He stands under the patio umbrella, hiding in a penumbra of darkness. Beyond the dock, jet skis and motor boats zoom across the bay. Clifford's wife, as usual, has dressed him. Bermuda shorts. A Life is Good T-shirt. He looks at his white legs and knobby knees then glances once more at his brother-in-law standing over the grill. Meat on the barbecue hisses and crackles. A hand the size of a baseball mitt grabs his wrist.
"Beautiful day, Cliffy. Don't ya think?"
For thirty years, the two of them have pilgrimaged back to Miami. Though his wife looks forward to the visits, Clifford dreads them. Along with colonoscopies and prostate exams, these trips are categorized and shelved. The list is long.
Things he hates. Things he must endure. Things he must suffer through.
"You mind running in for another platter, Cliffy?"
The house is as large as a hotel, the pool Olympic-sized. A blue stripe painted on the bottom proceeds endlessly. Though Clifford is shrinking by the minute, the world around him grows at exponential speed.
"And while you're at it, grab a few more brewskis, will ya?"
For thirty years the same conversation and the same menu. The only variation is his brother-in-law's date. This year's girlfriend seems incapable of sitting still. A brunette. Fortyish. Even as she speaks, she's straightening the outdoor furniture, tucking in chairs, smoothing cushions. Her tongue smacks the roof of her mouth while the brother-in-law preens. He's yakking nonstop, lassoing the air with the tongs, his sneakered toe tap tapping the floor. A heron dips into the bay, its beak probing, its wings flapping. Smack. Tap. Flap.
They're talking jobs. Movies. The weather. To his right and his left, other families are out on their lawns. Clifford notices their facial expressions, their hand gestures, the way they touch and interact. It must be eighty degrees in the shade, the heat undulating in waves, the air hazy. It's like he's gazing through a frameless window with slightly imperfect glass. Everything's mildly distorted. A crooked smile. A too-loud laugh.
Then someone somewhere calls his name. He ricochets from room to room and finds his wife in the kitchen. She's tossing the salads, putting the finishing touches on the cupcakes. Her blonde hair is perfectly swept in a tasteful chignon. Her lipstick is drawn a perfect pink. Even the swirls of icing on her apron look deliberate, like a Jackson Pollack pastiche.
"Did you meet the new girlfriend?" she asks.
He scurries for a witty reply, some clever banter. Clifford's a Professor of Modern Poetry at a small but distinguished college. Words have always been his default mode, his stronghold against the storm. Instead his thoughts fly like birds. An idea takes hold only to disappear moments later. One minute he is watching his wife's hand attack a cantaloupe, her elbow rigid, her mouth set. The next minute he's inside the melon, hollow-boned and scooped.
"I have no idea what my mother's doing," she says. His wife swipes a drop of perspiration from her forehead. " I'm juggling knives here. Mother's supposed to be helping. Why isn't she helping?"
The sudden ringing of the doorbell makes them both cringe. While his wife's mother has yet to make an appearance, Clifford's mother, as usual, has arrived early.
His wife shoots him a look. "You know who it is. I'm up to my elbows in coleslaw and Jell-O molds. You know how the door works. Just twist the knob and pull."
Bracing himself with the china platter, Clifford walks slowly to the foyer. In the distance, his father-in-law shouts Homerun! All at once he's twelve years old and back in grade school. He looks through the peephole first.
And there she is. Old age has been kind to Eunice. It's a gift, he imagines, that balances out the shortcomings. Even when she was young, his mother's face was cross-hatched like a waffle iron, her body a solid lump. Her hair, as long as he could remember, was a nest of curls, pinned and skewered into submission. In the last few years, a corona of white has circled the gray. As always, she bends forward and offers him her cheek.
Things that embarrass him. Things he's ashamed for finding embarrassing.
"Nu? How's by you?" A casserole the size of a barge is in her hands. Turning sideways, she negotiates the door. "As you can see, I brought a noodle pudding."
"Mother," says Clifford. "You shouldn't have bothered."
"This year I don't have to bother?" she always replies.
He closes his eyes and feels the air being vacuumed out of the room. Then elbowing her way past him, his mother plods down the hall in her support hose and orthopedic shoes. A minute later he hears her voice boom from the kitchen. He winces as cabinets door are thrown open and slammed shut.
His wife, her voice a little higher pitched now, a touch of frenzy piercing the calm, calls out once more. "Honey, can you please look in on Mother? She was changing her clothes an hour ago. Can you check on her, please?"
All these years and he still gets lost. Navigating the mansion is like solving an Escher maze. He creeps through the corridors following the volume of the TV until he finds the den. Front and center is the world's largest flat screen. His father-in-law is watching a baseball game. His huge blocky head pivots left and right just to take it all in. Clifford can see the acne on the pitcher's face.
"Who's winning?" he asks.
"Not us," says his father-in-law.
Clifford has published in well-respected journals and earned tenure. His father-in-law has made a fortune buying car dealerships. He parses RBIs and ERAs.
"Any chance of a pennant this year?"
Clifford gets shot another look. His eyes on the screen, he retreats once again. Soon he is negotiating a staircase, a landing, and the second floor. He trots past the guest wing, a laundry and three consecutive bathrooms. Finally, he arrives at the master bedroom. He knocks three times and waits. Then he knocks three times again. Slowly—after clearing his throat and making as much noise as he can muster—Clifford opens the door.
His mother-in-law Berta is sitting on the edge of her bed. For an instant, it dawns on him how much his wife resembles her. The perfectly upturned nose. A rope of pearls. Her platinum hair tastefully coiffed in a chignon. Only instead of a cotton sweater and slacks, Berta wears a cherry red suit. A large gilt mirror hangs over the bureau. She is looking straight at it, her mouth gaping like a trout's, her hands twisting in her lap.
Clifford's heart lurches. He inches closer, repeating her name to the rhythm of his pulse. Berta. Berta. Berta. When he reaches the bed, he sits down next to her. Then for a full minute, elbow to elbow, they stare at their reflections. A loose thread dangles from her skirt. Two three buttons are undone.
"Is that my grandmother?" she asks. Berta points to the mirror. "The woman in the mirror looks just like her." Then she turns to him without a hint of recognition. "Why on earth is my grandmother wearing red?" she asks. "My grandmother never wore red."
Things that terrify him. Things that leave him sweaty and chilled at the same time.
A vein in his forehead throbs. His pulse somersaults then throws in a backflip and a cartwheel for good measure. Clifford observes life from the cheap seats. A chuck of distance buffers the here and now, provides respite from chaos. But something is happening. There is no doubt in his mind that this moment is pivotal, that he's thrust right in the middle of the stage, that the rest of their lives will somehow hinge on what takes place in that room.
Then all at once his mother-in-law's face transforms. Her eyes light up. Her knees bounce as she claps her hands. "Sometimes I'm the silliest goose," she says. "For goodness sake, it must be Christmas!"
Clifford never knows what triggers the memory. Sometimes it's the smell of sea salt. Sometimes it's the sight of a full moon hovering on the horizon. Sometimes it's nothing more than the pop of an opened beer. But once again it returns like an uninvited guest. Like a tinge of heartburn or a cramp in his foot, the memory haunts him.
He was six years old. His mother disappeared for hours each day to sew draperies in a Hialeah warehouse. Years later, news of her tailoring skills would bring customers to their home. But back in 1964, his mother was just a steaming cup of coffee left on the counter, a neat and folded sandwich bag for lunch.
His father was a writer. Brooding. Whiskery. Thin. And his main job, as far as Clifford could tell, was whisking him off to school and picking him up hours later. While his mother cooked and cleaned, his father holed up in their bedroom, boring through bluebooks, trying to write The Great American Novel. Each day he filled the wastebasket with scrunched sheets and each evening his mother emptied it. His father wasn't much of a talker. He wrote. He listened to the radio. He took long walks every night while Eunice finished her sewing and the boy was supposedly asleep.
Then one morning, he cornered Clifford with a surprise. Instead of heading to Miss Kelly's first grade classroom, his father pointed the car in another direction. Even at six years old, he could tell they were driving the wrong way. Neighborhoods with houses became strip shopping centers. The highway was soon dotted with fast food restaurants and pawnshops. Then there wasn't much of anything at all.
"We're going to Key West," said his father. "Your old man's planning a surprise."
Clifford didn't like surprises. He tasted his breakfast cereal a second time.
"There's a lunar eclipse," said his father. "Let me tell you, they don't happen every day of the week. Yes siree, Bob! No big city pollution. Only the stars."
The remembrance, like most, is hazy fifty years later. Telescopes lining up and down a beach. The moon a golden ring in the sky. And afterwards, the two of them sitting on stools. Over their heads, a net with starfish billowed in the breeze. A singer twanged a guitar. On the rim of his ginger ale was a tiny Chinese umbrella that opened and closed when he pushed the stick.
And his father—a taciturn man, a man who didn't speak when a shrug would suffice—was the life of the party. He'd never seen him so relaxed! Clapping strangers on the back. Making up the words to songs he didn't know and twirling waitresses around the floor.
He had no idea what time they got home. The roads were empty. The street lights dim. He remembered falling asleep in the back seat and waking up to the sounds of his parents arguing. The next day his mother drove him to school, and he never saw his father again.
It takes him a minute to figure out who he is. Where he is. Miami. A chaise lounge. The patio. The brunette is leaning over him with a can of Coors in her hand.
"The coast is clear," she says. "Your mother's in the kitchen."
To his shock, the brunette has made a second appearance. Instead of wearing jeans and a golf shirt, his brother-in-law wears chinos and a tie. In his hand, a pair of tongs abuses a chicken cutlet. His brother-in-law is watching his cholesterol. A year ago, he had no idea what cholesterol was.
Clifford looks at them and blinks. Then he grabs the arms of the lounge chair and slowly pulls himself up.
Inside the house, the world is slightly askew, familiar yet somehow different. Every square inch is covered with yellow post-its. Above the faucets, one says hot and one said cold. Another says This is the toilet. Flush the toilet. Like a Hansel and Gretel trail, they mark the walkways. Turn off the light. Turn here to find the kitchen. This is the way to the stairs. This is the laundry. DO NOT GO INTO THE LAUNDRY.
In the den, his father-in-law is watching TV. The score is tied and bases are loaded. Clifford sits down on the couch, drums his fingers, and pretends to watch.
Over the course of twelve months, his father-in-law seems to have shrunk. He sits curled in his armchair like a parenthesis. The hand holding a potato chip aims for his mouth and misses. Though Clifford knows that his mother-in-law Berta has had a rough year, he has no idea the toll it has taken on others.
More peculiar still are the strangers slinking up and down the halls. Avoiding the kitchen, he loops the house. He overhears whispers of Spanish conversation. Sees bits of sleeves and parts of pant cuffs. He knows that the in-laws have hired help. An aide to watch Berta. A full-time housekeeper. A driver. But it's as if a household of ghosts has taken over the residence, sliding through the corridors with barely a sound.
A woman in some sort of uniform suddenly appears. White polyester pants and shirt. Sneakers. A pitcher of iced tea in her hand. "Quiere algo de tomar?" she asks. "You want?"
He waves his hand and like a car in reverse backs up once more. He wanders from room to room lost but not lost, hoping and not hoping to find his way. The living room, like most living rooms in grand homes, is seldom used. He feels his feet sink into the plush carpeting. Then he gazes through the large glass windows. A line of cars is parked in the driveway. Beyond the driveway is a pair of black iron gates. He looks up. Speakers puncture the ceiling. Like a clarion from the clouds, his wife's voice booms. "I can use some help," she yells. "Can someone give me some help?"
Things he avoids. Things he has no intention of doing.
The couch, when he sits down, cocoons him. He wonders how long he can get away sitting on the couch. Closing his eyes, he feels his lids quiver. Sights and sounds grow fuzzy as his pulse slows. He barely hears the audible swish of another body. He knows who it is instantly.
"In a certain light you look just like your father," says Eunice. She takes his hand.
No matter how hard he tries to bury the past, it keeps surfacing. Once he thought aging meant decrepit knees and balding scalps. But now that he's approaching the finish line, all he can think about is the starting block. A tropical night. A door slamming. An empty chair at the dinette table. He glances at his mother.
"I picture him living in another city," he says. "With a different wife and a different family. A well-respected press has published his book. His social circle is small but selective. He fancies himself a connoisseur of fine wine."
He looks off into the distance as if the image were just beyond his reach. His father's fingertips are stained with ink. His wispy hair is white.
Eunice pats him on the knee. "That's your dream, boychik. Never his."
The three of them are sitting in the rental car driving from the airport. Clifford's son is cursed with his father's pallor but blessed with the in-laws' height.
"The key," says Clifford, "is to keep moving."
Turning in the front seat, his wife shoots him a look.
Their son is taking a year off before applying to grad school. The boy calls it his growth year. He needs to tap his inner resources, he tells his parents. To wait for inspiration to take hold. In one poorly conceived gesture, Clifford's son has made himself a sitting duck. Now he's just as obligated to go to Miami as the rest of his family.
Clifford presses the buzzer to the iron gate. "Your mother commandeers the kitchen," he explains. "Your uncle and your aunt hang out on the patio. Your Grandpa sits in front of the TV." He makes lazy circles with his finger. "Just keep moving."
Each time Clifford glances into the rearview mirror, the boy is fidgeting and squirming. The kid's a nonstop whirl of body parts, a mystery, a puzzle missing a piece. There is no doubt in Clifford's mind that his son takes drugs. A child can drain your wallet and your heart.
Things that stupefy him. Things that leave him addled and confused.
"How's Grandma Berta?"
"Happy," says Clifford. "It's like the nursing home is a cruise ship and she's the entertainment director. Wearing diapers. Talking to a list of imaginary friends."
His wife theatrically wipes an eye. "That's so unfair. Mother was perfection. Our rock.... our glue. The holiday won't be the same."
They turn into an empty driveway. The large house on the bay seems sepulchral as they enter the great hall. Clifford listens for the TV blaring but instead there's silence. The staff, he is told, has been pared down. There is no whispering, no pattering of slippered feet. Clifford feels blind as he gropes his way toward the TV room. The post-its, he notices, are gone from the walls.
To his surprise, he finds his father-in-law and mother Eunice sitting on the couch. A Scrabble board and tiles are spread on the coffee table. They are wearing matching sweat pants and sweat shirts. Designer no less. The words Fila Fila Fila run across their chests and up and down their legs.
"We've just come back from our constitutional," says Eunice. Like a gigantic dandelion, his mother's helmet of frizzy hair is now entirely white. "First we exercise our bodies," she says. Then she points to the game. "Then we exercise our minds."
His father-in-laws' cheeks are ruddy, his hair tousled. Though disheveled, he looks healthy and vigorous. There's a grass stain on a knee.
"Eunice lets me win," he says, grinning from ear to ear.
On his mother's wrist a pseudo watch is blinking. "We're neck and neck on our steps," says Eunice. "I figure that cleaning up dinner will get me to 10,000."
It's his wife's turn to hover in the shadows. It is as if someone has punctured a vein and drawn the lifeblood out. Clifford spins in circles, glancing in turn at his wife, his mother, his father-in-law, his son. It's left to Eunice, as usual, to take over. She springs up from the couch and covers her grandson with kisses. Before the boy can utter a word of protest, she grabs his elbows and positions him next to the old man.
"I'd be careful if I were you," says Eunice. "Your grandfather has a cheat sheet. Knows all those tricky two letter words."
While the women head to the kitchen, Clifford wanders to the patio. The sun is directly overhead. Diamonds dance on the limestone floor while the waters of the pool shimmer. He covers his eyes. It hurts to look.
"We were wondering when you'd show up," says his brother-in-law.
The newlyweds have wasted no time getting pregnant. While the brunette is wielding an enormous stomach, the brother-in-law looks concave. It's as if they've transferred their prospective weights. As usual they are standing over the grill.
"I need a beer," says Clifford. "You got a beer? On second thought, leave me a six-pack with a hemlock chaser."
He walks over to the water's edge. It's eight maybe ten feet deep. A few yards away sits a pair of propane tanks. Why, he wonders, does nothing stand still? He searches his pockets for a match.
"I guess things look a bit topsy turvy from your perspective," says the brother-in-law. Next to the grill is a large carton filled with papers. One by one he grabs a bunch and tosses them into the fire.
"My mother?" says Clifford. "Your father?"
Things that make his skin crawl. Things that make him want to jump into a vat of hydrogen peroxide until he's bleached clean.
The brunette steps forward. "You know those imaginary friends Berta's been talking about at the home? Well it seems that they're not so imaginary."
All three watch the papers curl and crisp. The ashes toss and turn with the breeze, slowly making their way upward.
"The two of us cleared out Mom's stuff so Dad didn't have to," says the brother-in-law. "Turns out she's had quite the social life all these years. All that time Dad was selling cars, Mom was greasing someone else's dipstick."
Clifford points at the grill. "Is this the evidence?"
It's the brunette's turn to throw in a handful. "Love letters," she says. "Hotel room receipts. You name it."
By now the grill's a fucking bonfire. Flames are leaping, cinders are sparking, a red hot heat blasts their faces.
"Dad hasn't a clue," says the brother-in-law." And if you're smart, you won't tell your wife. Some things should stay secret, you know? My sister put Berta on a pedestal. What good is the truth gonna do?"
Clifford walks back inside the house. Buttery smells and women's voices waft from the kitchen. Once more he peeks inside the den. The Scrabble game is abandoned while the TV blares. Both his son and his father-in-law are laughing, gesturing, finishing each other sentences with an ease that Clifford both envies and disdains. He opens and closes one door after another until he reaches his destination. Again the couch envelopes him. His mind slows as his thoughts drift. Before long he hears a second audible swish.
"He was an alcoholic, wasn't he?" says Clifford.
His mother's fingers, when they hold his, are gnarled and arthritic. He wonders if she is still able to sew.
"An alcoholic who suffered a horrible death," he throws out like a bad card.
Once he gets going, it's hard to stop.
"Was it AIDS?" he asks? "Or pneumonia? A car accident if he were lucky and it was quick."
The fissures in his mother's face deepen. They're like crevasses on a mountain or a freshly raked field. "I had no idea where you were that day," says Eunice. "Your father never bothered to call. It was the longest day of my life."
He pictures those papers burning on the patio, an ashen phoenix spiraling toward the sky.
"All these years I thought he abandoned us," says Clifford. "Picked a smarter family. A better-looking family. A more interesting family. But that never happened, did it?" He stops to catch his breath then sputters forward. "You threw him out, didn't you? You protected me by throwing him out."
"The door was always open," says Eunice." I told him that if he sobered up he'd be welcomed home."
After all the food is boxed and the proffered cheeks are pecked, Clifford returns to the chaise lounge. The patio is empty. A faint cloud of smoke lingers. As the sun sets, the moon sits plump. The blue line in the pool is barely visible, stretching like a runway to the stars.
Over and over the conversation with his mother loops. The scene is wooly, dreamlike, life seen through a cataract-clouded lens. Closing his eyes, he replays the words. Were they real, he wonders? Did his mother actually sit by his side and clutch his hand?
Then suddenly he realizes that it doesn't make a difference. He glances at the brown spots spattering his arms, his knobby knuckles, the mooned crescents of his ridged nails. Then shrugging his shoulders, he sighs.
Things he can live with. Things he can get used to. Things he can learn to accept.
Maybe, he decides, growing old isn't so bad after all. Maybe aging merges disparate times and places. Maybe memories shift and sway as the Earth moves. For even though the world is slightly atilt, we cling to constants. Pain fades. Hope sticks. Mothers endure.