The short story that didn't get me into Bennington College.
Today was meant to be a busy day.
I was planning on sending a big package to Chris, and it was going to take a day's worth of driving around the desert to get him a sampling of his favorite things. My first stop was a visit to my soon-to-be mother-in-law Merry's house. Chris had pretty much told me not to bother sending him anything unless there was some of his mom's cinnamon bread in it for him, and even though I'd tried to convince him it wouldn't be worth eating by the time he received it, he swore up and down he'd have it no matter the state.
Unfortunately, Merry was the kind of woman friends didn't visit when they had places to be. It wasn't entirely her fault of course, hers was a trap that most were too willing to fall prey. A quick stop to say "hello" inevitably turned into a cup of coffee, and by the time you'd finished a cup or two it was noon and Merry had made you a sandwich.
By then the sun would be a little lower in the sky, and it would be the perfect time to walk off the meal with a trip down to the mailboxes and back. After the walk she'd pour you another cup of coffee and offer to play a game of Scrabble. Before you knew it you've had dinner, dessert, a bed time story, and it's Merry kicking you out of the house so she can go to bed.
I had made it a habit to visit Merry once a week since Charlie, my would-be father-in-law passed two months back. It wasn't uncommon for our visits to last late into the evening, but today was different. I was giving myself one hour.
It was an optimistic goal to be sure, but I figured that if I could leave Merry's house by 11, I would avoid sitting down for lunch and have enough time to get everything together before the post office closed at five. So the plan was to have one cup of coffee maybe two, and get out in one hour, cinnamon bread in hand.
I pulled my truck into Merry's long driveway and passed the "For Sale" sign advertising the price, make and model of Charlie's tractor for anyone who travelled along the lonely street to see. "O.B.O." had recently been added to the bottom of the sign.
The house sat on an acre of land sloping up to the foot of what we call the Mariana Mountains. Charlie and Chris had taken great pains to make something of the area around the house by means of a yard. They had laid white stones to mark the drive, and planted small poplar trees around the edge of the property. It looked strange surrounded by a backdrop of Joshua trees and mountain ranges, but everything looks a bit forced in the desert. She was standing in the doorway when I pulled up.
"Hello, Honey!" she said reaching out to me. I reminded myself of my time limit, and rushed over to hug her. Merry was a big woman, made large by her own butter-heavy cooking, but her frame just made her more pleasant to hug. I'd gained a few pounds myself since Chris left, but the extra weight wasn't as flattering on me. I reached around and gave her a big squeeze.
"I was just fixing some toast with jam if you'd like some."
"No thanks, I got a lot to do today. I got to run all over town to get stuff for Chris's package."
"Oh that's right! I got his cinnamon bread all done up. Let me fetch it for you."
I followed her into the small living room that led into the house. I rarely sat in here. The kitchen is where Merry conducted her business, and the cold of this room made it as dead as the kitchen was alive with warmth.
I hurried in after Merry.
The fridge was decorated with pictures of Chris and me. There we were, a new couple, posing in front of the house just a few months ago. Another one of us sitting at the kitchen table when we were nine, spaghetti sauce all over our faces. A pre-teen version of ourselves waiting at the bus stop, heavy backpacks at our feet. I am surrounded by memories here and I never want to leave.
I sat myself down at the table and brushed away the crumbs from a previous batch of toast. Coffee rings decorated the table cloth as if marking time. An old cigarette butt still lay in the ashtray.
"Oh garsh-darnit this place is a mess, I'm sorry sweetie. Did you want a cuppa coffee?"
"Yes, please," I sighed. It would have been physically impossible to refuse.
"There's a fresh pot in the thermos, help yourself."
Merry liked doing things for people, but she always made the kids do things for themselves.
I dug into the cupboard to find my cup. She keeps the sugar in one of those glass jars you see at country diners, and I watched as the stream of sugar disappeared into the black coffee. In the fridge the cream, real whipping cream, was sitting on the third shelf as always. I poured a dollop into my cup without thinking about the calories.
Merry lifted the lid to the big pot on the stove. Steam billowed up and sat in her blonde hair making it curl. The smell hit me from across the room, and my belly responded with a "glurp!" I checked my watch.
45 minutes to go.
"Are you hungry, honey? Can you stay for lunch? I made beef stroganoff."
My nose tortured my stomach and my mouth was practically spilling with saliva. I swallowed. "Actually, I have a bit of stomach ache."
"Do you need some Pepto?" She asked, starting towards the cabinet that held the medicine.
"Oh no, I'll be fine." I smiled, trying to show her I was okay.
Merry shrugged and replaced the lid on the pot. She grabbed her cup of coffee and made her way to the table. Her rear-end was halfway towards the chair when, "Whoops!" she exclaimed, hands and feet hanging in the air. She swung all four limbs down and stood herself up again.
"The cinnamon bread, I can't forget," she said, pointing and snapping in its direction. She took the Tupperware from the counter next to the sink and turned to me. She stopped and held it at her waist, looking at the blue lid.
"He loves this bread you know," she tapped her finger on the lid. "When he was little I would put the real soft parts on my finger and put it in his mouth. He's been eating this bread since before he had teeth!" The memory made her smile, "I used to have to hide it from him. We'd be having company and I'd go for the bread and it'd be gone! It was no use, he'd sniff it out like a blood hound." She placed the bowl on the table with a laugh and asked me about my mother.
Merry and my mom are real close. They had worked together at the elementary school for twenty years, my mom as the school's secretary and Merry handling the tickets in the lunch line. My mother retired last year but Merry was still there. Now they only got to see each other on the weekend, which wasn't enough for either of them, so I was obligated to tell Merry about the new hampers my mother had bought at Target the night before.
"The gray ones, or the white ones?"
"The white ones."
"I saw in the coupons that the white ones were on sale for $9.99, and the gray ones for $14.99. I just don't understand that." She shook her head, "I think something like that should be illegal, charging two different prices for the same thing. I told your Mom to buy the white ones, who cares if they look dirtier quicker. It's the principle of the thing. You can always wash 'em."
It was getting hot in the kitchen so Merry turned the ceiling fan on to "push the air around a bit," as she likes to say.
"Have you heard from Chris?" I asked.
"Not since last week."
I know it's not a competition, but it had been two weeks since he called me.
"How's he doin'? Did he say how he's liking it over there?" He doesn't like to talk about it with me.
"He says it's just another desert. Says he's making friends with some of the locals."
"Well that's good I guess," I replied.
"He's never had trouble finding friends." Merry's eyes looked past me to the photo-covered fridge. "Who wouldn't like Chris? He was so popular in school, remember? Such a sweetie, wouldn't hurt a fly unless he had to."
"Well, he might have to over there," I said.
Merry shook her head. "I just worry about him, you know? He can get so hot-headed. You know if one of his friends were in trouble he'd be out there trying to help. Just the way he is, stubborn and loyal just like his father."
The idea of Charlie and Chris hung in the air. We tried not to reconcile their fates in our minds.
I broke the silence first. "Well I'm hoping this package will remind him that he's got people waiting for him at home, so he won't go off and do something stupid," I responded.
I looked at the battle-worn Tupperware. I'd seen that particular bowl in various stages of clean, dirty and food-filled for as long as I could remember. If anything would remind Chris of home it would be that bowl.
"What else are you picking up?" she asked.
"I promised him a school paper. He wants to know how the Twisters are doing without him, so I'm going over to see Coach Carl this afternoon. The players all signed something for him."
Chris was a natural born leader if there ever was one, the kind of guy that inspired confidence in his peers just by being there. I remember the war games we used to play when we were little. We'd take our BB guns into our fort and 'defend our position' against the Indians.
"I think I see one behind that hill over there," he whispered.
"I don't see anything," I said, hand over my eyes to block out the sun.
"Right there, something moved. Look!" He said, pointing.
"I see him," I answered, "It's just a scout."
"Whaddya say we give him a message to take back to the Chief?"
He lifted his rifle, taking steady aim at the Indian hiding behind the hill. A small pop went off, and a can fell from atop the mound. A "ting!" floated away into the desert.
"Nice shot! Right in the butt!"
"That'll teach him," he said, smiling.
Merry was stirring something in a large metal bowl on the counter. Her body rose and fell with each swoop of the spoon.
"How have you been holding up?" I asked. A warm wind whipped against the house. Sand sprayed against the window as if someone were hosing it down.
"Oh, I'm alright honey. Thanks for asking." She poured the contents of the bowl into small round blobs on a baking sheet. "Been keeping myself busy you know. Denise comes by often, always complaining about things at home. Now I know it's not any of my business," she clarified, "but she's been having a hard time with her momma."
All the kids in the neighborhood stopped by Merry's house now and again. You wouldn't think kids would like to spend time with adults—that they'd be outside wanting to play, or giggling with their girlfriends about the cutest boy in school—but Merry's house was a high desert oasis. Everyone stopped by when they needed a break from the heat and heavy winds.
The first time I met Chris I had just turned five. My family had moved into the community from "down the hill," and were unpacking things from our car to bring into the house. I was sitting on the bed of my father's truck when I noticed that the overgrown creosote bush on the side of the house was shaking.
I got down from the truck bed, and made as if I were going into the house. When I got inside I ran through the back door and around the side of the house behind the bushes. His feet were dangling out the back. I grabbed them and pulled.
"Hey! What are you doing?" He asked, kicking to free himself.
"What are you doing spying on us? Who are you?" I let go and his feet hit the dirt hard. He scrambled backwards, away from me.
"I coulda killed you, you know. Sneaking up on me like an Indian. I coulda killed you."
"Oh shut up! You couldn't kill nothin'." A layer of dirt lay atop his head painting his blond hair a dull brown. "What's your name?" I asked.
"Chris, what’s yours?"
He looked at me for a second and stood up patting the dirt out of his jeans.
"My mom made brownies, you want to come over and have one?"
I didn't quite trust him yet, but the promise of brownies put those worries on hold. "Okay. But I can't stay too long." He smiled a gap-toothed smile.
We walked up the hill, cutting through people's back yards. Small fox tails dug their way into my socks, and thorns from the tumble weeds attacked my legs.
"Don't get too close to the cholla," He warned, pointing at a spiny-looking cactus with his walking stick. "They jump at you."
Merry's house was very much the same then as it is now. Only then it was Merry and Charlie's house.
"Hey Mom, this is Sam, she just moved into the yellow house on Ocotillo."
"Well hello there, Sam." Merry said with a welcoming smile.
"I told her she could have some brownies."
Charlie was sitting in the chair against the wall. From his seat he could see the window, the door, and Merry. It was a position of defense. Smoke curled up from the cigarette resting in Charlie's thick hands.
"Now hold on a second," he said. Merry stopped what she was doing over the stove to look at Charlie while he spoke, "Does Sam's parents know she's here?"
Merry joined in, "Sam, did you tell your parents you were coming over?"
Promises of brownies disappeared into the desert air.
"No," I responded."But I'm sure they wouldn't mind if I had one brownie, we have brownies all the time at my house, and even…"
"Chris." Charlie interrupted. "What sense do you got bringing her over here without asking her parents for permission? They're probably real worried right now. And Sam," he said, focusing his attention on me, "didn't your parents teach you better than to go off without telling them where you're off to?"
It was the first time someone besides my parents had reprimanded me. I started to cry. Merry was there with a tissue.
"Now it's okay. Just relax. It'll be alright." Her warm hand rubbed my back and I buried my head in her soft chest. "We'll just take you home and explain to your parents what happened. Chris!" She yelled after her son, "You're coming with us. I can't believe you would go encouraging bad behavior like this, you know better."
Merry loaded Chris and me into the back seat of her old Toyota, and made her way down the dirt road that led to my new house. She very kindly explained to my parents what had happened, and gave me a box of brownies on her way out.
"Now you come over whenever you'd like. Just make sure you tell your parents first. Okay Honey?"
Merry was standing over the stove again. She had a rooster-shaped kitchen timer in her hands. She twisted it and it clicked several times before she set it down.
"Just twenty more minutes and lunch will be done. You sure you can't stay?"
I checked my watch. Twenty minutes was just about all the time I had left. It was perfect, I'd be able to sneak out while she was pulling everything out of the oven.
"No Merry, really…" I started to say when there was a quick tapping at the door.
"Helloooo!" Called a voice.
"Who's there?" she yelled, poking her head out towards the door, "Oh hello, Gene!"
Gene was the mailman. He usually stopped by on his route for a quick cup of coffee before hitting the rest of the houses on the street. There weren't many.
"Hey Merry, what's cooking? Smells good in here."
"Oh just some beef stroganoff, you staying for lunch?"
Gene leaned over the stove and rubbed his belly.
"I can't Merry, I wish I could. Boss has been gittin on my case lately. Says it takes me too long to deliver to the houses up here. If he knew that I'd been sneaking into your house I'd be in real hot water."
"Come on now Gene, you can at least have a cup of coffee."
"Not today Merry," he said, raising his hand, "got to prove that I'm not some kind of deadbeat. I'll get back to my regular routine next week, just wanted to bring you in the mail, save you the walk, but I gotta run. Take care, Merry. Goodbye, Sammy."
"Bye Gene," We answered. Gene was a nice man, but it was hard to shake the impression that he liked to take advantage of Merry's hospitality.
"You know, that's the first time that man hasn't stop to have coffee in over two years. Not since Rita left him, you know."
I nodded. Merry stopped wiping down the counter and put her hand on her hip. The wet rag dripped down onto her apron.
"I don't understand why everybody is always leaving all the time. Sure people stop by and keep me company, but lately it feels like everyone always has to be going. People to see, things to do…" She continued wiping down the counter, "What are they in such a rush for? I have things to do, but I make time, see? I make time for other people."
"I'm sorry Merry," I tried to resist the urge to feel guilty. "You know I'd stay if I weren't in such a hurry."
"Oh, not you honey. You and your mom are friends. But why is everyone else in such a rush to leave? All those kids down at the high school, they graduate and the first thing they do is head down the hill. It's like they can't wait to get out of here. What's so wrong with the desert?"
The heat, the wind, the lack of opportunity, I thought to myself.
She went on, "I still don't understand why Chris had to go." She was bent over the counter, hands holding her up.
I didn't understand either.
I loved Merry, almost like a second mother, but it was hard for me to comfort her about Chris. We both felt the same pain, and I didn't want to compare. Or compete.
Chris and I had been friends our whole lives, but it wasn't until four months before he shipped off that we realized we were in love. Or maybe it just took me that long.
It was right around prom our senior year. I had waited and waited for a guy to ask me, figuring that someone would get around to it eventually. It wasn't until prom was a week away that I realized I wasn't going to be asked, and I didn't know what to think about it. I mean, I wasn't the prettiest girl in school but I was nice enough. Surely there was someone would want to take me right?
Chris hadn't asked anyone, not for lack of choices, he just didn't seem to care. I didn't really have any girlfriends to talk to about it, I was closer to Chris than any of them ever could be, and they hated me for it. The girl-friends I did have only dreamed of getting asked to school dances.
I tried to hold my head high when people asked who I was going with, and I was doing fine until the Friday before the dance. The halls were buzzing with the voices of girls talking about their dresses, and boys discussing what types of sordid things they hoped to accomplish with their dates. The energy of the students was reaching a fever pitch, and the overwhelming fact that I had been so excluded from this event made me feel invisible.
I left school after the first break, running all the way home, and sat on the deck of the fort until nightfall. I had cried for a good couple hours, more out of confusion than despair, and was numb. I was just starting to feel the cold on my skin when Chris came up behind me and slung his feet off the edge of the deck.
"You okay, Sammy? I didn't see you at lunch. I was worried something happened to you."
A well of heat made its way up to my face as the day's frustrations came back to me. "Oh, I don't KNOW!" I gasped. "It's just that, no one asked me to the stupid prom. And I was fine! I was fine until today when I heard about how Megan Tinsley's dress was the exact shade of the stupid flowers in Anthony Jameson's yard! I was fine until I heard Amanda Shaffey tell Tiffany Harper that she was going to kiss Michael Fortenhaus. I didn't think it was such a big deal, and obviously it is, and I don’t know. I figured someone would ask me." I wiped my nose with the back of my hand and looked at Chris. He was concentrating very hard on my face. I went on, "I didn't know I would care so much."
Chris's hand slipped behind my neck and pulled my face close to his. He placed his lips very softly on mine, then he pulled back to look at me. The immediate shock jumped from my head into my stomach making it turn hard with a deep lash of pain. My head collapsed into his hand, and he pulled me to him again, hard. His warm lips parted mine and we kissed as if I had been perfectly fashioned to fit him.
He pulled away and collapsed into himself. He was crying. I put my hand over my mouth, my lips were sore and I was having trouble catching my breath.
"Chris," I asked, my voice coarse, "are you okay?"
His chest rose and fell heavily. "I didn't think you would ever look at me that way. I thought you were too good, too smart, too pretty to ever, ever, look at me that way." He met my eyes. "I didn't ask you because I thought you would laugh at me; but I wanted to. Every day I wanted to. The guys kept giving me a hard time, saying I was a wuss. I tried to feel it out, see if you would want to go with me, but you never seemed interested." He took my hand and moved closer. "I'm such a coward. I should've just gotten up the guts to ask you. I'm sorry I didn't. I'm sorry you were so upset today." He looked up at me and kissed me on the nose, "But Sammy, I'm happy that things turned out this way." He looked at me expectantly, and I didn't know what to say.
Was I happy about it? I didn't know what to think, and the more I tried the more my head burned with heat. Kissing Chris had been like coming home, and my entire body had felt it. Where had these feelings come from? Was it because I felt lonely and rejected? Or was it because I actually had feelings for Chris?
I looked at him. Every part of my body reacted to the space between us and ached. A light had come on from his porch and was shining into the now darkened fort. His face, lit sideways though the cracks in the walls, showed a pair of wet blue eyes and an orange smile. I smiled and kissed him hard, both of us falling backwards onto the splintered wood.
I learned later that random guys had approached Chris, asking him if I'd want to go to the prom with them. He'd told them I didn't want to go. He lowered his head in embarrassment when he'd explained what he'd done. It just made me love him more.
The news of our new relationship spread through the school like wildfire, only to disappear quickly, replaced with easy acceptance. Apparently they had all known what I didn't. Chris had been in love with me since we were little. At first I was embarrassed by all the attention, but eventually I didn't care when people talked about us. I was just happy to be in on the secret.
When Chris and I told the rest of our family we were dating, they looked at us like we were telling them something they'd already known.
"You think we're stupid?" my mom asked.
"Honey, we already think of you as our daughter," Charlie said to me, before turning towards Chris. "And you! You little shit," he yelled while trying to spear him with his cane from across the table, "You just keep it in your pants while you're in this god damn house." Chris laughed and made an evasive sweep sideways to avoid the attack.
We spent the rest of the time in school and that summer after graduation learning things about each other that'd we'd never known before. It was like each of us was completely new, and at the same time, like we'd known each other forever.
When he asked me to marry him, it was as if he'd asked me if to pick up milk at the store. The answer was so obvious it didn't need to be said.
The heat of Merry's kitchen made my skin stick to my clothes. My face was especially hot, tears made their way down my protesting face.
"Oh honey," Merry said rushing over. She put her arms around me and squeezed tight, her head of curls resting heavily on top of my own, "You okay?" she asked with real concern.
"Oh," I replied, shaking my head, "I'm fine Merry. I just," I took a deep breath; "I just miss him."
"I do too, honey. I do too. But we gotta have faith that he's going to be okay. If we sit here and worry he's just gonna be over there worrying about us." She shook me a bit, kissed me on top of the head and returned to the oven.
My heart began to settle down when there was another knock.
"Hello?" she called. There was no response. Merry wiped her hands on her apron and hurriedly made her way to the front door.
I took a sip of my coffee, now a bit cold and sour, and looked out the window. There was a van with an insignia parked on the street in front of the house. Merry was always having things delivered from various home shopping networks, but this van looked different.
"Hello, Ma'am. Are you Merry Matteson?" The pitch of his voice was deep. The tone flat.
She responded yes.
"We are sorry to inform you that your son Private Christopher Matteson…" His voice blanketed the room. The deep tenor echoed in the farthest corners of the house. A chair screeched against the tile.
When I got to the next room a black man in a neatly presented uniform had Merry by the elbow and was helping her from the floor onto a chair. She was hugging something against her chest, eyes on the wall in front of her.
The man looked at me, "I'm very sorry for your loss. We have his things here." As if on cue, two men in uniform made their way into the house, stacking file boxes in front of the couch. The man bent over as if to bow, and nodded at us. His eyes were dark, I couldn't make out where his irises ended and his pupils began.
The house seemed to slow when he left, the vibrations petering out before dying completely.
Merry sat in the chair staring at the patterns of the cinderblocks that made up the walls. I stood looking at the boxes. It was cold.
The timer in the kitchen went off, fluttered against the counter before falling onto the kitchen floor. There was a thud, the deep thrum of the alarm against the tile melted away into the silence.
It was 11. Time was up.
"They brought his stuff." I said, staring at the boxes.
Merry doesn't respond. Her eyes stay fixed on the wall.
I get up and go into the kitchen. I flip the dials on the stove and oven off. I go back to the cold room and look at the boxes. They look fake to me. I want to break them down and carry them out to the dumpster.
There is no smell. All the warmth in the small house is gone. There is a blanket next to me on the couch. Nothing about it looks comforting.
The quiet in the room is stagnant. I try to think of anything but my mind is locked. The post office would be closed by now. I haven't eaten anything all day. I try to think of food, and feel sick.
It was close to dinner time when Merry reached over and pulled a box towards her. Dirt from the bottom of cardboard screams as it is dragged across the floor.
What was she doing? I brought my hand up to my mouth trying to hold it back.
Merry pressed her hand gently on the top of the box. With one sharp motion she flipped the lid off.
"Stop!" Every savage party of my body screamed in protest, "Please, stop!"
It was as if she didn't hear me. Mindlessly she started lifting things, one by one out from the box and onto the table.
Inside, stacked neatly were magazines, letters, and a ragged notebook.
His name and rank were scratched out in layers of black ink in his handwriting. They were his notes, his diary. I wanted to hold it to my chest and run. I wanted to squeeze them in my hands until they cut me and I bled.
"Stop! Stop touching them!"
Merry looked up at me.
"This is my baby. My baby." Her voice shook, her finger pointed sideways. She pushed the first box to the side and opened the lid of the second. On top, was Chris's football sweater. The sweater he wore nearly every day for the past three years.
We both stared at it, and before I could realize what she was doing Merry's hands had ripped the sweater from the box.
She brought it up to her face.
She begun to cry.
Her pain paralyzed me. Merry's thick fingers and long nails dug into the green cotton collar.
"He's gone Sam." She said, her eyes moving from the sweater to my face. "You can't even smell him, they washed him away."
She handed it to me. I brought it up to my face and I took a deep breath in. The smell of bleach and chlorine filled my nose and my stomach lurched. I was going to be sick. I ran out of the house, through the yard and into our fort. I collapsed onto my knees, head hanging over the edge of the deck. Sharp wooden splinters dug into my knees, the pain sent ripples of comfort through my body.
The light shone directly onto the fort and the wood was warm. I closed my eyes and brought my face up to the sun. The valley was heating up, and soon the dirt would smell as sweet as a freshly baked pumpkin pie. Hot tears traveled down my face and evaporated quickly on my skin, leaving it sticky. A soft breeze swept through the fort and whirled around me on its way towards the rest of the desert. I took a deep breath, the cool air reaching deep into my stomach.
I sat back on my heels and dug my face into the sweater. The dark cotton had already absorbed quite a bit of heat and it was hot on my face. I inhaled deeply and the scent of bleach burned my nostrils again. I took another sniff, it was hotter, a sharp pain stabbed between my eyes. I filled my lungs with the cool desert breeze and brought the sweater to my nose one last time; then I got him. I breathed him in, each whiff intoxicating.
I could smell him, feel him in that other desert.
I hugged the sweater to my face and lay down on the deck.
When I woke my body was racked with pain; my joints stiff underneath my sunburnt skin. The moon painted the horizon for miles, filling up the voids between the handfuls of houses and stables on our block. I remembered sitting here less than a year ago. I remembered Chris's smile, the way he tasted and how soft and warm his hand was against my neck.
There was a shuffle behind me, and for the first time I noticed Merry sitting on the floor of the deck, back propped up against the wall. She must have been sleeping there next to me, she was sun-kissed and swollen.
I reached up and touched my own face. I had rubbed the skin raw and it throbbed. The sweater was still in my hands, the joints of my fingers bone white from gripping it. I brought it up to my nose, my skin screamed as I attempted to bring him back one last time. The sweater was cold now. He was gone.
I rose to my feet, ignoring the pieces of wood and sand imbedded in my skin, and made my way over to Merry. Her eyes opened slowly and looked up at me. Bending down, I handed her the sweater. She took it, and we both pressed it to her chest.