(Copyright, Susan Hunt)
Tommy, on first base (which was the Three Sisters),caught sight of his mother's white hat out front, above the bushes, moving serenely up the street. There goes Mother, there goes Emma, he thought, and the hot sun was suddenly golden, the blue sky bluer than blue. His burden was momentarily lifted. Since his father left, his mother and sister were his millstone, his albatross. Only now when they'd gone could he concentrate on the game.
Jimmy Bendit was up. Jimmy was terrible. He didn't hold the bat right. Even Tommy was better than Jimmy Bendit was, and Tommy would have been much better if he weren't so fat. God knows why they let Jimmy play at all except that he stole things and it was better to have him in the game and grateful than out front casting a greedy eye on the bicycles left unguarded.
How hot it was. One of the hottest summers ever -- forty three days of heat wave. The paper said that was a record. There hadn't been any rain and the victory gardens were all drying up. It wasn't patriotic of the weather. Tommy had worked hard on the victory garden, just like in the Campbell Soup song ("I dig and hoe with all my might, The food I grow will help the fight"). All that work was wasted if there was no rain. It wasn't fair. But that was life. It wasn't meant to be fair.
There was the third out. Jimmy had swung three times and at slow balls too (the pitcher was being kind, or perhaps was bored) but he'd come nowhere near them. He flung the bat down and said, "I don't want to play anymore."
"Don't be silly," said Tommy patiently. (He was getting a lot of practice at being patient this summer.) "Don't you want some lemonade?"
Jimmy shrugged and said "All right" as though he were doing them a big favor.
It was just as well to have it now, thought Tommy as he went in to get the pitcher and the glasses. No telling when his mother and Emma would come back, and Emma could be such a pest, talking, talking, talking to the boys. And his mother, though she meant well, couldn't be completely trusted -- she might say something about Jimmy's father, and Jimmy would go to pieces over that.
So it was better to drink the lemonade and finish the game before they got back.
* * *
The hall light shown into Emma's room and made shadows on the ceiling. Everything was all right Here was Mother Cottontail on the pillow beside her and it was hot but not real hot. The backs of her knees weren't sweaty. That was how she knew it wasn't real hot. Sometimes a june bug got in through the screen and banged itself against the walls, like a tiny hysterical turtle. Then Emma's mother would come upstairs and catch it in a tissue and raise the window screen a little and throw the tissue and the june bug out the window. The june bug came in because of the hall light but Emma's mother said it would be happier outside.
And sometimes a mosquito made its whining noise in Emma's ear as though it were inside her head -- not just inside her ear. The noise was much worse than getting bitten, Emma thought, but then she just got tiny little bumps when a mosquito biit her, not enormous lumps like Tommy who was allergic.
The hall light was warm yellow but Emma's night light was pink. It had two tiny horses-- made from the filament, Tommy said --- and when you turned on the light the horses were bright pink. All night long they danced and pranced, two beautiful pink horses with their manes flying. Emma's father would not buy her a horse even though she had cried and said she wanted one more than anything in the world -- anything. Even though she spent every waking hour, almost, sitting on the banister pretending it was a horse and the banister knob at the bottom of the stairs was the horse's head. No, he would not buy her a horse, he would not.
Still he was nice in other ways. There were things that only her father did -- like the flowers. And her father sat in the red leather chair at night and read the poem about the Indians, and the words went back and forth like the hammock, gently swinging. And her father would still carry her. Her mother said, "No, Emma, you're too heavy." But when she hurt her foot and couldn't walk for awhile, even though Dr. Johnson said she should walk because there was nothing wrong with her foot, it was her father who carried her everywhere. And she could do whatever she liked around her father. He never minded like her mother sometimes did.
Whenever the season changed, when there was the first early sign that spring would come, or when the air got crisp for fall, instead of moist and soggy like summertime saltines, her father always knew it first. The flowers told him and then he told Emma, holding her hand and pointing to the tiny white snowdrops poking their heads up through the melting snow, or the bank of black-eyed Susans, cheery and brash, giggling together like Halloween.
When Emma's father went away to get the uniform with the shiny brass buttons and the funny hat that went with it, Emma made a flower surprise for him. She dug a small hole in the backyard with sloping sides and she lined it with rose petals that had fallen. She made a row of pansies in the hole and a row of violets and at the bottom, at the center, she put one perfect pink heart-shaped blossom from the bleeding heart bush. Then she covered the hole up with a little board Tommy found for her and she put grass on top of it. She took her father to see it the first thing when he got home, and she made him push away the grass and take away the little board, and there it was -- the flower surprise. That's when Daddy picked her up and hugged her and gave her a great big kiss and told her he loved her very very much, and she was the prettiest little girl in the whole world.
But still he would not get her a horse.
Emma's mother came in to say good night. She smelled faintly sweet, like a room with a flower in it. She sat on Emma's bed and straightened the sheet so it folded back neatly just under Emma's chin and under where Mother Cottontail's chin would have been if she'd had one.
"Did you have a good time today?" she said.
"Oh, yes," said Emma.
"And do you remember what we saw in the pasture?"
Emma could shut her eyes and see the sunlight on the clover again. She could hear the bees. "We saw a hawk" she said.
"What kind of hawk?"
"A sparrow hawk." The sparrow hawk ate grasshoppers, not sparrows. Emma was glad it didn't eat sparrows. Not that she liked sparrows particularly -- the noisy piggy little birds, they were everywhere you looked. There were two in the birdhouse outside the kitchen window. Every morning, while Emma ate her breakfast, the boy sparrow stood on the girl sparrow's back. That was why there were so many of them, said her mother. That was how they had babies. And soon there would be three or four little baby sparrows on the branch, crying, with their beaks open, because they were always hungry.
"Good night, baby," Emma's mother said, and she kissed her. Her kisses were quick, no-nonsense kisses -- not like those of Emma's relatives who lived in Louisiana, which was in the South, where everything was warmer and larger and covered with flowers. Every year all the relatives came up from Louisiana and they kissed Emma a lot -- big wet sloppy kisses because they loved her so much. They were her father's family. Her mother's family didn't kiss so much, and neither did her mother. Not that they didn't love her as much as the southern relatives, it was just that they were from Boston where it was a lot colder and in places that are cold people don't kiss as much.
When the southern relatives came Emma's father was different -- like a child, sort of -- and everything was wonderful. All the meals were parties, and the days and nights were filled with the sound of lovely southern voices, talking and laughing and drawing magical pictures of a place where it was never cold and everyone wore flowers. They came when the roses were in bloom -- or perhaps the roses bloomed because they came -- and when they went away again everything was grey and boring, and everyone was moody and sulky, and nothing was any fun for awhile.
The pink horses danced and blurred together and reared back on their hind legs and turned into two pink butterflies and -- but no, she was not asleep. Emma put her hand out to keep her mother from going out of the room, through the hall with its warm light and down the steps.
At night Emma liked to see the hall light, yellow, friendly, and sure, and sometimes she thought she could hear her mother playing the piano though her mother did not play after the children had gone to bed. (But Tommy went to bed late and read Trains magazine until very late at night. Tommy did whatever he wanted to. Rules did not apply to Tommy like they did to Emma.) And Emma loved to lie in bed while downstairs her parents talked and laughed. She loved to go to sleep knowing them to be there, attending her sleep.
But now her mother sat alone downstairs and no talking, no laughing floated up the stairs to tickle Emma's dreams.
"When's Daddy corning home?" said Emma, clutching at her waking day, about to blur together the hawk, the horses, and the boys playing ball.
"Not for awhile yet," said her mother, but then Emma fell as1eep and did not see that suddenly at the end of the peaceful perfect day everything had gone wrong and nothing would ever be right again.
* * *
Elizabeth sighed and got up and went downstairs and stood for a moment looking at the red leather chair in which she knew, she just knew, Emma's father would never again sit. Emma's father was dead. Yes, Joshua was dead, dead, dead -- if not this minute then the next, if not today then tomorrow. Sometimes her conviction that this was true grew so strong she almost cried out. But of course it was all foolishness, just foolishness -- foolishness and nerves.
She went into the kitchen and got a glass of milk, not because she wanted it but just for something to do to keep from looking at the red leather chair.
He would sit in it again, he would -- oh please God, he would, he would come back gallant and happy, come back a hero from the war.
He hadn't had to go, of course. They weren't taking pre-Pearl Harbor fathers until October and maybe they never would. But he'd volunteered -- he'd wanted to go, whether they'd wanted him or not. And they hadn't. He was thirty six with a wife and two pre-Pearl Harbor children and perhaps a post-Pearl Harbor third one on the way, and they would never have taken him if he hadn't insisted, wanting to get it over with he'd said. (But she didn't believe that.) It was clear that his duty was here. He was a scientist, for God's sake, not a soldier. In his laboratory he might some day -- if he hadn't gone off to be killed in the war -- do something exciting. He studied the mysteries of the cell. (She thought of the cell with fondness; it was a clear plastic cube drinking up nutrients, oxygen, water -- life in miniature.) Wasn't he doing enough for his fellow men when he tried to solve the problems of the cell?
But no, he'd had to go. He wanted to go. His life had been too dull for him, he didn't want to miss the adventure and the glory of war. So he left her with the two upstairs and maybe a third on the way -- but oh, she hoped not, she did hope not. She didn't want to go through that with Joshua away, she didn't want to do it alone. Not that she didn't love a baby, the soft skin, the little wobbly head, the unfocussed blue eyes like bits of dark sky. She loved to watch them grow, learning to crawl, beginning to toddle around, to talk, to demand to be read to, beginning almost immediately to be real people with their own interests, their own secrets. Striking off on their own, in directions you could not go -- or they did not want you to. "I can do it myself, Mommy," they said, although as often as not they knew quite well they couldn't. But they were going to try anyway.
Emma went more slowly than Tommy in that respect, though not in others. Emma clung, hot and heavy, she was always wanting to be hugged or to be carried -- at four. At one Tommy used to scream with rage when you carried him. He wanted to be on his own from the moment he got himself upright on his fat little legs -- no, sooner; even when he lay on his blue blanket he had a will so strong you couldn't easily persuade him that he wanted his rattle when he really wanted your shoe.
Still Emma did have a world of her own, and she could be there, between one minute and the next, dreaming something that made her smile. She could never say what it was. She had a touch of magic in her. She got that from her grandmother. And in spite of her intention to be miserable, Elizabeth smiled at the thought of her Emma, a child of whimsy, born of such a practical prosaic mother and such a serious earnest father. Oh, the wonders of the cell!
When he left, Joshua held Emma in his arms and gave her, a wet noisy kiss and told her to be a good little girl, and he thumped Tommy on the back and said he was to be the man of the house and (oh, yes, certainly) there were tears in his eyes. Yes, he was sorry to go, probably to his death, but still he would go.
Well, let him go then. Let him do his part, let him join the fight for the free world, let him strike a blow at despotism -- the madman Hitler. For if he should win the war it would be the end of civilization as we know it. Oh there was no denying that, no denying that the war had to be' fought -- it was a job that had to be done, all right, but did it have to be done by Joshua? What self-respecting German would have even the slightest twinge of fear at the sight of Joshua with a gun -- Joshua who was so tender-hearted she was the one who had to squash the spiders? And in the garden he handled the tiny roots of a plant tenderly, as though they were baby birds. Guns were not his style, nor killing either. Yet off he'd gone to make the world safe and sane again, to restore to Occupied Europe Democracy. But by this time wasn't Democracy a figure of fun -- a child-sized creature with a man's fat behind, the head too big for the body? Oh, she could see that Democracy led the parade, as he always did, in his red, white and blue marching outfit with the silver sparkle dust outlining the stars on his top hat which never fell off even when he leaped in the air and did a double somersault landing on his feet with a smile pasted on his face, and the children loved his tricks and the men were fooled too, and shouted and cheered and picked up their guns and went marching off. And all the pretty girls blew kisses.
Oh, there would be glory in the foxholes and a poem or two written and a song and already there were movies in which all the leading men, impeccably dressed and well rested, said many noble things about war but the audiences were more likely than not to giggle because by now they knew all about the real version and no longer believed in Hollywood's. The men who were there wrote that it was not like that, it was not like that at all. It was not heroic, it was not glorious, it was not even fun. You could get killed. You could get killed even if you weren't in a foxhole, even if you sat behind a desk in London and wrote home that you were safe. For they were still bombing London and people were still dying in air raids -- even if it wasn't the Blitz. There was no telling what they might do next. There was some talk of a secret weapon that could destroy London, killing everyone. And, after all, even if London were safe -- she could make herself believe that, during the daytime at least -- there was no guarantee, no promise that Joshua would stay there. There would be an invasion of Europe, sooner or later, and what part Joshua would play in that there was no way to know. Probably Joshua did not know, and if he did know, he wouldn't tell her, and if he told her, she wouldn't believe him.
In her heart of hearts, she didn't really care about Europe. Hitler was a madman, he was the devil himself, but she couldn't see that it had anything to do with Joshua and her. He'd never get here. They'd be all right, sheltered and protected and walled around by the ocean, never mind the air raid drills (that was just play), he'd not come here. They were safe in Bethesda. So let Hitler do what he liked. He'd wear himself out in time and it would be over quicker with fewer lives lost. And anyway it wasn't worth Joshua dying. Nothing was worth that. Just simply nothing.
She'd go on without him -- what else could she do with two children and maybe three -- but never believing he was dead because death was too preposterous to believe in, after all. Hadn't somebody said it was the ultimate insult? (Her father would know who.) She would go through life expecting to meet Joshua round every corner, to hear his voice, to see his face, those round blue eyes, the honey-colored hair, the serious expression. How hurt he was when he came home with his announcement, and she froze up inside, though she'd known it was corning, known from the start that there was no way he couldn't go. Still she did not say, eyes shining with love, "My hero." She did not hold him tight. She froze up with fear, with anger. Later she cried. He went anyway.
Each year without him would lay down a fine clear sheet that would cover the pain, blanket it like snow, and as she got further and further from him (but still expecting to meet him round every corner) fewer and fewer things would be so closely associated with him that they were unbearable. She'd be able to take up her life again. She'd be able to listen to Schubert lieder, to fry eggplant and tomatoes, to look at hawks even though these were all things he had loved. She could take the children to the Jersey shore, grow flowers, play badminton. Someday she would read Hiawatha to Emma's children. Year after year down would go that soothing cover of time. But it would never be secure. For something would remind her -- something unrelated and really quite irrelevant -- she'd see a woman wearing a dress of blue paisley like the skirt his sister Sally wore on the night she met his family. Then all those years would do her no good at all. She'd be right back on the first day, screaming with pain, willing him alive with every nerve in her body. She'd never be over it. Pulling herself together for the children was a farce -- she'd give them up in a second if it would save him.
Her heart twisted within her. She wouldn't, she wouldn't, of course she wouldn't give them up for anything, not even Joshua. No, they were dearer than anything. And he'd gone, hadn't he, when he didn't have to, when nobody would have suggested he'd be more good there than here, working to save lives not to end them. And even if he didn't die, even if he survived in spite of everything, she would never forgive him. Her love and her anger were all frozen up together and lay on her heart like a stone.
She went upstairs. There was nothing to do but go to bed and read until she fell asleep or it was morning, whichever came first. And the children slept, she supposed, as children will while the world falls in around them. She looked in on Emma. The pink horses blazed. Emma, happy and rosy and filled with magic, slept sound.
Tommy's light was off, which was unusual. He read so late now; now that Joshua was gone she let him read as long as he liked. (It was summer; he could sleep late in the morning.) His door was closed. He'd become secretive -- no, that was not it. It was just that he liked his privacy now that he was growing up. She was about to go on to bed when she thought she heard a small noise from his room. Quietly she turned the door knob and opened the door.
Tommy was crying.
"Why Tommy" said Elizabeth. Tommy never cried. Only once when he got hit in the head with a baseball. Never cried, not since he was little and not much then.
"What is it, dear?" she said,' patting him. He'd gotten so fat lately, she'd have to cut down on cookies and things like that, though there weren't many cookies around nowadays, sugar being rationed. How he'd labored and huffed and puffed as he'd run the bases this afternoon, and so proud of himself.
Tommy said, "I'm scared about Daddy."
"Oh, don't be," she said, "don't worry about Daddy." And putting everything she had into it, she said, "He's going to be all right, Tommy, I know he is."
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