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Family Quartet IV: Midsummer

To David, Gabriel, and Amelia, and to the young woman I once was



[…] Do human beings ever realize life while they live it?—every, every minute?

Stage Manager



The saints and poets, maybe —they do some.”

—Thornton Wilder, Our Town


She drifted a little back into a dream, something about a gray lakeshore and a tiny open car that swerved perilously. Then she snored once, and then she heard Amy, the youngest, singing in her bed, “Row, row, row,” over and over. Today. Anne sat up and reached for the tea beside her bed, trying to remember whether she’d heard Hal come in with it. Darjeeling today, a gift of honey and earth precisely mellowed with sugar and cream. She sipped. The sun glowed through the curtains, yellow and blue posies bearing the shadow of fading lilacs outside.

The mug was hot in her hands, and this would be a hot day. She wandered a bit in her mind while she drank: The day, the things to be done and the good to come, that verge of welcoming. Next month, that feeling again, when they’d pack for the shore, the clang of the speckled lobster pot, the folding camp chairs. The yellow shirt with the pin tucks in the catalogue, the button to sew on the sage oxford her mother had sent. Amy’s song, and the oldest, Danny, singing of whales when he was young,

But time to get up.

Downstairs, Anne found Amy in the kitchen, wearing Hal’s old green tee, talking to Cooper and Maisie, who were mewing for food. She kissed Amy’s head and poured kibble for the cats, cereal for herself and Amy to eat side by side at the counter. They heard the shower going on upstairs. Amy stood on the stool to put her bowl in the sink and run water into it before she went off to watch TV. Anne began her list, trying to remember it all.

At last she sighed, thinking, it’s done as it’s going to be, and headed upstairs. The bathroom was steamy; Hal had forgotten the fan again. She turned it on and went in and sat on the toilet lid and watched him dry, admiring his exuberant efficiency. She reached forward a finger to trace the damp on his left hipbone, and he bent for a kiss, wet spikes of hair half-concealing his eyes and brushing her forehead. “So? What’ll it be?” he asked, turning to shave. ‘We’ve got lots to do before they get here,” she began, and he listened to the list. Then he went off to dress while she quickly showered.

She joined Hal downstairs where he was eating a crisp Cortland and sent Amy up to dress and straighten her room. They tossed a coin for the mowing and Anne won, so Hal set out for the front with the hand mower while she drove the lawn tractor out to the back. She noticed the rhodies under the shutters were splattered with bat guano again. She engaged the blade drive and zigged around the birches at the edge of the ridge, then sped down to the broadest part of the lawn. Clouds of small bugs rose from the grass and swirled about her legs as she passed, but today they weren’t biting. The motor intruded on the morning until, soon enough, she was able to tune it out. Maple shoots. Milkweed. It had been awhile since they’d mown. Maybe they could start letting the back quarter acre go, or just do it once a year. Maybe next sumer they’d have time to drive out West, to Zion or the California coast, or maybe head the other way, down to the Keys. What would it be like to live down there? That little dip where the septic was covered. They’d better have that checked out before fall. Already the days were shortening again. Who to call for the cord of wood? Where to spend Christmas, here or with Mom? The small shard of panic: Danny’s grades—what to do. No answer surfaced. What to do?

As she rounded and rounded, she pulled her mind back from the questions and surveyed Hal’s garden, full of sun. It would need water soon if they didn’t get rain, but it could go another day. The rhubarb was past its prime, its leaves elephantine, the last of the snap peas yellowing on the trellis. Bu the green beans’ shy commas were beginning to lengthen and swell, and the corn, well, yes, it was just about knee-high, its leaves beginning to loop towards the earth. They would have their own cherry tomatoes within a week. Oh, what was that spotting the squash leaves? The okra had failed again; this must be too far north, or maybe they’d planted too early.

And round again, tugging sharp on the wheel to avoid scratching her legs on the blackberries, ducking the walnut branches and pulling leaves from her hair. She saw the first few families to arrive at the Rec. Center setting up tables and chairs, saw Mr. Coombs with his push mower up by his bird feeders, and they exchanged waves. Almost done, she headed for the little space behind the old apples and the brush pile, where they’d found the stinking groundhog carcass in March, and Hal had thought to bury it. Day lilies were blooming around the the area’s perimeter now, and she wondered, had somebody planted them there years ago? The apple trees’ leaves scattered the light in the air and on the ground; she could have nodded off, if the space hadn’t been so small she had to tug continuously at the wheel. It was a secret spot back there, a place to hide or rendezvous or sit and dream.

But one unlucky moment of inattention and she’d be over the bank, to the cut where the overflow from the brook ran every spring. Their old schnauzer, Frowby, had drowned there two Aprils before, and Danny had found him and solemnly carried him back to the house, clutching the muddy fur and limp head to his chest. Anne had kept a toddling Amy inside while Hal and Danny buried him, between the irises and the hedge.

Done, Anne disengaged the blades and raced uphill. Hal was still dealing with the grass around the perennials, and he looked hot. She’d have to remember, next time was his turn with the tractor. She went inside and squeezed lemon into ice water and took two glasses out just as he was coming back from the shed. “Pretty hot already,” she offered. They sat on the cement slab bench and drank, looking over at the white bursts of the peonies. “Thee’s something getting the squash,” she told him. “Yeah, I saw that yesterday. I don’t know what it is. I’ll have to look it up in my book.” Amy wandered out whle they were talking and headed over to the swing, muttering some little play as she went. They smiled at her meandering walk and talk, watching a bit, then rose together to go inside.

It was after noon. How had it gotten so late? She thought of the list, hardly begun, and what she should have done yesterday or the day before. “Gotta check on a few things,” Hal told her, and he went off to the office.

Anne tried to take care of the downstairs bathroom while the potatoes cooked, but then the pot boiled over and she had to clean up the mess. Then while they cooled she wiped out the sink, went up to the linen closet for a fresh hand towel, and realized she’d left the bathroom fan on, the tea mugs on the sill, her damp bath towel in the bedroom. Spread up the bed. Open the curtains. The lawn looked trim and inviting now, sun full on the expanse beside the garden, the perennials enjoying a little shade from the birches. Okay, potato salad. Oh, that towel.

She had started cubing the potatoes when Hal came back in. He rummaged in the fridge for the chicken and the garlic and ginger for the marinade. Anne was going over the list in her mind. She had to vacuum, at least that rug and the tufts of cat hair in the hall. Hal minced the garlic and ginger, moving at a leisurely pace, probably lost in thought about some truck he’d seen in the classifieds. Really, how many times a year would he need it? And why this damn chicken every year? Hell, she realized, I could have bought potato salad, or even chips.

Anne managed to vacuum, call Amy in for some lunch, start a load of laundry, and put the dishes away; after getting the chicken into the marinade, Hal had disappeared into the office again. Then, behind the tomatoes, she found it: the brand new carton of vanilla ice cream mistakenly put in the fridge instead of the freezer the night before. She’d probably done it herself, trying to hurry.

“Hal, what are you doing?” she called. “We’ll never get this done. What is Danny doing, anyway?”

“I don’t know. I haven’t seen him,” he called back.

She put the tomatoes down. Surely not. She strode up the stairs and opened Danny’s door. “Oh, you are not.” His head was half under his pillow, one hairy leg and one arm dangling out of sheets half off the futon. A reek filled the room from four days’ laundry strewn across the carpet and crusted dishes and cups, dirty kleenex, long undusted shelves of school books and matchbox cars and Magick cards and Little League trophies; she heard the hot whir from an unslept hard drive.

“Danny, it is two o’clock. I can’t believe you’re still in bed.” Determined, pissed, Anne opened the shades, turned on the light, clicked the mouse. “You promised you would help out today. We’re working our butts off down there.”

“Chill, Mom. It’ll get done. I was up late last night,” came out of the pillow.

“What, on the phone to Angela? Playing video games? You obviously weren’t cleaning your room—or doing your summer reading,” she accused. No. She should know better than to start this now. “Listen, I have really got to have some help down here. Aunt Lucy and Uncle Jeff and the girls are going to be here in less than an hour.”

“I’ll be there in a minute,” he projected from under the pillow, still not moving, and Anne withdrew, just catching the muttered “What a bitch” that followed. She found herself in their bedroom. She went to the window and stared below, unseeing, until she heard Hal come in. She turned. “He wasn’t even out of bed. He’s been promising me for three days he’d give me some help, and he hasn’t done jack. Have you seen his room? It stinks in there. It stinks.”

Hal was maddeningly reasonable. “Anne, he’s sixteen. He spent all last week splitting our wood and the Coombs’, and cleaning out their basement. He weeded the gardens, too, in case you hadn’t noticed, and I didn’t even have to ask.”

“Don’t you ever even worry about him?” She already saw that what she was saying was not quite what she meant. “Maybe if you’d bothered to talk to him a little more, he’d have done better. Maybe he’d be getting more done.” And then, she realized the rest: “At least he listens to you. It’s like I don’t exist. It’s like I’m a joke. I mean, what’s going to happen to us?” She felt the tears start and thought again, no, we don’t have time for this now.

“Come on. I’ll talk to him tomorrow, or we both can. Come on now, let’s finish up. He’ll be down soon.” Anne turned to the window for time to stop the tears and then Hal was behind her wrapping his arms around, and she held on tightly. They looked below, and she noticed the clematis against the shed had bloomed, six or seven purple stars running halfway up the side. And soon Danny was down the stairs and in the kitchen with them, eyes and hair full of sleep, still in yesterday’s clothes: “Okay, so I need a shower, but what do you want me to do?”

Lucy and Jeff were an hour late. Hal was still threading the chicken on skewers, and Danny, having swept the porch and shaken out the mat, was still in the shower upstairs. Anne was caught just in the middle of cleaning the cat box. But she finished and washed her hands and they greeted and forgot the rest for now, accepted brownies and beer and a whole watermelon. Helen gave Amy a clover bracelet she’d made in the car on the way up, a little brown by now, and the two ran off to play; Clarisse had her book. Jeff helped himself and found the opener in the drawer, popped four Copper Ales, and they all clinked and settled into the den for talk, Lucy lamenting Clarisse’s obliviousness to them all when she had a book going. Anne was quiet at first, enjoying the hint of spice in the creamy foam, breathing evenly again at last. Danny finally came in, smelling of citrus soap, and shook his uncle’s hand, and said hello all around with his goofy grin.

“Brian’s picking me up in a minute,” he told his parents, halting Anne’s new smile.

“Before we eat? You’re going to miss the fireworks!”

“It’s the Cornish Fair, remember? We’re meeting Toby and Angela.”

Hal stepped in. “Okay, home by midnight, okay? Call if you’re gonna be late? Hey, Bud, what about the grill?”

Without protest, Danny headed out to the garage, and Anne could see him from the window scraping the charred grill. She reached for a second beer.

The wandered outside, down to the garden. There was a row of cars at the Rec. Center by now, and in the air the smell of lighter fluid and hamburgers on a grill. Jeff and Hal discussed the sprinkler system Hal wanted to put in the gardens, and Anne and Lucy discussed what they should do about the schools. Amy and Helen took turns being pushed on the swing, and then when they went to pick beans, Anne had a go. For sixty seconds she fell into the rhythm of pump and push with her hips and legs, arms crooked in a pull and then stretched, directing herself up into the arc and then giving herself to the fall. Then she got off, smiling.

Someone’s yellow lab peered into their yard but was beckoned back. Mrs. Lowery waved at them from her back porch, her grandchildren playing frisbee below her. Brian’s Golf pulled up, and Danny came down to say goodbye. At Anne’s thin smile, he leaned, hand to her shoulder, and kissed her cheek, saying, “Don’t worry, Mom,” and she hugged him quickly and watched him go. Amy and Helen tried cartwheels, then rolled down the hill; then Helen began to itch. The parents wandered back up to the house for another beer, and Hal had to ask someone not to park in their drive; there was more traffic now, everyone looking for a place.

It was well past eight o’clock and the coals wouldn’t catch. Shit. They were going to be late. Hal tried the bellows and Jeff poured on more chemicals. Anne and Lucy, both a little drunk, went inside and pulled everything they needed out of the fridge. Anne moved a pile of papers from the counter to the coffee table and uncovered, oh shit, that power bill due yesterday. Clarisse wandered from the bathroom to the living room, reading her book as she went.

“God, if only I could get Danny to read half as much as Clarisse does,” Anne confessed. “He made three D’s second semester, a D- in Algebra. I don’t know what we’re going to do.”

“At least he’s got friends,” Lucy commented, and then tears burst into her eyes, surprising them both. “All Clarisse does is read the freakin’ books,” she finally got out. “She hasn’t had a friend over in months, and people don’t ask her over any more either. I don’t know what to do.”

“I know, I know,” was all Anne could think to say, starting toward Lucy to give her a hug, feeling her own tears and weariness for the second time that day and struggling with a way to say, this is all so damned hard sometimes, but then a shape and a movement caught their eyes, and they turned to find Maisie on the counter licking the potato salad. Anne yelped and clapped furiously and Lucy snorted and suddenly they were laughing endlessly and promising not to tell and grinning idiotically, wiping their noses and eyes as Anne swabbed the spot on the potatoes with a paper towel. Okay, time to switch from beer to lemonade. And time for dinner.

They all ate quickly, sitting on the back porch steps. Anne could barely taste the food until they got to the dessert. Lucy’s brownies were substantial chews of dark chocolate, buttery sharp, with an inviting crackled sheen on top, the best, better than Mom’s, and they all had seconds and started to make coffee but realized there wasn’t time, so they downed plastic cups of cold milk together standing in the kitchen and quickly put away what they could. They found the Off and headed back outside. The girls had been instructed to spread the old blue blanket, the one with tea and blackberry stains and a frayed satin edge, at the top if the little ridge, but they had also set Amy’s dolls and bears and dogs on it all around. Hal told Amy there wasn’t room and they’d get left in the dark, and the slugs and skunks and dew would get them, so take them all in, quick.

They could just see the families across the back lawns, people gathering their kids from the swings and climbers, almost time. They found places on the blanket, Anne thigh to thigh with Hal, who corralled Amy when the girls came out again, screeching at the dark shapes fluttering now from behind the shutters, and Anne shushed Amy and sat her on her other side. She could still smell the smoke from the grills, blended with grass and tilled summer earth and the bug spray’s artificial spice. It was time.

Before today: the aspirin and fan at 12 a.m. to relieve the day, hot and full. Amy out of underwear after her bath, Mom calling right at dinnertime, the forgotten shopping list, the boss who’d garbled he message, the stalled driver at the light, the morning dishes undone and out of milk. Before: their first winter in the house, the blocked gutters and the living room draft, realizing they could just see Mt. Ascutney behind the bare trees that rimmed the property, and, until great piles slid from the roof onto the drive, watching all together from the side windows the first snowfall, soft on the gardens and the porch and the stand of birches as the light went down. Before that, a Fourth at Mom’s, cold fried chicken and sweet butter pickles on Dixie plates and beer in cans, Lucy and Jeff and Clarisse there too, when Danny, eight, had run across a smoldering bottle rocket and screeched, hobbled days on the bandaged blister.

Before, the summer of Sophomore year, when Hal hitched a thousand miles to see her, ate Mom’s casseroles and smiled, and Anne snuck to his room each night, once falling asleep and almost caught; the October Dad was sick and worse and then died, her friends calling every day, but she wouldn’t, wouldn’t go to school, until one day she did; the drive to Grammy’s, everyone there, with red and blue tissue streamers all around a tricycle’s wheels, to ride behind the fire engines and Miss Bicentennial’s spangled perch and hair; a very first ice cream bar, chocolate shards and sweet cream stuck to her lips and fingers, the sidewalk warm and the grass that Daddy had mown stuck to her feet and her legs, cicadas warning, the night so late.

Ahead: the good byes and the warm, wet cloth swabbing Amy’s smudged feet, bits of grass stuck to her smooth calf and curled toes and falling onto the braided rug before she is tumbled into bed, the fan set to low, the glass of water on the stand. The magazine and book opened and soon shut, the lights extinguished, the leg draped over a hip, the pillows smashed and turned, and half-sleep until the slam of the car door at 1 a.m., the click below as Danny comes in, then deeper sleep in a half-embrace until dawn.

Ahead the morning scramble for keys, beneath the pile of bills, the argument about the laundry, the birthday the following week, the careless remark about the cake. The trip to the coast when the car breaks down, twenty miles from town, a whole day lost, then walking for miles on empty sand, the tug and threat of the roar through the cottage windows at night. Home, and crickets at five o’clock, the shadows full on the gardens now, a cotton wrap with the morning tea.

And then: the oldest expelled from school, and having to break the news. The late-night ER run for the youngest, her breath an agony. The job lost; the nights not home in time for dinner; a rental van and sorted boxes of books and the old blue chair they’d found when they were twenty-five, upholstered in corduroy remnant; the papers for the settlement in the mail, and finally agreeing to sign. The midnight call about Uncle Jeff; the lump in the breast and the ache in the knee; the call about Mom, and the heavy trip West. The hot afternoons spent mowing the back; the mornings spent shoveling the drive. And then the hair dryer suddenly clattering down and the words that will not come, the youngest, now thirty, moved home to help with rehab; the promises of the oldest to come next month, or the month after. The afternoon in June, addressing the first of the weeds behind the hedge, when the rain begins, slicking her skin and spicing the air, and she sees an iris where one had never been. The five a.m. call about her husband, long remarried but, the oldest finally confides, sadly so. The house, at last, on the market, both children and two of the grandchildren home to help pack, to haul the old grill with the mason jars and snow tires to the curb with a sign that says “Free,” the old stained blanket, forgotten by a small grandchild in the way-way back under an old apple tree ten years before, covered in leaves, gone to black-capped chickadees and black-footed mice.

But now: the first shock of thunder engages from below the darkening hills. Snapping into light like rain, synapses of primary color and color. Jaw and shoulders tightened and breath drawn in at the sound, shaken out at the sight, a whoop, a sigh. The crowd stirs and cheers; she draws her arms around her husband, her youngest child; she lets them go again, smooths their hair; another boom. They adore white glitters and purple sprays, admire schematics in red, white, and blue. Boom. Gold and green cascades offer promises; white expanses assert their importance. She laughs, the youngest joining in, as friendly shoots of eager red reach here and there, and unexpected blues, flower after flower, emerge from gilt and green and smoke. She fingers the blanket beneath, soft counter to the light, forgetting the night’s growing chill, as her husband’s hand offers hers a small embrace.

A little pause; a tattoo of orange and blue; another pause. And then the relentless boom and boom and boom, assaults of delight immoderate, the unseen prism revolving trigonometries of light. The crowd’s approval crests. Her eyes are nearly blind, full of a thousand universes that form and expand, racing past each other as they merge, for a moment, forever. Then it is over, the traces reverberating and gone, into the dark and the quiet.

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