The Lighthouse

I've never been close with my father…Even though I'm his only child. We were both held together by my mother, the warm, dancing flame attracting the quiet moths. Dad was always on the other side of the sun; I could never reach him.Now Mom's gone. It's Christmas. And my unapproachable father is chasing a wild, crazy, impossible dream. He's putting everything he has into restoring an old, abandoned lighthouse that Mom loved.Yet, after a while, something about restoring the landmark started to make sense. Because in the glow of that beacon, a wife and mother was not gone, but instead was showing her two most treasured people the way toward peace.
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The Lighthouse


HOME FOR CHRISTMAS…

   Suddenly I was thinking about my dad and how I hadn’t spent many Christmases with him. We’ve never really connected, but as far as family goes, he’s all I have left. That’s when I burst into tears—a forty-two-year-old successful Realtor, crying her eyes out on her Pottery Barn couch. I sat there, thinking about how this year, if I didn’t go home, I’d be alone. I don’t have a boyfriend. Truth be known, I haven’t had a date in a year because I work too much and I’m picky as hell about the men I date.

   Long story short—I bought an airline ticket online. Deep down, I was hoping I might get closer to my father over Christmas.

   Then I called him.

Mary Schramski

   began writing when she was about ten. The first story she wrote took place at a junior high school. Her mother told her it was good, so she immediately threw it away. She read F. Scott Fitzgerald at eleven, fell in love with storytelling and decided to teach English. She holds a Ph.D. in creative writing and enjoys teaching and encouraging other writers. She lives in Nevada with her husband, and her daughter who lives close by. Visit Mary’s Web site at www.maryschramski.com.

The Lighthouse Mary Schramski


   

From the Author

   Dear Reader,

   I was inspired to write The Lighthouse because I believe:

    There are people in our lives who guide us through the rough times,

    Lighthouses are special,

    And no matter what problems we face, there is always hope.

   I also love the sound of the ocean in the morning, the veil of fog as the sun breaks through the clouds at sunrise and the happiness I feel when I connect with my family. The Lighthouse is the story of how a family deals with love, grief, past hurts—and how the light of forgiveness can bring us home, as a lighthouse does.

   Come with me. We’ll stroll the beach, watch the sun set, laugh, cry and believe!

   Mary

   For my daughter

    Jess—my light.

CONTENTS

   CHAPTER 1

   CHAPTER 2

   CHAPTER 3

   CHAPTER 4

   CHAPTER 5

   CHAPTER 6

   CHAPTER 7

   CHAPTER 8

   CHAPTER 9

   CHAPTER 10

   CHAPTER 11

   CHAPTER 12

   CHAPTER 13

   CHAPTER 14

   CHAPTER 15

   CHAPTER 16

   CHAPTER 17

   EPILOGUE

CHAPTER 1

   The stars and the rivers

   And waves call you back.

   —Pindar

   I feel invisible right now.

   I’m sitting on an airplane next to an older man who reminds me a little of my father. And we are waiting to deplane into the Los Angeles airport. We never spoke a word to each other. At thirty thousand feet, when it got really bumpy, I wanted to say to him, Wow this is scary, but he was reading and I didn’t want to bother him.

   Not saying what I feel isn’t unusual for me. Even when I have my feet on the ground, I don’t tell people what I think.

   Like three weeks ago when I was watching TV. A Christmas commercial about cameras came on. In the middle, where the smiling, tearful mother says goodbye to her daughter, I started thinking about my mom, how I miss her, and how I wish I’d told her I loved her the last time we spoke.

   Suddenly, I was thinking about my dad and how I hadn’t spent many Christmases with him. We’ve never really connected, but as far as family goes, he’s all I have left. That’s when I burst into tears—a forty-two-year-old, successful Realtor, crying her eyes out on her Pottery Barn couch. Twice I stopped, then I’d think about my mother, alone, in her smashed-up silver Camry. I’d start crying again. She called me the night before her accident. I didn’t call her back because I was angry about a million-dollar house I’d missed signing.

   That night, after the commercial and tears, I sat on the couch thinking about how this year, if I didn’t go home, I’d be alone. I don’t have a boyfriend. Truth be known, I haven’t had a date in a year because I work too much and I’m picky as hell about the men I date.

   Long story short, I bought an airline ticket online. Deep down, I was hoping I might get closer to my father over Christmas.

   Then I called him.

   He sounded surprised to hear from me, and when I told him I was coming home for Christmas, there was this long pause. He said, That’s not such a good idea. I have to go.

   Click.

   I stared at the phone, felt confused, then I got mad. My own father telling me not to come home for Christmas! I stomped around the house, threw a pillow across the room. Then when I thought about how my mother always let out a whoop when I told her I could make it home for the holidays, I started crying again.

   I finally got control, but it took a while. I was holding my breath, trying to get rid of a mean case of hiccups and telling myself as soon as they went away I was going to call my father back and ask him what in the hell was wrong. That’s when the phone rang.

   I said hello, and Dad launched into this explanation about how I woke him up. I looked at my watch, didn’t believe him, yet didn’t say anything. He asked what time he should pick me up at the airport. I got more confused, but I still didn’t say anything. None of this was like him. Instead of asking him what was really wrong, I gave him my itinerary and here I am, waiting to walk into the LAX terminal.

   The airplane door must have opened because people are grabbing bags and inching down the aisle.

   The man next to me smiles, leans a little closer. “Have a nice holiday,” he says.

   I smile back. “You, too.”

   He gets up, walks down the aisle in front of me.

   When I reach the terminal, I take a deep breath. It’s late and the terminal is almost empty. I go down to the baggage-claim area. I see my father right away. He’s standing by the far wall, arms crossed with that familiar, serious look on his face. His hair’s a little grayer than I remember, and his blue shirt doesn’t match his brown pants, which surprises me because he’s always been a neat dresser.

   As I walk over, he sees me, smiles, steps forward.

   “Christine,” he says in the same deep, calm voice I’ve heard all my life.

   “Hi, Dad.” I hesitate, want to hug him, but I’m still a little miffed about the phone call. I give him a quick hug, then pull back. “It’s good to see you.”

   “Same here. Are you ready?” he asks, then looks at my roller bag. “This all you have?”

   I nod, take the handle of the suitcase, and we begin walking.

   “Flight okay?”

   “The landing almost knocked out one of my fillings.”

   Dad smiles. We’ve talked this airplane talk for a long time. That’s one of the first memories I have of my father. Him standing over my bed in his smooth, dark blue pilot uniform, and Mom saying, Good night, have a good flight. I probably giggled because of the rhyme.

   “How’s work?” he asks as we make our way toward the exit door.

   “Busy. Really busy. I’ve got a lot of house sales coming up. One big one.” I’ve always tried to impress him. People have called me a workaholic, and it was a big stretch for me to leave all my listings right now, but after I bought the ticket and called Dad, I didn’t have a choice.

   He stops right before we walk out the door. “Can you afford to be away from work from now till New Year’s Day?”

   The man behind us trips a little over my suitcase. My father puts his hand on my back, moves me to the side, out of the way.

   “Sure. Christmas week is really slow, nothing will happen. I’ve worked hard all year. I deserve a little break. I’m the office’s top seller.”

   “As long as you’re not losing money. We’ll play it by ear. If you have to go back early, I’ll understand.”

   “Nobody buys a house around Christmas.” This isn’t exactly true—a listing can sell anytime. I lean closer, give him a quick hug. “I’ll handle everything when I get home. I’m a master at real estate sales.” I doubt if my father cares about this fact. He wanted me to go to college and become a doctor or lawyer, but I didn’t want to. We had a lot of fights over this. And it didn’t make it any better that I wasn’t settled until six years ago, when I finally found something I’m good at.

   We walk outside.

   “I had to park far away.”

   “Parking at the Tucson airport is terrible, too.” I fill my lungs with moist air. The scent of the ocean brings a memory of my mother sitting on the back porch step, her head held back, lips parted. She takes a deep breath and smiles at me.

   My heart begins to ache.

   “Those bastards. President has to do more.”

   “What?” I look at him. We’re walking past the corded-off, empty parking spaces.

   “President needs to do more about security,” Dad says, gesturing toward the spaces. The irritation I hear in his voice surprises me and I feel achy and tired.

   Dad settles my carry-on in the trunk of his Volvo and opens the passenger door. His car is immaculate, as usual. I glance down. A list stands at attention in the cup holder: bread, milk, gas, 8:15 Christine. I laugh.

   “Something funny?” Dad asks as he climbs in.

   “Your list.”

   “Yeah?”

   “You put me on the list. Would you have forgotten me if you hadn’t?” I’m kidding, but then remember the other night when he told me he didn’t want me to come home. Yet he’s always been a list-maker, a dependable man.

   “Of course not. Just a habit.”

   He starts the car, maneuvers out of the parking lot, and soon we’re on the 405. Air rushes in through his open window. I open mine, breathe in, feel as if I’m washing the last bit of arid desert out of my lungs.

   Dad sighs.

   A memory of my mother sneaks in. I close my eyes, relax. Warm afternoon sunlight streaming onto the back porch, my mother acting silly, telling me I can drink air. Me, a giggly girl. I hold my head back, sip the cool breeze. Dad asks what we’re doing, and in my little-girl voice I tell him drinkin’ air. He sighs, shakes his head and explains to my mother she shouldn’t fill my head with nonsense.

   I look over at him. He’s driving like he always has, right hand on the steering wheel, the other resting on his left thigh. Some things about him I know well.

   “So everything’s okay? You don’t mind having company this week?”

   He glances over, then back to the road. “Of course not. Why should I mind? Everything okay with you?”

   “I was just wondering. You know, well, you hung up on me.” I feel the anger I felt in my living room, but I push it back so I don’t have to feel it right now.

   “I was tired.” He stares straight ahead.

   For some reason, I don’t believe him and I want him to explain more, say something else, yet I know he won’t. “But you’re okay?”

   “Fine. How’s work?” he asks again.

   “Great. I’ll probably win top sales for the office this year. I’m the top seller.” I repeat what I just told him. I work fourteen-hour days, but to produce the way I do, I have to. Most of the time, I’m exhausted. “What have you been up to?”

   “Managing to keep busy.”

   “Doing what?”

   He flips on his turn signal and eases into the right lane to pick up the 110. “I’ve got lots of things to do, taking care of the house, for one thing. It’s getting older by the day. So your flight was okay?”

   “Fine. A little crowded, but since it’s two days before Christmas I expected that.” I drink in more air, wishing I felt as if I could open up, tell him he pissed me off when I called to tell him about my trip, but I can’t.

   “Yeah, it’s crazy flying at this time,” Dad says.

   “People want to be home for the holidays.”

   Dad looks at me, then back to the road. “I’m glad you’re home. That you could take the time off from work.”

   “Thanks. I didn’t want you to be alone.” My shoulders relax a little and I lean back. Before I became a Realtor, I used to jump from job to job—waitress, secretary, Pottery Barn sales clerk. With those jobs, I could come home every year if Mom sent me airfare. My father used to just shake his head when I’d tell him I’d changed jobs again. Then one day, a friend said I should try selling houses because I had a knack for making people happy. I didn’t know what the heck she meant by that since my life was pretty much a train wreck. I was in debt, not happy with any job and never found a relationship that worked.

   When I asked her what she meant, she said I was nice. I laughed, told her I wished I wasn’t so nice. That was seven years ago, and three top sales awards later.

   “Still like your job?” Dad asks.

   “The job’s great. The other day, a client told me I helped her find her dream home. That really reminded me of Mom.”

   An eye blink later, he turns the steering wheel sharply to change lanes and brakes squeal. I’m thrown forward toward the dashboard.

   “Good God!”

   A horn screeches and I glance back, thinking he’s caused a ten-car pile up on the 110, but everything’s okay.

   “Dad, you cut that guy off.”

   “He had plenty of room. People should learn how to drive!”

   A weird feeling spirals through me. This isn’t like him at all, but neither is him hanging up on me. I look over at him. Basically, he’s the same, maybe a little thinner, grayer. I turn my attention to the window, watch as we drive through the oil fields, come all the way up Pacific Avenue and turn right on Thirty-eighth Street.

   When Dad turns into the driveway of our house, my heart jumps a little. It’s the one I grew up in, the one my mother loved, decorated, the one she didn’t come back to eight months ago.

   

   We walk on the sidewalk that cuts from the garage to our house through the night-wet grass. I’m in front pulling my suitcase, and Dad is right behind me. The night is so quiet I can hear his shoes tapping against the concrete.

   I scuff my feet against the familiar flowery welcome mat on the back porch. Dad unlocks the door, flips on the light, motions me to go in, and I step into my mother’s kitchen.

   “I’ll put your suitcase in your room.” Dad disappears through the swinging door that leads from the kitchen to the rest of the house.

   My head is aching, I guess from the flight, the drive home, anticipation. I glance around. The same familiar yellow walls—like sunshine—was how my mother described the color years ago. My dad told her that was silly.

   I was so looking forward to seeing familiar things, but now I’m not so sure. When I’m in Tucson, I can keep my grief tucked away. Nothing there reminds me of home, and I’m so busy most of the time, I don’t have time to think about anything but work.

   Yet, right now, it feels like just yesterday that I sat at the oak table in the kitchen in shocked disbelief that my mother was gone. Dad has changed nothing. The white-and-yellow tile and the turquoise art deco canisters sitting by the stove are still the same. And the white curtains edge the window over the sink. Except now the room is a mess with unwashed dishes, a greasy frying pan on the stove.

   The old refrigerator, squat as an old woman, hums. I place my purse on the table in the middle of the room, dig around, find the little foil packet of Aleves in my makeup bag. The door to the dining room swings wide, Dad walks in, and the refrigerator sighs.

   “Need anything?” he asks.

   “No.” A half lie. I’m not sure what I need. I feel numb—a little disoriented, but I don’t know how to tell him this. And he probably wouldn’t understand, anyway. I glance toward the dining room and, for a split second, I expect my mom to push through the swinging door, hug me, then sit at the table and pat the space beside her.

   My headache deepens.

   “I saw Sandra this morning. She’s looking forward to seeing you,” Dad says.

   Sandra is three years older than I am, and she grew up in the house next door. We played together when we were young and, when she went to high school, I followed her like a puppy, entranced by the boys, makeup and dates that swirled around her. Three years ago, she moved back into her childhood home to take care of her mother. We’ve kept in touch, but over the last few years I’ve been so busy, we haven’t talked much.

   “I’ll go over tomorrow. It’s too late now.”

   Dad looks at the clock. “Better turn on the news.”

   “Still on at nine?”

   We both look toward the yellow sunflower clock over the fridge, and I laugh despite what I’m feeling. Eight-fifty-five.

   “Yep, still on at nine. Are you coming?” he throws over his shoulder as he walks out of the kitchen.

   “I’ll be there in a minute.”

   A moment later the TV blares. I walk to the refrigerator, open the door. Almost empty. This surprises me until I remind myself my mother isn’t here to fill it. At the new stainless-steel sink that Mom had installed two months before she died, I find a clean glass, fill it with water, pop the pair of puffy blue Aleves in my mouth and wash them down.

   The tiny crystal bear Mom hung in the window sways a little. I wonder how many times she stood in this spot, looked at the little bear and heard these same noises—the fridge humming, the TV voices, her own breathing? I try to look out the window, but all I can see is a lot of my mother in my reflection—long dark hair, narrow face.

   Familiar grief pushes in and I shove it back.

   After my mother passed away, my grief came in waves, like the ocean four blocks away, crashing against the cliffs. Sadness rolled over me, at times the weight of it knocking me down, filling up my throat and chest. Then just as suddenly, it would be gone, washing back to who knows where? I wouldn’t know when the grief was going to splash over me again—a song, feeling the early morning breeze against my skin, anything might bring back the hurt.

   I turn around, lean against the counter’s edge. I grew up knowing my mother loved this kitchen. We talked a lot here. She told me once that she wanted to soak up the history of this house, and family history always began in kitchens.

   She told me so many things. Once at the park, when I was around six, she held a dandelion to my lips, said, “Make a wish, Christine, and believe!”

   I close my eyes, wish my mother were here.

   “Christine,” Dad calls from the living room.

   “Yeah?” Where did she go? Crazy, I know, but it’s so strange that one moment a person is breathing, laughing, then poof, gone!

   “News is on.”

   “I’ll be right there.”

   I look around the kitchen, wonder how much my father misses my mother. They were married for forty-three years. Does he plunge into memories and swim to where she is, tangle in her long, dark hair?

   I drain the glass. I have to get control. I push my thoughts back and walk into the other room.

   Blinking red lights grab my attention.

   “What in the heck is that?” I ask.

CHAPTER 2

   “What does it look like?” Dad asks.

   I glance at the fake Christmas tree sitting on the table in front of the window. I don’t think I should tell him the tree, leaning too far to the left, resembles a drunken sailor. He might not think that’s as funny as I do. Huge red lights are looped precariously around the tree’s small, fake branches, and the Santa ornaments that Mom used to place on a big, fresh tree, look like they are hanging on for dear life.

   I shake my head, study a scratch in the hardwood floor.

   “Something wrong?” Dad asks.

   Oh, God, now he knows I don’t like the tree.

   “Did you put up the tree?” I ask then feel like an idiot because who else would have done it? “It’s really nice,” I lie.

   “No it’s not. It looks like crap.”

   “It’s cute. Really.”

   “It’s fake.”

   Like anyone couldn’t tell! I walk to where he’s sitting. He looks up, turns down the volume of the TV.

   “Fake, real, it doesn’t matter. I’m flattered that you put up a tree. It’s a great tree.”

   “You never could lie very well. It’s crappy. I got it at Wal-Mart, on sale. With you coming for Christmas—”

   He stops, gets this weird look on his face, and the gray light from the TV accentuates his frown lines.

   “What?” I turn and see my reflection in the window by the tree.

   “Nothing. I thought…nothing.” His expression is pure confusion. “We’re missing the news.” Then he points to the tree. “So you like it? The decorations are too big. If you want, we can go get a real one tomorrow.”

   “I wouldn’t change it for the world. Really, I’m impressed. I know you don’t like Christmas.”

   “True.”

   “Do you still think it’s a Communist plot against democracy?” Under the tree are two badly wrapped packages. Jesus, I completely forgot to shop! “I need to go Christmas shopping.”

   “What?”

   “I have to go Christmas shopping tomorrow.” I point to the presents. “I was so busy before I left Tucson, I didn’t even think of gifts.”

   Dad looks at me, raises an eyebrow. “How do you know they’re for you?”

   “Well, I…I don’t.”

   He laughs. “They are, but they aren’t much. I don’t want anything. I still think it’s a Communist plot. The tree seemed to need presents, that’s all. You can open them now, if you want.”

   “No, I’ll wait till—”

   A commercial about Toyotas blares through the room and tramples the rest of my words. Dad turns down the volume again.

   “I have to get you something. I wouldn’t feel right.”

   “Okay. Fight the crowds to get me something I don’t want or need.”

   I laugh at his familiar directness but feel a little hurt. I love Christmas, the presents and the fun. “But we’ve always exchanged presents.” An image surfaces—of my mother, a serious look on her face, wrapping boxes in pretty paper. My throat tightens and I look around the living room. The over-stuffed couch, the different shades of blue in the Oriental rug that covers most of the hardwood floor, the large picture window with no curtains so early morning sunlight will rush in—all the same, and all seem to be waiting for my mother to return.

   I close my eyes, want her here. Then I brush back this futile wish.

   “Remember how Mom used to sing, ‘I’ll Be Home for Christmas’ every evening, right before dinner, starting on the fifteenth?”

   “Yeah, I remember.” Dad stares straight ahead.

   Brian Williams talks about sextuplets born yesterday in Virginia.

   Dad gets up, walks over and hands me the remote. “You know, I think I’ll go for a walk. Watch anything you want, honey.”

   “But the news isn’t over.” I stand, motion to Peter Jennings.

   “It’s all the same.”

   He heads toward the hallway leading to the bedrooms. I get up, follow him, stand in their bedroom doorway. The room looks the same—blue and white everywhere, a woman’s room shared with her husband. Except now there are clothes piled in corners, and the bed isn’t made. I can’t take my eyes off the mess.

   “I didn’t have time to pick up,” Dad says.

   He’s looking at me. I shrug. “Oh. So you’re going for a walk now?”

   “Yeah.” He finds his Nikes under some clothes, sits on the edge of the bed, kicks off his loafers, then jams his feet with the black socks into tennis shoes and ties the laces in double knots.

   “It’s kinda late, isn’t it?”

   “The fresh air does me good, helps me sleep.”

   “But you used to run, always in the morning. You aren’t doing that anymore?”

   He shakes his head.

   “Are you having trouble sleeping?”

   He looks at me as if he’s trying to think of what to say. “A little. Things have changed. I walk now, at night. It seems to help.”

   “Help what? The not sleeping?”

   “Sometimes.”

   The weird feeling I have in the pit of my stomach grows. I breathe in, remind myself, yes, things change, but some things don’t—like not being able to talk to your father or to feel completely relaxed around him.

   “Excuse me,” he says, trying to pass through the door.

   “Want me to go with you?”

   “Only if you want to. I stay out a long time, so if you’re tired that’s not such a good idea.”

   I step back into the hallway, knowing he wants me to stay home.

   He moves past me. “Don’t wait up if you’re tired, honey.”

   A moment later I hear the back door close. In the living room the tree blinks on. I turn off the TV, go to my old room and shut the door. The white daisy bedspread I’m so used to is still on the bed. The oak dresser and highboy from Lou’s Antiques in Palos Verdes stand opposite each other.

   I pull back the curtain, try to look out to the front, but the window mirrors my reflection. I click off the lamp on the dresser and I disappear. Then I see my father, highlighted in the blinking red light from the fake tree. He’s standing in the middle of the front yard, staring at the house.

   I wonder what he’s thinking. Is he happy I’m here? It sure doesn’t seem like it. But he did put up the tree. Maybe he just doesn’t want company. The sad part of all this is that I really don’t know.

   

   Jake McGuire looked at the house his wife Dorothy had insisted on buying thirty-eight years ago. Christine’s bedroom light clicked off. He hoped his only child was going to bed. The red patch of light from the Christmas tree snapped off then on again. He crossed his arms and felt calmer than he had when he was in the house.

   A few minutes ago, when he was sitting in his chair, he’d again seen an image of his wife. Jake shook his head.

   Maybe all the talk about Christmas had brought it about. Then again, it could have been Christine’s reflection.

   No, that wasn’t it.

   He’d seen Dorothy standing in the middle of the living room. It was for just a split second, but he couldn’t deny it.

   Jake took a deep breath. Many times this past eight months, he’d wished his wife were sitting next to him or in another room. He’d even closed his eyes and pictured her standing in front of him smiling. But tonight? What he saw felt real. And seeing her made him feel comforted.

   The Christmas tree lights blinked off then on, and Jake remembered why he’d bought the stupid tree. He’d gone to pick up a case of Pennz-oil on sale at Wal-Mart, and he’d heard Dorothy’s favorite Christmas song, “I’ll Be Home for Christmas,” as he was standing in the middle of the auto supplies, for Christ’s sake. That’s when he realized he needed to get a tree because Christine would be home. The next thing he knew, he was shoving the artificial one in the trunk.

   Jake walked away from the house, then stopped a little ways down the sidewalk. He was glad he’d come outside. He wasn’t used to talking about Dorothy. Since she’d been gone, his evenings were silent, except for the TV. And he’d never been responsible for Christmas. When his wife was alive, she took care of all the holidays. Most of the time, he was flying. Lay-over hotels were quiet, and he got the best assignments for those days. Dorothy said she didn’t mind, even after they got older, as long as Christine could make it home.

   Deep grief invaded his body as he walked down the street. To distract himself, he looked up. The tall streetlights dabbed every fourth lawn with glassy white light. He hoped the cool night air and being out of the house, away from the memories—all the regrets—would make him feel better.

   Tonight, seeing Christine for the first time since Dorothy’s funeral had made him sad. She looked so much like her mother, with her dark hair, slim build and blue eyes.

   Maybe all the fresh memories had made him think he saw Dorothy. Jake stopped in the middle of the street. Yeah, that was it. The same thing had happened three weeks ago, right after the evening news reported a car wreck. That’s the first time he thought he saw Dorothy standing in front of him. It was for just a moment, yet he felt elated.

   And later that night, loneliness covered him like a blanket, suffocating him. So he’d walked to the center of town, away from the house, the memories, the uncertainty. He stayed out for an hour, then right after he’d walked in the kitchen, Christine called, told him she’d booked a flight to come home. He’d been so depressed, he couldn’t think or talk. It took him a few minutes to get it together, call her back and ask what time she was coming in.

   This morning, he’d thought, with Christine home, he’d be busy and the grief would subside. Tonight, at least, he managed to talk, act normal. He certainly didn’t want his daughter to worry about him.

   Jake walked faster, told himself he’d keep it together while Christine was here. At Dorothy’s funeral, he’d come to grips with the fact he was never going to see his wife again, despite what some people said.

   You’ll be together again someday.

   A lot of people said that to him. He thought people spouted that bull to make themselves feel better and not so afraid of death. He believed that the spirit everlasting was pretty much crap. He stuffed his grief, held his feelings back and told himself to face reality.

   Jake crossed the deserted street. There was no heaven or hell or anything in between. When he was eight, he’d announced to his mother he didn’t believe in heaven. She slapped the crap out of him, and that pretty much convinced him. The woman had tried to shove her faith down his throat for years, until he joined the service and moved away from Des Moines.

   He stopped at the corner. He had too much time on his hands. After Christmas, he’d paint the house, keep himself busy.

   He turned west, pumped his arms, walked faster. For the first time he noticed the fog, up from the ocean and veiling everything. He thought about the pilots being vectored into LAX tonight, relying on instruments, believing in what they couldn’t see, working and not thinking about anything else but getting on the ground in one piece. He envied them and wished he could still fly—look out the front left window of an airplane.

   He used to love flying in the mornings. Getting up early, taking off toward the sun as it inched up the blue sky—that was his personal heaven. And he liked jogging in the mornings, too. He always got back to the house before Dorothy woke. He’d step into their cathedral-like bedroom, watch her sleep, his fingers aching to touch her dark hair streaming against her pillow.

   Jake stopped at the edge of Point Fermin Park. Even though the park was only four blocks from the house, he hadn’t come down here in years. The area was still thick with eucalyptus and oaks. Dorothy liked this park, and was fascinated with the abandoned lighthouse at the cliff’s edge. He’d told her once she was obsessed with the lighthouse. She laughed, but he saw the hurt in her expression.

   He closed his eyes—God, what a fool he’d been.

   Jake took the curb too fast, staggered, then fell to his knees, palms flat against the asphalt.

   “Damn!” The low grunt knifed the air.

   Stunned, he got up and dusted bits of tarred gravel from his hands. He tested his legs. His knees throbbed.

   Slowly he walked into the park. The last time he could remember being here was with Dorothy and Christine. Dorothy had managed to talk him into going with them. The kid was little and she romped through the thick grass. Dorothy laughed, leaned against him.

   The white clapboard lighthouse tower, forty feet away, stood between the eucalyptus trees. For the past few years, on days when the weather was good, Dorothy brought her lunch to the bench in front of the lighthouse and spent twenty minutes relaxing. At times, he’d actually been jealous of the building.

   When the San Pedro City Council and the Coast Guard abandoned the place, Dorothy latched on to the hope someone would save the lighthouse. He’d told her a million times it wouldn’t happen, that nobody gave a crap about a useless building and she shouldn’t, either. Then he’d turned up the volume on the TV.

   Jake winced, closed his eyes and wanted to go back, have one more night to listen and to talk to her. A foghorn from the Los Angeles harbor sounded, reaching out its long, thick fingers. His knees hurt and his hands burned. He needed to go home and rest. Maybe a hot shower would help him ease the pain in his knees, his chest.

   He turned toward the exit to leave then stopped.

   His heart began to pound. Her dark hair swayed, and the red dress with the white buttons that fitted her so well and enhanced her breasts reminded him of years ago, and how young they’d been.

   Jake’s throat tightened. He closed his eyes, then opened them.

   But Dorothy was gone.

CHAPTER 3

   I struggle out of sleep, sit up. The Christmas tree lights blink on. Dad is standing by the living room window looking out at the front yard.

   “I must have fallen asleep,” I say, hugging myself and leaning back on the couch where I dozed off. “I was waiting for you to come home.”

   Dad crosses the room, clicks on the light by his chair, goes over and pulls the plug on the tree, then looks at me. “You should go to bed.”

   I yawn. According to the grandfather clock in the corner, it’s eleven-thirty.

   “I should. How long were you out?”

   “Couple of hours.”

   I get off the couch and notice the dirt on his pants. “What happened to your pants?”

   “I fell.”

   “You fell? How? Are you okay?”

   “Yeah. I stumbled off the curb. It’s no big deal,” he says, waves me away, and that’s when I see the blood on his hand.

   “Dad, your hand is bleeding!” I go to him, take his wrist gingerly and try to look at his palm.

   “It’s nothing.” He pulls away, walks through the dining room to the kitchen. I find him at the sink, filling a glass with water.

   “You sure you’re okay?”

   He nods, drinks. Water drips on the front of his chambray shirt, tiny dark tear shapes. I begin to feel light-headed. He turns back around, rinses his palms and grimaces.

   “You should put something on your hand.” I look at his pants again. There isn’t any blood and I’m thankful for that. “You sure your knees are okay?”

   “There’s Neosporin somewhere around here. When I find it, I’ll put some on.”

   Dad walks back to the living room and I tag along. He sits, groans, then looks at me and forces a smile. “I’m fine.”

   “I know where the Neosporin is.” And for one deep, long moment, I want my mother to be here so badly I can’t breathe. I shake the thought away, go to the medicine cabinet, locate the ointment and come back to the living room.

   “Here, put your hand out.” He does, and I dab the antibiotic on the small oozing areas.

   “The other one is scraped, too.” He holds his left hand out.

   It’s not as bad as his right one, thank God. “This must have taken the fun out of your walk,” I say, trying to be funny as I dab on more ointment.

   He gives me this weird look, for just a moment—a split second really—and then it’s gone. But it’s too late and I’m more worried than I was before.

   “Maybe you should go to the doctor to check—”

   “I’m not going to the doctor.”

   “What if you broke something?”

   “I’m okay. I’ve had broken bones before and I know what that feels like.”

   “Where’d you fall?” I ask as I put the cap on the Neosporin.

   “On my knees.”

   “No, I mean where were you?”

   “Over by the park.”

   “Oh, you walked to the park?”

   “Yeah.”

   “I haven’t been there in years. Is it the same?”

   Instead of answering, he closes his eyes. And I notice how pale his skin looks, pallid really. And the wrinkles on his forehead are much deeper than I remember.

   “Dad?”

   He looks at me. “Yeah?”

   “Can I get you something? Maybe some hot chocolate or anything, another glass of water?”

   “Hot chocolate would be good.” He pushes himself up with his elbows, his hands held high.

   “I’ll make it,” I say, and we go into the kitchen. A few moments later, the hot chocolate sizzles in the pan. I stand at the stove, not knowing what to do. Dad is by the sink. I smile at him.

   “I did the dishes.” I nod toward the sink.

   “Thanks. Kitchen looks nice.”

   “Is it cold outside?”

   “A little.”

   The house is so quiet and colorless without my mother. “The house seems kind of lonely.”

   “It is.”

   “How are you doing really?”

   “Every day is tough…but I’m okay.” He purses his lips, shakes his head like a kid, and I feel so sorry for him.

   I study the table for a moment, try to think of something that might make him feel better. When I look back, he’s staring at me. “Someone told me it gets easier.”

   “That someone lied.” Dad straightens a little, looks at the pan on the stove. “Chocolate ready?”

   “I think so.” I look for mugs that don’t remind me of my mother, but it’s impossible. I finally give up, fill two bright yellow ones that are as familiar as my own reflection.

   “It’s hot, so be careful with your hands.” I place the steaming mugs on the oak table.

   We sit across from each other. “So you walked around the park? Isn’t it kind of dark there at night?”

   “Yeah.”

   “I’ve never been there at night.”

   He looks down, gingerly brings the mug to his lips, blows across the surface. “What do you want to do tomorrow?”

   “Well, you know I need to go Christmas shopping. We could go to the mall early before it gets busy. I’ll buy you lunch after.”

   “Still gonna challenge the crowds?”

   I nod. “You could come with me, if you feel okay. I’ll drive. We don’t have to stay out long.”

   “No thanks.”

   I fill my lungs. “Doing something with a friend?”

   “Nah. Thought I’d hang out around the house, get some work done.”

   “Do you see any of your friends?”

   “Chet and I have a beer once in a while. Most of our friends were your mother’s. She was good at making friends.”

   Chet is a friend of my father’s. They knew each other in Vietnam. He’s a nice guy, quiet, tall and gray-haired like my father.

   “I know, but they liked you, too. You could still go to dinner with them, have a drink. It’s got to be lonely without people around,” I say, knowing this from experience. I don’t have a lot of friends in Tucson because I work too much. When I’m home, I watch TV, then fall into bed so I can start another day early.

   “People quit calling months ago.”

   I think back to the time of the funeral. The phone rang and rang and rang, and for the two days I was home the house was thick with people. Now the house is almost silent.

   “What do you do all day?” It’s funny how I’ve known my father all my life, but I don’t really know him. It was always my mother who made the plans, talked to people. She was the life in this house.

   “I watch TV, walk, putter around. This spring I’m going to paint. Your mother always wanted me to paint the house yellow.”

   A memory presses in, takes center stage. My mother standing by the kitchen sink, telling me she met my father on a beach at sunrise when the sun looked like a big pat of butter. I can almost hear her voice, the way she said the word. Even then I thought it odd, yet so much like her. She held out her arms, danced me around the room, and I laughed when she told me I’d find my Prince Charming, and we’d have a soft yellow house.

   A sigh escapes my lips.

   “What?”

   I shake my head. “Nothing. We’ve had enough happen tonight.”

   “You said something.”

   “No, I sighed. I was thinking about when Mom told me she met you at Cabrillo Beach at sunrise when the sun looked like butter. You know how she used to talk, and how she loved the color yellow.” My words cut the air like typewriter keys. “How she always said I’d find the right guy.”

   His lips flatten a little. “We met on Cabrillo Beach in the morning. It might have been sunny.” His solemn expression crumbles a little, and I feel his sorrow under my heart, beneath my eyes.

   “You know, when I was about six, she told me the sun spilled out a big puddle of lemonade when it was sunny.”

   Dad takes another sip of hot chocolate, clears his throat. “I’d better go to bed. Thanks for the hot chocolate.” He scoots his chair back.

   I watch him rinse his mug, rub his fingers around the edge, then put it upside down in the sink. He walks out of the room, and I swear, for a moment, I can feel my mother’s arms around me.

   

   It’s early morning and I’m standing on the sidewalk that edges Point Fermin Park. The area almost matches the memory I tucked away years ago, except the park looks smaller, not as bright. Every time I come home I have this same experience—things look different, not by much, but enough to startle me for a moment.

   The wet grass paints the bottom of my jeans as I walk across it. I woke at seven, found Dad sitting at the kitchen table sipping coffee from the same mug he used last night. He was working the New York Times crossword puzzle, like he always does. I checked his hands. They looked much better, scabbed over and not so red. He seemed okay, told me he’s fine and I should have a great walk.

   The sky is California blue, clear. I walk past the old bench, reach the lookout point and wrap my fingers around the metal railing. Cold slips to my fingers, moves up my arms and finds my shoulders. The ocean below rolls back and forth, like a window shade, rhythmically drenching the rocks.

   To the right, the abandoned lighthouse sits. My mother once told me she loved the lighthouse because it brought people home. When she’d say things like that, I’d laugh and tell her it was ridiculous to love an old building.

   The ocean breeze lifts strands of my hair, dances them around my face. I make a stab at brushing them back, then give up and study the lighthouse again, remember my mother explaining years ago that it was built in the 1800s. Two women ran it until they got so lonely they moved back to Los Angeles and both found true love. I told her I didn’t care.

   Oh, honey, you need to let yourself dream.

   A wave of hurt rushes into my chest, fills up my lungs. Maybe coming to the park wasn’t such a good idea. I turn, cut across the length of grass, take the sidewalk to the Point Fermin Café and go inside.

   People are scattered throughout the familiar restaurant, sitting at wooden tables or large booths. “Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas” meanders from the radio on the freezer and floats through the braided conversations.

   I order coffee and smile at the young waitress because she’s sweet, so young she looks like a colt, and it isn’t her fault my mother isn’t here. As she heads toward the kitchen, a man walks by, stops, turns around.

   “Christine McGuire?”

   “Yes,” I say, before I realize I don’t know him. He smiles as if I should. Out of habit, I stand when he offers his hand.

   “Don’t get up.”

   “Do I know you?” I ask. I squint, really look at him.

   “Well, you used to. We went to high school together.”

   High school, my God. His face looks a little familiar, but I can’t remember his name. I was a nobody in high school, like ninety percent of the kids, and I hated it.

   “Adam Williams,” he says, like he knows I don’t remember him.

   “Right. How are you? It’s been a long time.” Short dark hair covers his head. He’s an average-looking man. I have the same sensation I did in the park, where things look kind of the same, but not really.

   “Yeah, twenty some years.” He laughs and I laugh, a reaction like a yawn that people sometimes share. “I don’t know why I expected you to recognize me.”

   And then, for a moment, I’m seventeen, in a stuffy classroom, sitting across from Adam. I smile, feel like a teenager. “Oh, yeah, now I remember you.”

   Johnny Mathis begins singing “Walking in a Winter Wonderland” and someone turns up the radio.

   “Christmas music. God, I’ve had enough already,” I say.

   “What?”

   “The Christmas music.” I gesture toward the radio on the freezer.

   He looks confused, then laughs. “I love Christmas music, always have. They should play it all year.”

   “Please, no. I loved it before they started playing it in October.” This isn’t exactly the truth. I loved it until my mother died, but why go into this with someone I hardly know?

   He motions to the chair across from the one I just got out of. “Mind if I join you for a minute? Catch up on old times.”

   “Well, I guess not.” I don’t really want to talk or even think, but what can I say? I didn’t sleep well last night, when I finally got to bed, and then I woke up early.

   The young waitress comes by. Adam shakes his head when she asks him if he wants anything.

   “So,” he says, hesitates.

   I take a sip of coffee. I know how he feels. It’s like we’ve been sitting next to each other on a long plane trip; there’s a faint connection, but nothing really.

   “I never thought I’d see you again,” I say lamely to fill up the silent space.

   “Why’s that?”

   “Well…I guess, I don’t know really. I just thought that.”

   “You still live in San Pedro?”

   “No. Tucson. I’m here for the week, for Christmas.” I gesture toward the peeling Christmas lights surrounding the old wooden window.

   “I moved back to Pedro seven years ago.” He leans forward a little. “I love it here.”

   “Back from where?” I try not to stare at him, but it’s utterly impossible. One moment, he looks like someone I remember, and then the next like a man my age, but someone I don’t even know.

   Adam glances out the window, then back to me. “I lived all over. Before I came home, I moved around a lot. Never thought I’d miss this town, but I did as I got older.”

   “Why’s that?” I ask, yet I understand. The last few years, I’ve missed San Pedro, too.

   “I like the ocean, the small-town atmosphere. When I came back, it wasn’t exactly what I remembered, but close.”

   “I just had that same experience over at the park.” The image of my dad falling off the curb by the park last night pops into my mind, and I shake my head.

   “Something wrong?”

   “No…yes. My dad isn’t exactly the same, either.”

   “People change, too. First rule of Zen Buddhism, things change, and to negate misery we have to accept those changes.” He closes his eyes as if he’s praying, then opens them and stares at me.

   “Really?” Now I remember. Adam was the weird smart guy in high school.

   He shrugs, grins a little. “Yeah, well, something like that. I’ve read some books on Buddhism. It fascinates me. What kind of work do you do?”

   “Realtor.”

   “Great. I’m an electrical engineer.” Adam laughs. “I think everyone in high school thought I’d end up a bum.”

   I laugh, too. “No. Maybe a professor, or a rocket scientist. You were so smart. But we really didn’t know each other.”

   “You were the shy, pretty one.”

   “High school was a long time ago.”

   “Did you know I quit high school?” he asks.

   “You did?”

   He nods, grins again.

   “As boring as it was, I wondered why I stayed.”

   “Actually, I got thrown out.” He leans back, rests his right arm over the vacant chair beside him. “I think it had something to do with the principal getting tired of me harassing teachers about what they didn’t know. After that I worked graveyard shift at the Pacific Street 7-Eleven for three weeks.”

   “Only three weeks?”

   He leans forward again. “Yeah. One night, right before Christmas, a woman came in and right behind her two guys. The woman needed Tampax, the guys dope. They robbed us both.”

   “Jesus,” I whisper.

   “Yeah, that’s just what I was thinking, when the taller of the two put his Smith & Wesson to my head.”

   “Thank God you weren’t killed.”

   “That was my second thought. It changed me. Decided to go back to school. Plus, it made me realize I wanted to live, do something with my life to make a difference.”

   “So are you doing that?”

   “Every day I try to help someone.”

   “That’s nice.”

   “Sometimes it’s difficult to find a person who needs help.”

   “It is?”

   “It is. You’d be surprised.”

   “So when did you go back to school?”

   “I punched a cash register for eight hours, but that wasn’t very interesting, and I was a rebel without a clue. Maybe I still am.”

   I laugh. “And then what happened?”

   “I financed a beat-up Harley at sixteen percent, rode around the country doing a bad imitation of Easy Rider, ran out of money in central Oregon, went to work in another 7-Eleven, was robbed again, then got my GED and went to college. I was a slow learner.”

   I think about how I had to learn so many lessons the hard way. About jobs, men and life in general. “At least you learned. So you’re an electrical engineer?”

   “Yeah. It’s the greatest job in the world. Good money, honest work. As long as I don’t electrocute myself I’m happy.” He points toward the window, the Christmas lights, and bounces in his seat. “I bring artificial sunshine to the world.”

   “Right,” I say, feeling my eyes get a little bigger. Adam is so animated.

   “How about you? How are you changing the world?” He leans toward me, smiles.

   I sit back, think about telling him I sell people their dreams. “I sell real estate. I enjoy it and I’ve done pretty well. It keeps me busy.”

   He laughs. “Good for you. You sell people places to be happy.”

   “Maybe. After they sign the contract, it’s up to them.”

   “So your family’s still here?”

   “Yes…well, my dad.” And for the first time this morning, I realize that’s all the family I have.

   “Married?”

   “No. Never.”

   “Is that, No you never have married or you never will?”

   I laugh at his slight insanity. “It’s I’ve never been married and since I’m going on forty-three, it’s not very likely.”

   “Anything’s possible. Remember that.” He leans his head back a little. “Life is all about believing.” He looks around the room, then back to me. “I hardly ever come in here, but this morning I had this weird feeling, like I needed to be here.”

   And for a moment, I’m back in a high school classroom with its chalky haze, and Adam is sitting, slouched in his chair, his eyes half closed, giving the teacher a bunch of crap.

CHAPTER 4

   I’m standing on the porch, looking through the living room window. My father is sitting in his chair, holding my mother’s picture, and his expression is so despondent, it hurts to look at him.

   My plan, after I left the café, was to come home, borrow Dad’s car and go Christmas shopping. But then, a moment ago, as I was crossing the porch, I noticed Dad through the living room window.

   He glances up, sees me. I smile and give him a little wave. He walks over to the fireplace and puts her picture back on the mantel.

   “How was your walk?” he asks, coming out onto the porch.

   “Okay, until I went to the park. It reminded me of Mom, so I left and went over to the café and drank too much coffee.”

   He doesn’t say anything, just looks at me. Were our conversations always this stilted or did I just never notice when Mom was around?

   “Maybe it was seeing the lighthouse, too, not just the park,” I say. “You know how Mom loved the…” The anguish in his eyes stops the rest of what I was going to say. I want to tell him that everything—the house with all of her things still out, the park, even the air—reminds me of her. But I don’t. He looks like he’s hurting, plus we don’t have the kind of relationship where I can bare my soul.

   “Hey, I ran into someone I knew in high school at the café. We talked a little.”

   “That’s good.” Dad looks out past the front porch to the lawn.

   “You were holding Mom’s picture?” I gesture toward the window.

   His gaze comes back to me. “Yeah, I’ve been thinking about her a lot.”

   “I have, too.”

   He rubs his lips. “Her two big things in December were trying to get you to come home and putting me in the Christmas spirit.”

   My heart pounds. I cross the porch, place my hand on his forearm. “Mom knew us pretty well. Sometimes I had to work, so did you. You two were together a long time. She understood.”

   “At times…”

   I wait for him to finish, then realize he’s not going to.

   “At times?” I urge, then pat his arm, feel the warmth under his shirt.

   He shakes his head. “Nothing.”

   “Dad, Mom…” It feels good talking to someone who knew my mother, who loved her. I miss that in Tucson. Yet the way my father looks, I think this talk might upset him.

   “Your mother what?” he asks.

   “She wouldn’t want you to be sad. She wasn’t like that. Maybe you should think about the good times. That’s what I try to do.” This isn’t true. My memories come at will, dodge in and out, like sunlight in between the trees on a windy day.

   “It’s not that easy. I keep thinking there are things I should have done.”

   “I know. Me, too.”

   He looks at me, squints. “What do you know?”

   “Mom called me the night before her accident, and I didn’t call her back. How…stupid was that? I regret that.”

   “She always called you. Worried when you didn’t call back. You should have been more responsible when it came to your mother.”

   “I know,” I say, and my chest starts to ache.

   He turns, studies the yard again, and I wish our lives were the way they used to be—my mother standing between us, keeping my father and me apart.

   “She wanted you to go to college, get a good education,” he says quietly.

   I think about how my mother used to send me money when I was job-hopping, little notes about how I should go out and buy something fun. She probably never told Dad.

   I walk to where he can see me. “No, that was you who wanted that. And I think I’ve done pretty well for myself. It just took some time.”

   “I wanted you to be something.”

   I try not to feel angry, but it’s impossible with old hurts surfacing. “I am something! At least Mom thought so.”

   I wait for an answer, but his eyes hold so much loneliness I have to look away. Before I can say another word, he goes inside.

   

   “Hi,” Sandra says. “I was hoping you’d come by.” She leans against the front doorjamb and smiles. “It’s good to see you.”

   I’m standing on Sandra’s porch. She looks the same—long red hair, creamy skin, sweet expression.

   “Good to see you, too,” I say.

   “You look great.” Her smile widens.

   “Thanks, so do you.”

   “Oh, I do not. I’m as big as a horse, but I don’t care.” She pats her stomach and laughs. “I’ve been on every diet known to womankind and none of them work. I’ve just decided I’m going to be fat.”

   “You aren’t fat.”

   “Right, now if you add You’re just a big-boned girl, you’ll sound just like your mother.”

   She laughs again and I start to, but something happens inside me. I look down, study the porch floor, feel like I’m going to start crying, but I manage to swallow back the tears, look up and smile.

   “Tine, are you okay?”

   “Yeah, I’m fine.”

   “Well, come inside. It’s been so long since you’ve even been over to the house. Get in here.” Sandra draws me into the house, and we stand in the middle of her parents’ familiar living room. More nostalgic feelings rush through me. The house is the same, homey as ever. Sandra’s mother, Josephine, loved antiques, deep burgundies and dark wood, the opposite of my mother’s taste, yet just as pretty.

   “Are you having a nice visit?”

   “I am,” I say, still feeling like an idiot for almost breaking down in front of her. I certainly don’t need to lay my problems on her. She has enough of her own.

   “I’m glad. I can’t believe it’s almost Christmas. Where has the time gone? Let’s go into the kitchen.”

   We walk in the kitchen, and Sandra extends her hand as if presenting a grand prize on a game show. “Still the same old place. I haven’t changed much, haven’t had time. Sit right here.” She pats the 1940s café booth her parents found in an alley behind a restaurant years ago. “You want a drink?”

   I laugh. “It’s not even two.”

   “So? It’s 5:00 p.m. somewhere. Let’s have a drink to celebrate you being home and actually coming over to see me.”

   “I don’t think I can handle a drink right now. Too early.”

   “How about some hot chocolate?”

   “Sure.” When we were little, Sandra’s mother used to let us practice our cooking skills on Saturday afternoons in her crazy warm kitchen. When Sandra’s grandfather passed away, we made a gloppy mess of chocolate syrup, milk and maraschino cherries for Josephine, brought it to her while she was sitting on the couch looking out the window. She smiled, hugged us both. That was the day she taught us to make hot chocolate from scratch.

   “I still make it like Mama did.” Sandra turns from the stove, milk in hand. “Remember?”

   “Of course. How could I forget that?”

   “You look great. I swear you never change.”

   “Oh, God, I look like hell. Last week I worked fourteen-hour days so I could come home for the holidays, so I’m worn out.”

   “That’s a lot of hours. You must really like your job.”

   “Oh, yeah. Love it. I’m the top-selling Realtor in my office.”

   “I’m the top receptionist in my office, but I’m the only one so it was easy to be first.” She smiles wider. Sandra is big in every way. Always has been. She is three inches taller than I am. Even her hair is big—curly red, four inches past her shoulders and wild.

   She turns the heat under the milk down low. “Do you really want hot chocolate or were you just being nice?”

   I shake my head. “I’ve had about a million cups of coffee this morning.”

   “Then you certainly don’t need any more liquid.” She snaps off the burner, takes the saucepan and shoves it in the refrigerator. “We’ll have it later.”

   She walks over to the booth that is wedged in the bay window and sits across from me. “Since I’ve moved back home, I can’t tell you how many times I’ve thought of you. Just the other night I was thinking about how we used truth serum to tell all our secrets. Remember that?”

   “How could I forget?” I laugh. She was sixteen-and-a-half. I was thirteen. Friday nights were truth-serum nights if Sandra didn’t have a date. We’d pour Coke in a juice glass, add five teaspoons of sugar, drink it down in one gulp. And then we’d laugh our butts off, probably from the sugar high.

   She’d tell me secrets about the kids she went to school with, the boy she might be dating.

   “Remember what you told your mother one time about Tommy Bradford?”

   I shake my head, try to remember, then suddenly the memory comes pouring in. I told my mother Sandra let her boyfriend touch her breasts.

   “Will you ever forgive me?”

   “No.” She shakes her head. “My mother wouldn’t let me date him again.”

   “Whatever happened to him?”

   “Tommy’s selling shoes at the Del Amo Shopping Center. Been married and divorced three times, has four kids, and last I heard, but this is from a not reputable source—read, Tiffany Brown—he was living at the Torrance YMCA.”

   “Maybe I did you a favor.”

   “Oh, yeah, thanks. My mother put me on restriction for a month. You know how long a month is to a sixteen-year-old?”

   My mother was tucking me in bed. I was a late developer and she was explaining that soon I’d need a training bra. I whispered that Sandra’s boyfriend touched her titties. Her blue eyes widened, but she didn’t say a word.

   “Okay, speaking of dating, are you? I promise I won’t tell Jake any of the details.” Sandra grins.

   “No. I don’t date, I work. And Dad doesn’t seem to care what I do. We had a small blowout on the front porch a little while ago.” This slips out, and I shake my head.

   “About what?”

   “I’m not sure how it started, but it got around to how he wanted me to go to college years ago. I got angry.”

   “Oh, that’s just him.” She waves her hand toward our house. “He was always that way.”

   “True, but it doesn’t make it any easier.”

   “Did you end on an okay note?”

   “He walked into the house, and I walked over here. Do you mind if we talk about something else?” I don’t want to think about my father’s sad face, or the anger I couldn’t hold back.

   “Of course not. So you aren’t dating anyone?”

   “I haven’t had a date in probably a year. I’m too busy. How about you?”

   “How are you defining a date?” She grins.

   “Drinks, maybe dinner,” I say.

   “Not a date, not a meeting, not even an intimate handshake. Who’s in this town to date?”

   We both laugh and, for a moment, I feel like years ago, when we’d sit in the kitchen and talk for hours.

   “That reminds me. Guess who I saw at the café?”

   “What is this, twenty questions? Who’d you see?”

   “Adam Williams.”

   Sandra stares at me. “Who the hell is Adam Williams?”

   I laugh again, feel good. “I went to school with him. So did you. Don’t you remember? He was the guy who used to walk around the school with a calculator doing square roots.”

   “Brown hair, tall, average looking, pimples?”

   “Yeah the brown hair, but no pimples.”

   “They all looked like that.”

   “He always gave teachers crap about what they didn’t know. Really smart.”

   “Yeah, and?”

   “I walked over to the café this morning, and he was there. He’s an engineer. Still different, very nice, though.”

   “And why did you walk over to the Lard Yard early this morning?”

   “Oh, I needed fresh air, some exercise.”

   “Don’t we all.” She looks out the window.

   I close my eyes for a moment, to get centered, tell myself to quit thinking about missing my mother. Then I look at Sandra.

   “Is your dad okay otherwise? I don’t see him much.”

   “He seems lonely. He hasn’t changed a thing in the house, except it’s a mess and he’s walking at night, which I think is weird.”

   “Hey, walking is good for the heart,” Sandra says. “You know when my dad died, my mother got a little…” She stops. “Oh, hell, let’s not talk about this stuff. It’s too depressing.”

   “Okay.”

   “Just remember, it takes a long time to get over a death. Jake’s probably still dealing with a lot.”

   “Probably,” I say, knowing this is true. “I just thought I’d come home and we’d connect because Mom is gone. You know, there wouldn’t be friction.”

   “Maybe you need to give it more time.”

   “We’ve had forty-some years. And I didn’t realize how coming back was going to affect me. I miss my mother a lot.”

   “I miss her, too. Remember how she used to put on her makeup just so?” Sandra brings her hands to her face, strokes the sides.

   And for a moment, I fall into a memory. My mother sitting at her vanity, looking back and smiling at me.

   “It took me two years to feel okay after my father passed away, and I wasn’t as close to him as you were to your mother. Hospice says it takes time.”

   “Are you still working there?”

   She nods. “I’ll be there forever. I guess it’s my way of making the world a little better. They don’t pay me enough, but I stay. And the office is up on Western, close to Mama.”

   “How’s she doing?” I ask.

   “She’s hanging in there. The nursing home is nice, well, as nice as it can be. But every day when I go into her room, I feel guilty. But I remind myself I have to work.”

   “It wouldn’t be safe for her to be alone.” I try to reassure her, but I’m not sure how. What does it feel like to be responsible for your parent?

   Sandra nods, smiles a little. “You know, when I made the final decision to put her in the nursing home, I found her five blocks away, standing in the middle of the street, and she didn’t know where she was.” She sighs, rubs her eyes.

   I think about Josephine, how I loved her. She was always so concerned, warm.

   “What?” Sandra asks.

   “I was just thinking about your mom.”

   “Yeah, I do that a lot.” Sandra gets up and looks out the window to the backyard. “I see your dad once in a while, working around the house. He seems okay. Sad, distracted, but I guess that’s to be expected. I mean, anyone who knew your parents knew how crazy he was about your mother. And to have it happen so fast, not be able to say goodbye…” She stops, turns back to me. “I’m sorry.”

   “No, it’s okay.” I take a deep breath. “I’m doing okay. You know years ago, did you think we’d be sitting here talking about this?”

   “No.” Sandra walks back, taps the table, smiles. “How many boys did we moon over at this booth?”

   “I miss those times. First, boys, then worrying about parents. What’s next? Our own aches and pains?”

   “Oh, God. You know what we need?”

   “A second-base date?” I say, laugh, and she does, too.

   “Well, yeah that, too. It’s almost Christmas, how about a little brandy? Oh, God you’re going to think I’m an alcoholic. I’m not really. Just so happy you’re here. It’s nice to see you again.”

   One time, when Sandra came home from college, I’d just graduated from high school. She bought two bottles of champagne to celebrate for just the two of us. Her parents were gone for the weekend. We got drunk and passed out on the living room floor. My mother found us the next morning throwing up.

   “Do you remember the champagne episode?” I ask.

   “How could I forget? I still can’t drink champagne.”

   I hold up my hand, like I’m making a toast. “Hey, to second-base dates and brandy before five.”

   Sandra goes to the cabinet where Josephine always kept the liquor. “I’m glad we ditched the hot chocolate idea. Brandy is a much better drink.”

   

   Jake crossed the dark porch and went down the steps. A moment ago, he felt like he was going to explode if he didn’t get out of the house.

   He walked down the street. When he got to the edge of Point Fermin Park, he stopped and studied the sky.

   The stars looked close, bright. Visibility had to be at least fifty miles tonight. Dorothy had read him a poem on a night just like this.

   Jake sat on the hard curb and tried to remember more of that evening, hoping none of the details had faded.

   That night, they had taken a walk, and when they’d gotten back to the house, Dorothy had come into their bedroom holding a thick book. She’d placed it on the nightstand, carefully took off all her clothes and lay next to him.

   A moment later, she picked up the book and turned to a marked page. Her voice was soft, smooth, as always.

   “And as silently…” Jake whispered the few poetic words he could remember.

   Anguish and hurt gripped his body. The poetry book was still in the house. He hadn’t given anything away because he couldn’t bring himself to do that. He’d find the poem, read it aloud, and maybe more of the memory would return.

   Jake fought his tears by turning his face up to the night sky. Looking for a poem his dead wife read to him wasn’t going to do any good. He needed to accept that memories would eventually fade.

   But that night, when she lay beside him, naked except for the white sheet, he hadn’t paid much attention to her poem. Even at his age, all he could think about was her naked body close to his.

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