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Writers & Lovers (Page 16)

Sunday night the roads are quiet. I cross Comm. Ave. easily, without the usual wait, and have the BU Bridge to myself. It’s dusk and the river is pink and no boats break the stillness. I ride by the Sunoco station where Luke and I said goodbye. The marigolds are gone now. I’m not sure when I stopped noticing them. I feel an unexpected sense of accomplishment as I pedal past. I pass the geese, only a handful, stomping at the edge of the water like swimmers bracing for the cold. Then the footbridge where Silas kissed me. My insides wheel up and over, but he’s probably back from Gettysburg by now and hasn’t called and I am going to eat chicken fingers and cucumber slices with Oscar and his boys.

All the lights are on at their house. I lean my bike against some stiff bushes near the front steps, and while I’m looking for a bell or a knocker the door opens a crack. A snout appears.

‘Hello, Bob.’

Bob barks once. The sound frightens him, and he disappears back in the house yelping.

The door opens a little wider, and Jasper’s face hovers over the doorknob.

‘Let her in.’ John nudges Jasper out of the way.

I step inside. It’s not what I expected. I didn’t know I had expected anything until it wasn’t there. No entryway, no front hall, no doors or doorways. On the outside it’s a regular clapboard colonial, but inside all the rooms have been removed. The whole downstairs is one large space, walls painted bright white and a set of stairs that seem suspended by wires cutting a diagonal to the left and revealing an open section of the second floor. The kitchen is in the middle, with an island and bright red stools along its outer edge. Oscar has his back to me, bent over and fiddling with food on a tray in the oven.

‘Is Casey in the house?’ he says.

‘Casey’s in the house,’ John says.

‘She rode a bike,’ Jasper says.

‘Did she wear her helmet?’

I hold it up for the boys to see.

‘Yes!’

‘I can take that for you,’ John says.

Both boys are wearing button-down shirts and khakis. Belts around their small waists. Jasper already has a few smudges on his white sleeve. All three of them have damp hair, cleanly parted.

Oscar straightens up. ‘Twelve minutes on each side.’ His face is splotched, and his eyes are wild.

‘Hi there.’ I kiss him on the cheek. He feels stiff and far away. But handsome, in a navy linen shirt and jeans.

I put my backpack on one of the red stools and pull out a bag of chocolate chip cookies I made in my toaster oven, three at a time. I unzip the top. Jasper leans into the smell. John tells him he can’t have any until after supper then bends over the bag, too.

Oscar is busying himself in the fridge.

There are pictures taped to its door, drawings in crayon and colored pencil, most of them variations of a curved green line with bits of yellow at one end.

‘Is that a snake?’

‘No!’ Jasper says and slaps his head. ‘It’s a dragon!’

‘A fire-breathing dragon?’

‘Yes! A fierce dragon breathing out tons of fire!’

‘You’re screaming,’ John says.

Jasper jumps up and down and whispers, ‘Lots and lots of fire.’

The drawings are signed ZAZ at the bottom. ‘ZAZ?’

‘His nom de crayon,’ Oscar says at the sink, with a pretty decent accent.

‘What’s that?’ John says.

Oscar turns on the faucet to rinse the cucumbers and doesn’t answer.

‘A nom de plume is French for name, “nom,” of the pen, “de plume,” ’ I say. ‘Some writers don’t want to publish things under their real name, so they use a fake one, a pen name. Your dad said ‘nom de crayon’ because Jasper used a crayon not a pen. It also works as a double entendre, which is another French word and means ‘double meaning’ because ‘crayon’ in French means pencil, and you have a few pencil drawings here, too.’ I feel lightheaded after explaining this.

‘She’s giving me a lot more credit than I deserve, boys. A delightful trait, to be sure.’ He glances up at me quickly before he starts peeling the cucumbers. The skin falls off in long fat strips.

‘How can I help?’

‘Just keep educating the heathens.’

‘We got new juice boxes,’ Jasper says.

‘What’s a juice box?’

This makes them all laugh. They think I’m joking.

‘There’s kiwi-strawberry, peach-mango, and grape-something,’ John says.

I choose grape-something, and the boys run into a closet and fight over who will bring it to me. It’s decided John will take out the straw and push it through the little hole on top, and Jasper will hand it to me.

‘You would think Madonna has come over,’ Oscar says.

‘Don’t cry for me, Argentina!’ Jasper sing-shouts as John prepares my juice box.

‘You’re bursting my eardrums. Here.’

Jasper takes the box from John and hands it to me. ‘Thank you kindly.’

‘You’re welcome kindly.’ Jasper is still bouncing.

‘Do you need to wee?’ John asks him.

‘No!’

They watch me drink through the tiny straw. It’s sweet and chemical flavored. Oscar slices the cucumbers loudly on the cutting board. We drain our juice boxes and make noises sucking up the last drops. Somehow I remember the deck of cards in my backpack.

I pull them out. They startle me. I haven’t touched them since the gazebo in Pawtucket.

‘You like cards better than board games,’ John whispers.

‘Crazy Eights!’ Jasper says. ‘Do you know Crazy Eights?’

‘Of course.’ My mother taught it to me when I had chicken pox in kindergarten. I made her play for days.

We move to the living room area. The boys start to sit on the couch, but when I drop down on the rug they come join me and we all sit cross-legged, our knees bumping.

‘We do have chairs, you know,’ Oscar says.

‘You have to play cards on the floor.’

It’s a good deck. It’s old and flexible. The cards belonged to Paco’s grandmother. We ended up with them after visiting her in Zaragoza where we played Chinchón. Paco and I used to play gin rummy in bed. I forgot that. Sometimes we’d find cards between the sheets in the morning. They have a woven reed pattern on them. When I pulled them out of my bag in Pawtucket, Luke held them and said, ‘Ah, wicker,’ and I laughed so hard. I can’t say why.

I cut the cards and bend back both halves easily. I release my thumbs, and the cards slot together perfectly, fast and smooth. I slip my fingers underneath the overlapping pile and bend it the other way in a sharply arched bridge, and they whoosh down together beautifully. There is nothing like a good deck of cards.

The boys are staring.

‘What?’

‘How did you do that?’

‘This?’ I cut the deck and do it again.

‘Yeah.’

‘You haven’t taught your kids to shuffle?’ I call over to Oscar.

‘We shuffle.’

‘We do it like this.’ John splits the deck and tries to wedge one half into the other sideways.

‘Stop.’ I gently take the deck away from him. ‘You must never do that again. That is old-man shuffling, and no one should be doing that under the age of ninety-three.’

‘Ageist,’ Oscar says, flipping the chicken fingers. ‘Twelve minutes.’

‘Okay,’ I tell them. ‘You’ve each got six minutes to learn.’

I hand the deck to Jasper first, which makes John impatient and Jasper uneasy. He’s used to John paving the way, going into the unknown ahead of him. The first few times I put my hands over his and we do it together, then I take mine away. His fingers barely span the length of the deck and the cards scissor sideways and the bridge snaps.

‘I can’t.’

‘Try it again.’

He tries.

‘I can’t.’

‘You can. Again.’

On the fifth try he does it. Splat and whoosh. ‘Papa, watch. Watch!’

Oscar comes and stands at the edge of the rug.

After a few more attempts Jasper does it again. And again.

‘Wow, Jaz. Look at you,’ Oscar says. ‘I wish someone had taught me how to do that at age five. I wouldn’t be ninety-three now.’

I smile, but I don’t look up. I’ve only got a few minutes left to teach John.

He doesn’t let me do it with him, but after a few tries he gets it. They pass the deck back and forth, practicing, imprinting it, their small hands more sure each time. John manages a particularly long bridge that flutters down with a beautiful shushhhhhh.

They look at each other.

‘It’s so cool,’ Jasper says.

‘It’s so, so cool,’ John says.

‘Okay. A tavola,’ Oscar says.

‘Crazy Eights after dinner?’ I say.

‘After dinner is books and bedtime,’ Oscar says. He points to the chair I’m supposed to sit in, opposite him and beside Jasper. ‘Five cucumber slices for every chicken stick,’ he tells his boys.

We pass around the plates of food. The chicken fingers are golden and greasy. There are two dipping options for the cucumbers, ranch or Italian. It all tastes so good. I get the boys to tell me stories: the day John got on the wrong school bus; the time Jasper took a nap and didn’t wake up until the next day; the night they locked the babysitter out of the house.

‘Tell the Nurse Ellen story, Papa,’ Jasper says.

‘That’s a bedtime story, not a supper story.’ ‘Tell it!’ John says.

‘Tell it!’ Jasper says.

He puts his hand on my wrist. ‘It’s so funny.’

Oscar does not want to tell this story. He looks down at his plate and shakes his head, but the boys persist and he looks at John and says, ‘You really want me to?’

John nods.

‘When their mother, my wife, Sonya, was in the hospital, there were good nurses, and there were bad nurses.’

‘There were happy nurses, and there were sad nurses,’ John says.

‘There were fat nurses, and there were thin nurses,’ Jasper says.

‘And then there was Nurse Ellen.’

‘Nurse Ellen was mean.’

‘She was cruel.’

‘She was bitter.’

‘She hated everyone.’

‘But most of all she hated children,’ Oscar says.

‘Children aren’t allowed in the morning!’

‘Children aren’t allowed in the afternoon!’

‘I had to smuggle them in. On gurneys, in laundry bins, in vacuum cleaner bags, and under the domes on trays of food.’

‘Papa would come alone, and Mama would cry, “You didn’t bring the boys!” ’

‘And out we’d pop!’

‘When we heard Nurse Ellen, we’d hide under Mama’s covers.’

‘We had to be so, so quiet.’

‘“I smell children!” she’d thunder.’

‘And Papa would say, “No, no children today.” ’

‘We tried to win her over,’ Oscar says.

‘Mama said, “She likes cars.” ’

‘And Papa bought her a book about car racing.’

‘Mama said, “She likes outer space.” ’

‘And John gave her his Lego girl astronaut.’

‘Mama said, “She likes animals.” ’

‘And Jasper gave her his little dog with the sucked-off ears.’

‘But nothing satisflied her.’

‘Satisfied.’

‘Not flowers.’

‘Not chocolates.’

‘Not Slinkys or binkies or Twinkies.’

‘But then.’

‘But then one day Papa brought Mama ice cream.’

‘Peppermint ice cream.’

‘But it was a day when Mama was very sick.’

‘She was too sick to eat.’

‘She pointed to Nurse Ellen.’

‘And Papa gave her the ice cream.’

‘And Nurse Ellen smiled from ear to ear.’

‘Like never before or since.’

They go silent all at once, and there is a terrible stillness I don’t want to break but know I have to break, a heathen made to speak after their sacred liturgy.

‘That’s a great story.’

‘It’s true. It happened,’ John says.

Jasper’s hand is still on my wrist, tight.

‘Dishes to the sink,’ Oscar says.

John stands and takes two plates. Jasper lets go and takes the other two. We are left with the water glasses between us. Oscar is resting his chin in his palm. He raises his eyebrows at me. ‘And that’s the abridged version.’

‘I’m so sorry.’

He nods. His eyes are unfocused.

John and Jasper are fighting over the sprayer at the sink. When Oscar notices, he says, ‘Up. Go up now.’

They let go and head to the stairs.

‘Say goodnight to Casey.’

They say goodnight, and I wish I could give them hugs, but I stay in my seat. ‘Sleep tight.’

Halfway up the stairs John says, ‘Thanks for teaching us to shuffle.’

‘Keep moving,’ Oscar says, and they go the rest of the way up. They look down from the balcony and I wave and they wave and Oscar says, ‘Face and teeth,’ and they are gone.

I bring the glasses to the sink.

‘Look at you,’ he says.

I’m carrying the four glasses in one hand, the cucumber bowl, chicken sticks platter, and dipping sauce in the other.

‘A real pro.’

He opens the dishwasher. A smell comes out of it. I haven’t lived anywhere with a dishwasher since high school. I load the dishes and take in the scent of an American home.

‘They do this with women. Their teachers, their friends’ mothers. Well, you saw it at the restaurant. They sort of throw themselves at them. It breaks my heart because what is it going to look like in ten years with girls their age? All that neediness.’

‘They’re going to have to fight them off.’

He shakes his head. He rinses the plates and slots them into the machine. I want him to forget about the dishes and pull me to the couch.

He rinses and reassembles the salad spinner and hands it to me. It’s a solid expensive salad spinner. I push down on the big red button and the plastic basket inside revs and whizzes like a well-built engine.

‘Sorry,’ he says, taking it away from me. ‘I forgot you don’t know where it goes.’

Upstairs there’s arguing coming from the bathroom.

‘Boys!’

‘Ready,’ John calls from the balcony. Jasper’s head barely clears the railing.

I want to ask him if I can read the boys a book before bed. I wonder what their favorites are.

‘Okay,’ Oscar says. He wipes his hands on a dishrag. ‘Thanks for coming, Casey.’

‘I can wait, or maybe I could read—’

He shakes his head. ‘Bedtime is still a bit rough.’

‘Papa,’ Jasper whines.

‘Coming.’ He starts up the stairs and looks back. And there is Oscar again, Oscar from the arboretum, the little grin as if we already have a past together, hundreds of little jokes, as if me just standing there at his fancy kitchen island is all he wants in the world.

‘I’ll call you tomorrow.’ He lifts his hands briefly in helpless apology.

He climbs the rest of the stairs, puts a hand on each boy’s back, and steers them down the hallway and out of sight. The dishwasher starts churning.

I gather my cards from the spot on the rug where I sat with the boys. I can hear bits of their voices above me. I give the cards one last slow shuffle and put them in my knapsack. I put on my coat and my helmet and go out the door. Bob has come out of hiding and watches me from a chair near the window. I wheel my bike to the end of the driveway. I can’t see them, but I know what room they’re in by the way the light shifts through the windows. I can nearly smell the toothpaste breath, the weight of a tired boy against my shoulder.

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