The lazy ochre light filtered in from the curtains onto the pea green walls and orange furniture. Miles stretched spread-eagled across the shag carpeting and made puttering noises as he flew his rocket through the air. Jamie’s sandals clacked against the sticky linoleum kitchen floor. She searched for the smaller spoons and baby Sean bobbed in his high chair. Miles soaked in the smell of frying flour sizzling above the caked undercurrent of tobacco that riddled the scent of chicken every so often.
“Hey. Mama. Hey, hey ma,” said Miles. He arched his back from the shag carpet so he could just barely peer over the kitchen island.
“Yeah, hon,” said Jamie with a grunt. She heaved the window sill up so just a crack of the screen showed. She rapped the pack of Winstons against her wrist and flicked one into her mouth. Jamie spritzed the water lily in the window with a spray bottle.
“Mama, hey, I have a question,” said Miles. He flopped back down and held his rocket in the setting sunlight that streamed through the bay window.
“I’m listening sweetie, what is it?” He squinted at the thick black letters. He could tell what the “a” and the “o” were, but that was about it. “Do...do you think I could fit in a rocket?”
Jamie rested her elbows on the counter and watched the smoke plume with her breath in the November air through the screen. “Sure thing. They fit a whole lot of guys in there. Ask Mrs. Laney tomorrow in class. She could tell you who to send a letter to.” She teased the cigarette in her teeth as she twisted the top off the jar of pureed sweet potatoes.
“Hey, mama?” Jamie ducked her head under the stove vent and exhaled the smoke.
“What’s up, honey? Let me finish my cigarette right quick, clears my head.” She ran the faucet, stubbed the cigarette out, and rolls the rest of the pack back into the fridge’s crisper drawer.
“Do you think I could fly up into outer space or higher?” Miles asked.
She puffed her cheeks at the baby in the highchair and dipped the spoon into his mouth as he laughed. “You betcha, I’ll send you up some moon pies to share with Benji too, if you’ll share with your friend, you miser. Hold on one second, let me give Sean his dinner.”
Miles rolled over to his lunar lander. He picked it up and put it in the sunbeams. “Benji says that he won’t go to space with me because I’ll pee in my bed and it’ll all float around and stuff. And he said I can’t go anyways ‘cause I’m not tall enough yet. He really said that, too.” He winced as the gold foil of his lunar lander sparkled in his eye.
Jamie scooped the orange dribble off Sean’s lips and back into his mouth. “Good thing you haven’t wet anything for two months then. And short astronauts will have more room, and you’ll get to lay out and Benji will bang his elbows on everything. It’ll work out, baby.”
A glint of sunlight reflected off the lander onto a picture frame on the mantle. Miles frowned in confusion. The left-half of the photograph was missing, an arm in fatigues draped over Jamie’s shoulder. The thickly creased picture showed Jamie, smiling as she clutched a baby Miles and held her swollen stomach. “But mama, do you think I can go to the moon, though?”
She laughed, and Sean giggled. “Well you’ll already be in space, so just hop down onto it. They’ll need someone to change out the flag by then.”
Miles sighed. “Well, I guess so,” he said, pausing with his eyebrows furrowed. “But is our Daddy on the moon? ‘Cause really, I’ve looked everywhere around here. When I went to the library, I asked Dr. Ridley since he’s pretty smart, and his face got all wrinkly and he hadn’t see him either. Maybe I’d see him on the moon with my telescope, looking down at us, but I haven’t been there yet, so I’ll send Natsa a letter like you said.”
Jamie put the spoon into the food jar, and folded down onto the floor next to Miles. “Is that why you want to go to the moon? To see if Daddy’s there?”
Miles sighed, “I mean, Natsa wouldn’t tell me to look for him, but it’d be on the way.”
Jamie leaned over him and fondled the rocket in the fork of her fingers. “But would you want to go with NASA to the moon with even if he wasn’t?”
Miles rubbed his chin like he saw on television, like the Professor when he tried to fix the radio with coconuts. He felt more like a Gilligan. “Yeah, ‘course I would. And I’d take pictures of our house from there to show everybody I wasn’t fibbing, honest.”
Jamie smiled and gave him the rocket. “Good. I’ll put up a sign on the roof, saying ‘We Miss You Milo” and I’d make sure they gave you some more moon pies for me, to celebrate beating the aliens up there.”
Jamie rolled over and held Miles close to her, her chin on the top of his head. “Anything you think up, Miles, I want you to go for it. Try your best, we named you right, keep going on and on, Miles. For miles and miles.”
She nuzzled her cheek into his forehead until he pushed her face away with a giggle. Her long black hair draped like a bed curtain around his face, quieting the music of life in the house—his baby brother in an active mumble monologue and the muted pop of grease.
The hissing of the closet’s air filter in the alienating silence was the only sign that the house ever held life. Miles found himself listening to the rustle of his facial hair against his finger tips and clearing his throat to fill the quiet that still startles him.
The quilt of dust on the bottom of the closet floor dampens the reek of cigarette smoke that somehow burrowed itself into the wool overcoats, even after forty years. His nostrils thicken from the stirring of grime and his face twitches in the miasma of mothball until it is no longer worth the nostalgia.
Miles stands up from the closet floor, his knees popping and grinding like twisting apart turkey legs. Miles tucks the tin toy rocket into his belt. He leaves the rest of the toy box in the back of the closet and wipes the dust off the bottom of his shoes from clearing the attic onto the matted carpeting. He twists through the galley of a kitchen and his belt loop catches on the drawer knob of the kitchen island. It thrusts out, tugging him back. A stack of envelopes yellowed together spill out from the bottom of an empty scrapbook with a Coney Island sticker on the front. Miles flicks out his pocket knife and unglues the grease-caked envelope. On the card, Winnie the Pooh holds a balloon with a backwards five on it. He wipes the bottom of his eye from under his glasses. The inside of the card reads, “Hope your birthday is as sweet as—”, the word “hunny” scratched out for “Moon Pies!”
The drone of silence stillness prickles against his ears, taunting him about the irony of forgetting this memory, like his mother was rubbing off on him. Miles feels guilt for the thought boring into the pit of his stomach. He cannot stand sifting through the corpse of the house any longer. He clears his throat once more and was too aware of his boot’s acoustics against the linoleum as he lumbers out.
The chilled edge of the air filter hushes.
Spurts of crisp air chilled Miles and Sean’s legs. Brief drafts of wind in the temperate heat buffeted them like quickly opening and closing a freezer door. Both were in shorts, savoring the last remnants of summer as winter nipped at their heels. Miles incessantly shifted his shoulders in his large itchy jersey while Sean huffed behind him, shuffling into the newly raked leaves on their way home.
“But Milo, if it was your birthday today instead of next week, then you could have picked us up quick, right?” said Sean, stamping on the wet leaves slicked by rain on the sidewalk.
“Forget it, Sean, Mom would still have to drive. You can drive when you turn sixteen, I’ll be eleven. It’s the rule,” said Miles.
“But, but you’re not lis’ning. I said if your birthday was today,” Sean said, he paused for effect, looking up at his brother. “Then you would have five more birthdays quicker, and then you could drive me home in a few years.”
Miles raised his eyebrow at Sean, who was shaking his head at his brother at the simple logic. “Thanks, Sean, I guess I didn’t think about it that way before,” said Miles.
“Thank you, no one lis’nins to me around here.”
Sean hummed and craned his head up at the trees. Miles slid a turkey oak leaf across the pavement with one foot, grinding it down with a dull sense of impotence that simmered behind his forehead. He looked over at Sean, who jaunted with his hands in his pockets like a noir detective—minus two and a half feet. Miles was not angry, but felt an undirected sense of perversion that gnawed at him inwardly. Sean was happy to play baseball, but a shallow pit wore inside Miles that made him feel like a traitor.
Dr. Ridley had pulled Miles aside after another batter smashed the ball into the outfield. Miles’ stomach had lurched, knowing he would be told to go to left-outfield and pick dandelions. After the game, Dr. Ridley spoke down warmly to Miles, splaying Miles’ fingers in an awkward “V” for a fast ball. The coach’s hushed “sh” sounds through his mustache tickled the back of Miles’ neck. His cheeks burned at the attention, but the same heat felt caustic at his core. He did not want to learn from the man. Miles betrayed his father, he learned his fast ball from a man that did not hold him on his shoulders to see fireworks or sing like Elvis along to the radio. He did not have a man that did those things yet, but he was still saving those moments, and Dr. Ridley took it from him. He was not a father, he was not even a “mister.” He was a doctor that did not give out medicine, just talked to people, so what did he know?
Sean giggled at a squirrel that fell off a bird feeder.
Miles was not mad at himself, but he was mad for Sean, who did not know that he was supposed to feel defiled. “Sean...does Mom...ever say anything about our Daddy?” asked Miles.
Sean gave Miles a parental grin. “Nope, only when you ask. Don’t feel bad, Milo, we don’t got a Daddy, but Mama says it’s all fine and all.”
Sean looked up at Miles’ downturned eyes. “I don’t need a Daddy cause you take me toplay baseball with you. You fix my bike for me too. I’ll stop getting the chain twisted, honest,” said Sean.
Miles picks at his jersey. “Well I’ll make sure my kids know who their Dad is, not no one else,” he said.
“Or their Mama,” said Sean.
“Especially not to forget about their Mama,” said Miles, and he thumped Sean’s cap down over his eyes.
Sean grunted and pushed into his brother. “Come on Milo, ‘lax, Mama will get enough presents for your birthday, like from both a mommy and daddy,” said Sean.
Miles slid his baseball glove off the end of his bat and tossed it to Sean. “See if it fits,” he said, “Your birthday isn’t too far away either.”
Sean grinned and shoved on the glove. It was a bit big, but he flapped his arm like he was about to take flight. It would not fall off, and Miles laughed.
Sean asked Miles to pull it off. “Milo, I’ve still got some nickels from my ‘lowance left, will you stop worryin’ me if I get you some ice cream?”
The cold wind scattered leaves from the yards into the street. Sean yipped and hopped through them as the breeze swirled them around Miles. They both dived into the massive mound of leaves at the corner of their yard.
Miles hauls out the last of his mother’s clothes in computer boxes, sorting them by season and color. The variety was more for the staff rather than his mother. She could wear the same floral blouse and mint green night gown every day and never get tired of it.
Miles sidles the grill into the garage and sifts the ashes into a bucket underneath. He barely manages to squeeze out of the narrow passage from the cluttered garage. Throughout the house, Miles sees no vestiges of entertainment, no paintbrushes or paper, no stitching fabrics or beginnings of quilts anymore, just duster wands and Pine-Sol. The kitchen, living room, and bedrooms of the house are immaculate, not a single fiber out of place. However, closets, garages, and cabinets accumulate the rest of the home’s refuse, like each day his mother cleaned her way across the house, but began again the next day—never making it to the home’s extremities.
Miles cannot help but think what kind of life his mother will try to breath into a home where everyone else does the living for her.
The summer breeze gushed into the kitchen and brought with it the sizzling of the grill, the click of dog nails on linoleum, and Miles’ clipped curses.
The husky tried to bound onto the counter, but knocked the counted-out birthday candles underneath the kitchen island and the rest of the candles scattered across the counter. The phone in the den started to ring off the hook.
Miles scooted the dog back outside and shouted back into the kitchen: “Sean, could you get those candles? The phone’s Cammie. I bet she’s stuck on the ice cream cake, but Mom mentioned German chocolate from Burnie’s.”
Sean gave a slapstick salute. “Aye aye, boss man.”
Jamie bent over and started sweeping the candles into her apron. She called up from the floor to Miles, “Tell her I’m not particular about it. Heaven knows that woman has been through enough with you sending her looking for three million candles. How about you break in those new marriage vows and go have an argument in the store with her instead of over the phone?”
Sean spun around. “Ma, come on, I’ve got those, go sit and watch the rest of the Sunday Morning Show, or whatever you old people do. You’re going to miss all the birds and babbling brooks at the end.”
Jamie dropped a mound of candles back onto the counter and divvied them out.
“Sixty-three? Going back a bit, Mom?” Sean laughed. She grimaced at him and slid over three more. Miles strode through the kitchen to snatch the car keys out of his hat. “All right Ma, if you insist on the extra year I’ll let it slide, but I’ll have to get the fire department over since I only had sixty-five of ‘em cleared.”
Miles closed the door behind him but could not shrug off his mother’s strained smile.
Miles locks up the house and slips the key ring around the nose of the toy rocket. He hefts the last box into the back of the truck and gazes one last time at the home. Without the velvet curtains keeping the waning sunlight inside, he could see to the back of the house. Just a husk, none of the encyclopedia sets that got hocked onto them by Benji or the Apollo 17 poster in the skylight anymore.
The trees in the yard had become sparser, through storms and lumbering, but also in the sobering way adults shrank from towering giants to fit into a firm handshake. Miles had learned to appreciate the warm sepia haze of intact memories, and to imbibe in the cozy wash, to let it seep through his bones before it drifted away. He wants to get away from the house before the image of its shambling corpse latches into him and festers the fond memories.
Miles walks up to the mailbox to take the monogrammed holiday flag off. He stops underneath the holly tree. It made it through three hurricanes and a young electrician with a new cherry picker, and it would last another Christmas without them. He snips a laurel with his pocket knife for the mantle.
The cool blue sheen of the night’s fresh snow chilled the greens of the trees and red of the holly berries darker. Miles peered through the window to see a rich golden glow from the fire and the bright faces of his wife and baby girl shining, and the resounding laughter from Sean huddled with Becky, the beginnings of his brother’s better half. Miles’ mother rocked in her recliner with a reserved but proud smile by the fire that tightened her faint wrinkles and emblazoned her ash-colored hair.
Miles walked back into the house with a relieved Buck, and shimmied past Cammie bent over the stove with gingerbread. She fed a piece to pig-tailed Samantha in the high chair. Cammie gasped as he pinched her and he strolled into the den to help his mother rearrange the antenna as It’s a Wonderful Life stuttered behind the static. It came in as clear as it could with the snow drizzling into drifts outside. Miles slipped the holly cluster into his mother’s hair.
“Cammie, come on, leave the bread! You’ve been working yourself to the bone. It’s Christmas, even Jesus took a break at the end of the week,” said Miles.
Sean draped his arm across the rest of Becky not swaddled up in the burgundy quilt. She pulled her turtleneck back up and cradled her head in the crook of his arm. Sean piped up, “Well you’re only a testament off.”
Cammie sidled up next to Miles, bouncing baby Samantha on her knee, and Jamie nestled back into her recliner.
“I swear Sean, if you get the Good Book out, I’m walking two blocks down to spend the rest of Hanukkah with the Shultzes,” said Miles.
Jamie raised her arms and said, “Come on now, boys, be civilized. The Schulzes have a tree up at least. Come get your presents before the women folk start thinking I raised ingrates.”
Sean put the Santa hat on and dug underneath the tree. “Mom, whose bag is this?”
“It belongs to your lady, son.”
“You mean Becky?”
“Sure, I can’t keep up with them anymore, shug.”
“And this one’s for...‘Cassidy?’”
“Do I have to get up and give them out myself?”
“Mom, is everything fine?” said Miles.
Cammie sat up. “Ms. Connelly, it’s fine, thank you for the present—no matter what name is on there,” she said, and grinned thinly at Miles.
Sean looked up at his mother and wiped the evergreen needles off his palms. “Mama, Miles and Cammie have been married three years.”
Miles frowned at Sean. “Give it a rest. Honest mistake.”
Sean sat upright. In the next room, he could see a miniature Ferris Wheel with a bow on top. “To my Moon Man,” read the card next to it.
He looked over at his mother. “Well, maybe we should get Dr. Ridley down after New Year’s. Have him over for your monkey bread,” said Sean.
Jamie dug her nails into the armrest and looked back over at Miles. The fingers on her left hand formed a “V,” primed to pitch a cigarette between them. “Mason Ridley has plenty of business in Syracuse.”
She turned up the TV. The tinny dialogue and crackling static pressed heavily against the blanket of silence that fell over the room.
“Mother, don't you remember me? I'm your son, George.”
“George who? I've never had a son, named George! Get out of here before I call the police!”
Jamie muted it. “I’m going to step out to smoke, y’all open up what Santa left you. Going to think for a bit. If you’re lucky, it’s not all clothes.”
Becky breathed out and cinched the quilt higher around her neck. The storm door hissed shut behind Jamie, the cold flickering the fire. Sean and Miles exchanged uneasy looks and the television flashed across their faces in the silence.
The first murmurings of the cicadas and bleats of the tree frogs electrifies the silence that had comforted Miles as he watches the last twinkling of life shine through the house’s eyes.
Miles folds the last of his mother’s clothes into the trunk and straps it down to the truck bed. He climbs onto the back and sits facing the house. The sunset begins to dip below the trees and the home’s roof eclipses the last of the deep orange waves lapping against the pines, tinting the house a melancholy blue.
He slaps his jeans and clambers off the truck bed with a grunt. He pulls out his phone to call Sean, in case his battery needs to be jumped. They’d have to stay the night in the house, of course. The engine turns over without a hitch. Miles trains the mirror on the window of his old bedroom. The truck spits gravel into his diminishing view of the hollow house.
The oven fan still droned to extract the last of the grease fog. Cartoons flashed and yelped on the television with Samantha sprawled out across the floor, the epicenter of a hurricane of dolls, horses, and pink castle masonry. She bent her head over her castle walls to gape at her show.
Miles settled into his recliner and scraped the last of the grits out of his bowl. He would have to shower at some point, but he snapped open his laptop and stewed in the cloud of bacon that rolled off him. He began to type, “NASA Application Draft,” sighed, and added “#6.” He paused and bit his lip before he scavenged through his graveyard of leadership positions and research credits. Samantha giggled and danced her footie-pajamaed legs in the air, tossing a princess over the castle. He pattered out a boldened header: “Make her proud. You aren’t finished.”
“Hey, Daddy. Dad,” said Samantha.
“What’s up, Sammie?” asked Miles. He closed the laptop and scooted onto the carpet with her.
She puffed out her cheeks in befuddlement. “Well, Daddy, do princesses make money?”
The morning sunlight streamed through the curtains and he caught a glimpse of the pictures on the mantle, shining like the gold glint of a lunar lander toy. “They don’t have a salary, but money isn’t much of a problem for them, no.”
“Do you and Mommy have sal-ries?” asked Samantha.
“Yeah, we do, but princesses get a lot of money from their parents, they just do a couple things here and there to help out their people. Like the Princess of Wales,” said Miles.
“Like Ariel? She had whales, I think. I know mermays are all made-up, but can I be a princess?” asked Samantha. She clapped her hands to her cheeks and then clapped her father’s arms, to make sure he was listening.
“Your Mom and I can’t help the heredity part, otherwise you’d already be a princess, but yeah honey, you could still be a princess, but you have to find a prince first,” said Miles. He leaned back and sat her on his knee. He perked his eyebrows at her, and said, “I guess your best option is to marry a dashing European prince. You get a castle out of the deal, or a really big house depending on the EU, I guess.”
Samantha grimaced and shook her head. “Nuh-uh, nope. Not happening. Princes stink.”
Miles laughed. “Yeah, those guys do smell funny.”
She frowns and cups her chin in her hands. “Oh man,” Samantha said.
“What, you don’t like the perks of social-democracy, honey? It’s a pretty sweet deal for royal people.”
“We-ell, I mean, what do I do with all that? It’s not my castle then, is it? I don’t get to have my own kingdom. Oh, poo, I’ve got to sleep on that one, Daddy,” said Samantha.
Miles tickled her side. “What, you don’t want to be a princess anymore?”
Samantha put her arm over his shoulder, and said “But I won’t be helping people that way! I mean, Jasmine, Ok? Jasmine still gets to jump all over the place, she gets to help people, and...and she gets a tiger.”
“Oh, you want a job then?” said Miles with a smile.
Samantha lights up. “Yeah, I wanna help people, and, and maybe,” she said, “all of the people will be real happy and maybe they’ll like me so much that they say, ‘Hey, giver her the kingdom,’ and I’ll get a bear, because bears are a lot cooler than tigers ‘cause tigers are big cats and cats are all itchy and bears can carry me around and tuck me in like you do when I’m all tired out from helping people, and he’ll be really fuzzy and my eyes won’t all itch up from his fur from algaes like Jenny’s kitty does.”
Miles looks at her surprised. “But if you do that, won’t you miss sleeping in your castle? Bears can’t fit in a house,” he said.
Samantha shook her head again. Her Daddy just does not understand it. “Oh, no way, I’ll still be a princess, don’t worry about it. You get a bear too to tuck you in because you’re too heavy for me to tuck you in if you fall asleep in the car,” she said.
Miles laughed. “I hope I don’t fall asleep in the car, because I’ll really need the bear to carry me in then. Helping people and being a princess sounds like a real good job for you, Sammie,” Miles said.
She looked at him quizzically, with her signature edge of cheek. “Well if you get to be a princess and run everything, it’s part of the job. Doesn’t the princess in America help people? She’s a-sposed to.”
Miles could not help it, and laughed again, hugging her. “Took the words right out of my mouth. You’ll be a better princess than we’ve got right now,” he said.
He nuzzled Samantha until she pushed him away. His beard was too crusty, she said. Miles sat there, holding his daughter and watching cartoons with her. A wistful joy curled through him as a rocket took off on the screen. He looked up at the mantle, and he was in every single picture with his family.
Cammie walked in to the living room, yawning with her hand pressed against her back. Her maternity dress hung off of the swollen stomach she cradled with her other arm. Miles guided her down to the floor and kissed her hair. He picked up a princess doll with a glittering blue gown, gave it to Cammie, and all three became a royal family.
The periodic plink of the condensation in the truck’s exhaust pipe is the only man-made noise in the highway’s scenic rest stop, besides the rustling of the paper bag that held Miles’ lunch. He lets the sluggish sunlight wash over him while he ate until his forehead grows taut. The whispering pines and warbling songbirds lulls him into a trance, the first moment in weeks he has had a clear mind.
Faint squeaks and purring draw Miles’ sight to the base of a tree at the edge of a clearing. Two baby rabbits wriggle through the fallen straw, one with a blade of grass in its mouth dragging itself to its bleating sibling. Miles watches with abashed curiosity, and realizes that for the entire hour he has lounged, the infant bearing food had been crawling towards their hole. It stops just short with one final heave, enough for the racking squeaks to stop and his brother to eat. Miles waits uneasily for the small brown lump to chirp. Its brother nudges it. No movement but its rib’s silent heaving. The sibling wiggles back into its hole.
Miles grunts to return to his truck, but swishing in the underbrush keeps him glued to his heels. The mother rabbit bounds from a nearby bush and waddles to its kit crying for its mama. They nestle close, and the nodding infant feeds and curls into sleep. The mother hops to its other child, sniffing. It is still breathing shallowly. The mother rabbit hops away again into the growth.
A new morose edge to the reedy rhythm of nature that Miles has been enjoying gives a hollow edge to his bones. Despite the cheery sun, Miles feels a cutting undercurrent among the murmuring forest, dividing him from the rest of nature. Now feeling the isolation of the clearing, Miles tosses away the bag lunch into a municipal dump-stamped trash can he had not noticed in the cleanly-circular glade. Miles hurries to his truck and tears away from the disquieting rest stop.
Miles pulled the pickup up under the speckled shade of the holly tree. The sweltering July sun was enough to roast his forearms across the steering wheel, and his skin slithered out from beneath his shirt against the smothering humidity. The pickup door clunked shut, but nothing else could be heard besides the whisper of the tops of the pines. No martins, no tree frogs. The air conditioner sizzled silently without even the light tink of condensation.
Miles nervously ran his finger across the band of sweat underneath his watch. He picked up his walk to the front door into a brisk clip.
He rapped the storm door. “Mom?” No answer. “Mama?”
He leaned into the door and it swung open effortlessly. The surge of torrid heat steamed up Miles’ glasses. A scream from the kitchen. The kettle’s shriek tapered down after Miles switched off the stove.
“In the back bedroom, honey!” Jamie called.
Puzzled creases rumpled across his face as he explored the kitchen. Crumbs crackled underneath his boots while he walked to turn the thermostat down by fifteen degrees.
“I, uh, brought back your pie tins, mom. Do you want them back under the stove?”
He craned his neck around the corner of the kitchen to the dark hallway that retreated to the back of the house.
“Just sit them on the island counter, I’ve got some apple preserves left to finish off,” she called.
Miles sat them down with a clack, next to the calendar pillboxes. Monday and Tuesday were untouched. He flipped on the light switches as he wandered to the back room. “Do you want me to fish the apples out of the pantry? I can get the back-room thermostat if you want,” he said.
“Miles, just leave it. It was as cold as a witch’s tit last night and the quilt’s in the wash. My clumsy hands went and spilled some chicken and rice soup on it,” said Jamie.
Miles hugged her from the back. “I don’t know how you do it, it’s a high of eighty-nine and muggy enough to strangle frogs,” he said.
“I’ll come back up to the den in a second, I’ve been dragging my feet all week and I’m finally getting around to the laundry,” Jamie said. She shooed him off, not making eye contact. A yellow splotch on the folded blouse caught Miles’ eye.
“Ma, did you put in enough detergent? There’s a spot on your shirt there.”
“I’ve been doing my own laundry for sixty years, I don’t think I need any help,” she snapped. Miles walked back to the kitchen and ducked into the pantry for the canned apples. Jamie shuffled in and took the pie crust from out of his hands.
“That’s a handsome baby boy, Miles. I know he’s fresh from the nursery, but bring him to visit. He’s got to get used to his Nonnie pretty quick, now doesn’t he? His savings bond is over on the desk. Cammie sent me the pictures in the mail. Danny’s got your chin, but thank goodness, he’s got those pretty eyes of hers. Maybe he’ll get his smarts from both of you,” she said. Her eyes twinkled and she elbowed Miles.
He laughed. “Maybe he’ll be the one to get to the moon, then.”
“I don’t doubt any of it. He’ll get there for sure, you guys keep popping them out till one of them can send me back a moon rock. I’ve still got an empty space on the mantle,” she said.
Miles looked down at his mother’s busy hands. One hand spread out the apples while her left extended two fingers forked for a cigarette.
She looked back over her shoulder at him. “Honey, pass me those cigarettes. I’ve been putting aside money for Winstons for fifty years, and they up and change the recipe on me. Taste like ditch weeds now. How’s that for brand loyalty?”
He tapped her pack of Pall Malls against his wrist and passed one to her. “The moon’s supposed to be real big tonight,” Miles said.
She walked to the window and hunched her shoulder down to the screen. Jamie laughed. “The prettiest moon I ever saw was back in...back in...yeah, it was 1953. That was when I was up in Brooklyn. That was after your Uncle Wally got his number called for Korea, at the end of the whole ordeal, but still, I wanted to find somewhere that had a little more to plan for than make tea and wait for the rest of your brothers’ letters to come in the mail. So I hopped a train up to New York. I was thinking that I could find somewhere in Manhattan, dance in the streets, and bump into Frank Sinatra at the laundromat. So I found a dump in Brooklyn.”
Miles saw his mother exhale under the sill and a dreamy smile crept across her face.
“That moon sure was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, somehow grander than over Brisco. Like it sparkled. You took me over to Coney Island, you hoped I forgot, didn’t you? You showed up with three daisies and were soaked from the knees down, but you made sure that hat on your head poked out at an angle.” Jamie laughed.
“And then you took me out to Coney Island. Yessiree, I had a ball, I really did. We held hands and the moon was as big as the Ferris wheel. You had that spark in your eye, and we took off down the pier and splashed out onto the beach. When you squeezed my hand, I felt like I had swallowed that moon whole and I hoped my teeth were sparkling and my eyes were shining, just to impress you. Right then and there, I knew I had gone and fell in love with you, Richard.”
Jamie blinked. Her mouth silently gasped and she pursed her lips tight. With a knit of her brow, she flicked the cigarette in the sink. Jamie finished the pie in silence, but Miles thought, Richard, Richard, Richard, and wouldn’t forget the name.
The lull of the humming country roads and the permission of the drooping sun urges Miles to shift his gaze to the distant hilltop to his left. The small crosses that pricked the hilltop carry their languid whispers to him in the lilting breeze that skims the browning trees. The crosses speak of the same name that was breathed into his ear in countless cemeteries over the past six years, until one cross showed Miles where his father Richard waited for him. Not under the mares of the moon, but beneath a listless headstone bearing an engraved American flag. As he stood stiffly over the grave, he did not hear his father, but Sean’s voice slip between the marble crosses. His father was still the man on the moon. But not his Daddy.
The grinding of his wheels against the notches on the side of the highway snatch Miles from his reverie. Newer names replace “Richard,” as the empty crater worn into his heart has not been filled but woven over with the threads that connect him to his blossoming family.
And Jamie, Sean, Cammie, Samantha, and Danny will not forget him.
“Wow, I’ll try my best to remember, Becky Connelly, this time, sorry brother, not used to you being a tied-down man,” laughed Miles. He adjusted his vest that kept wrinkling above his developing potbelly. Sean clapped him on the back, “Plenty of time for talk after I get back from Bermuda.”
Clinking of champagne glasses and hearty chuckles reverberated down from the dark wood arches of the chapel. Warm rainbows scattered across the tiled floor from the mosaic windows. Across the sea of smiling heads and shimmering dresses, Miles saw Sean catch his gaze over the din of the wedding reception.
Sean’s ear-to-ear grin that wouldn’t crack throughout the entire wedding drooped as he steered Miles into the chapel’s anteroom.
“Listen, Miles, I sure as sunshine don’t want to bring down the mood—believe you me—but after Mom got here, you haven’t looked at her the same. You’ve seen it too. I know I could pick a better time, but I want to have a heart-to-heart with just you, and it’s hard to do that from three states away.”
Miles shrugged his brother’s arm off his shoulder. He adjusted his vest and glared, twisting his wedding band. Sean returned his glare unwavered. “This talk has to happen, you know it more than anyone. I’m talking to you for your own sake. She’s my mother, she tucked me in every night, and let me get away with faking the chicken pox so I could watch cartoons. I love her more than anyone in the world. Except you,” said Sean.
Miles turned around to walk back into the banquet hall. Sean clamped down on his shoulder. He tried, but Miles couldn’t help but feel his brother’s words weave through his heartstrings and resonate in some core place that he didn’t recognize.
“It’s a hole, Milo. Any hope that you might see down there, it’s another rope so you can go deeper. Your kids know how wonderful a woman she is, and we have to think about where she might have to settle down. Don’t entertain those fantasies of hers anymore. Let Samantha and Danny remember their Nonnie before she can’t do the same for them.”
Miles pulled Sean in and they embraced. “I love you, Sean. But I can’t promise anything,” Miles said. “She’s still my Mama, not all the time, but when she’s there I can’t let her forget that.”
Shuffled footsteps crept up behind Sean and tapped him on the shoulder. Jamie held his arm and spoke to him, trying valiantly to look secretive.
“Sean-Bon, do you know where they are?” Jamie asked.
He sighed, “Becky’s over by the buffet table, Ma.”
She shook her head. “No, everyone’s crying. Is there a wake? So I can pay my respects?”
Sean’s shoulders dropped. He slumped down and hugged her tight. Miles saw the playful look Jamie cast at him, but the corners of her mouth were a bit too flat, her eyes too tepid. She tried to hide it with humor, but he could see the questions that her pursed lips kept from bubbling to the surface.
The rolling hills along the road slope down, winding down to a lake with spiraling white specks that circle the surface, glimmering in the low sun. Miles passes a tourist station, the flapping stars and stripes above it snapping his gaze.
Despite all the questions Miles had about Richard, he still came too late, and Miles has learned to appreciate the unanswerable. He only knows Richard as the outline of the questions he has collected, and he created his own answers that his Mama entertained. Thirty years ago, his father was an astronaut, and then a cowboy, then a famed playwright, and then simply a man. But Miles knew all of those as his father, and now too as the picture of the man in his wallet, with Sean’s grin and Miles’ mole on his neck.
He turns down the radio, rolling into the outlet, crunching along the mile drive to Swan Valley.
Only the incandescent desk lamp lit a corner of the study. Miles sat alone and cradled his head in his hands with no concept of how long he had been sitting apart from the wood grain imprint on his forearms and each crack of the clock’s hands. The buzzing silence when Cammie treaded in from the dark into the doorway with a kindred, but plaintive expression.
“Swan Valley? Miles, we can’t move her to any assisted living facility closer—let alone a village. They cut me down to ten months, and you already put your chips all-in,” said Cammie. She scooted onto the desk bench next to him. She exhaled and began to flip through the envelopes and binder-clipped stacks strewn across the desk to create some order among them.
“I won’t try to weigh in on this. You don’t have to say a word. She’s your mother, and I wouldn’t know what to begin to sacrifice to show my mother the kind of love that she feels from you.”
Cammie leaned her head onto his shoulder and reached her arm up to rub his back. “I told Sam and Danny that we aren’t going to Disney. They didn’t go quietly, but it could’ve been worse if Samantha had already seen the Cinderella dress you got her. Just get some rest, I’ll bring them back tonight. The receipts were still in the bag.”
She brushed her lips against his neck. He didn’t look up, so Cammie closed the door to the office behind her. But Miles spoke up.
“She called him Steven today. I’ve never seen Sean cry, so I walked out to go to the bathroom. She tried to take the stitches out of the spot on her arm, so he tried to stop her. I couldn’t believe what she said. She wasn’t Mama anymore, she told him ‘Don’t you touch me, you’ve done enough, putting me in here so you can wait for me to die without faking that lying grin of yours.’” Miles laced his fingers behind his head and looked up at Cammie. Dried tears stained his glasses.
“She said, ‘Go get Milo, my son.’”
Miles heard Cammie shuffle across the carpet back to their bedroom. The television switched on. He sat alone and listened to the isolating tick of the clock. Miles’ rheumy eyes dragged up to see a photograph of his mother surrounded by Miles, Cammie, Danny, and Samantha. They were all smiles, but Jamie gazed past the camera, her head slightly angled. He flipped the frame face-down.
“Daddy?” Danny peered over at his father, hugging the doorway.
“What’s up, champ? Want me to get you some milk and a moon pie?” asked Miles, with a faint smile.
“Nah, I already have to pee, and Mommy’ll make me brush my teeths all again,” said Danny. “I was walking home from school, okay, and all of these guys were playing baseball in the park, and I saw that and I was like, ‘That looks like it’ll be fun and, and good for my cord-nation like Daddy says.’ And then I walk over there, and I see Mr. Jim, just talking at them. He says he’s the coach. And I can play!”
Danny looked downward. He said, “But I don’t have nothing to play it with,” but Danny brightened up. “Could you teach me how?”
Miles sat up and looked at his boy’s beaming face. He looked at the frame face-down and back at Danny. “Sure thing, but I’ve got to drive over to see your Nonnie tomorrow, but I can do it this weekend if you’re game,” said Miles.
Danny perked up, nodded, and walked out of the study into the dark. Miles heard him talk to Cammie. “He said “no.’ Can Mr. Jim pick me up?”
Miles’ heart plummeted through his chest and sunk into a crater that deepened with age, a hole in the shape of a father’s hand. Without a word, Miles slid the photo of his mother into the desk drawer out of sight and flicked off the desk lamp. The lonely night reclaimed the house, without a beacon to guide Miles to bed or through the desolate halls of his dreams.
Although the glass walls and sunshine highlighted the modernity of the facility, the empty hallways and stone and wood architecture did not diminish how Miles viewed the assisted living community: a cold lockbox, a primed coffin in all but name to put family aside until it’s opened again to crack inheritance out of their dead brittle fingers.
Miles walks up to the front desk. “Hi, is Jamie Connelly in her room?” The receptionist’s bangs bounce as she shakes her head. “Out by the pond, Miles. She’s been harassing all the nurses to bring her out today. Eventually Reggie heard, and you know he’s got a soft spot for Miss Jamie.”
He scratches down his name and lets the pen dangle, the chain clacking against the linoleum desk. The receptionist leans over to catch him before he heads out. “Not bringing her any moon pies today?”
Miles twists to push the door open with his back. “Not this time, Sharon. Just the gift of conversation.”
Sharon leans back into her chair. “She might fall asleep on you, she’s been keeping the swans entertained all day, and they’re good listeners.”
“See Ma, this one’s not as bad, look out the windows. Swans. And Miss Sharon up front, she’s real nice, she says that you can go down to the pond any time you like when you’re waiting for me. The swans will keep you company until I can drive over.”
Jamie slumped against her walker and lurched to the window next to Miles. Her dry hand rasped against the weathered canvas of his jacket. When her hand began to tremble on his shoulder, he turned his head to the sunset. Her fingers slid down his arm, but he caught them, and held her fast.
She smiled thinly up at him and looked out the window too. The right side of her smile drooped down but she still managed to make it curl at the end. “Moon’s pretty tonight, Milo,” she said. He squinted up at it, the faint glow blurring his vision.
“It’s still pretty down here,” he whispered.
“I wish I could’ve taken you to Cape Canaveral. I keep thinking that if you saw a rocket get all the way up there, actually see it go so high that it disappeared, you might’ve made it on the next trip up,” said Jamie.
“I thought about it too, ma. It’d get pretty lonely. I think I’ve found everything I was looking for down here instead. You, Sean...Cammie, Sam, and Danny,” Miles said. He looked down at her. She nodded at the empty names and didn’t say a word. He looked back up to the sky.
“I’d be afraid that after a while, Danny would forget how my snoring sounds, and he would stop complaining. I’d be afraid I’d forget the small things that make my family,” Miles said. He looked down pensively at Jamie. The creases under his eyes were cracked from too many floods and the dark bags discolored from his heart when it leaks through his tears.
“Are you afraid of forgetting things too, Mama?”
She stretched her fingers underneath his hand, forking her front two. “You’d never forget your family, Milo. They’d never let you go a day without making sure you knew it.”
Her fingers went lax. “Hey, just got back from the house, three roast beef sandwiches, from the butcher in Brisco,” said Sean, walking in from the hallway.
Jamie nudged Miles and whispered in his ear, “Did you call a nurse?”
“Yeah Ma, I called him before I got here, so he could get it ready for a picnic if you wanted,” said Miles.
He looked back and shook his head to Sean. Sean’s eyes went placid, his face engraved in marble. “What did he say to you?” he asked Jamie.
Miles gave another curt shake, but Sean couldn’t let the glimmer of fear he saw in his brother slide again. “Ma’am, I apologize, did you want roast beef? I got in a rush, but I think I remember you telling me you were more of a BLT gal,” said Sean.
Miles squeezed his mother’s hand, anything to give her a signal. She looked up at him fazed and said, “I’m not picky young man, just sit them over there on the nightstand, Miles will set up a blanket for us two down by the pond in a bit.”
Sean’s face crumpled from statue to thunderhead, but before he could open his mouth, Miles snatched him by the shoulder to the corner. “Sean, do not do this. She’s got nothing else. She’s all alone till I can get here, don’t ruin the few times she can enjoy being herself,” he said.
Miles lowered his voice. “I found Daddy.”
Sean looked him in the eyes listless. “You should be ashamed. That won’t bring her back and you know it. You just want her lucid for a second, just long enough to say she loves you one more time. And mean it. And bold-faced lying to your mother like that to do it, just pushing her deeper in her head. You might not see it, but I sure do, she gets farther away quicker than the last. Each chance you get, you let her drift off to New York, China, or even if she says she fought little men on Jupiter. It’s not a mercy, you’re just sitting there, watching her drown, Miles! When she comes back for air, you don’t pull her out, you just push her right back under—right back to Candy Land. I know she hates it here, she wants to be somewhere else, but don’t be selfish Milo.”
Miles turned back to look at Jamie, scrambling through drawers for the glasses hanging around her neck. Sean spoke directly into his ear: “Please don’t do it. You love them more than that. We’ve seen more than enough. Sam and Danny don’t need this.”
Sean’s voice hitched. “I showed her Becky’s ultrasound. Her grandson. She smiled at it and asked me if Border Collies shed that bad. Miles, look at me. I pointed to it, ‘that’s going to be Cole, Mama.’ She patted my hand and said, ‘That’s a beautiful name,’ and I went to get her some water. She turned around and told me to sit down, I’m the best nurse she’s had all day, the other ones can go get the coal.”
Miles grabbed the nearest blanket and the sandwiches to corral his mother towards the door, but Sean planted himself in the way.
“Here you go ma’am, already had your glasses, looks like,” said Sean, pointing to the chain around her neck.
“Thank you, shug! I get so absent-minded sometimes,” she laughed.
“Not a problem at all. And ma’am, so sorry to bother you about this, but could you tell me more about your other son, Sean? He said over the phone he’d show up for the picnic, but I can go look for him to make sure he didn’t get lost. The hallways are real confusing in here, I swear.”
Jamie held her breath. “Well,” she began, “He’s always had the smoothest honey hair, a gorgeous grin, and a little boy on the way! Make sure to ask him about that, he lights right up, you’ll know it’s him from the smile. He can’t wait to be a daddy.”
Without missing a beat, Sean pointed to himself in the family photo on her mantle. “Is that your son?”
Jamie gave him a kind, curious look. She tapped her forked fingers against her chin, like she could not decide whether to take a drag from a cigarette. Miles saw her concentrate, her jaw bulged against her teeth. She crumpled her fingers back into her pocket in defeat.
Sean looked across the room at Miles. A gnarled smile etched into his cheeks, twisting his glistening eyes further back. “Have a nice day you two. And congratulations ma’am, for stopping smoking. It had to be difficult, I know my mother had a hard time with it,” said Sean. He walked out the door and dabbed the collar of his jacket at his eyes.
“Thank you, honey! It was the hardest thing I ever did, but it was sure worth it! Didn’t want them growing up sick, so I did it for my two boys.”
Miles almost feels sick to his stomach. He watches her snow-white head bob in her wheelchair, out at the dock. The swans flutter across the pond and pirouette closer to her. His fingers rub the worn folds of the two pictures in the plastic of his wallet. Cammie and himself, tottering in the lake holding up Sam and Danny, grabbing at their parents’ hair. Miles as a child, stoic while Sean cracked his winning smile—Jamie squeezing his shoulder to get him to sit still. He flicked out the photo of Richard Connelly and slipped the wallet back into his pocket.
“Hi Momma, how’re the water lilies this morning?” asks Miles, the iron patio chair scraping the dock as he pulled it next to her wheelchair.
“Oh Richard, darling, they’re just grand. Look at that one there, as white as snow, that one,” she said. She withdrew her hand from underneath her quilt, leaning towards Miles, her hand wavering at the willow at the other end of the pond. The warm wind slipped the lily closer to the pier, like a blushing classmate passing a valentine across the desk towards them.
Both of them look over the pond at the geese flying in an arrowhead loosed to land thankfully far away. Somewhere else than the bleached village milling with calloused women in bleached frocks, wheeling about aimless men and women with bleached hair. Miles saw the geese snag one man’s gaze, carrying it for him. Maybe to Florida.
He digs into his pocket and slides her the crisp new photograph. Miles nestles the picture into her aged leather hands. “You can keep this one of the grandkids, ma. Put it on your mantle next to the other pictures.”
She smiles, her eyes drifting back to the swans.
“Danny and Sam are really enjoying their new school. We moved down to Tampa a bit back, and Sam’s already got herself a place in the school play. She’s going to be a great Dorothy, but we were worried a bit about Danny. It was all for nothing, though, since he’s gotten keen on the Scouts. It’s something new every month with him, but hey, at least it’s expanding his horizons. Well, he’s still as fired up as ever to play baseball every week. Got a great arm, that boy. Cammie’s having a time getting the house straightened since by the time the kids get home, everything’s scattered across the house again. You know how Cammie is, she always has to be worked up over something.”
Jamie continues to sway in her chair.
“She doesn’t mind though, especially when the kids ask if friends can come over,” says Miles.
He paused. “What do you think about somewhere warmer, Mama?” A swan flies over the willow and her head turns with it. Miles watches her lips chanting silently, maybe reminding herself to tie off a few floating memories. Anchored so they don’t drift away like lilies.
He brushes a fly away from her eyelid.
“The flies and mosquitos aren’t as bad down there since we have a place on the waterfront. There’s a breeze. It wouldn’t take too long to pack a bag and get on the road. The folks here could drive the rest to us, and you could tell me your stories every day,” Miles says.
He holds the picture of Richard in front of her vacant eyes.
“I found Daddy, Ma. A colonel at Camp Atterbury, said he was a historian, found him for me. He told me that his medical record was pulled after he got back from Vietnam. They think the defoliants gave him leukemia, but he waited too long. Could you tell me about him, Mama?”
Jamie laughs a little to herself, dragging out the last chuckle till her breath faded.
Miles exhaled raggedly. “You let him go, so we wouldn’t see him lose who he was, didn’t you?”
Her head bobs with the light that dances around the lily, ebbing closer. She offers an agape grin. “Richie, do you remember telling me that? About the lilies on the river? I’d try to save one for the mantle, but it’d always die after a day or so. But you told me, ‘Jamie, just let it be.’”
She closes her trembling hand around his. She turns to him with a sharpness Miles couldn’t recognize in her anymore, two of her shaking fingers on her left hand stretching into a V.
“’Richie, you’d tell me, ‘Jamie, just leave the lilies be,’” she says, her voice catching in her throat. “They always find their way back, as white as you saw them last, even if they dry out, they’ll come back if you put them where they belong.’ And then you put the lily back in the river, and wouldn’t you know it, the next morning it was as white as the snow. I think about that more than you’d imagine...Richie.”
Miles holds her hand as her eyes struggle to train on the lily, glistening with tears, but she couldn’t follow it as the pad drifts under the pier. He twists his wedding band around his finger, looks down at it and grimaces. He hears the words echo, but is numb to any feeling of them.
“Mama, what would you say about heading home with me? Sam and Danny would like to see you and I’m sure Cammie wouldn’t mind after a bit. What do you say? I think it’s about time, Mama.”
She turns back to Miles with a bewildered look, unfurling her hand from his. She looks back out over the pond with placid eyes.
Miles turns away, shoving his hands into his pockets. He stands up and leaves his chair next to her. He kisses her forehead. She jolts, and sternly returns to the water. He places the picture of Richard on her quilted lap.
“I love you Mama,” said Miles.
Her brow furrows and her sloped frown purses. She turns to face the swans soaring over the tree line. She points to the lone bird that fades into a “V” in the bruising sunset, but lowers her finger to the willow beneath it.
“Hey Richard, you see that water lily over there beneath that tree? Remember that time you took me down to the river?”
He opens his mouth to speak, to ask her to tell him the story one more time like he had never heard it before, to egg her on at the same pauses so she can get wound up and say, “It’s true! I know it, I know it!” at the same jokes that she sparks life into. So she can laugh again. And he can ache again. But he fastens his mouth shut.
His iron chair screeches against the pier when he starts to walk away, but turns back when she began to speak.
“Has that woman had her baby yet?” Jamie asks.
Rivulets of tears trickle down to meet the corners of his smile. Miles says, “Becky had Cole last week. Sean says your grandson will be wild since there was a full moon out.”
Jamie sighs, sliding back in her chair—the last of the tension in her leaking out through her settling bones. The crook of her two fingers relax against the side of her wheelchair, allowing the last memory of her cigarettes to slip into the water.
He settles his ring back in place, and walks back to the truck in silence.
Miles shifts the rearview mirror back on his mother. A man, a nurse, walks over and sits down in the chair next to her, nodding along as she waves her hands. The nurse laughs and so does she. Miles hopes more than anything that the engine turns over.
It ignites immediately and the gravel clacks against the truck until he gets to the highway. Miles looks up at the moon, but is weighed down by either sorrow or relief as the sun floats down over the valley and the swans flap away from the village.