August 6th, 1945. Berkeley, CA
The roast was nearly finished, and the beans would go into the water as soon as she’d set it to boil. Linda wiped her hands on the kitchen towel and stretched her neck to one side and then the other, feeling the crackling with a burst of pride—she’d worked hard. The floors were mopped and the carpets vacuumed. Ricky’s old room was done up with fresh linens and new curtains that looked better with the paint—airier. She’d even weeded the front garden, though, she’d hardly planted anything that spring worth saving now. She glanced at the chair before sitting, then glanced up to see if anyone was watching, though Larry had gone to the airport to meet him and she didn’t expect them for another thirty minutes at least. She sat, sighed, and turned towards the radio, but did not move to turn it on.
She had made an icebox cake that morning, because it had always been his favorite, and he’d asked for it at every birthday and every picnic since he was small, but now she wasn’t sure it had been right. The day had stayed cold, coated in a morning fog that never burned off, and she wished she had something warm and heavy for him, something that would make him feel homey and cared for. An apple pie, a pan of brownies, a little whipped cream piled up on top. Maybe even a cup of coffee with a little whiskey splashed in with the milk, because he was a grown man now, and she was proud of him even for the ways he worried her. She worried she would disappoint him, would allow his return to be drab, would allow him to remember that he’d been forced home by his failures, back to this place where August could be as cold as February. She thought for a moment about the lilies that had just begun to blossom and wondered if they’d make it through the week with so little sun, but there was nothing for it, so she let it go.
She’d thought “failure” just then, had let herself use the word, and wanted to take it back. She didn’t want to think of it that way—to let him see her thinking that. She thought that he’d taken on so much. And in its own way that was success. To even get halfway, a quarter, to even dream up the kind of wild, noble things he’d always had in his head, that was something to be proud of. But she didn’t know if he’d gotten halfway to what he intended, or a quarter, didn’t know really, even, what it was he’d meant to do when he ran off to that little country halfway across the world. (Which one was it? She had to ask every time, and it bothered him, but she couldn’t keep it in her head. Paraguay, Panama, Peru. It was Peru, she thought.) He hadn’t told her much. He’d used to call home once a week, from a hotel he’d walk to every Wednesday, where he could use the phone for a half an hour, if he paid a few dollars, and of course he called collect. But the calls had grown less frequent as the year wore on, and he seemed to say less each time, or less that told her anything she wanted to know. She’d thought for a while that he told his father about his work, that when they were on the phone (twice as long as he’d stay on with her before saying, “hey, put Dad on the line, I’ve got something he’ll want to hear,” she’d noticed that too) that this was what they spoke about. But finally she’d asked Larry to tell her whatever it was that he wouldn’t tell her himself, and Larry said there was nothing, that Ricky talked and talked but never told anything, and of course that had worried her, had allowed words like “failure” to come creeping in where they weren’t wanted.
There was a jumpy feeling in her legs and her fingers that had been growing all throughout the day, the week really, and she didn’t know why she was so anxious. It wasn’t as if he’d never gone away before, never come back. Certainly it could be no worse than that disastrous first Christmas home from school, when he’d stuffed himself so full of new ideas that he’d had to get rid of all of her old ones to make room, and had done nothing but harangue her for being so old and silly and voting for Roosevelt instead of that socialist he was always on about, Thomas, which she’d only done because Larry had told her to, but saying that had only made things worse. And it had all come to a head when the Turner’s had come to visit and Bob Turner had told him that his new hat made him look like a communist and he couldn’t believe he could find one to fit that big head, and Ricky had stood right up and said that he was a communist and that Bob Turner looked like a fat bastard whether he had his hat on or not, and then he’d gone stomping out into the night and slammed the door behind him, probably to go driving with that girl he was sweet on then. Lauren. Lauren Horsen. Big blond thing with horse teeth. She’d always thought that last name was so funny—unfortunate, no way they could have known, the parents looked normal. Everyone thought she was very intelligent, which was probably what Ricky thought too.
That had been bad. But it had been worse for her than it was for him—he was so young and fresh and drunk on the energy of having grown so much (and often simply drunk, she knew that too) that even feeling as angry as he did must have felt good somehow—like he was stretching a muscle that was new and sore. She saw young men like that all the time at the college, strutting around, all excitement under their scowls, all set to change the world, which she knew they wouldn’t, most of them (but he would, her boy would). His anger she could take, she was strong enough to hold herself up to that, to be proud of him right through that. Now she worried that the anger had given way to something else, something that she couldn’t so easily see and take hold of; she would rather she could take whatever it was on herself, where she could manage it better.
She thrummed her fingers against the table, glanced at the stove, which did nothing, continued in its slow work. She was no good at setting, hadn’t been when she was young and wasn’t now, though for years she’d learned to do it, when Ricky was small and any moment she could find to sit and rest would be a gift, a drink of water on a hot day, and half the time she’d fall right to sleep in her chair. But now she couldn’t even last two hours at her desk before she’d feel like she would burst if she sat there any longer, and would have to ask one of the other girls to watch the phone while she took a quick walk around the campus. And maybe that’s what she needed now. As soon as she thought it, she couldn’t get the want of it out of her mind, noticed how hot the house had gotten, how stuffy, and felt like she’d rip the door down just to get out into that crisp evening air. The clock had only budged a little. She might have enough time, though she didn’t want to think of missing him when he arrived, of having him walk into the place all quiet and empty. Well, she’d be quick about it, just once or twice around the block. Her cardigan was hung across a chair in the living room, and she picked it up as she went out the door, but didn’t put it on yet—she wanted to feel the little prickles of cold on her skin.
Mrs. Hendricks was in her yard as she passed, clipping at roses with her fingers shaking on the handle of the pruner. Now and again she probably just lopped one of their heads right off. She was getting too old to live alone—one of her girls would have to move back. Linda waved but did not stop. She hadn’t told anyone that Ricky was coming home—she was storing it up—and she didn’t want to talk about anything else. She’d almost let slip a few times at work, but had decided it wouldn’t be worth it. Most of the old crowd, the ones who had known him when he was a high-school boy in a too-big coat trying to attract the attention of the intellectuals in the quad, had moved along. When Dr. Oppenheimer had left most everyone had gone with him. It had even been hinted that if she’d wanted it, they’d need phones answered and letters opened wherever they were off doing whatever it was they were all off to do, but she’d laughed at the whole notion of it—at her age, picking up and moving to goodness knows—and no one had brought it up to her again. The new people were nice—nicer, even, some of them—but new, and she was too old to meet so many new people all the time. Dr. Lawrence would still come and lean on her desk once in a while, though, once or twice a month, saying “So Mrs. Evans, have you solved the equation yet?” It was an old joke between them, that she was always on the verge of some big discovery to put them all out of work. “Closer every day,” she’d say, or “It had slipped my mind, but I’ll get right back to it.” And he’d smile and rap his knuckles against her desk like he was knocking on a door, though this meant he was leaving, not coming in.
She’d been thinking lately that she ought to retire. She’d been sitting at that same desk for a well over a decade now, since the day that Ricky started high school, not to mention the years before she was married. She’d liked working, had longed for it, even, when Ricky was too young to be left alone so much, and had been glad to go back, but it was a long time to do any one thing, and she was more tired now than she’d ever been in her life, which was just the way things would be now, she supposed, that she was getting older. But it had been a good place to raise a child, had been good to let him get close to all those bright young men and women, to inspire him towards something. Larry was a good man, and Larry had always taken such good care, but he had his limits. As a role model he had his limits.
Now that she’d started walking she felt like she’d never want to turn around. It felt so good to be moving through the air, to be breathing it in and warming it up and letting it back out. She thought about the time, then made herself stop. Maybe he wouldn’t even notice. Maybe they’d come right in, laughing already, and Larry would yell up the stairs, “Linda, I picked up a bum at the airport and he says he wants dinner,” but then he’d put the keys down on the table by the door, and start fixing Ricky a drink, and they’d forget all about her until she came slipping in the back door a few minutes later, and just wandered in and set down by them as they were talking, and there wouldn’t even be a need to say hello, to show him all the ways she’d arranged it for him. She granted herself a few more minutes, another block or two.
Where the road dead-ended into the park, she turned left and crossed down two streets, detouring around the Turner’s place, automatically, as she’d done for years. As far as she knew, the Turners were the only friends they’d lost due to Ricky’s “unconventional views,” as Larry called them, or, more recently, his “unconventional activities.” And sometimes she thought that whole incident had just been a way for them all to bow out of something that hadn’t been worth any of their time anyway. It had been nice when their kids were young, to have neighbors, people to help, but, well, they were just different types of people, that was all. They were different than they’d once been too—Ricky had changed her, and time had. “That’s right, Mom,” he’d said, a few days before he left, when she’d gotten angry at something in the newspaper, some lie from the governor or the president, “I’ve radicalized you.” And she’d been a little angry at that, actually, because she was the mother after all, and helped him to become who he was, and she thought after working at the college so long she’d earned the right to think for herself. But she didn’t say any of that, because he was leaving, and she didn’t want another fight about why he’d dropped out of school, and what she thought of that, and now so many months later she didn’t even feel it anymore, had seen in his absence the ways that, yes, he did influence her. And Bob Turner was a bit of a fat bastard, always had been.
Motherhood had overtaken her in ways she hadn’t guessed, had made her love this quarrelsome, contentious boy. It wasn’t what she would have chosen for herself. She believed in kindness. She believed in loving people for their flaws—it had made her susceptible to him, and suitable too. She’d chosen Larry for his kindness. She’d told everyone that, when they’d asked her. She’d gone to meet him once down at the shop, their second or third date. He’d meant to be all washed and ready for her, but he was running behind, still changing out spark plugs on Mr. Garrison’s old Chevrolet when she’d arrived, and so she’d sat in the office and he’d made her a little cup of coffee to sip at and gave her a magazine to look through as she waited. There was a big window that let her look into the garage, so she’d sat there watching him instead of drinking her coffee or reading her magazine, and she’d liked how careful he was with everything, the slow and thoughtful way he moved. And when he was done, he’d stood up and stretched out his arms, and gave the Chevrolet a little pat with his hand, like he was saying ‘you’ll be alright now, old girl,’ and it wasn’t the moment that had made her love him, but she’d felt something tender when she saw it, something like pity, like what she’d imagined back then it would be to love a child, before she’d had one.
In thirty years there had been plenty else, but he’d always been kind, kind at his heart and his core. It was in that way that she had chosen, and in that way that she had chosen well. But Ricky sometimes made her wonder if she was a fool, and not only because he told her she was. The way she loved him was never something he could return—she wondered how she’d come by him, how he could be hers, though there was nothing truer to her than the knowing that he was. She spent much of her time trying to explain him—imagining a conversation with someone who would ask (though who would—who would imagine she wanted them to?), sometimes Lesley Turner, who was more intelligent than Bob, and quieter, and sometimes her mother, who was dead, and sometimes it broke down altogether and she would know she was talking to herself. This was one of those times, but she didn’t mind it as she walked through the cooling air several blocks from the Turner’s doorway, telling herself the stories she liked to tell.
When he was four he’d gotten very angry one day. It had been a screaming, hitting fit. She’d done what they say you should do with these sorts of tantrums; she’d stayed very calm, very reasonable, not fed it at all. She’d asked him what was wrong, but he wasn’t able to say, said he didn’t know, and then the not knowing became the problem, and he yelled “I don’t know I don’t know I don’t know” and then the asking became the problem and he yelled “don’t talk to me don’t talk to me don’t talk,” and nothing she could do would right it, and nothing she could say calmed him, and he raged and raged until he was so exhausted he had to sleep. And she wasn’t sure it had stopped even then, wasn’t sure it ever had.
He grew up of course, and changed, but there was something he’d been born with, something she now imagined she’d felt from the beginning, from the way he kicked at her in the womb. When he was in Junior High he used to run away. It happened more times than she could count, but she worried every time like it was the first. She never learned where he went, what he did, knowing that even now this wasn’t something she could ask him, far less expect him to answer. But he’d slip away sometimes—every month or every other, sometimes more, and there would never be any warning or any reason, and it didn’t seem like running away so much as forgetting to come home (but who’d ever heard of such a thing, in a child?), except he’d always come home angry, come home rolling his eyes and clenching his jaw at them and at whatever it was that had brought him back. She told him how this hurt her, but he looked at her with his eyes all flattened and glassed, and for as much as he’d grown still couldn’t tell her why, would only blame the asking. He was never gone more than a day.
It had been such a relief when he’d met those boys at college and decided he was a revolutionary. It was like a camera lens sliding into focus, and suddenly he knew what it was he had been so angry at all along (or believed he did) and it wasn’t her, exactly, wasn’t only her. And when, fast on the heels of that first revelation, he decided he was a pacifist as well, she didn’t say a word to object—didn’t mention the years of schoolyard scuffles or the temper that had nearly gotten him expelled after too many barroom brawls. She thought maybe he knew more of violence than most, and could make less use of it. She worried what would happen if they tried to conscript him, but it never came to that. She’d never been happier than when he’d come home and told her she should quit her job at the college because it was full of warmongers and capitalist whores because it was the first time he’d ever told her what she could do to please him, though (perversely, perhaps) she would not. And when they sat together over the paper, those months he stayed with them before this last time he left, and he would say, “What do I care about their wars? What do I care which rich tyrant drinks the blood of Europe’s poor?” she would feel like any other old woman with any other young man, his opinions and hers, balanced between them. And maybe that is what it was with children, when they’d grown, and maybe she loved him differently, maybe less.
The sun was setting, and she felt an evening dew slipping over her skin on its way to the ground. She lived in the place she had lived all her life. In front of her a group of wild turkeys was scratching at the dirt of someone’s garden (someone new, young, she could picture the woman’s face but not the man’s), and others were spilled out across the sidewalk, waiting their turn with a strange patience, all facing the same way. As she walked they made room for her without fear, shifting to the edges of the lawn, or stepping into the street, seeming not to notice her at all, reacting with a chilly nonchalance, an un-animal disregard for her human movement. As she passed she noticed the sheen of their feathers, the iridescence.
She came into the house by the backdoor, and it wasn’t as she’d imagined it. She’d thought he’d be sitting in the big chair to the left of the television, with a glass perspiring in his hand, or at least his hand balanced on his knee by the wrist, ready for the drink to land in it as soon as Larry had finished his ministrations. Instead he looked like he’d just walked in, was still holding his bag in his hand, still had his hat on his head. Larry was behind, shuffling him inwards. She closed the door behind her, and they were looking square at one another across the room, his eyes just level to the tips of her highest hairs.
“Oh gracious,” she said, patting her hands together, “I wasn’t ready for you.”
He said nothing to that, really, but came and hugged her and took off his hat and let it sit on the table, with his bag kicked beneath.
“It’s good to see you, mama,” he said. She was listening to his voice and looking in his eyes, but she wasn’t sure, she just wasn’t quite sure.
Her men sat in the living room while she boiled the beans and pulled the roast from the oven. As she set the table she could hear them talk, Larry telling too much about the goings on at the garage and asking too little about anything else, though they talked a little about the flight. Some little plane, the way the engine sputtered—she felt a shot of anxiety at hearing it, even now that it was all over.
He ate like he’d had nothing in years, though when she asked he said he’d just missed her good cooking, he’d eaten just fine. Too much beans and rice, he said, too little meat. But he looked the same. Really looked just the same. She was looking too hard and thinking too much, and it made him look strange, sitting there as if the year hadn’t passed, surrounded as he was by all the little shiftings the year had brought—a new tablecloth where the old one had been stained with cherry juice that spring, her father’s old cuckoo clock moved across the room to accommodate the portrait they’d had taken on their thirtieth anniversary, the thin, black mildew line that had formed in the corner because of a drip they could not find the source of. A few more gray hairs on Larry’s head, a little more bulk around his waist—and her own body, well, she didn’t want even to think of that. All around him was the evidence of the way they’d gotten on without him, and in the midst of it he seemed not to notice that he was the only piece left unchanged and unbelonging, and she wondered just when he had become a visitor in her home.
“So what’s your first stop?” Larry said, pushing himself back from the table. They were in the stage of dinner she called ‘settling’—plates scraped and napkins balled, considering desert.
“What’s that, Dad?”
“Your plans, I mean. What do you mean to do with yourself now that you’re back?”
He laughed, a bit too sudden and a bit too loud—like he really was surprised.
“To tell you the truth, Dad, I’d forgotten to even think about it.” A mood crossed his face and disappeared. “The last few months were pretty wild. Just getting back here was enough to think about.”
Larry didn’t ask him what he meant by that, and she felt that because he hadn’t that she couldn’t either, but what a thing to say, what a piece of worry to hand your mother with no explanation at all. She imagined fires and floods, thin roads over crumbling bridges, rabid dogs and gunshots.
“Oh Ricky,” she said, “I hope you kept yourself safe.”
“Well I’m sitting here aren’t I?” he said, and his voice had the old snap in it, the familiar growl. “It wasn’t anything like that, mama. It wasn’t dangerous. It was just sad, really. There was a lot to be sad about there at the end of things.”
He didn’t sound sad as he said it—his voice had dropped down into some other register, and he sounded propped-up, ranging about for something.
“The people I worked with there. I came to realize they weren’t serious. They brought me down there with a lot of big talk, telling me that the place was ready for change, that there could be a different kind of revolution, no guns, no blood, a true uprising. I believed in that, in what they told me.”
“There’s never been,” she said, but he stopped her with a look, or she stopped herself when she saw the look in his eyes—the way the skin crumpled like he was pulling and pulling on something that wouldn’t come loose.
“It was no different than anywhere else. I would walk down the streets and there would be children in the dirt, living like animals. And no one would even look at them—they would walk past with their heads held up high, pretending they were blind. My friend there, the one who told me I had to come, who told me everything we would do, how we would host the workers in our houses and feed their children as they organized, who said he knew men in the government who would be sympathetic to our cause and that he would give his life for change—I hated him by the end. Can you believe that, mama, that I really hated him?”
She shook her head because it was what he’d asked for, and because the new tone in his voice, the new expression on his face had resolved into something she could now identify as fear. Her boy was afraid. Sitting in her kitchen, eating the food she cooked for him, surrounded by all the home and family he’d ever had, and he was afraid. She glanced at Larry but he didn’t see it, leaned back in his chair with his fingers clasped across his stomach, nodding, but smiling. I’m making too much of it, she thought. Why must I always be seeing what isn’t there?
“His father ran the bank. Everything he said was to make his dad ashamed. But there was never any action, never anything to cut off the money his father gave him. He’d go out at night and come back with his breath full of wine, and I knew whose food he had been gorging on, all the while needling the old man with stories about the work he was doing, the people he knew, about me, when anything I asked him was answered with ‘well, you must understand, you must be patient, you must be reasonable.’ And outside the window people were starving. People were being shot in the streets. He was for the war in his heart, they all were. I realized it at the end.”
“A lot of good people are,” Larry said. He did this sometimes, wading in, voice so calm and detached. “After all the violence the Germans did. Lives are being saved by it.”
Ricky shook his head, stabbed his fingers into the wood of the table, like he wanted to pound his fist, but wouldn’t. He was looking at her, though she’d said nothing.
“Violence unto violence. The whole world is glorying on blood. And if you can have someone else cast the first stone, make you seem righteous, all the better. Is that right? Is that what the papers say?”
Larry let his head back, laughed. “Hardly.”
Ricky pushed back from the table and stood up, stretching out tall, and for a moment she imagined—well, she wasn’t sure what she imagined. Something caught her, caught in her, and she took a breath.
“It’s not my world,” he said, his voice like she hadn’t heard in a long time, since he was very young. “It’s just not.” He put his hand up, ruffled it through his hair. “Excuse me,” he said, and headed towards the bathroom too fast. She shrugged at Larry and he smiled back—nothing was so different, really, so changed. He grabbed her hand between their chairs and swung their clasped hands together, three times back and forth, and then he stood up walked to the radio, turned up the knob so that the sound of the evening news drifted into the room, a calm voice she didn’t listen to at all. She got up as well, and took the icebox cake out of the refrigerator and cut off three large slices, placed them on three small plates. For a while they heard water running in the bathroom, the shifting of a body, the occasional sigh. Then it was quiet for a bit. When he came back to the kitchen he looked composed, smiling, forced or not. He caught sight of the cake on the table and laughed—a real laugh, and said, “Mama you didn’t have to,” in a way that made her glad she had. He kissed her right on the top of her head as he sat down, which surprised her and made her think of how they could still surprise her, these people she loved. He held up his fork and lifted his eyebrows, and all three of them clinked their forks together like wine glasses before they ate, and on the radio they said there would be a statement from the president, and outside the fog was rolling in across the bay.
About the Author: Emily Kiernan is the author of a novel, Great Divide (Unsolicited Press, 2014). Her short fiction has appeared in Pank, The Collagist, Monkeybicycle, Redivider, Conium Review, Eleven Eleven, and other journals. She is a prose editor at Noemi Press and a fiction editor at Rivet: The Journal of Writing that Risks. More information can be found at http://emilykiernan.com