Tracings In Snow
Tracings in Snow
◊ Installment 1 ◊
When Matthew was sixteen years old, he ran away from home. He did not return until Christmas Eve fourteen years later. He showed up on the lawn late at night, while the family was gathered around the tree.
“Is that Matthew?” demanded his younger sister, peering out the window. They all pushed around her and squinted through the panes, which had little rings of frost around each individual square. Matthew was standing by the apple tree in the backyard, one arm raised to support his weight against the branch where the tree house used to stand.
“Of course not,” scoffed Matthew’s brother. “Matthew wasn’t bald.”
“He wasn’t bald when he was sixteen,” the sister pointed out. “He could be now.”
“That doesn’t look like Matthew,” said an aunt, conversationally. “It does look a bit like your father though.”
“When Matthew was little,” said the sister, “he looked like those black and white pictures of Dad, in the old album.”
“If that’s Matthew,” spoke up a cousin, “Why is he just standing there? Why doesn’t he come inside?”
“Why did he leave us?” said the sister. “Why did he run away?”
“It is my professional opinion that that individual is not Matthew,” pronounced an uncle, in the deliberating tone of an expert who takes slightly longer to deliver up his assessment than the common layman. “That individual looks more like a hobo.”
“Matthew always did bear a surprising resemblance to a hobo,” pointed out the cousin.
Matthew’s mother came in holding the turkey. They all froze.
“What is it?” she said. She was wearing the old potholders, the ones that were frayed in the middle, so the stuffing poked through the pattern of dancing reindeer, and the platter had to be clutched precariously, from the side. They all looked dubiously at the turkey. It was a large one. In moments like these, they all felt, the inevitable thing would be for it to come crashing to the floor. The floor had recently been covered in a brand new carpet: red, with tiny, white diamonds on it. They all felt that this was a thing to be avoided, if possible.
But her gaze traveled past theirs to the window, and she set down the turkey with surprising ease, as if it were a thing of no importance. She moved to the window slowly, and they all had time to notice the glimmer of Christmas tree lights, tiny dots of color, dancing across her pale skin.
◊ Installment 2 ◊
When Matthew was born, he was quieter than most infants. His mother thought she was doing something wrong.
“My baby doesn’t cry much,” she spoke up timidly at a new mothers meeting held at the local community center, during a lull in the discussion in which the other mothers, their eyes ringed with puffy dark circles, seemed to have run out of energy to generate further conversation. “I wonder if I’m doing something wrong.”
The other mothers glared at her.
When Matthew was two he suddenly began to speak, fluently and precisely. He talked so much that his baby brother Walter said his first word before the age of one.
“He had no choice,” their mother said proudly. “He had to get a word in edgewise.”
By the time Matthew was six he was already the ringleader of the local gang of neighborhood children. He was the oldest kid on the block, and his plans were multitudinous and diverse. The other kids admired his games, his stories, his Day-Glo orange sneakers with the real laces, which he stomped around in proudly before anyone else had graduated beyond the limiting social prospects of Velcro. His little brother Walter followed him around like a devoted puppy. When their sister Kalli was born, she became the third member of their band, though admittedly in a supporting role. When Matthew and Walter wailed away on guitar and vocals, she tapped patiently on a plastic bucket in the background, and when they played baseball, she trotted around in the outfield, collecting stray balls. They built a tree house in the young apple tree in the backyard, and Kalli was allowed in it every other Wednesday. Walter had access Monday through Saturday, and Matthew was permitted at all times.
On days when Matthew was sick, Walter took over. But he never could command the respect and devotion that Matthew inspired in the neighborhood, and everyone knew it, including Walter. He did his patient best, and looked forward to the day when Matthew would return, confidently sucking on a cherry cough drop, his thin chest thrust out proudly, with gruesome tales of doctors and uncanny medical operations to relate. When Matthew had his appendix out, the whole neighborhood swooned.
Matthew was not just the sunshine of the neighborhood; he was the stars, the moon and the planets. If Matthew could not come out to play, there wasn’t much point in playing at all; everyone might as well just stay inside. ♦
◊ Installment 3 ◊
The hobo on the lawn was not moving. They stared at him through the frosty window, expecting him to come closer, but he just stood and gazed at them, like a deer in the headlights.
“He looks like he’s about to bolt,” said the cousin. “Someone better go out and fetch him, or he might run away again for another fourteen years.”
“I’m telling you, that’s not Matthew,” said the brother. “Matthew was thin.”
“You were thin,” snapped the sister.
“Yeah,” said the brother, astonished. He turned sideways and examined his gut in the mirror over the fireplace.
“What we need in this situation,” said the uncle, “is a plausible type of bait, and a trip cord. We lure him in, real gentle and easy with the bait, and then we trip him with the trip cord.”
“Matthew is not a rabbit,” said the aunt. “This is not a hunting scenario.”
“What Matthew used to like is a really good looking girl,” mused the cousin. “I bet if we sent a really hot girl out on the porch, she could convince him to come in.”
“Perfect,” said the sister. “That’s a brilliant idea. We’ll just call up the nearest escort agency, ask them to send over their hottest hooker on Christmas Eve, and hope that Matthew stays standing there in the snow while we wait for her to drive over.”
“Also, Matthew didn’t have a beard,” the brother pointed out. “I really don’t think that’s Matthew.”
While they stood there arguing, they heard the familiar click-creak-bump of the side door opening, and Matthew’s mother walked out into the snow.
“Matthew,” she said quietly. They could hear her voice echo in the icy stillness; see the chimera her breath made shimmering faintly in the air. “Come on in the house now.”
◊ Installment 4 ◊
When Matthew was fourteen, he went away to boarding school, at the prestigious academy his father had longed to attend as a child, but never could afford. The neighborhood fell into a depression. There was no one to organize ultimate Frisbee games or water balloon fights. No one was brave enough to crash a stolen lawnmower into the fire hydrant on a hot summer day, so they could all run around in the deluge. An entire generation of boys was growing up with no Matthew to model their behavior after, and girls with no Matthew for their first crush.
On the day Matthew was supposed to return home for Thanksgiving, Walter waited on the front porch all morning. The dust from the leaf blowers glittered auspiciously in the air. Walter’s nose wriggled like an expectant dog. When he saw his brother, he hurled himself down the steps at some danger to his limbs. It was only after he stepped back from a rib-cracking embrace that Walter really saw him.
“What happened to your hair, Matt?” Walter demanded, astonished. “It’s almost as long as Kalli’s.”
“I grew it out,” said Matthew. “I don’t know, I just got tired of cutting it.”
“In my day,” interjected their father peevishly, “schools would never have allowed that kind of thing.”
“It’s the new law, Dad,” shrugged Matthew. “They can’t force someone to cut their hair if they don’t want to.”
“What’s that around your neck?” Kalli said admiringly, fingering a smooth, white shell bobbing just below Matthew’s Adam’s apple.
“It’s a hemp necklace,” explained Matthew. “I’ll make one for you too.”
“And me?” said Walter.
“Oh, no!” interjected their father. “Boys don’t wear jewelry.”
“Matthew does!” protested Walter.
“Matthew is not the Messiah of this town,” said their father.
After lunch Kalli and Walter wanted to play in the tree house, but Matthew said he had homework to do. Walter and Kalli sat in the tree alone for a while. Then Walter climbed down and went inside to the room he shared with Matthew. The door was closed, and Walter could hear soft music pulsing gently on the other side. Walter opened the door and gaped. The room was filled with an unfamiliar, sweet scent. A thin spiral of white smoke curled up gracefully from the corner of Matthew’s desk.
“Dad’s going to kill you if he finds out you’re doing drugs!” Walter screeched.
“It isn’t drugs,” he said. “It’s incense. It burns off bad spirits. A girl at school gave it to me.”
“Is she your girlfriend?” Walter thumped over to Matthew’s desk and helped himself to a stick.
“I guess you could call her that,” Matthew shrugged. “She gave me this.”
Matthew opened the collar of his shirt, displaying a small, bluish mark on the back of his neck.
“A tattoo?” demanded Walter. “You let her draw on you with a needle?”
“It didn’t hurt,” said Matthew.
Walter looked skeptical.
“Well alright, it hurt,” Matthew admitted. “A lot. But you get used to it.”
“If you had to get a tattoo,” said Walter, frowning, “why didn’t you get something cool, like an eagle or a fish? Why did you get one that says ‘April?’”
“I guess everyone has his own idea of what’s cool,” Matthew shrugged.
“I’ll get one, too,” Walter announced.
“No you won’t.” Matthew frowned suddenly.
“Dad wouldn’t like it.”
“He won’t like yours either,” said Walter. “He’s going to murder you.”
“I had to do it,” said Matthew, “to express myself.”
“You wouldn’t be expressing yourself,” said Matthew. “You’d be expressing me.”
“If it’s you, it’s me, Matt,” said Walter, surprised. “We always like the same things.”
“Not this time,” said Matthew.
After that Walter began to vaguely resent the incense and the tattoo and the gentle, undulating music. Matthew made a necklace for him as well as Kalli, but Walter never wore his. He put it in a box and looked at it, sometimes. He considered growing out his hair, but he thought it would be annoying to have in his face when he played sports. But he still adored Matthew, and he waited patiently for the days when his brother would come home, swaggering and confident, like the sun coming out on a winter’s day. Until one day, he didn’t. ♦
◊ Installment 5 ◊
They were all gathered around the fireplace. They looked like a typical, loving family. A stranger, glancing through the window at the firelight glinting on their faces, might have assumed they had clustered together to read the Christmas story. From the way they all stared at Matthew –rapt, attentive- the stranger might have deduced that Matthew was the principle storyteller, instead of what he really was: utterly silent. His long, knobby fingers played clumsily around the rim of the teacup of eggnog his mother had handed him. But they were Matthew’s fingers: long and slim and brown, deft at untangling knots in a fishing line, or unraveling snarls in Christmas lights. How had they managed to put up the lights without him for all these years? No one could remember how they first transitioned, the year after Matthew left.
“Well, this is awkward,” said the uncle, after the silence and the staring had dragged on for several moments. Everyone had finished his eggnog except Matthew.
“I think we should start out with a few basic questions,” said the cousin. “Where have you been all these years?”
“I think we can start out with something more basic than that,” said Walter. “Where’s your driver’s license? Let’s see some proof of identity.”
“What makes you think he has a license?” said the aunt. “He doesn’t look like he can afford a car.”
They all looked critically at Matthew.
“Can you afford a car?” demanded the uncle interrogatively.
“Maybe that’s why he was gone for so long,” the cousin put in helpfully.
“Oh right, I’m sure that’s why he abandoned us for fourteen years,” snapped Walter. “He accidentally hitchhiked across the country, and had to walk back.”
“Everyone just calm down,” ordered the uncle. “Now, we’re all wondering different things here, so let’s take turns asking the questions.” He turned back to Matthew. “Are you in any way involved with drug smuggling, extortion, or an illicit prison escape?”
“If you’re really Matthew,” said Walter, narrowing his eyes. “What was your favorite baseball card as a child?”
“Are you married?” said the aunt. “Do you have any children?”
“What color was the crayon you made me drop in the washing machine when I was five, and Mom was washing the wedding sheets?”
“Why didn’t you write?” said Kalli.
“Which window did we break at Aunt Ruth’s house in 1989, when you told her we were playing catch in the back yard, but it was actually the living room?”
“Everyone just stop!” commanded the mother. “You’re overwhelming him with questions.”
There was a long pause in which they all stared at their feet and silently asked the question no one had put into words: why did you leave us?
Matthew, his hands stretched tightly around his cup of eggnog as if he could soak it in through his pores, cleared his throat, and jerked his head awkwardly in the direction of his brother.
“Babe Ruth; purple; the second one over the porch,” he said.
Walter’s jaw twitched, and he bent over the fruit plate as if he had developed a sudden, overwhelming interest in the dried figs.
“Now that’s enough,” said the mother. “If Matthew doesn’t want to tell us where he’s been, we’ll respect his wishes.”
“Respect his wishes?” said Walter. “Are you kidding me?”
“I’m not respecting anything,” affirmed the cousin.
“Did he respect our wishes when he disappeared for fourteen years?” Walter demanded. “Did he respect our wishes when he abandoned us without even saying goodbye?” He turned to Matthew. “Do you realize we thought you were dead?”
“I left a note,” said Matthew.
“In nineteen-ninety-eight,” said Walter. “A note left in 1998 doesn’t guarantee that you’re still alive in 1999, or 2000, or 2001, or-”
“Be quiet,” snapped their mother. “Tomorrow is Christmas.”
They paused. They had all forgotten. They all looked up at the Christmas tree. The angel at the top twinkled at them ironically. She had a flat, blackened nose from the time when Matthew, wobbling at the top of a stepladder at the age of twelve, had accidentally dropped her in the fireplace. They never could scrub off the mark it left. ♦
◊ Installment 6 ◊
On the day Matthew ran away, Walter hid under the porch. He had planned an elaborate surprise for Matthew’s homecoming that year, and it involved Walter hiding under the porch. It was cramped down here, Walter thought; also darker than he remembered. He hadn’t been under the porch in years. When they were kids, Walter and Matthew had used it for a hiding place. Walter still remembered, with a thrill of reminiscent excitement, the moment at the age of eight when he had discovered that, by turning sideways and sucking in his stomach to its utmost capacity, he could squeeze through the slats just beyond the kitchen steps. Matthew was older and taller, but more slender than Walter, and he could fit too. Just past the slats, the ground sloped affably down to a crawl space in which one could sit or stoop quite comfortably, as long as one kept one’s spine curved in a C-shape, and remembered not to stand or look up too suddenly. Matthew made Walter swear a solemn oath never to tell anyone about their secret hiding place. Walter had tingled with excitement as he repeated the oath. He never realized that, just as he could easily look up through the slats and see their mother, walking on the porch above them, so she could almost definitely look down and see them, and more than definitely hear them, considering that they frequently bawled camp songs here at the top of their lungs. She never said anything about it.
Later, after the tree house was built, crouching in a dark crawl space for hours at a time lost most of its original charm, and Walter could not now recall the last time he had been down here. A cat, or a raccoon or something had paid a visit in the interim, he noticed, for there were tracks in the dirt, and the remains of a partially digested rodent moldered in one cobwebby corner.
The surprise Walter had painstakingly prepared was that, while Matthew was away at school, Walter had taken apart the old, broken down dirt bike Matthew had purchased at a garage sale last summer, with the intention of repairing it. Matthew never got around to it, so after he left, Walter bought a manual on dirt bike repair and got the bike running himself. He could just imagine the look of delighted pride on Matthew’s face when he saw what Walter had accomplished. The bike now stood, shiny and new looking, under a fresh coat of paint the color and texture of a cherry skittle, beneath a large “Welcome Home” sign Kalli had hung in the backyard. The plan was for Walter to hide under the front porch, give a secret whistle when Matthew arrived, then crawl around to the back door so they could all leap out and surprise him together.
While Walter was under the porch, the telephone rang. He could not hear who picked up or what was said, but thirty minutes later he began to notice that the house had grown very silent. He had never noticed this particular quality of silence before, although he had been alone in the house many times. It was as though a shroud had been dropped over it, dimming the light, muffling the street noise. Strangers who walked past seemed to do so on tiptoe, as if observing a respectful silence for the residents inside; condoling with a grief Walter did not yet know the reason for. It was the first of many such silences.
Walter remained under the porch for an hour. Matthew would be home any minute, he kept reminding himself, and if he caught Walter in the act of climbing out, it would ruin the surprise. When twilight descended over their street and crickets began to chirp, Walter finally emerged. The automatic porch light went on over the front door, glinting in the dark bay window. Walter could see his own face reflected in the glass, a smudge of dirt on his forehead. When he trudged into the backyard, the dirt bike did not look so shiny and new anymore. It looked like something worn out and abandoned, something no one wanted anymore. ♦
◊ Installment 7 ◊
It was midnight when Matthew’s mother crept out of bed and slid her feet into her slippers. It used to be, she recalled, that this was the time of night when she and Bob would creep downstairs, fill the stockings, and put the presents under the tree. The kids would be up at dawn or earlier, and if any of them had crept down, giggling, to see if Santa had come, they would have been heartbroken to find an empty hearth and Santa’s cookies, uneaten on the mantel. When they grew up and became teenagers, they stopped waking up so early. It was all she could do to drag them out of bed before noon, when the relatives arrived. They came downstairs yawning, hastily wrapping the last of their Christmas presents, and if the stockings had not been filled, they probably would have failed to notice. She and Bob stopped waking up in the middle of the night. They filled the stockings at nine o’clock in the morning, with the sun shining, after enjoying a cup of coffee and a hearty breakfast.
“We should all go to bed,” she had said last night, after the silence, dense with unspoken accusations, had grown too painful. “Matthew,” she turned to her oldest son, “you’ll be sleeping here tonight.”
She said it like a sentence, but everyone knew it was really a question. They all looked inquiringly at Matthew. Matthew looked at the floor.
“Well, wait a minute,” said Walter, after a moment. “Where is he going to sleep? You think I’m sharing the bunk bed with this asshole?”
“Matthew can have the bunk bed to himself,” she replied.
“What?” Walter and the cousin demanded simultaneously.
“I’m staying here as a guest,” protested the cousin. “That’s inhospitable.”
“It’s okay,” Matthew spoke up. “I can sleep on the couch.”
They all looked at him, startled, as if they had forgotten he was there.
“Where’s Dad?” Matthew put in suddenly.
“Dad’s dead,” snapped Walter. “You might have noticed that if you’d hung around longer.”
Everyone winced. Matthew tipped his chin down gently to touch his chest, and seemed to retreat behind the curtains of his hair.
“Well, wait a minute,” said the uncle. “What about the turkey? Am I the only one who’s still concerned about the turkey?”
It turned out that he was.
They trickled out of the room, nibbling pieces of fruit and broken fragments of Christmas cookies.
“Of course, no one bothers to establish his identity,” grumbled Walter, as they all went up the stairs except Matthew. “No one bothers to do anything I want. None of you even bothered to tell me the day he left; you just left me sitting there under the porch.”
“I’m sorry,” said the uncle. “You were under the porch?”
“That was an accident,” the mother explained wearily. “For the thousandth time, we didn’t stop to think. We just panicked and drove straight to his school. But we remembered you the moment we came home.”
“No kidding, you remembered me,” said Walter, “because I was there! It’s hard to forget a thing when it’s standing right in front of you, wanting to know why it’s been locked out of the house. If I had been the one to run away, you probably wouldn’t have done anything. Probably no one would have noticed until springtime, when it was time for me to mow the lawn.”
The floorboard in the middle of the hallway creaked familiarly when she stepped on it. She froze, hoping no one would hear. But everything remained dark and still. Outside, she could see the sparkle of Christmas lights on the snow. She passed Kalli’s door, which was open a crack. She could see her daughter’s arm, in a maroon sweatshirt sleeve, flung across the sheets. The door to the boys’ room was shut tight. The ghostly remains of a wobbly “Keep Out” sign still glimmered whitely on the chalkboard nailed to the wall beside it. The guest room door, too, was closed. She knew her brother and sister-in-law would be sleeping soundly, secure in the knowledge that their own son was safely snoring in the top bunk.
Her slippers padded on the carpeted stairs. She stepped over the third step from the bottom, which always creaked, turned the corner, and let out a breath she had not realized she was holding.
Matthew was still there. His horrible hair straggled across his face. She longed to smooth it back from his forehead, but she did not know how he would react if it did. Would he bolt up from the couch and leap for the nearest exit? She did not know what she had done wrong last time, to make him leave. The only way she could think to keep him here was not to do anything at all this time. If she could just freeze time and leave him here, sleeping peacefully on the couch, everything would be all right.
A stripe of light slanted across the floor from a crack in the blinds. Softly, she went to close them. She flicked off the forgotten Christmas lights, and watched their sparkle die away in the snow. She wondered if the windows were locked. Not that it really mattered; Matthew could unlock them from the inside. But she wondered if the small, additional obstacle of having to push open the stiff locks might be enough to keep him here, in a moment of hesitation? What made it easy to leave one’s family, and what was the final straw that made it just the tiniest bit too hard?
She turned toward the kitchen. If Matthew opened the front door he would set off the burglar alarm, but the kitchen door was not connected to the system. She could, however, deadbolt it from the inside. She stepped onto the moonlit tile and froze, her heart hammering wildly in her chest. A man’s body was flung across the kitchen floor.
◊ Installment 8 ◊
Walter stepped heavily on a clump of snow by the driveway, and felt his foot crunch through the ice. He and Matthew were supposed to be shoveling the sidewalk, but everything had frozen in the night, leaving a thin, glittering crust that sparkled atop the banks of snow, making it difficult to break through. Walter hated shoveling snow. Matthew had volunteered to do it, in his best mama’s boy voice (as if shoveling a bit of snow could make up for all the years he had not been around to shovel it! Matthew would have to shovel snow for the rest of his life to even begin to atone!) Their mother had consented, and Walter had felt put upon to accompany his brother, to keep an eye on him. Otherwise, he might get away again.
Walter watched Matthew out of the corner of his eye as they worked. He had been watching him all day. He was not speaking to him, out of principle, but he monitored him. When Matthew moved from one room to another, Walter followed a few minutes later, trying to be nonchalant, not caring to let his brother too far out of his sight. It was not all that different, Walter admitted to himself, from when they were kids.
Walter remembered the games they used to play on this very sidewalk. There was the game where they built an iceman, fully clothed, with a real coat and gloves, to guard the front gate. Walter had trembled with excitement as Matthew described the imaginary adventures of this iceman, turning him into a hero from another world. Matthew was always creating imaginary worlds, but for Walter they were as factual as the real one. Walter had to go without coat and gloves, of course, while the iceman was in place, but it was worth it. And then there was the game where Matthew used to bury Walter in the snow, and Kalli had to dig for him with the shovel. This was actually more of a calamity than a game, since Kalli often hit Walter by accident, and he had to go to the hospital on several occasions. But that, too, had been worth it. It had all been worth it, Walter reflected. And he wondered where the point ought to have come in his life when he should have begun to question its worth. It had slipped away from him in a dark moment without warning, just like Matthew.
Walter glanced grudgingly at his brother. Matthew had accepted Walter’s silent treatment without comment or protest, as if quietly acknowledging his due, but this was not what Walter wanted. He would have preferred an explosion or an argument, excuses made, defenses refuted, counterarguments presented until everything had been explained from all sides.
“Matthew,” Walter muttered. For a moment there was no reply, and Walter wondered if Matthew had heard, but then Matthew turned his head slightly, so that Walter could see his profile against the white tree branches.
“Yeah,” said Matthew.
“Where have you been all these years?” said Walter.
It was the exact question Walter’s mother had made him promise not to ask. He even used the same words she had, when she demonstrated what not to say, despite the fact that, left to his own devices, he probably would have phrased it differently.
“Have you been traveling?” Walter went on, unable to stop. “Having adventures? Have you ever been to Africa?”
“No,” Matthew murmured softly.
“Oh,” said Walter, vaguely disappointed. “Well, have you been doing the things you used to talk about as a kid? Have you ever climbed Mt. Everest? Or gone up in a hot air balloon?”
“No,” said Matthew. “I haven’t done any of those things.”
“Oh,” said Walter. “Well, what have you been doing?”
“Well,” said Matthew reflectively, “Most recently I worked as a custodian, at an elementary school in Fresno.”
It took a moment for Walter to adjust his worldview before he could reply.
“You were a janitor?”
“We prefer to call it a custodian,” Matthew said peacefully.
“How come you did that?” said Walter.
“A number of reasons,” said Matthew. “There were bills to pay, of course. I was living with a lady at the time, and I didn’t like to ask her to pay the rent all on her own.”
“Was she pretty, Matthew?” said Walter.
“In a manner of speaking, yes,” said Matthew. “She had the most beautiful eyes. And quite a nice figure. Only one leg, though.”
“Only one leg?”
“She lost the other in a bicycle accident.”
“Oh,” Walter blinked. “Well, are you going to marry her?”
“Oh no,” said Matthew. “I don’t think that would be possible.”
“Well for one thing, I believe she has at least one husband still living.”
“At least one?”
“There were two,” Matthew explained. “But I think one of them died.”
“Oh,” said Walter. An image flashed through his mind: a picture he had always carried of Matthew, ever since the day he ran away. In it, Matthew was still sixteen, but he had a mustache. He was streaming along a highway bordering the Italian Riviera in a Ferrari F40. It was the kind that could do zero to sixty in under four seconds, built in 1987, with racing stripes down the sides. Walter had never consciously acknowledged this picture to anyone, but it was the one he always imagined whenever he pictured what Matthew was doing, even though it no longer made sense. In the picture, Matthew had been a teenager for fourteen years.
“You shouldn’t have left school,” mumbled Walter. “You were special.”
“No, I wasn’t,” said Matthew. “I was just the oldest. I wish our roles had been reversed. You would have done a better job of it than I did.”
“What are you talking about?” said Walter. “I could never do anything as well as you.”
“A four year old usually can’t do things as well as a six year old,” said Matthew. “That doesn’t mean the six year old is cut out for it.”
Walter tried to think about this, but suddenly he felt tired, exhausted in fact, so much so that the question he had not intended to ask rose to his lips, and he lacked the energy to hold it back.
“Why did you have to leave?” Walter muttered. “Would it have killed you to come home and say goodbye?”
There was a long pause before Matthew said anything. Then his lips moved so gently Walter wondered if he was imagining it.
◊ Installment 9 ◊
Matthew stood in the snow by the apple tree. It was taller than it had been when he left home, but so was he, with the ironic effect that his shoulders still came up to exactly level with the bottom branch, just as they had in high school. It was the only thing about being home that had not changed.
He ran a hand over the bark. It had a familiar, incongruous texture: silky smooth, with unexpected rough patches, like a woman’s soft skin flecked with callouses. If he closed his eyes and let his hand glide over the trunk, the years melted away and he could imagine that he was ten years old again, examining the apple tree with an eye to possibilities. There were still bare spots on the branches where the boards had rubbed the bark away. Here and there a few bent nails, furred with rust, poked out of the scarred wood. The sap that had leaked out around them had long since hardened into mounds of yellow resin, preserved evidence of old, forgotten wounds of yesterday.
He looked up into the branches, but the tree house was gone. The space it had occupied was still hollow and empty, the smaller branches broken off around it, making a gaping hole in the center of the tree.
“Dad tore it down,” said a voice behind him, “after you left.” He turned and saw his sister, standing behind him in the frozen yard.
“Walter had started sleeping in it,” Kalli explained. “He stayed up there all the time, and he wouldn’t come down. Dad took him to a psychiatrist, but it didn’t help. Finally, Dad tore the tree house down.”
Matthew shifted uneasily. He began to trace a pattern with his boot in the half-frozen snow. It took him a moment to realize it was the same pattern he used to trace when he and Walter played in the yard as kids: a series of figure eights that gradually grew smaller and smaller, until they disappeared. He stopped abruptly, leaving a figure eight half finished. What was it about being home, he wondered, that made people snap into position like magnets, acting out the same roles they had performed over and over again, long after they had grown up and changed, and the parts had become wildly inappropriate?
Kalli sank down on an old, wooden bench where their mother used to store the gardening tools. After a moment, Matthew sat beside her.
“Do you ever wonder,” Kalli said thoughtfully, “if the birds who are born in this tree come back and make nests in it when they’re old?”
“Yes,” said Matthew.
They sat together, gazing up at the tree. Not everything about her had changed, Matthew realized. Though he would never have recognized her without the familiar, worn out backdrop of the house, her eyes were still the same, curious copper color they had been as a little girl, fringed with reddish eyelashes in which the snowflakes stuck, and her nose was still powdered with tiny freckles, finer and more delicate than the snow. It was not that everything at home had changed, he realized, but that his relationship to it had altered beyond recognition. Aside from the apple tree, nothing had evolved at precisely the same pace as Matthew.
On Christmas morning they had gone to church. Matthew had been aware of the old, smothered feeling of rebellion he always felt when he walked through the doors, mingled with relief that he was no longer expected to don the red and white robes of the acolytes and shuffle, abashed, up the aisle. Sitting in the back of the church, watching colored light falling from the stained glass windows, staining the faces of the parishioners with red and green and gold, he felt a dull ache in his heart fill with a quiet sensation of peace. He watched the choir’s slow progress up the aisle. It was led by the same bent, grey pastor who had been there when Matthew was a child; slightly more bent and more grey, and Matthew waited for the old, trapped feeling of resentment to wash over him, but it never did. He could no longer quite recall what he used to resent about going to church. It had something to do with contrasts, he felt: the contrast between the profound reverence inspired by the candles and the choir, and the rustle of a hundred people’s jackets as they rose together in prayer, clashing with the jarring note of discord when he disagreed with the pastor’s message. But he realized now that you could disagree with a part of something without giving up the whole; that you could enjoy an old, worn out puzzle even if the pieces did not fit together perfectly; that the imperfect thing you held onto was better than the empty nothing that filled its place if you chucked the whole of it out the window.
Now, looking up at the apple tree, he remembered how its leaves used to turn bright gold in the fall. He remembered the cupcakes his mother used to bake for his birthday. She would melt little bits of candy into the frosting, flecking the white surface with pink and yellow and blue. When he was sixteen, he thought the big things about family were what mattered, but now he realized it was the small things. It was the rumble of an old radiator, switching on early on a frosty morning; the smell of bacon frying in a pan downstairs. It was the shared memories no one else knew the meaning of, and how the maple trees lining their street turned red for Thanksgiving: not just plain red, but deep, glittering crimson, like a hundred red firecrackers, exploding all at once. ♦