swung violently, bumping the porch rail with her feet.
âAnd who are these two?' Stella turned her over-magnified eyes to me. âThis your girlfriend?' She moved to Steven. âWho's this big strapping gentleman? You old enough to date, honey? âCause if soâ'
,' I gasped.
Stella sidled very close to us. She smelled not how I thought a great-aunt would-like urine and cats and menthol-but like peanut butter cookies. âI know that, honey. I know.'
âIt's very nice to see you both,' my father said. âI haven't seen Samantha-sorry,
-since she was a baby, I think.'
Stella rolled her eyes. âSword! Now what kind of name is
for a girl?' She looked over her shoulder at Samantha. âIf you're going to change it, change it to Trixie. Or Marilyn, after Marilyn Monroe.'
âYou wouldn't understand,' Samantha muttered.
âWhere's Petey?' my father asked. âIs he here yet?'
âHe's around here somewhere.' Stella pulled out a cigarette.
Her cat-eye glasses slid down her nose. She looked at my father. âYour crazy mother, huh? Had to go and die on us.'
âThat's one way to put it,' Steven mumbled.
âAnd did you hear the latest?' Stella shook her head. âThe Department of Veterans' Affairs gave her a stipend for her funeral, for being in the Army Nurse Corp, you know. And you know what she did? She spent
gee, my sister could use that money to fix up the house,
did she? Nope. Had to buy the best casket and everything. Satin-lined!'
âYou're kidding,' my father said.
âApparently she made these arrangements years ago. So the money had been spent all this time and we didn't even know it. Like she even liked the war! I know for a fact she wanted to be back here, ironing things and baking pot pies. She's even having the military come out and fold the flag and shoot off guns.'
Steven brightened. âCool.'
âMom?' My father scratched his chin. âSeriously?'
âYou would've known this if you visited.' Stella hobbled up the porch steps. âShe probably would've told you. She never told me shit like that.'
My father looked down, not saying anything.
Stella removed her glasses. Her eyes were brown, large, and a little crossed. âWe should go over to the home probably, huh?'
âWe can't go there until three,' Samantha barked. She and Stella had a funny way of talking, some of their vowels very clipped and thin.
We can't go thirr until three.
âDon't you remember what that dickwad at the funeral home said?'
Stella looked delighted and punched Samantha softly on the arm. âDickwad! Now,
is an interesting mental picture. Leon
a dickwad, isn't he?'
You'll remember Stella
, my father told me on the drive here.
She's a spitfire.
But I didn't remember her. I didn't remember any of this. We used to go to my mother's family's house for holidays. My maternal grandmother lived just two hours from Brooklyn, in a town in Pennsylvania called Bryn Mawr. Her yard was fenced and she had
dog-a bichon frise. When she died, there was a closed casket and a small, tasteful service. We had a brunch afterwards, and some great-uncle made me a Shirley Temple with two maraschino cherries. We didn't have to do anything like go see the
Stella put her arm around Steven's shoulders. âYou'll love it here. It's such a nice little vacation for you. Did your father tell you about the crick? And the river. They have these new things, they're like water scooters. They're calledâ¦oh, what are they calledâ¦?'
âJet skis,' Samantha sighed.
âJet skis!' Stella crowed, holding up one finger in
âJet skis aren't new,' I said.
âA jet ski chopped off Mason's leg last week,' Samantha said.
' Stella shot her a look.
âHow do you know?'
âIt's all right,' Steven said. âI'm not really into jet skis, anyway.'
âNow, have you ever been on one?' Stella asked.
âYeah,' Steven said.
âNo you haven't.' Stella put her hands on her hips. âThese are completely cutting-edge. You're probably thinking of a canoe.'
The front door led into a sitting room with two scratchy plaid couches, a worn circular rug, a dingy fireplace and a very old television in the corner. On the mantle was a large, gold trophy in the shape of a horseshoe. There were giltframed, oily paintings on the walls, all of either hunting scenes-dogs majestically pointing at foxes, ruddy men on horseback, a deer, standing dumbfounded in a clearing-or of Frank Sinatra. Frank singing, Frank grinning, Frank with his Rat Pack.
âA sight for sore eyes, huh?' Stella sighed, as if the room were beautiful.
âLooks good,' my father answered quietly.
I passed into the dining room. There was a painting of Frank on navy blue velvet. He was made up to look like a saint, a Mento-shaped halo around his head.
On the table sat a bunch of framed photographs, a little shrine to my grandmother. I leaned down and examined the pictures on the dining table. The first was a black-and-white snapshot of her in a nurse's uniform, standing at the edge of a cot. Chicken scratch at the bottom of the picture said (I think),
Ruth, Paris, 1944.
Next was a soft, hand-colored photo. She looked about ten years older, with blonde, neat, bunchy hair, very white skin, no wrinkles. After that was a picture of her with her hands on my father's shoulders. My father, maybe a bit older than me, stood beside her, although I didn't think he intended to be in the picture. He stared off into space, his whole face shattered and fragile.
Something about his face in the photo reminded me of his face the day he threw the snow globe against the wall. Had my father told Stella about that? About the hospital? How had he explained?
My grandmother grew older and older in each successive picture, gaining more weight, her hair receding until it was a fuzzy, bald raft at the crown of her head, her pink scalp shining through. In the last photo, she was in bed. Stella was next to her, wearing the same green stretch pants she had on today.
My father returned from the kitchen, holding a can of beer. It looked strange in his hand; I'd never seen him drink one. He pointed to the photo of him. âThat's me.'
âDuh,' I answered. I motioned to the wall. âWhat's with the pictures of Frank?'
My father took a long swallow of beer. âYeah. Mom liked Frank. She really went nuts with pictures of him after Dad died.'
I stared at him. Samantha, who was sitting on the couch reading a wrinkled
Dear Claire. You know how you're always looking for kitsch? Well, you'd hit the jackpot here.
âWhy don't I take your bags upstairs?' my father offered.
We all walked through the kitchen and up the creaky stairs to the bedrooms. The upstairs, way colder than the downstairs, opened into a long, narrow hall with doors on either side. The bathroom door, the first to the left, gaped open.
Stacks of books and crossword puzzles balanced on the top of the toilet.
My father tapped the first bedroom door open with his foot. The door was very heavy, with a long crack traversing through its center. âThis used to be my room.'
It smelled musty inside. There was a
From Russia With Love
poster on the wall and a video game console-at least I
that was what it was-on the ground. The television was a tiny bubble. An orange milk crate in the corner held action figures, and a second milk crate behind it was filled with old LPs.
Blonde On Blonde
was up front, a frizzyhaired Bob Dylan pursing his lips at the camera. A plaid spread covered the twin bed.
âHuh,' Steven said, looking around.
âWhere did this TV come from?' My father tapped it, puzzled. âAnd these video games?'
Steven knelt down to examine the console. âAtari.'
âI certainly wasn't back here when video games came out,' my father said. âAnd I don't remember them here the one time we brought you guys.'
Steven inserted a cartridge into the video game and turned on the television. The words DONKEY KONG flashed on the screen. âThis is, like, vintage. It's never been played with.'
âNo one plays those video games,' Samantha scoffed, peering in from the hall. âThey're, like, a zillion years old. I have Sega.'
âI never liked this game,' Steven said, but fired it up anyway. The gorilla pitched barrels down a plank, and Steven's character, a Mario Brother, jumped them.
âSad!' Stella sang when the barrel tripped up Mario. Then she looked at my father. âYou know who I saw the other day? Georgette Mulvaney. That Kay girl's mother.'
My father's chin jutted up. I watched his eyes carefully.
âI'm amazed they still live here.' Stella gazed out the window. The wind was pushing the tire swing back and forth. âI thought they moved. I invited her to the funeral.'
My father stiffened. âWhat did she say? Is she going to come?'
His face was so splotchy. That name was so familiar, all the years he'd talked about the accident. But I'd always suspected-maybe wished-that he made the accident up, that it had never happened.
âI doubt it,' Stella answered. âShe said she had something to do, I don't know. She thanked me for inviting her, though. And she gives her condolences.'
âOh.' My father let out a breath. He began running his fingers over the scar on his palm.
âDoes the guy still live here?' I asked, searching for the boyfriend's name. âMark? The one who was in the accident, too?'
âHe lives in Colorado,' my father said quickly. âMoved out there years ago.' His face had tightened so drastically that I didn't dare ask anything else.
My father shuffled his feet on the shabby burgundy carpet. Mario bleeped as he jumped the barrels on the screen. My father looked around and scratched his head. âI don't get it. Did someone else use this room? I have no clue where this TV and the video games could have come from.'
âOh, Ruth bought them for you,' Stella said. âShe bought you all kinds of stuff. I guess she always thought you'd bring Summer and Steven here more often. She bought tons of crap from that space movie, too. It's all in boxes in the closet. What was the name of one of the characters in that movie? The Nookie?'
?' Steven fished, after a pause. âYou mean
Stella frowned, annoyed. âNo. That's not right.'
When Mario died, Steven turned off the game, bored. He wandered into a bedroom down the hall, and my father and Stella returned downstairs. But I stayed in the old room, looking at the posters on the wall. There was one of a
girl, her bathing suit straps sliding down her arms. I couldn't imagine my father looking at girls in that way, let alone taking the time to buy the poster and hang it up, neatly pushing tacks into each corner.
Slowly, I opened the drawers of his desk. In the very bottom drawer, I found a photo of a guy with shaggy, longish hair and sideburns. He wore a football jersey and held up a paper cup to toast. Next to him was a small, pale, freckled girl with a guarded, uncertain smile. Her long blonde hair was parted in the center. They stood in front of the eye-shaped Dairy Queen sign. I turned the picture over.
Mark Jeffords and Kay Mulvaney, (secret!) engagement, 1970
. The handwriting was neat and orderly, definitely not my father's crabbed, crazy scrawl.
I looked at their faces for a long time, especially at her, dead now. Then I tucked the photo back under a bunch of papers and shut the drawer tight. âThis place is really creepy,' I whispered aloud, then went to find Steven to see if he thought so too.
Steven was in the next bedroom, which was done up in green and gold checkered wallpaper. I found him on the floor next to the bureau, his knees bent, his hands behind his head. His cheeks inflated then deflated, and he breathed out in puffs.
My chest knotted. Steven noticed me. His face reddened.
âWhy are you doing
?' I burst out.
âI'm in training.' He lowered down.
âIn training for
I couldn't help but laugh. âLike from your GI Joe days?'
Steven's forehead crinkled and his mouth became very small. After one more sit-up, he stood and swished by me for the bathroom, not answering my question.