Authors: Cynthia Voigt
he didn't know about those boys, Gram thought, watching them through the kitchen window. She'd sent them down to bail the boat, which Sammy didn't mindâbut James was dawdling on behind his brother. Who knew what went on inside James's head, who ever knew, she thought. Her attention went back to the dinner plates she was washing off in a sink full of warm, soapy water. When she lifted her eyes again, she could see only the big vegetable patch, waiting to be planted, soon now, and the stand of pines melting away into the hazy evening.
At the unforgotten emptiness of that scene the smile she had felt, thinking about those two boys, faded. Her hands rested quiet in the water. She got her hands moving again, soaping off the last plates, piling them up on the counter. Twilight was a bad time for remembering: It was the loneliness of things lost, lost and gone, that twilight recalled. There were seasons of your life, she knew, when remembering lay like winter on your spirit; but there were also seasons when remembering rose in your heart like a summer sun. Her busy hands splashed among the cutlery, bringing it up to the foamy surface; she sponged over forks and big serving spoons, then set them down with a clatter on top of the plates. She didn't know how those boys would manage the chore she'd given them, but she thought she could make a good guess about who would actually do the work, and who would sit there thinking about nobody could imagine what. That thought made her smile.
She pulled the plug on the sink and the water gurgled out, down the drain. She could barely hear the notes from the piano while the water was draining.
Then, when she turned on the tap to rinse off the glasses, plates, and forks, she couldn't hear the piano at all. But she knew it was there, all the same, as she ran the washed dishes under scorching hot water, the way Dicey said dishes should be rinsed. If you rinsed them with really hot water, Dicey had told her, they practically dried themselves. In this house, with her three grandchildren living there and the fourth away at college, there wasn't much danger of loneliness cozying up close to you. From the first day Dicey had walked up on her from she didn't know where, from the end of that day when the four of them sat at her table for the first time and she'd been trying to tell herself it wouldn't be right to let them stay, however much they needed a home, because the kind of home she'd offer wouldn't be right for them; from the first, they had crowded up against her loneliness and crowded it out.
They hadn't given her half a chance. They'd steamrollered her, outfaced her, tricked her; they'd tied her up in knots until she'd known there wasn't any way she was going to let go of this second chance. You're a foolish old woman, she had told herself, not knowing which choice was the greater foolishness. I'm not so old, she had answered herself. Avoiding the question, as she well knew. All she had known, thenâand at that thought she laughed out loudâwas which was the cowardly choice. So she made the other one.
Almost six years ago, that was. Six years and how many of these scouring pads, she thought, watching the blue suds foam up around the inside of the stew pot, the fine woolly steel scraping away at crusted bits of meat and potatoes. Carefully, she squeezed the extra water out of the pad and set it into the soap holder Jeff Greene had given her a few Christmases back. Over the years, almost six years now, a whole second life given to her, it wasn't only her grandchildren who had crowded away at her. It was people attached to them as well, like Jeff who'd made up his mind years ago about Dicey. If making up your mind was what you did about love, she thought; personally she'd say love had a way of grabbing you by the throat and shaking you until you cooperated. This soap dish Jeff had given herâchina painted a midnight blue with the moon on the bottom and the stars sprayed all around. Gram suspected that it was valuable, though Jeffâwho knew how to give
presentsâwould never say so; whatever her suspicions, she knew that it was something lovely, and she valued it. Dicey knew Jeff's value, she suspected, but Diceyâlike some other people she could nameâgot her mind made up over things.
Gram could shake Dicey up, she knew that, and Jeff, if ever he wanted to, would be able to. Mina too, Mina Smiths never took any guff off of Dicey. Those two could stand up to one another, and they stood up beside one another most of the time. Mina crowded in on her too, and not only because of Dicey. Mina had taken Sammy out to the tennis courts, saying she needed someone to play with and guessing, quite rightly, that Sammy was the one who'd make a real opponent for her. The person who introduced Sammy to tennis did him a favor. Mina was that person, and Jeff helped her out. It was Jeff who'd found the tennis racquet to put into Sammy's hands, because the Tillermans didn't have money for anything extra in their lives. Gram was willing to bet she knew where Jeff had found that racquet, and it wasn't in his closet, but Jeff knew what presents needed giving. Gram had learned, she thought, turning off the faucet, how to receive. Or she hoped she had. If she hadn't, she thought, it was sheer stubborn stupidity on her part.
With the water turned off, the piano notes were back in the room with her, accompanied now by Maybeth singing. The dishes dripped away onto the draining rack. Gram used the drip-dry method for dishes. Maybeth liked to dry them right away, and stack them back in their proper places. Maybeth's voice made Gram take the towel up and start rubbing at glasses. If she dried, then she could stay out in the kitchen, listening.
She supposed she ought to worry about Maybeth, but somehow she never could. Maybeth was singing one of her songs for school chorus. The song was about coral being made, and pearls, but Maybeth's voice was like gold. Six years ago, when those four bedraggled children had sat down at her table, Gram might have worried most about Maybeth, with her silences and her slowness of speech, with her angelic face and fearful eyes. Now she knew better, although she'd have been right enough then. Even more than the rest of them, Maybeth had grown, like some sapling planted down into the right
place. Dicey might have been the one who took charge and led her brothers and sister all that long distance to plunk them down at Gram's table, but it was Maybeth who was home. Home in both sensesâat home here, and the home itself for the rest of them. Maybeth's golden voice floated across the quiet kitchen and wrapped itself around her grandmother.
Maybeth had her mother's voice, Liza's voice, and that was a pain and a joy so mixed together Gram couldn't sort them out. But Maybeth wouldn't have Liza's life, the life that had taken all the weakness in Gram's daughter and blown it up until she couldn't stay alive any longer. That life wasn't going to happen to Maybeth.
That, Gram thought, putting the glasses back onto their shelf and beginning on the plates, that she was sure of. The other three she might worry aboutâwhen she wasn't too busy, if she found the timeâbut Maybeth was home, in both senses, home for good. The other three nowâthose boys, she thought, looking out the window at the gathering darkness, wondering what it was they thought they wanted from one another but didn't know to ask for.
There was so much she didn't know, and learning what she could kept her busy. Maybe she'd learn enoughâthe Lord willing and the creek don't rise, she thought. She didn't know what it was all for, what it was all about, or even how it was she'd been given this second chance for her life, but she knew enough to be grateful. She'd be of no more use to anybody than a flea's eyeball, if she didn't know that. Although who knew if fleas had eyeballs.
James would know, if he'd ever read it in some book, sometime. Or Sammy, he was the kind who might be curious enough to put a flea under a microscope. The trick would be to catch the flea first. Catching the flea was the hard part, the way fleas jumped around. Sammy would take a try at that trick, if he ever thought of it, and James would know what book to look in and he'd remember the answer, too. So if Gram wanted to know about the eyeballs on fleasâwhich she didn'tâshe knew who to ask.
ames Tillerman watched his brother, Sammy, who was bailing two inches of rain water from their boat. It had rained all the previous nightâa cold slanting March rainâand most of the morning, too. Then, Marchlike, the wind had shifted in the afternoon to the southwest, blowing the heavy clouds away, blowing warm. In the twilight, the boys had come down to bail the boat.
Sammy sat on the narrow gunwales, using his weight to tilt the boat and bring the water within it into easy reach. He bent and straightened, rhythmically, bailing the boat. The bailer was an empty bleach jug with the top cut off; it poured water into the bay with a wet, rushing sound. Sammy, whatever he did, moved as if he would never get tired. James, sitting cross-legged on the dock, his arms resting on his thighs, his fingers laced together, watched his brother.
“Do you ever wonderâ?” James started.
“No.” Sammy bent, straightened, poured water out into water.
Irritated, James looked at his own hands, jealous, too. He moved the fourth finger of his right hand beneath the fingers of his left hand, then moved over the little finger to conceal the gap. In the growing darkness, you could fool someone, they might not notice that one finger was apparently missing. Things were so simple for Sammy, clear and simple. But he had wanted
to ask Sammy. He didn't like being just cut off like that, didn't like it one bit.
Sammy broke the rhythm of bailing to look at his brother, sitting there on the dock above, just sitting there looking at his own hands. He could have asked James to help out. If he asked James, James would probably get down into the boat and help. But it seemed to Sammy that James shouldn't be waiting around to be asked, shouldn't just sit there, a pale blob in the dim air. There was another bailer. The job wouldn't take so long if James helped, and Sammy wouldn't have minded getting his hands into the cold water only half as many times. The air was warm enough, but the water held a winter chill longer than the air, long into spring, just the way it held summer's warmth long into fall.
Sammy bent to work again, enjoying it actually. It was good to feel the muscles along his back and shoulders, the way they worked. It was good to feel the balance of his body, the way his legs kept his own weight and the water's weight and the boat's buoyant weight all in the right balance. His body knew how to do that, without any thinking. James would have to think it out, and he'd probably have gotten both of them wet before he figured out how to sit right. James was always thinking about something, wondering about something; it was almost as if he was always trying to make Sammy feel stupid, showing off a busier, smarter brain. Sammy smiled to himself, remembering how long it had taken him to figure out that there was no way he'd ever catch up the three years between him and James. But he was catching up in heightâat five five he was only an inch shorter, and he weighed more, too, because of his muscular build. Sammy looked, he knew, older than twelve, while James looked younger than fifteen-almost-sixteen. Sammy didn't mind that, not one bit.
“Seriously,” James said. “Wonder about our father. Do you ever?”
“Cripes, no.” When Sammy emptied the bailer, the water splashed up from the dark bay. “Why would I wonder about him? He never even saw me.”