I wish school would start up again. But it’s July and Mom doesn’t believe in summer camp, where I know my best friend Susie’s kissing Jake DeMoe on the mouth. Normally that’s something I could fix during recess at eleven. But the camp they’re at – where the whole world’s at except me – is on the Canada side of Lake Erie and Mom says that’s too far to walk.
“Drive me then,” I say, licking Mom’s sewing chalk. She’s been using it to draw lines for these overalls she’s making me. The pattern’s lying on the floor. There’s a front part, a back, and two legs with extra paper stapled to the sides because I need my overalls baggier than the pattern says. I need room to move.
“Cut that out,” Mom says and takes away the chalk. “I need you here for fittings.” She’s
bent over the sewing machine, slipping in a bobbin, her glasses low on her nose.
Then she pumps the pedal under the table, a rubber boot on her foot because the machine is old and the pedal sometimes shocks. Her other foot is bare.
I say, “Why do you need me if you’ve got the pattern?”
“The pattern’s just a guide.”
“I want to go to Camp.”
“To beat up Susie? I don’t think so.”
I open my mouth – there’s other things besides Susie that make me want to go – when the phone rings. Mom tells me to answer. It’s Mr. Deere asking for Dad, whose sitting at the dining-room table, glue and feathers and fish hooks scattered across the varnish.
“He’s not here,” I say and look over at Dad, who gives me a thumbs-up.
“I need to talk to him.”
“He’s at the doctor’s.”
“Really? He sounded fine a week ago.”
“Not anymore. He’s got muscular dysentery.”
“Did you have to say that?” Dad asks me after I hang up the phone.
“I thought you needed an excuse.”
“I have an excuse.”
“So why don’t you tell it to Mr. Deere?”
Dad says nothing. He picks up his magnifying glass and holds it so his one eye grows and bulges like a startled giant’s. He’s been that way for days, sitting at the table and messing with trout flies when he should be at work. It’s not that weird. He did the same thing when someone called Frank Sinatra died. Whenever Mom brings home ice-skating passes for the season. What is weird, this time, is that Mom doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t remind him that sitting around won’t put dinner on the table, or heat the hot-tub. She doesn’t sneak up to the dining-room table when Dad disappears for his morning toilet, the nozzle of her vacuum cleaner firmly under her arm. She won’t scream at Dad, “You don’t even fish!” She just gives him slightly scared looks. She fries him steak, gets him cigarettes from the store, then slips back to her sewing.
I ask her why. “Later,” she says and leans into the sewing machine so its light bounces off her glasses. So I wait.
I wait until she comes into my room and sits down on my bed like she does when it’s dark and there’s hard rain outside. And there is. I can hear it hit the ground and I can see it on my TV, these big red cells the pregnant weather lady’s pointing at. She works for this channel I watch through jumpy white lines because I can’t have cable. Still, I’m not ungrateful like some people. I just keep the sound turned off.
“It’ll be snowing in August next.” Mom says, walking in.
“She’s getting fat.”
“The weather lady.”
Mom looks at the TV. “That’s not good for your eyes,” she says.
“I know. I need cable.”
“There’s weather on Channel Four, Five, and Seven.”
“It’s not the same. That weather’s so – ”
“Local? Isn’t that the kind of weather you’d want to know about?”
“I like to see where it comes from.”
Words spelled funny run along the bottom of the TV. Possible Blooding in Asht%bula, Cuyahoga, #nd Geauga Countys. I ask Mom, “Why don’t you say something to Dad?”
“He needs a vacation. He wants to go fishing.”
“He doesn’t even own a pole!”
“He can buy one.” Mom takes the TV remote from my lap. “There’s always a first time.”
I say, “Come on, Mom! Dad calls me when there’s a fly to swat! What’s he going to do with a fish?”
“Put it back in the water.” Mom starts fiddling with the TV remote.
I’m freaked out by how incredibly dumb she must think I am. I say, in that voice my art teacher, Mrs. Juniper, uses when we can’t see what she can in things like bones, or a plain bowl of fruit, “You don’t just let a fish go after all you’ve done to catch it.”
Mom says nothing. She knows I’m right. Then she hits the sound button on the remote, filling my room with that horrible screeching you get when you can’t have cable. I clap my hands over my ears. “Off! Off!” I shout.
The sound stops. The rain outside is suddenly loud. It makes me worry about my tree house, the photographs I should’ve double-bagged before stacking them on the shelves. I’m so stupid sometimes.
“It’ll be ok,” Mom says and touches my hair, which stays long and beautiful and never looks dull, like my friend Susie Walter’s.
I’m in my tree house first thing next morning. There’s very little injury, some dampness on the airplane blankets I use as a carpet, a few wet leaves blown in. I throw them out. I check my photographs (there is no camera; Mom buys me the little orange boxes you can only use once). They look okay. Only one is wet and that doesn’t have me in it. I tie back the plastic to let the sun dry the damp like it’s doing for the grass, the roofs of the bigger houses, the hood of Dad’s Cadillac, which Mom is trying to get started in the driveway. The car should’ve been put in the garage. Still, it’s a good sign Mom’s behind the wheel. It means Dad gave her his keys. It means she’s driving him to the airport, his briefcase packed with free key-rings for friends of Mr. Deere.
I climb down to say goodbye. “Take care,” Dad says on the doorstep, watching Mom trying to start the car.
“I always do,” I say, reaching up to brush some egg from the corner of his mouth. Dad knocks one shoe against the other and says, “I’ll see you in two weeks.”
I step away, shocked. “You’re never gone that long!”
“I’m going fishing,” Dad says and lifts his suitcase. It rattles crazily. “Got flies to use up.”
“Where’s your pole?”
“Going to buy one when I get to Kansas City.” He kisses me on the head.
Mom revs the car to life. It roars and tugs Dad from the doorstep.
“Bring me a fish,” I shout.
He gives me a thumbs-up as he gets to the passenger door. “What kind?”
“A swordfish!” I say. “The biggest, meanest, shiniest swordfish you can catch!”
“Piece-of-cake,” he shouts and gets into the car next to Mom.
The phone rings not long after they’ve gone. I answer.
“Do the Indians rock or what?” It’s our repairman Mr. Foley, who carries a radio for listening to baseball wherever he goes, even when fixing things around our house.
“They rock,” I say, not knowing exactly why they do.
“Your mom back from the airport yet?”
“Oh? Isn’t she usually?”
“They just left.”
Mr. Foley stays quiet for a while before he says, “How’s the hot-tub doing?” Its jets have stopped shooting water.
“Dunno. You tried it last.”
Mr. Foley’s voice goes lower. “Your Dad back at work?”
“He’s gone fishing in Kansas.”
“Fishing? He doesn’t even own a pole.”
“He’s going to buy one.” I can hear cheering on Mr. Foley’s side of the phone. He must have his radio turned on.
Then I ask, “Are you going to work on my tree house today?”
“I need to speak to your Mom first.”
“I’ll be over,” Mr. Foley says and hangs up.
I put back the phone wondering why he sounds so put out. Most times he’s joking and whistling until the night before Dad comes home. Then he packs his tools and scoops up his radio and leaves. Mom made up that schedule. That way, she says, Dad gets a nice surprise when he comes home and tries the garage-door opener or stands under the shower or slips into the hot-tub. She’s right. “It works!” Dad often shouts and kisses Mom on the cheek.
Could be Mr. Foley’s just worried about the jets.
He brings me a gift. His taxi driver lifts it from the trunk, which is all rusted and rattling for the same reason Mr. Foley doesn’t like to drive over in his repair van. The roads around our house have giant potholes with salt inside them.
We pour milk and sit at the dining room table, the gift for me in the middle, its wrapping not good enough to hide what’s inside. Still, I frown and pretend it does.
“Mountain bike?” I’ve been asking ever since I tried Jake Demoe’s, my hair flying straight out behind me, Susie making a face from the sidewalk.
Mr. Foley shakes his head. He puts a hand on his gift so the wrapping crinkles. “So your Dad’s gone fishing,” he says.
“Yes. To catch me a swordfish.”
“In water – the stuff that leaks into my tree house.”
Mr. Foley looks toward the window and says, “It hardly drizzled.”
“Maybe where you live.”
“There’s more important things in this world than your tree house getting wet.”
“Earning a living. Preventing fires.”
I know he’s thinking about the chimney in our living room. Mom said he could make that his next project after he finished with the hot tub. I say, “There’s nothing wrong with our fireplace.”
“Needs tuck-pointing. And the flue kicks back smoke.”
“We never use the fireplace. Dad says it’s a waste of trees.”
Mr. Foley thinks about this. “Ok,” he says after a while. “So I won’t work on it. No skin off my back.” He folds his arms.
We sit like that, the gift between us, until Mom gets back from the airport and drops her purse on the table. “I thought I said no more gifts,” she says.
I say, “It’s just a dumb panda.”
Mr. Foley’s cheeks sag. “How did you know,” he asks. I tell him the ears give it away. They look just the right space apart.
I spend the afternoon in my tree house. Mom asks me to. She wants to talk to Mr. Foley about his work here. “Everything’s just about done,” she says, steering me to the backdoor.
“No it isn’t,” I say, squirming away. “The roof on my tree house needs doing. And it needs a power outlet for my television.”
“Those are not exactly bare essentials.”
“Nor are fires in the living room,” I tell her and stomp out. These things should get done.
Mr. Foley started my tree house and now he should finish it. “Want a tree house?” he asked one day Dad was away with Mr. Deere and his friends.
“Are you serious?” I said. “Mom’s been promising for a million years.”
“Sure, there’s a doghouse on the curb across the road we can use. A big one.”
I hosed out the hairs. Mr. Foley put in the extras, working all day with Dad’s tools, most of which were brand new. Mr. Foley commented on that. “A man should use his tools,” he said. He used a forklift borrowed from his boss to stick the doghouse into our biggest maple. Then he hammered the floor onto the tree’s limbs using six-inch nails. Sap dripped to the ground. Finished, we wiped our hands and look up. It was the highest, grandest doghouse in the world. Only Mom didn’t think so when she got back with the groceries.
“Are you nuts?” she asked Mr. Foley, pulling him aside. “What happens when her father sees it?”
“Tell him its always been there,” Mr. Foley said. “Tell him, he just never noticed.” Then he got on the forklift and carefully backed it out of our yard, its wheels tilted out like Susie’s dirty buckteeth.
I come down from my tree house when I see a taxi pulling into our driveway – without any rust or rattles.
I find Mom and Mr. Foley standing by the front door. “Connie,” he’s saying to Mom, one hand up on the doorframe. He’s got his radio in his other hand and his tool belt dangling limply across one shoulder. The radio’s turned off.
“Finished working already?” I ask.
“Mr. Foley’s fixed all there is to fix,” Mom says and opens the front door wider.
“That’s not true,” I say. “My roof still leaks.”
Mr. Foley takes a step backwards, toward the taxi. “Try using garbage bags. Cut them open and tack them across the top.”
“It’s too high,” I say.
“That’s enough,” Mom says and tries to pull me back into the house. I brace myself in the doorway. Something inside me squeezes harder than Mom, making me yell: “I’m moving out. I’m moving into my tree house.”
Both Mom and Mr. Foley stare at me. Yes, I explain, my body shaking, things have gotten too freaky here on the ground. In my tree house there’s none of that, just wind and the sky sometimes acting up.
There’s a long stretch of quiet before Mr. Foley says, “I should go.”
He hitches up his tool belt and heads for the taxi, whose driver is standing by the open trunk; he slams it shut after Mr. Foley dumps in his stuff. Then, louder than he needs to, Mr. Foley asks the taxi-man, “What happened in the bottom of the seventh?” and ducks into the back seat.
The next three days me and Mom do stuff we’ve never done together. We ride a roller coaster that runs on wood. We haul a picnic basket into my tree house and look at photographs from my shelves. She likes the ones of me. Pictures of her and Mr. Foley she just drops on the carpet, saying nothing. Later, back in the bigger house, we pull out a map of Canada.
She tries calling Dad. “He must be fishing,” she says. “His cell phone sounds out of range.”
“Call Mr. Deere,” I suggest, “maybe he’s got a stronger one.”
Mom shakes her head. “Let’s give him his two weeks. Then we’ll send out the search party.”
Mom tells me stuff while she’s sewing. She says Grandma Rupps gave her this sewing machine, one of the first electric, multi-stitch Singers in Ohio. She says Grandma used to sew gifts that people liked not for what they were – dolls’ clothes, pansy coasters, bridal stuff – but for their perfect stitching: box, zig-zag, or straight. Mom tells me she’s sorry I never met Grandma Rupps. She kneels in front of me with her measuring tape and chalk and says, “I hope you change your mind about moving into your tree house.”
“I’ll think about it,” I say. The legs on the overalls are done; only the top part, the denim hanging from my chest like blue, peeling skin, still needs work.
I ask if Mr. Foley will be back.
“Not too soon,” she says, pulling a needle from the corner of her mouth. “He’s got other commitments.”
I ask her what kind.
“His wife’s pregnant,” Mom says and jabs the needle into my overalls. It goes through to my hip and I scream not because it hurts, which it does, but because she’s never ever stuck me before. I roll down the overalls. Mom leans forward and kisses me where it’s pricked. “It’s not bad,” she says. “Nothing a Band-Aid won’t fix.”
I shake my head. I don’t want to hide the wound. This is not the last time these overalls will lead to blood.
The phone rings early the next day. Mom waves me away and lets the answering machine snap in. It’s Mr. Foley. “Hi,” he says. “I know I’m not supposed to call. I just wanted to say I still have the handle to your flue.”
Mom lets him run out of steam. Then she snatches up the phone and says, “Stick it in the mail.” She hangs up. Three more calls come before noon. Mom listens to the machine picking them up in case it’s Dad. It’s not.
“Get me your soccer whistle,” Mom says when the phone rings again around lunch time.
“No way,” I say. “Jake DeMoe gave me that.”
Mom stares me down, her face meaner than I’ve ever seen. I run and get her the whistle, which she blows into the phone every time Mr. Foley calls. And once by mistake, when Mr. Deere calls again, asking for Dad.
My overalls are finished. I hang them in my closet under plastic, three roaring lions embroidered on the front. They will come with me back to school.
Mom keeps sewing. She makes herself some overalls just like mine, except black instead of blue, and without embroidery. Then I get a scarf for winter and a play-play parachute. I get Band-Aids on my legs and my left shoulder.
No-one calls or visits. A largish package comes for Mom. Inside is the iron handle for the flue, sitting underneath a box of chocolates and three silk flowers Mom tries to crush, but that keep springing back. She chucks everything into the garbage except the flue, which she puts on the living-room mantle where it sits like a giant fishing hook. Later, I pull out the chocolates and hide them in my tree house. I need supplies. And even if I don’t – if things on the ground straighten out – I happen to know Jake DeMoe’s a sucker for caramel.
It’s nine days since Dad left and Grandma’s sewing machine is giving up. Its needles snap. Its little light keeps blowing out. The pedal, Mom says, has stopped too; it doesn’t even shock. She shows me by pumping it with her bare foot.
She stops sewing and watches a lot of living-room TV. Once I catch her staring at the pregnant lady on the Weather Channel. Her arms folded, her eyes strangely bright, she’s leaning forward with that same look she gives her sewing patterns before she cuts them to size along the dotted lines. I ask her if she wants to ride the wood roller-coaster or hang out in my tree house.
She says she’s not in the mood. Her nose is black from this powder that’s started blowing in from the fireplace.
I spend my first night off the ground. I choose a good night, a bright moon, a little wind to rock the tree house and keep me cool. It feels like the camping we used to do long ago, the wind tapping against the tent, Dad talking about the fishermen we saw standing elbow-to-elbow on the piers. He said, “I guess the world’s full of sports widows.”
I lie full of thoughts like that, my blankets smelling of wet dog.
Mom’s voice snaps me awake early the next morning. She’s on the phone outside, standing on the back porch. I scramble for my hair brush because I hear her say, “I’ll expect you in twenty minutes.”
Thirty minutes later, my hair shiny as fire, pizza arrives for breakfast. Mom has stopped fixing meals. She watches TV. She takes out the Cadillac three days in a row, coming home on the third with a brand new Singer. It’s got a computer and 85 different stitches. For me she brings a baseball cap that she drops on my head when she walks in. I snatch it off. It’s got that Indian Chief Wahoo on the front with a feather behind his head and big white teeth like Jake DeMoe. I fling the cap onto the dining-room table. It slides off the far side.
“Don’t be ungrateful,” Mom says, taking a knife to the cardboard box her new machine’s sitting in.
“It’s from Mr. Foley.”
“I thought you told him to leave us alone.”
Mom stares at me. “Look at this place,” she says. “I don’t see your Dad fixing the flue.”
“Why don’t you get someone else?”
“It’s summer. No-one fixes flues in the summer.”
“Susie’s Dad does.”
“I thought you hate Susie.”
“There are things I hate more,” I shout and run for my tree house.
Mom wants me to drop her the ladder. “Honey,” she calls up. I keep the ladder rolled up by my feet. It’s the only way in unless you’ve got a really long stepladder or a helicopter. “Honey please,” she calls.
I pull out photographs and count more of Mr. Foley than Dad, more with Mom looking happier than otherwise. I think about that until it gets dark and a chill creeps into the tree house. Then I wrap my airplane blankets around my shoulders and think about lions finding food.
At 7:00 Mom threatens to call the fire engines.
“Call them,” I shout down. I listen for the sirens but none come. At 7:30 Mom leaves a small backpack at the base of the maple. “Pizza,” she shouts up. I see her screwing a bulb into the light socket on the back porch, but it never comes on. I curl up after eating. I think about Dad not calling. I think maybe he’s still fighting my swordfish and I wonder how long that could take. I bury my nose in the blankets. I smell dog again, but along with something else. Medicine.
Next morning, I call Mr. Foley’s repair shop from the pay phone on Detroit Road, a minor league slam from our house. I use the cell-phone number and a quarter I found in Mom’s purse. He answers right away.
“HULLO? HULLO?” Mr. Foley’s so loud, I have to tear the phone from my ear. Then I remember the soccer whistle. I speak up. “IT’S ME, ANT.”
“Ant!” he bellows. “How’s the tree house holding up?”
“It hasn’t been raining.”
“What can I do for you? Fix the flue?”
“I suppose.” I listen for the sound of a radio. “No baseball today?”
“Tons,” he says. “But the radio’s bust.”
“You can’t fix it?” I almost giggle. Somehow that strikes me as funny.
“The speaker blew.”
I giggle and look around. A boy is getting off the bus that’s just pulled up. To Mr. Foley I say, “Maybe your baby will grow up loving baseball too.”
I say it again, slowly, loudly, each word leaving a drop, a moist bead, on the sticky black mouthpiece on the bottom end of the phone.
Mr. Foley has heard me. I hear it in the change, the quickened suck, of his breathing.
“Where’s your mom?” he asks, as if she can save him.
I ignore his question and say instead, my eyes on the boy who has stepped from the bus, his hands big and dangling by his sides: “Your wife must be as fat as the weather lady by now.”
I hear him use my full name for the first time. It reminds me of the key he used to keep chained to his belt, but that he never once used around our house. “Anthea.”
“I have pictures,” I say and use both hands to steady the phone. “Photographs.”
Whup. I hear something like a hand being clapped over the other end of the phone. Then he says, “Photographs?”
“You and Mom.” I keep my eyes on the boy in the bus-stop, sitting on the bench now. He’s wearing Tommy Hilfiger, black sneakers I know are Nikes because they have those white check marks on the side. He looks tan. He looks like he just sailed through a math test.
“Your mother and me?” Mr. Foley sounds surprised, as if he cannot remember me snapping the pictures in our living room, at the ball park, on the roller-coaster, on our back porch, water from the hot-tub sloshing onto my shoes.
“What – ”
“For your wife. Your baby’s tree house.” I close my eyes and shut out the boy and his sporty clothes, his summer-camp tan.
“I’m coming over,” Mr. Foley says, his voice grim, ringing the way our kitchen pipes used to when he got down on his knees and tapped them with his wrench.
I hear a click and open my eyes. The boy is gone, his last stop someplace else, planets from this bus shelter with the wet black phone.
Mom is out somewhere in Dad’s Cadillac when I drop Mr. Foley the ladder and make him climb. The whole tree shakes and creaks as he struggles up. I wait in my new overalls, legs crossed, chocolate smeared across my mouth. My hair feels wiry and hot, like something I once touched in a zoo.
I look out the window. A man I don’t know is pacing our driveway. He spits and tucks down the corner of a blue plastic sheet spread across Mr. Foley’s van, which is parked in our driveway. The man looks at his watch and spits again.
Mr. Foley pulls himself in, breathing hard. Smartly, he cracks his head on the roof. I drop his Indians cap in his lap and say, “Maybe this will help.”
He stares hard at the cap.
“Do you like my new overalls? I was saving them for my friend Susie.”
“Anthea. The pictures.”
“Who’s that man in our driveway?”
“Joe. He works for me.” Mr. Foley’s hearing seems better today.
“Not on hot-tubs, he doesn’t.”
“He’s a carpenter.” Mr. Foley holds out a hand, wanting the snapshots. I reach behind me and pass him three packets of 24. He grabs and shuffles through them, dropping the pictures he’s looked at into the baseball cap.
“Where are the negatives?”
“I see.” Mr. Foley taps his front teeth with his thumb. Then he hands me back his overflowing cap. “There’s nothing there,” he says and folds his arms.
“There is too!” I shout and yank a picture from the cap. “Look! That’s you and Mom hugging at the baseball game last year.” I shove it under his nose.
“Last Fall? During the playoffs? The Indians beat the Yankees 5-zip. People hugged.” Mr.Foley pushes aside the photograph and looks at his fingernails.
I grab another. “Ok, well, here’s one of you working on Mom’s car where she’s behind the wheel, blowing you a kiss.”
“Grateful client. Happens all the time.”
I pull the one with the hot-tub.
“Testing the jets,” he says, but softly now.
“Both of you? In your swimsuits?”
Mr. Foley holds a fist up to his mouth and right then I know I have him beat.
It makes me want to shimmy down my tree, to uproot and carry my tree house up Detroit Road, shouting, Hurray! Hurray!
It makes me want to call up Dad.
It makes me want to rip the lions from my chest.
“You are crying,” Mr. Foley says, shocked.
I nod and drop the snapshot of the hot-tub back into the cap, then drop the cap back into Mr. Foley’s lap. “Take them,” I manage.
He looks down at the photographs then back up at me. “I love your mother,” he says. I wipe away my tears but more flow out. “You will go now,” I say, ” and not ever come back, not call, not fix the flue even if smoke pours from the windows.”
He studies my face, his right hand twitching, as if preparing to tap the side of my head and check for blockage. “It’s not just me who feels – ”
Mr. Foley pulls on ankles to uncross his legs. His knees creak. “We weren’t hiding anything, you know. You hid it from yourself, the same way you hid what really happened, what had to happen, before you could get this – tree house.” He finishes with his hand on the rope ladder, awkwardly turning to put his feet in the rungs.
Then he dangles there. “Damn,” he says, “my foot feels caught.”
I move closer to him. His hands, gripping the rope, are white as funnels. The muscles in his neck look like copper pipes. There is a smell about him, full of sweat and something else, trust. I reach out. I can hear branches stirring above us.
“Lift your left foot. That’s right. Now put it two rungs above your right foot.” He does what I tell him.
Back on the ground, he shouts at Joe to strip the tarp from the van. Then he stands and looks back at the house, our house, his hands in his pockets, his baseball cap on his head. He stand like that forever until he gets behind the wheel and slams shut his door so hard, I find the driveway flaked with a fresh, brittle, good kind of rust.