Prolouge to Lies You Want to Hear

“What could make a good man do such a terrible thing?”

When Matt Drobezko, a straight-laced Boston cop, meets the sexy, enigmatic Lucy Thornhill on a blind date, he falls instantly and irretrievably in love. Lucy — still pining for her ex-lover, Griffin, who walked out on her on the day she aborted his child — likes Matt well enough to want to see him again, but she isn’t sure she’s ready for another serious relationship. As Matt courts Lucy in an old-fashioned way, she comes to see him as the anti-Griffin — affectionate, unpretentious, faithful — “the kind of man your mother would want you to marry if you had a normal mother.” A tragedy in Matt’s family brings the two much closer, but when Griffin returns, Lucy is forced to make a choice that will resonate through their lives in ways that none of them can foresee. Told in alternating chapters from the point of view of Matt and Lucy, Lies You Wanted to Hear is a story about the love and betrayal and the fine line between the two.

Lies You Wanted to Hear

Prologue

I hate flying,” the woman in the seat next to Lucy says.

“Me too,” Lucy agrees, though it isn’t true. She never worries about her plane crashing, not with all the human failings that tear lives apart.

As the plane starts down the runway, the woman whimpers and crosses herself, and Lucy reaches out and takes her hand. When they are safely aloft, the pilot making a slow, gentle turn northward, Lucy lets go.

“Thank you,” the woman says. “I’m going to visit my daughter in New Hampshire and missed my connection. I didn’t want to fly in this weather, but…” She shudders and gives herself a little hug.

Lucy nods but doesn’t respond. She is on her way home after three days at the midwinter conference of the American Library Association. She’d been hoping to catch the five o’clock shuttle toBostonbut got stuck in traffic and ended up on the six; then the plane sat on the tarmac for nearly an hour waiting to take off and had to go back to the gate for deicing. If she’s lucky she’ll be on the ground by eight.

The woman takes a sky blue ball of yarn from a canvas bag and goes to work, her knitting needles pecking like a pair of hungry birds. She’s about fifty, wearing a purple sweat suit and matching reading glasses.

“I’m going as fast as I can,” she says as she notices Lucy watching her. “But I don’t think I’ll finish it on time.”

“What are you knitting?” Lucy asks.

“A sweater for my new grandson. My fourth. No girls yet.”

“Come on, you’re not old enough to have grandkids.”

“I got started early.” The woman rolls her eyes. “Way too early. What about you? Do you have children?”

“Two,” Lucy says. “A boy and a girl. Today’s my son’s birthday.”

“Wonderful. How old?”

“Nine.”

“Oh, that’s a great age. Same as my grandson Connor.” She wants to tell Lucy all about him and the other boys—long stories about their antics, one already a junior hockey star—and Lucy is grateful there are no more questions about herself.

When they land, the woman thanks Lucy for listening. Then she looks at her watch and says, “At least you’ll be home in time to see your son blow out the candles.”

Lucy smiles, trying to imagine what a joy that would be.

The taxi driver lets Lucy out at Le Lapin Vert, a little bistro onCentre Streeta few blocks from her house in Jamaica Plain. She sits in the back with her suitcase under the table and orders escargots and a glass of chardonnay. There’s a map ofFranceprinted on the paper place mats. In the summer she likes to rent a car and explore the French countryside. She keeps to the back roads, no plans or reserva­tions. The taste of the escargots brings back memories of a restaurant in Venasque, a late dinner where she was the only patron, the chef joining her afterward for a cigarette and a glass of wine. Lucy studies the map on the place mat and conjures up images from her travels: the wild horses of the Carmargue, the cave paintings at Les Eyzies, the brightly colored anchovy boats at Collioure. She’d like to buy a cottage in St. Benoit someday and plant a small vegetable garden, go to the abbey every evening and listen to the monks chant vespers in the ancient crypt.

A handsome man in an Irish fisherman sweater smiles at her on his way to the men’s room, as if they share a secret past. Lucy puts some money on the table and leaves without waiting for the check.

When she gets home, Frodo and Sam are asleep on the couch. Frodo yawns and tries to shake himself awake while Sam curls up against the light.

“Some watchdog you are,” Lucy says as Frodo comes over and wags his tail. He looks like a cross between a boxer and a corgi: reddish-brown coat, short legs and a blunt snout, one bent ear, a tail that sticks straight up. When a man at the dog park asked what breed he was, Lucy laughed and said, Albanian goatherd.

Frodo goes to the back door, and Lucy lets him out into the yard. She takes off her heels and puts on a pair of slippers, checks the thermostat and turns up the heat. Sam comes into the kitchen and meows, and Lucy puts some fresh kibble in his bowl. The mes­sages on the answering machine are from her mother and Jill and Carla—one melancholy, one anxious, one offhand—each in her own way acknowledging what day it is, but none of them willing to come out and say it. The mail is nothing but solicitations and bills. Lucy pours a glass of wine, then goes to the study and sits at her desk, its walnut surface scarred with nicks and glass rings and one long burn from a cigarette ash that could have set the whole house on fire. In the lower left-hand drawer, there’s a stack of leather-bound journals.

She takes out the one on top and opens it to the place marked by the thin red ribbon attached to the binding. For several years she wrote almost every day; now weeks go by without a word, her anger and sorrow shriveled to a hard kernel stuck permanently in the back of her throat. She smoothes the journal open with the heel of her hand and does the math quickly on a slip of scrap paper, feeling guilty that she cannot recall the numbers instantly and recite them down to the minute. She writes with a fountain pen; there is something comforting in the permanence of the blue-black ink soaking into the page.

1-25-90 (6 years, 7 months & 15 days gone) Happy birthday, Nathan. Nine years old today! That is so hard to believe. I can almost see you laughing, a shock of dark brown hair falling across your forehead, your grown-up teeth still too big for your face. Did you have a party after school today or will you have to wait till the weekend? An afternoon of sledding on a snowy hillside (no girls allowed), hot chocolate and cake afterward, wet socks and gloves drying by the fire. Or will it be a picnic on a sunny beach, you and your pals playing Wiffle ball and riding your boogie boards in the surf? Is there a special present you’re hoping to get? A Game Boy? Baseball mitt? One of those flashy dirt bikes with a banana seat? I remember the day I turned nine. My grandmother took me to the Plaza for tea. I wanted to live there like Eloise and play tricks on the staff. Do you remember Eloise? That was Sarah’s favorite book. Yours was Goodnight Moon. You were only two, but you knew every word by heart. You liked to snuggle up close to me at bedtime and pretend you were reading. That was always my favorite part of the day.

Sam jumps up on the desk and nuzzles Lucy’s hand. She looks at her watch. 9:53. She goes to the kitchen and refills her wineglass, doesn’t bother to turn off the light in the study before she heads upstairs. On the bookshelf in the hall she finds Eloise and Goodnight Moon. The copper washtub on the hearth in her bedroom is empty, no kindling or wood for a fire.

Lucy crawls under the covers in her clothes while Sam nestles beside her, purring and kneading. She opens a book and reads aloud. “In the great green room there was a telephone…” As the bunny is saying good night to the socks, Lucy hears Frodo barking in the yard. She groans and pulls the cocoon of blankets up around her neck.

“Sam?”

The cat cocks his ears and blinks at Lucy.

“Can you go down and let him in?” She scratches Sam under the chin. “Please, baby, go down and get him. I’m all tapped out tonight.”

The Taj Mahal

“The Taj Mahal” was awarded third place in the 2006 short story contest by the on-line literary magazine Carve.

The Taj Mahal

If he had thought about it for a moment as he was picking up the rental car at the airport, Calderwood would have taken a different route — gone through Revere and avoided the Friday morning rush hour into Boston — now he’s stuck on the long ramp leading to the tunnel, the guy in the Mercedes on his left reading a newspaper, two teenage boys sharing a joint in the van on his right. It’s late January, windy and bleak, half a foot of snow on the porches and rooftops of the triple-deckers alongside the ramp, the kind of weather that makes Calderwood feel a little smug about living in Southern California. He turns on the radio. A panel of experts on NPR is discussing the latest round of fighting in the Middle East. He listens for a few minutes then presses the scan button. The boys in the van catch him watching them, and the driver grins, holding up the joint as if he were offering him a toke. Calderwood returns the grin. He’d like to roll down the window and ask the boy if he has a few extras he could sell him, something to help him make it through the weekend. Miles Davis plays a few bars of “Bye Bye Blackbird,” muted and melancholy, before the scanner jumps to another station but Calderwood goes back and finds it. The guy in the Mercedes nudges his car in front of Calderwood’s, though it’s hard to see what difference it will make. None of the lanes has moved more than a few car-lengths in the past five minutes. Normally, this kind of traffic would have Calderwood muttering and grinding his teeth, jockeying to keep the other driver from cutting in, but for now he’s relaxed, almost grateful for the delay. He hasn’t seen his parents in eight years; another hour or two isn’t going to make any difference. Truth is, they don’t even know he’s coming.

It takes half an hour to reach the tollbooths, another fifteen minutes to get through the tunnel. A few miles north of the city traffic thins out and picks up speed. Banks of crusted brown snow line the shoulders of the highway. Calderwood is cautious and stays in the right-hand lane. He hasn’t driven in road conditions like this since college. He wishes he had taken the advice of the clerk at the rental car agency and gotten a bigger car, something with more traction. Every time a truck passes his little Ford Escort starts to fishtail, a spray of slush from the truck’s wheels blinding him for an instant, his hands so tight on the steering wheel he can feel the muscles knotting in his arms and the back of his neck. There’s another long delay on 495 east of Lowell, a car upside down on the other side of the median. Calderwood is tired and hungry. He got stuck in a middle seat on the redeye from L.A. and couldn’t get any sleep; still, he doesn’t stop driving until he reaches New Hampshire and he feels like there’s no turning back. He’s going to have to come east again for the old man’s funeral in a few months, but this trip seems necessary, a matter of getting some things said before it’s too late. Maybe getting a few answers too.

At a Burger King on the outskirts of Nashua, Calderwood orders the number-three breakfast combo: an egg-and-sausage biscuit, hash browns and a large black coffee. The food is tasteless, but the coffee has a rich smoky flavor and he buys another cup to go. Back in the car, he swivels his head around and around, trying to ease the tension in his neck. His hands are getting itchy in the warm dry air. He considers calling his mother on his cell phone but doesn’t. Sometimes when he calls from California, she’ll say, “My goodness, Teddy, you sound like you’re right across the street,” her voice bright and full of hope. “Why don’t you come out and visit me?” he tells her, meaning it, and she says, “Oh, honey, you know I can’t.” It’s her decision, of course, and he doesn’t press her. She’s sweet and well-educated and slightly daft — she once called the police to report that her car had been stolen, only to remember that she’d left it at a neighbor’s and walked home — but in her own way, she can be just as stubborn as the old man. As stubborn as Calderwood himself — stubbornness being the most pronounced family trait, though even that, he’s amused to admit, is probably not something they could all agree on.

A car behind him honks. Calderwood jerks his head up and realizes he has begun to drift into the oncoming lane. He swerves back onto his side of the road and waves his thanks to the other driver. He turns up the radio and sings along, hoping to ward off the drowsiness, then finds himself in the middle of a different song, an empty patch of time gone by, and knows he needs to stop and rest. He pulls into a parking space at the far end of a strip mall. Pushing his seat back, he bunches his parka into a pillow and folds his arms across his chest.

When he wakes up, the clock on the dashboard says 11:43. He can’t remember what time he went to sleep, over an hour ago at least. His mouth is bitter with the aftertaste of coffee, his hands red and sore from an allergic reaction of some kind or maybe he’s just been scratching in his sleep. He pulls back onto the highway and cracks the car window, the cool air bracing him. At the turnoff for Peterborough, he hesitates, then detours into town. He parks outside a drugstore and goes in and buys a pack of peppermint Life-Savers and a bottle of lotion for his hands.

As he’s standing near the door rubbing the lotion on his skin, a woman comes up beside him and says, “Teddy?”

Calderwood flinches like a shoplifter caught in the act. She’s wearing a bright blue ski cap with a green pompom, gray-blond hair framing her broad face.

“Mrs. Aldridge. Hello.”

“Mindy, please,” she says. “How are you? My God, it’s been ages.”

“I’m all right. How are Jeff and Sarah?”

“They’re great, just great. Jeff’s an investment banker in New York. Sarah’s a potter, married with twin girls. They live down in Virginia, just outside Washington.”

“Twins,” he says, shaking his head. He used to baby-sit Jeff and Sarah when they were kids. “What brings you up here in the middle of winter?”

“I live in Dublin year-round now,” she says, emphasis on the I, meaning Mr. Aldridge is history. “I love it. It’s so beautiful, so . . . basic. I mean, sure, we’ve got indoor plumbing and oil furnaces and satellite dishes, but in some ways things around here haven’t changed much in two hundred years.” She laughs. Her eyes are brown and mischievous with deep lines at the corners. “Of course, I can fly off to Aruba any time I want.”

Mrs. Aldridge had been one of a group of young mothers who spent their summers at the Dublin Lake Club, playing tennis, sitting on the beach and talking, watching their children swim. She wasn’t as pretty as Mrs. Carroll, didn’t have a knockout body like Mrs. Shaw, but she was the one Teddy thought about when he went to bed at night, a bottle of lotion — same brand he’s holding right now — hidden under his mattress. Mrs. Aldridge liked to tease him and squeeze his biceps and tell him how muscular he was getting. Sometimes when he came to the house to babysit, he’d get a peek down the front of her blouse as she bent down to kiss the children goodbye. But the best moments were the lazy summer afternoons by the lake — Calderwood lounging on the grass, pretending to read a book — when Mindy Aldridge stood up from her towel to walk down to the water with the bottom of her swimsuit riding up her ass, and she’d slip her index fingers under the seam of the fabric, pulling it over the soft white flesh back down to the line of her tan.

She asks where he lives now and he says Los Angeles. He tells her he’s a lawyer.

“Married?”

“Nope,” he says, grinning. “Came close a few times.”

“How long are you home for?”

“Just the weekend. My dad . . . ” He lifts one hand then lets it fall.

“I know, I’m sorry. I see your mom around town sometimes. Tell them hi for me.”

They walk out of the store together. He calls her Mindy and that makes her smile. He wants to follow her home and curl up under a blanket with her in front of the fire. He wants to tell her how he used to fantasize about her, tell her how his heart would race when he’d watch her get up from her towel and walk down to the lake. It isn’t sex he wants from her now — though that has certainly crossed his mind — it’s youth, hers as well as his own. All those possibilities, as infinite as stones.

He drives up the hill through Dublin and turns onto Lake Road past the entrance to the club. The road is narrow and packed hard with snow. A pick-up truck with a raised snowplow blade comes by in the opposite direction, the driver lifting one finger from the steering wheel to say hello. Calderwood tells himself he should call his parents and give them a little time to prepare, but he can’t bring himself to do it. Right now he’s going on adrenaline and inertia, crunching LifeSavers with his teeth. He passes the McDowells’ driveway, a rusty chain blocking the entrance; then the Thorstens’, salmon-pink shutters winking between the leafless trees. Practically every house on this road holds some memory for him — his first kiss on Alice Thorsten’s back porch, the Nelsons’ crazy grandmother wandering around in her orange wig and purple housecoat with a Mason jar full of caterpillars, Ricky Knorr accidentally chopping off his toe with an ax. On the southern edge of the lake, Calderwood stops and gets out of the car. The lake is frozen, white on white; the sky is a flat dull gray, not overcast so much as devoid of light, as if the sun had stopped trying. Only the pine trees have any color, that deep dark green of winter. The wind lifts a patch of snow and sends it looping and twirling like a mad skater across the ice. A hawk circles overhead. There is, Calderwood has to admit, a kind of stark beauty to the place — something basic, as Mindy Aldridge said — but he can’t imagine spending an entire winter here. Not without a cellar full of liquor.

He gets back in the car and drives past the golf course, past the fourth tee and the little wooden pro shop. His father, known to almost everyone as Big Ed, was the club champion for a number of years, Teddy tagging along as his caddie. A master of the miraculous comeback, his father would play with joking indifference; then, when the pressure was on, he’d hit some amazing recovery shot from the woods, needle his opponent into missing a three-foot putt, and chip in from a sand trap on the last hole to win. “Every golfer gets in trouble,” his father used to tell him. “It’s how you get out of trouble that counts.”

Calderwood thumbs another LifeSaver from the roll and bites down hard.

The old man probably thought he could live his whole life like that — juggling bank accounts and filing false tax returns, investing in race horses, setting up his mistress in a pied-à-terre in Boston. Thought he could break all the rules and still find a way to pull it out in the end, everyone laughing and shaking his head, saying, “Man, that Big Ed, how does he do it.” Now he’s up here in their old summer house — the only asset he could salvage when his business collapsed — cancer eating his body, Social Security and Medicare paying the bills.

The house overlooks Stone Pond on Old Marlborough Road. Calderwood puts the car in low gear as he turns into the long steep driveway. On the curve halfway up the hill the Escort’s wheels start to spin and the car slides sideways toward a ditch. He tries to back down the hill, but the undercarriage scrapes on a rock so hard it sounds like there’s a hole in the muffler. The car is tilted to left, the driver’s door nestled against a tree. Calderwood pounds the steering wheel with the heel of his hand and inadvertently blows the horn. He’s going to have to call a wrecker to tow him out.

Crawling across the seat, he gets out and puts his parka on. He leaves his travel bag in the trunk and walks up the hill, the leather soles of his loafers slipping in the snow. The windows of the house are dark, but there’s a small blue station wagon parked in the turnaround. The steps have been shoveled and salted, a pathway cleared to the car. Calderwood pauses for a moment, then starts up the steps. As he nears the top step, a cry comes from the house — a howl so deep and unnerving he grabs the handrail to keep his balance. He clambers up the steps to the landing and tries to enter the house, but the storm door is locked. He calls out and bangs on the glass with the heel of his hand. The curtains are drawn and he can’t see in the windows. No one comes to the door. As scrambles back down the steps, another scream comes from the house.

Calderwood runs around the side past the dining room windows, knee-deep snow pulling his loafers from his feet. The lights are on in the kitchen. His mother, Ruth, is standing by the sink, looking out the window at a pair of cardinals on the birdfeeder. When the next cry comes, she does not flinch, acts as if she doesn’t hear it as she raises a cup to her lips. Calderwood stumbles into her line of sight. When she sees him, her hand goes to her heart. They meet in the mudroom and he gathers her in his arms. She is much thinner than he remembers, her spine bent and knobby under her woolen sweater. He is still hugging her when the cry comes again.

He draws back and says, “Jesus, Mom, what the hell’s going on?”

She shrugs. “It’s the pain, honey.”

“Can’t the doctors give him something?”

“They have, but he won’t take it.”

She leads him into the kitchen and asks if he wants some tea. Teddy nods and takes off his parka and sits down at the table. Ruth fills the kettle from the tap then lights the burner and puts the kettle on the stove. Her hair has gone completely gray; her dark brown eyes are droopy and her jowls hang in waxy folds. The lines on the sides of her mouth are so deep that her chin seems hinged like a ventriloquist’s dummy. Another howl comes from the living room. Calderwood glowers at the closed door that leads to the hall. Ruth gets a jar of honey from the cupboard and sets it on the table. She asks him if he wants milk for his tea and he says no. He picks at the chipped enamel on white metal tabletop. Unspoken questions, his and hers, dangle in the air. Ruth pours the tea and sits down across the table. Calderwood winds the honey round and round his spoon. The next cry from his father is not as loud as the others. There’s a short pause, then Hah, almost like a taunting laugh.

“Not much longer now,” Ruth says, and he does not know if she means the howling or his Big Ed’s life.

“Mom, why didn’t you tell me?”

“Oh, Teddy, I did.”


For high school graduation Calderwood’s father gave him a Porsche 911, silver with black leather seats. In the fall he drove the car to Dartmouth and when he came home for Thanksgiving he brought his new girlfriend with him. Ginny Hanson was a scholarship student from Bay City, Michigan — her mother a waitress and her father long gone. “Holy shit,” said Ginny as they came up the driveway. The house, which was made of fieldstone and rough timber with great expanses of glass, sat in a meadow in Weston, Massachusetts and had once been featured in an architectural magazine. For Thanksgiving, his mother put on her usual feast and his father got drunk and flirted with Ginny. The next day Ted and Ginny went shopping in Boston and when they came home in the afternoon there were three unfamiliar cars parked in front of the house — identical black Buick sedans, very official looking. Calderwood thought of undertakers, clergyman. Two men in dark suits came out of the garage and went in the front door, and Teddy and Ginny hurried after them. His father was in the foyer talking to a man in a tan raincoat. Calderwood tried to interrupt but Big Ed put up his hand and said, “Not now, son.” Ruth was in the kitchen peeling carrots. “Mom,” he said, “what’s going on?” His mother turned around and smiled mechanically and said to Ginny, “My, what a beautiful scarf.” Ginny blushed and told her Teddy had just bought it for her. One of the dark-suited men appeared outside the kitchen and pasted a sheet of paper to the glass. “Mom, please, what’s happening? Who are these men?” “They’re from the IRS,” Ruth said and started to peel another carrot. “Don’t worry, dear. It’s all a big mistake. Your father will straighten things out.” The afternoon sun shown through the paper on the window; bold letters in mirror writing across the top: NOTICE OF SEIZURE. Calderwood ran outside. The IRS agents were pasting notices on the front door, on the abstract sculpture on the front lawn, on his parents’ cars. He found a putty knife on the workbench in the garage and began scraping a notice from one of the windows. Ginny stood beside him, watching, a look of worried admiration on her face. One of the agents came over and said, “I wouldn’t do that, kid. Your father’s in enough trouble already, you don’t want to make it any worse.” Calderwood felt like slashing the man’s face with the putty knife. “Go fuck yourself, Jack,” he said. “My father’s worth ten of you.” The agent grinned. “That your car?” he said, pointing to the Porsche. “My girlfriend’s,” Calderwood lied. It was actually owned by his father’s company — a legal technicality, another write-off for the business. The agent walked over to the car and glanced at the license plate; he took a sheet of paper from his suit coat and ran his finger down a list. “Bingo,” the agent said, and grinned again.


Calderwood tells his mother about the car getting stuck in the driveway.

“I’ll call Bob Hollins down at the Texaco,” she says, starting to get up from the table, but he covers her hand with his and says it can wait.

A low moan comes from the living room, the fierceness of the earlier cries having faded into something that sounds almost sexual.

Ruth says, “He’ll sleep now. You can go in and see him later.”

“How often does he get like this?”

“Four or five times a day. He hates for me to see him like that. When he feels a spell coming on, he’ll ask me to leave him alone. He doesn’t start yelling till I leave the room. Sometimes it just breaks my heart.”

“How long do the spells last?”

“About an hour, maybe a little more. I lose track. I’ll go out for a drive sometimes or take a long walk.”

“Why won’t he take anything?”

“He says the pain-killers make him foggy, like he’s caught in a maze. You know your father,” she says with a hint of pride in her voice. “Always has to do things his own way.”

He looks away and doesn’t say anything. Even with Big Ed dying, he and his mother will probably be fighting soon enough — Teddy belittling the old man, Ruth making excuses.

“So how was your flight?” she says.

“All right. I didn’t get any sleep, but it wasn’t too bad.”

“I don’t like to fly at night.”

“Why not?”

“I like to sit by the window and look at the countryside. In the daytime I think about all the people down there looking up at the plane and it makes me feel safer. Like nothing bad could happen as long as they’re watching.”

Ever the lawyer, Calderwood says, “What if the plane’s above the clouds? Or over the ocean?”

Ruth acts as if she didn’t hear.

“One night your father and I were coming home from Seattle. We were flying over Montana or North Dakota, one of those big empty places, and we passed over the lights of this little town, maybe fifteen or twenty houses, and then there was nothing. Total darkness, no sign of life. It was dark inside the plane too, just those tiny emergency lights on the floor. Ed was sound asleep, nobody moving around the plane, not even the stewardesses. I could hear the engines droning on and on, and I got this queer feeling, like we’d flown off the edge of the earth. I thought I was going to jump out of my skin. Then, way off in the distance, I saw a car. A pair of headlights going down some lonely country road, and it made me feel . . . I don’t know . . . like the person in that car and I were looking out for one another. Like we were connected. And when I couldn’t see it anymore, it made me cry.”

She smiles and rubs one hand with the other, her joints misshapen with arthritis.

He says, “I guess we better call about getting my rental car towed out of the driveway.”

The guy from the Texaco comes right over. He’s a burly, red-bearded fellow who looks like he could lift the car out of the ditch, which is basically what he does while Calderwood sits behind the wheel and maneuvers it back down the hill. When Calderwood asks him how much he owes him, the guy laughs and flaps his hand and says that Ruth and Big Ed are his favorite customers. Calderwood leaves the car at the bottom of the driveway and carries his travel bag up to the house.

His mother says, “How about some soup for lunch? Split pea and ham?”

“Sounds great.”

“Your father’s awake now.”

The door to the hall that leads to living room is open.

“Did you tell him I was here?”

“Yes.”

“And?”

She sighs and says, “You’ve come three thousand miles, honey. Don’t turn back now.”

“He can come out here to the kitchen.”

“No he can’t, Teddy. It hurts him too much to get in and out of the wheelchair. He spends all his time on the couch now, day and night.” She tries to smile. “He calls it his cave. Like he was a big old bear.”

“He needs in a wheelchair? I didn’t think the cancer . . .”

His mother gives him a look that makes him feel like he’s twelve years old. “Just go in and see him, Teddy.”

He stands there holding his travel bag then puts it down on the floor.

The hall is lined with books — leather-bound volumes of Gibbons, Emerson, William James, H.G. Wells’s Outline of History — the collection of his grandfather, the first Edward Angus Calderwood, also called Teddy. His grandfather was a teacher, the Mr. Chips of the Belmont Hill School. When he retired they hung an oil portrait of him in his tweed jacket and bow tie in the school library. Not longer after, his health began to fail, a slow pitiable decline from diabetes and emphysema, his ailments capped by the ignominy of seeing his son’s name — his own good name — dragged through the mud: the various legal battles of Edward Angus Calderwood, Jr. duly reported in the newspapers, culminating in three trials, a million dollars in fines and civil judgments, and nineteen months in Lewisburg Federal Penitentiary. But it isn’t just the books in the hall that remind Calderwood of his grandfather, it’s the stench of sickness and excrement oozing through a piney disinfectant haze. The smell seeps down into Calderwood’s throat and makes him gag.

“Teddy?” his father says from the living room. “Teddy, are you okay?”

Calderwood swallows hard. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

He pulls himself up straight and steps into the wide archway. All the curtains are closed, the only light coming from a Tiffany lamp on top of the piano, no more than a forty-watt bulb. His father, emaciated almost beyond recognition, sits in a heap in the far corner of the couch, a plaid blanket on his lap and a Navy blue watch cap on his head. His eyes are lost in their deep sockets; his mouth is a scaly lipless cleft above his gray-stubbled chin.

Calderwood moves toward him slowly.

“Hello, son.”

“Hey, Big Ed.”

Calderwood hasn’t called him Dad since his father left and moved in with his secretary. The old man had set her up in an apartment on Beacon Hill — a blowzy redhead who hung on until the money got tight and the legal stuff turned ugly. Then Big Ed went crawling back to Ruth.

“Welcome home,” the old man says, reaching out his hand.

“Thank you.” Calderwood takes the hand, which is soft and dry and yellow as a chamois.

“It’s good to see you. I’ve been hoping you’d come.”

Calderwood shrugs, open-palmed, as if to say, Here I am.

The old man shivers, a spasm that rocks him so hard you can almost hear his bones knocking against one another under the skin. He smiles weakly and says, “Would you see if you could get that fire going?”

Calderwood goes to the hearth and removes the fire screen. He lays in some kindling and squats down and blows on the embers, then he takes a birch log from the antique copper laundry tub and places it top. The log crackles as the scrolled white bark leaps into flame.

“Thanks,” Big Ed says. “That’ll help take the chill off.”

Calderwood turns a low armchair away from the fire and sits down facing him.

“Your mother keeps the thermostat turned way up, I’ve got this blanket and a couple of layers of clothing, but I still can’t seem to keep warm.”

“You used to tell me you had ice water in your veins.”

“Ah, Teddy,” his father says, smiling, a tooth missing on top, “I taught you too well.”

And Calderwood smiles too in spite of himself.

Ruth comes into the room with a tray — three bowls of soup and a plate of crackers, a mug of coffee. She pushes the travel books on the coffee table to one side and sets down the tray.

“I have your coffee, Ed,” she says, handing him the mug. “Will you try some soup?”

“Nah, maybe later.”

“Just try a little. It’s split pea and ham.” She sits on the couch beside him and moves the tray a little closer to his reach.

“I’ll have a cracker,” he says and takes a saltine.

He bites the cracker in half, crumbs sticking in his whiskers. Ruth’s hands fidget, wanting to wipe his chin, but she manages to hold herself back. She turns to Teddy and apologizes for not bringing him something to drink.

“I just want water,” he says, standing up from his chair. “Can I get you some too?”

“Yes, that would be nice.” Ruth beams at him, then at Big Ed — as if to say, Isn’t he wonderful? Didn’t we raise a good boy?

Calderwood comes back with the water. He sits down and tastes the soup, which is thick and smooth and salty — one of his mother’s winter staples, taking him back to days of sledding and cross-country skiing. Big Ed holds the coffee mug in both hands and brings it carefully to his lips. The half-eaten cracker sits on the arm of the sofa. Ruth asks Ted about his work and he tries to change the subject. A real estate attorney in a mid-sized firm, he spends most of his days poring over leases and purchase-and-sale agreements — tedious crap — but he’s a partner now and you can’t beat the money.

When his mother persists, he says, “It’s boring stuff, Mom. Mostly just dotting the i’s and crossing the t’s. The only thing that keeps it interesting is the negotiations. Then we get into good old-fashioned greed, everyone looking for an angle to make them feel like they’ve won.”

Big Ed perks up and says, “That reminds me of an article I read in the Globe a few years back. I wish I’d’ve cut out and sent it you, Teddy. It was about a guy named Harry Sawyer. Ever hear of him?”

“No, I don’t think so.”

“He was a legend around Boston. Taxicabs, real estate, parking lots. Came here from Russia as a kid and dropped out of school in the third grade, but when it came to the art of negotiation, the man could’ve taught at Harvard Business School. I had a few dealings with him myself way back when. Talk about a tough old Jew. Harry would just wear you down. If he didn’t get what he wanted, he’d get up and walk out of the room and leave the deal on the table. The way he saw it, time was always on his side. If you didn’t pay what he was asking, next year his price was only going to be higher. He was ninety-three when the article in the Globe came out, still going to work every day. He had a son who worked for him for forty years, waiting to take over the business. Harry fired him when the kid was sixty-two.”

His father grins and takes a sip of coffee. Teddy remembers how people used to listen when his father told a story, the way they would lean into it, their faces rapt and admiring. Now the old man is back in form, the color returning to his face, blue eyes sparkling in their yellowed pools.

Big Ed says, “Anyway, one day Harry’s negotiating a deal over a piece of prime real estate in the heart of Boston. Post Office Square. The buyers are paying top dollar for the property. They offer Harry a fifteen-year lease on the underground parking garage. Harry’s holding out for twenty-five. Both sides start to dig in their heels. Pretty soon it looks like the whole deal is going to fall apart. Finally, Harry’s own lawyer throws up his hands in frustration and says, Come on, Harry, fifteen years is a fair offer. You’re ninety-three, for Christ’s sake. You can’t take it with you! Harry glares at him for a second and says . . . I ain’t going.”

Teddy and Ruth laugh at the story, but Big Ed is laughing the hardest of all, mocking death like Harry Sawyer, his irreverence punctuated by a loud sputtering fart.

“Excuse me,” he says, grinning. Then he farts again.

Ruth says, “Do you need to change your bag?”

Big Ed nods and she gets up and leaves as the stink fills the room. It takes Calderwood a second to catch on. Then he remembers that his father has had a colostomy, that he shits through a hole where his navel used to be. Calderwood goes to the hearth and throws another log on the fire. When Ruth returns with a bucket of supplies, he excuses himself and says he’s going upstairs to take a shower. He tries to make it seem as if he’s giving the old man some privacy, sparing him the embarrassment, but Teddy knows that this is something he never wants to see.


In the late afternoon the three of them watch television, reruns of old comedies — Archie Bunker, The Jeffersons, Taxi.

“I missed these shows the first time around,” Big Ed says. “Some of them are real funny.”

Calderwood asks him if he does much reading and his father says not much, mostly he just looks through the travel books on the coffee table. Ruth says they don’t even get the newspaper anymore. Teddy recommends they try some books on tape, but Big Ed shrugs off the suggestion.

“Do you watch sports?” Calderwood asks him.

“Oh, sure. Hockey, basketball. I let the Red Sox break my heart again last summer. You know what I liked best? The U.S. women’s soccer team winning the World Cup. Oh, man, those girls are such terrific athletes. Like beautiful gazelles or leopards.”

“You can say that again.”

“Did you see the finals? That last penalty kick when—” He stops in mid-sentence and lifts one finger as if he’s listening to a distant sound, then his whole body whiplashes and his head snaps back, a horrible gurgling sound in his throat.

Calderwood leaps from his chair. He looks at his mother, but she simply closes her eyes and lets her chin drop to her chest. Big Ed is coiled against the pain, hands clutching the blanket on his lap, his face a tortured grimace, foamy saliva dribbling from the corners of his mouth. For a moment they are all suspended in time and space. Then Big Ed’s body slowly begins to relax. He lets go of the blanket and wipes away the drool with the back of his sleeve. His watch cap is askew and Ruth reaches over and fits it back on his head.

“Come on, Teddy,” she says. “Let’s leave your father alone for awhile.” She gets up from the couch and loops her arm through his.

He takes a step or two then turns to the old man and says. “This is crazy. Why won’t you take something?”

Big Ed looks up, his eyes blank, as if he doesn’t understand the question.

“Teddy, please,” Ruth says, and he lets her lead him away.


Calderwood takes his mother out to dinner in Peterborough. The restaurant is surprisingly upscale with one of those menus with lots of hyphenated adjectives like “pan-seared” and “almond-crusted.” They order a bottle of chardonnay and start drinking before the food comes. The wine helps them both to relax and they begin reminisce about some of their dogs — Snickers, the chocolate lab, who loved to chase the squirrels in the yard, and Macho, a West Highland terrier, who turned into the mad humper after he got fixed. In the middle of dinner, a friend of Ruth’s comes over to say hello. When Ruth introduces Teddy, the woman smiles and tells him how much he looks like Big Ed.

“How’s he doing, Ruthie?” the woman asks.

“The same.”

“Are you still taking him over to Keene for the chemo?”

“No. It’ll take a miracle now, Helen.”

“I’ll say a prayer for him.”

“Thank you.”

After the woman goes back to her table, Ruth whispers, “Helen lost her husband last summer.”

“Do you think she’ll find him?”

She laughs — giggles really — and Calderwood remembers how pretty she can be. “For her sake, I hope not. If that man had won the lottery, all he’d do is gripe about the taxes.”

The waitress brings the dessert menu. They both get tea and Calderwood orders a slice of key lime pie.

“So,” Ruth says, “how’re things going outside of work?”

“Fine. I’ve been doing some jogging, trying to keep in shape.”

“You seeing anyone special?”

“Not at the moment.”

“Do you ever see Phyllis?”

“Never.”

Calderwood and Phyllis were engaged for a short while four years ago. Phyllis moved into his condo and Ruth got to talk with her a few times on the telephone. Now Ruth speaks of her as if she were her long lost daughter-in-law, mother manqué of the grandchildren Ruth has been denied. Back at the house there’s a framed photograph of him and Phyllis on the mantel.

“I really liked her,” Ruth says wistfully.

“Me too, Mom.”

“So what happened?”

He shrugs. “I don’t know. I guess I wasn’t ready to make the commitment.” He thinks about Phyllis’s stuff all over his condo — the avalanche of clothes and shoes in the closets, forty-seven different bottles and tubes in the bathroom, the weird vegetables and designer yogurts in the refrigerator — the end coming after a bitter quarrel over an umbrella stand in a city where it hardly ever rains.

“A man needs a wife, Teddy. You can’t play the field forever.”

“Maybe I should get a wife and play the field,” he says, raising an eyebrow. “Like Big Ed.”

Her face crumples with the hurt and she is old again.

“I’m sorry, Mom. I just can’t . . . I hate what he did to you, that’s all.”

“Don’t bring me into this. I forgave your father a long time ago.”

“But how? Why? Why would you want to?”

She starts to say something then shakes her head, as if she cannot put it in words or is unwilling to tell him. Either way, he doesn’t ask again.


Back home Ruth gets Big Ed to eat a bowl of Ramen noodles and a slice of bread. They watch some more TV and Calderwood heads upstairs at ten. As he undresses for bed he looks in the closet and finds a ball and one of his old lacrosse sticks. He picks up the stick and cradles the ball in the pocket. He played attack in prep school, lead scorer on the team in his junior and senior years. When college coaches came around to recruit him, Teddy chose Dartmouth because he liked the campus and its proximity to skiing. Dartmouth was everything he had hoped for, but by the time the lacrosse season started in the spring of his freshman year, his world had been turned upside down — the Porsche repossessed; the glass-and-timber house in Weston sold; Big Ed, who had run off with his mistress, embroiled in his first trial. Ginny Hanson had been Teddy’s only confidante, but she grew weary of his anger and self-pity, the sarcasm and drinking binges. Taking out his frustrations on the lacrosse field, Calderwood played with a ferociousness that resulted in frequent goals and even more frequent penalties. When he was called for slashing in the first half against Cornell, the coach benched him for the rest of the game. Calderwood quit the team the next day. The coach wished him luck and suggested he get some counseling. After exams, Big Ed told him there wasn’t any money for him to return to Dartmouth the next fall.

A friend was driving to Los Angeles for the summer and Calderwood tagged along. At night he worked at a hamburger stand; in the daytime he learned to surf. A guy he met at the beach offered him a job doing research in his law firm. Calderwood rented a tiny apartment and enrolled in a psychology course at Long Beach State. It took him five years to finish his undergraduate degree, four more for law school. Since he left for California, he has been home only twice — once for his grandfather’s funeral (Big Ed was in prison, but authorities gave him a furlough) then for the wedding of his favorite cousin, which was the last time he had seen his parents. On both visits he and Big Ed maintained a cold cordiality, just as they did on the telephone, neither willing to talk about their estrangement. Sometimes Ruth would say, “He misses you, Teddy,” and Calderwood would tell her, “He knows where I live.”

Calderwood puts the lacrosse stick down and gets a book from his travel bag, a biography of Sir Richard Francis Burton, the English explorer and linguist. He slides into bed and reads a few pages and falls asleep with the light on. In the middle of the night Big Ed starts howling again. Calderwood gets some cotton balls in the bathroom and stuffs them in his ears, tries to go back to sleep with a pillow over his head, but it does no good. He turns on the light and opens his book. He can’t imagine how his mother endures this night after night. Why doesn’t she put a sleeping pill in his food, a shot of morphine in his coffee? There are enough drugs in the kitchen drawer to turn wild horses to stone. Calderwood tries to find a rhythm to his father’s pain, but there is none. The silences, fitful and expectant, disturb him as much as the screams. When the cries start to diminish, Teddy leaves his room and sits in the shadows at the top of the stairs. In between the groans he hears a raspy whisper. The words are indistinct but cadenced, like a chant.

Still seated, Calderwood eases himself down the steps one at a time until he hears Big Ed saying, “Grab your coat . . . and grab your hat.” A quick suck of breath. “Leave your worries . . . on the doorstep.”


“When do you have to leave,” Ruth asks him, breaking an egg over the frying pan.

“First thing Monday morning.”

She pouts. “So soon?”

Teddy chooses a shrug over a lame excuse. He’s been trying to think of ways to get out of the house for the day, maybe give Mindy Aldridge a call.

Ruth tries to stifle a yawn and he says, “This has really got to be hard on you, Mom. Have you thought about getting some hospice care?”

“We tried it for a little while, but it didn’t work out.”

“Why not?”

She shrugs. “Ed didn’t like all those strangers coming around, seeing him like that.”

Calderwood rolls his eyes.

Twice during the day he calls Mindy from his cell phone but gets her answering machine and doesn’t leave a message. He passes the time reading and watching television with Big Ed. The house is so dry his hands have begun to itch again. Every time he reaches for a light switch or a doorknob he gets zapped with static electricity. Later in the afternoon he takes his mother out for a drive. When they get home, he helps her make supper. Teddy tries to cajole his father into coming out to the kitchen to eat, but Big Ed won’t budge and they all end up in the living room with their plates on their laps. At bedtime, Calderwood finds some over-the-counter sleeping tablets in the medicine chest and takes two. If Big Ed howls during the night, Calderwood doesn’t hear him. He awakens at nine feeling groggy and hung-over though he’d only had two glasses of wine.

It’s Super Bowl Sunday. Broncos versus the Falcons. The Broncos, led by the great John Elway, are heavily favored to win for the second year in a row. All day long Calderwood and Big Ed watch the hype — the analysis and predictions, replays from earlier Super Bowls. There are interviews with the players and coaches, with members of the players’ families, former Super Bowl stars, team owners, trainers, oddsmakers, politicians. The big story of the day is Dan Reeves, the Falcons’ coach, who had emergency open-heart surgery a few weeks before and is back on the field coaching. Commentators speak of Reeves’ “courage” with cautious reverence, as if there is a distinct possibility he might expire on the field, which everyone would both abhor and admire. In the middle of the afternoon Big Ed has one of his spells, but he’s okay in time for the six o’clock kickoff. The commercials prove to be more entertaining than the game as the Broncos win in a rout.

Calderwood gets up and turns off the television. Ruth has already gone to bed.

Big Ed says, “What time is your plane tomorrow?”

“Nine-fifteen.”

“That means you’ll probably have to leave by six.”

Calderwood nods.

“Guess we better say goodbye now, then. I don’t know if I’ll be awake.”

Calderwood nods again. He goes over and sits on the end of the coffee table, their knees almost touching.

“You know, Teddy, sometimes I’ll be sitting here in my cave, watching TV or daydreaming, and I’ll see a pretty girl or some athlete running . . . hell, just walking . . . and in my mind I’m right there. I’m not an old man anymore. It’s like I can’t quite believe I’ll never . . . ” He shakes his head, a rueful twist to his mouth.

“Are you afraid?”

Big Ed ponders that for a second. “More like curious.”

“So you believe in an afterlife?”

“I believe in something. Not in heaven and hell if that’s what you mean.”

Teddy says, “I’m not sure what I mean.”

“Yeah, that’s the thing about death. On the one hand it seems so final; on the other hand, there’s always that little kernel of hope.”

There’s a long silence, then Big Ed says, “I thought of an epitaph while we were watching the game.”

“What’s that?”

The old man grins. “How about, He . . . played . . . hard.” He marks each word with spreading palms as if they were emblazoned across the top of a mausoleum.

“Hard is good,” Calderwood says.

“You got something better?”

“It’s your epitaph, not mine.”

His father reaches out and pats him on the knee. “What is it, son? What is it you want from me?”

Calderwood chews his lip and says nothing.

“Look, Teddy, I made my share of mistakes. I know that. When I was in prison I had a lot of time to think about them. Thing is, sooner or later you have to let that stuff go or wind up driving yourself crazy.”

“You have any regrets?”

“Oh, sure, buckets full. I can sit here now and look at the big picture, at the whole arc of my life. I’ve got what . . . two, maybe three months left, and you know what I regret most? It isn’t my mistakes. It’s all those things I didn’t do. The things I missed. Scuba diving, mountain climbing. All the places I’ll never see. Angkor Wat, Machu Picchu, the Taj Mahal.”

Calderwood says nothing.

“Hand me that book there.” Big Ed points at the stack next to Calderwood on the coffee table. “The one on top.”

It’s an oversized volume, wider than it is tall, a collection of colored photographs from India that Calderwood glanced through at some point in the past two days. He hands his father the book. Big Ed opens it on his lap and flips quickly through the pages.

“Look at this,” he says, turning the book around on his lap for Teddy to see. “Can you believe that?”

The Taj Mahal shimmers, majestic and golden, under a full moon.

Big Ed says, “Sometimes I look at that picture and I think it can’t be real. Nothing could be that beautiful! They say some people go there and it almost drives them mad. Once they see it they never want to leave.” He’s leaning forward, a mad joy in his own eyes.

This time the pain comes without warning. Big Ed’s whole body convulses like a rag doll shaken by some unseen hand, and the book falls on the floor. Trying to do something, anything, Calderwood grabs his father’s wrists. Big Ed exhales through clenched teeth, a long hissing breath that smells like rotten meat; then he yanks his arms free and falls across the sofa, his hands pressed against his ribs. A blue vein pulses rapidly in the hollow of his jawbone. It’s hard to say how long it lasts — twenty seconds? a minute? — the old man writhing on the couch, his knees drawn up to his waist. Then his muscles go slack and he lies there, panting.

Calderwood helps him sit up and fits the blanket back over his legs.

“Thank you,” Big Ed says. “It’s been great seeing you, Teddy, but you need to go now. I want to be alone.”

“Why are you doing this?” Calderwood says. “Why won’t you take any painkillers?”

“Please, just go.”

“Why do you have be so goddamned pig-headed? What are you trying to prove?”

“I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just doing the best I can.”

“Yeah, well, there’s a lot of easier ways to do it, you know.”

Big Ed smiles faintly. “Oh, Teddy, I don’t want it to be easy.”

The book of photographs lies askew at Calderwood’s feet. He picks it up and realigns the dust jacket. The page with the Taj Mahal has gotten bent in the fall. Calderwood sits on the coffee table smoothing the fold with his fingertips, but he cannot make it disappear. Something about that crease in the photograph fills him with sadness, as if the building itself had been damaged, its ineffable beauty marred forever.

“Dad,” he says, reaching out his hand, “let me stay with you. Just for a little while.”

His father hesitates, then takes his hand, their thumbs interlocking like arm wrestlers. Neither says a word. Big Ed’s grip slowly begins to tighten, his gaze drifting toward something only he can see. Then he howls.

Mr. Spotless

Mr. Spotless” was the winner of the national short story contest sponsored by the literary magazine The Ledge. The story appeared in the Fall 2006 Issue of the The Ledge (No. 29).

Mr. Spotless

My father stood at the kitchen sink washing his hands the way he always did, scrubbing them front and back, soapsuds halfway up his forearms. I was sitting at the table with my two sisters waiting for supper, my mother by the stove stirring the spaghetti sauce.

Dad looked over his shoulder. “So, Charlie, what’ve you got going with that busy schedule of yours on Saturday?”

“Just work,” I said. I was fourteen and had a job as a busboy at a restaurant downtown. “I have to be there by five-thirty.”

My father nodded and turned back to the sink. He rinsed off the soap and lathered his hands again, then he took a short-bristled brush from the jelly jar on the windowsill and started to clean his fingernails. My sister Patty, who was a year older than I, slid down in her chair, her tongue lolling out as if she were starving, which made my little sister Tina giggle, and Mom gave us all the evil eye. There was a salad and basket of bread on the table, but she wouldn’t let us touch a thing until my father sat down. He rinsed his hands again and turned off the water. His left arm, the one he rested on the open window of his truck, was much tanner than the other, the white silhouette of a watch around his wrist. He took the tea towel from the hook and began to dry off, wiping carefully between his fingers. It was a peculiar ritual, the way my father washed his hands, every movement as slow and deliberate as a priest at communion. Otherwise, he was kind of a slob – shirttail hanging out, trousers sagging under his pot belly, neckties stained with coffee and mustard – not exactly a walking advertisement for a man who made his living as a dry cleaner. He hung up the towel and picked up his watch from the drainboard. When he turned, a bemused smile came over his face, as if he were surprised to see us there, waiting. Then he took his seat at the head of the table.

It was a Wednesday, the one evening a week that my father came to our house for supper. He had been living with my grandmother for the past four or five years, sleeping in the same room he’d grown up in because my mother said she’d had enough of his drinking. Every Sunday we all sat together in our regular pew at twelve o’clock mass then went to my grandmother’s for dinner, same as we did when my father still lived with us. But Sundays and Wednesdays weren’t the only times I got to see him. Sometimes he’d stop by the house and take us all to the movies or a Pirates game under the lights at Forbes Field, my mother included. Or else I’d run into him on East Ohio Street as he was heading into Brinkman’s saloon, or coming out, and we’d both be a little embarrassed, and he’d slip me a quarter out of guilt.

After we started eating supper, my father said, “The reason I was asking about Saturday, Charlie, I was wondering if you could come along with me on my route?”

“All day?”

“Pretty much. I’ll have you home by three-thirty, four o’clock the latest.”

I hesitated, trying to think of an excuse, then I said okay. He had never asked me to go with him before.

Tina, who was eight, said, “How come Charlie gets to go to work with you and you never take me?”

“I’ll take you real soon,” my father said.

“When?”

“Soon. Scout’s honor.” He raised two fingers to seal the oath.

My mother said, “Why do you want Charlie to go with you?”

My father lifted one shoulder and let it fall. “I got a lot of deliveries. I could use his help, is all.”

“You’re going up to the Hill District, aren’t you?”

He shrugged the same shoulder again and my mother let out a deep sigh. We lived on the North Side of Pittsburgh; the Hill District was one of the colored sections of the city. Twice in past year thieves in the Hill District had broken into my father’s truck. They’d stolen only clothes, which were mostly covered by insurance, but my mother was worried that my father might get mugged and she thought he should stop going there entirely.

“I just want him to watch the truck,” my father said.

My mother looked up at the ceiling. Now that I knew where we were going, I was hoping she’d nix the whole thing. If she had said I couldn’t go, my father would not have tried to talk her out of it.

“Stop that!” my mother barked at Tina, who had a spaghetti noodle hanging down past her chin, slowly sucking it in. Then she pointed her finger at me. “You make sure you stay in the truck. Keep the windows closed and the doors locked. You understand?”

“Sure, Mom.”

“Alfred?” she said to my father, not “Al,” meaning this was serious.

“Absolutely,” he said. Scout’s honor for her too.


My father had a 1954 Chevy panel truck with a stick shift on the floor and double doors in back. Two long scratches from a defective pair of wiper blades arched like eyebrows across the windshield. There was no radio, no air-conditioner and the speedometer didn’t work; the odometer, which had twice gone past the hundred-thousand-mile mark, was stuck, as if with some deep significance, on 47774. Rust had eaten a hole the size of a half-dollar in the floorboard on the passenger’s side. When I was a kid I couldn’t ride ten miles in the truck without throwing up. Dramamine, soda crackers, ginger ale – nothing seemed to work. Not even when my mother let me have the passenger seat up front, she and Patty and baby Tina camped out on a blanket on the floor in back, empty coat hangers tinkling like wind chimes on the clothes racks above them.

The exterior of the truck was dark blue with yellow hand-painted lettering on both side-panels that read:

SPOTLESS CLEANERS

Al Mroczkowski, Proprietor, Since 1946

FA-2-7679

WE CLEAN RUGS

In the days before rented steam vacuums came along and ruined the business, rugs were a dry cleaner’s brass ring. Suits and dresses, skirts and pants, these items paid the bills. Men’s shirts were a nuisance, hardly enough margin in them to break even. But rugs – like drapes, their vertical cousins – could make a slow week profitable. Rugs could make my father sing.

I was waiting on the front steps when my father picked me up on Saturday morning. First we drove to the dry cleaning plant on Brighton Road to get the deliveries for the day. The plant served a half dozen or more independent drivers like my father, men who owned their own trucks and paid the plant’s operator to clean and press the clothes they’d picked up from their customers. The plant was a low brick building that smelled of starch and wet wool and machine oil. My father and I went into the large room where the clean clothes were stored and carried them out to the truck. There were enough clothes to fill both racks plus two rugs.

As we were crossing the river, I said to my father, “Aren’t you scared when you go up to the Hill District?”

“Scared? Why would I be scared?”

“What if somebody pulls a gun on you? Or hides in a hallway and smashes you over the head with a tire iron?”

He glanced over at me. “You’ve been watching too much TV.”

“Dad, you’ve been robbed twice.”

“A few bad apples,” he said, flicking away my words away with a wave of his hand.

“Mom says you should try and get more business in Fox Chapel and Mount Lebanon. Nobody’s gonna break into your truck out there.”

“Fox Chapel, right,” my father sneered.

“What’s wrong with Fox Chapel?” Every year he drove the whole family out to the suburbs to look at the Christmas lights. There were brick mansions lit up like department stores, garages bigger than our whole house.

“Lemme tell you, Charlie, I’ve been going up to the Hill District for fifteen years. My colored customers, they make their living doing things like driving buses, loading boxcars and scrubbing floors. These people see me, they know I’m a working stiff, just like them.” He fished a cigarette out of his shirt pocket. “Hot day like today, I’ll have eight, ten different people offer me a cold drink.” His voice deepened and took on a Negro accent. “Hey there, fren’. Come on in ‘n take a load off. Give them dogs a rest.”

I laughed, hearing him talk like that. We stopped at a red light. He lit his cigarette and tossed the match out the window.

My father said, “When a poor man’s got money, Charlie, first thing he does is pay his bills. Rich people, they play by a different set of rules. You think they worry about paying the dry cleaner? Hell, they’ll run up a big tab – forty, fifty bucks – then when you go to collect, they give you a look like you’re trying to cheat them or something.”

He was getting all worked up, his face flushed, beads of sweat popping out on his bald head. He told me a story about a chiropractor’s wife from Fox Chapel who has stiffed him out of seventy-four dollars. One day my father showed up and the house was empty, the whole family gone.

“I asked around to see if I could track them down,” he said, “but nobody knew where they went. Turned out they left owing everybody. Plumber, maid, gardener, even the newspaper boy. Took us all to the cleaners.” He laughed at his own joke.

From all the dark faces on the street I could tell we had come to the Hill District. It was less than three miles from our house on the North Side, but I’d never been there before in my life. I’m not sure what I was expecting. My friends and I talked about the Hill like it was Bombay or Istanbul – exotic, teeming, dangerous. The neighborhood we were driving through was pretty much like our own – old folks sitting on their stoops, young guys hanging out on the corners, kids playing stickball in an empty lot. As we drove along, people on the street waved at my father, and he smiled and waved back, called some by name.

“You ever heard of Billy Eckstine?” my father said.

“No.”

“The great Mister B. Sinatra couldn’t shine the man’s shoes. He grew up around here. Used to sing at that club right there on the corner when he was a teenager. Oh, man this was a great place for jazz musicians. You probably never heard of Billy Strayhorn? He was from the Hill District. Wrote most of Duke Ellington‘s tunes. What about Erroll Garner? You heard of him, right?

I shook my head.

“Terrific piano player. He wrote ‘Misty’?”

“Oh, sure, that’s a great song.”

My dad and I exchanged smiles, as if the glory of every Pittsburgh-boy-made-good increased the chances of our own hopes for success.

We parked in front of a U-shaped apartment complex. There were three five-story buildings, rainbows of laundry hanging from the balconies.

“I got a lot of deliveries here,” my father said. “You want a pop or something before I get started?”

“No, I’m fine.” I slouched down in my seat.

My father got out and went to the back of the truck. He opened the doors and took some garments from the rack and slung them over his shoulder, hangers hooked over his fingers. I leaned over and rolled up the window on the driver’s side and pushed down the button to lock the door.

As I was starting to roll up the window on my side, my father stopped on the sidewalk and said, “Jesus, son, you’ll suffocate in there with all the windows shut.”

“But Mom said–”

“Aw, don’t worry about that. You can get out of the truck and stretch your legs if you want. Nobody’ll bother you.”

I gave him a dubious look.

He started to say something when a woman called out from one of the balconies. “Hey, Mister Spotless, you got my red dress?”

He looked up, one hand shielding his eyes from the sun. “Got it right here, Cora.”

“Oh, I knew you wouldn’t forget me.” She let out a glorious laugh. “Lookout, chil’ren, Cora’s goin’ dancing to-night.”

As my father turned toward the building, I said, “She calls you Mister Spotless?”

He looked back and smiled, but I couldn’t tell if it was out of pride or embarrassment.


Ten-thirty in the morning and the day was already a scorcher. I stayed in the truck for awhile. A group of girls about Tina’s age were jumping rope in the courtyard between the apartment buildings. They had two ropes going at once, turning them so fast the ropes were just a blur, the girl in the middle skipping so lightly it seemed like a magic trick, as if the ropes couldn’t possibly be passing under her feet. The girls were chanting a singsong, My mother, your mother, live across the street . . . A small, pig-tailed girl in an orange sundress, barefoot on the hot concrete, stood off to one side, rocking to the rhythm of the chant; suddenly she sprang forward and joined the other girl in the middle, ghost-ropes spinning around them.

I got out of the truck and closed the door. My sweaty T-shirt clung to my back. I leaned against the fender and the hot metal made me flinch. I put my foot up on the bumper, elbow on one knee, chin in my palm, trying my best to look bored, as if I did this sort of thing every day. Three teenage girls came down the sidewalk and said hello. After they’d gone past me a few steps one of them whispered something and all three of them burst out laughing. A woman pushing a baby carriage walked by and smiled, then an old man, a hunched, shuffling figure in plaid Bermuda shorts, dirty T-shirt in his back pocket, black hightop sneakers with no socks. He was talking to himself, his hands gesturing for emphasis. He didn’t seem to notice me; then, after he’d gone by a few steps, he turned around and eyed me suspiciously and said something I couldn’t understand.

I said, “Excuse me, sir.”

He moved closer, motioning with his hand. “Best take yo’ shoe off that bumper befo’ Mistah Spotless catch you.”

I put my foot on the ground. “He’s my father,” I said.

His drew his head back, his face screwed up, as if I’d spoken in a foreign language.

“Mister Spotless.” I pointed to the truck then touched my finger to my chest. “I’m his son.”

He smiled. He had three or four brown teeth on the bottom, bare plum-colored gums on top. “Ah, man, I knew that. I was just jivin’ you. Me ’n yo’ daddy go way back. Shoot, you look jis like him.”

I laughed, not sure if he meant it as a joke. My father was a short, doughy man – bald, blue-eyed, moon-faced; I was a beanpole with my mother’s angular features, brown eyes and dark curly hair.

The man said, “Yo’ daddy, he used to do all my cleanin’. Back in them days I had me some threads. All my shirts was pure silk. Purple, chartreuse, diff’rent color every day of the week. Had me this pearl gray suit, Stetson hat to match.” He cocked his head and adjusted an imaginary hat. “Man, I be walkin’ down Wylie Avenue,” – he did a little cakewalk – “and them ladies come sniffin’ around me like a pack ‘a dogs, lookin’ for a bone.” He cackled and bent double, hugging himself.

“You telling lies again, Jarvis?” my father said.

I hadn’t noticed him approaching, a bundle of dirty clothes under one arm.

“Hey, Mistah Spotless, how you doin’ today?”

“Never better, Jarvis. Never better.”

My father went to the back of the truck. Jarvis started telling me a story about going into the hospital for kidney stones, all the nurses wanting to marry him. My dad reappeared with a rug over his shoulder and went back to the apartment building. Jarvis took the T-shirt from his pocket and wiped his face. Then he did a little hop and snapped his fingers, as if he’d remembered an important appointment, and walked off, muttering to himself.

A few more people came by and said hello. Bored, I reached through the window of the truck and opened the glove compartment, hoping to find a paperback novel. My father liked mysteries, Rex Stout and Ellery Queen. There was nothing in the glove compartment except a roll of duct tape and a few grimy road maps. I got in the truck and checked under the driver’s seat, felt the whiskey bottle inside the laundry bag.


It was hard to know when my father was drunk. He didn’t stagger or slur his words, never got loud or mean. The only way I could tell was by watching my mother, her eyes clouded with disappointment, her mouth a tight thin line. Once my sisters and I picked up on her signs, we worked him over like a band of street urchins, preying on his sweetness and generosity.

I don’t know what sort of problems my father’s drinking caused between him and my mother. I’m sure there must have been quarrels, embarrassments, money troubles, but whatever strife there was, they always managed to hide it from us kids. Sometimes, it seemed, the only thing keeping us from being the perfect family – everyone happy and my father back living at home – was my mother’s willfulness. When she made him move out of the house, she told him he could come back on one condition: he had to stop drinking for a year and a day. My father used to announce his progress at the supper table – ten days, three and half weeks, two months next Friday – then one Wednesday he wouldn’t show up. Six o’clock sharp my mother served our meal as if it were any other evening of the week, my sisters and I picking at our food, watching the door. No crying or we had to leave the table. It took me a long time to forgive her for not letting him come back. Years later, whenever I asked her about his drinking, all she would say is that she didn’t want to sit around and watch him throw his life away. Sometimes I think she had a hard time forgiving herself.


My father made two more trips into the apartment complex, then we went for lunch. We got in the truck and drove a few blocks to the Daisy’s Bar-BQ next door to a storefront church called the Holy Tabernacle of Divine Revelation. The only thing they served at Daisy’s, my father told me, was shredded beef and pulled pork sandwiches. The savory smell of cooked meat and barbeque sauce wafted out onto the sidewalk. Inside there was a line of customers, no place for anyone to sit. A short, barrel-chested man with iron-gray hair worked alone behind the counter, chatting with his customers.

We waited our turn and when we came to the front of the line, the man said to my father, “Hey, Al, how you holding up in this heat?”

“Oh, fine, Daisy, just fine.” My father took a paper napkin from the counter and ran it over his bald head. “Got my son Charlie here to help me out.”

The man called Daisy bowed slightly and said, “Sir Charles.” Then he laughed and wiped his hand on his apron and reached across the counter to shake.

My father and I both ordered pulled pork.

As he was making the sandwiches, Daisy looked up and said, “You teaching him the business, Al?”

“Nah, he wants to go to college. Gonna be a lawyer someday.”

“Law-yer!” Daisy let out a high-pitched Oo-whee. Then he chuckled and said, “Man, that’s like a license to print money.”

He placed the sandwiches, open-faced, on a double sheet of butcher’s paper and pushed them toward us. There was a plastic squeeze bottle of barbeque sauce on the counter. My father doused his pork and handed the bottle to me.

“Liquid gold,” he said.

Daisy grinned his appreciation. “You fellas want something to drink with that?”

We asked for Cokes. Daisy got two bottles from the cooler; he snapped the caps off and placed them on the counter dripping wet. My father paid and we took our food out to the truck.

As I took the first bite of my sandwich, my father grinned and said, “That got some flavor, huh?” He loved watching his children eat.

I nodded enthusiastically. The sauce was so spicy it made my eyes water. He unwrapped his own sandwich and took a bite, barbeque sauce rolling down his chin.

“Oh, Jesus, I forgot the napkins,” he said. “Would you run in and get some, son?”

“Sure.”

I opened the door of the truck and put my sandwich on my seat. I took my time, knowing he wanted to get me out of the way for a minute so he could spike his Coke with whiskey. I got the napkins then paused to read the quotation from the Bible that was taped to the window of the Tabernacle of Divine Revelation. He brought me up also out of a horrible pit, out of the miry clay, and set my feet upon a rock, and established my goings. * * *

“Like that sandwich,” my father said.

“Yeah, it’s really good.”

“Daisy’s place is famous. People come from all over for his barbeque. You notice the pictures on the wall?”

“The baseball players?”

My dad nodded. “Daisy was a third baseman for a couple of years with the Pittsburgh Crawfords in the old Negro League. Walter ‘Daisy’ Griffin. He was teammates with some of the best. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, Cool Papa Bell.”

“Really?” I’d heard the names of those great Negro ball players before, but I had no idea they had all played in Pittsburgh. “How come they call him Daisy?”

“Oh, that’s an old baseball term you don’t hear anymore. Daisy hit. Line drive over the shortstop’s head. That was his specialty.”

“You ever see him play?”

“Just once. The man had a cannon for an arm. Busted his kneecap and had to quit while he was still in his prime.”

We finished eating and I ran back into Daisy’s to collect the deposit on our Coke bottles. On the way out I glanced at the photographs on the wall. In one, I recognized Daisy, young and slender in his baggy uniform, Crawfords across his chest.

Before making his next round of deliveries, my father stopped the truck on a side street. Looking around to make sure no one was watching, he took a fistful of bills from his front pocket and counted out fifty dollars. He rolled the bills into a tight wad and secured them with a rubber band.

He said, “Hand me that roll of duct tape from the glove compartment, will you, Charlie.”

I gave him the tape and he tore off a strip. Leaning forward, he reached down and taped the bills to the underside of the dashboard. I knew he stashed money in the truck because he didn’t want to carry too much on his person, but this was the first time I had seen one of his hiding places. He smoothed the duct tape with his fingertips. From where I was sitting, you couldn’t see a thing.

He winked at me and said, “Never put your eggs all in one basket, son.”

We made stops at a half dozen houses then parked in front of a four-story apartment building, an imposing structure of yellow brick with stone steps and vaulted entryways, heavy oak doors with most of the glass panels replaced with plywood. Music drifted from the open windows out into the street.

“I got to make three or four trips in here,” my father said. “Probably take me about an hour or so, then we’ll be in the home stretch.”

He went to the back of the truck and got a load of clothes and carried them into the building.

The truck was parked in the shade. Daisy’s barbeque had left me feeling sated and drowsy. I turned sideways and stretched my legs out, my feet propped up on the driver’s seat, my head resting on the open window frame. I closed my eyes and drifted off to sleep. In a dream I was being stalked by a stranger, some menace without face or form. I heard the sharp click of footsteps coming up behind me, felt a hand reach out to grab my neck. In an effort to escape, I lunged sideways and startled myself awake.

“I’m sorry,” said a woman on the sidewalk next to the truck. “I didn’t mean to frighten you.” She was wearing a black dress and high-heeled shoes; she had a purse over one shoulder and a Bible under her arm.

I blushed and didn’t say anything.

“You go on back to sleep, sugar,” she said, smiling, and walked away.

My legs were starting to cramp and I got out of the truck. A group of teenage boys came down the sidewalk on the opposite side of the street. One of them was dribbling a basketball while he talked to his friends, the ball returning to his hand like a yo-yo on a string. Some of the boys glanced my way.

A strange-looking kid with pinkish-white patches on his skin said, “Hey, man, you wanna play? Make the sides even.”

I shook my head. Another boy grinned at me and booted the patchy-skinned boy in the butt. Near the end of the block the group of boys went through a gate in a chainlink fence.

My father came out of the apartment building with an armful of dirty clothes. Without a word he got another load of deliveries and went back into the building. From the angle where I was standing I could not see the boys beyond the fence, but I could hear the rhythmic plunk of the ball on concrete, the clatter of rebounds on the metal backboard. I rolled up the windows of the truck, pushing down the buttons to lock the doors, then I walked down the sidewalk and leaned against a telephone pole where I could watch the game from the opposite side of the street. The boys were playing full court, three-on-three, shirts against the skins. The patchy-skinned boy stood on the sidelines, berating the players on both teams. I kept looking back to check the truck. It was no more than fifty yards away. I figured I could run back in seconds at the first sign of anything suspicious.

The boy on the sidelines noticed me and called across the street. “Hey, man, come on and play.”

“No, thanks.”

“Aw, man, come on. You and me, one on each side.”

“I’m sorry.” I motioned toward the truck. “I can’t.”

“Just one game. Mister Spotless ain’t gonna leave without you.”

I looked down at my feet. I wasn’t wearing sneakers but my shoes had rubber soles. In junior high I had considered myself a pretty good basketball player, my advantage coming from my height and a reliable two-handed set shot. But I had trouble holding onto passes, and despite hours of practice in the basement, I could never learn to dribble with my left hand. After sitting on the bench of the J.V. basketball team as a freshman the previous winter, I went out for track in the spring and ran the mile faster than anyone else in the school – at which point I abandoned my visions of becoming the next Jerry West and set my sights on running in the Olympics.

The boy at the fence kept after me. I couldn’t help but wonder if he had been excluded from the game because of his looks. He had bug-eyes and a bullet-shaped head; his mottled skin made him look like he had a contagious disease.

“Come on, man,” he said. “Ain’t nobody here gonna bite you.”

I took one more glance back at the truck and crossed the street.


The boy who called me over grabbed the ball as it careened out of bounds. “Okay, we even now,” he said. “You know the team that take me gonna win.”

One of the players said, “Get outta here, Pinto. We’re in the middle of a game.” Another boy seconded him.

Pinto turned to the tallest boy and appealed to him.

“Don’t matter to me,” the tall boy said. “Score’s tied anyway.” He looked at a boy in red sneakers. “You want Pinto or the grayboy?”

The kid in red sneakers nodded at me. “We’re skins,” he said.

I peeled off my T-shirt and tossed it by the fence.

The guys on my team rarely passed me the ball, but I managed to grab a few rebounds. When I finally got up the nerve to take a shot, it clanged off the front of the rim. I learned the players’ names by listening to them call out to one another. The boy on my team in red sneakers was Derek; he had a great jump shot. Cecil, the tall boy on the other team, could dribble and spin and hang in the air. Pinto was a ferocious defender but often tripped over his own feet.

Each basket counted as one point. The first team to reach twenty-one would be the winner. The lead kept changing back and forth. With the score tied 15-15, I got trapped in the corner, unable to pass, and threw up a no-look hook shot that miraculously went in. A minute later Derek stole a pass and drove the length of the court for an easy lay-up. The boys on the other team started arguing with one another and we won without their getting another point. After the game my teammates all congratulated me and shook my hand. I was sliding my T-shirt over my head when I saw my father standing by the gate.

“Hey, Mister Spotless,” Pinto said.

My father lifted his hand in a silent greeting, then he looked at me and shook his head. I got a hollow feeling inside, knowing I had let him down. I realized instantly that I hadn’t locked the double doors in back of the truck. I pictured him coming out of the apartment building and finding me gone, all the clothes missing. He stood by the gate and waited for me. I glanced at him, trying to gauge his mood. He a faraway look in his eyes, and I was thinking – hoping, really – that he might be drunk.

As we walked up the street, I said, “I’m sorry, Pop. I should’ve stayed by the truck.”

He shrugged and didn’t say anything.

When I got in the truck, I looked back and saw the clean, undelivered garments still hanging on the racks, bundles of dirty clothes stacked on the floor. Nothing seemed to be missing. My father started the engine and shifted into reverse to back out of the parking space. Then I saw a strip of duct tape lying next to the gearbox, the tape my father had used to secure the cache of bills to the underside of the dashboard. I didn’t know if he had noticed the tape himself yet. Maybe he had left it there on purpose so I would know what had happened. An acrid taste bubbled up in my throat. It would take me weeks of busing tables to pay him back. I picked up the tape, which was twisted and stuck on itself, and straightened it out. Then, in my shame, I put the tape over my mouth.

My father gave me a puzzled look.

“Hey, Charlie,” he said. “No harm, no foul.” He grinned and patted the underside of his seat cushion to indicate another hiding place. “A man’s gotta keep moving, just like basketball.”

My skin burned as I peeled off the duct tape. I wanted so much to believe him.

We drove up the street past the playground. The boys had started another game.

I said, “Did you see that shot I made?”

His voice broke a little. “I sure did.”


My father never did stop drinking long enough to move back into our house. In my junior year at Penn State my mother called me at school to say that he was in the hospital. He’d been struck by a car when he stopped to change a flat on his truck. My mother said he had some broken bones but otherwise he seemed fine, even managed a few jokes from his hospital bed. The doctors said he would make a full recovery, but that night he had a brain hemorrhage and died.

After the funeral, my mother let me take the truck back to school. A friend and I painted the exterior in Day-Glo colors and put a shag rug on the floor in back. Everyone called it the Heavy Chevy. My fraternity brothers liked to borrow it when they had a hot date. One day, a few weeks before graduation, the rear axle on the truck gave out. I was on a highway and was lucky I didn’t have an accident. The tow truck came and took it to a service station. The mechanic told me it wasn’t worth fixing. There was no reason not to believe him; the clutch was starting to slip and the engine was burning a quart of oil a week. I didn’t have much stuff in the truck – just a few textbooks, a road atlas, my tennis racquet and a can of balls. I put them in a trash bag and hitchhiked back to the campus. In the fall, I went to the University of Michigan Law School. One day while I was sitting in the law library, thinking about my father, it occurred to me that in the years I’d owned it I had never searched the truck for a stash of bills. Perhaps he put a tight roll of fives and tens in one of his hiding places before he got out to fix the flat tire. I thought about where he might have hidden it – under the dashboard, in the padding of the torn upholstery, maybe behind a door panel or in one of the hollow pipes of the clothes racks. I felt stupid, and angry with myself that I’d hadn’t thought of this before. Maybe I could go back to central Pennsylvania over Thanksgiving vacation and see if I could locate it. Then I figured, How much money would it have been? Fifty dollars? A hundred, at most. Would it really be worth the time and effort?

I never made the trip. Still, I think about that old truck sometimes. I picture it in some weedy junkyard, squatting on its back bumper like a psychedelic toad, eyebrows on the windshield arched in anticipation. Mr. Spotless’s hidden treasure waiting to be found.