That November was a doozy. Ice, snow, cold. Dad was on the road non-stop, zig-zagging across the south, studying golf courses. He was head greenskeeper at our local course and he was taking the winter to learn what he could from southern courses open year-round. He had to shut his course down with the first early snowstorm in late-October. Unlucky for his course, but lucky for his trip. Before he drove off, he swore me in to my duties while he’d be gone.
I was standing in the cold wind, and he was sitting in his warm Chevy. He raised his right hand up and had me do the same. “Joseph R. Riles, it is your duty keep the sidewalks and driveway free of snow and ice; to help your mother keep the house clean and neat, and with the dishes after meals. And keep your room clean.” Mother didn’t hear any of this. She was already shut-up in the house, mad as could be that he’d actually take this trip. “And take care of your mother.” He promised to be home before Christmas. With that, he patted me once on the cheek and backed out of the driveway onto Highway 18.
Dad had been talking about this trip for years, but now that it was here, my mother wanted nothing to do with it. The day he left, she didn’t even say goodbye to him. She locked herself in the bedroom. She stayed in there all morning and all afternoon. I sat in my room all day, waiting for her to appear.
At five o’clock that night, she came out. She didn’t say a word. She walked straight downstairs and started making dinner as if nothing had happened. I followed her down and set the table. She made dinner—salisbury steak and frozen green beans—in silence. She was quiet like that for about a week. She barely said Boo.
Each night, as we sat down to eat, she’d pour herself a drink. She’d drink that one, and then, after dinner, she’d pour a second. By that time, she had started into him: Tony this, Tony that. She said his name—Tony—as though an oily hairball were lodged tight in her throat.
Then she said, “A loser, Joey, a loser.” I had been trying all day to get the courage up to call Julie Gaston and I was already nervous enough; I didn’t need to hear her say that. I forked the Hamburger Helper—noodles and hamburger and onions and peas—into my mouth.
“That’s what he is,” she said. “You’re the one who should be upset. He’s never here for you.”
I pushed my food from one side of my plate to the other; it left behind a pool of grease. “He’s working.”
“That’s right, I forgot. He’s providing this fancy life for us. Hamburger Helper, for crissake.” She got up from the table, her plate still half-full. “Take care of the dishes, hon?”
I nodded and drank the last of my milk. She went out to the living room and I hurried through the last of my supper. I listened as she turned the television on. Then she called out to me, “Make me a drink, hon. Just a splash of brandy.”
I did as I was told, and left the bottle on her TV tray next to her glass. She settled back into the couch with her drink.
Keeping the walks and drive free of ice and snow proved full-time work. It wasn’t even winter yet, and already I was tired of shoveling and chipping at the ice. I vowed to make the best of it. I would skate and sled. Mostly, though, I would dream about spring and green grass. And Julie Gaston.
Throughout late autumn and early winter, my father’s postcards came from Southern towns with funny names. I’d place the rest of the mail on the kitchen counter for my mother to look through when she got home, but the postcards only made her get angry. I began taking the postcards without showing her or telling her, taking them with me up to my bedroom. In the near-dark and quiet of late afternoon, I’d lay in bed and try saying the strange names out loud: Nacogdoches, Kosciusko, Socapatoy. Then, I’d try it without making any sound at all, mouthing the words slowly, feeling the odd blend of sounds in my jaw, my teeth, my tongue, my lips. Tangipahoa. Pocataligo. Wetumpka. Then I would remember.
The next morning when I’d arrive at school, when all the other kids were at their lockers or mingling in the hallways, I’d slip into the library. Mrs. Wittwer, the librarian, would be at her desk. “Hello, Mr. Riles,” she’d say.
“Hello, Mrs. Wittwer. Any new Encyclopedia Brown?”
“Not yet,” she’d say. “I’ll let you know.”
Then I’d make my way over to the rack of atlases, hidden from Mrs. Wittwer’s desk by the newspaper rack. I had memorized the page numbers of all the southern states Dad planned to visit—Alabama, page 6-7; Mississippi, 30-31; Oklahoma, 52-53, and Texas, 58-59—so I could go straight to them. I would trace my father’s path. I’d follow him wherever he went.
The day before I had raced home from school. I hadn’t had a postcard from my father in over two weeks but this day the one from Tahlequah arrived. It would be on pages sixty-six and sixty-seven. Oklahoma. Tahlequah. Tahlequah.
I had begun tucking the postcards under my mattress, as far away from my mother’s eyes as I could get them. But I heard the back door open and close. She was home early from work. I panicked and placed them in the drawer with my underwear. It had been two months since I had so much as shared one of them with my mother, and for several weeks they had arrived one every five or six days. My mother had overheard me. She poked her head into my room. “Talequah? You know he’s not coming back. You know that don’t you?”
But then on Sunday night, when he placed his weekly phone call, she would talk, talk, cry, fight, and by the end of the conversation she’d be laughing, telling him to hurry home. The calls ended a couple of weeks later. And the postcards were fewer and far between.
His postcard from Talequah had read:
I saw on the news about the storm. You’re keeping the walks clear, right? I had Thanksgiving dinner at a place called the Golden Pheasant. Deep fried turkey! Can you picture it? I’d give anything to have been there with you and your mother.
After I’d crawled in bed that night, my mother came into my room. She went straight to my dresser, straight to my underwear drawer. She pulled out the postcard from Talequah and set it on top of my dresser. She didn’t say a word.
It was my sixth-grade year. When school would let out, I’d meet David at his locker and together we’d walk together as far as Division Street. From there he turned east and I turned north, running those last three blocks home as fast as I could without slipping on the ice that that had formed in all the low spots. One day I fell and my knee thunked against the ice and immediately began to throb. I’d use my key to let myself in through the back door and check to make sure my mother wasn’t home yet—if her purse wasn’t on the counter and there was no whiff of her flowery perfume, I knew I had made it. I’d race through the house to the front door and, through it, to the mailbox, hoping for a postcard.
The next day I left for school, walked until out of sight of my house, then I ran, and went straight to the library, straight to the atlas section, to check out where my father was, even though I knew it was only where he had been. I would then pretend to be him, sitting behind the wheel of the old Chevy, with a road map folded over the steering wheel, and I’d pick a highway, the highway he would pick, and I’d guess where he would go next, where he would be now, where the next postcard would come from.
I opened the drawer where we kept the phone book. It squeaked, but the water drowned the noise. I flipped hurriedly through the thin pages. Harold Gaston . . .
538-6759. I didn’t know that her father was Harold, but it was the only Gaston in the book. He must be Julie’s father. Whispering the number twice, then three times, I quickly put it to memory.
I replaced the phone book, then turned off the water. Suds had risen above the top of the sink. I plunged my hand in at the drain, but the water scalded me. I ran cold water over my hand, then more, to cool the dishwater. With Julie’s phone number running through my head, I washed the dishes, then dried them.
I went out and sat in the rocking chair opposite Mom. She appeared to have dozed off. “Mom.” She didn’t stir. Her breathing was sleep-heavy. “Mom,” I said, louder this time. She didn’t move. The TV was blaring; I got up and turned the volume even higher, then went back out to the kitchen.
538-6759 . . . I lifted the phone from its cradle; as I dialed, I held it close to my chest to deaden the sound. A click, three rings, then a man’s voice. “Hello,” he said. I pulled the phone cord as far from the doorway as it would stretch, and I thought of what to say. My mind went blank, numb.
I panicked and hung up.
From the living room, Mom called, “Who are you on the phone with?” My knees felt ready to cave in. She’d seen me hang up the phone. I walked out to face her.
“What?” I asked. I could feel my body shaking.
“Who was that?”
“David,” I said.
“David? Was it a girl?” Part of me wanted to tell her, but there was a hardness in her face and voice that frightened me.
“It was David. I’m going over to his house.” We had already planned to meet after dinner, so it wasn’t really a lie. Mom turned back to the television.
“That wasn’t really David, was it?”
“What?” I thought of the postcards under my mattress.
She looked at me. “How come I couldn’t hear you?”
“I was just talking.” She inhaled deeply on her cigarette, then exhaled a cloud of smoke.
“Is your homework done?”
“Don’t be late. It’s a school night.”
* * * *
I rang the bell and Mrs. Sutter yanked the door open and thrust herself toward me. My own mom was pretty, I suppose; but next to Mrs. Sutter, Mom’s blond hair and thin face made her look mousy and pale. Mrs. Sutter was tall, with shiny black hair that crashed in long waves down her body. She was Sophia Loren, without the Italian accent.
“What can I do for you, Joey?” she asked. Always she asked this same question, like a riddle. She was a beautiful Sphinx. If I gave the wrong answer, she would smother the life out of me, suffocate me in the deep nest between her breasts. She thrilled me, scared me.
“Is David home?” I asked.
“Yes, come in.” She stepped aside and I passed, careful not to brush against her. “He’s up in his room, studying.”
At the top of the stairs, I stopped a moment to listen to the music pounding in David’s brother’s room: Let’s get together, before we get much older . . . . I found David stretched across his bed, reading a comic book, The Further Adventures of Aquaman. He jumped up, slapped me five, then fell back onto the bed. “Did you call?”
“No. My mom was on the phone,” I lied. I plopped down into his black, bean bag chair and Rex, David’s German shepherd, came over and licked my face. “I thought maybe I could call from here.” There was a phone at the top of the stairs, outside David’s room. His parents would never know.
“I suppose so,” he said. He looked unsure. “You want to call her now?”
“I don’t know.” I didn’t know; I was afraid I might hang up again.
“Go ahead. It’s a piece of cake.”
“I wish.” I took off my parka and threw it on the floor.
“She likes you. How many times do I have to tell you? I heard her say it myself.”
“I don’t know.” I could feel the pressure driving into me.
The door burst open. “What are you dinks up to?” It was Tom, David’s brother. David ran to the door to push him out.
“Get out of my room, snot-face.” Tom was thin and bony and rectangular, like a ladder, and he towered over David, but David was smart and used his extra weight to get leverage. He pushed with all his might, and Tom, who had only socks on, began to slide backward. Both of their faces were beet-red, which made their pimples stand out even more.
Tom freed himself from David. “All right, pussy. I’ll get you later.”
“Hi, Tom,” I said.
David sat down to catch his breath.
“Joe here is trying to get up the nerve—" David began.
“Don’t,” I said.
“—the nerve to call Julie Gaston.” Tom’s greeting had been a formality, his daily chance to call us dinks or dorks or queers; now, he stepped into the room.
Tom said, “Not bad, Riles. Looks run fine in that family.” Tom would know. He was an eighth-grade basketball star and, despite the pimples, he always had two or three girls following him around. “Well, I’m out of here, losers.”
David looked at me, raised his eyebrows and threw his hands open as if to say, Well?
“Okay.” 538-6759 . . . I stepped into the hallway, Rex following at my heels, and dialed. Again, a man’s voice. I panicked, wanted to hang up. “Is Julie there?”