Naomi knows exactly what Karl, her son, is thinking as he chews slowly on his hamburger, his eyes fixed on the ring of water his glass has left on the table.
“How about a movie after supper?” she asks, though she knows he will refuse. And he does.
“I told Tom I’d meet him to shoot baskets for awhile. Then I might go over to his house. I don’t know.”
Karl is careful to give explanations for his absences, these evenings, but even if she hadn’t seen him that time a week ago crouched between the hydrangea bushes and the garage, looking toward the sliding doors that opened onto the Lesters’ patio, she would have known that he doesn’t always tell the truth about what he does with his evenings.
Karl tells untruths in exactly the same way his father does. They both have a remote and faintly sad look on their faces at such moments—distancing themselves from the words they are saying.
And she finds it impossible to say to Karl, now, that she knows very well the way he spends his evenings, watching Eleanor Lester from behind the hydrangea bushes. She could not say this to Karl any more than she could say to Davis when that remote look settles on his face, “Who is it this time, Davis?”
Karl finishes his milk and stands up, pushing his shirt in flat under his belt.
“Don’t be out too late,” she tells him, and Karl says earnestly that he won’t.
Still he hesitates to leave, and she asks him if he needs money.
He looks at her in surprise. For two years now he’s had a paper route, and this summer he has a job at a bicycle repair shop. He doesn’t need to ask for money any longer. He’s 16 and no child.
Still, her question releases him from his hesitation. “I don’t need anything,” he says as he opens the screen door and is lost immediately into the perfect summer evening.
At the rest home where Naomi’s father has been living for a year now, six or seven of the old people are lined up in their wheelchairs at the head of the wide, gently sloping lawn. They look as though they are lined up there to take part in a race, and the belts fastened across their waists add to this illusion.
“Hello, Dad,” Naomi says when she reaches his wheelchair. He looks up to give her a wide smile and says, “Why, hello, dear,” but she isn’t certain he knows who she is. Sometimes he thinks Naomi is her mother—dead now for ten years—and sometimes he thinks she’s some pleasant stranger come to spend time with him. That smile touches her though, no matter whom it is meant for. Her father has always been charming—an extremely well-mannered man, careful about his appearance, attentive always to women.
Naomi releases the brake on the wheelchair and guides it down the wide, smooth walk that leads to the goldfish pond and to a rose garden. The grounds of the rest home are very pleasant, and inside the building the rooms are clean and bright. Yet nothing can hide the sad aimlessness of the lives spent there.
“Davis is still away at that conference in Cleveland,” Naomi tells her father. “And Karl is off playing basketball with Tom.”
Her father makes no comment—he never does—to such remarks, but she feels she must let him know the details of her life. Perhaps he understands more than he acknowledges. Sometimes, certainly, he makes a remark that is startling in its lucidity.
This way that she has of talking to her father reminds Naomi—though she has never mentioned this to anyone—of the way she used to talk to God when she was a child lying in bed, her eyes squeezed shut. Most of the time she had felt doubtful that God heard what she said—her words seemed to cluster in the air above her head like a swarm of gnats—but sometimes she would feel that a connection had been made and that whatever she was praying for with such fervor would come about. And sometimes it did.
“Karl is in love,” Naomi says now, looking down on her father’s springy white hair. His hair, at least, is still vigorous and thick, though his hands, limply holding the arms of the wheelchair, are the loose, flaccid hands of an old man.
“The woman he’s in love with is 30 years old, his French teacher last year in school. He sits for a long time every night just looking in the windows of her house. I’m afraid her husband is going to see Karl out there some night hiding behind the bushes and have him arrested, but I can’t talk to Karl about it. He’s afflicted with love. Sick with it.”
In the dark shade under the thick privet that shelters the rose garden, katydids begin their evening song. That tentative rasping tinges the air with melancholy. What can I do about Karl, poor Karl? Naomi wants to demand of her father. He knows, she thinks, more than she does. He has loved many women. He has always had a natural charm, an attentiveness that drew women to him. But Naomi remembers, too, the bitter set of her mother’s mouth and the way, even when she was dying, she let her hand lie cold and unresponsive between his.
Questions come to her as numerous as the swallows in the gathering dusk, but she doesn’t know where to begin.
“It’s getting dark,” her father says anxiously. “You should go home now and put Karl to bed. He waits for you and he gets so tired. . . .”
This is the time, Naomi knows, that her father slips back to most often—that summer ten years before when Naomi’s mother died. Late in the afternoon her father would drive over slowly from his house on Devon Street, arriving in time to eat with them, to sit with her while she read to Karl and put him to bed. It was the time she had felt most close to her father, the summer they had all loved each other the best. It makes her sad whenever her father talks about that time because she was happier then too. The pain of her mother’s death made them all kinder to each other. For a little while they had been a close, loving family.
“Yes, I should get back and put Karl to bed,” she says now, though she knows that all that waits for her is the empty house, stuffy even yet with the day’s heat.
Her father lifts his hand from the arm of the wheelchair and reaches it, uncertainly, backward, past his shoulder. She catches his hand in hers—she thinks that is what he wants— and feels the dry, soft skin as wrinkled as a dollar bill that has been creased and smoothed many times between sweaty ringers.
As she comes into the house, she hears the telephone ringing with a kind of dogged insistence that makes her think that it may have been ringing for a long time. She’s nearly certain even before she picks up the receiver that it is Davis who is being so persistent.
“I’d just decided you must be out,” Davis says when she takes the receiver off the hook. His voice, husky from too much smoking, makes her heart speed up, though all he sounds is aggrieved.
“Just visiting Dad for a little while. You didn’t say anything about telephoning tonight.”
“No. Well,” Davis says. His voice sounds a little furtive, as though he is cupping his hand around the receiver as he speaks. This, or some other clue, makes her feel sure that he isn’t in the hotel room alone. That in the bathroom a young woman—one of his colleagues probably, another chemist—is taking a shower.
“How’s Karl?” Davis asks, being polite.
She tells him that Karl is out with Tom, though she knows that now that darkness has fallen this is no longer true. But she has no intention of telling Davis where Karl is—watching Eleanor Lester lean over the patio railing, her cigarette making a small red dot in the darkness.
“Well, listen,” Davis says, speaking faster now that he is coming to the point. “It looks like I have to stay over Saturday after all. Some guy out here has this compound that looks very interesting, and we want to take a closer look. So I’ll be coming back Sunday afternoon. There’s a plane that leaves at 4:52 that gets me in at 6:27.”
Silence falls over the line for three seconds. Four. What makes you so sure I’ll be here on Sunday? Don’t you deserve to be abandoned? These are the silent words that Naomi breathes into the receiver, but she is not ready to say them yet. When she speaks, she says what he expects, that she will meet the plane.
“Did you get that tire replaced? The rear one? The tread was practically gone.”
He sounds friendlier now that everything is settled. Expansive, even. She knows him so well she can see perfectly the wide smile that she is certain he is beaming on the woman who is putting her head out, now, from behind the bathroom door.
“Of course I took care of it. Don’t I always?”
“Good girl,” Davis says. He sounds pleased, though he must have caught the sharp note in her voice. “See you soon. Sleep well.”
She is still holding the telephone to her ear when he hangs up the receiver, and the only connection between them is a flat hum. Davis, she has noticed before, always gets the last word.
Even after she puts her receiver on the hook, the empty humming along the wire seems to be there still in the house, though she knows if there is any humming it is only the refrigerator. Nevertheless, she doesn’t want to be in the empty house for hours just listening for Karl’s key in the lock. It’s such a perfect evening, the air as warm as skin, that she hates to waste it shut up in the house.
She has nowhere she needs to go, but she has always liked driving, gliding slowly through the streets darkened with the heavy trees that arch over the pavement. She likes to look inside the lighted windows, to imagine the lives lived in those rooms. When Karl was a baby, she and Davis spent many evenings driving slowly through the streets, sitting as close together as high school kids on a date. In the back seat, in his Mexican basket, Karl quieted down, soothed by the gentle movement of the car. She and Davis were conspirators, filled with pleasure when Karl stopped his fretful crying and slipped into sleep.
When Naomi starts down the Lesters’ block, she slows down although she knows very well that it’s too dark to see Karl behind the hydrangea bushes. Naomi wonders if she should stop by sometime during the day when Eleanor would be there alone and explain to her that Karl is out there by the garage watching her every night. If she saw a white face staring at her from between the hydrangea blooms, she would probably be terrified. Still, Naomi thinks, if Karl is old enough to fall in love he ought to be old enough to be spared his mother’s protectiveness.
When she reaches the expressway, she drives faster, enjoying the wind which slips along her shoulder and lifts the hair from her neck. She knows where she is going, now, knew perhaps all along that she would drive to the house on Devon Street, though she hasn’t seen it since that day, over a year ago, when she and Karl took away the last carload of odds and ends from the garage. The rake and digging fork, the bushel baskets left behind by the moving van.
Even now her father doesn’t know that the house has been sold, though it must be clear to him, in his lucid moments, that he would never be able to live there again in that large, cumbersome house with the steep stairs.
As she had put her father’s possessions into boxes—a few to keep but most to sell or throw out—she had found many evidences of the women he had shared those last years with. A lipstick in the corner of a drawer, a silk scarf among his shirts, a single shoe with dainty straps in the back of the closet. She had put these things in a paper sack, hiding them from the world. She was embarrassed for her father—that he had been forced to leave such jobs to her.
In the next room Karl was putting books into liquor boxes and she called out to him. “If you ever have to do these jobs for us, remember what I’m telling you now. Are you listening, Karl? Just put everything in a big heap and set a match to it. I’m serious, Karl. Will you do it?”
But Karl was in a sulky, furious mood and would not answer.
At the corner grocery store—the one where she bought her childhood candy and went so often at dinnertime to get bread or a little carton of cream—she eases the car into a narrow parking place.
When she was a child, she had always enjoyed that walk down the wide, leafy street to their house at number 15, but to her surprise she does not enjoy it on this night. She feels an impostor in her old neighborhood. She suddenly knows that if she is recognized there by some acquaintance she will feel only anxiety, and if she is recognized by no one she will feel ghostlike, walking down this familiar sidewalk. In fact, though she doesn’t quite know why, her heart is beating heavily by the time she reaches number 15. She comes to a stop just at the edge of the yard, looking up at the lighted windows.
The curtains are drawn so she can’t see inside the rooms, but she senses that everything about the house has changed since she saw it last. It looks wider than she remembers it, bland and exposed, and she sees suddenly that bushes have been removed, the mountain ash, which dropped red berries over the front lawn, has been cut down. Naomi knows that it is unlikely that the old apple and pear trees behind the house have survived. Their decaying trunks have probably made way for thick pyramids of blue spruce. The driveway has been widened so that her mothers’s rose garden now lies under asphalt and the roses are buried there along with the care—and even passion—that her mother expended on them.
As Naomi’s father spent more and more time away from home, her mother spent more time working in her flowers. Through summer evenings, even into the fading light and dusk, Naomi could often hear the thunk of the digging fork, cutting through sod.
“All that charm,” her mother said to her once. “And those perfect manners. I was such a green girl it never entered my head that he might turn all that on other women too. I thought it was just for me. But I found out, all right. I wasn’t left in the dark.”
Naomi stands, watching the lighted windows in the corner bedroom upstairs—the room that had been her parents’. At least one person is in the room, walking back and forth, since a shadow crosses the bright curtain and then disappears. That is the way her mother walked up and down at night sometimes when she was in her bedroom alone. She was restless and spent the night roaming the house.
Naomi stands there for some time, although she knows it is stupid to stand on the sidewalk peering up at the lighted room just as Karl, across town, is looking toward the Lesters’ patio—both voyeurs though this is not anything they can share together. Naomi doesn’t even have the satisfaction of knowing what it is she is waiting for, watching the person in the bedroom walk in front of the window.
All she knows is that there were things she should have been taught, wisdom passed from father to daughter, from mother to daughter, which never reached her.
Naomi sits at the kitchen table, reading. It is nearly one o’clock, and Karl isn’t home yet. She prefers waiting for him in the kitchen, which feels safer than the other rooms in the house. Here she can face the door, and no one can break into the house without her knowing.
When she first hears the footsteps running down the driveway heading for the back door, she thinks that this is the bad thing she’s been waiting for. Even after she sees Karl’s face behind the door she doesn’t immediately recognize him. But when he calls to her, she lets him in.
He is laughing, though his eyes look a little wild. “I thought somebody was following me,” he says. “When I walked I could hear somebody else just behind me and whenever I stopped they stopped too. That ever happen to you? Of course there wasn’t anybody there really. I knew it all along but I was scared anyway.”
“You were out so late,” Naomi says, but she smiles with him.
He has filled out this last year—his shoulders and chest grown wider, his face fuller. No wonder he looked strange to her behind the glass of the door.
“You’re up late too.”
“I don’t like an empty house.”
He gets out bread and spreads peanut butter thickly over one slice and pours a glass of milk. He leans against the cabinet to eat, chewing rapidly. For a time his gaze rests on the toes of his sneakers, and then he raises his head and appears to study the top of the refrigerator. He is very excited, but she senses an edge of melancholy in his excitement. She wonders if he understands the hopelessness of his love for Eleanor. Even if she walked out some night from her patio to the row of hydrangea bushes, reached out her hand, and pulled him beside her, even if they kissed there in the darkness, even if they lay on the grass and made love, what then? Nothing could come of it.
“Did you really spend all this time at Tom’s?” she asks, looking down at her book. “Or did you go somewhere else later?”
She feels Karl’s start of surprise. But then he is laughing again. “Oh, Mother, where do you think I go?”
“It’s only that you should be careful. Out so late. You have to think ahead, to what could happen. . . .”
But he won’t listen. He kisses her on the cheek as he did when he was ten, his lips damp with milk.
“You worry too much,” he says.
For a moment she takes his hand in hers—that big knuckled, awkward, boy’s hand.
Though Naomi has the king-sized bed to herself, she stays on her own side. She is used to her part of the bed and would not be comfortable in the middle. Anyway, she needs to be by the lamp so she can read if she wants to.
It’s her father she’s thinking about, deeply asleep in his crib-like bed with bars. He has performed a miracle after all—each day the sun rises for him not in the small cell-like room in Greenbriar Manor but in some other room and at some other time of his own choosing. His dreams, for all she knows, are as full of satisfaction as a baby’s.
But when she goes to sleep, she dreams of her mother. Her mother bending over, picking up apples from the ground under the old apple tree that grew in the deep backyard of the house on Devon Street. The tree is old, and borers have made holes around its trunk, but the apples her mother is putting into her skirt are large and curiously unblemished. She holds one up for Naomi to see, turning it slowly in her fingers. It is an apple of a fine russet color with delicate lines and specks that give it a mottled or dappled appearance. “Yes, it’s a beautiful apple,” Naomi says to placate her mother. She doesn’t understand what her mother is trying to tell her as she turns the apple slowly in her fingers, smiling.
Naomi comes awake suddenly just as the moon is going down. She doesn’t know why she dreamed about her mother and the apples, but she turns on the lamp and writes the dream down anyway, reaching across the bed for Davis’s pad and pencil. She will tell her father about the dream, and perhaps he will remember the house and the apple tree. Perhaps he will remember Naomi’s mother bending under it and will know why she is smiling as she picks up apples in her skirt.