Nowhere Is Always Somewhere
  Six Stories by Robert Earle
  1  Under the Bridge
2  The Mustard Pot
3  Nowhere Is Always Somewhere
4  Monsters, Monsters Everywhere
5  What Maggie Knew
6  The Last Summer
  About the Author  |  echapbook.com  |  September 2017 Fiction Issue
 
 

What Maggie Knew

Henry settled into his leather armchair and pondered the rain outside. The drops fell like his thoughts, sometimes a rain of things he saw or heard, more often a rain of solitude, a misty silvery bloom kindred to dreams, which never made sense to him.

He had a magazine in his lap but really didn’t want to read his daughter Maggie’s story. He worried he would end up disappointing her more with a comment than he had disappointed her when he’d told her, on several occasions, that he hadn’t gotten to it yet.

He’d like to say that her stories didn’t interest him because he knew her and they weren’t her. When he tried that once, she told him just to read the story as a story then. Didn’t stories interest him? No, not really, he said. But people spoke in stories all the time, she said. Did that mean he wasn’t interested in people, either? Maggie’s mother, before the divorce, answered this question on his behalf once. She said he was someone who lived in the moment or nowhere at all. If she had put this in rain terms, she would have said he grabbed at the drops of rain falling right now, each and every one of them, the way he grabbed at her, looked into her eyes, registered the fluctuations in her voice, its pitch, its tension, its rivery flow. She liked that about him. It made him exciting. What didn’t make him exciting was when he became his own overcast solitude, raining down on himself.

The story began in a boy’s childhood. This put him off right away. He knew there were things of value in childhood, just as within a raindrop there were things of value and when the raindrop landed and sank into the earth there were more things of value. But he didn’t swim in raindrops or groundwater or childhood memories to find out what. Was that because, as Maggie’s mother said (she had lots of opinions about him), his childhood had hurt him and still hurt him?

He’d probably say a lot of rain had fallen since. He had been in and out of jobs, in and out of that marriage, and in and out of a second marriage, which was disastrously satisfying. He didn’t love his second wife as much as ache for her. She was nineteen years younger. Disliked Maggie because Maggie had a way of looking at her, making her feel judged. And being disliked upset Maggie. So, he lost the second wife and at the same time lost an easy relationship with Maggie, who thereafter made him feel judged. Neither wife had wanted the Westchester house in her settlement, a too-large house he had lived in off and on all his life. His parents’ house. Deep lawn, boxwood around the footings, gutters that sagged, threadbare oriental carpets, nicks in the molding he had made himself waving six-shooters and lacrosse sticks.

Alarmingly, the boy in the story grew up in a boxwood-fringed Westchester house, exactly like Henry, and played shortstop, exactly like Henry, and had, exactly like Henry, a childish kinship with his father’s very well-made shoes, two pairs of wingtips, one brown, one black, that his father had shined every day in Grand Central before he went to the office. They still shone on the floor of his closet at the end of the day. Didn’t need shining every morning but were shined anyway.

Anticipating Maggie’s amusement at his discomfort reading about himself, Henry would say that a boy was a boy, any boy anywhere. That’s what he would tell her he made of the story. (He’d have to remember that phrasing, “made of.” It relieved him of having to say “liked” or was “interested in” or “amused by” or worse, “it took me back.” It didn’t really take him back, not on the first page, anyway. He had liked the smell of the shoes, too, not just their look, and she’d missed that point. Obviously, there was no going back. Stories didn’t make rain fall upwards, returning from whence it came.)

And exactly like Henry this boy—called Richard—had a mother who had been the father’s secretary, and Richard’s father was not keen on spending time with Richard’s mother’s family in Long Island City. Consequently, they’d see her family once or twice a year on a holiday or birthday or go to a picnic where his father dodged the question, “What do you do?” He wouldn’t discuss what he did with anyone except clients, he said.

Quickly enough, Richard deduced that his father looked down on his mother’s family. They were working class. Well, you couldn’t say his father’s family was upper class, his mother said one time when things got heated. He had earned his way up, not been born to money. And he’d married his secretary. Was he ashamed of that? Nonsense, his father replied, pushing his glasses up on the bridge of his nose (this was one of his small defects, a bridge of the nose that wouldn’t hold glasses in place). He said that she wasn’t his secretary anymore and a person should be taken for who he is in a given moment, right now. He had learned that lesson in World War II. Don’t ask questions, shoot.

Henry resettled himself in his leather chair and took a sip of tea and pushed his glasses up on the bridge of his nose. When had he told Maggie these things? Or did she have some preternatural way of reading his mind, counting the raindrops, even the ones that had long since fallen and sunk into the earth? She was twenty-seven, had a life of her own, why spend time writing about what she imagined was his?

She got into something alarming. Henry had had a second cousin named Amy, and she was still named Amy in Maggie’s story. So, there were Amy and this Richard, age nine, at one of Richard’s mother’s family’s picnics, being told to go off and play. After some wandering around and eating deviled eggs and cupcakes, they threw stones into a stream because that’s what Richard wanted to do. Then they grabbed at a tree limb to do pullups because that’s what Richard wanted to do. Then Amy made a muscle with her biceps, and Richard felt it, but he was much more interested in her feeling his larger biceps, which she did, her fingers not reaching all the way around.

Henry recalled that the real Amy was a bit messy, and he recalled a frisson of pleasure when his father referred to her as a shirttail cousin probably because he, too, had noticed she often had her shirttail out. His mother, as was her wont, corrected his father. She said shirttail relatives were fourth cousins, not second-cousins like Amy. That, on his rainy afternoon, reading about himself and remembering himself, disturbed Henry, just the precision of it, the fact that his mother took family relationships so seriously. What did it matter, first, second or fourth? As he recalled, Amy was a girl with a fat little tummy. She sweated freely. When she threw wet, muddy stones back into the stream, she wiped her hands on her blue cotton shorts. Her white socks sagged. She laughed at him when he threw a stone at a duck and came nowhere close. These were the facts, as far as they went. Second or fourth or shirttail cousin, what did it matter?

Henry pushed his teacup out of the way on the side table to make room for a glass and a bottle of bourbon he took from the lower shelf. He could go to the kitchen for ice, but neat was all right, especially when it was raining outside, and the forsythias along the road that had bloomed too soon were droopy, and he didn’t want to move. The burn of the straight bourbon would be agreeable. Have to sip it slowly, though. Too much, he’d doze off, Maggie would arrive, and he wouldn’t have read her story as he’d promised, this time for sure.

In the story, they’d see one another, Richard and Amy, two or three times a year now, Richard’s father relenting a bit about associating with the Long Island City branch of the family perhaps because of them. (Well, maybe. Henry’s mother was sneaky and persistent enough to use him and Amy to get her way about visiting with her family more frequently.) Initially they’d pretend they didn’t quite remember one another before shyly settling in. One time they went to her bedroom where she showed him drawings she made of horses and listened to him tell her about the horse farm near where he lived in Westchester…where the Long Island City branch of the family hadn’t been invited.

Maggie wrote that there was kind of unsettling recalibration that occurred in that bedroom, the children sitting on the floor, doing nothing, just talking. She portrayed Richard as disconcerted but attracted by Amy’s laughter, which came easily to her, and she portrayed Amy as sensitive to the stiff way he endured the fact she was the better talker, the one with the silly stories, the humbler yet freer one. Amy obviously had a crush on Richard, Maggie wrote, a pre-teen desire for friendship, closeness, innocent tenderness and sharing.

Richard, however, resisted her. He didn’t like the faded wallpaper of her bedroom or the rattling air conditioner in the window (she got it when her parents got a new one for their bedroom) or the way her sneakers were coming apart. He noticed and used these things, according to Maggie, as defenses against recognizing and accepting her crush for what it was. Who could be close and tender and sharing with Amy when she was sort of tubby and ratty and her drawings of horses weren’t that good?

To Henry, sipping his bourbon, it seemed that Maggie had never understood his engagement with the sensuousness of a moment, witness her problems with his second wife, in whom he had taken a great deal of sensuous pleasure. Daughters might not be too keen on such aspects of fathers, of course. Instead, she focused the story (her story, it seemed to him) on how woodenly Richard sat in Amy’s bedroom and noticed what was run-down, cobwebby, and frayed as opposed to how captivating he might have found this assertive little girl who wasn’t afraid to be alone with a boy in her bedroom and who would walk downstairs, when they rejoined the gathering, completely pleased with herself, unabashed, maybe a little amused, girls being so much smarter and subtler than boys.

Sensing where this story was going somewhat the way you would anticipate rain, Henry recalled that a few days after Maggie lost her virginity, she came to him (having told her mother) and asked him to explain to her what a boy would be feeling right now because her first lover was a virgin, too, and she couldn’t get him to talk about it, what they’d done together. She wanted Henry to tell her what it had been like when he’d lost his virginity.

Henry said Christ knew. Didn’t work. Maggie’s blue eyes were so large and desolate and tear-rimmed that that probably had been—must have been—when he told her about Amy, the whole childhood business, culminating in him going to a wedding reception in a VFW hall in Long Island City and being stunned that Amy had become beautiful between thirteen and fourteen. She had grown two inches. Her shoulders were broader, her back straighter. She had a figure, no tummy anymore. Her glossy brown hair fell in waves over her creamy neck. Her face featured a straight nose and wise mouth and bemused brown eyes beneath strong flat eyebrows. He had had dance lessons in Westchester so he asked her to dance and found himself trying to tell her things that would make her laugh. She laughed a little, though not the way she used to. When a dance was over, she would return to her family’s table and make him come get her for another dance. This ensured that after the bride and groom, they became the center of attention; the whole world was looking at them, including Richard’s father. It was ghastly, but Richard couldn’t stop asking her to dance.

Maggie put all this in her story. Then, during a slow dance, a little bit of the old Amy peeked out. She said there was a pool table on the second floor of the VFW hall and asked if Richard wanted to play. She’d go to the bathroom and come up the back stairs while he went up the front. Richard almost said no. Amy’s mischievous self-assurance jarred him. This proposal wasn’t spur of the moment though he’d thought he wasn’t getting anywhere with her … and really didn’t have any idea where getting somewhere with her would lead.

The second floor of the VFW hall was an attic with exposed rafters. Gray metal folding chairs lined the walls. A fluorescent light hung over the splotchy green pool table. A rack by the window was stocked with sorry-looking cues that resembled upside down cattails.

Then and there on the pool table, Henry said, pausing to parse what he should and should not say about the event to his daughter even as he found himself recollecting much more than he would have thought. Maggie spared him further effort, offended that he would think the details mattered. What she wanted to know was what happened next between him and Amy. What had they said to each other in the days and weeks afterward? Henry said he didn’t think they had stayed in touch. Maggie asked what that was supposed to mean—he didn’t think so? It was a long time ago, Henry said. He really couldn’t recall.

Maggie knew Henry was lying, so somehow, years after she lost her virginity and decades after Henry lost his, she wrote almost exactly what did happen. Amy called Richard and wrote him letters. She told him about what was going on in Long Island City. She told him about a summer job babysitting and another as a lifeguard and minding one of their great-aunts late in the afternoon. He didn’t know who she was talking about. Which old lady was the great-aunt? But he did conclude from Amy’s chatter that she was busy, involved, free with life. His summer, by contrast, was lonely and idle. He’d wake up and look out the window and smell the boxwood, then he’d eat breakfast, then he’d play ball with guys from whom he felt distant, and then, later, at somebody’s house or the country club pool, there were Westchester girls he didn’t mention to Amy. He’d known them all his life but not as well as he knew Amy. When Amy asked him to come visit, he took refuge in the distance between Westchester and Long Island City and his lack of a driver’s license and the fact that trains that would take forever. He hung up wishing he knew how to say yes to Amy, but he didn’t. He couldn’t talk to his father who looked down on the Long Island City people. He couldn’t talk to his mother because he wouldn’t know how to handle her if she was happy about him liking Amy, which was how he put it to himself. Liking, such a vague word. More than liking her, he was overwhelmed by her, daunted by her. He felt an overwhelming storm of emotions, gusting and drenching and inescapable, he couldn’t put into words. So he said to himself he liked her, which wasn’t right, not the whole of it, but as much as he could manage.

Maggie brought them together once more in the story. A New Year’s party in Long Island City. His father in his shiny shoes. His mother gay. Amy expecting him to seek her out despite another guy sitting beside her. Richard seeing in the guy all of Long Island City pursuing her. Richard telling himself he would be a fool if he thought there was any way he could bring his life and Amy’s together.

When Richard and his parents were leaving the New Year’s party, Amy said that she’d like to hear from him sometime. Richard said sure, but he never contacted her and didn’t let his mother invite her to his wedding, which spawned a daughter, a writer. Yes, there she was, Maggie had written herself in, almost as handsome as the original Amy, the real one, wanting to hear from Henry, too. And if he wouldn’t tell her the truth, she’d make it up.

Henry gazed out the window. Wasn’t raining out there anymore. He swished the bourbon in his glass without tipping it to his mouth and asked himself whether now, all these years later, he could bear it if Maggie arrived having looked Amy up and brought her along to see him. He doubted it. He wouldn’t want Maggie to know how much he had loved that girl.

     
  © Robert Earle, 2017

   

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