A Mostly Sunny Skyby A.M. Garner
i. boredom, excitement, a hurricane
If I have to hear the Weather Channel guy’s ho-hum voice describe one more time the Alberta Clipper headed toward North Alabama for Christmas Day, my brain may just go ahead and die. What I need is an hour to sit in the recliner, become the master of the remote, find a golf tournament, maybe in Hawaii with green grass and warm blue water in the background. Instead, I am Claire’s slave, Claire’s bitch for the day, and Claire wants the television tuned to The Weather Channel.
“The guy uses the ‘s’ word too much,” I say to Claire.
“You mean Bill Keneely, Bradley. That’s Bill Keneely.”
“No responsible person would use the word ‘snow’ that much on Christmas Eve. Kids won’t ever go to bed.”
Our two children, Mary Claire and B.B., their eyes large and unblinking, look briefly at me before turning back to the television. Tomato soup dribbles out of their spoons, down their chins, and onto their cup towel bibs.
Claire claims she wants the television tuned to the Weather Channel so that the kids can see the radar of Santa’s sleigh. “Besides,” she says, pulling me into the hall to explain, “they play carols during the local forecast, and the CD player broke yesterday after someone tried to play a pop tart. Plus,” she continues, “there’s no violence on The Weather Channel.”
“Hurricanes are violent. And tornadoes.” I challenge her.
“Different kind of violence,” says Claire.
I’m confused. “So it’s not enough that the kids aren’t allowed to see this bad kind of violence, you have to pull me out here into the hall to whisper to me about it?” I ask, “As if the word ‘violence’ itself is too much for them?”
Claire does not become weepy and back down. “No silly. I brought you out here,” she whispers, “to see if you had found it yet.”
It is a dirty stuffed toy, Cuddly, Mary Claire’s favorite, a fuzzy raccoon with a sewn-on grin and a red plush heart attached to his hands which are hot-glued together into a permanent hug. Cuddly and only Cuddly, lost since Halloween, is what Mary Claire says she wants for Christmas. All the trips in the world down the Barbie aisle of Toys R Us cannot divert her attention.
“We’re not finding it, Claire. Give up. Let it go.”
“What about the Seibels’ house?”
“It’s not there, Claire. We’ve checked everywhere. Called everyone. Cuddly escaped. Was hugged one too many times. Is off in Cuddly cyberspace somewhere. I DON’T KNOW.”
Claire puts her finger to her lips to quiet me.
“What?” I ask, probably too loud. “Now I can’t say ’Cuddly’ out loud?”
I observed the craziness in Claire’s family before I married Claire but—succumbing to the twin juggernauts of inspired, available sex and Claire’s beauty—rationalized that the crazy gene had bypassed Claire the same way that her mother’s saggy breasts didn’t seem a future possibility on Claire’s tight body. A lot of people give lip service to having crazy families. An old bachelor uncle, maybe, turns up drunk on Dec. 26 for Christmas dinner. Cute story over drinks. Claire’s family is really crazy. The kind of people who turn up on the front page of the local paper. Often.
When Claire’s mother was found dead on her own back doorsteps, the headline read “Woman Found Dead of Own Recycling” with a photo of the sheriff, the coroner, and the meter reader who discovered the body. They posed beside the steps lined with the stacks of newspapers upon which she had stepped on, slipped down, and been sent to her death tumble. A cautionary tale.
Two months later, Claire’s brother came over to show Claire another headline: “Beloved Doctor’s Truck Found.” Days earlier, Claire’s uncle Carlton carefully parked his truck beside a local gas station before disappearing into the woods. So far he hadn’t returned.
“I know the article makes us look bad—saying no one can legally search for him until the family declares him missing—but he always shows back up, ” Claire reasoned.
This was true. Whereas Claire’s mother saved large stacks of newspapers and installed on all of her interior doors deadbolt locks opened only with separate keys, Claire’s uncle Carlton is chased by the CIA and something he calls shifting shadows. Heading out for Memphis, he might turn up at Disney World or Philadelphia, dazed and confused, the local authorities calling back to Alabama for a family member to come pick him up.
“He’s such a good doctor. His patients love him,” said Claire.
“He’s brilliant,” Claire’s brother said, “on his meds.” Then added, “but remember Great-Grandfather,”
I knew that story, too. How the man carrying a length of rope walked across the deep cotton fields and into the woods. How the only way they ever found him was by watching for circling buzzards.
“And what about Aunt Sister?” Claire whispered. Aunt Sister had never known life as an adult outside of an institution. Even the crazies who didn’t recognize their own insanity knew Aunt Sister was nuts.
I watch Claire’s breasts for signs of sagging. Two kids and they’re still the breasts I married.
But the Christmas thing has me worried, the way Claire obsesses over the smallest detail. For the wreaths and trees, only the freshest boxwood or indigenous fir. Only handmade ornaments. All bows tied one precise way. When Claire had the kitchen painted, she took her grandmother’s antique red Kitchen Aid mixer to the paint store for an exact match. Claire arranged a photo shoot where her art photographer friend Adrienne was to take pictures of us making Christmas cookies in the red kitchen, using the red mixer. The night before the shoot, the mixer died. Claire was so distraught I took off early from work the next day to arrive home just in the nick of time, lugging a brand new Kitchen Aid mixer in a box. I felt like Superman.
Claire’s eyes were swollen. “I cancelled the shoot,” she said.
“Call her back. I got another mixer, honey.”
She glanced at the box, then back at me, her eyes cold, accusing. “It’s not Grandmother’s. It’s not even red.”
I sit in front of the television and hear two stanzas of The Weather Channel’s version of the theme from Peanuts before the local forecast cuts, abruptly ending the serenade. I am irritated The Weather Channel considers the Peanuts theme as Christmas music. The children popped out of bed most of the night. Looking for snow. Needing water. Faking scared. Needing to pee. Looking for snow. By three AM, Mary Claire and B.B. seemed comatose, so Claire sent me to the attic and the garage to retrieve the shopping bags stuffed with the Santa loot. Left up to me, I’d dump the toys, price tags and all, on the sofas in the living room and be back in bed in less than fifteen minutes. Not Claire. She arranges and rearranges the toys. She empties everything out of the stockings and starts from scratch three times.
“I want the toys cascading out, like a cornucopia. Not falling out like Santa’s sleigh had a wreck,” she says. When she gets everything perfect, she gets out the cameras, 35mm and video, for testing.
It is almost dawn when we finish. We’re scarcely back in bed long enough to warm the sheets when we hear Mary Claire and B.B. giggling.
“No sir. No ma’am,” Claire calls to them. “You know the rules.”
The rules are that Claire has to comb their hair and straighten their Christmas pajamas, then go downstairs and make sure all of the lighting is perfect before B.B. and Mary Claire are allowed down the staircase, the spotlight from the video camera causing them to squint and hold their hands up in front of their faces.
I go down the stairs right behind Claire then watch Mary Claire and B.B. ward off the bright camera light. My delicate blonde daughter, quivering and hopeful, tiptoes down the stairs, stands in the foyer, and looks through the double doorway into the living room toward the sofa that obviously holds her gifts. A sofa full of everything except what she really wants with all of her heart. No Cuddly. B.B. bounds into the living room, shouts and whoops, and turns to share with me his good fortune. “Look, Dad!” He holds up a fly rod, a smaller version of one I have. Mary Claire bursts into tears and runs back upstairs to her room. Claire gives me one of those looks that let me know that every problem in the whole wide world—war, famine, pestilence—is my fault.
“Did you get that on film, Claire?” I ask.
I sit on the sofa in the family room, a mug of coffee in my right hand, a shot of Bourbon in my left. When the phone rings, I look at first one hand, then the other. Claire strides into the room to answer it.
I listen to the conversation and know what’s coming when Claire hangs up.
“Your mother. Has fever. She won’t be coming for dinner after all.” Claire looks stunned. Then I watch another light bulb explode in Claire’s brain. “Bradley, your mother was supposed to bring the turkey,” she says.
“I never really liked turkey,” I say. Claire is not taking this well, so I’d better get busy talking. “We never even had turkey when I was growing up. Turkey was considered a Yankee tradition, a plot to take over our holidays. The first Thanksgiving was actually in Virginia, remember, and they didn’t even have turkey. They ate venison. We always had ham at Christmas.” I go into the kitchen, pour a cup of coffee for Claire, and bring it to her, a peace offering. Claire is a Category I but rapidly strengthening.
B.B., God love him, comes into the room at that precise moment, a Norman Rockwell portrait of happiness and appreciation, holding in front of him a new glove and baseball. “Wanna play on the pitch-back?” he asks.
My heart pounds with gratitude and love. The pitch-back sits in the cold yard, its bright orange metal frame a warm beacon.
“It’s too cold,” Claire begins.
But B.B and I are too quick for her. I grab my old weathered catcher’s mitt from the basket beside the back door plus a couple of sweatshirts from hooks in the mudroom.
“You’ll get an earache,” Claire calls as we go out the door.
B.B.’s cheeks are red and my right hand, the hand without a glove, feels stiff from the cold. The Weather Channel is correct about the Alberta Clipper. No sunshine, just cold, grey sky, and wind. B.B. picks up the pace, running back and forth to field balls that the pitch-back bounces into the yard. As I think that I, too, need to pick up the pace if I intend to stay warm, something bright red at the backyard gate catches my peripheral vision. Goodknight Hill stands shoeless, wearing a red fleece shirt.
“Good Lord, Goody, how long you been standing there?” From the way he shivers,
I can tell he’s been there a while. “And where are your shoes, man?”
“I thought maybe you could loan me some. And the leaf blower, too.”
Goody Hill and I ended up back in the Land of Cotton around the same time, Goody dodging trouble in Chicago, while I was just sick of the living in the suburban doughnut that surrounds our nation’s capitol. Not long after we moved back, I stood in the front yard one Saturday morning laying brick borders around flower beds Claire had outlined with a garden hose. Goody, walking through the neighborhood and looking for odd jobs, showed me how to dig the shallow trench, mix the mortar, line up the bricks like soldiers. One morning a few weeks later, my secretary Margaret said there was a call waiting from my gardener. “I don’t have a gardener,” I told her, embarrassed. When I clicked on the line, it was Goody. We are the same height, the same size and build. My maternal grandmother was a Goodknight, Frances Elizabeth Goodknight, married a Davis, but I have never mentioned this to Goody.
Just inside the door of the mudroom, I retrieve from the large basket of sports equipment a pair of running shoes plus socks. Goody sits down on a bench on the deck to put on the shoes.
“B.B., you need to go inside and get warm now,” I say, adding, “Help your mama if she asks you,” knowing that B.B. will be sure to do whatever I ask.
Then Goody and I head out to the workroom attached to the old brick carriage house that has served for the last three generations as a garage, the bays so short that before Claire and I buy a car or truck, we must first measure it.
ii. can this Christmas be saved?
Goody begins telling me the story before I even have to ask.
“I was sittin’ in the front room, and the kids done got their Santa Claus. Ever’one bitchin’. Nobody happy. So I just walk out.” Goody looks at me for sympathy and then down at his feet. “If I go back to the bedroom to get my shoes, I have to walk right by her, in the kitchen.”
The her is Shauntrice, Goody’s wife, who has the only solid income in the household with the job she’s had for years out at the fireworks plant. Shauntrice goes to work early every morning, leaving Goody to get the kids on the school bus that comes to the houses of those who can afford no other way to get their kids to school. Then Goody puts meat, onions, carrots, and potatoes into a slow cooker and, on days fit for work, walks all over town, looking for odd jobs.
“But why the leaf blower?”
“Gotta tell her somethin’. That maple at the edge of the yard been holdin’ its leaves ‘til last week. I tell her I came over here to get the blower to clean it all up. Nice and neat. Like she like it.”
I have turned on the small gas space heater under the window where Goody now stands warming his hands in front of the blue flame as if roasting marshmallows. Across the room at the workbench, I mix a small can of blue additive into a gallon of gasoline for the leaf blower. In the last two years, we have had some good conversations in this room.
“And you done start drinkin’,” Goody says. More observance than accusation.
“Hell, isn’t it.” I get an idea. “You need a ride home, don’t you?” I ask. Goody no longer drives since he has been pulled over so many times without a license that every cop in the city and county knows him. He can’t get a license because he has never been able to get his birth certificate sent down from Chicago. “Ride with me out to the country. I need to look for something.”
“Sure thing.” Goody has stopped shivering.
I find Claire in the kitchen and hug her from behind as she stands at the sink, holding her briefly before kissing the back of her neck. I know she hates this, but feel her soften slightly and, surprisingly, give in to me before she grabs a cup towel, dries her hands, and turns to me, laying her head on my shoulder.
“I’m going out to the camp. Did we ever look out there?”
“Of course we did.”
“But did we look in the boat?”
Claire looks up at me with those eyes that ‘til this day make my heart stop, deep blue with flames of gold around the pupil. She’s looking for answers. “Santa’s already come, Bradley. What difference does it make at this point? Santa came and he didn’t bring Cuddly.”
“We could sneak it under the tree, maybe under the tree skirt or something. Kind of like the Red Ryder rifle in ‘A Christmas Story’. Or like the little sleigh bell left behind in ‘The Polar Express’.”
I feel Claire warming to my flair for the dramatic.
“OK,” she says, “but be back soon.”
On the way out the door, the blue screen of The Local Forecast predicts a cold drive ahead for me and Goody, but the song is better: Jingle Bells. I grab the bourbon from the counter and a jar of cashews. Goody throws the leaf blower and gas can into the back of the truck.
The twenty minutes it takes to drive the twelve miles out to the camp—which in fact is just a small cabin beside a lake formed by a large, dammed river—usually helps me get my thoughts straight better than any hour I ever spent in therapy.
After winding through the quiet streets, we find ourselves in the blank winter canvas of empty cotton fields. Nothing left but stubble and the few stray tags of grey cotton like tiny heaps of dirty snow by the roadside. Holding the bourbon bottle between my legs, I unscrew the cap, take a healthy, burning, two-swallow gulp, and pass the bottle to Goody.
“Too early.” He looks at me warily.
“You won’t be encouraging me,” I tell him. “I’m gonna drink anyway.”
Goody takes a coward’s sip with his eyes closed. He doesn’t pass the bottle back.
After passing through a cow pasture, the road once again heads out through the open cotton fields. I crave the simplicity of it. The cold has beaten down the roadside growth so the road runs seamlessly through the fields, just another furrow, as if I could steer the truck off the unlined grey pavement onto the frozen ground at any moment, in any direction. At the edge of a field, an old barn leans. A line of simple wooden poles holding electrical wires leads off into the distance.
When Claire and I moved South into the house where my grandparents lived as a young couple, we knew we also wanted a place on the river. We looked on the fashionable side of town near the country club where Claire’s brother has Christmas dinner with his wife’s family. But Claire and I liked this other side of town, the wild, barely inhabited side of the county, the side of town where no one from here goes. Then to clinch the deal, we decided to be environmentally friendly and own no toys requiring petroleum products. A lake house without power toys in the South is a lake house without visitors. Plus, we have no television.
“What do y’all do out there?” my sister-in-law wondered.
Claire looked at me and smiled.
Goody and I are almost to the camp, and I am beginning to feel dulled out and hopeful. When we get to the gate, I get out of the truck and unlock it, then drive down the long driveway through the towering, bare sycamores and hickories to the water before I park. Walking to the house, all I can hear is the crunch of leaves under our feet, the high-pitched whine of the tires of a distant, invisible pick up truck back out on the road.
The inside of the cabin is so cold that each breath makes a small cloud as we talk. Although we have searched the house before, I go through the motions, Goody helping me out. “You looked in here?” Goody asks, going into the back bedroom with the bunk beds. Claire carefully stripped the cabin down for the winter, stripped the beds of all linens and the sofas of their slipcovers. No debris. No extras to obscure our search. No “Where’s Waldo” effort required. Cuddly is not here, as I suspected.
“Come on,” I motion to Goody, and we head out the lakeside door onto the long screened porch then down the walk to the boathouse. I’m feeling lucky now. I flip the switch that lowers the boat. After several years of averting visitors, Claire and I figured it was safe to get a beat up fishing boat no one would think to ski behind. Goody helps me remove the cover. In my mind, I can already see Cuddly resting in one of the wells, his silly smile mocking me as I lift up the wooden seat to look inside. But hope is not enough, and wishing doesn’t make it so. Goody helps me put the cover back on the boat before I flip the power switch to the hoist that lifts the boat back into its winter position that will protect it from the rising floods come spring. The lake, which winks and glints silver in summer, lays flat like cold, hard steel.
“Come on, man,” Goody says. “Let’s go back to the truck.”
The warmth from the truck heater is welcome. When our breaths fog the windows, Goody flips the air flow to Defrost.
“Where’d that bottle go?” I ask.
But Goody finds the jar of cashews and orders me to hold out one palm. We both eat a couple of handfuls before he retrieves the bourbon and hands it to me.
Back out on the road I notice the bare bones of the land without the kindness of grass, gullies eating one field, a pile of rocks at the edge of another. Winter is four days old, but in my bones I feel the seasons tilt.
“I think maybe I’m getting old,” I say.
“No sleep. Drinkin’ too early, all.”
I’m not quite ready to go back into town. “Bet I can outrun you,” I challenge Goody. I was fast in baseball, could always be counted on to set the table as a runner on first if my bat made contact with the ball, and I was a first-rate bunter, which gave me even more chances to sprint.
Goody must see where this is heading. “How you figure that when all you do is sit around on yo’ ass all day, me bustin’ mine hustlin’ all over town?”
“I’m serious, Goody.”
“You scared then?”
“Hell naw I ain’t scared. You been drinkin’ more’s all. Wouldn’t be fair. I’d leave yo’ ass in the dust.”
I shove the bottle at him. “Catch up with me then. Make it fair.”
“Turn left up here,” he says before he unscrews the bottle cap, closes his eyes, and drinks as much in one long draw as I’ve had since sun up. “Look like you coulda brought a chaser.”
“I was in a hurry,”
We drive a couple of miles when Goody points to a dirt road on the right. “Go down there,” he says.
“What’s down here?” I ask.
“Road down to my home house, all,” he says.
I ease off the pavement onto the country lane. A barbed–wire fence runs down both sides overgrown with sumac and cedar. Goody has me park about fifty yards from the road. The road bed makes a good course, not hard like pavement but not muddy either in the frozen cold. We both pretend to warm up, stretching, then pick a point at a distance where a fence row cedar bent over, probably in the last ice storm. I jog back up to the road and back. Goody stands watching with his hands on his hips.
We crouch down side by side, each lined up with a tire track leading in front of us down the lane toward the bent cedar. Goody begins the rhythm of the call. “On yo’ mark.” He pauses. “Get set.”
With “go,” I spring forward and feel my legs free themselves from the inertia. I feel the cold air in my face and lungs. The small amount of whiskey I’ve had numbs the pain but does not cut my edge. I’m pumping for everything I’m worth, and I know that Goody is right beside me. No matter how hard I push, we are dead even as we pass the cedar. We run a few steps further and stop, and I lean forward, bracing myself on my knees as I take some deep breaths.
Goody is smiling. “You hurt?”
“No.” I’m catching my breath. “You?”
“I not the one breathing hard.” Goody takes off walking down the lane and I follow. After a bit, he points to a small rise and with a dilapidated, unpainted house falling down in a tangle of bare vines and saplings before he wordlessly turns around and starts back jogging toward the truck out to the main road.
The exertion has done me good. I feel loose and clearheaded as I back the truck out to the main road, but when we reach pavement, Goody tells me not to go back the way we’ve come. He’s got another route he wants to take me on.
“Go down to the next crossroad. Take a right,” he says.
The land is mostly flat with about as much rise and fall as a calm sea. After we turn right, we cross a small swampy stream before passing a stand of pines.
“See that road?” Goody points out a pair of ruts not much more than a wagon path. “Pull over.”
On foot, Goody leads me on the path through the woods to a rise in a brake of trees. With the leaves gone, there is a good view of the cotton land that leads off in the direction of the river. There are thirty or so large, flat smooth rocks and one tall, stark headstone with writing, newer. “What’s this?” I ask.
“Our peoples.” Goody, with a small gesture, indicates the stones on the ground, the upright marker.
I get a sinking feeling and a strong urge for the bottle back in the truck. “You sure who’s buried here?” I ask.
“I might been born in Chicago, but my mama sent me down here ever’ summer. You know them houses you pass on the way to the river?” I nod. “They my cousin. My gran’maw brought me out here sometime. Clean off graves.”
I think maybe Goody is mistaken since I know where my family plot is back in town.
“Go ahead,” he says. “Read it.”
The large headstone is easy to read, but the lettering too new, too crisp to match the old dates chiseled into the granite, the words naming which county in Virginia John Goodknight left to come here, the listing of his two wives, his four sons.
“My gran’maw said that headstone come later. After that bunch out in Texas made all that money.”
Details ring true, but I have questions. “If they made so much money, why just one marker?”
Goody thought about it. “No need to remember the rest,” he said. “The rest just the people he found when he got here. A few he brought with him.”
The endorphins from the run begin to wear off. I’m hollow-sided hungry and my head starts to throb. I figure I must look pretty bad when Goody says, “Could be worse. Over the line”—Goody points toward the state line fifteen miles north—“just the white folk buried facing east. So’s they be the first to rise come Judgment. Here, we all facing South.”
“Towards to river,” I say, looking off across the fields, a romantic vision.
“Towards money,” Goody laughs. “Where the cotton meet the boat.”
I figure there’s lots more Goody could tell me if the wind hadn’t suddenly decided to blow so cold.
We are back in the truck, almost back to town, when Goody asks, “You ever tell me why you come back?”
“You ever ask?” I reply.
“I askin’ now,” he says.
I think about it in fast-forward. My father, in the bloom of life, found dead on his property near D.C. The high profile case he was working on. The body taken away, processed, embalmed before I, the son, was even notified. My mother describing how the week before they found their cat, dead, drowned, left on the front doorstep. Claire pregnant. Me sharing a bottle of Chateau Margaux with Claire’s father the night Mary Claire is born. Then partying two days with friends to return home at four AM, Claire’s father meeting me at the back door, his blue eyes fierce, his voice calm and firm as he tells me he plans to take Claire and Mary Claire the seven hundred miles back home with him, me thinking his hand in the pocket of his robe holds a pistol.
I spare Goody the details, but what I tell him is the truth. “Rough people up there.” But there’s more. “Mean streets, too.” Goody levels a look at me that makes me tell him all, that extracts my last kernel of truth. “Too much coke.”
I can tell Goody knows I’m not lying. “Damn,” he says. “Sound like Chicago.”
iii. wonderful life
I park the truck in front of the house, right on the street. It’s a modest house for the historic district, I know. And we have a hard time heating it, especially after Claire had all the storm windows ripped off, claiming they were historically incorrect. Do you know what it is like to arrive home just as a truck is hauling away thirty-six storm windows and three storm doors from your home, your wife giving you a wide, naive smile of complete accomplishment? Next she hired men with jackhammers to remove the concrete driveway (concrete is bad) followed by new concrete poured on the dirt floor of the carriage house (concrete is good). I gave up trying to follow Claire’s logic, but the scene that greets me when I get out of the truck is pure poetry. The old, wavy window glass frosted naturally, blurring the lights from the tree and the candles. The fresh cedar and boxwood on the door and windows, the simple bows, the house painted white as a wedding cake. I walk up the old brick walk by the ivy borders, and when I look up, B.B. stands at the glass-paned door, his fingers leaving smudges as he waits for me.
When I walk into the living room, I see Claire kneeling, watering the tree. She looks up at me—her incredible eyes full of hope that I have found Cuddly—and I have to return her look with one that tells her I have failed. She comes to me with a sad smile, touches my forehead, and hugs me.
After I shower and call my mother, Claire catches me up on all the news before we open gifts. When B.B. opens the set of three dorky Hardy Boys books Uncle Crawford sent him, the exact same three as the year before, he falls down on the floor, rolling and laughing, kicking his heels into the air.
Claire finds in the back of the freezer some doves from September which we wrap in bacon and cook with apples, much better than the dry, flavorless turkey my mother cooks anyway. I drive over and take Mom a care basket Claire has put together. Mom comes to the door in her robe, blows me feverish kisses as I back the truck down the driveway.
Back home, I am careful to watch Mary Claire. She is quiet, not sad, but watchful. At six years old, she can stand in a doorway with her arms crossed and stare down anyone. She stands at the edge of the kitchen, observes Claire and me cleaning the counters. In the short days of winter after the sun goes down, the house quickly grows cold downstairs at night, so we all retreat up to the bedrooms. I settle under a down comforter to read by the bedside lamp. Soon Claire joins me, and before long Mary Claire and B.B. crawl up onto the tall, old brass bed. We are tired, winding down.
Mary Claire loves to play doctor. I am relieved when she scoots up to the head of the bed and pretends to put a thermometer into my mouth as she feels my forehead, her own face wearing worry. She mimics taking the make-believe thermometer out of my mouth and reads it, one hand on her hip. “Hmm,” she says. “Forty thunders.” She consults an invisible nurse before giving me the bad news. “You need seven shots,” she says before she stresses “and crying won’t help a thing. ” She is in the process of giving me the dreaded shots, comforting me after each one, when her face calmly awakens with an enlightened smile.
“Look, mommy,” she says softly, looking up at Claire, “Santa did bring Cuddly.” Claire and I both struggle to turn around and look back behind the bars of the brass headboard where lodged between the box springs and the wall is a wad of grey fake fur. Mary Claire’s arm is not quite long enough to reach it, but Claire pulls the stuffed toy out of its hiding place and fluffs it a bit before handing it to her.
At the very moment I should feel a rush of sudden happiness, the moment when my eyes should feel the tears of sappy joy, my throat instead clutches a strong, gut-feeling of foreboding, like the first instant you feel the tires smoothly slide off the icy pavement onto the snowy shoulder and realize you will not be able to keep the car from hitting the tree after all. When I thought Mary Claire’s spirit had not been broken by the knowledge that Santa is not the answer to her prayers, I felt that learning to live with unexpected, irreversible loss was a gift my daughter could use for the rest of her life. The tables now turned, I need to speak up, caution her before it’s too late, let her know that just because something turns out right for once doesn’t mean you lead a charmed life. I feel a syllable forming on my lips when Claire touches her own lips with her index finger before reaching over and touching, silencing mine.
After the kids fall asleep and we carry them to their beds, I put on a wool robe and down slippers before going downstairs to the family room where the blue screen of The Weather Channel promises a cold night followed by a day of below average cold temperatures, but with a mostly sunny sky. Claire comes downstairs, too, goes into the kitchen, opens a bottle of wine, and sets it with two glasses on the coffee table in front of me. She takes the remote and turns to a sports channel where the warm, green links of Kauai’s Princeville look like paradise. She mutes the sound.
We sit there drinking wine and watching the pantomime of golf. Claire covers us up with a throw. She leans her back into me, using me as a big pillow for support.
She begins “When I was ten, it was cold like this right after New Year’s, and it snowed ten inches. Do you know what that means for kids like me, Deep South kids, what it means to have that much snow?”
It has not snowed since we brought B.B. and Mary Claire here. Each year we’re hopeful. But seeing snow means traveling somewhere else, mostly. “I think so,” I reply.
“Mother had washed all the white cotton Cape Cod curtains in the house. Odd timing, I know, but that was Mother.”
Out of season, off kilter, I think of Claire’s mother, but hesitate to speak ill of the dead.
“When I came home from school, she wanted me to go outside and hang them on the line. She never wanted curtains to dry anywhere else but out in the sun and wind. It was getting late in the day. First she had me go outside and clean the clothesline. And then she sent me back outside with a sack of new, wooden clothespins and a big laundry basket full of yards and yards of white, wet cotton.”
Claire pauses, just briefly, before her voice changes. “The wind started blowing. Cold. Tiny spits of sugar snow at first. Then hominy snow. When I reached into the basket and lifted a curtain, it began to freeze and stiffen in my hand. I couldn’t get enough of that texture. That and the dampness making my skin stick to the metal of the clothesline. I told myself I was taking my time so that the curtains would not touch the ground. But why I really stayed out in the cold so long was to feel that thin wet cloth turn thick in my hands. A hunger I didn’t even know I had. I couldn’t get enough of it. That feeling.”
Claire reaches over and takes a sip of wine. I can tell there’s more she has to tell, but maybe she won’t get around to it right now. I have pieces of Claire’s puzzle I have carried around in my heart for years, waiting for the piece that will one day make the picture come into focus, perfectly clear.
“Daddy came home early and stood by the window, watching me. When I came inside, he was loud. He asked me where my gloves were. I lied from instinct. Said they were lost. Then he told me Aunt Sister used to stand outside for hours in the freezing cold, hanging out clothes. She liked to feel her hands freezing. Made her feel alive. ”
On the television screen, the leader on the boards stands at the tee on the eighteenth hole. I watch the perfect arc of his swing. Just before the ball lands, just before I figure out if he can maintain his lead, Claire takes the remote and switches back to The Weather Channel for The Local Forecast. I almost protest but remember that the golf tournament is taped. I already know the outcome. And Claire still seems a Category I with a strengthening vortex. “Daddy should never have told me that,” she says. “I was too young. I’ve had to spend my life worrying.”
We sit through that local forecast and then through a solid ten minutes of isobars on maps before we read the same white words from the blue screen again. A mostly sunny sky.
Claire turns to study my face, looking for answers “You know more about me than anyone. You know me better than I know myself.”
True, I have seen with my own eyes the birthmark on the back of her head that she can only see reflected in a mirror. I have seen her belly cut open, the white vine-like tendrils of muscle. Watched human hands plucking the babies out like melons, the green surgical sheet draped to protect Claire’s eyes from the knowledge. She wants to see what I’ve seen. Experience tells me to be very, very careful.
I remember Goody’s message could be worse, Mary Claire saying and crying won’t help a thing.
Maybe this is Claire’s mystery. Maybe she needs to know there’s nothing she’s missing, no piece to the puzzle she’s failed to find. Maybe she needs to see the future through my eyes.
“Tomorrow should be beautiful,” I forecast. That much I can say with certainty. “I predict cold,” I take her hand and kiss her fingers. “A mostly sunny sky.” She barely notices. She stiffens and awaits my real verdict.
I smile and look deeply into the solar eclipse of her eyes.