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Authors: Melissa DeCarlo

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BOOK: The Art of Crash Landing
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CHAPTER 10

J
J slows the car and turns onto a neighborhood street. The homes are older and small, but look well taken care of, their neatly manicured lawns lining up one after the other. A sidewalk runs along each side, clean and straight except for a few buckled spots where tree roots have fought for space and won. We pull into the driveway of a tidy two-story tan-brick house. JJ turns off the car and opens his door the same time I open mine.

“Thanks for the ride. I've got it from here,” I tell him.

“Got what?”

I gather up all my crap and climb out of the car. “I can take it from here.”

“Take what?”

Refusing to try again, I walk toward the house. I don't notice until I am on the front porch that the numbers hanging next to the door don't match the house numbers on my little scrap of paper. I turn around to tell JJ that we're at the wrong house, only to find him standing directly behind me.

“This isn't it.”

He steps around me, swings open the storm door and puts a key in the doorknob, giving it a twist. From inside there's the sound of dogs barking that grows louder as he pushes the door open and starts edging in.

“This is your house?”

“Yup,” he replies.

“But I thought you were taking me to my grandmother's—”

“Right there.” JJ points at the house next door.

“That's her house?”

“Yup.”

“You live next door?”

He nods. “You'd better do something about your lawn, by the way. Your dandelions are going to seed.”

“My lawn? My dandelions?”

“And now that you're here, I'm sure the dogs would like to go back home.”

“Wait a minute, nobody said anything about taking care—”

JJ shuts the door. I hear the lock turn.

“Shit!” I pound on the door, but the only thing that gets me is a chorus of barks from within. Wonderful. I stomp off the porch and walk next door.

My grandmother's house is similar in size to JJ's except that it's redbrick rather than tan, and the porch steps and trim could use a coat of paint. And of course the yard needs to be mowed by someone who isn't me. But there's a wide, welcoming porch, windows with shutters, and a big maple tree in the front. It looks like what a kindergartener would draw if handed a box of crayons and instructed to draw a house. All that's missing is scribbled smoke rising from the chimney.

The lock opens easily, and with a nervous flutter in my belly, I
step inside. I find myself trying to be quiet; this feels like breaking and entering, not coming home.

I flip the switch near the door and am relieved to find the electricity still on. I open the drapes and a window to let in some light and fresh air. There's a small blue sofa, a wingback chair upholstered in a floral brocade, and next to that an old sewing machine. A grand piano takes up the rest of the small living room. Everything looks mostly clean, but there's a faint odor of mothballs and something sweet, Fig Newtons maybe? Whatever it is, it smells like old people.

I dump my stuff on the coffee table and make the downstairs circle—living room to dining room to kitchen. Through the window over the kitchen sink, I notice a detached garage, and let out a little “Whoop!” Everyone knows what belongs in a garage, right? I hurry outside and after several minutes at the fence, struggling with an extremely uncooperative gate, I open the garage door.

Shit. No car. Half of the garage is filled with lawn and garden supplies, the other half—the one that, judging from the oil stain, did at some point house a car—now holds only a bike, pink with a banana seat and a white basket on its wide handlebars. Un-fucking-believable. Standing here in this dimly lit garage, it takes very little imagination to hear Queeg's voice whispering,
Now you're up a creek without a paddle
. His voice in my head is laughing as he says this, by the way.

When I step back outside, I'm unpleasantly surprised to see JJ in his backyard, standing next to the chain-link fence that separates the properties.

“Did you find the lawnmower?” he asks.

I fight my way through the weeds to him, saying, “I think the yard looks fine. If you don't like it, feel free to mow it.” In truth, the yard is a mess—weeds, old piles of dog crap, cigarette butts. I'd
never admit that to him of course. When I finally get to the fence, I point at the two squatty animals standing at JJ's feet. “What exactly are those supposed to be?”

“Dogs.”

“They're pretty ugly.”

“The smallest one farts a lot.”

“Great.”

“Are you ready for me to bring them over? I'll just grab their food—”

“No no, not now. I have some things to do.”

“Things? What sort of things?”

“Errands.”

He gives me an unpleasant smile. “How're you going to manage that?”

“Fuck you. I'm very resourceful.”

Cue dramatic exit. I spin on my heel and take a few quick steps toward the house, only to discover that my feet have somehow become tragically tangled in an evil spiky vine that winds through the tall grass. I lift up a knee, and the barbs embedded in my jeans pull a whole wad of greenery along with me. Next step, the same.

I look back at the neighbor-from-hell. He's grinning like an idiot.

“You were right,” he says. “Your yard looks great.”

I resume my graceless march, responding only with a single-finger salute over my shoulder.

He laughs. “I'm headed back to work,” he calls out. “I'll bring the Winstons over when I get home.”

As much as I hate repeating myself, I flip him off again, only to hear more laughter followed by the sound of a door closing. Step by slow step I struggle across the lawn, cursing, trying to rip the green creeping bastard off my legs without making too many
holes in my hands or my jeans. Once I manage to reach the patio and fight my way free of the last few grasping tendrils, I glance over at JJ's house. I see a curtain move. What a douche.

Back in the kitchen, I take a few deep breaths and decide to reconnoiter. The very first thing I notice is the little opening in the base of the door I just used. It's a small dog door, maybe a foot and a half tall, its plastic flap grubby from use. Hopefully this means that if I really do end up with those ridiculous dogs for a couple days, the only bowel and bladder issues I need to worry about are my own, which is, in my opinion, exactly how it should be.

The refrigerator is empty and the freezer contains only ice trays and a few frost-coated TV dinners. There's a small pantry with a collection of dusty soup cans and half-empty cracker and cereal boxes. Sigh. I'm relieved that nobody cleaned out the kitchen; obviously, I'm not going to starve to death. But mealtimes are going to be pretty grim unless I can scare up some pity-food.

I dig in my pocket for the card given to me by Father Barnes and punch in the numbers.

His phone rings, once, twice. The plastic flap of the dog door clicks open then shut with each gust of the wind. Ring, click, ring, click . . . three rings . . . four . . . five. The sun cuts a bright rectangle across the blue Formica countertop and as I stand here with the phone pressed to my ear, everything takes on a slow, dreamlike quality. On the wall just inside the pantry door I see a series of pencil marks, horizontal lines with initials and dates. Two sets, I think, one more faded than the other, suggesting that two generations grew up right here, in this house. The flap on the dog door clicks again, the Father's phone rings again, and I'm having a hard time looking away from those penciled-in lines. Until I was fourteen years old, I'd never lived anyplace longer than six months.

An answering machine finally picks up, and although I've already mentally rehearsed a humorously pathetic plea for a dinner
date, when I open my mouth to speak, it's all I can do to squeeze my name past an unexpected lump in my throat. I end the call, deeply embarrassed to have left a message so authentically pathetic.

A
fter a handful of stale crackers, I get up the nerve to go upstairs. Each step creaks softly as I ascend. To the left is a bedroom that, judging from the fussy chenille bedspread and an abundance of potpourri in little bowls, must have been my grandmother's. On the dresser is a jewelry box that looks both full of shiny objects and small enough to fit in the bike basket. I pull the pillowcase off my grandmother's pillow and drop the box inside.

In addition to the bathroom there are two other rooms upstairs, their doors closed. I open the first door. It's a bedroom, surely my mother's room. I stare in amazement at the dozens of black-and-white photographs pinned to the walls. Not once had my mother ever mentioned taking pictures as a hobby. She made it clear to me that photography was her job, not something she enjoyed. I never saw her take a picture she wasn't getting paid for. Not even of me.

There are tie-dyed drapes at the window, a denim bedspread, a Pink Floyd poster on the closet door, and a healthy-looking spider plant hanging from a macramé plant holder in front of the window. A pair of brown sandals is on the floor next to the bed, and I walk over and pick one up—size seven, my mother's size. I drop the shoe and back out of the room, my heart pounding. This is a museum—a fucking time capsule. The edges of the photos on the walls are curled, and the curtains and the side of the bedspread closest to the window are faded, but otherwise I have a feeling that the room looks as if my mother had just stepped out for a minute. Thirty-five years ago.

Back out in the hall, I look at the final door. I'm reminded
of dreams I've had—surely everyone has had them—where I'm walking down a familiar corridor and suddenly see a door I've never noticed before. That instant of wonder mixed equal parts with fear—there's been an echo of that feeling with every step I've taken through this house. But now, my hand turning this last doorknob, the feeling is strong enough to take my breath away. Even though I already know what I'm going to find.

CHAPTER 11

T
he summer I turned eight years old, my mother worked as an assistant at a photography studio. More often than not she brought me with her to work, since her boss didn't mind and the only other option would have been to pay a babysitter. Mr. Nester, her boss, had Brylcreemed black hair and oversize dentures that gave him a Jerry Lewis smile. He had a dozen telephones in his office, and he was always talking in code when he was on one. Looking back, I now understand that he was a bookie and the shoddy photography studio was just a cover, but back then I found him mysterious and oddly compelling. He was loud and always laughing, friendly on the outside, but dark on the inside.

Mr. Nester was one of those people who dislike children but pretend otherwise when in the presence of other adults. He would be all “Hello, sweetheart” when I walked in the door, but on the occasions he and I were alone together, he delighted in terrifying me. No sexual stuff—thank God—yet there was something wrong with Mr. Nester. He prided himself on being a practical
joker and thought an eight-year-old was an appropriate target. The pack of gum that snapped shut on my finger, the shock pen, the fake blood, the rubber foot he left sticking out from under his desk . . . And when I invariably screamed and cried, Mr. Nester would laugh, his yellowed Chiclet teeth glowing in the dim light. He'd say I had no sense of humor, then a phone would ring and he'd disappear back into his office.

He liked to say “If I were a bettin' man” before most of his declarations. It was years before I could tie that joke in with the bank of phones. At the time I thought he was saying “If I were a
bitten
man.” I couldn't imagine who would possibly be brave enough to bite somebody who was so mean and had such massive teeth.

It was fun watching my mother take photographs, but when it was time for her to develop them, I was faced with the choice of staying with Mr. Nester or following her into the darkroom. I chose the darkroom, but I'd hesitate long enough at the threshold that my mother would grab my arm and pull me inside so she could close the door. When it was time for total darkness, she'd sit me in a chair and put something in my hands, a pen, her keys, a Coke can, whatever was nearby. “Hold on to this for me,” she'd say. “Don't drop it.” Then she'd turn off the lights.

When the safelight could stay on it wasn't so bad. The amber light made it hard to sit and play quietly; it was too dark to look at picture books, but the muted light made the darkroom almost cozy. My mother was right there, and I could watch her moving back and forth purposefully. But there were times, of course, when there could be no light at all in the darkroom, and in those minutes that felt like hours, I sat cocooned in an airless black so complete that it was hard to tell if my eyes were open or closed.

In that thick darkness I held tight to whatever talisman my mother had handed me. Sometimes through the thin walls I could
hear Mr. Nester shouting into his phones, and over that I could hear my mother's voice, singing gently, reminding me that she was there, promising me that everything was going to be okay.

I
f anything, it's a little too warm in my grandmother's house, but I have goose bumps, standing here in the hallway, looking into this room, its contents only vaguely revealed under the safelight's glow. I stick my arm further inside the doorway and find the switch that turns on the overhead light. I can now see that the darkroom equipment is cobbled together with thrift store finds: a washstand, a long desk lined with trays, brown glass jugs setting underneath, plywood nailed over the window, the Velcro strip across the wall above the door that once held the heavy black fabric now folded on the floor. There's a wire hung diagonally across the room, and a light box on a card table set up in the far corner. I walk over and pick up the jug of stop bath, cracking the lid for only a second. The vinegar odor that escapes—so sharp I can taste it—burns my nose and makes my knees go wobbly. For a second I'm back there in the dark, waiting to see my mother again.

T
he pillowcase containing Nick's strap and the jewelry box fits snugly in the bike basket, but I still take off my belt and fasten it around the whole thing to avoid spillage during the inevitable falls. My bike riding skills are rusty and rudimentary to say the least. I walk the bike down the driveway and onto the street, put my feet on the pedals, ride a few wobbly yards and then put my feet back on the ground, considering the downhill slope before me and the stupid thing I'm about to do. The shitty thing. I know that it's not okay to sell stuff that doesn't belong to me. It's not that I'm lacking a moral compass, it's that I've found life to be easier when
I leave it in my pocket. It's no mystery who taught me that lesson. Even Mr. Nester knew.

“If I were a bettin' man . . .” he used to tell me, showing me his yellow teeth in what I'm sure he thought was a smile. “I'd say the odds are you're gonna grow up to be just like your momma.”

BOOK: The Art of Crash Landing
9.27Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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