“Pop Pop” by Madeleine Mysko

 

At six-thirty in the morning, Jim’s new grandchild Andrew was crying in the back bedroom. Jim lay still in the dim morning light, while his wife Betsy got out of bed and padded away. The baby stopped crying. Jim heard Betsy murmur something, and then his daughter-in-law Valerie murmur in reply.

And now that he was truly awake, the realization shifted into his consciousness:  Their son
Scott was not in the back bedroom, where he had slept every summer of his life while they
were in Stone Harbor. Scott was in Iraq.

Betsy returned to bed.

“Everything all right?” Jim asked over his shoulder.

“Yes.  She’s nursing him.”

Andrew was seven weeks old. He’d been born a full month early, and was still scrawny and starved-looking. He was continually writhing and grunting to be picked up, his whole head darkly flushed, like a tiny old man with high blood pressure. According to Jim’s calculations, Valerie was nursing him every two and a half hours, sometimes sooner. Even though the doctors had gone over Andrew and declared him healthy, Jim’s gut reaction, the first time he laid eyes him, was that there would be some sort of bad news they’d get later on.

“I think she’s going to make a good little mother,” Betsy added.

Betsy had been thrilled to learn that Valerie would bring the baby down to the beach. “I get to be the grandma for a whole month,” she said. She and Valerie had phoned and emailed back and forth, and it was Valerie says this, or Valerie says that, until Valerie actually pulled into the driveway with the baby and all his paraphernalia. Apparently Betsy had managed to control her resentment—or maybe to wipe it out entirely—that Valerie had stolen Scott from his long-standing college sweetheart, and then sealed the coup with a wedding so simple that only the immediate family could be invited. Somehow Betsy had welcomed Valerie with arms flung wide, a change in attitude that continued to surprise Jim, and that he could only attribute to the effect babies have on women.

He rolled over onto his back. “Why do you think she wanted to come and stay with us?” he
asked, directing the question softly to the ceiling.

Betsy turned to face him. “Because we’re the grandparents.”

He kept his eyes on the ceiling. “You’d think she be more comfortable with her own mother.”

“In that tiny apartment?” She yanked the sheet over her shoulder and turned away again.

“You’ve got to give her a chance, Jim.”

“What do you mean?”

“You know what I mean. She’s our daughter-in-law, and she wants to be with us. You should be glad.”

“I didn’t say I wasn’t glad.”

“And besides,” Betsy said, “you’re the only grandfather Andrew has.”

Valerie’s own father had died when she was a child, and her mother had never re-married. They had learned that much during the hasty planning for the wedding. Later, Jim had pressed Scott for more details. “Well, first her father just left them,” Scott reported. “I think he was sort of screwed up.  And then later he died. I don’t know of what.”  It wasn’t the sort of story Jim had expected, and he was sorry he’d asked.

Betsy settled back into sleep, but Jim lay awake, lining up the day’s projects in his head. It had rained overnight, and the forecast was for a gradual clearing—probably not a good beach day, but a good morning to make the drive over to Wildwood. Betsy had asked him to pick up a dozen apple fritters from Britton’s bakery. Around noon their two daughters, Chris and Angie, would be arriving, along with Angie’s fiancé Logan, and possibly a friend of theirs.  Betsy wanted to have the apple fritters—a family tradition—on hand.

Jim pictured the bakery box laden with the dark, sweet apple fritters, but found it hard to work up any enthusiasm. Still, he got up and dressed quickly at the foot of the bed.  If Betsy was awake, she didn’t let on.

Heading for the stairs, passing the back bedroom, he heard Valerie talking quietly. He thought she might be on the phone, then realized she was talking to the baby—matter-of-factly, as though an infant might say something matter-of-fact in response.  Suddenly the door opened and Valerie stepped out, lugging the carrier with the baby already strapped in like a little astronaut.

She was wearing a red T-shirt pulled snug over her breasts, and jeans that undercut her belly, which was still rounded from the pregnancy.  Andrew was wearing baggy shorts and a shirt with a 4th of July firecracker on the front.  He was writhing around already.

“Oh,” she whispered.  “I’m sorry we woke you.”

“It’s OK, ” he said, continuing down the stairs. “I’m an early riser.”

She followed him into the kitchen, set the Andrew in his carrier on the table, and put the
pacifier in his mouth. “Should I make coffee?” she asked.

“Sure. But none for me, thanks.  I’m on my way out to the bakery.  They open at six.”
She smiled. She was not an especially pretty girl, but was striking somehow—arresting—with those wide blue eyes. Her strawberry blonde hair was pulled back from her face with a red elastic band. She seemed barely more than a kid, but she was 26—Scott’s age—and like Scott had a graduate degree in computer science. “You going to get the apple fritters?” she asked.

“That’s right.”

“Scott told me about them.”

“Gotta have those apple fritters.”  He smiled back hard, then quickly glanced away, out
through the screen door to the beach towels, which had been left on the line overnight, and
were sodden with rain.

For the past two days it had given him a wrench every time she spoke Scott’s name. She was practically a stranger to the rest of them, and yet she spoke as though Scott had been hers forever. His mind veered to the old girlfriend Alicia, who had fit so naturally into the family vacations and holidays, four years in a row, the whole time Scott was in college. But he couldn’t allow himself to think about Alicia, whom he hadn’t particularly missed before, but now suddenly did, deeply.

Valerie was still smiling. “Maybe we’ll ride along with you,” she said.

“Oh. Well, the bakery’s way over in Wildwood . . .”

“I know. Andy loves to ride.  He’ll probably sleep.”

He looked at his grandson, who was sucking weakly on the pacifier now, just enough to keep it from falling out of his mouth, his eyelids drifting down towards sleep. “OK.  Sure.”

“It would be easier to take my car, if you don’t mind.  It’s all set up with the car seat.”

“Right. We’ll take yours.”

“You hear that, Andy?” she cooed. “We’re going for a ride with Pop-Pop.”  She picked up the baby carrier and Jim followed her out to the car that she called hers, though it had actually once belonged to Jim an Betsy—the old Taurus station wagon, which they’d passed down to Scott when he was in graduate school.

“How many miles you got on this thing?” Jim asked, getting behind the wheel.

“A lot.”  She was fussing expertly with the baby’s safety belts and buckles.  “I’ll sit in the back,” she said. “That way I can keep him happy.”

He leaned down to read the odometer: 183,000.  He’d taken good care of the Taurus, and he imagined Scott had too, at least when he was home to do it. Of the three children, Scott had always been the most sensible—careful, good with his hands, methodical around the house and the garage.  Jim remembered the Taurus parked in the driveway at home in Baltimore, the hood propped open, Scott peering into the engine. His heart beat weightily in his chest.

They headed slowly out Second Avenue, passing the early-morning cyclists, and the
walkers and joggers skirting the puddles. Jim counted three joggers pushing big-wheeled
baby strollers ahead of them, young fathers letting the young mothers sleep in.
The day was looking grayer, the sun making its way behind more rain clouds.  But the
automatic sprinklers along Second Avenue were hard at work on the lawns of the brand-
new houses—oblivious, nobody with the good sense to shut them off, or maybe nobody
home. Often, at the really big places, that was the case. Like the big place at the end of
their own street, the one with the wings and turrets, and a rose garden put in already,
but not a living soul around.

“Stone Harbor is so pretty,” Valerie said dreamily from the back.

“Yes.”  There wasn’t much left of the real Stone Harbor, the summer place of his
childhood. Most of it had been bought up and bulldozed, to make room for multi-million
dollar places that took up whole blocks. But he didn’t feel like going into that with her.

At the stoplight he looked over his shoulder. “Is he asleep?”

She smiled and gave a thumb’s-up. “Out like a light.”

What was it he didn’t like about her?  He drove on, shoving the question away, though
he’d have to deal with it eventually. Maybe that had been his gripe with her from the
beginning—her arrival as the instant-daughter-in-law, an out-of-the-blue permanent
fixture in the family. And then she’d immediately made it worse by bringing a baby into
the picture. Jim had done the math: It couldn’t have been a shotgun wedding. Even if
Andrew had been a full term baby, his arrival would have come a good 11 months into
the marriage.

When he glanced over his shoulder again he found that Valerie had closed her eyes—
probably exhausted, with all that nursing around the clock. It reassured him to feel
sympathy for her.

It began to rain, fine as mist. At the inlet, they rounded the point and rode up the
drawbridge. He rolled down the window to pay at the tollbooth.

“Oh! I dozed off,” Valerie said. “I’m not very good company.”

“That’s OK. Go ahead and get some shut-eye.  We’re not even to Wildwood yet.”

He turned the windshield wipers on low. They squeaked back and forth, clearing the view
of gray water, gray clouds, and a lone, hovering gull.  It occurred to him that it was the
sort of morning that made a person long for a dry corner to hunker down in, with a cup of
coffee and something good to read.

*      *      *      *      *

One cold Sunday the previous winter, Jim and Scott had driven down to the beach house
to do some repairs and install a new vanity in the bathroom. Afterwards, heading back to
Baltimore in sleet and rain, they had pulled off for coffee at a roadside place outside
Bridgeton. They’d sat in a booth, while the sleet hissed at the window, making plans for
the beach house.  Scott had made a list on the paper napkin, starting with the necessary
jobs at the top and ending with his grand scheme—to tear down the old screened-in
porch and build an addition.  He’d even sketched the addition on the back of the napkin.
Jim still had that napkin.  It was in his dresser drawer at home, top left, under the socks.

“Family’s growing, Pops,” Scott had said that winter Sunday, smiling slyly. “You’ll need
room for the grandkids.”

At that point, Jim’s sole struggle had been to deal with a grandchild coming so soon,
before he’d even adjusted to the daughter-in-law. But soon after he’d had to deal with
the dread.

The dread arrived a couple weeks later, when Scott called to tell them his unit had been
deployed to Iraq. Jim was on the phone in the bedroom. Betsy was on the extension in
the laundry room downstairs. When Scott said Iraq, Betsy yelled it back to him—Iraq?  Jim
could hear the water going into the washing machine behind her, then Scott: It’ll be all
right, Mom.

Jim had known it was coming, ever since Scott joined the National Guard.  He’d known the
whole time Scott was playing soldier on the weekends, taking all the high-tech training
they had to offer, not to mention the extra paycheck. Jim could have said I told you so,
but inexplicably the news had stunned him.  He couldn’t speak, couldn’t get enough air
into his chest, and had to sit on the edge of the bed with the phone resting on his
shoulder.

Scott was in Iraq before the winter was over, before the baby was born.  The whole
family had made the best of it—chipper emails, containers of cookies and brownies,
photos and videos of the baby from day one. Scott said he liked the work in Iraq, said he
was very busy and the time was flying. Before they knew it, he’d be home.  It’ll be all
right, Mom.

But for Jim it was catastrophic. He had to concentrate on staying level, and felt worn out
before he could even set his feet on the floor in the morning. He couldn’t read the paper,
or watch the news. Even the local stories—mother of three killed by a drunk driver, two
ditch diggers dead in a freak mudslide: Unbearable sadness was just around every
corner. He had to keep bolstering himself against it.

“What’s the matter?” Betsy kept asking. “Is it Scott? Are you worrying?”

He withdrew from her into silence, and then felt hurt, as though it were she who had
turned away.

They had married in 1970, two months after he came home from Vietnam. They’d
immediately bought a home, a dilapidated rowhouse that exacted a lot of backbreaking
work. Both of them had good jobs as schoolteachers, but after the children came along,
and until the youngest was in middle school, Betsy was mostly stay-at-home—which was
fine with her, fine with both of them. Every summer they moved to Stone Harbor, to the
cottage that for years had belonged to Jim’s mother and now belonged to Jim. A friend of
Betsy’s from college owned a paint and wallpaper business in Cape May, and there was
always summer income for Jim, and for the kids too, when they got to be teenagers.
It hadn’t been entirely a bed of roses. They’d had to nurse their daughter Chris back from
near-death after a car accident her senior year in high school. And then Jim’s mother’s
had died of breast cancer.

Jim had always been close to his mother. His father, a melancholy alcoholic, had died
young, but long before that Jim had taken on the role of the good son for his long-
suffering mother. He’d been a model teenager, a levelheaded college student.  He’d even
managed to come home from Vietnam in one piece so that is mother could get on with
her life.

Ever since Scott was deployed, Jim would think of his mother and suffer again the same
shock of realization—that she was gone now, that he no longer had to shield her from
bad news. He suffered the shock almost daily, as though he couldn’t get reality into his
head.

Betsy had been nagging him. “Maybe there’s something you can take, something mild,”
she said. “I think you should call Dr. Josephs.  It’s not like you, Jim, to be so tired all the
time.” She seemed hurt too, as though he’d failed her in some way. Tired.  It struck him
that it was just like her to couch it in the mildest of terms.

The day they were packing for Stone Harbor, Betsy had gotten sidetracked into sifting
through a shoebox of old photos. Apparently Valerie had asked her to bring a few
pictures of Scott when he was a baby.

“Look what I found,” she said, when Jim came into the bedroom.

It was not a baby picture.  It was a photo of Jim in Vietnam, with his arms around two
buddies from his supply unit. Instantly his eyes filled with tears, not because of any
feeling for his younger self or for the other two, whose names he’d have trouble calling
up, but because for a moment he actually thought that the boy in the middle—blonde and
sunburned, dressed in fatigues, grinning back at him like he hadn’t a care in the world—
was Scott.

He handed the photo back to her.

“Are you all right?” she asked.

“Jesus,” he said. “We were babies.”

She frowned at the photo. “You were twenty-three.”  Her voice was so level he wanted
to shake her.

He’d never told her much about Vietnam. There hadn’t been much to tell. He’d been
assigned to the big supply depot at Ben Hoa, where he spent his days filling out forms,
moving things into the country and out to the bases—everything from fuel and ammo to
potato chips and beer. He’d witnessed only two distant rocket attacks, neither of which
hit their mark. And other than a black eye sustained in a game of pick-up, he’d managed
to come through his tour of duty unscathed.

It wasn’t like he hadn’t been touched by the news of the others—killed, severely injured.
But now, staring at the photograph, feeling the dread roll over him again, he realized he
couldn’t remember any of the particulars. He’d read about post-traumatic stress
syndrome. But what trauma had he suffered really?  It felt as though something might be
waiting back there, something terrible and crippling, poised to move into the light. Was
he being punished for the blitheness of his youth, for not paying attention?

He found a parking spot right in front of Britton’s Bakery.  The second he turned off the engine there was downpour of rain.

He looked over his shoulder. Valerie yawned, and smiled at him sheepishly. There was no sound from the baby.

“It won’t take me long,” he said. Beyond the steamed-up windows of the bakery, he could see there were only three people in line. “Anything I can get you?  They’ve got doughnuts and sticky buns too.

Friends of ours really swear by the sticky buns.”

“I think I’ll try an apple fritter. I’m looking forward to that,” she said.  “Oh—Looks like they’ve got coffee.”

At the door of the bakery, a young man was pulling up the hood of his parka, awkwardly balancing his cup.

“You want coffee?” Jim asked.

“I’d love some—decaf, please. Black.”

“Sure,” he said, and made his dash through the rain and into the bakery.

Waiting in line, he counted only a dozen or so apple fritters left in the case, but fortunately the people ahead of him wanted the doughnuts and sticky buns. While the girl behind the counter boxed up his order, he filled a cup with Decaf Breakfast Blend, figuring that was a safer bet than one of the flavored ones. There was a stack of morning papers next to the coffee station. Two Dead in Iraq.   The girl handed over the box.  It was heavy and warm.

“These must be right out of the oven,” he said, with as much cheer as he could muster.

“Yes sir.”  She was already looking past him at the next person.

When he got back to the car, the baby was wailing. Valerie had taken him out of his seat and was jiggling him, patting him on the back.

“You better keep the coffee up there,” she said, “until I get him settled down.”

He settled the coffee in the console and the bakery box on the front seat.  He started up the car, but figured he ought to wait for the go-ahead, since the baby wasn’t strapped in yet. Suddenly the wailing stopped. There was a whimper, a muffled shudder, and he knew she’d put him to the breast.

“I’m sorry,” she said. “This will only take a couple of minutes.”

“It’s all right.  We’re not in any rush.”

He turned off the engine and stared through the rain pouring down the windshield. He wasn’t squeamish about breast-feeding—Betsy had nursed all three of theirs until they were at least a year old—but he didn’t want to turn around and lay his eyes on Valerie with her T-shirt lifted up.

“Go on and break out your apple fritter, Pop-Pop,” she said. “When I email Scott, I want to tell him you had the first one of the season.”

Scott must have let her in on the routine they’d established, how they’d make the early-morning drive over to Britton’s and then immediately open the box and eat the first fritter in the car. He forgot about the nursing and turned to glance in her direction.  She had thrown a little yellow blanket over her breast and the baby.

“You email him every day?” he said.

“A couple times a day.  But he doesn’t have time to answer them all.”

He managed some small talk with her—about the weather, when it would break, and who was arriving when for the weekend. Under it all was the sound of his grandchild’s desperate gulping at the breast.

“There,” she said at last. “That ought to top him off, at least until we get home.”

She lifted the baby and kissed him lightly on the cheek. The baby was limp with sleep already, a dribble of milk leaking from his mouth.  She tucked him out of sight again, into his seat.

“I’ll take that coffee now,” she said.

He passed it back. “You want a fritter?”

“You’re going to join me, aren’t you?” Her smile was hesitant, and he saw that it was a big deal. The instant they got back to the house, she’d probably be emailing Scott about it.

“Sure,” he said, because he had no choice.

He opened the box, and lifted up the first fritter of the season. “They’re big,” he said, holding it out between them. “You want to split one?”

“OK.”

He pulled the fritter apart, and handed her the larger piece. “You can always come back for more.”

She bit in immediately. “Mm . . . Fabulous.”

He gazed down Atlantic Avenue, through the rain blown hard now by gusts of wind. He remembered a fair morning when he and Scott had parked up by the beach, with the bakery box lying open on the seat between them. That was the year they planned the family reunion and the big quoits tournament with the cousins. This year, he’d made up his mind there would be no games on the beach, not without Scott.  To that end, when he packed for Stone Harbor, he’d deliberately left the quoits up in the attic. But Betsy had come behind him and packed them anyway.

He pictured Scott pacing off the stakes on the beach—the tide out, the sand wet and packed, just right for quoits. He pictured Scott picking up a quoit, curling with it, letting it go in perfect form. From the back of his mind the dread was approaching, crushing whatever it had not already swept from its path. His throat tightened, and he had to breathe shallowly.

“This time next year Andy will probably be walking,” Valerie said. “Scott says we ought get one of those cabanas—the kind with the poles—so we can keep him out of the sun. Because you know he’s going to love the beach. Just like his daddy and his Pop-Pop.”

Family’s growing, Pops.

Jim pictured the paper napkin in his drawer, Scott’s sketch on the back.  Before he could get a grip, he was imagining how terrible it would be—something happening to Scott and then afterwards finding that sketch under the pile of socks, holding it in his hands, recalling the day they’d made big plans for the future, as though the future were ever sure.

Valerie chattered on. “Scott says while I’m down here I ought to take a look at them, and do some pricing.”

He would like to have reared around and let her have it: My son is in Iraq, for Christ’s sake.  Who are you, and what do you know about anything?

She leaned forward, her hand on the front seat, close to his shoulder. “Do think they’d carry them in the hardware store?”

“Excuse me?”

“Those cabanas—Do you think they’d carry them in the hardware store?”

“Probably not.”

She removed her hand from the seat. “Aren’t you going to eat your apple fritter?”

He gave a short laugh. “For some reason I don’t have much appetite. Do you want this other half?”

“Sure,” she said softly.

He handed it to her, and started up the car.

“I guess it’s hard for you, with Scott not here,” she said. “Maybe you wanted to drive over by yourself.”

“No,” he said, but it came out too forcefully. He tried then to soften it with a smile, turning to glance over his shoulder. “Really, I’m glad you came along.”

For several blocks he could feel the tension, as though there had been some awful argument.  In his distraction he missed a turn he knew like the back of his hand.  They wound up on an unfamiliar block of North Wildwood, passing a couple of seedy shops and a bar on the corner.  The rainwater, dammed up by a wad of trash at the curb, was eddying out into the road, and he was thinking how sad the face of that bar was in the light of morning, how very much the image of regret.  He took note that the rain was letting up, and turned the windshield wipers to low. Suddenly, from behind the telephone pole, there appeared a wild-eyed, wild-haired man whose wet clothes were plastered to his bony frame. The man stepped off the curb, and lurched blindly into their path.

“Jesus Christ,” Jim cried, slamming on the brakes.

Beyond the foggy windshield, he saw the man hop clear, glaring back over
his shoulder with his wild eyes. But at the same moment, from behind, came
the trouble—another car rear-ending them.

It was a hard enough hit that he felt the snap of the seatbelt across his chest, and at the same time felt the thud against the seat—Valerie being thrown forward. Valerie gave a small, plaintive cry—“Shit”—as though it were she who had done something stupid. No sound from the baby.

He got out of the car. There was a small black pick-up truck smack against
the back of the Taurus. The driver was a teenaged girl, hopping out now,
coming toward him. He opened the back door of the Taurus to look in.

“We’re fine, Pop-Pop,” Valerie said, and gave a weak laugh. She had one
hand on the infant seat and the other on her forehead. She hadn’t been
wearing a seatbelt, and had been thrown clear off the seat. Andrew was
unperturbed, still asleep with his pacifier balanced on his little shoulder.

The teenaged girl was at his elbow now, peering into the back seat too.

”Oh my God,” she squealed. “A baby—Is he OK?  I’m so sorry.  I tried to
stop.  Oh my God.”  He saw she was wearing a name tag on the pocket of
her white oxford shirt—Casey.

“We’re all right,” Valerie said. “Really.”  She smiled at the girl and pointed to
Andrew. “See? He didn’t even wake up.”

The girl was crying now, punching her cell phone, turning her face from
them.  “Mom?” she wailed into her phone, and burst into tears.
Jim got back in the car for the registration, which was in the glove
compartment, in the pocket of the manual, exactly where he’d kept it when
the Taurus was his.

“Poor thing,” Valerie murmured.

He pressed his lips together and shook his head.

By then the girl—Casey—had managed to get a grip. Together they surveyed
the damage. The truck was fine, but the dent on the Taurus ran the full
length of the back panel.  The girl proved to be surprisingly mature about it,
accepting that the fault was hers without question, though they both knew
the one really to blame was wild-eyed pedestrian, who had disappeared
instantly of course.

They moved the vehicles to the side of the road, though there was hardly
reason to. Few people were out on the road at that hour.

Peculiar, Jim thought, that the girl should be following that close, at just the
wrong moment.

“Are you sure you’re OK?” Jim asked the girl. “You might feel sore later—
Whiplash, you know.”

“I’m fine. How about you?”

“I’m OK.”

Valerie opened the car window. The girl went over to speak to her.

“I’m so sorry,” the girl said.

“It’s OK. It wasn’t your fault.”

“How old is your baby?”

“Seven weeks.”

The girl closed her eyes and shook her head.

“Hey—” Valerie said, reaching out to pat the girl’s arm. “This little guy is
tougher than you think.”

“You should bring him to the Wild Blue Sea Café some day,” the girl said,
“and I’ll serve him a plate of pancakes, no charge.”

“OK, I will. You’re a waitress?”

“In the summer.”

The girl gave Jim a polite wave then, hopped into the truck, and drove away.

When she was out of view, he got in the driver’s seat, and turned around to
look at Valerie. The right side of her face was pink—the brow and the
cheekbone, the point of impact. She had that sort of pale skin that showed
the slightest brush.

“You hit your face,” he said. “Does it hurt?”

“It’s OK.”

“Maybe you should put some ice on it when we get home.  Well, at least
now you’ll have something exciting to write to Scott about.”

She rolled her eyes. “I don’t think I’ll tell him about this one. I should have
buckled up.”  There was something in her expression he couldn’t read. She
swallowed hard, a symptom he recognized—She was sad about something.

He glanced at Andrew, who was sleeping so peacefully that the usual
ruddiness had drained from his face. His skin was as delicately pale now as
his mother’s.

“Look at that, will you,” he said, giving Valerie an encouraging smile.

“I mean, you’d think he’d wake up for a car crash.”

She laughed, but he could see she was struggling now not to cry.

“What is it, Valerie?” he asked.

“I don’t know.” She looked away, out the window, in the direction of the bar
on the corner.  A woman with her hair in rollers was picking up the trash
from the sidewalk.

“It was that man,” Valerie said.  “I mean he came out of nowhere.”

Jim nodded.  “He was damned lucky we didn’t kill him.”

“I know, but the thing is—I felt so sorry for him.” Her voice was constrained
now to a whisper.  She swallowed again. “For a second I thought it was my
dad.”

Jim was so unsettled he continued nodding his head, as though he
understood, as though he agreed it might have been possible.

“I mean the last time I saw my dad I was six years old,” she said, “but every
now and then—it’s always when I see some homeless guy on the street,
some poor old drunk—I get this awful sadness.” She smiled at him
apologetically. “I know—It’s weird. And I can’t believe I just said drunk.  I
hate that word.”

“I hate it too,” he said—couldn’t believe he said—but kept on going anyway.

“It’s offensive. My father was an alcoholic.”

And now she was the one nodding, taking it in. “Scott didn’t tell me.”

Scott.  There it was again, that shock of her speaking his name. “I don’t
think Scott really knows.”

“Oh.” She put her hand on her chest.  It appeared she was about to about
to pledge allegiance, but lightly.  It appeared that it hurt.  At last she took a
deep breath, and smiled at him.

He smiled back. “Well, this has certainly been my most interesting trip to
Britton’s,” he said, starting up the car.

She laughed. “Well, I don’t think we want to make a tradition out of it. At
least not the crash part.”

It occurred to him that he ought to say something more, maybe get back to
what she said about it being hard for him with Scott not there, because she
was right about that.  But then he thought it best to give it a rest, for the
time being.

As they approached the bridge to Stone Harbor, they passed a man and a
sunburned boy, walking along the side of the road with their fishing poles.

He thought of Scott, heard his voice on the phone: It’ll be all right. I’m fine—
Fine as the blonde, sunburned boy grinning out of that old photograph with
his arms around his buddies. The dread enveloped him, but he drove on
through it.

A few blocks from the beach house, Andrew woke up.  By the time they
pulled into the driveway, he was screaming at the top of his lungs.
Betsy was standing on the porch in her bathrobe, poking around in her
flower boxes.

“There’s Grandma,” Jim said.

“There’s Grandma,” Valerie echoed, working to free her screaming child from
his safety straps, as though it were second nature and she’d been doing
that sort of maneuver all her life.

 

 

Madeleine Mysko is a registered nurse and a graduate of The Writing Seminars of The Johns Hopkins University. Her poems, stories, and essays have appeared in such venues as The Hudson Review, Shenandoah, Bellevue Literary Review, The Baltimore Sun and American Journal of Nursing. Her first novel, Bringing Vincent Home (Plain View Press) is based on her experiences as an Army nurse on the burn ward during the Vietnam War, and is due for release in September 2007.  A poetry collection, Crucial Blue (Rager Media), is due for release in 2008.

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