Short story: Give us this day
Lucy spent even-year Thanksgivings with her mother, so instead of cooking a turkey this year, Jerry made a Cornish hen for each of us. This meant that Tyler, who was two-and-a-half and liked to suck on the wings, could have four. By eight-thirty, Tyler was down for the night and we were hungry again. The weather was freakishly warm, so Jerry and I took some crackers and a bottle of wine out to the porch.
A fox screeched in the cemetery across the road.
I told Jerry I once heard a fox killing a dog over there. The next afternoon there were flyers all over town about a missing puppy, and a sad little boy came to our door. He said he had saved up some money. He said he could pay a reward. That day I waited for Tyler to nap, and then hurried across the street to look for the poor bloody thing.
“You left Tyler alone?” Jerry asked me.
“I know,” I said. “I shouldn’t have. But you were away.”
I’d never left the baby unattended before. Well, just once; he was nine months old. I ran into the drugstore to buy shampoo and forgot he was in the car. I wandered up and down all the aisles, buying not only what I went in for but other things too—moisturizer and hairclips, pacifiers and baby wipes—and still I didn’t remember. Then I waited on line. It was fifteen minutes, maybe more, by the time I got back to my car. Tyler was sleeping and the doors were unlocked—not just the driver’s one but all four. I got into the back seat, slid over toward the baby, and cried. At the time, I didn’t know it, but even mothers who believe they are good have such stories to tell.
I never told that story—not to anyone—until tonight.
“Jesus, Nora, you forgot?”
I put my head on Jerry’s shoulder. “You never would, but people do.”
“I can’t imagine.”
The time with the fox, I knew Tyler was safe upstairs, as safe as a baby can be, that is: his belly full and his eyes shut. I figured he was far better off not knowing about the kind of hunger I crossed the road to see.
I gathered what was left of the German shepherd mix and set it at the foot of a headstone: gray-pink bones of varying lengths and widths, still damp from blood and the fox’s tongue; the lot of which amounted to no more than a fistful of kindling. I meant to go back to look for the skull but I forgot. I imagined I’d bury the remains.
“That damn fox,” Jerry said, getting up to let our dog into the house. “I should get a gun.”
The porch light sensed movement and switched on, and for two long minutes it was so bright I couldn’t speak. I knew Jerry could never kill an animal, but if someone ever came after Lucy, who was fourteen, it might be a different story.
The next morning, before Lucy arrived for our half of the Thanksgiving weekend, Jerry decided to cook another small bird in case she was hungry. He took Tyler with him to the kitchen so I could sleep in, and by the time I came downstairs, the house smelled spicy and meaty, like heaven might smell in the fall.
“Coffee,” I said, still groggy. I craved the strong liquid in the pot.
“Lucy’s on her way,” Jerry said, barely looking up from the sink.
Now I wished I’d gotten up earlier, so I’d have had time with Jerry alone, or time for just Tyler and me. Lucy’s blue mood always washed over me. I heard her mother’s car in the drive.
“Party time,” I said. “They’re here.” I went outside so Liz wouldn’t just drive away. Jerry was the one who shopped and cooked and helped Lucy with her homework. It was my job to fish for the news.
“How was yesterday?”
Two of Lucy’s friends had been sent to a clinic on Long Island for being too thin and she was supposed to visit them the day before.
“Okay I guess,” Liz said. “She hasn’t actually said.”
I wondered about Lucy. If no one pressed her for details, did she think no one cared.”
“Food?” I asked.
“Nothing to speak of.”
Lucy got out of the car without looking at me. She shuffled around the back and I heard the kitchen door slam.
“Jerry will get her to eat,” I told Liz. “He baked the honey bread she loves, for sandwiches and French toast. Last weekend she ate a whole loaf.”
“Ugh,” Liz said, shaking her head. “Didn’t you know?” Now she’s finished with bread.”
When Liz and Jerry were married, Liz used to do the same thing: live on one food exclusively, like apples or carrots, until Jerry bought it home by the bushel. Now Lucy was infuriating that way.
“Is that all that’s bothering her?”
“I don’t know,” Liz said, revving her engine. “I think she’s been waiting for some boy to call.”
“You look good,” I said. I wanted to ask about her new boyfriend—the one who build Lucy a loft bed, who played lead guitar in a heavy metal band—but she’d wonder how I knew. Last weekend, I stood against Lucy’s locked door listening to her talk on the phone, and felt sick inside for her: too cool to want a babysitter, but still afraid of the dark. Dumb enough to fall for such a guy.
Liz drove away and the mailman pulled up to the curb. Nearly every day he got out of this truck and came to our door with four or five college brochures, glossy and expensive, too fat for our mailbox. Lucy wasn’t interested in college yet, but the kids in the pictures called to me. Pack your bags and come live with us, they said. Read a few books. Sleep until three. Take a nice long break in the spring. They all had maps on the back pages. They told me what roads to take and how many hours I would need for the drive.
Jerry was playing with Tyler and his trucks, and the dog was stretched out where the sun warmed the floor. I wanted to sit for a while with the brochures in my lap, and dream of myself all grown up an responsible, like I did with my father when I was in high school, when nothing mattered more to him than I did. But I knew that was impossible. Too many years had passed. Anyway, as soon as I sat on the couch, Tyler would beg me to play. And Jerry would remember something he needed to do in the kitchen.
“Where’d she go?” I asked Jerry.
“To her room.”
“Liz said she hasn’t eaten today.”
“I’ll fix her a plate in a minute.”
I went upstairs and knocked on Lucy’s door. “Hey,” I said. “It’s Nora.”
She didn’t answer, but I went inside. She’d been home just ten minutes, yet she was already wrapped in a tangle of covers.
I was jealous of Lucy’s private place, small as it was, with its tall windows looking out on the sky, and a door she could close and lock. Her clothes, including a few tops I had handed down to her, were piled on her bed and the floor. The room smelled like damp wool and patchouli.
I’d known Lucy more than half her life, but at the rate of a half hour here and there, two or three days a week, I really didn’t know her at all. I wanted to say something comforting, but since Tyler was born (and maybe even before that) we were typically sarcastic with one another.
I thought about telling her she’d definitely live through whatever it was that was killing her, but she hated it when I spoiled a surprise. I pictured her skinny body, naked and weak, with hip bones and ribs like twigs, and I was afraid for her. I remembered the fox and the dog.
“It’s survival of the fittest out there, Sweetie,” I said, patting her foot. After a minute, she turned and looked at me. The smudges under her eyes were an unnatural mix of black and green, which I hoped was from drugstore mascara, rather than a lack of nutrition. “You’re going to need your strength.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” I said. “The WNBA?”
“Be serious,” she said. She had no interest in sports, and would never in her life be tall.
“Okay,” I said, stalling for words that might help her. “You really want to know?”
She shrugged, which was the closest she ever came to encouraging me.
“Okay,” I said. “News flash. You heard it here first. You have to rely on yourself. People are selfish. People are self-absorbed. Even the good ones are only so good.” I was surprised at how I sounded: so little faith in people though I looked to them for love and often found it.
Lucy turned away and pulled the covers over her ears. “Okay,” she said. “You can go now.”
I smelled fresh-cooked food in the hall. Tyler was on the other side of the door, calling my name.
“On the other hand,” I said, “sometimes they’ll surprise you.”
I opened the door wide and there, too, was Jerry with a tray of luscious, hot food: a game hen with yams and a pile of sweet peas so green I wanted to set one in platinum and wear it on my finger to my grave.
One night in a bar before we were married, I asked Jerry if he could forgive me if I cheated on him. I hoped I wouldn’t do it, but I couldn’t be a hundred percent sure.
“I think it would depend,” he said, studying me.
I pressed him to think through the particulars. Could he forgive a long affair in which I came home every night and lied to him about where I’d been? What about the kind of thing that happened only once? Would that be any better? Or what if it was once per person, but with a few different people over a few years’ time? What if it was the same person each time, but we only slept together once in a while. What if it was a girl?
At the time, Jerry had been alone for a few years, and he didn’t seem to mind talking about things that might never happen. He’d figured out that guessing and speculating were like foreplay to me.
“Why not just plan to be happy?” he said.
Jerry’s question was the kind I would ask.
“What if I don’t know how?”
That night in the bar, Jerry said he could plot the potential for anybody’s extramarital activity on a graph: the amount of a person’s physical freedom scored on the vertical axis, and the strength of their stomach for getting caught marked on the horizontal one. He’d come up with his theory a few years back, after Liz left him for someone she’d met on a yoga retreat. He got so excited that he asked the bartender for a pen.
“See here,” he said. “Liz had way too much freedom.” He drew a dot on the bare table, inches above the top edge of his napkin. “And she had an iron stomach.” He extended the bottom axis and made another dot far to the right of the napkin’s edge. “So her line is very long.”
He turned the napkin over. “Then,” he said, “there’s me.” He drew one dot low down on the side axis, and another one very close to it along the bottom. “Since having Lucy, I’ve had no freedom and no stomach. My line is so short you can barely see it.”
“Hmm,” I said. I studied the paper and guessed my line would be longer than Jerry wanted it to be. “Pretty scientific. But I don’t buy it.” I told him I thought flirting and kissing and maybe even fucking are only fun and games for a while. “What stops us is fear all right,” I said, “but not fear of getting caught. It’s fear of falling in love.”
A year after Tyler was born, I felt fat and tired and lazy around Jerry, but with Richard, a history teacher I met at school, I loved my body again. Though it started out light—we’d have lunch on a bench or go for a coffee—soon we were meeting at the Park and Ride nearly every day at four thirty, where we would press against each other like teenagers. Lucky for our sakes we had nowhere else to go.
Once in a while, on a weekend, I’d ask Jerry to take Tyler so I could go to a movie by myself, but instead I’d meet Richard at a rest stop somewhere on the road. We would introduce ourselves as strangers—as though that meant we weren’t hooked—then make love in the back of my car. Driving home, I worried that Tyler, especially, would smell Richard on me. I knew I had to stop sneaking around somehow, or I’d lose Tyler and Jerry both. I’d probably even miss Lucy, and then I’d have nothing at all.
It was the Sunday after Thanksgiving. While Lucy slept and Tyler was napping, Jerry and I emptied our dresser drawers and the closet we shared, making three piles: one for the summer clothes we would put in the attic until next year; one for the Sisters of Mercy, and one for the things we would refold and put away. Every few months, our small farmhouse became so overrun with things we didn’t wear or care about, I’d force us to throw things away. Later that afternoon, Jerry took Lucy and Tyler to his mother’s, but I asked to stay behind. Richard was with his own wife and kids.
There were few cars on the road. The sun, surprisingly hot, was still higher than the distant trees and I enjoyed its warmth on my arm. I drove to one of Richard’s and my spots: a rest area that was nicer than most national parks. There were picnic tables and a swing for kids, and heavy Adirondack chairs painted green. There was a sign showing a map of wooded trails, and a fenced in area where people exercised their dogs. In the distance was a fuzzy, wide meadow leading to a lake that sparkled like a distant mirage.
There were more cars parked than usual, and the rest area was decorated with balloons and colored streamers, and hand-lettered neon pink poster boards, so people coming and going would immediately know this was where the Cooper Family was holding its First-Ever Family Reunion. Someone had arranged several picnic tables in a semicircle and draped them with red-checkered oilcloths. Men with long forks and tongs were poking at something on a barbeque pit while women were milling around. They all wore too-tight jeans and sweatshirts from places they’d been. Butterfly World. Lion Country Safari. Several small children were chasing a dog.
As nice as the place was, I felt sad they had to meet here—half driving north and the other half south, to get to this point in between—exposed to people and cars passing on the road. But I felt even sadder for me. If I couldn’t have Jerry all to myself at home, or Richard in the back of my car, then I wanted to sit down at the table of these strangers: to bow my head and give thanks for the plenty I had. I wanted to kiss the person to my left and the person to my right, then make a sweet barbeque mess on my face and my hands, letting sticky sauce run down to my elbows. I wanted to suck down one of their amber beers, and send a softball soaring high over the pitcher’s head. I wanted to haul ass as fast as I could to the first baseman that was somebody’s cousin, once removed.
But what I really wanted was for the catcher, crouched on his knees behind me, to remove his mask and be my father, who was now as skinny as Lucy and lived in a group home near our old apartment in Chicago. I wanted him to remember my name.
In the distance, I saw a tall man, or a boy I wasn’t sure, standing at the edge of the lake where Richard once waited for me. He moved his long legs and arms with precision, side-arming stones across the water. I could tell he thought no one was watching by the way be juggled his hips when he got a good skip of four or five splashes.
When I got to the shore, I picked up a flat, shiny rook and stood at his side. I held out my arm, taking aim, not yet ready to throw.
“Try it,” he said. His eyes were round and black like the stone I held in my hand. He wore a red-and-black checked flannel shirt, and though his hair was relatively long, and pulled back in a thick pony tail that curled at the end, he was clean-cut and delicate, like the philosophy majors in the college catalogues, only a few years older. Not at all like Jerry, who wore a close-cropped beard and a tiny gold earring in one ear, or like Richard, who was heavier-set and losing his hair.
“It’s been a while,” I said.
“Loosen up,” he said. “It’s like a Frisbee, or a horseshoe. See it going where you want it to go.”
He walked around and stood behind me. His breath on my neck reminded me of my first time with Richard. I never resisted—not the first time, not ever—but after we were through I always imagined going home bloody and shaking, with sweat and spit and semen in my hair and between my legs, and welts on my face and my neck. I imagined telling Jerry I’d been jumped in a parking lot and dragged to my car. He would hold me and call the police and take me to the doctor and take care of Tyler while I healed. Instead I took long showers by myself.
It had been years since I made a stone dance across the surface of a stream; years since my father taught me to aim and fire. I weighed the stone in my hand and considered how hard I would have to throw it, how far it was likely to go. I remembered that if I gave it too much arm, it would go straight into the air. I curled my forefinger around the edge of the stone.
I flock of noisy geese passed overhead and we both watched them fly. Suddenly, though hunting couldn’t possibly be allowed so close to the road, I heard one clear shot hit the top of the air. All of the birds except one seemed to pick up speed across the sky.
Then it started to fall. Not head first, the way I would have expected it to, but on its side, gathering speed without twisting or turning, until it landed in the lake with a heavy splash, some thirty yards from where we were standing. I waited and I prayed for the other birds to circle back around—to come back and rescue their friend—but I knew that was too much to hope for.
Watching the dark spot, afloat temporarily on the surface of the lake, I wished someone would come back for me.