Authors: Lori Reisenbichler
NO BIG DEAL
hat do we do?”
My hands are shaking as I hand the letter to Eric. “She says she’s going to be here Tuesday. Tomorrow.”
He snickers. “Well, we sure didn’t see that coming, did we?”
“We have to stop her.”
I run inside, find the number, call her home phone. Eric follows me and stands by my side as I squeeze my eyes and will her to be in Branson, at home, with nothing to do except answer her telephone. I try to visualize this scenario, but all I can conjure is the predawn light on her porch, the weight of Toby on my hip, and the smell of manure in her flower beds. And a now-familiar shiver of shame.
“She must’ve already left. She’s driving here. Right now.” I pace in a circle. “What are we going to do?”
Eric says, “Looks like we’re going to get a puppy.”
“What about Toby?”
“We just tell him she’s coming to visit and bringing us a puppy. We make him think we bought it from her. She’s just doing us a favor,” Eric says. “That’s what we tell everybody. We don’t have to make a big deal out of this.”
a big deal.”
“It’s weird as shit, I’ll give you that. But it doesn’t have to be a big deal. She wants to come, fine, we let her come. We treat her like we’d treat anybody else. We normalize it.”
“Yes. We’ll play with the puppy, hang out with her, have dinner together, and let her say what’s on her mind. Obviously. That’s what’s going on. She’s got something to say to us, and she wants to do it in person.” He hugs me. “It’ll be okay. There’s nothing she can say that’s going to change one thing about our family. Except we’ll have a puppy when she’s gone.”
“Toby will love that.”
“And the rest, as long as you can stay grounded, is just an old woman who needs to talk about her husband. It won’t kill us to hear her out.”
I wait until bedtime, when I know I’ve got Toby’s attention. I teach him Pa’s “zipper on the lip” gesture—not so he’ll keep a secret, but just so he won’t interrupt me before I can explain the situation. I tell him the good news first: a puppy. He starts jumping up and down, but he zips his lip and turns the key, as instructed. Once he’s got his imaginary key tucked into the waistband of his pajamas, I tell him the other part: Kay is coming.
“How do you feel about that, Toby?”
He points to his lips, pressed tight in a line.
“Use your key.”
He lifts his pajama top high over his belly and holds it up by hooking his chin to his chest. I smile at his earnest effort and near-sacred handling of the tiny invisible key. When he inserts it into the corner of his smile, I wish it could somehow unlock the depth of his toddler insight about Kay’s visit.
I ask again. “Are you excited about her coming here? Will you be happy to see her again?”
He shakes his head and bounces in his bed. “Puppy!”
“What if she wasn’t bringing a puppy? If she just came to visit by herself, would you be happy to see her?”
“Let me ask another way. Is there anything else? Before, you would always tell me she was mad. Are you still worried about that?”
He shakes his head. “She’s not mad. She said so.”
“I see.” I rub his back in a circle. “You can put the key back now.”
I call Lakshmi and ask her to meet me at the coffee shop. After she’s finished reading the letters, her eyes are bright. She carpet-bombs me with questions, none of which have a clear answer.
“Maybe she’s still mad about the dog,” she concludes.
“Toby says no.”
“Does John Robberson know that? Because he’s still here, right?”
“Toby still talks about him,” I admit.
“See, I don’t get that part.” Her voice is bouncing like an animated dot over song lyrics. I’m supposed to sing along. “If all he wanted was for her to forgive him about the dog, and she has . . . See what I mean?”
“Kay told me she was just playing along.”
“But Toby didn’t hear that, did he? So does John Robberson know she was playing along? That she didn’t really forgive him?” Lakshmi asks. “Maybe Kay somehow knows
, and that’s why she’s coming.”
I look at her a long time before answering. “Lakshmi. You know I can’t speculate with you.”
“I’m sorry, but how can you not?” she asks. “How is it for you now? John Robberson doesn’t exist, no matter what Toby says?”
“I don’t know what John Robberson is to Toby. I don’t know what Kay’s going to say when she gets here, but as long as it doesn’t hurt Toby, what does it matter? Nothing about him ever hurt Toby—I did. Every problem I ever had with John Robberson, I brought on myself. I’m just choosing not to do that this time. Eric’s right. If we don’t make it a big deal, it’s no big deal.”
“I consider it a big deal if this woman is in your house and you don’t even ask the most obvious question of all. If you can’t even bring yourself to ask—”
She sees the look on my face and gives me a hug. “You’re killing me. You know that, right?”
I return the hug. Before we part, she whispers, “At least find out why she’s mad at the dog. For me. I’m begging you.”
WHAT ABOUT THE DOG?
hen Kay rings the doorbell, I’m pulling gingerbread cookies from the oven. The house smells cozy and inviting, and Kay comments on it as soon as she steps inside the door. I reintroduce Toby. He holds out his hand and says “How do you do?” like we practiced.
Kay shakes his hand with mock formality. “How old are you again, little squirt?”
“Well, I swear you’ve grown so much, I thought you must be five by now. You look like you’re fixin’ to start kindergarten.”
“Come on, I have a surprise for you.”
She takes Toby by the hand and leads him to her car. From the backseat, she pulls out the crate that holds our new puppy.
Kay looks different than I remember. Of course, the first time we met, she was in her nightgown. Even after her long drive, she looks more pulled together than I expected. She has a wide, square face, with a Dutch jawline and fair, freckled skin. She’s short and heavyset, but her legs are muscular and don’t have an ounce of fat on them. The backs of her hands are covered in age spots. Her gray fuzzy hair is shorter now, and I notice she’s tucked the ends behind her ears. She’s wearing shiny pink lip gloss. She must’ve stopped and freshened up before she got here.
Toby lies on the ground and squeals as the puppy licks his face. He runs in circles on the tile kitchen floor and the dog slips and slides, yapping the whole time, while Kay and I watch.
“What’s his name?” Toby asks.
“Let’s wait until Daddy gets home to decide. We can just call him Puppy for now.” I turn to Kay. “You can stay for dinner, right? Eric will want to meet you.”
We take Puppy on a walk, and I show Kay around Oasis Verde. We make small talk about her drive and her antics with the puppy. I tell her I’ve invited Pa for dinner, which leads to a long conversation about my mom. I take Kay to the urban farm, and on the way back, I introduce her to Mrs. Gilliam and we pet Pickles. Toby shows Kay how to stroke him under the chin.
Kay hasn’t said one word about John Robberson, which is a relief in one way and a disappointment in another. It makes it easier for me to insist that she stay with us overnight. I’ve decided to hold back until she brings it up. When we return to the house, she says she’s tired and goes to rest in the guest bedroom. I call Eric and ask him to come home early.
Right before four o’clock, Toby hears the garage-door opener engage and makes a run for it. He flings open Eric’s car door, and the puppy leaps right into Eric’s lap before he can get out of his car.
“What’s his name, Daddy?”
“I don’t know yet, Tobe. You’ll have to help me think of a name, okay?”
Kay must hear Eric and Toby playing with the puppy in the living room a few minutes later, trying out new names for him.
Eric still has a mustache, trimmed short these days. It’s not much more than an extra line of reddish stubble on his top lip. That puppy looks like he’s trying to lick it right off Eric’s face.
Kay says, “Looks like you two are long-lost pals.”
He stands to greet her, pulling the puppy away from his face long enough to say, “He knows he’s home. We’re trying on some names for him.” The puppy licks his open mouth. “What’s your name, big guy?”
She says, “His grandpa’s name was Duke. But you name him whatever you want.”
, I observe but don’t say.
Eric gives Kay a welcome hug. “Thank you for bringing him. I’m glad to finally meet you. I feel like I know you already.”
I don’t know anyone who would describe my husband as a hugger.
Kay says, “Oh, you’re a charmer! I knew I’d like you the minute I saw that mustache. All John’s pilot buddies wore mustaches. They thought they were hot stuff.” She laughs. “You don’t fly planes, do you?”
“No, ma’am, but I wouldn’t mind trying my hand at it,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
“Don’t put ideas in his head!” I warn, taking her question as a second cue that she’s ready to talk about John now after going radio silent with me this afternoon.
Toby takes the puppy into the backyard, jumping and yipping as they go. My hand shakes a little as I pour three glasses of fresh-squeezed lemonade, so I distract Kay by handing her the tray of cookies I baked earlier.
She chuckles at Toby playing with the puppy. “Boys and their dogs.”
Okay, that’s three. I’m going in.
“Kay. Forgive my curiosity, but I would love to hear what you make of the message Toby gave to you.”
“You mean what he said about being mad about the dog?”
“Well, I know what the little squirt was talking about.”
Kay looks at me. “Not at first. But I been thinking about it, and I think I figured it out.”
I realize I’m holding my breath, so I make a conscious effort to inhale. Exhale. Inhale. Eric reaches for another cookie but doesn’t say anything.
Kay brushes her hand through her hair and takes a deep breath. “Well, for it to make sense, I have to start a ways back.”
Twenty years back, when John decided to be a firefighter. He’d come back from Vietnam injured, and his recovery had been long and tedious for both of them.
I add, “It’s hard. I don’t know if I told you, but Eric had a serious accident, and we all suffered together for months.”
“She doesn’t want to hear about that,” Eric says.
“John came home on an honorable discharge, but that didn’t mean he could find a job. Not one he wanted, anyway. Some of his buddies signed up to go fly again, but he didn’t want anything to do with that. He was lost for a while there. He took odd jobs, worked construction awhile, fiddled with cars, but everything bored him. Then he took to listening to the police scanner late at night. I guess he was trying to find something exciting. Sometimes he’d go out of his way to drive by the spot on the highway where an accident had been. He had bad dreams and woke up mean. He was flat-out restless.”
Her words ring true with me. That’s what Eric was right after the accident: flat-out restless. It must be a common reaction to a life-changing injury. I never thought about how Eric might share characteristics with soldiers. I always thought his was an easier injury. It’s not like someone shot him down out of midair and tried to kill him. It seems that would be different, if you were hurt defending yourself. Getting hurt in an accident, well, that didn’t seem as . . . noble. I wonder if John Robberson felt lucky. I wonder if Eric feels lucky—or dumb.
Kay’s still talking.
“Next thing I know, he’s chasing fires. The local guys—they had his number. Didn’t take much to talk him into doing the training and joining the club. So I’m thinking that’s good, right, because now he’s coming home all tuckered out every day. And finally, he’s sleeping. And once he starts sleeping again, he’s back to his old self.”
Yes. That’s right. When Eric started running, he started to sleep differently. As still as a corpse. I remember it. He didn’t even move in his sleep. If he fell asleep on his back, he’d wake up on his back. Well, except the nights when he’d sleepwalk.
Kay says, “Our whole life got better after that. Next thing we know, I’m pregnant and now nobody’s sleeping again, but we’re happy this time. We both got something to do. I got the baby and John’s got his fires. Over time, he worked his way up and became the fire chief, about the time JJ was in high school.”
“John Jr. We called him JJ.”
Vaughn Redford. What did he say again? I close my eyes until it comes to me.
Eric stands up and shoves his hands in his pockets, looking out the window at Toby playing in the backyard. “Just stretching my legs. Don’t mind me.”
“Anyway,” Kay continues, “JJ thought his daddy hung the moon, even though he was gone a lot, putting out fires and saving people. By the time JJ finished high school, John was the fire chief. JJ took classes at the community college, but it didn’t suit him, so after he came back from his stint overseas, he did the training and became a paramedic.”
“Saving lives runs in your family,” I say, hoping she doesn’t elaborate on the “stint overseas.” I don’t think I could take it.
“I wish staying alive ran in my family.”
Nobody knows what to say to that. We all take sips of our lemonade.
Kay says, “See, JJ died on the job. His heart was in the right place; you see a body lying in a house fire, you try to save ’em. They didn’t know back then what they was up against. ’Course, that’s when John got so interested in catching crank dealers.”
“Crank. It’s all over the Ozarks.” Kay looks at us. “You know. Meth. They hide out there in the hills and cook it themselves. Half the time, they don’t know what they’re doing and blow their houses up right under their own noses.”
“Guess they’re not all chemistry teachers first.”
“No. It idn’t like on TV,” she says. “Nowadays, we know all about it, but I’m talking the early days, back when the drugstore wouldn’t think twice about selling a hundred packages of cold medicine to any old scroungy rat with rotten teeth. Before the fire crews started telling each other to wear a gas mask if they smell rotten eggs at the scene.”
My head jerks toward Eric, but his back is turned.
Kay goes on. “They started seeing bad dogs on chains, guarding empty shacks. The law was catching on, but the tweakers were meaner and stayed one step ahead. Back then, it was a police matter, and John liked it that way.”
She takes a quick sip of her lemonade. “All that changed in one day. JJ was out doing his job. He answered a call, saw somebody inside a burning house, and went in to help. When he ran through that door, I guess he didn’t think to look for fishing wire stretched across about knee level . . .”
Tears burn down the side of her nose as her gaze intensifies on my patio door. Her finger jerks three times, tracing an invisible set of connections: one, from the bottom third of the door, straight up the door frame, pointing, two, at the ceiling, in the corner, wordless as her finger jolts diagonally, three, accusing a spot on the nearest side wall.
In the silence, I cannot bear to look at the same wall Kay sees right now. Mine is painted a creamy bisque I’d worried looked too dingy.
Eric turns to face us and says, “You don’t have to—” but before he can finish, his knee knocks Kay’s lemonade off the coffee table. The glass breaks on the hardwood floor just as she swipes her finger in the air.
“Pipe bomb full of nails.”
“Oh my God,” I gasp, not sure whether to look at her or the broken glass.
Eric doesn’t say anything. He’s picking up the broken pieces. I hand him a stack of napkins and try to focus on Kay. She turns to me as if Eric has disappeared under an invisibility cloak.
“Caught him full in the face.” Kay clears her throat. “He didn’t suffer. We couldn’t even have an open casket. John never let me see him. You know how hard it is to believe your boy is gone when you can’t see it with your own eyes?”
Eric slinks toward the kitchen trash can, never making eye contact. I’m too horrified to move, much less say anything.
“I got to sit with him one last time. John went with me to the funeral home and made sure they kept his body all covered up, but he pulled JJ’s hand out from under the sheet. I must’ve sat there crying and staring at his left hand for an hour before John made me leave.”
I have to close my eyes against the image.
When I open them, Eric must’ve slipped back into the room with a fresh glass of lemonade, because it has magically reappeared on the coffee table and he’s standing in the same place, his back turned to us, looking out the patio door.
Kay says, “He was right to do it that way. I needed to know, but some things you can’t unsee. I got my pictures and my memories. I can hold my head high. JJ died a man of honor.”
I manage to choke out, “Kay. I’m so sorry.”
“Me, too, hon. Me, too.” She wipes her tears with the back of her hand and says, “Everything happens for a reason, don’t it? It was a hard lesson we got handed, but God made sure something good came out of it. That’s when John got that training going for all of ’em—police, fire, medical—so they could do their jobs without dying of good intentions.”
I say, “John was a man of honor as well. To be able to take his grief and channel it into something that helped others.”
“At first, that’s what it was—helping other people. But after a while, it was like his new job was running drug dealers out. He was happy to hold his crews back while their houses burned to the ground. Sometimes I wondered if he was a little too happy.”
My head is about to burst. Eric still hasn’t said a word. His back is still turned to us, his hands jammed deep in his pockets.
“Kay. Thank you for sharing that with us,” I say. “You’ve been through so much, and your family is extraordinary.”
“But?” she says, with a weak smile.
“But I have to admit, I’m trying to put this together with Toby’s comment. Where does the dog come in?”
“I’m getting to that part,” Kay says. “I think I told you John had a thing for Dalmatians. Old Duke rode to work with him every day.”
“Yes,” I say.
“On the day John died, his crew saw his pickup truck when they pulled up to the fire. They didn’t see Duke, so they assumed John was around back. The crew was putting on the hazmat suits when the fire let out a big roar and the back part of the roof collapsed. They went around back and, sure enough, John was lying there on the floor with flames all around him and Duke half burned up at his feet.”
Kay hates it when you go back for the dog. Toby’s words echo in my head.
“Were you there?” Eric asks, turning around, with almost an accusatory tone to his voice. “Did you see it happen?”
“No, but I can put two and two together,” she practically barks at him. “The dog was inside the house. Did you miss that part?”
“You got it all figured out then, don’t ya?” Eric turns his back on us. “Excuse me. Nature calls.” He strides toward the hallway bathroom.
He doesn’t answer.