In this case, seeing is not quite believing. He first insists it is a mistake, his mother’s name co-opted from that of a bystander, perhaps, by a rookie staff reporter. Ace scans the half-column article in the section “Out and About” that explored a neighborhood summer festival. There was a battle of the bands and one rock band on the rise, Harry and the Hurons, was headlining that date. A few folks listening to the music were briefly interviewed.
“We came for cheap drinks and hot dogs but, yeah, the boys in the bands first, right girls?” Ellen Smalley of Troy, laughed.
She brought two friends along to enjoy free entertainment and a fun afternoon in the hot July sun. Seated with Miss Smalley, center, is Bethany Janson, left, also of Troy and Candy Lister, right, of Detroit.
When could that have been, nineteen seventy-what? She wouldn’t have met their dad by then, would she? He smooths the paper on the kitchen table and looks up at Deanna.
“You found this stuck behind dad’s old tool box by the work table?”
He has stopped by after her phone call and a cunning invitation to come over by enticing him with: “I found a surprise about mom, maybe both parents.” She stirs sugar into his coffee mug and sets it down with a thump, steaming liquid splashing over the edge. He jerks his hand away and is about to say something but she is filling her own mug.
“It was actually in a worn cardboard accordion file behind the tool box on a shelf. There are lots of things in there. I didn’t look too much. It felt…weird, like I had stumbled on private things.”
“Well, you did. We never saw this. What else did you find?”
Deanna pulls out the chair and settles into it like a yellow cloud as her bulky sweater envelops her frame. He squints closer at the picture, then back at Deanna. He examines the newspaper’s capture of the woman’s eyes and eyebrows, the shape of jaw and chin. That hair. The mouth with barest pout. The similarity of that mouth and his sister’s registers as a tiny twinge under his breastbone but it still isn’t definitive.
“Oh, a few other regular pictures, a couple of dad playing ball in college, I think. An early certificate of recognition for his work at the plastics lab. Other stuff, I don’t know. What do you think of the newspaper picture, though?”
It doesn’t so much strike him as their mother. “More like a relative, like family we knew but hardly talked to, lived off Third Street near the lumber store, our second or third cousins.” He blows across the coffee’s surface. “Last time I heard from them was…don’t even know.”
“It was at dad’s funeral, going on eight years now.”
“Yeah, I guess.”
He looks around the spacious off-white, rectangular room. The same type of (or were they the same ones?) blue and white checkered curtains have hung here since he left for college–the last time it was re-done. He has returned for Christmas a few times. And their dad’s funeral. The white-painted pine table is still sturdy and takes up a length of wall beneath a large bay window in the kitchen. He used to make a breakfast mess here, get unsolicited advice, practice a speech for school, fight with his sister, get kissed by his mother on the forehead, share Sunday comics with his dad and get smacked across the back of his head when he didn’t mind his manners. All right here, a time so long passed.
“I never heard her talk about either of these girls, though. This was a long time ago, even before dad, I suspect.” Deanna seems upset by the mystery.
He finds it a curiosity to survey and put in place on a timeline.
“But he kept it a lifetime for some good reason.”
“Maybe he met her that very day.” She smiles to herself more than at Ace, as if savoring the romance of such a possibility. “But she is so lovely here, isn’t she? I mean, so full-bodied and young. Man, so different…”
“If it’s even her! I’d ask her sometime when you two are sipping a glass of wine and watching one of your shows. Make it kind of casual, be nice so she isn’t unhappy you snooped around out there.”
Ace has other things to do but he had been in town more than a week without calling them or stopping over. Thus, he feels obligated to hang out. In three weeks he is to begin what he hopes is a new chapter, no longer a lab tech like his dad was before he rose to lab manager and then headed up some projects. No, Ace is now a bona fide earth sciences teacher. He wants to look up a couple old friends, get his apartment in shape. Locate the new, up and coming establishments for dining and drinking.
He feels a shade guilty about his anticipation. A shadow drapes over Deanna’s face like a veil, then it moves, exposing fine lines and eyes bloodshot from too much computer work. She was married ten years but now is back at their parents’ three bedroom house. It has no spacious back yard to redeem its ordinariness. When he walked through earlier he paused at the back door. The cement patio looks as if it’s about to cave under its charmlessness, giving in to a mob of dandelions and cracks that snake their way to the screen door. He might have to do something about this. But he didn’t return to become a big part of their lives. He doubts they want that, either. Too much time has passed between them, a swift river, taking bits and pieces of them to other destinations.
“The thing I can’t get over is how much rounder she is. It makes her look sweet. I mean, she has always had so many edges…She looks a little sad, though, don’t you think? I wonder what that Ellen girl is telling her?”
“I think you should put it back. Unless you want to unleash mom’s wrath. But I’d like the whole story, too. It might be nothing more that a random picture for the paper that dad found and liked a lot. Her youth and all.”
Deanna pushes back her dark straight hair and looks at him a full three seconds before she asks, “Why are you back here, Ace? In Detroit area? You vowed never to return. I didn’t expect it.”
“Ditto, kid, you, either.”
Her cheeky face starts to crumple at his sharpness but she has never been one to go down the first strike so she straightens her back, making her good-sized frame appear larger. Ace stifles a grin; it is a bit like old times. He leans forward.
She folds her arms across her chest. “Well, divorce has side effects, like costing too much money. Impacting state of mind. I have my sanity overall and I have my legal assistant job. I’ll be out of this house in a year or less. What’s your excuse?”
He leans back and balances on the back two legs like he used to, even though it’s hard to not teeter. “I always wanted to teach, I just never made a big thing of it since I seemed destined to be a lab rat all my life, too. But I did youth volunteer work in Philly and I like high school kids, how their minds work. So I look forward to sharing ideas and knowledge they don’t have.”
Deanna’s laughter explodes, then subsides. “I can just see it! You like to have such mastery over things. But kids aren’t controllable like experiments and processes in a sanitized environment.”
“I’m giving it a real try.” He wants to challenge her, inform her of his excellent skills but he holds steady. They are both smart enough; they both want better, even at forty and forty-five. “I want to succeed–so I will.”
She nods and lazily stretches. Then her face hovers once more over the picture of their mother who has come from way back of their dad’s tool box to puzzle them.
“Just who was she, this young woman? I have never seen a picture of her this age. In fact, very few before she married dad. She always says they got lost during moves.”
“I can’t find our mother there, really.” He’s about over this moody nonsense. He lets the two legs thud onto the vinyl flooring. “She looks like someone who really thinks before she speaks, who has all the time in the world to do things but she’s figuring it all out first. Not really like mom.”
“Mom has always lived minute to minute, especially since dad passed. She really does think on her feet–her work demands that.” She holds the paper between them so they can both see it. “Can’t you see it, hope still filling her up with dreams? Like she is someone you want to hug close.”
It takes him by surprise, the hurt of this truthful asssessment, or the lack of those qualities in her. Their mother full of affection and tender dreams? She hasn’t shown them so much of that. Love, it was –is–there. Efficient and hard-working, a devoted partner for their demanding, bright father. A reliable, mostly reasonable mother who has also had a habit of grinding in occasional spiky words. Yes, she looked more open then. Maybe vulnerable. Pensive as the shutter closed. A moment in a life they did not share with her.
He thinks he would like a copy. And then Deanna should put it back and leave it alone.
They both freeze as they hear her step hard on the wooden porch steps, then turn the door knob. Deanna and Ace hold each other’s eyes a fraction of a moment as if to hang on to this frail thread they are reweaving. Before it is frayed again.
Bethany Janson Fishel’s home-dyed dark head pops in, a skimpy wave escaping from her wide-brimmed felt hat and falling forward. Her arms are around two grocery bags. “Who parked their big ole silver truck in my driveway, Dee? I had to park out front!”
Ace stands up first, then Deanna rushes forward to get the bags, talking as she moves.
“Mom, it’s Ace here, he’s moving back! Take off your coat and sit down. I’ll get these.”
Their mother stops and turns, hands in mid-air as they’re emptied of supplies, her direct gaze made fierce by scrunched brows. He comes forward four steps and holds out his hands.
After shrugging off the coat onto a living room chair, she’s pushing up her sweater sleeves as if getting ready to attack more work or start a “play” fight. “Arnold, you’ve decided to come around. There must be news. Well!”
He winces at his birth name. She’s skinny as ever, a narrow woman with a hunch in the shoulders. She strides over as if she hasn’t been on her feet all day. Takes his broad palms into her chilled, thin ones. There is a slight squeeze, then she lets go.
“You got that new job?”
“That’s good. Better to be working then not. You’ll have some challenges with such a big change, not the least of which are the teen-agers!” She follows after Deanna and the bags, then starts to unload them. “Staying for dinner?”
Deanna waits for direction, then sits down. “I say stay.”
“Yes, Arnold, catch us up. I doubt we’ll see you for another three or four months so let’s do this while we have a chance.”
“Mom, it’s been ‘Ace’ since eleventh grade. As you know. And that’s a heck of a way to comment on my new job–and coming to visit you two before I’m even all moved in.”
“Now, never mind. Where will you be living?”
“Over in Royal Oak, not far from Birmingham. Small but newer one bedroom apartment.”
She clamps hands on hips, squares her shoulders. The blue hospital uniform is baggy on her. It startles him to take in the fact that she’s still a warhorse of a nurse. Her first job was before he was in school. The same county hospital for the last twenty-five years, almost unheard of loyalty.
“Have to watch the uppity factor over there or you may not cast a shadow on this street without regretting it,” she says in that edgy voice reserved for warnings or corrections. She nearly smiles. “Excuse me a minute while I change my work clothes.”
As soon as their mother leaves the room, Deanna stands close to her brother at the refrigerator. “I forgot to put away the newspaper clipping,” she whispers. “I’m taking it to my room.”
Ace stops her. “No, leave it for me. I want a copy. Put it in my backpack.”
Deanna has trouble with the zippers so he trots over to her in the living room where he left it in an ancient leather chair. The zipper won’t budge. He opens a smaller compartment, rearranges things, takes out a hardback in which to place the clipping.
“What are you squirreling away?” Bethany asks. “Looks like old newspaper.”
Deanna and Ace freeze, the clipping in his hand, her body making an obvious move to block his.
Their mother gestures her aside. “No, I want to see. Is it something you dare not share with your mother? Even better!”
She holds out her hand, like when they were kids and she demanded some small contraband.
They want to deny her access, stuff it into the pocket and lead her into the kitchen. Make pork chops and green beans and a chopped salad. But they know better. Deanna leads the way, sits on the couch, then their mother. Ace last. She turns on the floor lamp. Deanna reaches across, takes the clipping from Ace.
“I found this in dad’s things in the garage. I’m sorry. But I wondered about it so showed it to Ace.”
The newspaper clipping is handed to her. She snags the edge, then holds it close to her eyes. They watch her face but it says nothing. Rather, it says to them “private, keep out”. Her hand trembles the smallest amount. She lays the clipping in her lap, keeps searching the page, her mouth a compressed line from which more lines creep out and down. She’s whittled way down, more than before. Ace sees how old she is, sixty-seven, still working, not able to call it a day. He cannot imagine she can ever die, and then wonders why he has such thoughts. She’s fine, just caught off-guard.
Oak branches rub against the grey siding and cars stop and start on the street. Deanna’s hand is pressed against her chest through the canary yellow sweater. Their mother is so still.
Ace broke the spell. “Mom.”
Deanna grabs his wrist and he leaves it there, her hand proof they are actually back on this too-firm, nubby couch. Together despite their desire to separate from it all long ago.
Bethany Janson Fishel speaks as if she is alone and only the wind has ears.
“My, not even nineteen. That Ellen, what a gossip. Candy…hardly recall. I’m waiting for the rock band to quit playing, the lead singer to come down, sit by me. Harry, love of my life, I suppose.”
Her children are flummoxed. She tries to hide, chin-length hair swinging over her profile.
“Your father was his friend, sound guy who thought he’d go pro. He was hired for the longer piece of the road trip. He fell for me that week, too, but I didn’t know it yet. I had eyes only for Harry Starken.” Her right forefinger taps her chin. “Maybe your dad liked to remember happier moments, before he knew about us.” She pauses, each word a small stone thrown into deep water. “Before Harry died, overdose, cocaine. On the road, me left behind.”
She sucks her lower lip in hard, then lets it go slack.
Deanna’s breath is sucked deep into her. Ace feels his heart hit a rough spot and shift. Their serious father, a wannabe sound guy? Mom, in love with the Hurons’ lead singer? He can’t feature it, but there it is.
Their mother folds the clipping, presses it into Deanna’s hands. Looks them both right in the eyes, her own empty of the old barriers that have strained to keep so much under wraps. Such tenderness and sorrow, lostness and courage. Being found out. More things only she will decipher, unravel long into the coming night.
“His death is why I became a nurse. Your dad and you kids, are why I’ve worked hard so long. Have had some fine times. It all fell together.”
And then she is on her feet and moving into the kitchen, pulling out pans and pots, getting food for dinner, calling them to come help.
Ace stands up with care. He has to make certain he won’t lose balance and steadies his sister, too, whose eyes are wide with astonishment. He links an arm through hers and they join their mother. He suspects the two of them will meet for lunch soon.