By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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My mother’s call came on a white December morning. I had forgotten to expect it. There was a time when I’d waited for it daily: the news that my father’s emphysema had finished him. He’d been given three to six months, and it was now five years after the prognosis. I was mystified by his survival.
I’d often imagined his funeral, my mother patting at her face with tissues, pretending (mostly for herself) that she had loved him until the end, that he had been good to her. I imagined aged lobster fishermen with deep-grooved faces standing in the back, smelling of salt water and fish guts, and myself standing over his open coffin and feeling — what? I didn’t know. Perhaps the release promised in books about grieving. I read those books quickly, then threw them away.
I spent a good part of that morning trying to force my son Nicholas’s arms into the sleeves of a red snowsuit he had outgrown the year before. He was six, his face as round and white as the moon. Slippery black bangs fell over his eyes, which were green and anxious and slanted sadly down his face even when he was smiling. He had my ex-husband’s lips, a tender crimson blur. Since birth Nicholas had watched me more carefully than I would have liked, listening to my words, catching every laugh or sigh or shouted Fuck! when I stubbed a toe or broke a wineglass. He was never far from me. When I washed dishes, he climbed under the sink and told stories about a singing otter named Jim. He sat on the kitchen tile and colored while I cooked. I tried to get him to sleep all night in his own bed without tapping on my door, but the truth is I didn’t try very hard, because my feet were cold too, and in winter our house felt like a lonely island. He’d climb beneath my covers and burrow against my back, seeking warmth, asking sleepy questions, saying, “Remember how I saved you?” and I’d say, “Yes, how could I forget?” I’d explained to him that there had been growths on my ovaries, and having him had stopped them from growing for a while. Something in him changed when he heard that; he walked taller. I tried not to kill him by loving him too much.
That morning as I tugged on his snowsuit and wrestled with the buttons, the phone rang. I ignored it. Nicholas told me to hurry because he had to feed the birds before the bus came. He said he could go to school without a snowsuit; he promised he wouldn’t get wet. A button flew off and got lost in the Bermuda Triangle of our hallway. I told Nicholas OK, he could take off the snowsuit, but he needed to put on two pair of pants. He ran to freedom.
I was rinsing a dish when I heard him shriek from the patio. I froze; then I was moving across the house, tripping over my purse and scattering its contents across the floor. He had left the patio door open, and the curtains, long and white, flew against my face. When I saw him upright and healthy, I was relieved, and then furious. He stood thigh-deep in my nicest boots, coatless and hatless, with snowflakes in the collar of his pajamas, holding a grosbeak in his hands. Specks of blood trailed from the feeder across the snow. There were dots of red on the bird’s breast.
Nicholas’s face crumpled. He said it was his favorite, Melville; he could tell by the marking on its head. He shivered and cradled the bird to his chest and said around a mouthful of tears, “Is he gonna die?”
I told him I hoped not and brought him inside, where I rummaged in the closet and produced an empty shoe box. I told Nicholas to put the bird into the box. “He’s not ‘the bird,’ ” he said. “He’s Melville. He’s the one I was telling you about.” I asked him to please put Melville in the box so we could make him comfortable.
The phone rang again, and I ignored it again.
Nicholas wiped his nose on his sleeve, looked at the bird in the box, and said, “Do you think he’s sick? Do you think those blue jays were pecking at him? I hate those blue jays. I hate them.”
I ran my hands over the bird’s wings and breast as lightly as I could. I knew nothing about birds except that they seemed to like my patio and that my son communicated with them better than he did with other children.
“What are we going to do?” he sniffled.
“What do you think we should do?”
“Well,” he said, “first off, I think we need to pray.”
“But not just to God, because I don’t know if that’s enough. Maybe Allah too, and that lady Raquelle prays to — Sophia?”
The ringing started up again. “For fuck’s sake!” I shouted.
“Pretend you didn’t hear,” I told him. I picked up the phone and snapped, “It’s 7:30 in the morning!”
“Mom, I’m sorry. It’s bad timing. I’ll call you back in a few minutes, all right?” I began to hang up.
“Miranda,” she said again, and something in her tone stilled my hand.
“Can you come home?”
“I don’t think so,” I said. Refusing her was a habit. I was eyeing Nicholas, who was reaching to pick up the bird. “Nicholas, wait!” He looked up guiltily, and I said into the phone, “What’s going on?”
“It’s Daddy,” she said.
My chest tightened. “Yeah, what about him?”
“He’s got a few days. Maybe a week. Can you come home?”
I stood with a handful of nightgown in my fist, listening to Nicholas whisper into the bird’s ear. I watched him blow on the bird and wondered where he’d picked up this habit of blowing on injuries.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“I shouldn’t have to ask,” she said. “Don’t put me in that position.” I imagined her pulling her sweater tighter about her, like a martyr’s mantle. A terrible part of me felt like saying, Mother, you invented that position.
Nicholas whispered to me, “I know I’m not supposed to interrupt, but he’s bleeding bad.” He stood over the bird, his face sorrowful, his fingers wagging, itching to hold it.
“Put a paper towel over it, Nic, but don’t wrap it.”
“Miranda,” my mother said into my ear.
“OK,” I said. “I’ll come soon.”
She reminded me not to slam on brakes when driving over the ice, warned me about the construction near their house and how the plows had pushed the snow into her driveway.
I dressed and packed hurriedly, calculating how long it would take to get from Andover to Ogunquit if the roads were as bad as they looked from my window. I did not allow myself to think much beyond that. Nicholas stood in my doorway with his small suitcase, asking how long we’d be gone, and what about Melville? I said we wouldn’t be gone long, and Melville could come with us.
On the front steps Nicholas held the open shoe box and lifted his face to the sky, which was pouring white. “It’s like a shake-shake globe,” he said.
I fussed with the sticky lock on the door and wondered why I hadn’t called his father for help. He could have been there in a half hour, charging up the driveway in his Range Rover, equipped with snow tires. He would put a large hand at my elbow, lead me to the passenger side. He would not slip on the ice. He would close the door behind me, and I would feel safe — and trapped. Nicholas would talk and point at things as we drove, and I would look at his father and think that nothing had changed between us, and I would swallow regret and consider taking his hand. Then I would think about that more deeply — that nothing had changed between us — and I would put my hands in my pockets and keep my eyes trained on the road and answer him more sharply than I should have.
Nicholas and I climbed into my car and shivered together as the engine warmed and glass defrosted around us, slowly revealing the world. While we waited, I called his father on the cellphone and let him know what was going on and where I was taking Nicholas. He offered to come drive us. Then he wanted to know why I didn’t want him to. I thought he should know better than to ask, but then, he never had. There was nothing lonelier than loving someone who needed nothing from you but for you to need him.
My parents stopped speaking to each other when I was eleven. My mother moved from the master bedroom into my father’s wood-paneled den, with its mounted birds and elk and deer heads, its antler chandelier and secondhand bearskin rug. Around the stiff armchair were a side table my father had put together in the garage, a small black-and-white television, and an ashtray I had made out of a melted record. The room smelled of cigarette smoke and fish and the ocean, scents that never seemed to leave my father’s clothes.
I came home from school one pale yellow day to find my mother trying to push the box spring for a single bed into the den. The box spring was wedged in the door frame, but she didn’t bother to get a better angle on it or look to see why it was caught. She just pushed, red-faced, and grunted. I asked her what had happened, but she only shook her head. I put down my backpack and helped her push. Finally I said, “Why don’t we move it a little this way?” and she nodded.
At the time my mother claimed the den, my father hadn’t used it in years. My mother had always fantasized about turning it into a sewing room for herself, with a cabinet for the imported tea sets she ordered from catalogs, but other than pushing the narrow bed against the wall, beneath a duck with its wings spread in flight, she didn’t change a thing. When I asked why, she said, “It’s important to let men have their space.” I pointed out that he didn’t use the room anyway. “But he could,” she said.
They gradually began talking again, becoming masters of one-word replies: Did he pick up the new tires? Yes. Did she pay the electric bill? Yes. Was he going to Miranda’s musical? No. Why not? Because.
In the evenings we ate salty corned beef or pot roast and potatoes my mother overheated in a pressure cooker. My father looked at his food or out the window, his eyes deeply lined and eerily blue. I wished for a sibling or a dog. My mother chattered at me with quiet urgency, and I pretended not to know anything was wrong, talked about a schoolmate’s broken leg, and how so-and-so had gotten into trouble for saying the F-word to Sister Catherine. My mother nodded theatrically, then peeked to see whether my father was listening, so she could be disappointed. As part of the ritual, she prompted me: “Remember what you wanted to ask Dad?”
I’d give in, because I wanted to go watch television in my friend Jane’s basement. I’d ask Dad could he maybe, if he had time this weekend, teach me how to fish?
He’d say, “We’ll see, babe. We’ll see.” And when the weekend came, and he went fishing alone again, slipping out of the house before anyone awoke, my mother would say, “You see how your father can’t keep promises? I’m so sorry, honey.” She’d hug me, mashing me against her perm-scented hair, her cheeks oily with lotion. I would lose myself in the musk of her sadness, our frustrations tangling until I couldn’t tell which were mine and which were hers.
After many months of this, I got angry. When she’d say, “Remember. . . ,” I’d slip down in my seat at the table, look at her as if she were crazy. I’d shrug and say, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have anything to ask him.”
“Of course you do,” she would say, and prod me some more.
Finally one day I said, “I don’t give a fuck about fishing.”
My father stopped eating dinner with us soon after that. My mother said, “Well, this is nice. This gives us girls plenty of quality time.” She put the pressure cooker and the crockpot in the very back of the pantry, and the two of us ate quiche and matzo ball soup from recipes she found in women’s magazines. She focused all of her attention on me, but I could feel her resenting my father’s absence, and I said hateful things about Catholicism, about her job selling bras at JC Penney, about the “institution of motherhood.”
She said, “You’re just going through a phase. It’s OK. Everyone does.”
In my senior year of high school I feverishly filled out college applications to expensive alternative schools I knew my parents could not afford. I wrote application essays about my “progressive thinking” and how I’d “flourished despite the rural milieu of my formative years.” I thought this would hurt my mother, but it didn’t seem to. I wondered if she understood that all of my recent choices were insults aimed at the woman I thought she was.
When I was eighteen and attending Bard on a scholarship, my roommate asked me why my parents didn’t get a divorce, if they didn’t speak to each other or sleep together.
“They can suffer better this way,” I said, thinking I was being clever.
Later, with a start, I wondered if I was right.
© Roger Pfingston
The trip from Andover to Ogunquit wasn’t long, maybe fifty miles, but it felt like days. Snowplows chugged past us. The White Mountains loomed as we drove farther north. Nicholas was unusually quiet, except to say that he thought we should build a bird hospital in the backyard.
The radio was staticky, and the voices of morning disc jockeys cut in and out, making me feel disconnected and alien. I turned off the radio and summoned images of my father. I saw the raised, snakelike scar along the inside of his forearm. His sun-bleached lashes. The grooves across his forehead and beside his mouth. (I used to joke that I could hide pennies in them.) The things he made of wood: a swing hanging between two trees; the gazebo behind the house that my mother had mentioned wanting in passing. I never saw my father near the gazebo after it was completed, but early in the morning, when she thought no one was looking, my mother would slip out there in her bathrobe to drink coffee and talk to an invisible someone. I once caught my father looking at her through the kitchen window and thought I saw a flash of tenderness in his eyes, but then it was gone. Another time, I caught her spinning inside the gazebo until she was dizzy. I decided if I ever had a boyfriend I would lead him to the gazebo and force him to ruin my virginity on its floor. I discovered I could have an orgasm if I thought of rough gazebo sex while rubbing a flashlight against the crotch of my panties.
I heard my father’s voice, barely audible much of the time, a jovial bark when company came over, which wasn’t often. I remembered his hands: tough, cracked. I felt them only when he touched me accidentally, while passing the pepper shaker or the bread at the dinner table.
He drank Scotch-and-waters, more than a couple in a sitting, but I didn’t think of him as an alcoholic. Once in a while, when he was home and he’d had a lot to drink and my mother was at evening mass or a potluck, he’d sit at the upright piano and play. He couldn’t read music, but he knew rowdy Irish folk songs and a few sad ballads. I liked listening to the sad tunes, and I sang along with him on the bawdy ones, standing at the piano and bellowing at the top of my lungs. He’d chuckle and say, “We sound like miserable mutts,” and let me share his drink. It burned going down and made me feel lusty and weathered, like one of the guys on his skiff. We sat far back in wicker chairs on the porch and wore hats: his old army cap and a forest ranger’s hat. He smoked and told stories. He was not a good storyteller and mostly repeated the same three anecdotes, but I pretended I had never heard them before. He said, by God, one of these days he would show his best girl how to fish for mackerel, cod, haddock, flatfish, tuna, flounder. He’d teach his best girl how to drive a boat, and take me to work with him too, introduce me to the guys, show me how they caught lobster.
After a while he’d fall asleep.
In the morning he never seemed to remember any of it. My mother would catch me brooding and suggest that I get a perm: being smart was no excuse for dowdiness. Then she’d hug me and say, “Thank God we have each other,” or, “What would I do without you?”
My mother had the house repainted brick red every five years. The color was jarring on the snowy landscape, but she liked it because it “shouted that it was alive.” She kept a wreath on the front door year-round because, according to Christian symbolism, it stood for eternity. On my first Christmas back from Bard I informed her that the custom dated back to a pagan ritual celebrating the return of the sun after solstice. I’d hoped to get into an argument about religion, but she only said, “Really!” and turned to the plumber, who was bent down fixing the kitchen sink, and said, “My daughter studies religion over in Hudson Valley. Quite a campus. A lot of creative types.”
Pulling into the driveway and parking the car, I said, “Remember, Nic, Grandpa probably won’t be able to talk. He’s got tubes hooked up to him, and he’s going to be asleep most of the time.” I tried to feel nothing, show nothing as I said this.
Nicholas nodded, and I could see him working to make sense of it all. He’d met his grandfather just three times, despite our proximity, and knew him only as a sick old man who sat in a recliner in the den (my mother had given it back to him), coughing and rubbing a tiny piece of wood from his lobster boat between his fingers. The last time we’d visited, Nicholas was four. He was fascinated with the stuffed animals on the walls, until he discovered they were real. When my father told him, between coughs, that he’d shot them himself, Nicholas cried, and my father didn’t try to talk with him after that. A year later, Nicholas asked me suddenly why anyone would want to stuff an animal and hang it on the wall. Had someone else asked me, I would have given him a studied earful, but when my son asked, I found myself without words. I told Nicholas I didn’t know, and I waited for his disappointment. But he said, “That’s OK. Maybe you’ll know later.”
By the time we made it up the path to the porch, my mother was already opening the door, saying, “There’s my boy!” Nicholas smiled, tucking his chin against his chest and peeking up at her. “What’s this?” she said, looking into the shoe box. “What happened to this little guy?”
“He’s sick,” Nicholas said. “Do you know about sick birds?”
She patted my arm as I moved past her with our bags, into the wood-heated house that smelled of cinnamon and Lysol. She told Nicholas everything she knew about healing birds, which — invented or not — was considerable, and he believed her without hesitation. When I asked to see my father, she said he was napping and ushered us into the kitchen and sat us at the table, pouring coffee for me and cocoa for Nicholas. I looked at her in her slippers and reindeer sweater, her body the same tree-trunk shape it had always been, her cheeks stubbornly pink with health. As we listened to the vague strains of an easy-listening station, I looked around for confirmation that things had remained the same, knowing they had. Down to every doily and pillow, it was the house of my childhood. For a moment I was ten-year-old Miranda sitting at the kitchen table, watching my mother buzz around in her fear of stillness, while my father exiled himself to a room down the hall. I cleared my throat and cut Nicholas off in the middle of a story about sea otter Jim. “So what makes you think he’s only got a few days?” I asked my mother. My voice came out too loud. “Is that intuition, or is that according to his doctors?”
She looked at me for a long, searching moment. I felt chastened. She said that it was an estimate given by his doctors, and the only reason he wasn’t in the hospital was because he didn’t want to be.
I moved the salt and pepper shakers around on the table and ground my thumb against a nick in the wood. “He’s hung on this long, God knows how. Why’s he going now?”
“Maybe you need a nap, Miranda,” my mother said.
“No, Mother, I really don’t think there’s time for that. Do you?” I headed for the den. She followed at my heels, asking me to wait for the right time. I ignored her. I didn’t feel in possession of my body.
He was curled on the recliner, wearing pajamas and heavy socks, his blanket thrown to the floor. His skin hung from his bones, and a few white hairs sprouted from his scalp. He looked fetal, too tender to be outside a womb. An oxygen tank was parked by his chair. A tube trailed from the machine across his chest, over his ears, down his cheeks, and into his nostrils. His mouth was open. He snored.
“Dad,” I said quietly, shaking in the dry heat of that room, “wake up.”
Nicholas came in and looked up at the animals mounted on the walls. He stared at them with fierce, unblinking eyes, as if refusing to be scared of them this time. Then he looked at his grandfather. I thought about covering his eyes. Then I thought that my mother would have covered mine. So I didn’t.
My father woke himself with a series of coughs, his chest rattling, mucus coming from between his lips. His eyes were closed. He groped for a tissue. Nicholas backed up against me.
“Well, Daddy,” my mother said, “will you look at this? You’ve got company.”
He opened his eyes.
“Hi, Dad,” I said.
“Dad doesn’t talk much these days,” my mother explained. It wasn’t that he couldn’t; it was his choice. He had stopped talking when he’d found out he was sick.
My mother fussed with the pillow behind his head. I almost shouted at her to be gentle.
My father looked at us for a long moment, then turned toward the wall. He held that same scrap of wood from the boat in his fist.
On my first and only summer home from college, I worked at a hot dog stand near the dock where my father’s lobster boat came in and left, and where he embarked on his lone fishing trips. When business was slow, I fanned myself with a comic book and read serious novels that I was unprepared for but plowed through grimly. I felt caged and wished I were backpacking across Europe like my college friends. The thought of traveling in a foreign country made me anxious, but I’d have preferred anxiety to boredom. Behind the counter, I slipped my feet out of my sandals. Occasionally a boy on vacation would come by and flirt vaguely, seeking respite from days with his family. I flirted back, but nothing ever happened. I felt feral and constricted around boys.
I had my eye on a guy who worked on one of the lobster boats. He came by once or twice a week and bought two dogs with extra relish. His hair was a dark, matted mess, and he wore a crucifix that dangled against his chest. I responded to his slippery, dark eyes and thought how I could tell my mother, without lying, that I’d met a “nice Catholic boy.” When it turned out he was Jewish and wore the cross because an ex-girlfriend had given it to him, I liked that even more.
He said if I wanted, he’d take me out on his friend’s boat. I said sure. It was a small speedboat, and we didn’t travel far from the wharf. If I squinted I could see the hot dog stand. A few other boats drifted past. We sat knee to knee. He drank from a flask and offered it to me. “Whiskey?” I asked. He shook his head and said, “That stuff tastes like shit, and it’ll kill you, too.” The flask was half filled with sweet hard cider.
When I looked closer at him, I realized he wasn’t as old as I’d hoped. Despite his height and whiskers, he was around my age. He was talking about moving to Canada when I pushed him over onto his back and yanked down his jeans, then my shorts.
“Hey,” he said, “what’s your hurry?”
I moved my underwear aside and pressed myself down on him clumsily, trying to find where I opened. He put his hands on my hips to help me, but I shoved them away. I felt ripping and bleeding, but I kept moving. He looked up at me, guarding his eyes from the sun with one hand. Freckles trailed down his neck toward the cross on his chest. I slapped him as hard as I could and kept slapping him until something inside me shut off. He recoiled and shielded himself. Then he came.
We sat for a few minutes and righted our clothes. I couldn’t look him in the eye. “My mother’s probably worried about me,” I said in a small voice. “Is it OK if we go back?”
At the wharf he touched my elbow, then drew his hand away as if he’d tampered with an explosive. We agreed to see each other later, but we both knew it was a formality. I said I’d buy him a hot dog, and he looked pained. “See you,” I said. He dug his hands in his pockets and kicked the ground. “See you,” he said. I turned, wishing there were a crowd to swallow me.
I walked back to the hot dog stand to get my bag and sweat shirt. The guy who worked the evening shift was scooping relish onto a bun. My father was there, his back to me. He’d come by once before, looking sad and serious, to ask if I was doing OK. Then he’d given me a twenty-dollar bill and left.
“Hey, Dad,” I said now. “Getting a dog?” I hid my hands behind my back, painfully aware of the blood and semen in my underwear. I worried he would smell me.
He smiled and said he’d thought he would give one of his best girl’s dogs a try.
He’d been drinking. We took our hot dogs to a picnic table. I broke chunks off my bun and fed them to the swooping sea gulls, which came in over my head, ripping the bread from my fingers. My father laughed. There was no sound I liked more. He held the remainder of his hot dog in the air, and a sea gull wrenched it from his hand.
“You know, babe,” he said, “I’ve been thinking it’s about damn time I showed my best girl how to fish. How about tomorrow afternoon?”
I squinted against the setting sun and said, “How about today?”
He rubbed his forehead. “It’s a little late for today, babe, a little late.”
“Let’s go fishing right now. We still have time.” I stood and attempted to pull him up.
He chuckled in the indulgent way he did when he drank. “Why so hot to trot, babe? The world’s not about to end.”
“Because.” His hand was heavy and calloused in mine. I hadn’t held it since I was a small girl. “Because,” I said, “if we don’t do it now, we’ll never do it.”
His smile fell, and he searched his pockets for a cigarette. “You’re right, you know,” he said, putting one in his mouth and leaving it unlit. “There’s no excuse for that.” He began to tell me one of his stories.
“I know that one,” I said. “Let’s go fishing.”
“You know, babe . . .”
He looked at the water.
“You know, babe . . .” He no longer sounded drunk.
“What? Do I know what?”
“I sure do love you.”
I heard myself make a sound. For a moment I couldn’t breathe.
“Come on,” he muttered, his face closed again, and I feared that I had imagined its moment of openness and sobriety. “Your mother will be wondering where you are.”
We rode home in silence. At the driveway he stopped to let me out and said he’d be along later. I wanted to keep him there. I didn’t open the door.
“Where are you going?” I asked.
“I’ll be along.”
I fidgeted with the zipper of my sweat shirt.
“Go on,” he said.
I got out of the truck and looked at him through the half-open window. “You know,” I said. “You know I —”
“I know. You be good.”
And he was gone.
© Randall Richards
I was surprised that Nicholas was so comfortable with my mother on this trip, and I felt guilty for having kept them apart. He didn’t follow me the way he did when we went other places, always trying to stick his hand in mine or interrupt. He didn’t stare at me worriedly. He was just a boy, oblivious to the tension inside those walls. He and my mother shared corny jokes and giggled and mashed their hands in cookie dough. I sat at the table with them and drank cup after cup of thick black coffee. I pretended to close my eyes and watched them through my lashes. My mother was on her best behavior. She didn’t ask me about Nicholas’s father, didn’t offer advice about our divorce, insights that she’d gleaned from television talk shows, the ones she said were “high-end, not trashy. Illuminating.” She didn’t slump her shoulders and talk about caring for my declining father, asking for recognition, inspiring guilt.
While Nicholas and my mother disappeared into the garage to look for lost treasures, I sat in a living room chair and looked down the hallway toward the den. They came back with a net and a fishing pole. “Look what Nana gave me!” Nicholas shouted.
It was Dad’s old pole. “Why did you do that, Mom?”
“Because he liked it,” she said. Just that simple.
“Give it to me,” I said to Nicholas. He made a noise and squeezed the pole to his chest. “Nicholas Oliver,” I said, “give it here.”
“No,” he said. He was tired. He should have been in bed hours earlier.
I got up and snatched it from him.
“What’s gotten into you?” my mother asked.
“Nothing,” I said, embarrassed by the high-pitched timbre of my voice. “I just don’t think you should be giving his things away, that’s all.” I left them standing in the living room, took the fishing pole to my old room, and sat with it on the edge of the bed for most of the night, listening to my father’s violent coughing. It was the one room my mother had redecorated, turning it into a guest room. Her tea sets were arranged in cases along the wall.
I woke early and padded into the kitchen in a pair of Santa pajamas my mother had lent me. She was making toast. I mumbled good morning and asked where Nicholas was.
“With your father,” she said.
“Is that good for Dad? That can’t be good for him. Nicholas will exhaust him.” I started toward the den.
“Oh, honestly,” she said to my back.
I hovered in the doorway, watching Nicholas. He stood in front of a stuffed duck and held the grosbeak in the air above his head. The grosbeak’s head lolled. I thought it was dead, but then it blinked. “Look,” he said to it. “If you get better you’ll grow as big as him.”
My father gazed at Nicholas through half-closed eyes.
“Hey, Dad,” I said. I sat down in the chair next to him.
“Mom,” Nicholas said, “I think Melville’s mad at me.”
“Well, maybe you should take him out on the porch and see what he does. He’s probably hungry and needs fresh air.”
“But we’re not home. What if he takes off? He won’t be able to find us!”
“Let your grandfather have a look at him,” I said.
Nicholas looked at me doubtfully. He held the bird near my father, arms outstretched. My father seemed to be considering it. Then he pointed to the door.
“You see?” I said. “He thinks you need to go outside and see what Melville wants. Never argue with a seaman.”
Nicholas said he’d better see what his grandmother thought.
My father and I sat side by side, and I wished we were on the porch. I wondered if those hats were somewhere in the basement. He coughed and worried the piece of wood between his fingers.
“You know,” I said, and I thought I saw his eyes flick toward me, “you were really good at those bawdy jigs on the piano. I liked that one about the Scotsman. Remember? When he wakes up in the bushes and lifts his kilt to find a blue ribbon tied around himself?”
Dad let loose a deep, rattling cough, his thin body jerking forward and back. He wiped at his mouth with a tissue. I imagined I heard a laugh somewhere in that tangle of sounds.
We stayed for three days, and my father held on. I sat with him as much as possible and slept in the armchair after Nicholas went to bed. I told Dad about Nicholas, my ex-husband, my house that he’d never seen. He did not answer. He sat immobile, spit mucus into tissues I gathered in a wastebasket. I told him how much I missed the way he smelled when he first came home from work on the boat. I watched his eyes, his labored breathing. I didn’t know what he thought of any of it, but he didn’t turn away.
On the morning we left, I found my mother and Nicholas in the gazebo. Snow had frozen on the roof, and icicles dripped from the eaves. Nicholas was whispering to the grosbeak. I told my mother we needed to get going.
She said, “You know, I never knew why your father built this thing.”
“You said you wanted one. Remember? You read that magazine article about Nancy Reagan’s fondness for gazebos, and you wanted one.”
“What? What do I care about Nancy Reagan? It was all your father’s idea, I’ll tell you that much.”
I looked at her, disbelieving, but she stared past me. Her cheeks were full and red, her eyes immovable, her mouth a determined half smile.
Nicholas squeezed my mother goodbye. She walked us to the car, and I promised to call when we were safely home. Then I put my arms around her shoulders in a quick, awkward embrace. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d initiated touching her. She tensed — with surprise, I think — and patted me.
I drove home slowly. Nicholas stroked Melville and talked about the bird hospital he was now even more bent on building in the backyard, since his grandmother thought it was a good idea. The drive eventually lulled him into silence. An hour later, as we crossed the Massachusetts border, he screamed. I slammed on the brakes and swerved to the side of the road.
“He’s dead!” he said. “Mom, he’s dead!” He held the bird toward me, and I felt for a heartbeat. The animal was stiff and cold, its black eyes frozen open.
Nicholas snatched it from my hands and pressed it to his ribs so hard I thought he might crush its bones. He started to sob. “I hate this fucking bird,” he said, snot dripping from his nose onto his lips. “I hate it.”
His words scared me. I pulled Nicholas to me and absorbed his sobs until I was crying too. The bird was hard between my chest and his, the beak stabbing through my shirt. I felt a wing snap. Cars honked and sped past us. I held my son, and we screamed.