Right before Baby finished ninth grade, Jerry (Baby’s dad) announced that Baby and Carla (Baby’s older sister) would work for him that summer. Baby thought it was a great idea. She would much rather landscape for Jerry than work at one of the three pizza/sub joints in town, or at a basketball camp for kids, which was most of what of her teammates were doing.
Jerry was six-three (two inches taller than Baby) and had a thick mustache and a laugh that rattled fine china. He’d built the house they lived in. In church he sang the loudest and the most out of tune. Six nights a week he did a hundred push-ups. He never took a sick day. It was true what everyone said, that Jerry was the most hardworking, honest man in Waldo County, Maine. The other thing people said was he didn’t suffer fools, but Baby was not one hundred percent sure what this meant, so she couldn’t say if she agreed.
My parents conceived me on a sofa in a department store. My mother worked in the underwear section and was a second-year nursing student. My father worked in the household appliances, hardware, and gardening section, and was a fifth-year social sciences student. They’d hardly been dating a month, and they’d never worked the same shift. Until that morning in May. No one saw them enter the warehouse holding hands—the store wouldn’t open to the public for another hour. No one heard them either, despite the fact that the sofa still had a plastic covering on the cushions to protect it from any stains. The sofa was more cream than yellow; it had solid wood legs and fit three people comfortably. Though my parents didn’t intend it, that morning there were already three of us.
I was seventeen when I met David, back in 1916. Now I don’t very much care to count my age. It’s April 1972 here in Cambridge. White puffballs that must be some sort of seedpod have been floating by the window above my writing desk for days, collecting on the sidewalk like first snow.
The three of them play cards in the dining room. This is the story. Nothing else. Collectively, they’re almost three hundred years old. They drink juice and laugh. Now one of them turns on a small radio, which plays “Autumn Leaves.”
They started building right away, as soon as it was safe to go outside.
“I can feel them moving!” Cristina squealed, standing knee-deep in leaves.
“Their teeth tickle!” laughed Zoe.
Something had caught their attention as they searched for pebbles and twigs. They crouched amid the soggy storm debris, then sprang up, kittenlike, uncombed curls against the gray sky, chattering and unaware of my presence. But as soon as they saw me approaching they stopped and exchanged looks. Cristina bit her bottom lip and smiled, a small and well-calculated gesture of contrition designed to deflate a scolding, but Zoe, the eldest, fixed her eyes on me, and her body tensed. She seemed ready to run, like a surprised wild thing.
The first time was when he bought the used car which he would drive for the next decade, at nineteen. As soon as he arrived at his house after having finalized the transaction and showed it to his family, and as soon as his grandmother had gone back to her telenovela after congratulating him, and his brother back to the phone, stuck talking to his girlfriend, Bimbo went into his room, put a bathing suit on under his jeans, threw two towels into his backpack, got into the car, and descended, alone, from the mountains of Caguas, where three generations of his family still lived. He went alone in his new-but-old Toyota Corolla without air conditioning and with the windows down and the radio tuned to the only English music station that reached them up there. He felt nervous. It was 11 a.m. on a Wednesday.
“Hunger. It’s like an animal trapped inside you, Thomas thought.”—James Dashner
The flavor of those eyes continued to dance in her mouth as she savored the aftertaste with little smacks of her tongue. Just before dawn, she lifted up her gaze toward the infinite, making out only the light that was deep blue and amber. Everything is relative to day, to night, to colors, and to sustenance. When you are hungry, your steps assume an ashen color as if in a dream of incineration—somber, grayish, full of pain. We’ve all been hungry, we are hunger, yet she was alone. Especially after that early morning when nature exploded into wind and rain, leaving her home battered. That morning, three of her kittens, her only companions, drowned in her basement.
“Could you take a picture?” the girls ask, and I jump up from the bench outside the candy store and check they are all here, all thirteen. I am pleased they want a picture together, considering their history, which is fraught and filled with ugliness.
This is their Senior Trip. We’ve only been off the ferry for two hours, and the girls have spent most of that time weaving in and out of the gift shops on Main Street, finally emerging with a concerning excess of commemorative merchandise.
For the picture, they dress in their loot, rummaging through shopping bags to pull off tags and tug new items over their regular clothes—ball caps and sweatshirts and long-sleeved T’s, Put-in-Bay scrawled over the front in block letters or cursive or cartoon fonts, accompanied by graphics of anchors and lifesavers and compasses, in theme with this Lake Eerie Island off the coast of Sandusky, Ohio. The clothing is boxy and not particularly attractive, but the girls sell it because they are masters at posing. “Smile!” I say, and they throw up their arms and jut out their shoulders and squeeze at their waists. They embrace. They grin with their whole faces, which are fresh and round with youth. Posing, they look happy, and this makes me happy. I tell myself that I am seeing their true selves. “Another one!” I say. “Another!”
The hole is behind the headboard. We opened it some time ago. I couldn’t say exactly when we became aware of the weariness lurking around us, maybe eight years ago. It lasted for hours, sometimes for days. Then it disappeared. During those anxious periods, we didn’t know what to do. It’s a horrible feeling. You can’t stand being with that person any longer. It’s not boredom in the strict sense of the word. Intolerance, perhaps. Everything annoys you. The way they click their tongue, the unexpected smile, the wrong word said at the wrong time, the obsequious caress. Even the things that you thought were funny before seem unbearable now. It may be the cumulative effect, a friend said. A sort of allergy—you stuff yourself on your favorite food until one day your body says: Enough! You break out in red spots, itching and sweating, which only makes it worse. Just like that. Too much of a good thing, I say. One day we looked at each other and we couldn’t take it anymore—I was fed up with him, and he with me—and we searched for a solution.
The sunlight filtered through the window of our cafe. Golden sweet, it wove around the trees, the garden, over the stage, through the window and onto the railroad tie floor. I didn’t mind sweeping, because I got to dip my feet in it.
There was music on, and in the late spring air, it sounded perfect. Gram Parson’s Brass Buttons. Like it was made for right there right then, even though we all knew it was made a long time ago, back when parents were young and happy and we were only a microscopic part of them.