The four of us stood on the corner near Larchmont Shore Club under a Magnolia near Lynn and Jay’s house. Lynn and Jay Wyeth were brother and sister. I was going to be with Jay, and Lynn was going to be with Jay’s friend Fletcher Dunne. Fletcher stood there with us, too, his bottom lip hanging just enough so you could see the jail on his teeth, but all I could think of when I looked at him, any time I looked at him, was his blind father and dead mother.
Jay, with all his smarts and calculations, was figuring out how we could get into Fletcher’s basement without interference. This was one of his words. Jay stood there with his collar up under a bomber jacket that later would teach me the smell of a boy. He went over the plan again and again with us until we got it straight, using his hands as if he was a man on a podium, but he never once looked me in the eye while talking strategy.
Fletcher stared out into the street at nothing with a blank expression while Jay strategized, and I figured this look was passed down to him from his father.
I heard that Mr. Dunne had a decent job that allowed him to work from home, probably with Braille and tape recorders. Jay said this fact had never been verified.
Fletcher never uttered a word to anyone about his blind Dad, or his dead mother, not even to Jay, so we all had to rely on rumors, especially how his dad became blind in the first place. Jay told Lynn and Lynn told me that the events leading up to the fatal accident with Fletcher’s mother that caused the blindness were horrific.
Jay was so deep in thought of our double plan the powerful whacks of the tennis balls from the club never disturbed his concentration. I felt them in my chest, and couldn’t help but look in the club’s direction, with the green canoes piled high up against the fence, fitting in each other like empty clamshells.
“What’s the big deal?” I said, immediately realizing that I could not explain what I meant in front of Fletcher.
Everyone stopped and looked at me. Jay was checking his watch, following his own advice to synchronize.
“Never mind,” I said.
It was so much easier to kiss Jay than to talk to him. I’m not sure we ever talked, except while kissing, about the kissing. He was teaching me and he said it might take us several Saturdays to perfect it.
We all started to walk and I hung back. Of course, Jay noticed, but I was surprised that he slowed up and walked next to me.
I kept my head forward and said, “All we have to do is sneak in the Dunne’s basement. Mr. Dunne might be able to pick up the vibrations in the floor, but he will never see us. We’re lucky he doesn’t have a dog. The seeing eye kind.”
“He will never be able to verify our identities.”
This was our first real exchange.
Jay yelled up to his sister. “Elizabeth made a good point.” He ran ahead to catch up to her, but Lynn was kicking dead leaves aside with her feet, making a path, looking like getting into a basement to make out was the last thing on her mind.
We started walking through the well-worn trail of Palmer Woods and I was the last in line. I followed Lynn’s skinny legs. She hopped on stones, jumped from each side of the littered stream the whole way, and motioned to me with her hands behind her back to hurry. Her agility reminded me of the way she did math, scratching her way down the sheet of problems without hesitation.
“Lynn. Lynn!” I had to say her name several times to get her attention. “Fletcher’s Dad will never see us.”
“What I mean is—why is Jay making such a production out of it?”
“He makes a production out of everything. Besides, if that doesn’t work, why don’t we just go to your house? No one’s there either.”
When we came out of the woods we reached New Rochelle, and Fletcher took the lead. As we approached the Dunne house everything about it said ‘blind man lives here.’ The shades were drawn, three cats by the front door acted hungry, the bushes were all straggly, not like the ones at the Wyeth house that were carved into clubs and diamonds.
We followed Fletcher through the driveway, passed a Weber grill, and he made an effort to walk around the huge black stain on the garage floor. Jay poked his sister and pointed. The look on his face was talking evidence, as if this stain had something to do with everything. In seconds we were in the basement, spinning ourselves in chairs that looked like barrels.
Fletcher got up and went into the bar area to hunt for sodas. I went with him because I always felt like the odd-man-out whenever I was alone with Lynn and Jay. They had their own language and never shared the definitions—like the word ginge. What’s the ginge, they would say to each other, right in front of me. I know they made it up as some kind of signal.
“So,” I said watching Fletch, surprised that he wasn’t concerned with the racket he was making, “at least we can use your house, I mean, seems like no one is home.”
“Like your house,” he said, in his usual blandness.
I wanted to say that I didn’t have a blind man hiding upstairs, but I didn’t have the heart.
“You don’t have to pretend with me,” Fletch said, standing on an upside down Dewars crate, looking up on a top shelf, the seat of his jeans appeared empty. “I know all about your mother.”
I was such a jerk, so afraid to upset him, and here he was, handing me a soda like he already forgot he was out of line. He should have known something about what it felt like. My mom wasn’t in a horrific accident, she just floated away.
“Here,” he said, “carry these.”
“Thanks a lot.”
He gave me the once over like he was checking me out, but I knew this couldn’t be. Everyone liked Lynn better.
I walked to the other side of the basement and held the can of soda over Lynn’s head waiting for her to take it. She had fallen off the barrel laughing and I wondered how anyone could kiss a boy with her brother in the room. She grabbed the bottle of coke and immediately chugged.
Jay stared at me now for the first time all day. I feared my embarrassment accentuated the apples of my cheeks that were bigger than anyone else’s, for which I was always self-conscious. I had not cut my hair in so long to hide them, and it seemed that I was growing into the name Jay teased me with, when we were alone.
“Hey, Pocahontas,” he said coming over to me on his hands and knees.
I could not believe that Lynn and Fletcher were already going at it on the couch, their heads bobbing. Jay and I always had to work up to it.
Jay put his head on my lap and looked up at me, but I couldn’t look down, not with those slurping sounds. He didn’t seem to hear it, his intensity shifted in my direction. I focused on the framed print over the fireplace of kittens crawling out of a basket.
My hair was in front of me and Jay took a lock and studied it. At first I thought he was looking for split ends. He began to use it like a soft paintbrush, brushing his lips first, and his eyes that were now closed.
He sat up and held my face, his two strong thumbs pressing into my heated cheeks and kissed me. My nose pressed so hard against him that I tried to maneuver my head so I could breathe. He stopped and looked at me. Then he put his hand on my chest, on top of my shirt, and began to outline with his finger, the form he felt underneath. All I could think of was the blue and pink flowered bra I was wearing. My father had to pull up outside the door of John Wanamaker’s so I could run in and buy one, while he sat in his car and smoked a cigar.
I felt a warm gush in my underwear. Great. I had white jeans on.
“What’s the matter, Poke,” he smiled, looking at me carefully, taking his hands away, assuming he did the wrong thing.
I noticed our hair was exactly the same brown-black, but his eyes were light blue.
“I really have to go to the bathroom.”
“Hey—Fletch,” he said twisting his neck but keeping his body in the same place. “Elizabeth has to go. Fletch. Fletch. Oh Fletch,” he said, dragging out the “oh.”
“Gotta go upstairs,” he responded with Lynn pulling him right back down.
“What about Mr. Dunne?” I whispered in Jay’s ear, my lips touched his soft lobe by mistake.
Now he was talking into my ear, his lips very deliberately on my lobe. “Sounds like no one is up there. And, look at Fletch here. Does he seem worried? Besides, we would have heard discriminatory sounds by now.”
“Well, you don’t hear too much when you don’t want to.”
“Only when I’m fixated.” He pulled me to him and we were back in his warm mouth.
When I got up, the taste of him was familiar like I had known it my whole life. And, I felt something genuine from him for the first time. He was looking at me directly in the eye.
“Do you want me to go with you?”
“No, its OK.”
“I am lying-in-wait then.”
I began up the stairway. It turned a corner, leading to the next floor. I tiptoed up the steps and opened the door slowly. I could partially see the living room, with furniture positioned around the perimeters, as if the middle was left for dancing. I heard the hum of the refrigerator and the ice cubes dropping from the icemaker into the freezer bin.
The room next to the kitchen had its door closed, and this is where bathrooms are usually located. I crept down the hallway, thinking I really did look like Pocahontas with my hushpuppy slip-ons, and my shirt with the fringe. Now the creeping.
I used the bathroom, and washed my hands with cold water. There was no soap in the soap dish, and the towel was damp. My face looked flushed in the mirror. When I came out I walked freely.
“You’re not Fletch.”
I stopped. I saw the figure of Mr. Dunne sitting at a desk in front of the window in the living room. I was sure he was not there before.
“No, Mr. Dunne.”
“Ah, one of Fletch’s girlfriends.”
“I’m just a friend,” I said, wanting to make that clear, and lucky he couldn’t see the disgust in my face. “I’m sorry, I had to use the bathroom.”
“Don’t be sorry. If you have to go, you have to go.”
Mr. Dunne stared out the picture window, seated at the empty desk. He was lanky like Fletch, unshaven, in a wrinkled dress shirt, the cuffs flopped open. I wanted to ask him about all the things a blind man can’t do, and I could count a few just by looking at him.
“And, you are…”
“Elizabeth. Elizabeth Pearly. Lynn Wyeth’s friend,” I quickly added since that is how I was referred to. The Wyeths had me practically living at their house, thinking they were helping my father.
“Yes, I knew your parents from the Shore Club.”
A cat appeared at my feet, surprising me. I pet it and its scratchy meow frightened me.
“That’s Tiger. He was one of the kittens.”
He was talking like they were famous or something.
“One of the survivors.”
He must have been talking about the horrific accident. God, I didn’t want to know. I started to back up. Maybe he was referring to something else. How could a kitten be involved?
“You haven’t heard this? Fletch hasn’t told you?”
“Knowing Fletch, he was trying to spare you. He knows you have had your own troubles.”
“Yes, he’s kind that way,” I answered, pleased he couldn’t see me rolling my eyes. I sat down in the spot I was standing because my legs were getting rubbery.
“There were three new litters and the basement area near the garage stunk,” he began. “My wife couldn’t stand it, said our house smelled like a shanty with all the cats and litter boxes.”
I looked around to see if I could sneak away.
“There must have been eighteen. I had a solution in a tin can. No label on it. I doused the cement floors thinking it would clean and disinfect. My wife came in finishing a cigarette. She had a habit of tossing and stamping. Then, the explosion. She was my last vision. Now she is my only vision.”
“Smoking a Winston,” he added, like it was the best part.
“Oh.” I said, feeling something similar. All this time, since Mom died, the things I saw in my head--I never thought they were outside of me, they were just a part of me. “I see things, too.”
It was as if he was staring at my forehead.
“What do you see,” his voice lower than before.
“I mean, I’m not sure. Sometimes I see my mother dragging the canoe on the beach. The green one. Then she’s hopping in, floating out past the Clubhouse. It’s foggy, then I lose track of her.”
He turned back to face the window and rubbed his chin. Maybe he forgot I was there. I managed to get up trying not to make a sound, realizing his remaining senses must be more acute now.
“Come to the window here.”
I felt as if he was pulling on a rope tied around my waist. The room smelled like fireplace ashes. The window looked out onto the street and it was getting dark.
“Look,” he said. “You can come anytime and see your Mom.”
He must have been off his rocker, and Jay would love to know this tidbit. Now I was the only one who knew the whole story, the real story. I wasn’t even sure of my own.
I could see his face and he didn’t look sad, or blind. Just kind of mesmerized.
“What is your wife doing now?”
“Still smoking,” he said. “In her way.”
Maybe he was nuts, but I couldn’t help myself. I walked to the window. Beyond the street, above the houses in front, I could see Mom in her canoe, her dark hair in a long unraveling twist down her back, paddling on one side in the air, then the other. “Mom,” I called, and waited. She didn’t hear me.
I walked downstairs with the image of my mother with me. I moved in a trance, worried that I was like Mr. Dunne. We lived in our own kind of double plan. But I got to see my Mom and that was all that mattered. I loved seeing her long delicate arms again, arms she used to put around me. I would keep that for myself.
When I entered the basement area Lynn said, “We stopped sucking face because you took so long. We were about to come up and get you. Look at her Jay, she looks mal.”
Even Fletch didn’t know what that meant in the Wyeth language. I wondered, if he knew what his father was up to up there. Hardly a decent job with Braille.
Fletch looked up at me for quite a while and we were in a stare contest. Jay was riveted.
I waited for a remark from Fletch, like ‘Is your father any good at conjuring up your mother?’ He stood up on top of a footstool and made his announcement: “Yeah, she’s mal alright. Whatever the fuck that means, she’s it.”
Lynn jumped up and gave him an exaggerated karate chop in the back of his neck and when he fell back on the floor laughing, I noticed his lips were red and raw. I was sure I could see his tonsils dangling like punching bags.
Jay got up and put his arm around me, maneuvering me over to the bar area where we could be alone. He put me up on the high stool and sat on the one opposite, so our knees could interlock. All I wanted to do was go back upstairs. It was better to be with the crazy and the dead.
“Do you know what happened to my mother?” I asked him.
The detective look returned to his expression, as if he was coming upon the ultimate evidence that would close his case.
“Do you?” I repeated, feeling my throat close, knowing that I would never be able to ask again.
“Well,” he said, stamping his lips on mine as if he was transferring a discovery that he had kept hidden all along. He pulled away, his gaze now on the floor. “I heard she did like the Indians do.”
I pictured Mom in the canoe, placing her paddle inside, next to her feet. I pictured her rocking from side to side, going faster and faster until the flimsy canoe tipped over.
“You mean.” I was never able to say the word that was worse than death, more than death.
“Yes.” he said.
I watched him pick up my hand, but I didn’t feel his touch. He had more to say, he always did.
“But, I’m not gullible like everyone else in this town,” he said, finally looking up at me, “I’m sure its only hearsay.”