By Sandra Carey Cody
“To contemplate is to look at shadows.” Victor Hugo
I promised myself I would go home when the shadow of the water tower touched the bench where I was sitting. Then I would deal with it. Just a few more inches. Okay, time’s up. I forced my body upright, forced it to turn away from the duck pond and start up the hill, away from the park that marks the beginning of our section of town. We call it Tower Park. In reality, it’s a Mason-Dixon Line, except in this case, the line has little to do with color. Here, it’s all about money, how much you have, and what you do to get it.
I left the sun-filled park and walked toward the giant oaks that shade and shelter our neighborhood. As I climbed the steps to the porch, I saw Mother on the phone in the kitchen, her silhouette a dark shape dissected by the latticework of the window frame. I thought she saw me too, but she turned away so quickly I couldn’t be sure. It wasn’t until later, when I was in my room, that I realized what I’d heard before she put the receiver back in its cradle: “No, I don’t know when she’ll be home.”
I went downstairs to ask her about it. She was chopping vegetables at the counter and didn’t look up when I came in.
“Who was that on the phone?”
She looked away. “The phone? When?”
“I don’t know. Don’t remember.”
“It was just a minute ago.”
She kept on chopping, precise and careful, reducing the unwieldy vegetables into small pieces, all the same size and shape.
I stood next to her so that our shoulders were almost touching. “Who was it, Mom?”
“Um … a wrong number.” When I didn’t say anything, she added with a little laugh, “Probably why I forgot so quickly.”
“But I thought I heard you say …”
She handed me the knife. “You finish this. I need to call your father. See if he’s working late tonight.” Then she was gone.
“How come you didn’t use the phone in here?” I asked when she came back.
I didn’t push. I kept chopping, making a neat hill of broccoli next to a neat hill of carrots next to a neat hill of pepper strips. You couldn’t tell where my mother’s work ended and mine began. I cut some bigger pieces, some irregular shapes. I’d let it wait until dinner.
# # #
“That was Leo on the phone, wasn’t it?”
“I don’t know what you mean.” Mother’s face told me she knew exactly what I meant. Daddy’s expression echoed hers.
“You don’t have to worry,” I told them. “He’s not a boyfriend or anything,”
Neither spoke; they looked at each other across the table, past me, their eyes meeting in wordless communication that left me out though I knew it was about me. I was struck by how much alike they look: same perfect posture, same clear eyes, same sand-colored hair, Mother’s not that much longer than Daddy’s. It was like looking at one of those photographs where a line of trees is reflected in a pond and you see the same image twice with a slight blurring of the edges of one.
Daddy cleared his throat, then spoke in the voice he uses for clients: “Leo? Is that the boy who brought you home last night?”
“You know it is.” I made no attempt to keep the edge off my voice.
“Edie, your father just asked you a simple question.”
“And I just answered him.”
Daddy flashed her a warning look that said, Let me handle this. To me, he said, “I don’t recall seeing him before. How do you know him?”
“I told you last night when I introduced him. He’s in my chemistry class.”
Mother broke in. “That kind doesn’t usually take chemistry.”
“What kind is that?” I couldn’t stand it any longer. I yelled at her. Both of them looked shocked and sat even straighter. Then I felt bad. I knew they didn’t understand what I was feeling. “I’m sorry,” I told Mother. “He is in my chemistry class. What I meant is he’s not different, no special kind, from all the other guys in school.”
She raised one eyebrow, took a sip of water, and wiped her mouth delicately with her napkin. “Why didn’t Mason bring you home?”
“I asked Leo if he would.”
Neither of them said anything, but their eyes met again. Then I heard Daddy’s voice, the sound of it, rising and falling, reasonable and charming, saying the things he always says. I didn’t listen. No need to. I looked straight ahead, out of the dining room, through the foyer, and into the living room. Clear as anything, I could see them as they’d been when I came home last night: seated in twin wingchairs flanking the fireplace, Daddy with the newspaper, Mother browsing through a seed catalogue, reading lamps projecting duplicate images on the floor. Both of them sat absolutely straight-backed; both sets of feet were planted squarely on the Fabriz carpet, the tips of their shoes just at the edge of the pattern. I closed my eyes, remembering Leo’s shoes on the opposite side, with laces held together by a series of knots and threads escaping from a fraying seam.
I realized Daddy’s tone had changed and both of them were looking at me.
“He’s new at school,” I said.
They looked blank, but interested.
I tried to make them understand. “He needs a friend.”
“We all need that,” Mother said.
“Not like Leo does. He’s new. Didn’t know a soul when he came to our school. His father and brothers are working on the new highway. The family moves around a lot.” Daddy looked ready to interrupt so I spoke faster. “He has to work too. Everyone in his family does, but he’s working nights so he can go to school during the day. He wants to graduate. No one in his family ever has, not even from high school.”
They kept looking at me, concern shining out of their eyes. I know how much they love me. Too much. Still, that’s no excuse.
I finally snapped and said what I really wanted to. “You were rude to him. If I ever treated one of your friends like that …” I didn’t have to finish. Their faces showed they knew what they had done.
But Mother’s stubborn. She wasn’t about to admit she was wrong. “I don’t know what you mean,” she said.
“You practically pushed him out the door.”
“I reminded you that it was a school night. That’s all. Surely he must understand that.”
“I had just offered him a Coke.”
She lifted her chin. “It was late.”
“Not that late. If it had been Mason you wouldn’t have minded.”
Daddy changed the subject. “Why wasn’t he working?”
“He had a night off.”
“Where does he work?”
The club. He’s a busboy.”
# # #
Every Friday since I can remember we’ve gone to the Grande Buffet at the club and, always, we sit at the same table by the window overlooking the golf course, always with the same people. I could probably count on my fingers the Fridays nights we’ve missed, not counting two weeks out of every year when we go the Gulf Coast for vacation. And they should probably be counted too since the people who sit at our table at the club go to the same resort for the same two weeks. Mother always reminds me how lucky I am that, even on vacation, I have my friends around me – my friends being the children of her friends. None of them, not my friends or my mother’s, seem to wonder what it would be like to go to the desert for a change, or to see what it is like high up in the mountains. I have never seen an Indian reservation or been to New York or climbed a mountain. Neither has my mother. I’m not sure she knows they exist.
# # #
“Here, Darling.” Mother heaped shrimp on my plate before I had a chance to see what else was on the table. Not that I needed to look. The club always had the same things. I admit the food’s delicious, but predictable. “Consistent, dependable.” Those are my father’s words.
“Mother, please. I can fill my own plate.”
“I’m sorry, Sweetie. It’s just that I know how much you like these. Always have. Since you were a little girl.
“Well, I’m seventeen now.”
She hunched her shoulders and looked at Margaret Nathaniel, her best friend since they were in third grade together. Mrs. Nathaniel is Mason’s mother. I wondered if she knew who drove me home last night. Probably. She and my mother have no secrets. As far as I can tell, they’ve never disagreed about anything, but you should see them across a tennis net from one another – like two starving jungle cats fighting for the last morsel of food. Most times, though, like tonight, they’re in total sync, plotting how the world’s supposed to work.
We were standing there, me trying to get enough space to fill my own plate, when broad, white-clad shoulders backed through the swinging doors from the kitchen.
When Leo turned around, he saw me. The corners of his mouth turned up in the beginning of a smile.
I waved. “Hi.”
Mother moved closer and touched my arm. “Edie.”
The smile froze on Leo’s face.
I shook off her hand and spoke again, a little louder this time. “Hi, Leo.”
He walked to the buffet table without acknowledging my presence, replenished the food trays, then turned back toward the kitchen.
Mother stood, still as a stone except for the tapping of her right foot, her face expressionless.
Mrs. Nathaniel’s eyes darted from me to Leo, wearing the look she and Mother share on the tennis court.
The rest of the room went quiet.
Mason came up and stood next to his mother. I looked to him for help.
His face … I couldn’t tell. He looked cautious and I wasn’t sure if it was because of me or his mother. He was Leo’s friend too. Or so I thought. He didn’t object that day at school when I suggested we invite the newcomer to sit at our lunch table. Now, you’d have thought he’d never seen him before.
This couldn’t be happening. But it was. Someone had to do something. Someone? Me.
I caught up with Leo at the door to the kitchen and reached out to touch him.
He jerked away and pushed the door open. Bright light flooded out, invading the softened luminosity of the dining room.
Almost blinded, I stepped back, but only for a moment. “What’s the matter? Don’t you speak to old friends?” I kept my voice light, but loud enough for others to hear – especially Mason. I wanted him to be ashamed.
Leo rushed into the kitchen without meeting my eyes. The door swung shut behind him.
I stared at it. Dare I follow?
Daddy made the decision for me. I felt his hand on my elbow and didn’t protest when he steered me back to our table. He didn’t say anything, but his lips formed a straight, thin line that I knew all too well.
We left early. The drive home was hushed, far different from the usual re-hashing of the evening. My parents didn’t compare notes on who’d had too much to drink. Mother didn’t mention who’d worn what. More important, neither mentioned the incident. Incident? All I’d done was say hi to a school friend.
# # #
After a sleepless night, I went looking for Leo. I rode my bike to the club, thinking he’d be helping with the Golfers’ Brunch. I didn’t see him. I hung around long enough to make sure he wasn’t there. So … where next? I didn’t know where he lived, but most Saturday mornings there’s a bunch of guys playing basketball on the public courts in Tower Park. I found him there. After last night, I was afraid to interrupt the game, so I sat on the bench, watching, trying to decide what to do. Turns out, I didn’t have to.
He saw me, tossed the ball to another guy, and came over. He plopped down on the other end of the bench. For what seemed a long time, he didn’t look at me, just sat there with his head down, his hands clasped between his knees.
I knew it was up to me to break the ice. “Sorry about last night.”
“It’s okay,” he whispered.
“No, it’s not. I embarrassed you. And I am sorry. Really, really sorry. From now on, I’ll never bother you when you’re working.”
He didn’t say anything.
After a while, I said, “I guess I should let you get back to your game. See you at school.”
He took a long breath, let it out, and looked up at the sky. “Actually, you won’t. I’m not going back.”
For a minute, I couldn’t breathe. “Why?”
“I got a new job. With my dad.”
“But school …”
“I’ll take some classes at night.”
“Did you get fired because of me?”
“Don’t worry about it. This’ll be better. Construction pays good money. Maybe I’ll save some. Go to college.”
He bounced to his feet. “Don’t feel sorry for me.” His voice was rough, jagged. “I don’t need your school. Or your club.” He got up and motioned for one of the guys to throw the ball to him.
I called after him. “Maybe we need you.”
“Not my problem.” He threw the words back over his shoulder and kept walking.
# # #
I never saw Leo after that. I think about him from time to time, though, and wonder if he ever made it to college. By the way, I dropped that chemistry class. Mason? I dropped him too. I don’t think he cared much. He’s headed to law school. Me? I’m not sure where I’ll end up. Right now, I’m working for the park service, transferring to a different park every six months. I’m in Yosemite now, living in a trailer in the shadow of Half Dome. I just sent my parents a postcard so they’ll know I’m okay. I asked them to meet me here this summer. We’ll see.
Sandra Carey Cody is a presenter at PSB Writing Center, a contributor to the Journal and blog, and a PSB volunteer. Sandy is the author of the Jennie Connors mystery series (Left at Oz, Put Out the Light, Consider the Lilly, By Whose Hand and Lethal Journal), as well as two novels set in Bucks County (Love and Not Destroy and An Uncertain Path). She has a blog entitled the Birth of a Novel https://birthofanovel.wordpress.com/ in which she interviews authors, posts reviews, and shares random thoughts, usually related to writing. Sandy can be reached at http://www.sandracareycody.com.