Allie stepped onto the slanted porch, and the wind swept into her shirt. The chill broke her out in goose bumps, but it felt better than the heat inside the frame house. Kane sat on the steps at her feet. In the twilight his hair looked darker, and his bald spot shone eerily. He was having his after-supper cigarette, the embers glowing bright in the wind. Allie leaned against a post, holding down her ballooning shirt with folded arms.
“Wonder if it’ll snow tonight,” she said.
Kane coughed and scratched his arm through the flannel sleeve. “Too early for that, I think.”
They heard their mother washing the potato pot in the enamel sink, its clang hollow and thuddy. Through her teeth, she hummed an old hymn, not one from the church she went to now; she didn’t care much for the songs in the new tan-and-gold hymnbook. The ones she liked and remembered were from the battered green hymnal on the piano, songs from her girlhood.
Allie listened to her mother’s singing, which drifted out through the window above the sink. She could smell wood smoke from the Hendersons’ across the alley, but the branches of the elm at the edge of the yard hid their chimney from view.
“I thought you were going out,” said Kane, tossing the cigarette butt a few feet away, where the yard was worn down to bare dirt.
Allie shifted and sucked in cold, earthy air. “Why did you think that?”
“Matt’s been around here, ain’t he?”
“A few times. I’ve been to Waring’s with him, and over to the drive-in.” Allie put a cold hand under her shirt and tucked it under one breast. She felt her fingers get warm and the skin over her ribs go cool.
“Most you’ve seen anybody in a while.” Kane turned his head over one shoulder to glance at her. His eyes looked too big behind the thick lenses of his glasses. The beginnings of the annual autumn beard stubbled his face.
“Don’t jump to conclusions,” she answered flatly. She wished she smoked, so that she could tilt her head just so and send a gray stream into the grayer evening. She used to practice in front of the mirror, with the skinny pencils Pap brought home from work, painted shiny white with Ed’s Diesel printed on them in silver. She would put on her dark peasant blouse and silver bracelets and silver rings and file her nails to luscious points, then stand there and move her arm with the make-believe cigarette until the bracelets fell just right and the rings caught the light. It made her look like a person of mystery. That was when she let her hair go natural, too. Junior high and high school were best for those things — making images of yourself that you could live with.
The wind picked up. Even Kane, who was thick and always hot, drew his arms and legs closer to his body. He glanced at Allie again.
“You should put on your sweater,” he said. “Your asthma.”
“I’m fine.” Her brother always added “your asthma” like she needed to be reminded after twenty years that she had it.
“What’s the temperature?” Mom called out the window, breaking off the medley of hymns she had devised over thirty-five years of washing dishes.
“In the forties,” said Allie. “Wind makes it seem colder.” She tucked her other hand under her shirt to warm it up, too.
“So, you like him or not?” Kane looked across the yard, squinting into the damp gusts.
“He’s all right. He ain’t Jack.”
Kane grunted. “Jack’s gone.”
“For now.” Allie tossed her hair, although no one was looking at her. The wind blew it back into her eyes and mouth. She had to pull out a warm hand to hook it behind an ear.
“Maybe for good,” her brother said.
“You’re a real encouragement, Kane.”
“Just trying to get you down to earth. Somebody’s gotta do it.”
“Sometimes you try too hard to fill Pap’s shoes.”
Kane scratched his bald spot. “Pap’s shoes don’t fit the situation no more. I got new shoes.” He pulled up both pant legs and wiggled his feet to show off crusty sneakers. She dug a toe into his kidney, and he grabbed her bare foot.
“Lord, you’re out here with no shoes! Your feet are ice!”
“I hate shoes.”
“Just like a hillbilly.”
She slapped the top of his head, and he let go of her foot. His hand was rough.
“Jack just might come back,” she said.
“He’s a shifty son of a bitch. Get over him, Allie.”
Allie rested her head against the porch post, knowing that chips of faded green paint would come off in her hair. She closed her eyes. “He’s a good man. Makes me weak to think of him.”
Kane snorted. “Feeling weak’s got nothing to do with it. You’re thirty years old, for chrissake.”
“What about it?” Her voice had sharpened. She didn’t need Kane reminding her of her age on top of her health. She toed him again, with meaner intentions.
Just as Kane grabbed Allie’s ankle, their mother came out. She flicked her dish towel at Kane. “Stop that,” she said, and stepped around both her grown children, a bowl of food scraps under her arm. They watched her walk to the shed, where she bent to shake out the vegetable clippings and coffee grounds into the weeds near the alley. The wind caught her housedress as she walked back to the porch, whipping the hem up around her knees to show knots of purple veins on her pale legs. Nothing above her calves or below her neckline had ever seen the sun.
“You two come in now,” she said, and held the screen door open until Allie caught it. The air inside the small kitchen was pungent with the aromas of bacon, sweet spices, strong coffee, and wintergreen liniment. Mom sat in the chair next to the floor lamp, its green paper shade tilted toward the day’s paper. She held it not quite a foot from her face, her smudged reading glasses folded and gathering dust in another room. She skipped past the news to the garage-sale section. “I need a new utility table,” she announced.
“We can pick one up at Wal-Mart for under twenty dollars,” said Kane.
“They go at yard sales for five and under.”
“But by the time you paint them up or buy that sticky paper to cover them with, you’ve spent as much as if you’d bought it new.”
Mom turned another page.
They heard a knock at the door, and she tucked back the corner of the newspaper and looked at Allie. “That for you?”
“Don’t know.” She rose from her spot on the throw rug, where she sat cross-legged in the evenings, a bag of this season’s pecans and a nutcracker in her lap.
She knew it was Matt by the way one side of the silhouette slumped down, one leg straight, the other bent at the knee, looking like a gunslinger on a Sunday afternoon western.
“How ya doing, Allie?” he asked through the screen.
She opened the door so he could step into the front room. “Fine. How’re you?” There was a forced politeness in her voice, but Matt didn’t pick up on it. He never did.
“You on foot?” she asked, standing back from him a bit. He had a rough, red face she didn’t like to look at close up.
“Yeah. Left the car at Jonah’s — loose belt, I think.”
“He’ll have it ready for you to get to work tomorrow?”
“Nah. I’ll call Frank. He can give me a lift.”
“He doesn’t mind coming out of his way?” she asked. Matt had moved a few feet closer, his irritated pores showing scattered whiskers. Allie leaned against the piano, then sat on the bench and looked up at him.
“Nah. He don’t mind.” Matt seemed to think that nobody minded all the times he asked for help getting around town or hauling loads of lumber for the new room on his house. Allie hadn’t seen him do anything alone; there was always someone around. And they were an oddly assorted group of people: a neighbor from seven blocks away, someone from church who had previously spoken to Matt only once, some guy Matt had recently acquainted himself with on a visit to the hardware store. These helpers stood around, tools in their hands, looking confused, like they weren’t quite sure how they came to be there.
“Matt? That you? Come in and sit,” Mom called from the living room. As Matt took Allie’s arm and she stood to go into the next room with him, he bent over and gave her a kiss. He smelled oily, not the way Jack smelled — like honeysuckle vines in a motorcycle shop. Jack smelled like a man who worked but knew sweetness, too. Matt smelled like he’d worked in the same corner all his life, without ever going out for a breath of air. He and Allie sat on the sofa.
“So,” began Matt, as always, relying on that little word to jump-start his every conversation. “How’re things in this end of town?”
Mom sighed and shook her head. “ ’Bout like always.” She sounded disgruntled, but the slight twist of her lips indicated her pleasure at Matt’s visit. “And how about you?” she asked, folding the newspaper and setting it aside.
“Well, I’ve had better days.” Matt stretched his broad back, his fleshy shoulders straining underneath his T-shirt. “Trying to get that car straightened out. Think I’ll trade the thing in as soon as I get it fixed up good enough. I’m tired of messing with it.”
“The time comes when you’ve got to change,” said Mom, patting her house dress around her legs. Allie looked across the room so as not to see how much her mother wanted this. Kane’s eyes met hers, but they seemed flat and told her nothing.
“How’s your house coming, Matt?” asked Mom, and Matt stretched again, importantly.
“Got the porch finished. Need some dry days so I can stain it. The south room’s finally closed in, don’t have to worry about the weather getting in now.” Mom was nodding at him, her eyes larger to take him in. “Think I’ll pick up materials for the fireplace next week.”
“A fireplace!” Mom’s eyes widened even more, and her sober mouth opened in surprise. “I didn’t know about that! What kind — a brick one?”
“No. I’m going with stone. It looks more natural. And I’m getting, you know, one of those built-in blowers, so it can heat the whole place. Save on heat bills, I tell you.”
“You going to replace the brick on the outside of the house with natural rock, too, or leave it?” asked Kane. His eyes glinted behind his glasses, and Allie forced back a smile. Matt had been remodeling his parents’ house ever since they died and left it to him. First he painted it a muddy green with brown trim. Then he ripped off the siding and put brick on one side and halfway up the other sides, with blue siding the rest of the way up. Next he stripped off the blue paint and stained all the wood a dark color; then he outlined the whole place in black trim. All in a matter of three years. The town waited for each change like it waited to see what Cher or Liz Taylor wore to the Oscars each year.
After Matt explained his latest plans for the house, Mom offered him coffee. He turned it down, looking over at Allie.
“Want to drop by Waring’s for some pie and coffee, Allie?” he asked.
“I’m pretty beat tonight, Matt.”
“Beat! How are you beat?” Mom laughed in a teasing way, but her pupils had contracted to gleaming needles.
“I just am, Mom. Been on my feet all day.”
“Not since you’ve been home from work.”
Matt rose from his chair. “That’s fine, Allie. We can make it another night.” He stretched again and walked toward the front door. Allie followed him, ignoring Mom’s looks and little prods in her back.
“You all have a good evening!” Matt waved at them, then let his hand rest on Allie’s arm for a moment. She saw muted anger in his heavy-lashed eyes. There were flakes of dandruff in his eyebrows. She patted his hand and said, “Good night, Matt. Nice of you to stop by.”
She turned on the front light, and she and her mother watched the flapping T-shirt grow smaller and mesh into the darkness.
“What are you so worn out from?” Mom asked.
Allie went into the kitchen to put on the teakettle. “I’m just tired.”
Her mother followed her. “You’re tired because you never get out and get your blood flowing.”
Kane appeared in the doorway. “Mom,” he said softly, and the older woman sighed at both of them and went back into the living room. After a moment she called, “Kane, where’s my coupon box?” When she was put out at one of her children, she addressed only the other one.
“I don’t know where it is. I never use it.” He sounded weary himself for the first time that night.
“It’s on the third shelf of the bookcase, Mom,” Allie called.
“Her and her coupons,” Kane said in a lower voice. “Spends half of every evening going through those damn magazines and newspaper ads.”
“It gives her something to do,” said his sister. “Makes her feel like she’s saving money.”
Her brother laughed. “She spends what she saves on gas running to six different grocery stores in two different counties.”
“Shhhh.” Allie glanced in to see if their mother had heard.
“Always looking for that special deal,” continued Kane.
“Be quiet. She’s not deaf.”
“I need to move out of here,” Allie muttered at the greasy wall behind the stove. She dug a tea bag out of the canister and set a mug on the counter, flipping a single spoon of sugar into it.
“Where would you go?” asked Kane. He stood beside her and poked at her side playfully. “The big city? Sling hash at a fancy restaurant?”
“I know more than slinging hash, you smartass.” She poked him back. “I’ve got a certificate in computer training. So just back off me.”
Kane moved a few feet away from her, where it was safer. His gaze traveled the length of her body before he said quietly, “You going to be able to work full time?”
Something in her face rippled, like the muscle on the back of a horse. “Why wouldn’t I work full time?” Her voice was taut. She stared at him. His own gaze faltered, and he shuffled back into the living room.
Allie turned to the back door, holding the cup of tea in both hands. She rested her forehead against the glass pane. The coolness of it soothed her, working its way down her neck and back. The door vibrated from the wind, and she thought of every evening in her life that she had stood like this, safe on this side of the door but longing for the temperamental shifts of weather outside. Jack’s apartment above the liquor store downtown was drafty, and it had been cold the first time she’d lain in his bed, nearly a year ago. They could hear the customers underneath them and the traffic on the dark street outside. The room had so much fresh air that she felt she was in a tent somewhere, maybe in a stand of poplars at the edge of town. Jack brought back all the breathless daydreams of her growing up, the fantasies of adolescent hours she spent huddled in the garage behind Pap’s dead truck with a spicy novel Mom would never have let in the house. She remembered the specific pain of discovering what was inside her, waiting to burst and bloom, but tucked away beneath long skirts and sweaters and choked off from life by the mustiness of their small house and smaller thoughts. Being with Jack was like being taken to a wild field under the moon and stripped naked.
The steam from her tea was fogging up the window. Allie lifted her shirt to wipe it clear, and as she did she saw the shadow pass the porch. Her heart beat faster. She opened the door and stepped outside.
“Jack?” The wind was colder now. She stepped down to the yard, the cold cement biting the bare soles of her feet. Someone was stepping through crisp leaves near the garage. She followed the sound, moving quickly away from the weak light cast from the windows of their house.
“Jack? Slow down, will you! I can’t see!”
It was just like him to play games. She stopped to wait for a reply but heard nothing. The shadow moved across the alley, toward the Hendersons’. He stayed far enough ahead that she couldn’t see for sure who it was. She ran through the Hendersons’ lawn, around their dormant garden, cutting her feet on broken cornstalks.
After several blocks she found herself under the street light at the corner of Elm and Howard. It shuddered in the wind, its bluish gleam lighting up the mist. Allie coughed and felt her chest tighten, pressing the air from her lungs. All she could do was go home, so she beat back panic and made herself hurry — though she still looked in all directions to see where he’d gone. Maybe he had tacked a note under her window.
The trip home was like a dream in which she needed to run but could only drag along step by step. She was sobbing and knew she would pass out soon.
Maybe this is the answer, she thought, as she gasped for air. This would solve everything. That son of a bitch would read about her in the newspaper and know once and for all that he was no good and had ruined her life.
She was under the Hendersons’ half-dead elm when someone grabbed her and lifted her off her feet. The nightmare had deepened, the black wind had caught her, and she was helpless to get to solid earth again. Then a voice registered somewhere in her numbed consciousness, and she felt Kane’s glasses digging into her cheek. Suddenly, the warmth and smells of the kitchen surrounded her. She was propped up at the table. Her brother’s face was close to hers.
“Here’s your inhaler, damn it! What are you trying to do?” She took the small bottle from him and raised it to her mouth, pumping the chemicals into her lungs. Her chest relaxed, and she pushed Kane’s hand away.
“I’m OK,” she said, though she was still weak and foggy.
Kane was a livid white. “It’s a wonder — running around outside in forty-degree weather with no coat and bare feet. Damn it!” He was close to tears. Allie grasped his arm.
“It’s all right now, Kane. I have attacks all the time.”
“Are you trying to die? Is that it?”
“It was Jack. He was out there.”
“Nobody was out there.”
“I know it was him.”
“Why would he be standing out in the yard at this time of night? It was just the wind.”
“No, it wasn’t!” she hissed.
She saw her mother, then, against the wall, her face drawn, her arms wrapped tight around her small body.
“It’s OK, Mom. I just had a spell.”
Mom’s body shook with silent sobs. “You need someone to take care of you, Allie!” she said in a high, helpless voice. “Someone to look after you, and a nice home, and things of your own. You need somebody, baby.” She pressed a hand to her trembling mouth and walked away.
Allie stared wearily out the window. Kane pulled out a chair and sat at the table with her. He rubbed his eyes as though he had been awake for a month.
“I’m sorry, Kane. I keep forgetting that you and Mom end up taking care of me.”
He shifted his solid body on the chair. “That’s what families do.”
The yellow light flooded their faces, the smudged tabletop, the dull white ring left by a glass of ice water at supper time.
“It’s not just me anymore,” Allie said softly. “The baby’s Jack’s, and I thought he’d come around again.”
Her brother tapped the tabletop with a stubby forefinger. “Does he know about it?”
She nodded. “That’s why I thought he’d come back.”
Kane was silent. He had never thought Jack would come back, not even for a baby.
“I can’t settle down and play house with Matt,” she said, a quiver in her voice. “I got no feeling for him, Kane.”
“Then don’t settle with him.”
A thought crossed her mind about how sometimes people will just come right out and say what really matters. Was what she had just said about the baby real or part of a dream? Had she finally put words to it? Kane was looking at her as if she had really said it.
“I’ll move away. Then I can write Mom letters about all the nice men I’m dating, and she’ll stop worrying.” She laughed, feeling helpless, like a child unable to walk by herself, even after years of practice.
Kane cocked an eyebrow. “Just stay here. No point in making more trouble for yourself.” He smiled crookedly, like he had since boyhood. The smile opened into a large, breathy yawn, showing his gold tooth in the back. He hauled himself out of the chair, leaned over her, and kissed her damp forehead. “Get to bed.”
She rose from the table and rinsed out her tea mug, then turned out the last light and lingered for a moment at the window, watching the dark leaves move with great sighs, wishing all men could be more like brothers.