close
The World Behind His Back by Roberta Branca

The World Behind His Back by Roberta Branca

Fiction, Vol. 5.1, March 2011

1932

Thing I need to know is can someone kill a body and soul with no weapon. If you can then I guess this is my confession.

If you stand real still any place outdoors where I grew up you can hear the ocean from any direction. Doesn’t matter if the wind roars too. At your back or right in your face. The ocean just hollers louder than the wind.

You can smell it too. The ocean, I mean.

What I remember most is the roar and smell of the ocean at the end of each school day. Don’t like to think about sitting in classrooms, raps on the knuckle for not paying attention, the teacher hovering over me, a foot tapping because it could take me forever to write one word in a fill-in-the-blank test.

I had lots of boyfriends in the spring before I graduated, but I didn’t love any of them so they all went off and married someone else. I think I went to nine or ten weddings that summer but I was never even a bridesmaid, let alone the bride. Which was just as well because all those girls, they had mamas to hem their dresses and set their hair.

My mama died the winter before, so I just had Jean, who is very practical. The bride’s family pays for the wedding, after all, so why call attention to my downward situation?

I went to work with Jean at the diner. We took our breaks in the back alley, which smells like garbage and cigarettes. That salty ocean smell mixed right in with it, like two perfumes fighting to be number one. The roaring waves couldn’t drown out Jean’s voice.

*

“That old guy in there has a thing for you, Ellie.” Jean says. Her eyes narrow as she puffs on her cigarette.

“Shut up,” I say.

“No, I won’t shut up,” Jean says. “You can get something out of this, you know. A really big —tip.”

Jean always cackles when she says things like that. Jean is twenty years older than me and has been a whore since she was my age, which is eighteen. She thinks she’s losing her looks, getting too old. Ever since my mother died on me last spring, Jean’s always reminding me about what’s in store now that I’m grown up and Ma isn’t here any more.

“A lifetime of all this,” she’ll say, waving her cigarette around. We might be in the empty diner closing up, or back in the sea salt and garbage alley.

“I could set you up, if you want. Get you a good price,” Jean says now. “You won’t have to go into this alone, like I did. You’ll have me.” Another long drag on her cigarette.

“He was placing an order, for God’s sake,” I say. “Just breakfast, is all.”

But I know Jean’s right about this guy at the counter because he wasn’t shy. Raised his eyebrows when he caught my eye, nodded me over to his end of the counter. He changed his order three times. Those eyes of his kept traveling down, to where the top button of my uniform just can’t seem to stay closed.

There’s some silvery gray in his black hair, just when the light hits it. He wears a small mustache, like Clark Gable. All the men are trying to look like Clark Gable now. I think this one can pull it off. His eyes are dark brown, almost black, but bright. He looks to me like he’s always laughing inside. He has a fine face. High cheekbones. His hands are rough-looking but very clean.

“Aren’t you going to write any of this down?” he asks during one of the times when he’s able to hold his gaze on my face. I lean forward, my hands on the counter, letting him get a good look.

“Nope ,” I say.

I told myself I was just looking for a bigger tip. We’re not supposed to act trampy like that. This is a family restaurant, we’re always told. But it’s early April, for God’s sake, in the middle of a Depression. Nobody from outside here is going to set foot on Cape Cod for six more weeks, and then only if we’re lucky.

This fellow, though. I know I’m getting to him from the flicker in his eye. He acts like the flicker isn’t there. He leans back on his stool so he is looking at my face again.

“You can’t remember all that.” He crosses his arms over his chest. His shoulders are broad, sloping just right. His chest muscles flex when he crosses his arms. Not on purpose. They just do that without his noticing it, I bet. I lean back, cross my own arms, and repeat the order.

“Fried eggs on toast, no, make them scrambled. Light toast, no actually burn the crust just a little. Coffee with cream. Nope, black, I have to stay awake. Small orange juice. Did I remember to say sunny side up? No, that’s right, scrambled.”

I pause and he whistles low. “Youth, beauty, and brains. You’ll run this place some day,” he says.

I snort, shake my head as if to say Lord, what foolishness. I turn away to put his order in. I am blushing deep. I can feel it. And that’s what’s funny. I all but hang out of my blouse for him without any color coming up in my cheeks but this one nice thing he says sets me off blushing.

I don’t tell Jean any of this. It’s just my private thing. Probably he’d be gone when I get back inside.

*

But he’s still there. He catches my eye, nods. Soon as I walk over he says, “Apple pie and coffee. No, cherry pie. No, make it prune.” He touches my wrist lightly but I don’t jump.

I try to raise just one eyebrow but I don’t know if it works.

“Prune pie? We don’t have prune pie. It’s got to be cherry.”

“Cherry or apple. Hmmmm. Sour cherry or sweet?” His hand is real still on my wrist.

“Sweet,” I say. This time I really hustle off. And I send Jean out with the order.

*

But when we leave out the back after our shift, he is there. He stands with his hands in his pockets. “My name is Earl, and I would like to walk you ladies home,” he says.

I am about to say, No, I don’t even know you, but Jean, she steps out in front of me, right in between us. “You know there’s a cost at the end of this walk.”

Earl looks at his feet, up again, past Jean. Looks directly at me.

“Well, I guess I hoped it was my dashing good looks. But you’re young and pretty, and I would like to walk you home.”

Jean turns to me with a look that says, See this is easy.

“One hundred dollars,” Jean says. And she walks away just like that.

I am shocked but not shocked. Shocked to still be standing here, waiting to be walked. I am not shocked that this is happening. Jean’s been painting this picture pretty clear.

What he says is still in my head: Youth, beauty and brains. Youth? Yeah, I got that. Not so sure it’s a good thing. But he was sure right. Beauty? Boyfriends back in school said I was beautiful all the time. Boys that age will say that for lots of reasons. Brains? Never heard that one. Not my friends, not my mother, not any teacher. Okay, I got a good memory. I’ve needed it. Then I remembered that last part, y ou’ll run this place some day .

I think what Jean would say about it, A lifetime of all this. I know she doesn’t mean running the place, though, and I think she’s more right about it than Earl is. Still, he noticed my good memory and Jean never did. Or any one else. His idea of my future sure sounds better even if it is just his own foolishness.

Earl is still staring at me. I am staring at him too. He still looks like Clark Gable to me. I begin walking. I take him home.

***

I remember opening my eyes to see the sun beginning to set from my side of the bed. Long shadows against faded wallpaper and I think about how I used to have to go to bed without supper when I was real little, if I did something bad. The sun makes its shadows on its own time. It obeys the seasons and the time of day, even if we never see it happen. The wallpaper has been in this house even longer than I have, and I have been here most of my life. I can hear gulls cry.

***

Earl puts his arm over me, across my stomach. His body is warm against my back.

“My sweet cherry pie.” His breath in my ear is warm.

I roll toward him, reach down there. He laughs softly.

“I’m old,” he says. I don’t know what he means. I keep stroking him gently.

“How old are you?” I ask.

“I’m thirty-five. I don’t want to disappoint you.” He takes my hand gently, kisses the tips of my fingers. That makes me shiver. He pulls me closer and we just lie there for a while.

“Does—um, does your friend own this house?” He sounds like he’s trying to be very polite.

“No, it belonged to my grandparents,” I say. “I was born in Boston. My father left us when I was little, and then me and my mother moved here. We ruined their retirement.”

This is just what I heard all the time growing up. It isn’t important to me, just a fact.

Earl, though. He rises up on one elbow and looks down at my face. His eyes burn both bright and dark. He is angry somehow, at someone.

“I bet you were an adorable little girl, and I bet they loved having you here all the time.” His eyes go soft and warm again.

I shake my head. “No, they had to fix up the living room with a sofa bed for my mother. I used up all their guest space. They took care of me while my mother worked at the same diner I work at now. They never got to travel like they wanted. They died when I was twelve, old and broken.” This is what my mother said when I was growing up.

“Jean worked with my mother at the diner. When my grandparents died, Ma hired her to watch over me after school. Me and Jean go way back. But she doesn’t live here.”

“So she isn’t coming over,” Earl’s eyes are closed and he sounds half asleep. “It’s just us here, on our own.” His chest hair is thick. I tug at it. Playfully, just to wake him up.

“Hey, I don’t know anything about you,” I say. “What are you doing on the Cape in the middle of April?”

He opens one eye. I remember how I noticed his eyes are always laughing, back in the diner.

“How do you know I’m not from around here?” Earl says.

“I’ve never seen you at the diner. And nobody from around here asks for prune pie.” I giggle. “Is prune pie even real?” I ask.

“It’s an Italian dessert. I can find it sometimes in Boston.”

Earl says he was in town to work on the bridge, that bridge that was going to take a lifetime to build but would bring prosperity to the area even before it was finished.

When it’s almost dark, we both get up and get dressed. He sits on the edge of the bed, wallet in his hand. He takes out some bills, and he’s fingering them as he talks.

“I want to leave you some money, because you need it, but that isn’t why I came here with you.”

I don’t say anything. I can feel I am about to cry, but I don’t. I don’t let him see that. I take the money and I let him believe that it is what I brought him here for. That way it hurts me less when he doesn’t come back.

*

But he comes back the next week, and the next and the next. He always leaves money, but it doesn’t really feel like what Jean had in mind for me. It feels more like something that’s just mine and Earl’s.

By summer the construction really starts, and I am getting regular tips at the restaurant, and me and Earl pretty much just set up house together because he has to be here all the time anyway. The construction workers are supposed to live in this camp all together or something, and they always come to the diner because their trailers have no kitchens. Things are different with me and Jean. I don’t tell her Earl is still coming around.

Jean is quick to start a side business with the construction workers. She follows me around when I’m bussing tables at the end of the shift telling me I could make real money. I ignore her. I start taking real lunch breaks at the counter like some of the other girls. Never was a smoker anyway.

One afternoon Earl comes in but the counter’s full, so he sits in a booth. One of Jean’s booths. I watch out of the corner of my eye as she wiggles over to him. She touches his shoulder while he gives his order, even tousles his hair before leaving.

You are wasting your time, Jean, I think. He don’t need to pay for it.

She brings his food just before her break, sits down next to him. She leans back against the bench, shakes a cigarette out of a pack. She rummages in his jacket and pulls out a lighter. Now I am staring straight at them. They have their backs to the counter, but Jean turns in my direction. And throws me this look that makes acid form in my stomach.

This is a small town. For most of the year, it’s nearly a deserted town. It shouldn’t surprise me Jean knows all about me and Earl, and that’s fine. I go about my work like I have nothing to hide.

After Earl leaves, I go over to the table. “I’ll bus for you,” I say. No reason not to do a friend a favor, as far as I’m concerned.

Jean squints her eyes at me a second. “You know where your Earl spends most his weekends?”

I don’t want to admit that sometimes I know where Earl goes, moonlighting on other jobs, but most times I have no idea.

“Well, hunting or fishing, we got to eat and pay rent, don’t we?”

Jean shakes her head, makes a “tching” noise. Disgusted with me, I guess.

“This dreaminess of yours. I try to shake it out of you. Your mother did too. Know what she said to me when she found out about the cancer?” She stares hard in my face, like my mother used to when I failed at school. Which was all the time. “‘Make sure my girl finally grows up. Make her look at reality.’” A little spit flies on the t in reality.

“I can’t spend my life pointing out reality for you. I can lead you there, but I can’t make you look.” Jean holds up something black and rectangular. Earl’s wallet.

“I haven’t looked in here, but I bet I know what’s in it. I’ll let you find out for yourself.” She throws it on the table, staring hard again. Then she shakes her head and leaves.

I wonder what on Earth I am supposed to find. In a wallet, of all things.

Pictures, that’s what. Earl holding a laughing baby girl. In another, he is dancing with a woman who looks like she powders herself all over. Like she has time to really pamper herself, I mean. Just a happy family.

I hang my head so customers don’t see the tears I’m trying not to let loose. I stare at the pictures, the cute little girl and the powdered lady, until I’m certain I’m not going to let loose crying.

I think about how the bridge builders hire the locals, but only to haul stuff. They have to use their own trucks and get paid by the day.

I don’t want Earl to end up like all of us, not when he wasn’t born into it. So maybe having that powdered lady in a different house is a good idea. It seems like Earl outsmarted the world twice — once by living with me and again by living with her. And then there’s the little girl. A little girl needs her Daddy. Nobody could say that better than me.

I don’t think about them as people in a picture, just pictures. I try not to think about them at all. Instead, I wonder what it would be like if I was in those pictures. Or had a family of my own. Maybe if I met this family some other way, like if they came here on vacation, that mother and I would have been friends.

I can think all this, calm as you please. Long as I don’t have to look at Earl.

*

Back home I am slicing potatoes for a stew. Then carrots and onions. Turnips for a strong hearty flavor. I’ve got a few chunks of cube steak browning in a pan. Not enough for two people, but it will have to do. Besides, maybe Earl will just take his pictures away and it’ll be stew for one. Just me.

Outside, gravel crunches heavily and a motor hums then shuts off. I walk to the back door to look in the driveway. Earl’s truck is there and he’s got a stag tied to the back. I turn the stove off. I open the door, walk down the porch steps, slowly, head up high.

“Did you kill this yourself?”

I am trying to be interested in the stag, happy about all this meat. But I am shaking inside and I have to look at the stag because looking at Earl will shatter my heart, I am sure of it. Earl must hear something in my voice because he looks at me without answering. I cry. Then I give him a little shove in the chest and I turn from the damn stag and run into the house.

Earl is right behind me; I don’t even get to slam the door in his face. He follows me into the kitchen where I fling the pictures on the table.

Earl doesn’t speak. He picks up each picture. He turns to me and I can read in his eyes that he doesn’t know how to make this right.

Finally I say, “I just want to know why this is a secret. She should know, too, she’s got a right to know, and by the way, does that sweet little girl have a proper Daddy who can claim her anywhere, even in church, if you know what I mean?”

“Loretta and I have been married three years. Our little girl, Lucille, is two. Loretta knows about us and she understands,” he says.

Probably for the first time since we met, he isn’t looking at me. Not my face, not my chest, or any other part of my body. He is looking at the floor. Only for a second, but I catch it.

“Well, me and her can be friends then. I’ll just write Loretta a letter. Share my canning recipe,” I say. I push past him, head held high, headed for the bathroom.

Earl grips my arm gently, no force at all. He’s able to switch around in front of me before I can move. Now he’s looking into my eyes.

“Don’t do that to us,” Earl says.

“Us? Me and you, or you and her?”

“Don’t end this. Please don’t end us.” He collapses against the wall behind him. His hands are on my shoulders.

I fold my arms across my chest. “I hate when liars look me right in the eye. Don’t do it. And stop touching me.”

Earl drops his eyes. His hands fall by his sides. “Loretta doesn’t know, of course not.” His voice is low. “Why would you even ask that?”

“I can’t carry all this myself. I saw those pictures, that happy little girl, that pampered wife and then here I am in my kitchen, cooking by myself, trying to turn stew for one into stew for two—you’ll go back home tomorrow, you’ll be happy, and what will I have?”

“You’ll have my heart! I swear, I love you!”

“If you love me, what about them?”

“Just give me time—”

“No, you can’t just leave them either! That girl needs her daddy, your wife is too pretty—there’s nothing here, but there’s something there.”

“You’re here. I love you. I want to be here forever.”

If that deer he shot saw him coming, it probably looked just like he did at that moment.

“I love you too. And I want you here forever too.” I know when I say it, this is how it’s going to be. “But don’t you even love them? That little girl?”

“Of course I love my child. I love Loretta.” He rubs his hands over his eyes. His voice drops low. “And now I love you.”

Now my hands are hanging by my sides, my eyes are down looking at the floor. “That first time you walked me home, why did you have to come inside? Why didn’t you just say, ‘Goodbye, young lady. It was a lovely walk, but I have a wife.’ That’s what you should have said.”

“There was no wife to go to. Loretta left me after the baby was born. For a few months.”

I look up now, and he is looking up. He is looking at me, right in the eye.

“It broke my heart,” he says.

“And then she came back.”

“She came back.” He nods. He starts to smile but doesn’t quite make it. He frowns instead.

“Did you want her back? Did you want to leave me?”

He pauses, looks away. Twists his hands together. “I thought I could choose, I thought if I got over being angry, I’d know who I love more.”

There’s more to this, I know, so I make up my mind to hear him tell it to me straight. “New babies are hard. New mothers need help. Why did she leave?”

“I left her alone. I was looking for work, and working hard when I could find it. But then I wanted time for myself. I went to my lodge, I did yard work. When I did try to help out, this little tiny baby—she seemed so breakable—I thought Loretta was doing it all. It seemed easy for her.”

“Well I can’t hate Loretta when you were such a dope. I can’t be mad at you for thinking you were free to fall in love with me.” I choke back tears but I keep going. “I can’t hate myself for not knowing you weren’t mine to love.”

We are standing there, close together but without touching. I have more to say. “I can’t just go on loving you either.”

There is silence between us. I’m reminded I had meat simmering on the stove before I heard his truck in the driveway. I turn and walk back to the stove, turn it off.

“If I write to Loretta, then you won’t be able to cheat any more.” He grips my shoulders with a soft hand. Turns my chin so I have to look at him. I have to see tears coming up in his eyes.

“Don’t.” It’s a soft whisper, hoarse. I didn’t know men could cry. Didn’t know I could make them cry.

I stare at the pan until the meat begins to sizzle. I watch the bubbling juices so I don’t have to watch him.

“If I don’t write to her, do I just let things go on?” I look at him. “What happens then?”

He wraps me in his arms. I am close enough to smell the outdoors on his skin. He holds me until we both stop shaking.

* * *

I do write letters, but of course, how could I give them to any one? I keep them to myself, in a shoebox under my bed. They take a painful long time to write, and there is no way I will let any one ever see all the choppy sentences, the crooked lines. They are the only love letters I will ever write, and the only ones I will ever wrap with ribbon and store carefully in a box under the bed. From me to me.

 

* * *

 

1938

I start to feel a ticking inside me and I don’t know why. The ocean air takes on a new feel. The salty smell is tangy, not sweet. I think maybe it’s the bridge. That bridge takes two years to build, but we all spend another five just watching and waiting for the prosperity to set in. Those years are just blurs while Earl still brings me meat, occasionally helps me pay bills, and continues to love me.

1942

The war is what gets that bridge going. All sorts of new people cross over it but they never stay, just pass through. People from the other side don’t come in, but the young people sure get out. They all leave to find jobs, but on the weekends they come home so their mothers can do their laundry.

By the summer of 1942 the coins in the front pocket of my uniform are heavy against my thigh. At night, I roll them up to take to the bank. There is something about the coins that makes me sad. The jingle in my pockets makes that ticking start again. The weight of the rolled coins in my sack as I walk to the bank feels funny. Like the weight is filling in for something else.

By now Earl is more than just used to me, I guess, so he just keeps taking other jobs locally, only now he works weekends here and spends his weeks with Loretta. His little girl gets to see a lot of him, I am sure.

Sometimes my letters are apologies to little Lucille, for taking so much of her daddy’s time. It’s foolishness, but nobody is going to see those letters but me.

1947

After all these years I start to think that it’s funny; Lucille is closer to my age than Earl is. One day I ask about her. His eyes cut away from me because he doesn’t want me to ask about Lucille. But there are things I want to know.

“She’s a woman now,” I say. “Got to be nearly sixteen. Don’t you think she’ll get married soon?”

He straightens up, very proud, says, “You know how I always work so hard? Moonlighting up there, working here, and then reverse for a while? We’re sending her to secretarial school. Or maybe even college. But she has to finish high school first.”

* * *

Tap, tap . . . the teacher is tapping her foot at me. It’s the last day of school. My fingers curl around the fountain pen, and I press it hard into the paper. My handwriting looks the same as it did in fifth grade, even though this is my very last day ever and I will graduate or at least never come back.

That very summer I met Earl and now, now that clock women talk about, the one in their belly and their heart, is making itself heard. I want a baby.

* * *

 

That night, just before he enters me, I try to slip my hand down there, down low close to the hair. I thought maybe I could just slip the rubber off. But he rolls the other way and says, “What’s the matter with you?”

I say, “That little girl of yours ought to have a sister or brother, and Loretta’s too old.”

“Will you shut up about Loretta for once? She’s my wife, for Christ’s sake.”

The way he says “my wife” was funny to me and I wondered in what sense he meant it, because after all, here he was in my bed and I came so close to getting his thing naked. I never got the chance though because he pulled the rubber off himself. Threw it in the basket and said he wasn’t in the mood any more.


1953

So many people come across the bridge to get married that it doesn’t surprise me when Earl’s little Lucille does the same thing. The wedding is in a tiny church sixty miles away, at the end of the earth on the Outer Cape. I wait outside the ceremony. All I want is a glimpse of her outside the church. I get my wish and then some. The bride bursts out of the church, laughing as rice rains down on her head. The groom is with her. Standing on the church steps by the door, extending a hand to lead his daughter out, is Earl. Which I was ready for. Next to him, Loretta is looking up at him just like the photo I first saw years ago. She stands just up to his shoulder. Her hair is turning silver and she still has that powdered look. Like she spends most of her time in front of a mirror and never makes a mistake with her makeup. Somehow she wasn’t in mind at all when I imagined this. In my mind all I pictured was Earl, the bride and groom, the crowd. And me.

Earl looks down at his wife and kisses her on the lips. Then they laugh, throw rice at Lucille’s back.

I cannot go home yet. I cannot leave this scene until I can accept what I see. I follow someone in my truck, I don’t know who, to the reception. It is at a posh hotel, one of those tourist destinations locals never get into. At first, I stand aside in the lobby, peeking out from behind a pillar, watching a crowd filing into a beautiful ballroom. They stop at a table to find place cards. They have invitations in their hands. I hear a sweet-sad song that’s on the radio all the time. I know Earl will dance with his little girl soon, and I know if I see it I will just be sadder. I know I should go home if I want peace. So I do.

Earl comes the next weekend and at breakfast I start humming his song. When Earl looks up I just smile.

Later that day Earl says, “Were you at the wedding?”

“No,” I say. “Just the reception. I didn’t want to make a fuss.” I give him a long look. “I never make a fuss.”

We just make love right there in the kitchen. He is different. Tender is something I’ve seen with him before but not tender-sad, and I think—I’m not sure, but I think—he whispers “I’m sorry” just one time.

The next day, he is so quiet. I am convinced it is our last day. He brings his suitcase out to the hall right after breakfast. He stands in the door, hands in his coat pockets, and says, “Ellie, I’ve taken the best years of your life.”

I say, “That’s okay, I wasn’t using them.” I smile when I say it but he doesn’t smile back.

He breathes deep, pulls a check out of his pocket.

My fists clench. “There hasn’t been money between us in years,” I say.

“Don’t you want more for yourself? You could go to school—” he says.

My chest feels tight. Just tell him flat out.

“No, I can’t,” I say. I am looking at my feet, I guess hoping the right words are there. “I write letters—”

“Letters . . .?” Earl asks.

“To Lucille, to Loretta—”

“Oh my God—” Even though he’s the one who interrupted me, his face is just frozen so I take my turn again, talking real fast to get it out.

“I don’t show them anywhere because there’s no punctuation and hardly any spelling and the words are choppy. No teacher ever tolerated it; they wouldn’t even grade my papers but passed me on to the next grade any way, every year. So I don’t think I should take a course.”

“You—can’t—read,” he says slowly like he is hearing a long, difficult name for the first time.

The world behind his back was grey-white with old snow, the trees were bare, and you could smell salt in the cold winter air.

I say, “Do you think I’m a waitress by choice? Don’t you know I never write down orders? Don’t you know why I never left that job?’

“Can Loretta read?” I ask after a little silence.

His feet shift. “Oh, Loretta’s real smart. I can hardly follow her when she talks about books. She reads all the time.”

I say, “Maybe that’s because she’s alone so much of the time.”

After another silence I say, “So I’m not smart like Loretta.”

His mouth twitches, a sad smile on one side of his face. “A different kind of smart,” he says.

“Does she know how to can fruit? Can she memorize a bunch of orders?”

“Can she take care of herself, you mean. I suppose she could. I just never expected her to.”

And I think about how every night I had with him was a night she had without him. I thought, That’s what you think. One way or another, she’s taking care of herself. Got to be.

*

Shutting that door didn’t shut my heart, but I had no time to grieve. Because I wasn’t on my own more than one day and one night before I started thinking about that last time on the kitchen table. It was sudden and sweet, and I got one wish: I got his thing naked.

Am I . . . ?

Did I want to be . . .?

When I pictured having Earl’s baby I never pictured having it alone, with only my waitress job to support me. On the other hand, I never pictured Earl leaving his wife to be with me. I guess we would have gone back to a money arrangement, but this time it would all be for the baby.

I wonder about what am I going to do on my own, and I start to think those courses Earl wanted me to take might be a good idea after all.

Earl does come back, and says he will be giving me reading lessons. I always get to choose, newspapers or food labels. Mostly we read food labels, but if there are recipes or Ann Landers in the paper, we read that.

I’m better at reading than I thought. The newspaper reminds me of sixth grade primers, which is when I stopped keeping up in school. Still, reading out loud is slow and I know my face turns red when I stumble on a word.

But it keeps my mind off the problem of a baby.

I know I should ask a doctor but I’m not sure how long to wait. After two months without my period, I am sure I should be seeing Dr. Gellman. I need money from Earl, but I don’t want to ask. I just don’t want to bring him into this yet. I don’t know what will happen when I do.

I pick one evening when I think I can just slip it into our reading lesson. I am sitting on his lap and he smoothes my hair back and runs his hand down my neck and kisses my ear. He has one arm around my waist. His hand is nestled between the inside of my upper arm and my breast. I love it when he does that. I like to think it’s comforting to us both.

I think, Years could go on like this, years and years.

“What’s wrong?” I ask. Sometimes when someone comforts you, it’s because they want comforting.

“Loretta’s sick,” he says. His voice has an edge, like he is irritated instead of worried or sad.

“Sick? Like a cold? Or like hearing voices?”

“She’s always opening windows, even though it’s winter. And fanning herself. Once I caught her trying to throw ice down the front of her housedress. She’s going crazy,” Earl says.

I giggle. “Those are hot flashes,” I say.

Earl blinks. “Already?” He asks.

“Why, isn’t she kind of late? She’s your age, right?”

“No, ten years younger than me,” he says, shifting his weight.

Now this is new information to me. Still it didn’t seem all that early to my mind. Seemed more like right on time.

“Why do you like younger women so much?” I lean off away from him as I say this, like I am going to leap up from his lap.

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you married a woman ten years younger than you, and took up with me, who’s a whole lot younger than Loretta is—”

He cuts me off. “What do you think I should do for Loretta?”

“Now you’re changing the subject. But that’s all right,” I say, chewing my lip. “I think she needs a project. She can’t have a baby, and she can’t help raise mine because you won’t give me one —”

“I’m too old—”

“To start another family! Like we’re not a family already, you and me! What do you call this then?”

“Ellie please—don’t do this. Not now—”

“Ellie please,” I say it back to him, lowering my voice and talking kind of slow. I think the word I am looking for to describe my voice is mimic. I mimic his voice, and I know I’m getting my point across because he is shrinking. Shriveling up around the shoulders, hiding his face in his hands.

“Ellie please,” I say again. “I please you. Then you please me. There’s been all this pleasing but you know what? I’ll never get what Loretta had.

My fists are shaking, closed tight, and my face is getting red and hot. I can feel it. I know at that moment, I will never tell him. Never.

He leaps from his chair, and those shoulders are not so shriveled now. I back away. But his long arms reach me, reach around me, pulling me in. He strokes my hair, whispering over and over, “I am sorry, I am sorry.” I know he’s sorry, for more than just this fight. He is sorry he won’t ever really be mine. He is sorry but sorry isn’t going to change anything.

Later, after Earl falls asleep, I think about this secret of ours. I once told him Loretta had a right to know, and I meant it when I said it. I get it into my head that I probably could read well enough now to write a letter that could actually be read by someone else. Earl sure wasn’t going to deliver it though.

His driver’s license. His wallet and keys are always on my father’s old wardrobe.

The next morning when Earl is in the shower I find his wallet and sure enough, I learn he lives on 20 Mockingbird Lane. I don’t have to write it down, just like with orders at the diner. I simply wait for Earl to go back to Loretta’s and I write my letter. I tell her how we’ve been sharing Earl for a long time and I am sorry for keeping a secret. I tell her how Earl loves both of us and it makes me sad.

I don’t tell her about the baby. In my heart I can tell Earl intends to grow old with Loretta. That he truly believes he could just have love without producing a child from it. Did I want that for my child?
 


1960

I name our little girl Violet, after the flowers I’ve planted by the front doorstep. That letter must have caused some awful heartache, because Earl stops coming by. There is a hole in my heart now but relief, too.

It turns out a mother is never truly on her own. Neighbors I haven’t talked to since taking up with Earl knock on my door. Mostly women old enough to be Violet’s grandmother. They offer childcare, bring me casseroles.

I am so surprised that I decide maybe it is time to go see Jean. We were never really friends again after that summer, and she left the restaurant soon after. Over the years I’d heard she had jobs here and thee. She stopped whoring and started running a cat-house of her own when she hit age 50, and she is nearing 70 now. Still puffing away on cigarettes too.

She lives in the same trailer, in the same park she had when she used to babysit me as a child. My mother would drop me off on the way to her shift, and Jeanne would bring me to the restaurant when she started her shift. Or I’d walk to Jean’s from school. She was beautiful then, and always smelled of perfume. She is wrinkled and stooping now, but that isn’t what I think is ugly about her. It is the flat look in her eyes, like no light could get in, because she wouldn’t let it.

“Well look what the cat dragged in. Carrying a litter of your own, I see.”

“Hello, Jean. I came to see how you’re getting by.”

“And just what do you care after all this time? I think you’re here for money. That’s got to be it, with a baby on the way and no man. You’re too late. Too old and too many stretch marks.”

“I’m not afraid of my future, Jean.” I lifted my chin so my eyes could meet hers. “I never was afraid of it.” She cackled, just like the old days. It hit me then that the cackle was a smoker’s sound, not natural.

“Oh no? Not afraid, hunh? Is that why you ran straight into the arms of a married man?”

“You pushed me into Earl’s arms, Jean!”

“I did no such thing. I made you a business deal. You had to go turning it into some tragic love affair. I tried to set you straight.”

“Earl turned it into an affair as much as I did. Begged me to let him stay,” I said. My fists were clenched and my whole body was shaking.

“Sure. Don’t you realize he felt sorry for you? He never loved you.”

“And just how do you know so much about it, Miss Jean? You don’t know a thing about us.”

“I know plenty. I know he was your first. He called you his sweet cherry pie.” She was smirking.” He told me lots when he came around here. Because he did come around here, you know.”

A force from deep in my gut knocked me back a few steps. “What else do you know?” I couldn’t stop my voice from sounding small and weak.

“So I’ve got your attention at last. I know he brought you a stag the night I gave you his wallet.”

“What else?” If she knew much past the night he declared he loved me, I would surely die.

“That’s it, just about. I know about the stag because I saw his truck pass by,” she said.

I wondered why she admitted this. She knew this was all just punching me in the gut.

“I know you showed up at his daughter’s wedding. Stupid, stupid, stupid.”

“He told you that?” That was just before our last time.

“No, half the girls at the diner moonlight on weekends. Hell, most of my girls work the hotels too. Tammy saw you.”

“You kept tabs on me, Jean. Why?”

She made a puffing noise, blowing air out of her cheeks. “I didn’t go asking about you, you little fool. People just couldn’t stop from talking about how stupid you were.”

This seems like truth to me. This is a small town where nobody has much to do. I start to wonder what kept me from worrying all those years. From worrying about what other people thought.

“You know what it is about you?” It was like she read my thoughts. “The reason you got in so much trouble on your own is that you dream too much.”

“All this talk about me being bad is pretty funny coming from a whore.”

Jean and I stare at each other, and I square my shoulders up.

“When I think about it, Jean, you didn’t behave much better. Worse, in fact, because you never found love. And you never had any dreams.”

Jean flies out of her seat and slaps my face.

“I shouldn’t have opened the door to you! Get out!”

The restaurant sure changes quickly. Now they play the new young people’s music. The tourists stay longer and eat and drink more if the waitresses can add a sort of bouncy wiggle to their hustle between tables. I guess it can be fun if you’re a certain age. But my feet hurt by the end of the day and summers we hire so many college girls—girls have suddenly decided college is a good path to marriage, don’t ask me why. I train new ones every month or so. Wiggling just isn’t in me any more but that music makes me feel young and free. Training those young kids and watching them just take over the place with energy gets me thinking I could do something, anything really.

I get a job in a lawyer’s office where the papers are hard for me to read, but they are busy enough that they need someone just to file. I match the names on letters with the names written neatly on the folders in the cabinet. Younger girls, graduates from the secretarial schools, type and proofread and type again, and leave the final results in a basket on my desk. My desk has a typewriter that I don’t use, and a phone. The boss’ phone calls never go to his office directly. They come to me and I write down a message if he isn’t there, but if he is, I just walk in and repeat everything I heard on the phone. I never miss anything, and I can tell him if it sounds like the person on the other end is lying or not.

If they are, he fires off a bunch of questions for me to call back and ask. Other times, he returns calls himself.

Years after I thought I was way past Earl he shows up at my front door. His face is thin, drawn out. He looks like he worked three shifts back to back. Behind him I can see a sedan in the driveway. A young woman is in the driver’s seat, and even from this distance I can see she’s gripping the steering wheel and holding her face tight.

“How are you, Ellie?” His voice is gravelly but soft. His hair is all white.

I swallow to clear the lump in my throat and blink to stop tears. “Is that Lucille in the car?”

He nods yes and clears his throat, but doesn’t speak for about a minute.

I wonder if I should ask him to come in. Introduce him to Violet. Somehow that seems as crazy as my old dreams of being a friend to Lucille. I have formed the opinion that if Earl didn’t give me a baby freely, then it just isn’t his.

So instead I ask, “Lucille wanted to bring you here? She agreed to do that?”

“I didn’t tell her who you were exactly.”

I shake my head at his foolishness. “Maybe she didn’t know when you asked. Or all the way down here. She knows now.”

We stare at each other a minute or so. That’s when I notice that it isn’t just his face that’s thin. His body is thin. “So how come Lucille had to drive you, anyway?”

I can see his Adam’s apple rise and fall like he is gulping. “I need— Can we go inside?”

“Mommy?”

I turn around quickly. Violet stands in the hall, clutching a doll. I look back outside, over Earl’s shoulder. Lucille still grips the steering wheel, but I don’t think she’s seen us. She has the same set look to her face.

Quickly I motion Earl inside and close the door.

“Violet, go to your room.”

“I don’t want to. Have I been bad? Who’s this man?” She points a finger.

Everything about our daughter is round. She has one of those round, angel-looking faces. Round, dark eyes. Loose curls the color of chestnut on her little round head.

Earl twists his hands together, looking at me. I wish he wouldn’t. I have no idea what the answer is.

“If you play in your room quietly for just a little while, I’ll make us all lunch.”

“Okay.”

I begin taking jars out of the cabinet above the sink, root around for the Wonder Bread in the breadbox. “Hope peanut butter and jelly is okay. We eat what Violet eats.”

I set it on the table and sit across from him to make the sandwiches. Earl has a small smile on his face but still looks serious.

“You know she’s yours, right?”

Earl closes his eyes a moment. “She’s beautiful. You’re good with her.”

I almost smile at this compliment. “She asks me all the time where her Daddy is. I tell her he’s out to sea.” I meet his eyes. “I don’t need anything, not money anyway, but I can’t keep my daughter away from her daddy . . .”

“Loretta died, Ellie.”

I blink at him. I cannot take this in.

“Cancer.”

I cover my mouth with my hands. “After she got my letter? She died?”

“What letter?”

In a rushed way, I tell him about the letter I finally sent. About how I told her everything.

“I thought that was why you left me,” I said.

Earl shook his head. “I was afraid to come back anymore, Ellie. And afraid to tell you it was over. But you were getting so upset about the things I couldn’t give you. I wanted you to find what you needed. But I’m free now, Ellie. We can be together.”

“Together like we were before? Because I don’t think that can work now.”

“No, Ellie, I mean I want you to marry me. We can be a family.”

“I don’t know yet if we can, Earl. I don’t know what’s best for Violet yet. She comes first.”

“At least think about it, Ellie. Think about us.”

* * *

Soon after, I cross the bridge for the first time in my life. The bridge looks big when you are staring at it from the beach, or maybe your front porch. But it feels like it has no end at all when you are on it. The bridge crosses over a canal; you can tell it’s not exactly the ocean, because there are no waves. But it’s blue and salty smelling.

When I get to the other side, the air changes. It’s not tangy, like ocean air, and as I get closer to the city, it is choking me. The tar on the road smells. I have to roll my windows up.

Earl’s house is attached to a lot of other houses, and it’s made of brick. He is walking slowly down some concrete steps on his front porch and I am standing on the sidewalk when he looks up and sees me.

It is a raw, winter day, and the wind roars in my ears. It reminds me of the first day I met with Earl in that back alley and we just stared at each other. The ocean was roaring that day. Here in the city there is no ocean, just a mean howling wind. Earl and I stare at each other now, too.

“I’m glad you came, Ellie.” He says this quietly, and even takes my hand. I can see the hope in his eyes.

I have never lied to Earl, except by not telling him everything. Like with the letter, and then with Violet. But I came clean with all that already. So I don’t lie now.

“I’m not sure I’m glad I came,” I say. “But I think I came to say good bye.”

1963

Violet is ten now. Even all bundled up against the wind, she runs along the shore picking up sea shells, putting them back, running backwards, and laughing when the waves get too close.

I know Earl loved his other family. I am glad he did, because I couldn’t have stood all those years, the thought of him spending any time with people he didn’t love as much as he loved me.

I think about ocean winds, and prune pie, and a cold grey world at his back when he tried to leave and couldn’t. I know he loved me too.

The Boy in the Whale by Josef Firmage

Glimpsed by William C. Blome

Leave a Response