A Scattering of Lemondrops
a short story by Sean Conway
About the Author
Sean Conway teaches English in Maynard, MA. He holds a BA in English with a Writing Concentration from the University of Massachusetts Lowell, where he is now a senior adjunct professor. He also holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of New Orleans. In 2002, he was the recipient of the Jack Kerouac Award, presented by UMass Lowell and John Sampas, Literary Executor of the Kerouac estate. Sean’s fiction has appeared in Fiction Warehouse, JMWW, Renovation Journal, and The Lowell Offering.
The new year was not starting any better than the last had ended. It was only the second of January, but already Maggie felt the strain of despair making its home squarely between her shoulder blades, a tight pain blooming closer and closer to her ribs with each wet shovel of snow she heaved aside. In the last twenty-four hours, thirteen inches had been dumped on her driveway. And it wasn’t the calm winter wonderland floating kind of snow either, not the kind that made you want to pull a chair up to the bay window with a mug of cocoa and watch it blanketing the stiff grass. This storm had been mean — an assault of wind and ice, dark and howling. She had closed the blinds and put on all the lights in the house, willing it warm, and watched a marathon of Disney movies with Jack. She knew there’d be no school the next day and let him stay up well past bedtime. It was the first night that her son had outlasted his grandfather since Grampa moved in with them three weeks earlier, and Maggie had to admit it was a nice change of pace.
Light snow still peppered from a low sky the next morning while Maggie lumbered through shoveling duties. She had taken three or four lengthy breaks already, and now she just wanted to get it finished. She was sweating and could feel the beginnings of a blister forming on the inside of her right hand. The high buzz of snow blowers carving through her neighbors’ driveways was all around her. She stood and watched for a moment, stretching her back, licking her dry lips, then turned and, with a grunt, stabbed into the snow.
A year ago Jack would have been doing this. Not her son, Jack, but Big Jack, her husband. Ex-husband. Big Jack who lived in Roanoke now where she bet there wasn’t any snow to shovel. Big Jack who had been offered a promotion under the condition of relocating. She hadn’t been thrilled about the idea, but she would have done it. Even if she never really came out and told him so, even if she had acted a little cold about the idea, she would have done it, she would have moved. She just needed some reassurance, needed to hear him tell her that he wanted her to go. That’s all it would have taken.
But that never happened. The more she wanted him to act enthusiastic about it, to act as though this was a good thing, a positive thing, for all of them, the more disappointed she grew. He wasn’t enthusiastic, not at all. He sounded worried, concerned, hesitant. He kept using her mother’s cancer to push Maggie into reluctance. Then, when that didn’t quite do the trick, he began using their relationship as ammunition. Before she knew it, they were combing over every bump and pothole in their seven-year marriage. And, in the end, he went alone. Sort of a try it and see thing. That was last May.
So, a year ago, Jack would have been plowing through these thirteen inches of snow with the snow blower that now sat under the back deck with something wrong with it. A bad cough, that’s the only way Maggie could describe it. He’d have been plowing the driveway, and little Jack, just four then, would have been bundled in an oversized snow suit, the lime green one, resting on a snow bank watching him, hands in the brown mittens that Nana had knitted for him clasped over his ears. He hated that awful sound but couldn’t stand to be more than ten feet from his dad. Now she was suddenly even more pissed at him for leaving them, and then, on top of that, pissed at herself again for letting him ruin her day from a thousand miles away.
The shower was running when she came in from shoveling. She stopped at the bathroom door, palms flat against it, forehead touching the wood, wondering if she should give a light knock and ask her father if he needed any help. At his house he had had a special chair that he used in the shower, but here there was no bathtub, just a shower stall. She wanted to see if there was somewhere she could get him a smaller chair, but she hadn’t gotten around to it yet with Christmas and everything. He was a proud man, though, and she didn’t want to embarrass him — he’d only get mad and refuse help anyway had she offered, and so, after a long moment, she slipped away from the door.
When he came out some half hour later, she was in the living room, dismantling the Christmas tree, stripping it of its ornaments and wrapping them in yellowed tissue paper. Her back was to him, but she knew he was coming by the clump of the rubber-tipped cane that he used. When she was a girl he loved to sneak up on her, to give her a scare. Still did, actually, although a mild stroke four years ago slowed him considerably, and coupled with that loud cane, he couldn’t scare anyone. But she stood her ground and let him do his thing. She hummed a little tune and watched him in the orange reflection of one of the ornaments, his body contorted in the orb even more that it really was. He wore a pair of gray sweatpants, one cuff at his ankle and the other stuck partway up his calf. The stroke made him look older than his seventy-three years.
At long last the tip of his cane jabbed her buttocks. “Gotcha.”
She spun, feigning surprise, and forced a smile that spent most of her remaining energy. She still felt shaky from all the shoveling. “Morning, Dad.” She touched his rough cheek and wormed past him with an ornament pinched in each finger. “Remind me to give you a shave later.”
“I think I’ll grow a beard.”
“No, no beards.” She knew he was only kidding. He said this almost every day now.
He asked her if he could help with the tree, but she knew he was just being polite.
Dad wasn’t steady anymore, wasn’t strong. Instead, she led him to the kitchen table, where the morning paper and a pair of scratched reading glasses waited and then brought him a cup of coffee. Maggie’s mother had been dead almost three months.
When she unscrewed the tree stand from the base of the tree and began dragging it across the room to the front door, leaving in its wake flakes of crisp needles, her father peeked over the top of the newspaper, frowning. “Honey, I can take care of that. Come on, leave that alone.” He pulled himself back up and hobbled over to help, swatting her away with the back of his hand.
“Got it, Dad.”
“We should’ve had Jerry and Jim take care of that before they left.” He was talking about her older brothers who lived in California and had visited with their wives and kids for Christmas. They went back four days earlier. She liked having them all around for those few days, particularly because Dad had only moved in a week before that, in the hectic and manic days leading up to the holiday. Now it was quiet again around here, just her and her son and her father.
“I’ve got it, Dad, really. It’s just a small tree.” But even as she said this she took a step back as he took the tree from the narrow top and gave it a slow tug. She wanted to stop him, but he had her boxed out. He had the tree at the wrong end, that was the problem. Didn’t he see that she’d been sliding the tree from the heavy end, the bottom? The tree was dried and should have been taken out days earlier, and there was no way now to prevent a big mess of crunchy pine needles from littering her floor, but her father was making a bigger mess by dragging the tree against its grain. Pine needles dropped from the bending branches and rattled on the floor.
“Relax, sweetie, I can do it.” He was quickly breathing heavy, stifling a grunt as he spoke.
She tried again to move around him and briefly grabbed a branch, but again he waved her away. She began to protest again, growing more annoyed, watching pine needles dump over her floor. “Dad, please, be careful,” she started, grimacing at the grating sound of the hard branches. She had had the floors refinished just before Christmas. Again her father told her not to worry, and he even turned to toss her a gentle smile. This time she stopped, mouth partway open, and she backed off, folding her arms in defeat. A pang of shame brought a cold sigh up her throat as she realized he thought she was worried about him.
She missed Christmas already, busy as it had been, and missed her brothers. Though, come to think of it, she was in fact still a little upset with them. Why was it that there wasn’t any talk about Dad moving out west with one of them? Why was it that the first and only option was for him to sell the house and move in with Maggie? It was clear that living alone was not a good idea, not with the stroke slowing him down, not in that old house by himself. Maybe they all thought that Maggie must have needed the company since being left behind by Jack. Maybe they just assumed that her house was just too big for two.
When he moved into Maggie’s he hadn’t brought much — the furniture and big stuff had been donated — all he had left were his clothes, his books, his golf clubs (for some reason), and a second-hand fish tank that he had bought at a yard sale. One of the guys down at the Elks club was an aquarium nut, and Dad spent a good number of hours, night after night, listening to him. He had always spent a few nights a week sitting at the Elks club bar, but since Maggie’s mother died in October he upped his visits to just about every single night, until he had moved in with her and was suddenly twenty minutes from the Elks instead of just three minutes away.
So he brought a fish tank along with him, as well as all the usual accessories: filter, electric pump, a bag of colored gravel, some plastic plants, a fluorescent tube light, thermostat, guidebook to tropical fish, crumpled and dog-eared, and a pink, plastic deep sea diver with one foot planted atop a plastic treasure chest. This stuff took up more room than all of his clothes and books combined, took up more room that even he himself did. Maggie had kept her lips pursed like a good daughter as he hobbled across the living room and banged the cloudy and moldy-smelling tank into the corner of the room. She had never had pets in this house, despite her son’s pleas, borderline-tantrums, and the simple reason why was because Maggie was never allowed pets when she was growing up. Dad couldn’t stand them, thought they were dirty and stinky and a pain in the ass. And after a while, Maggie learned to agree.
So on this morning, the morning after the snowstorm, he settled into a couple of quiet hours of scrubbing the tank clean, lining its floor with rocks, assembling the filters and pumps and curls of white-crudded tubing. He set it up in the porch, a room that a couple years ago hadn’t been a room at all, but an outdoor deck. Her husband built it not long before he got the job offer and moved. That was the bright side — she got a whole new room. Maybe that’s why it was taken as an unspoken certainty that Maggie had plenty of room to take Dad in – no discussion necessary.
“What are we going to do today, Jackie?” Maggie asked her son while he watched her pour him a bowl of Frosted Flakes. He scratched at his ear and shrugged his shoulders in a wide rolling motion.
Her father was out in the porch, not ten feet away. “How about you ask Mommy if she’ll take us to the pet store so we can buy some new fish?”
How smart — pretty damn sly, waiting until Jack was awake and alert, energized with the knowledge that school had been cancelled.
Maggie stopped in mid-pour, staring at the wall that hid him from her view, wishing she could see him, let him know how truly pissed she suddenly was. When she stole a glance down at her son, he was looking back up at her with his eyebrows high — he liked what he heard.
Dad finally took a couple steps backward, out into the open, where they could see each other. “What do you say, Jackie? Want to get us some fishies?”
“You always hated pets. Remember that, Dad? You always hated them.” They were in the far aisle of Puppydog Tails, the local pet shop that she passed by a thousand times but had never so much as glanced in the big front window. Her father was eyeballing all the fish, tanks, and tanks of fish stacked along the far wall. He leaned on his cane with one hand while the other held Jack by the wrist. Maggie hung a few feet back while the two of them discussed what fish they liked. She stared at the back of her father’s head as he failed to acknowledge her question.
It smelled in here. Smelled like dog shit, cat shit, and guinea
pig-hamster-gerbil-rat shit. And it was loud, too. The front of the store had three or four tall cages with big green birds in them, squawking and screeching, while from the back of the store came the yelps and whines of about fifteen caged dogs. Who the hell would ever work in a place like this? When she got home she was going to go straight into the shower and hose herself off.
Back in the fish aisle, Dad and Jack were very busy with their noses practically up against the glass, fingers pointing. They were discussing something apparently very important about fish, but whatever it was, Maggie clearly wasn’t included. She folded her arms tight across her bosom and stepped closer. “I thought you hated pets, Dad. You never liked animals.” This time she said it conspicuously louder. She wasn’t going to let herself get shut out.
Her father peeked at her over his shoulder, offering her a dismissive smirk.
“These are just fish, Mag.”
“Fish are animals,” she pushed. If she weren’t so mad she’d have laughed at herself. God, she suddenly felt about nine.
Now it was Jack’s turn to give her a condescending look. “Fish aren’t animals! They’re fish!”
“Yes, they’re fish, but they’re also…” Forget it, she told herself, flushed with a touch of shame. I shouldn’t be arguing with a five-year-old. “You know what, Dad, I think I’m going to go wait out in the car.”
“Don’t be silly, Maggie.” His back was to her again, his hip pressed up against Jack’s arm, closing her out completely. She was growing so angry now that her scalp started to itch.
She forced out a short laugh, just to show that she was only playing, even though she wasn’t. But her father was not fooled. He paused long enough to stand up straight and look back at her for a moment. “Honey, come help us pick out some fish. Pick out some that you like.”
He smiled. “Are you mad?”
“No, I’m not mad. Of course, I’m not mad. I’m just kidding.”
“Well come pick out some fish, then.”
He turned away again.
“It’s just that I never had any pets when I was little. You hated them, you forbade them. It’s nice that you’ve loosened up a little.”
She watched him tell the skinny clerk twirling a small fish catching net in his hand that he wanted six neon tetras. Then he said back at her, “You were afraid of animals anyway. You didn’t like anyone’s pets. Still don’t.”
Jack said, “Oooh, I want some of those!”
“I like those ones too,” her father said to Jack, crouching awkwardly next to him with an obvious strain of discomfort. He flipped his reading glasses down from the top of his gray head and read the sticker taped to the corner of the tank. “Those are called Lemondrop Tetras. Yeah, those are pretty, huh?”
Jack nodded. “They look like candy.”
“Yes, they sure do!” he said to Jack. Then, to Maggie: “Sweetie, what do you think of these guys?”
Maggie rolled her eyes. He was obviously patronizing her now, and she knew it.
“Those are great,” she said. One of the parrots screeched somewhere behind her, and she grimaced.
“We’ll take half a dozen of the Lemondrops,” she heard her father tell the skinny kid.
Jack spent the remainder of the afternoon watching and helping his grandfather put together the aquarium in the porch. Maggie avoided them altogether. She shoveled out the mailbox, so the mailman could reach it (she had overlooked it earlier), then sanded the walkway and front steps, then came indoors and cleaned out the fridge, tossing out all the Christmas leftovers, then put together a grocery list. Even something as simple as a grocery list had grown more complicated, since her father had moved in. She always bought two-percent milk, ever since Jack was a baby, but her father had a stubborn attachment to whole milk. The kicker was that he only used it for his morning coffee. She kept telling herself that one of these days she was just going to switch the orange cap with the red cap, and he’d never know the goddamn difference. But she hadn’t done that yet. Instead, she jotted both onto her list — a gallon of two-percent, a quart of whole. Bread was another issue. Jack ate white bread, nothing else. Cheap white bread. Her father only liked Pepperidge Farm Rye, which was about two dollars and forty-nine cents for a small loaf. And she and Jack like the small tubs of margarine. Dad was adamant about real butter. Maggie drank an occasional Coors Light; he needed Bud. Bottles. Not those cans. She kept thinking that she was going to need a bigger kitchen. That had never been a problem when her husband had been here.
At last she ventured to the porch doorway, but she would not go in. She thought that she could detect the faint smell of damp rot, coming from that dirty tank or the moldy hoses or probably from the four or five plastic bags of fish that were propped against the cushions of her new loveseat.
“I need to go to the grocery store,” she said, holding up the torn envelope that the list was scribbled on as evidence.
Jack jumped off the loveseat and karate-chopped the air. The fish bags rolled and sloshed. “Get Fruity Pebbles!”
“Dad, will you be all right with him if I go do that? For like an hour or so?”
He pulled a wet arm out of the tank and looked at his watch. “Well, are you going back out after that?”
“After the grocery store? No, I wasn’t planning on it.” For some reason she looked back at the clock on the microwave oven. It was six-thirty. “Why?”
Her father shrugged. He picked up a plastic plant and turned to bury it in the bottom of the tank. “I was hoping I might be able to catch a ride to the Elks.”
He hadn’t been driving since the stroke. He got rides back and forth from the Elks Club and the racetrack, usually from his wife, sometimes from his buddy Sherm June. Since he moved in with Maggie and Jack just before Christmas, he had been to the Elks only once, the afternoon of Christmas Eve, with Sherm. Just once in over two weeks. Maggie asked if she was going to have to pick him up as well, but he said no, said that Sherm was probably already there, and even if he wasn’t, there were plenty of other guys who would be willing to give him a lift. So she took him. It was a little out of the way, fifteen or twenty minutes down Route 19 and through the traffic of the square, but she had to admit it would be good to get him out of the house for a while.
Jack helped carry the smaller grocery bags into the house, helped unload them too. He liked doing chores, liked being a big boy. Maggie fixed him macaroni and cheese and then let him watch a couple of shows while she nibbled on a salad. At nine she put him to bed. Because he had slept late today he gave a bit of a fuss, but nothing too serious, just a mild resistance. He was a good boy. Even in his protest he let her dress him in his pajamas and lift him to the bed.
“No fooling around, Jackie, okay? You’re getting up early for school tomorrow.”
“Maybe it will snow some more,” he said in between two wide yawns.
“No, no snow tomorrow.”
“Is the mailman coming tomorrow?”
She knew what he was getting at. The mail hadn’t come this morning because of the snow, and Jack had been checking for a package from his father every day the minute he got home from school. They hadn’t seen each other this Christmas (Big Jack hadn’t returned from Roanoke since Maggie’s mother’s funeral in October), but he had been calling his son weekly, or close to weekly. Maggie had called him one afternoon about a week before Christmas and reminded him that the holiday was only a week away, and even though he was too selfish a father to come see his son, he damn well better not let the poor kid down by not sending a present. Not if he wanted to live, he better not. The next day he called Jackie and asked him what he wanted for Christmas, then told him to keep a close eye on the mailbox. Now January second had come and gone.
Maggie cleared her throat. “Yes, he’ll be here tomorrow.”
“Will you ask him if he has my present from my–”
“Yes, yes, don’t worry. I’ll talk to him. I’ll make sure he brings it.” She swept a shock of his brown hair off his forehead and kissed him between the eyes.
“I’ll take care of it.”
She took a long hot shower. That was her custom — get Jack to sleep and then take a nice long meditative shower. She decided to call her husband in the morning and ream him out. That present better show up soon, that was for sure. Two or three more days of this nonsense, and she swore to God she was going to give her Uncle Jimmy a call and have that asshole’s legs broken. Special delivery long distance from Massachusetts.
Truth was, she wouldn’t do that. For one thing she didn’t know Uncle Jimmy that well, nor did she actually know what kind of connections he had. It was all just a big family rumor, really. More realistically, she decided as hot spikes of water beat her shoulders and back, she would yell at Jack for a while and call him a dumb prick and then go out to the toy store and buy something herself, wrap it and stuff it in the mailbox for Jackie to find when he got home from school.
Jack wasn’t a good father. There was never any big secret about that. He’d been a fun boyfriend and even an okay husband, more or less, but it was clear to Maggie almost from the time her pregnancy began to show that Jack wasn’t cut out to be much of a father. He let her handle everything, everything that had to do with the baby. Feeding, changing, holding, playing. Maybe it wasn’t entirely his fault — he had always worked long and hard to pay for what they had, worked a second job so she could stay home to be with the baby. Not to mention the fact that he himself had been an only child and really hadn’t even so much as held a little baby before his own son was born. But none of that mattered now. She didn’t need to make excuses for him anymore. He was long gone.
She wished she had realized that about him before. Maybe she had known it, or suspected it but was too busy being seduced by his motorcycle and hard partying. Even their wedding day had been one gigantic party. To this day people tell her that it was the best wedding they had ever been to. Maybe it had been the four hours of open bar, or the singer of the band that stepped from tabletop to tabletop, or maybe it was the way the night ended, after all the older people had gone home and the rest of them went skinny-dipping in the ocean. Jack certainly liked to have fun. Even more so, he liked to make sure everyone else was having fun.
For their honeymoon they went to St. Thomas and had the time of their lives. The big thing to do down there was to go snorkeling, that’s what all the other newlyweds were doing. Jack, though, wanted to take it one step further. So they took scuba diving lessons in the weeks before the wedding and went diving to some of the most amazing coral reefs in the world. She was apprehensive but trusted Jack, and the payoff was amazing. They had such a good time that they returned there to celebrate their one-year anniversary and did it all again.
She stuck her head under the harsh spray of water and let it hammer her hair flat over her eyes. She blindly knocked the faucet over a notch, a little hotter.
St. Thomas had been six years ago. They told each other that they wanted to spend every anniversary right there, on the beach and in the ocean. But a year later she was six months pregnant with Jack. It was the last vacation she had ever been on.
Thinking of the coral reef made her think of fish — her father’s fish. That goddamn fish tank aquarium thing. She sat down on the shower floor, as she always did when she was finished washing, hugging her knees and letting the water machine-gun the top of her head and face. She tried not to think about the fish, because she was nice and calm, feeling good, enjoying the best part of her day right here, right now, and please don’t ruin it by dwelling on those stupid fish. She tried to look at the bright side. Jackie liked them; he was getting a kick out of them. Maybe that was good enough.
But by tomorrow or the next day he’d be bored with them. She knew that. It was the law of children. No attention span whatsoever. Exciting today and old news tomorrow. And her father was the same way. Taking up these stupid hobbies on a whim, just because some old drunk was drooling on the bar about his fucking masterpiece of an aquarium. She’d end up taking care of them; she knew she would. She’d end up being the one to feed them and clean the tank and all that shitty stuff. She felt herself getting tense in the shoulders, felt herself clutching her knees a little too hard.
She put her head back, opened her mouth, let it fill with water. Trying to calm down. She ran her fingertips along the tops of her wet shins to determine just how badly she needed to shave her legs. It had been several days. But they were in the dead middle of winter, and all she wore were long pants. Maybe she could put it off another day. Why not? She rolled her wrists and squeezed her calves, rubbing them. She had not had sex since…since when? Since before Jack moved away. Must have been several weeks before he moved, which was sometime last April probably. Thirty-four years old and utterly and completely celibate. She was in the prime of her life, wasn’t she? She should’ve been getting laid every single day.
And in fact she had only actually been out — really out, out with the girls — once, last August. Jack had been gone for a couple of months and showed no signs of hating his job and coming back, and no signs of sending for the two of them. It was time to start realizing that they were on a certain and unavoidable collision course with divorce. So her girlfriends took her out, to have a few drinks, do some dancing, act silly. Her mother was not doing well at all, either. She had been hospitalized for three weeks and the bedside vigil had begun.
Of course, she got completely caught up in the moment, shit-faced even. She met a guy, too — not bad looking, fairly tall and broad-shouldered with a newscaster’s wave of sandy blond hair. His name was Mark…Mark? Mike? Mike. His name was Mike, and they danced and talked, danced and talked, leaning over the bar shoulder to shoulder while he fed her drinks, and she tried not to sweat too much with all the dancing. Outside, after closing, they stood making out against the door of her car. She wanted to take him home, forget about everything and just take him home and have some goddamn fun for once. But there was a babysitter at the house, probably sitting on her couch talking on the phone and watching Saturday Night Live. She couldn’t very well stagger home with this stranger. And what about the morning? What happens when it’s morning and Jack wakes up? What would she do? Sneak Mike — or Mark — out the window? All these thoughts, burning behind her eyes like film stuck in the projector, sitting right behind her sinuses. She had suddenly felt the pulse of a headache, and she stopped kissing him. She planted her palms against his shoulders and took a good look at him, deciding if she should call this off. He couldn’t have been any older than twenty-five. Practically just a kid. Her girlfriends took her home, and she downed four Tylenol and curled up in the corner of the bed, as she always did, leaving three quarters of it empty. That was the last time she went out.
She got out of the shower and dried off, wrenching her face tight as she tried to forget it all. That was one bad thing about taking long showers — it made her think too much. The phone chirped with its annoying ring, and that jerked her from the memory once and for all. She considered letting the machine pick it up, but then, like always, she worried that it was something important. Especially this late at night. So she pulled the towel tight around her torso and, her skin still beaded with water, danced out on her tiptoes to answer it.
“Hi, is this Maggie?”
She had no idea who this was. It was a woman with a voice that sounded like cigarettes. “Yes. This is she.”
“Hi there. This is Paula Dell, from the club.”
Maggie turned to the wall and clamped a palm against her ear. “The club?”
“Paula from the Elks. The bartender.”
“Your father’s down here, and I think he’s going to need a ride home.”
Maggie closed her eyes and tried to imagine the smoky and grim barroom that she had never seen. “Is … is Sherm there? His friend Sherm June?”
“Nope. No one’s here, hon, just me and your Dad. I’m about ready to lock up and he’s sitting here by himself. He’s a little bit drunk. Pretty damn drunk, actually.”
She chuckled, and Maggie, despite finding nothing funny about it whatsoever, returned the chuckle, phony as it must have sounded.
She told the woman she’d be right down and then returned to the bathroom to scrub her hair dry with a towel the best she could. The mirror looked fogged over, and she swiped the towel across it, realizing mid-swipe that it was not the mirror at all, it was her eyes. She blinked the heaviness away and caught the tears with the towel before having to admit that they were real.
Jack didn’t want to wake up, protesting the entire time, head lolling as she tried to drag his dead weight off the bed. “Come on, honey, just sit up and let me put your boots on.”
He collapsed against her shoulder, smacking his lips with a cry hiccupping in his throat. Maggie wriggled a boot onto his foot and smacked the bottom of it, making sure it was on all the way. Jack started to cry in earnest now, and she realized that she was probably being a little rough with him. She made herself take a breath and then put on his other boot more slowly.
“Where we going?”
She looked at him and his eyes were still closed, his cheek squished against her side.
“We’ve got to go get Grampa.”
Jack sighed, picked his head up, blinked. His hair was sticking up all over the place and there was a dry crust of drool curling from the side of his mouth to his cheek. “We hafta go get Grampa?”
She threw her coat on and then, next to the front door, went down to one knee and bundled Jack — ski parka, hat, mittens. He whined and yawned and rubbed the back of a mitten across his eyes. His face looked like it was sinking, gravity tugging it down into a long, tired frown. Maggie picked him up into a bear hug, letting out a strained groan. He was a big kid, and she hardly ever picked him up like this anymore. They went out the door and down the walk, Maggie thrusting her head forward, trying to watch where she was walking, careful not to slip on the ice.
She buckled Jack into the back seat of the cold car and started it. She wished she had brought a blanket and thought about running back in to get one, but didn’t. Just get this over with, she thought. She yanked the door shut and went to throw the gearshift into reverse, then realized that the front windshield was iced over. She started to say “fuck” but stopped herself, biting on her bottom lip and letting out a long “ffffff” instead.
She gave the horn a couple short toots in front of the Elks. There was a light on inside but all the beer signs that crammed the windows were dark. There was one car in the parking lot, probably the bartender’s. Maggie wiped her bare hand across the side window, making a clear thin streak that she could see out of, and watched the front door. Jack was breathing with the long, slow breaths of sleep, and she was glad for that. She beeped the horn again, quick, not wanting to wake him. “Come on, Dad, come on.”
Minutes passed, and now she was getting even more pissed. She wouldn’t put up with this nonsense, there was just no way. She had a son for Christ’s sake, she was a single mother with a five-year-old son, and she didn’t have the time or energy to be a full-time babysitter for a seventy-three-year-old man. She looked back at Jack, sleeping with his head leaning awkwardly to the side. Then back at the door to the club.
With a groan, she shouldered the door open and ducked out into the wind and cold. This was unacceptable. She ran to the front door, shielding her left cheek and ear from the wind, and decided that she was going to give Dad an earful, drunk or not, he was going to hear it. And then, first thing tomorrow, she was calling her brothers in California and telling them that they were going to have to fight it out and decide who was taking him. Because it wasn’t going to be her.
Paula, the bartender, was sitting at the bar with a cigarette in her fingers, counting money. Her father was two seats down from her, his coat on and arms folded across his belly. The Jukebox was playing Buddy Holly, and the place smelled just like her father. Beer and stale smoke. What the hell did he see in this place? It was dark and the ceiling was low and water-stained. On each end of the bar were low-hanging chandeliers made out of deer antlers. Maggie couldn’t wait to get back out.
The bartender looked at her and winked, then looked to her father. Maggie nodded a hello and came up behind him, putting her hands easily onto his shoulders. “Dad,” she said.
He twitched and moved his hands to the lip of the bar and craned his head around to see her. “Oh, hi, sweetie.” He looked over at the bartender, then back to Maggie. “What’re you doing here?”
“Taking you home, come on.” She swiveled the barstool around and helped him to his feet.
“Goodnight, Rudy,” the bartender said without looking up from counting change. “See you tomorrow, love?”
Her father let Maggie lead him. He lifted his hand in a half-wave. “Yep, ‘night.”
When she got home the house felt cold, so she nudged the thermostat up to seventy. Jack and her father were both zombies in the car, slipping in and out of sleep. Maggie managed to get Jack back into bed without a fuss. She doubted he’d even remember it in the morning. “Goodnight, honey. Love you.”
She gave him another kiss, on the cheek this time, and held it there until his cheek turned warm.
She kicked her shoes into the front closet and went into the kitchen looking for a beer. There weren’t any Coors Lights left so she took one of her father’s Bud bottles. Tasted a little bitter, but she got it down. There was a small racket coming from down the hall, from her father’s room, so she went to investigate. She found him sitting on the edge of his bed, really just the guest bed, single-sized with a mattress about twenty years old. He was trying to reach his shoe. He had managed to pop one of them off with the toes of his other foot, but now couldn’t get the other one. Since the stroke he’d had a hard time bending. Maggie remembered that her mother had helped dress and undress him every day, and she suddenly wondered how he had been doing it for himself these last months.
She knelt at the foot of the bed without saying a word and wiggled the loafer off, then continued to peel off his socks. His shirt was already off, his soft belly resting on his belt buckle, his concave chest full of hairs that had long ago gone white. His cane was lying across the top of the bed, and she picked it up and hung it on the bedpost. He hadn’t unpacked anything at all, she realized. His clothes were stuffed in cardboard boxes on the floor. Another box was full of books and magazines. Even his ceramic horse, the one of the racehorse, whatever his name was, Seattle Slew or something, was lying sideways on a pile of clothes in a box. In fact, looking around the small room, the one and only thing that he had bothered to unpack was a framed photograph that was planted on his otherwise bare nightstand. Even from this far away she recognized what it was. It was her mother and father in Vegas, probably five years ago, before his stroke and before she was diagnosed with cancer. She’d seen the picture a thousand times over at the house, sitting on the mantle on the fireplace. They were in front of the fountains at Caesar’s Palace, arm and arm, smiling with tanned faces, squinting in the sun. His arm was clutched hard around her shoulder, while both of hers were around his waist, fingers interlocked.
Maggie stood and looked at the picture from the other side of the bed while her father hobbled over to one of the boxes and pulled out a pair of wrinkled purple sweatpants. She blinked and looked over at him. “Let me give you a hand, Dad.”
“No, no, I got it, sweetie. I can manage.” He sat back on the edge of the bed, sighing.
“Yeah, I’m sure.” He held the sweatpants up in front of him and eyeballed them with a slight drunken sway, making sure that he had them going the right way.
“Okay then,” Maggie said. She watched him for another minute before picking up her beer and backing to the door. “Tomorrow I’ll help you get this stuff unpacked and put away, all right? You’ve got this nice big dresser right here, might as well use it.”
Her father nodded, glancing at her before going back to the sweatpants. “All right, Mag.”
She said goodnight and then backed out, easing the door shut behind her. As soon as it was closed, she thought that she should have kissed him. She used to kiss him hello and goodbye when visiting, but not any longer, not now that they were roommates. She listened to him struggle through the door, but it sounded like he was getting the job done. Then she sipped her beer and went back down the hall to the kitchen. The overhead light was on above the breakfast bar, and she went to sit down to flip through the pile of bills that had been accumulating these last few days, but she stopped. Instead, she took her beer over to the porch, where, through the dark, she could just barely make out the smooth, silvery motion of the fish, appearing and vanishing again in quick flashes in the dark, like shooting stars.
She leaned in the doorway, twirling the beer bottle slightly and listening to it slosh. The porch didn’t smell yet, that was a plus. At least it had nice big windows. Once spring arrived, she’d be able to crack them open and keep the place aired out. She finished the beer and put it down on the table behind her, and stepped into the room. There was a small wooden chair in front of the tank, Jack’s desk chair. It was too small for her to sit in so she knelt on it instead with one knee. When she reached to the back of the tank and found the light switch, the tank blinked alive with fluorescent light, and the fish scattered.
The filter was running, and there was a soothing hum emitting from the pump.
Bubbles rolled from the filter and popped on the surface. The fish calmed down again and resumed their lazy motion, drifting through the water in small packs, the neon tetras huddling close, the two angelfish following one another, some other little black things with pink bellies poking their heads into the low corners of the tank, looking for a way out. Maggie rested her elbow on her knee and caught her chin in her hand. It was a nice looking aquarium, she had to admit. Looked kind of like the coral reef she used to swim around. It was tough to imagine that the cruddy old tank could have turned out like this.
Maybe he had the right idea. Maybe that’s what you had to do, maybe you had to just keep busy and do the best you can. She knew this wasn’t what he wanted any more than she did. None of them had planned it this way.
Maggie found the small container of fish food on the windowsill behind the tank, and she reached for it. Her father told her not to feed them because they were only supposed to eat once a day. He had said it just to be a ballbuster because he knew that she hated the fish and wouldn’t be going anywhere near them. He laughed when he said it and poked her ass with his cane, but she didn’t even look at him.
She took a pinch of food and crumbled it over the surface of the water, and watched the fish wriggle out of their hiding places and come drifting to the surface. The six Lemondrops came out from behind the plants, moving in unison, interested. They were clear, she realized, almost entirely clear with little swaths of bright yellow painting their backs. Maggie smiled behind her hand. Jack was right, they did look like candy.
“A Scattering of Lemondrops” Copyright ©2004 by Sean Conway.
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