Registered Copyright 2011 by Melissa Green Dereberry
Chapter 1 I requested an open casket for my father, even though I knew he‟d hate the idea. George Lamb was proud to a fault, and any shred or flicker of emotion was to be sucked up quickly and neatly, sealed away in some secret compartment in the brain that was reserved for only a certain kind of man—a real, bona-fide strong man whose salty tears hadn‟t seen the light of day since 1947. True to his stoic pride, my father would have seen death, the inevitable and relentless foe that it is, as weakness, pure and simple—and weakness was ridiculous. Death, to my father, was the final pie in the proverbial face. I stood in the foyer of the funeral home, waiting for Rachel to arrive, glancing periodically at my son, Drew, who sat in a red vinyl chair, his legs draped over the arm. He was playing his 1
portable Nintendo with headphones plugged in his ears. Even at eight years old, he was already hooked on technology, approaching every new electronic and digital gadget with cool confidence, as if he‟d already used it for years. I, on the other hand, was essentially illiterate when it came to anything beyond my personal and office computers, the word processing and grade entry software I used on a daily basis. I found myself gazing in admiration at him, lounging there, impervious and serene. Intuitively, I raised up my hands in a box frame, placing him in slightly off center, a long hallway extending to the left. I found it ironic and somewhat humbling that I‟d found such a beautifully composed picture at my father‟s funeral. Everything around me was saturated with grief. What right was there, really, to see anything more? Still, I framed my son with a pang of love stabbing my gut. He was perfect. And as my dumb luck would have it, I‟d forgotten my camera. I sighed and made my way over to him, placing my hand on his shoulder, squeezing gently. Drew, glassy-eyed and focused, as if immersed in a bubble, didn‟t budge. I started to say
something, then simply turned and went back to waiting for my wife. Rachel arrived late, driving a rented car. “Where‟s the Toyota?” I asked, meeting her outside the door. Her enormous purple patent leather purse dropped to her forearm like a weight, and I half-expected her to topple over with it. Her sweet, flowery perfume embraced me as she leaned in to kiss me lightly on the cheek. “Jack, I‟m sorry. Are you ok?” I shrugged. “Fine, I guess. It was peaceful. He died in his sleep.” She frowned. “Well he didn‟t suffer,” she said. “How‟s Drew taking it?” “He‟s ok. I don‟t think he really gets it yet.” Rachel nodded and went inside, greeting Drew, who pulled off the headphones and gave her a hug. “Hi mommy,” he said. “I‟ve already gotten to level three! Look!” He held out the game, brimming with something like excitement, a subdued animation at best, over his small achievement. Rachel listened with interest. 3
They sat down and began chatting quietly while I went back out to see if Lily and Aunt Joan had arrived yet. Undoubtedly, they‟d be late or show up at the last minute. Joan had trouble getting around and Lily was late for everything. When Rachel and I got married, she practically missed the ceremony, slipping in the door just as we were about to twirl around and face the congregation as Mr. and Mrs. Lamb for the very first time. I know because I heard the door open and saw the last sliver of bright September sun squeak through as it shut, Lily running her fingers through her hair in the back row, taking a deep breath as if she‟d just finished a run. After a few minutes, I was surprised to see Joan‟s grey Buick gliding up the drive, Lily at the wheel. When they were close enough, I saw Joan‟s spindly hand wave at me through the filmy windshield. Lily parked in a handicap spot, got out, and went around to help Joan out, tossing a cigarette on the ground. Joan was feeble, but she looked nice, dressed in navy blue skirt and jacket. Lily had on a black dress that went almost to her ankles
and a long sleeved brown linen jacket. A gust of wind came up, grabbed her skirt and it whipped around her legs like flame. With her blonde hair and sunglasses, Lily could have passed for a movie star. My sister, the tinsel town train wreck, red lips and all. Even her name—Lily Lamb—smacked of Hollywood glam, marquis, and tinted windows. It would have been a beautiful shot, the sunlight sparking like a fuse on the lens of her glasses, the wind tossing her hair, those dangerous lips. But suddenly the picture was snatched away, and there she was, ambling toward me awkwardly, teetering on ridiculously high black patent heels, her blonde hair hanging in unkempt tousles. Even beneath the loose clothing, I could see that she was overly thin, her body a contraption of sharp, tentative angles. She was the starlet on who never got the role she wanted, her cheeks dotted with blemishes, hair a mess of dark, tangled roots, teeth stained with nicotine. “Hey bro,” she said. “You ok?” She hugged me. Her arms felt like steel clamps. Joan managed a weak smile. “Jack, how‟s Drew?” I took Joan‟s arm. “He‟s good.” 5
“I‟m sorry, Jack. Your father meant a lot to you, I know,” Joan said. “It‟s just the way it is,” I replied, and it was the truth. “He put up the good fight.”
After the funeral, Drew and I drove home in a solemn silence, Rachel following behind. I helped unload Rachel‟s two small bags and carried them across the walk, pausing briefly to watch them go inside. Rachel walked beside Drew, her arm draped protectively over his shoulders. It was clear they were happy to see each other. It was the first time the three of us had gone anywhere together for months. Rachel had been in Chicago on business, training for a new job, and we weren‟t sure yet if and when we would move. I guess you could say we were officially separated, though neither of us had said the word, and certainly not to Drew.
Before she left, we‟d fought furiously about her plans. There was a house to sell, moving, taking Drew out of school, 6
away from friends. I didn‟t want to uproot the family, especially Drew, but Rachel made more money than me, and she used that advantage to obscure any concerns I had, including the fact that I had a contract at the college to finish. Regardless of what we decided, it would be at least the end of summer before I could join her, and when Drew would go out was up for further debate. I expected him to stay with me, of course. “What about our life here?” I‟d told her. “You have a perfectly good job. You‟re going to just throw that away after all these years of working so hard to get where you are?” Rachel had sighed with exasperation, one eyebrow jutting up like spontaneous punctuation. “Jack, this is a good opportunity. It will be good for all of us. For our marriage.” “Oh so all of a sudden you‟re the loving wife?” I fumed. “You‟ve barely said hello to me for the past two years. This is crap.” “It‟s not crap, Jack. It‟s life.” She paused, twisted her mouth.
“Oh, now you‟re going to lecture me about life, about how unfair it is? About how sometimes you have to make sacrifices? News flash Rachel. I don‟t know about you, but in my worldview, sacrifices generally mean there‟s some payoff down the road. You sacrifice something, you get something. Where‟s the payoff, Rachel? Enlighten me, please.” “So this is all about you, isn‟t it? About how life turns out for Jack Lamb.” “What happened to the whole „it will be good for us‟ drama? Or was that crap too? If you had even half the compassion and concern for someone else as you have for yourself, you‟d figure out that I‟m talking about our son. Drew? Remember him? What‟s the payoff for him in all this?” Stunned, Rachel had opened her mouth, then stopped, took a deep breath, sat down hard on the sofa, and began rubbing her forehead. “What do you want from me?” She‟d said, throwing her hands up defensively. She paused then, her eyes darkening. “There is another option,” She said. “You could stay here.” Her
voice cracked. She was clearly distraught, but dead serious. “Drew and I will go.” And just like that, I‟d actually started feeling sorry for her. Guilt seized me. Everything had been my fault. The problems, the coldness, my inability to keep our marriage together. Any farreaching stains on Drew‟s life from now on would add another facet to my guilt, regardless of who was at fault. Everything would be on my watch. If we moved, Drew would resent me for letting it happen. If Rachel and I divorced, Drew might blame me and take her side. I couldn‟t bear the possibility of losing Drew in that kind of mess. “You can‟t just take off with Drew,” I told her. “It‟s not right and you know it. We have to find another way. That‟s what I want from you. Another way. A way that Drew keeps both his parents. We can‟t ask him to give that up no matter what our problems are.” “Then you‟ll go?” “Rachel, this is a hard time in a boy‟s life. He‟s going to be in middle school soon, a tough transition age and a new school on 9
top of that? He has so much going for him here. It just isn‟t worth a fifteen thousand a year salary increase, especially in Chicago. Think about it Rachel. How much do you think it‟s going to cost to live in the city?” “What do you expect me to just give him up? Go alone?” “I didn‟t say that—you did. But maybe it‟s not such a bad idea.” I‟d said, immediately regretting it. Her eyes glimmered, her head cocked sideways. For a brief moment she‟d looked almost demented, her face elongating and morphing before my eyes. “Are you insane?” She asked. Maybe it was true, on some level. Love can generate madness in the calm nest of intention. I was no exception. I didn‟t want Rachel to move away and take our son, certainly, but even deeper was my profound aversion to the idea of his growing up without me around. It was the age-old cliché, the selfish, ugly reason lurking beneath my defiant facade. Drew was my son. The supreme sacredness of the father/son bond would be breached. In the absence of this constant bond, part of him would cease to exist. No one could or would ever love him as I had loved him. 10
On the other hand, I also didn‟t want him to grow up without a mother, like I did. I was just five years old when Mom died, and I‟d vowed a long time ago to do everything in my power to protect Drew, keep him safe from tragedy. And even though I knew in my heart that I couldn‟t do that, still, I believed that everything that I did or said or believed would have a direct impact on who Drew turned out to be. If he grew into a menace to society, it would hinge on something I did. If he became a world leader or a champion philanthropist, couldn‟t I take some small shred of credit? If anyone or anything was going to screw Drew up, it was damn well going to be me. When I realized Rachel might try to take Drew with her, permanently, that I might lose him, something snapped inside me. What if—in all my shortcomings and my self-inflicted criticisms about my role in my life—what if all of that didn‟t matter? What if the fact that he had a neurotic, self-deprecating father were not as important as the fact that I had a father at all? That he had a father who was present, who was willing to take part in his life, no matter how messy? 11
In the end, we had compromised. Rachel would go out for the job. We‟d give it six months and she would come home every few weeks. Drew could come visit her. After the six months, we‟d reassess, make decisions. When we were finished, Rachel had closed her eyes, lay her head down on the couch, whispering, “When did we make such a fucking mess of things?” God help me, I loved her. I always had, from the beginning.
The only thing I remember about the day I met Rachel Graves is that it was not raining. I was on my way to Cardinals stadium and I had tickets. I had just heard the weather report on the radio and it looked like a perfect afternoon for a game. I was living outside the city at the time and had stopped to get gas before I hit traffic. When I returned from paying the attendant, there she was, leaning against a brand new white Toyota Camry, dressed in a white blouse and grey slacks. She was frowning, digging in her purse, obviously frustrated. She looked up briefly as I passed. At 12
first, nothing registered, but then, as I was reaching for my seatbelt, I noticed her hair and I thought it was pretty—long, deep dark brown—almost black—obviously styled and curled with care. She had given up looking for whatever was in her purse and was now just standing there looking a little lost. What possessed me to get out of that car and approach her? It was a gorgeous September day. I had tickets to the playoffs burning a hole in my pocket and I‟d been waiting for it all week— all season, for that matter. I was already late. But the hair— looking back, it seems silly to blame my inexplicable behavior on someone‟s hair, but that‟s the way it was. She had something of a glare when I approached her, as if she mildly resented being offered help. It wasn‟t until years later that I learned to recognize that look as the one she got when she saw something she wanted to change, the fire of motivation that flickered when she saw that the kitchen needed to be painted, or a door just wasn‟t closing right. The look that knew (better than anyone else) just what was needed, to make something a little worn out and broken work again. “I couldn‟t help but notice—but I wondered—“ 13
“It‟s ok. No, I‟m fine.” She looked directly at me, her dark brown eyes glowing with confidence. “Are you sure? I can call someone for you.” Her eyes softened a bit and she ran her fingers through her hair. “I locked my keys in the car,” she said simply. Stupidly, I reached into my pocket, as if by magic, I‟d find her keys there. “Can I call someone for you?” I asked, gesturing toward the station building. “No. Thanks.” She turned away slightly and I meandered back toward my car, hands in my pockets. I got in my car, watched her as she entered the building. After a few moments, she came out, and started walking toward me. I rolled down the window. “My sister is coming with the extra keys. She‟s my roommate.” I was puzzled as to why she‟d thought it necessary to let me know this, but I smiled and nodded anyway, and without thinking, said, “You want to have a cup of coffee while you wait?” I knew I‟d be late for the game, but I hadn‟t really expected her to say yes. 14
By November, we were having conversations about how many kids we wanted and what college we wanted them to attend. How outrageous it all was, that two random people could meet at a gas station and start planning their lives together two months later, but it seemed like perfectly normal behavior at the time. I was like a giddy, overgrown teenager in an adult world. The idea of having smaller versions of myself running around had never crossed my mind, not once, throughout the twenty-four self-absorbed years of my life. Iâ€&#x;d never had a serious relationship with anyone, much less a polished, business-minded woman with long brown hair who could not only tell me who won the 1973 world series, but could do it while wearing nothing but a piece of black lingerie. She impressed me as much with her sports knowledge as her beauty. She was the most impossible, confident person I had ever met and I couldnâ€&#x;t get enough of her. Sometimes she had to travel for her job, which sent me spiraling into a grumpy pout for days on end. She was a marketing manager for an industrial plastics company that supplied major 15
companies with things like tanks and pipes and gaskets. It was a dull job description for such a charming person, an entry level job, but she was fresh out of college, and she was good at it. She traveled and paid her dues, moving up the ladder quickly. Once when she had to go to California for a trade show, we‟d been dating for about six months and the trip would be the longest we had been away from each other since we met. She left during spring break from classes at the college where I was teaching parttime, and I was so disoriented that I went to class anyway, puzzling all the way about the nearly deserted campus. By the time I‟d sprinted up the stairs to my office, heaving for air, I was convinced the campus was under a terror alert and that I‟d be trapped in my office, forced to live off peanut butter crackers and Evian for three days. Nothing about that mental cocktail made sense, of course, but I was already frazzled, and things were obviously not right. Inductive reasoning screamed at me: “The campus is always buzzing with people on Monday mornings; therefore, it should be buzzing with people today.” Logic was going to kill me one day,
stand before me in a silver suit and with one sardonic comment and a powerful arm, knock me right off the edge of the world. I figured it out when I saw the banner above the English Department office that read, “Have a Great Spring Break, and in the words of Rilke, „Spring has returned. The Earth is like a child that knows poems.‟” After I got over feeling stupid, I remembered how much I admired Rilke and went to my favorite used bookstore downtown, scouring the shelves for a book of his poems. I spent the rest of the week immersed in them, forgetting for one week that I was a grown man who knew better, but wanting to drown in whatever it was that was happening to me all the same. I will never say this out loud, but it was love, baby.
Life returned to an acceptable level of normalcy once Rachel returned. We slept together thirteen times in three days. It was a long weekend. That summer, when our work schedules had gotten comfortable and being single already seemed like a thirtysomething dilemma, we decided to get married. I asked her one morning over coffee and it just sort of tumbled out, a flat, 17
expected question, like I‟d asked her to pick up my dry cleaning. I was immediately disappointed with myself. After all the long years of school and all the poetry I had lumbered though, studied, memorized and loved, that was the best I could do? I felt like a poor, illiterate clod, but she said yes, and we were married almost immediately. Two days arranging airfare and accommodations and we were off to the Little White Chapel in the Desert, Las Vegas, Nevada, and we returned to civilization as Mr. and Mrs. Lamb. Our first decision as married people emerged when we realized that together, we had too much stuff. We had decided to move me to her house because it was bigger. On moving day, I walked into the foyer, deposited my scuffed old loafers on a rug by the front door and stood there holding a box of 1970s albums, wondering where I should put them. I sat the box down on the kitchen table and starting flipping through the titles. Rachel came into the room and looked over my shoulder. “Now there‟s something you don‟t see every day,” she said.
“They might just qualify as antiques now. Where should I put them?” “Let‟s say anything older than 1980 goes in the basement, does that work?” “Ok, but that would apply to himself and about 75% of everything I own.” She laughed. “Don‟t worry I‟m not sending you to the basement. But, what are we going to do with all the extra furniture?” She looked at me tentatively, maybe a little worried that I might haul my worn plaid couch in and plant it next to her brown leather sofa. “I just don‟t want it to look all thrown together. This is our place now. What do you think?” And so we made the all important decisions about where to put—or hide—my old junk and in the end, it was a relatively smooth, painless process. I certainly wasn‟t attached to my couch, for example, and I was still ecstatic and a bit flabbergasted that someone like her had married someone like me, so I didn‟t object to putting most of the smashed, road worn boxes that contained my life in a storage room in the basement. I didn‟t even know what 19
was in most of them. There was a taped up file box I‟d carried around with me since graduate school, multiple boxes of books, a beanbag that I wasn‟t sure how I‟d acquired. My albums found a home on the top shelf. The plaid couch became a bed for the cats. Our basement looked like the back room of a flea market and my life was reduced to rummage. Except for some reason, we never got rid of any of it. It just sat there, year after year, doled out, partitioned into flimsy boxes, while I cruised the aisles of the supermarket and the department stores looking for a newer version of myself. Whatever it was I needed, I could find it in a store. My old life didn‟t meet the requirements any more. I was in that halfformed state of love when the novelty of everyday life must somehow be outwardly expressed in things. I bought an electric razor for the first time in my life. What was wrong with the old way? Absolutely nothing, that‟s what. But it was shiny, new and it just seemed like the kind of thing any man who hung around in Rachel‟s world would own. I was a backwards intellectual who grew up in the 1970s and by all outward appearances, had stayed
there way too long. I had a lifestyle to grow, and Rachel was there coaching me all the way.
Drew was born on a cold day in November 2001, a week early. Against my instincts, I was in the delivery room, feeling physically ill the entire time, until the nurse presented my son, pink-faced and open-mouthed, wrapped in a white blanket, and placed him gingerly in my arms. He was crying, quite loudly at first, until I began to speak. I had no idea what I actually said. I could have been giving a run-down on the Rams football game earlier that day for all I knew. But Drew quieted, moved his head, however slight, in recognition. I was aware that babies in the womb can hear and connect with the voices around them, and I felt a sense of overwhelming pride, as if I‟d had passed the first test in parenthood. I had calmed a baby—my baby—with my voice. This moment would forever change my place in the universe. A bond had been created, fused, sealed forever.
After Drew had gone to bed, I sat at the kitchen table, going through the mail with an impassioned desire to put the day behind me by immersing myself in domestic obligation. Bill paying would do the trick. Rachel came in, opening the bottle of wine she‟d left in the refrigerator months ago. “I can‟t believe this is still here,” she said, pleased. “Thanks.” “Why? I don‟t drink it.” “Would you like me to make you a drink? Something else?” “No thanks, I‟m going to turn in after I finish here.” I sorted a few of the bills, placing them in piles. “Did you know we‟re spending $45 a month for a gym membership neither of us has used for six months?” Rachel sat down, taking a sip of wine, examining her nails. “Are we locked into it? Can we cancel?” “I don‟t know. I‟ll call next week.” Rachel was fidgeting a bit, not unusual for her, but it seemed rather pronounced this time, or, maybe I was just in a mood and was easily irritated. I stared at her too long, apparently, because she sighed and said, “What?” 22
“You‟re tapping your nails.” “So shoot me,” she said, taking another drink, longer this time. Nah, I thought. The neighbors would talk. Then I snickered, out loud. “What‟s so funny?” Go ahead, tie one on, I thought. That will make everything better, won’t it? Rachel had always been more of a drinker than I was. I hadn‟t taken more than a drink or two a week since college, when Friday night quarter pitchers at the downtown lounge were required activity for the locals and students alike. “Not much,” I said. “There‟s nothing much funny about any of this.” I tossed the rest of the bills on the table. “I‟m sorry Jack,” Rachel said. “I‟m sorry about your father.” As much as I hated to admit it, she was sincere. She knew my father had been important to me, regardless of how stubborn and distant he could be, how seemingly devoid of love at times.
You might know a bit about that, I thought. “It‟s ok. He hasn‟t been well. It was inevitable.” Rachel‟s mouth dropped open. “That‟s it? That‟s all you have to say? Wow.” “Half of wisdom is knowing what to say. The other half is knowing when to remain silent.” Rachel sighed again. “Here we go.” “Rachel, what‟s going on with you?” I said, firmly. “What the hell is going on and where do we go from here?” Rachel tapped her nails again, finished the glass of wine. I got up, brought the bottle over to the table and starting filling it up again. “I‟ll stay until Friday, help if you need me to, then I want Drew to come back to Chicago with me for a while—a few weeks. He‟s out of school now, and I think he‟d enjoy visiting the city.” I got cold, suddenly, my skin tingling. Now how’s that for crappy timing, I thought. My father only a few days gone, just buried, and now she wants to take Drew. I felt edgy, a caged animal provoked, yet too weak to do much about it. I opened my
mouth, expecting something combative to come out, but nothing did. Rachel eyed me cautiously, then, as if trying to ward off a fight, she said, “Don‟t worry, I‟m not trying to do anything drastic here. Nothing‟s changed. I just want him to stay with me for a while.” You’re right. Nothing’s changed, Rachel. We’re caught in a perpetual state of inaction, denial, Drew caught in the middle of our feeble existence. My mouth came open again, but all I could say was, “I‟ll talk to him about it in the morning. I‟m sure he‟d like that.” After all, she was his son too, and, admittedly, he would love the chance to go. My stomach was tangled up like the inside of a baseball and I was mad, but the truth was staring me down with his self-righteous, over the glasses kind of eyes, and there was Rachel, sitting with her wine and her tapping nails. Truth seemed right at home in her eyes. And there wasn‟t a shred of fire in them. There wasn‟t a damn thing she wanted to fix.