Nath Jones
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Norma L.

The farm road ended somewhere not too pretty, though sometimes lit well by the rising and setting of the sun. That road got a handful of people home. It could kill your suspension if you weren’t careful there where that low-bid oiled rectangle dropped down off a silent section of county highway. After that dip it was one of those head-straight-into-the-horizon roads that made a right angle around an old abandoned brick schoolhouse, and then again at a hog farm. A country graveyard nestled itself between corn and Queen Anne’s lace, right at an S-curve. The best part of the drive was where it rose over a weedy sunset-drenched hump of railroad tracks overgrown with royal catchfly and milkweed.

Only two or three people made the drive, downshifting as much for control as to be respectful of the neighbors, crunching gravel slowly enough to hear mourning doves and the pleas of song sparrows piercing bluejoint beard grass. That little road’s last stretch ended right in the shadow of a brick-faced duplex, apartments one on top of the other. Parked there under a few isolated oak trees on the final muddy mossy pitch were two cars: a black matte Corvette and a light blue Buick four-door. That Buick must have just been washed. It had those polish circles. The Corvette—God—that Corvette sat covered in three years of oak bits and dust motes.

It was a little after eight o’clock at night. Under a yellow bulb, a door lit by reflected moth wings led into the lower apartment. Over on the side of the building, in an even deeper shadow, an old wet set of wooden stairs rose up to Norma L.’s apartment.

She was sixty-two, had quit smoking but it didn’t seem to matter. Emphysema, COPD, hacking cough—airways always acting up in July’s heat and humidity. On this night it wasn’t too bad, not so much tree pollen in the air. But she was fine to just sit at her dinner table waiting. She’d prepared dinner, nicer than usual for their wedding anniversary, and she stared at a brass candlestick. It was vibrating. She tried to ignore it. She remembered pleasant things seen and done, but those vibrations kept her in the present. She willed herself to concentrate lovingly on her favorite great aunt who had given them the candlesticks as a wedding present.

She hardly could.

The phone rang and in another of their thirty-eight years’ of every-evening phone calls someone more than familiar said, “Almost home, sweetie. Had a spill right as I was leaving.”

She said almost nothing to him, definitely didn’t say a word about the boy downstairs playing his loud music again. She set the phone back down—it was always right there by her elbow—and ignored the vibrations of the candlestick like she ignored her irritation at the music’s effect on a pleasant summer evening, ignored magazine covers and headlines about kids, valiant maybe, but just kids. Ignored it all.

She picked up the worn deck of playing cards that was always by her other elbow now that the ashtrays weren’t there. She laid out a tableau for solitaire and turned her mind backwards. Back on an old white dress that was still hanging in the cedar closet. Back to a pair of real silk pantyhose that had been the wrong size. Back to nervous, unwrinkled hands holding on to each other at an altar. She flipped the playing cards, scooping one up with another, laying another down on top. She opened the years and arranged them beginning with the ace in ascending order in her mind. But memories didn’t hold her interest long. What good were they? Her fingers moved out to the base of the rattling candlestick.

He was so angry, this kid downstairs. He was just nothing but spite and rage now, and who could blame him? But. God. It’s not how he’d been. The chair vibrated. And her elbows vibrated where she leaned on the table. Her chin vibrated where she leaned her chin in her hands.

Standing in the open doorway, having overcome the stairs, her husband said, “He’s at it again, huh?”

“For two hours.”

Mr. L. came in but was already distracted, bent over, fixing the kind of little striped rug so often defeated by the opening of doors. “Well I was going to say there was a spill, which would have been my excuse to make it to the florist and get here just a few minutes late. But then there really was a spill, and so I had to clean that up, before I got over to the florist. They were closed so I had to go around back and pound on the loading dock door. Frank understood. And he already had that bunch ready for me anyway, and I had cash for him. But we talked for a few minutes. Maybe ten. All told, it made me more than late. So. I’m sorry.” This was all explained to the floor and the arrangement of the little rug. Turning to his wife Mr. L. said, “Happy anniversary.” He tried not to yawn as he handed her a white and pink bouquet, mainly tulips.

Moving across the old linoleum, he forgot to kiss her and was already lifting pot lids on the stove—sniffing at the mashed potatoes, poking broccoli with a nearby fork—and snooping in the oven to see how the roast was coming. It was done. Just resting there, waiting for him. “Smells good, Mom.”

Their kids were scattered. Two of them had called dutifully first thing in the morning, made a point of it, put their own kids on the phone and all that. The third barely knew his own birthday let alone his parents’ anniversary. It was fine. Maybe they’d all be there for the fortieth. Norma didn’t care too much for big events like that though. She hated having to justify plane tickets and rental cars. She’d say, “Just come.” They didn’t ever hear it. So she stopped saying it. This kid downstairs was between the ages of their children and grandchildren. They had enjoyed getting to know him over the past ten years, probably mattered more than he should.

Mr. L. stood in the middle of the room vibrating himself, then making a little joke of it, exaggerating it head-to-foot. He looked at his wife (who resisted giving him a smile) and said, “I could go down and say something to him.”

“Don’t you dare. You’ve got no right. He pays his rent, and you’re not his daddy.”

“Fine. ‘Cause those stairs nearly killed me just now. My knees are—well, what we should have done was rent the top out too and just move into town.”

“Affects the taxes.”

The cicadas were still going.

“Well those stairs are taxing me half to death. It was one thing with us on the bottom and the kid up here. But between his god-awful ugly choice of posters on the wall, hung so low on the walls they breaks my heart, and those stairs, I just don’t know how long this arrangement’ll hold up. What are we gonna do when the stairs freeze? You want a new hip for Christmas?”

“Don’t think that way. Those stairs are doing you a service. You’ve lost at least five pounds. Good for your heart.”

“It’s good for my memory too. ‘Cause I’ll tell you. I don’t forget anything in the truck anymore. I sit there thinking long and hard about what needs to go up, and I take what of it I can carry. If I do end up forgetting something? Forget it.”

She laughed. “Stop, you old crank. I’ve made you a nice dinner, now, and the least you can do is sit down and enjoy it.”

“Need a shower or I won’t feel right. I know you’ve been waiting. Will she keep another twenty minutes?”

“She’ll have to.”

He was gone.

She opened the green tissue paper and cut the three rubber bands. Free, the greenery rolled over itself on the drainboard. Tulips thick-folded in their own leaves tried not to bloom just yet. Lanky rose stems seemed unnatural stripped of their thorns. The sweetness of the lily of the valley offered a little relief. She cut stems to fit her favorite vase while her feet vibrated from the kid’s music. She sighed and hesitated with scissors opened around a thick stem, the water running. Her eyes filled with tears—why did it have to be him?—and she cut the stem as quickly as she could.

But then she’d done it and gasped, overtaken by how easy it was to slice right through. She left the rest of the stems alone. The bouquet was like a staircase half the right height and half too tall.

Norma L. didn’t want to see this young man as fragile as a flower stem. She wanted to believe what he believed about himself, what he’d gone off with, that invincibility.

Giving up arranging, she sat down and stared at the television. The couch vibrated. Mr. L. came out from the tiny bathroom dressed nicely and stood near the television combing his hair. He pulled out his shirt and re-tucked it, loosening the belt one notch. He was vibrating.

Pretended not to be.

Mrs. L. used her favorite old lighter on the candles and ambled over to the wall switch. The blue evening outside seemed so calm compared with the downstairs racket. She flipped off the overhead light and came back to the dinner table slowly, forgetting to look her husband in the eye.

He didn’t care. He pulled out the chair for his wife. She sat down and smoothed a napkin across her lap. Mr. L. patted her shoulders with both hands and kissed the top of her head. “My blue-eyed bride.”

Norma didn’t say anything about cataracts or glaucoma, let him have his romance for the moment.

He stood behind her and yawned, then sat down next to her, tented his fingers, and looked at the flowers. “Seems like Frank does a nice job, but, sorry, I guess I should have got there before the shop closed. This bunch looks all cockeyed somehow.”

“Frank did not sell you cockeyed flowers. I just only cut half the stems to fit the vase.”

“Why not cut them all?”

It was that unfortunate truth about their neighbor, the one split second that changed his whole life. But she didn’t admit it. It wasn’t like any of them would be trooping down any proud parade route with the Knights of Columbus. “I just couldn’t.”

Mr. L. suppressed another yawn but didn’t ask his wife for further explanation. He knew it was the kid’s whole ordeal. “Yeah.”

The candlesticks vibrated on the table. Light danced on the ceiling. They sat without serving each other. Norma said, “He’s always up. I read about it. It’s called hyperarousal.”

“I’ll show you hyperarousal.”

It was like he hadn’t even said it. She mused on, “It’s a part of it. Can’t sleep. Can’t concentrate. Always on the lookout, like something’s about to happen. Damn scared animal under the gun. Probably wasn’t a fan of Fourth of July, fireworks and that.” She touched the tiniest flower on the lily of the valley. “Remember Aunt Ginny?”

“Yeah. She was something. Good Christian.”

“Nobody ever knew it.”

“Best kind.”

“Yeah.” She laughed again. There they were, those flowers. “So you thought Frank sold you some bum arrangement for my anniversary, huh? He wouldn’t dare. He’d be out of business quick. Anniversary flowers is about all he does sell. And funeral flowers, I guess. But Lord, it’s not quite time to start saving money for those.” She got caught in the sweetness and hell of seeing the kid half cut down in the bouquet. “What were you going on about with that Viagra commercial you were auditioning for a minute ago?”

This time it was like she hadn’t even said it.

“Some things can’t be helped. The spill held me up.”

She said, “You tired?”

“Might just be the heat. Shower helped.”

They sat together with their memories of those years, each of them staring at a vibrating candlestick.

At some point the cicadas had stopped.

“We’ve been through more than our share together, wouldn’t you say, Mom?”

“More than a bit.” Norma swept the deck of cards into her hands again, just her habit to hold something after years of cigarettes.

The ceramic salt and pepper shakers on the back of the stove vibrated.

“Mom,” Mr. L. was cautious. “I could ask him for an hour. It’s your anniversary. You deserve to have some peace in your own home.”

“And he doesn’t?” The moths by the downstairs door swirled around the aluminum-shaded bulb. Aspirants of their kind bumped up against the upstairs windows. “He’s just a kid.”

“Don’t I know that much? But I’m just an old man. And you’re just an old woman.”

“I’m not just anything.”

They laughed.

She picked up his plate to begin serving. They looked at each other and vibrated. She put the plate back on the table and stood. Her husband took her by the hand, walked her to the door, and they made their way slowly, one in front of the other, down the damp mossy set of outside stairs. They stood at the bottom looking at the oak trunks in the last bit of daylight.

Norma pointed toward the flat spot of the drive. “Thanks for washing my car.”

“Wasn’t quite warm enough for the wax. Streaked some. But she still looks good between his sorry old Vette and my beat-up old truck.”

“That Vette’s not old at all.”

“It’s looked a hell of a lot better than it does now.”

“Maybe you could wash it for him. Take it and get it cleaned up a bit.”

“Not until he asks me to. Not my place. And even if he does it might not run.”

“It’ll run.” She knew it would. It had to. Before he went overseas the kid had been so much more than their neighbor, always checking on them, telling them some crazy stories from work, never once making it seem like he was doing a couple of old people a favor, just a friend looking out, checking in. And now what? He wasn’t even twenty-two and his biggest fears were just like theirs, blood clots and curtailed independence. Blackness surrounded them now, except where the moths swarmed. She reached her free hand up into the swirl of soft wingbeats. Moths avoided her. Disappointed, she dropped her hand, looked at the Corvette’s curves again. “He did drive that thing crazy, didn’t he?”

“What a fool he was. Remember when he drove it right into that old cemetery? When was that?” Mr. L. laughed.

Norma laughed too. Mr. L. retold the familiar story at the edge of the moth light. “Five years. Must be at least. God. Wait. Maybe only three. So much has happened. Whenever it was, here he came running up the lane and just pounding on that door there shouting. ‘Mr. L., get the winch. Get the winch and bring the dually!’”

That night of outstripped limits, innocence, and shock roared back to their hearts. Mr. L. went on. “He was scared shitless. Hadn’t had a thing to drink. Just took that gravel corner too quick, and don’t you know he cleared the ditch completely, he told me, and ran that damned Vette all into that old pack of graves.”

Mr. L. had joyful tears in his eyes reliving it. “I got the winch and the dually and you were out there in your rollers with the deer light. Remember, Mom?”

She was smiling and nodding.

“I’ll never forget that kid’s face. He loved that car and he was just trying to figure out how to get the chain on the fender to pull it out. He couldn’t do it at all. Shaking so hard. I had to do it for him. Remember? Oh Lord, what a night. And remember after all that, the three of us looking at those gravestones after we finally got the car out on the road? Remember?”

Norma L. took over the story, “Don’t I ever. We were so concerned getting the car out I don’t think it crossed our minds about those headstones. But his face when he realized it? Oh my God.”

Mr. L. reclaimed the story. “He just started pulling up those damned stones trying to put them to rights.”

“Wouldn’t have mattered. That marble with the burnt rubber tire tracks on it would have stood out more standing up than laying down anyway.”

“But he did try his damnedest, didn’t he?”

“He’s a good kid.”

“I know.” The lines of the bark on the oak trunks disappeared into the night.

“Remember him that next week?”

Norma L.’s snickering broke into a raucous reaction. She leaned against the house from laughing so hard. “Him talking his way out of trouble at that historical society meeting. I will never forget that. All dressed up. Where’d he ever find that tie he was wearing anyway?”

“I never did know. It wasn’t mine. He probably went and bought it special. He’s just as proper as they come.”

“Except when he’s plowing down gravestones.”

“Yeah. Except then. But remember that historical society panel—like a damn congressional hearing that was. That poor boy just trying to make it right.”

“Just nodding away. Yes sir. No ma’am. So proper.”

“I think he volunteered hisself for about a thousand hours of community service too.”

“Worked half of them in that patch of gravestones. I’ve never seen so many holly bushes planted in such a small plot.”

“Yeah? Where’d he get all those? And the bulbs. How many damned paper whites does one cemetery need?”

“Not that many. That’s for sure.”

They straightened up and didn’t try to point out stars to one another through the oaks’ leaves. Instead they wrapped their arms around each other’s waists and approached the first floor door together. They didn’t want to be in the moth light. They wanted a more covered and concealed route to the entryway. Mr. L. pulled out a little LED flashlight on his keychain and drew a heart on the kid’s door with the light. Norma L. leaned her head on her husband’s shoulder, still remembering how earnest the kid was through it all.

Mr. L. squeezed his wife and knocked loudly on the vibrating door.

The stereo clicked off. The stairs stopped vibrating. Quiet spread out over blue bean fields, turning into sustenance somehow. Mr. and Mrs. L. couldn’t quite hear the moth wings lighting the doorway, with their interminable soft, beating radiance.

Inside, the kid maneuvered to the door. They heard him coming. They braced themselves. The trees merged into the sky as the day’s last blue drained away. There were metal noises on the other side of the door. Mr. L. shut his eyes, letting the darkness merge with him as well. And Norma L. smiled a sort of hesitation and hoped the moths weren’t too near her hair.

The door opened and Mr. L.’s eyes caught right up.

He said, “Hey, kid. Want a bite to eat?”

The kid backed his wheelchair out of the doorway, inviting them in. They came through and positioned themselves at either side of the entrance. Mr. L. stepped further inside, looking left and right, scanning the room. He stooped down a bit, swept his flashlight beam across the floor for the kid’s cat to chase. He shined the light in the far corners of the room, pointing out the changes for his wife without the kid even knowing. Norma L. stood firm with her back to the wall. She kept her gaze high, picked up what her husband indicated to her with the seemingly meaningless cat-play. He’d already assessed the familiar size and shape of the room. Her philodendron on top of the refrigerator had died. She was careful not to pepper the kid or her husband with nervous chatter.

She provided immediate security. “It’s our—well, we just haven’t had a chance to cook for you since you’ve been back. We thought tonight was as good a night as any. You like pot roast?”

“Pot roast? I knew it. Smelled it all afternoon cooking. Some kind of celebration dinner, huh? Thought it was Mr. L.’s birthday. But it’s a surprise for me?”

Norma nodded.

“Thanks. Thanks a lot, Mrs. L.” The kid looked at his stereo and then shifted in his chair. “Does my music ever bother you guys?”

“Not at all. I don’t even hear it.” She turned to her husband, “Do you ever hear it, dear?”

“Nope. This is an old building. Sturdy. Not thin walls like these new places.”

They’d gained the foothold.

Mr. L. turned off his flashlight, dropped it back into his pocket.

She forced a smile. Finding that ineffective, she raised her eyebrows to enforce some kind of brightness on her face. She looked at the kid. “Do you mind if I set up the table?”

“Come on in. You know where everything is. It’s your house.”

They moved toward the table. The kid said, “I’m trying not to nick it, it’s so pretty. I stay away from it with the chair. I’m still not a pro in this thing.”

Mr. L. put his hand on the speaker that had been reverberating the whole place. He pushed it away from himself to read the label, let it go, let it fall back into place, and said, “Don’t worry about the table, kid. It’s old as can be. It can take a few lumps.” He picked up a 9-volt battery with a little green piece of plastic on top. He said to the kid, “What’s this?”

“It’s a Phoenix Beacon. It’s for covert marking and positive identification in a hostile environment. The beam can’t be seen with the unaided eye. You need a night vision device. Someone clipped it to my ruck.”

Mr. L. pressed it a few times. “Is it on?”

“Maybe.” The kid said, “Might have saved my life.”

Down the hall, in the linen closet, Mrs. L. found her own mother’s favorite tablecloth still folded carefully on an upper shelf. She forgave the disorder on the lower shelves, where wrinkled towels, half-used bottles of cologne and well-worn earphones were piled in an accessible jumble behind that small door. Back in the room, smiling self-consciously, she spread out the tablecloth, made several trips up and down the stairs, bringing each dish in turn. The men talked. And since the young man couldn’t offer much assistance they concentrated on other proper things in conversation and pretended it was okay not to help with carrying the dishes down those wet wooden stairs. Mrs. L. made the trips on her own, in her low navy pumps.

The men hovered as Mrs. L. arranged the table. Mr. L. was careful not to block the entrance. The kid said, “It’s so sweet. I wish I could finish something like that. Walnut?”

“Maple.”

Mrs. L. set the flowers in the middle of the table. She wished she had finished arranging them, hated their being two heights. It had been his legs that kept her from cutting the other half of the stems. Those scissor blades around the living things just could not close. But now, God, she wished she had. She couldn’t bear looking at the disparity, hurried to leave again, and let one moth in by accident.

Mr. L. covered for her quickly. “My daddy made that table. I was a kid. Helped him with some of the finishing work. A lot of love in it.”

The kid lifted the tablecloth and ran his hand across the wood. “Maybe I could do that. Make furniture or something.”

“Sure you could. That garage is half workshop already. We could make a boardwalk through the oaks over to it. Wouldn’t take a weekend to do that. I’ve seen plenty of boardwalks in state parks now. Makes ‘em accessible. I’m sure the plans are online. You could help me figure it.”

“I’ve never really done anything with wood. Just cars or whatever. But it’s hard to lean under the hood now. You know? So maybe wood. Pull it onto my lap, right?”

“Yep. You’re young yet. Plenty of time to learn.” Mr. L. swallowed hard. He still had the Phoenix Beacon in his hand, had been fiddling with it without even realizing it. The kid indicated it with a nod. “It’s got an encodable transmitter on it.” Mr. L. tossed the thing into a coffee mug full of loose change. At the sound, the kid’s cat jumped up onto the little end-table, stuck its nose into the mug, then hopped back down and zipped away to focus fully on that one moth bumping against the ceiling.

Mrs. L. came back with more serving dishes, and took off pieces of foil.

The kid pulled up and slammed his chair against the wood by accident. “I’m so sorry.”

“What’d I say, kid?”

Norma said, “The tablecloth will keep it from marking. Don’t worry about it, honey. Hand me your plate.”

The kid gave them the best of what was left of his own smile. He handed her his plate. As she returned it and both their hands were on it, he said, “It happened in Mosul.”

Norma L. let go.

Mr. L. said, “Well, you’re home now.” Hand on the nearest shoulder.

The cock-eyed flowers, the Phoenix Beacon, the moth, Mr. and Mrs. L. and the kid filled up the room before retracting .

The kid fidgeted with the wheelchair brake. “Your candlesticks are real pretty Mrs. L.”

“Thank you. They were a wedding gift from my Great Aunt Ginny.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah.”

“How long you guys been married?”

“Thirty-eight years tod—thirty-eight years.”

“Wow. That’s a long time.”

The kid put the napkin in his lap. Mrs. L.’s eyes filled with tears. She stared hard at the flowers, forcing her tears into submission. She smiled pleasantly but had to convince her eyebrows to pull everything up hopeful again as she did her best to keep her mind out from under the table. She didn’t want to be confronted by that contemptible truth of his wheelchair.

The kid said, “I’m sorry you gotta climb those stairs now, Mr. L. I know your knees are bad.”

“My knees are just fine. And it’s good for the heart, kid.” He looked down at his plate, took up his knife and fork, sat up as straight as he could, leaned in, gave a quiet-quick wink to his wife, and cut the pot roast.

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Best New American Voices nominee Nath Jones received an MFA in creative writing from Northwestern University. Her publishing credits include PANK Magazine, There Are No Rules, and Sailing World. She lives and writes in Chicago.