BY GEORGE SAUNDERS MAY 28, 2009
Twice already Marie had pointed out the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn, because the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect field of corn put her in mind of a haunted house—not a haunted house she had ever actually seen but the mythical one that sometimes appeared in her mind (with adjacent graveyard and cat on a fence) whenever she saw the brilliance of the autumnal sun on the perfect etc. etc., and she wanted to make sure that, if the kids had a corresponding mythical haunted house that appeared in their minds whenever they saw the brilliance of the etc. etc., it would come up now, so that they could all experience it together, like friends, like college friends on a road trip, sans pot, ha ha ha!
But no. When she, a third time, said, “Wow, guys, check that out,” Abbie said, “O.K., Mom, we get it, it’s corn,” and Josh said, “Not now, Mom, I’m Leavening my Loaves,” which was fine with her; she had no problem with that, Noble Baker being preferable to Bra Stuffer, the game he’d asked for.
Well, who could say? Maybe they didn’t even have any mythical vignettes in their heads. Or maybe the mythical vignettes they had in their heads were totally different from the ones she had in her head. Which was the beauty of it, because, after all, they were their own little people! You were just a caretaker. They didn’t have to feel what you felt; they just had to be supported in feeling what they felt.
Still, wow, that cornfield was such a classic.
“Whenever I see a field like that, guys?” she said. “I somehow think of a haunted house!”
“Slicing Knife! Slicing Knife!” Josh shouted. “You nimrod machine! I chose that!”
Speaking of Halloween, she remembered last year, when their cornstalk column had tipped their shopping cart over. Gosh, how they’d laughed at that! Oh, family laughter was golden; she’d had none of that in her childhood, Dad being so dour and Mom so ashamed. If Mom and Dad’s cart had tipped, Dad would have given the cart a despairing kick and Mom would have stridden purposefully away to reapply her lipstick, distancing herself from Dad, while she, Marie, would have nervously taken that horrid plastic Army man she’d named Brady into her mouth.
Well, in this family laughter was encouraged! Last night, when Josh had goosed her with his GameBoy, she’d shot a spray of toothpaste across the mirror and they’d all cracked up, rolling around on the floor with Goochie, and Josh had said, such nostalgia in his voice, “Mom, remember when Goochie was a puppy?” Which was when Abbie had burst into tears, because, being only five, she had no memory of Goochie as a puppy.
Hence this Family Mission. And as far as Robert? Oh, God bless Robert! There was a man. He would have no problem whatsoever with this Family Mission. She loved the way he had of saying “Ho HO!” whenever she brought home something new and unexpected.
“Ho HO!” Robert had said, coming home to find the iguana. “Ho HO!” he had said, coming home to find the ferret trying to get into the iguana cage. “We appear to be the happy operators of a menagerie!”
She loved him for his playfulness—you could bring home a hippo you’d put on a credit card (both the ferret and the iguana had gone on credit cards) and he’d just say “Ho HO!” and ask what the creature ate and what hours it slept and what the heck they were going to name the little bugger.
In the back seat, Josh made the git-git-git sound he always made when his Baker was in Baking Mode, trying to get his Loaves into the oven while fighting off various Hungry Denizens, such as a Fox with a distended stomach; such as a fey Robin that would improbably carry the Loaf away, speared on its beak, whenever it had succeeded in dropping a Clonking Rock on your Baker—all of which Marie had learned over the summer by studying the Noble Baker manual while Josh was asleep.
And it had helped, it really had. Josh was less withdrawn lately, and when she came up behind him now while he was playing and said, like, “Wow, honey, I didn’t know you could do Pumpernickel,” or “Sweetie, try Serrated Blade, it cuts quicker. Try it while doing Latch the Window,” he would reach back with his non-controlling hand and swat at her affectionately, and yesterday they’d shared a good laugh when he’d accidentally knocked off her glasses.
So her mother could go right ahead and claim that she was spoiling the kids. These were not spoiled kids. These were well-loved kids. At least she’d never left one of them standing in a blizzard for two hours after a junior-high dance. At least she’d never drunkenly snapped at one of them, “I hardly consider you college material.” At least she’d never locked one of them in a closet (a closet!) while entertaining a literal ditchdigger in the parlor.
Oh, God, what a beautiful world! The autumn colors, that glinting river, that lead-colored cloud pointing down like a rounded arrow at that half-remodelled McDonald’s standing above I-90 like a castle.
This time would be different, she was sure of it. The kids would care for this pet themselves, since a puppy wasn’t scaly and didn’t bite. (“Ho HO!” Robert had said the first time the iguana bit him. “I see you have an opinion on the matter!”)
Thank you, Lord, she thought, as the Lexus flew through the cornfield. You have given me so much: struggles and the strength to overcome them; grace, and new chances every day to spread that grace around. And in her mind she sang out, as she sometimes did when feeling that the world was good and she had at last found her place in it, “Ho HO, ho HO!”
Callie pulled back the blind.
Yes. Awesome. It was still solved so perfect.
There was plenty for him to do back there. A yard could be a whole world, like her yard when she was a kid had been a whole world. From the three holes in her wood fence she’d been able to see Exxon (Hole One) and Accident Corner (Hole Two), and Hole Three was actually two holes that if you lined them up right your eyes would do this weird crossing thing and you could play Oh My God I Am So High by staggering away with your eyes crossed, going “Peace, man, peace.”
When Bo got older, it would be different. Then he’d need his freedom. But now he just needed not to get killed. Once they found him way over on Testament. And that was across I-90. How had he crossed I-90? She knew how. Darted. That’s how he crossed streets. Once a total stranger called them from Hightown Plaza. Even Dr. Brile had said it: “Callie, this boy is going to end up dead if you don’t get this under control. Is he taking the medication?”
Well, sometimes he was and sometimes he wasn’t. The meds made him grind his teeth and his fist would suddenly pound down. He’d broken plates that way, and once a glass tabletop and got four stitches in his wrist.
Today he didn’t need the medication because he was safe in the yard, because she’d fixed it so perfect.
He was out there practicing pitching by filling his Yankees helmet with pebbles and winging them at the tree.
He looked up and saw her and did the thing where he blew a kiss.
Sweet little man.
Now all she had to worry about was the pup. She hoped the lady who’d called would actually show up. It was a nice pup. White, with brown around one eye. Cute. If the lady showed up, she’d definitely want it. And if she took it Jimmy was off the hook. He’d hated doing it that time with the kittens. But if no one took the pup he’d do it. He’d have to. Because his feeling was, when you said you were going to do a thing and didn’t do it, that was how kids got into drugs. Plus, he’d been raised on a farm, or near a farm anyways, and anybody raised on a farm knew that you had to do what you had to do in terms of sick animals or extra animals—the pup being not sick, just extra.
That time with the kittens, Jessi and Mollie had called him a murderer, getting Bo all worked up, and Jimmy had yelled, “Look, you kids, I was raised on a farm and you got to do what you got to do!” Then he’d cried in bed, saying how the kittens had mewed in the bag all the way to the pond, and how he wished he’d never been raised on a farm, and she’d almost said, “You mean near a farm” (his dad had run a car wash outside Cortland), but sometimes when she got too smart-assed he would do this hard pinching thing on her arm while waltzing her around the bedroom, as if the place where he was pinching were like her handle, going, “I’m not sure I totally heard what you just said to me.”
So, that time after the kittens, she’d only said, “Oh, honey, you did what you had to do.”
And he’d said, “I guess I did, but it’s sure not easy raising kids the right way.”
And then, because she hadn’t made his life harder by being a smart-ass, they had lain there making plans, like why not sell this place and move to Arizona and buy a car wash, why not buy the kids “Hooked on Phonics,” why not plant tomatoes, and then they’d got to wrestling around and (she had no idea why she remembered this) he had done this thing of, while holding her close, bursting this sudden laugh/despair snort into her hair, like a sneeze, or like he was about to start crying.
Which had made her feel special, him trusting her with that.
So what she would love, for tonight? Was getting the pup sold, putting the kids to bed early, and then, Jimmy seeing her as all organized in terms of the pup, they could mess around and afterward lie there making plans, and he could do that laugh/snort thing in her hair again.
Why that laugh/snort meant so much to her she had no freaking idea. It was just one of the weird things about the Wonder That Was Her, ha ha ha.
Outside, Bo hopped to his feet, suddenly curious, because (here we go) the lady who’d called had just pulled up?
Yep, and in a nice car, too, which meant too bad she’d put “Cheap” in the ad.
Abbie squealed, “I love it, Mommy, I want it!,” as the puppy looked up dimly from its shoebox and the lady of the house went trudging away and one-two-three-four plucked up four dog turds from the rug.
Well, wow, what a super field trip for the kids, Marie thought, ha ha (the filth, the mildew smell, the dry aquarium holding the single encyclopedia volume, the pasta pot on the bookshelf with an inflatable candy cane inexplicably sticking out of it), and although some might have been disgusted (by the spare tire on the dining-room table, by the way the glum mother dog, the presumed in-house pooper, was dragging its rear over the pile of clothing in the corner, in a sitting position, splay-legged, a moronic look of pleasure on her face), Marie realized (resisting the urge to rush to the sink and wash her hands, in part because the sink had a basketball in it) that what this really was was deeply sad.
Please do not touch anything, please do not touch, she said to Josh and Abbie, but just in her head, wanting to give the children a chance to observe her being democratic and accepting, and afterward they could all wash up at the half-remodelled McDonald’s, as long as they just please please kept their hands out of their mouths, and God forbid they should rub their eyes.
The phone rang, and the lady of the house plodded into the kitchen, placing the daintily held, paper-towel-wrapped turds on the counter.
“Mommy, I want it,” Abbie said.
“I will definitely walk him like twice a day,” Josh said.
“Don’t say ‘like,’ ” Marie said.
“I will definitely walk him twice a day,” Josh said.
O.K., then, all right, they would adopt a white-trash dog. Ha ha. They could name it Zeke, buy it a little corncob pipe and a straw hat. She imagined the puppy, having crapped on the rug, looking up at her, going, Cain’t hep it. But no. Had she come from a perfect place? Everything was transmutable. She imagined the puppy grown up, entertaining some friends, speaking to them in a British accent:My family of origin was, um, rather not, shall we say, of the most respectable . . .
Ha ha, wow, the mind was amazing, always cranking out these—
Marie stepped to the window and, anthropologically pulling the blind aside, was shocked, so shocked that she dropped the blind and shook her head, as if trying to wake herself, shocked to see a young boy, just a few years younger than Josh, harnessed and chained to a tree, via some sort of doohickey by which—she pulled the blind back again, sure she could not have seen what she thought she had—
When the boy ran, the chain spooled out. He was running now, looking back at her, showing off. When he reached the end of the chain, it jerked and he dropped as if shot.
He rose to a sitting position, railed against the chain, whipped it back and forth, crawled to a bowl of water, and, lifting it to his lips, took a drink: a drink from a dog’s bowl.
Josh joined her at the window. She let him look. He should know that the world was not all lessons and iguanas and Nintendo. It was also this muddy simple boy tethered like an animal.
She remembered coming out of the closet to find her mother’s scattered lingerie and the ditchdigger’s metal hanger full of orange flags. She remembered waiting outside the junior high in the bitter cold, the snow falling harder, as she counted over and over to two hundred, promising herself each time that when she reached two hundred she would begin the long walk back—
God, she would have killed for just one righteous adult to confront her mother, shake her, and say, “You idiot, this is your child, your child you’re—”
“So what were you guys thinking of naming him?” the woman said, coming out of the kitchen.
The cruelty and ignorance just radiated from her fat face, with its little smear of lipstick.
“I’m afraid we won’t be taking him after all,” Marie said coldly.
Such an uproar from Abbie! But Josh—she would have to praise him later, maybe buy him the Italian Loaves Expansion Pak—hissed something to Abbie, and then they were moving out through the trashed kitchen (past some kind of crankshafton a cookie sheet, past a partial red pepper afloat in a can of green paint) while the lady of the house scuttled after them, saying, wait, wait, they could have it for free, please take it—she really wanted them to have it.
No, Marie said, it would not be possible for them to take it at this time, her feeling being that one really shouldn’t possess something if one wasn’t up to properly caring for it.
“Oh,” the woman said, slumping in the doorway, the scrambling pup on one shoulder.
Out in the Lexus, Abbie began to cry softly, saying, “Really, that was the perfect pup for me.”
And it was a nice pup, but Marie was not going to contribute to a situation like this in even the smallest way.
Simply was not going to do it.
The boy came to the fence. If only she could have said to him, with a single look,Life will not necessarily always be like this. Your life could suddenly blossom into something wonderful. It can happen. It happened to me.
But secret looks, looks that conveyed a world of meaning with their subtle blah blah blah—that was all bullshit. What was not bullshit was a call to Child Welfare, where she knew Linda Berling, a very no-nonsense lady who would snatch this poor kid away so fast it would make that fat mother’s thick head spin.
Callie shouted, “Bo, back in a sec!,” and, swiping the corn out of the way with her non-pup arm, walked until there was nothing but corn and sky.
It was so small it didn’t move when she set it down, just sniffed and tumped over.
Well, what did it matter, drowned in a bag or starved in the corn? This way Jimmy wouldn’t have to do it. He had enough to worry about. The boy she’d first met with hair to his waist was now this old man shrunk with worry. As far as the money, she had sixty hidden away. She’d give him twenty of that and go, “The people who bought the pup were super-nice.”
Don’t look back, don’t look back, she said in her head as she raced away through the corn.
Then she was walking along Teallback Road like a sportwalker, like some lady who walked every night to get slim, except that she was nowhere near slim, she knew that, and she also knew that when sportwalking you did not wear jeans and unlaced hiking boots. Ha ha! She wasn’t stupid. She just made bad choices. She remembered Sister Carol saying, “Callie, you are bright enough but you incline toward that which does not benefit you.” Yep, well, Sister, you got that right, she said to the nun in her mind. But what the hell. What the heck. When things got easier moneywise, she’d get some decent tennis shoes and start walking and get slim. And start night school. Slimmer. Maybe medical technology. She was never going to be really slim. But Jimmy liked her the way she was, and she liked him the way he was, which maybe that’s what love was, liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get even better.
Like right now she was helping Jimmy by making his life easier by killing something so he—no. All she was doing was walking, walking away from—
Pushing the words killing puppy out of her head, she put in her head the wordsbeautiful sunny day wow I’m loving this beautiful sunny day so much—
What had she just said? That had been good. Love was liking someone how he was and doing things to help him get better.
Like Bo wasn’t perfect, but she loved him how he was and tried to help him get better. If they could keep him safe, maybe he’d mellow out as he got older. If he mellowed out, maybe he could someday have a family. Like there he was now in the yard, sitting quietly, looking at flowers. Tapping with his bat, happy enough. He looked up, waved the bat at her, gave her that smile. Yesterday he’d been stuck in the house, all miserable. He’d ended the day screaming in bed, so frustrated. Today he was looking at flowers. Who was it that thought up that idea, the idea that had made today better than yesterday? Who loved him enough to think that up? Who loved him more than anyone else in the world loved him?
She did. ♦