By Katie Dickson
Peter’s mother, tanned and laughing in her lime green swimsuit, twisted on the spigot outside the back door. Margo Stiles was unyielding in her cheer, or so it seemed to Peter, and he tried to be happy too. His mother let the water flow from the hose until it ran cool and Peter took a long drink; the water tasted tinny and cold. At twelve, Peter considered himself too old to run under the sprinkler, but he didn’t say so, not wanting to set alight the morning’s disappointment at the pool. Instead, Peter peered at the street from the narrow side yard, running his palm over the soft pelt of his hair, dark like his mother’s and buzzed tight to his head. All along the curve of his street, identical split-level houses—all with matching wood-paneled grins and carports with jaunty angles—lined up in the midday sun. Overhead, a taut, blue sky, its edges tucked in at the horizon, held in the heat.
As he sometimes did, Peter pictured his street on move-in day, how the moving vans and appliance trucks clogging the roads had raised clouds of dust that took days to settle. Peter’s family had moved in alongside all the other families purchasing homes through the GI Bill, and his father, Frank, had joined the other men in the street, helping neighbors unload before turning to the unpacking inside his own home.
Even as his mother chased him under the sprinkler and they took turns rinsing the blades of grass from their feet and ankles with the hose, Peter braced himself for the moment his brother Jimmy would wake and the bright grass and the yelp of the cool water would vanish. Jimmy was five but he did not talk, and he rarely smiled, and he wouldn’t even try to catch a ball when Peter tossed one to him. Most folks just talked around it, but as Jimmy had gotten older, people seemed less willing to play along. Just this morning at the community center, while Jimmy lumbered along the edge of the baby pool with the remains of a Creamsicle, two mothers pulled their toddlers from the water, not quite hiding their haste. As Jimmy sat in the shallow water patting the concrete gutter and trailing his fingers through a creamy film, Mrs. Jensen peered over her fan of bridge cards to ask Margo if Jimmy weren’t too big for the baby pool this year. Was it safe for him, she wondered, what with all the babies underfoot? Mrs. Jensen shrugged a speckled shoulder as if this question had just now occurred to her, and the other mothers nodded or, worse, looked away. Margo, regal in her teal turban and oversized black sunglasses, re-crossed her bronzed limbs and showed the women her teeth in a tight smile. A short while later, after rolling up their damp towels and stowing them in her straw bag, she clucked her tongue at Peter and beckoned with two fingers: they were leaving. With Jimmy in tow, she glided past the rows of chaises lining the pool deck to the exit, her back erect and her seafoam caftan floating around her. Peter took care to walk unhurriedly too, although his sandals were packed in the bottom of his mother’s bag and the concrete burned the soles of his feet.
As Margo wound up the hose, a white Sears truck, escorted by several neighborhood kids on bikes, circled the cul-de-sac and pulled up alongside the Woodsons’ driveway across the street. Margo looked on as a jump-suited man heaved himself from the driver’s seat and loaded a large box onto a dolly, but Peter knew better than to ask her if he could walk over and see if the Woodsons were getting a TV. People don’t need to know everything about each other, she’d say, and to Peter, this certainly seemed true.
No one knew, for example, that Peter stole things from time to time: a fistful of straws from the soda counter at Woolworth’s, a small stack of cards from the D-F section of the library card catalog, a pair of cracked sunglasses from the lost and found at the pool. But Peter did not consider himself to be a thief. Taking these things, stashing them in the brown duffle under his bed, gave him a little lift was all. He could stop anytime he liked.
“You’re getting rosy.” Margo pressed a cool finger to Peter’s shoulder as he lay on the warm patch of concrete shaded by the grapefruit tree. The tree was full-grown and a source of pride to Margo among the spindly, newly-planted trees that studded the neighbors’ yards. She picked a grapefruit and dug her thumbnail into the waxy hump of peel near the stem. The soft ripping sound of the peel and the steady hum of her voice buzzed in Peter’s chest. “Not long ago,” she told him, “all these houses—this whole town—was nothing but orchards. Acres and acres of citrus trees with gray, twisted trunks like plumes of smoke. Planted in rows. Lemon and grapefruit and orange. Tangerine.” As Peter sucked the juice from the wedges of grapefruit his mother handed him, he thought about the trees. He tried to picture the rows.
A series of thuds drifted from the bedroom window—Jimmy’s padded helmet knocking against the slats of the crib he still slept in—and Peter glanced at his mother to see if she heard it too. Jimmy’s cries pulsed from the bedroom window and, after a moment, Margo got up and walked to the house. Peter ran a finger through the faint shimmer of steam that rose from the wet swimsuit silhouette she left on the pavement. The cries were replaced by a rhythmic thumping and Peter knew his mother would be attempting to toilet and dress Jimmy, and she would not return to the yard. The edges of her wet imprint became fuzzy and lighter until the mark shrank altogether, leaving dry pavement and a neat stack of up-turned grapefruit peel.
The hot weather continued through the start of the school year and well into September, but Margo, who had been a stewardess based out of Philadelphia until she married, told Peter an Indian summer was not something to complain about. Heat shimmered over the blacktop at Peter’s school, curling the edges of the red and orange paper leaves taped to the heavy door of his eighth-grade classroom. It went unspoken that Jimmy did not start kindergarten, and Peter tried not to think how his mother and Jimmy coped all day long while Peter was at school and then at baseball practice.
One Friday evening a few weeks into the school year, Peter was letting himself in the front door when the phone rang. He could see his mother through the back window unpegging sheets from the clothesline, Jimmy seated in the grass at her feet, so Peter picked up the phone from its cradle on the kitchen wall.
“Tell your mother I’m bringing Dr. Boyle home for dinner.” Frank Stiles’s voice boomed over the phone without preamble. Peter pictured his father perched on his stool in the manager’s booth at the Satellite Car Wash, whose red metal spires punctuated the end of the town’s strip of shops like giant exclamation points. There would be a line of cars at this hour; the rocket-shaped sign could be seen from the 101 and people steered off the freeway to wait on the benches, squinting at the white letters spelling out Hollywood on the distant hills while their Chevys and Buicks went through the car wash. “I’ll close up near sunset, home by seven o’clock with Dr. Boyle. Tell your mother.”
“She won’t be happy,” Peter said.
“Dr. Boyle’s a big help with Jimmy. Remind her, you’ll see,” Frank said. “No fuss. Just set another place.” And he hung up.
“Dr. Boyle,” Margo muttered as she moved through the living room, tugging at the curtains and whacking the couch pillows to attention with the side of her palm. “Now there’s an audience we don’t need.” Peter rather liked Dr. Boyle; his forehead held lines that deepened when he peered over his glasses, and his push-broom eyebrows swept his brow clean when he pulled them down. At his last checkup, Peter had sat shirtless and goose-fleshed on the crinkly paper of the exam table while Dr. Boyle tapped his knee with a pink rubber mallet and asked him how his mother was holding up. Dr. Boyle had taken to dropping by the house and this was a fair question. Peter thought of his mother, sitting with Jimmy in the waiting room in her good tweed skirt and her cream silk blouse with the billowy sleeves that covered the row of dark green bruises that Jimmy’s fingers had left, her brown hair in a glossy flip. When Peter answered that his mother was fine, thank you, the doctor ducked his head in a single nod and sat warming the metal of his stethoscope in his palm. Peter got the feeling he had given the wrong answer.
“Kowtowing to Jimmy, they’ll say—as if those two know how to run a household. We’ll just get Jimmy tucked in before Dr. Busybody and your father descend,” Margo called to Peter, but he was already pulling down the ironing board from its little cupboard in the kitchen. It was Peter’s job to warm Jimmy’s yellow blanket with the iron while she did her part with the washing up and pajamas in Jimmy’s room. Peter pressed the hot iron to the blanket; he rolled it up to trap the heat; he unplugged the iron; he left it upright on the board. Timing was everything. If they rushed or changed the order of things Jimmy was apt to swing an elbow. Outside Jimmy’s door with the blanket cooling in his hands, Peter could hear his mother still on the song and the rocking chair—what was taking her so long? Leaning his head on the doorjamb, Peter ran through the list of the things he had stolen this week: a neighbor’s Los Angeles Examiner, a fat piece of pink chalk he found on the sidewalk, an extra Chinese finger trap from the prize box at the dentist. At last his mother’s voice slid through the end of the song, so Peter swung the door open and presented the blanket to Jimmy with a deep bow. Buoyed by Jimmy’s bark of pleasure, Peter lowered the protective helmet on Jimmy’s head, counting down from ten in his moon- landing voice, the way Jimmy liked. Peter was good at buckling Jimmy’s helmet without pinching the soft flesh under his chin. Peter was good at calming the drumming and the rocking. He was good with Jimmy, no doubt about it, his mother told him.
“Easy as pie,” Margo said. She stepped into the hall and pulled Jimmy’s door closed behind them as Frank’s headlights swept across the front window. “Now run and change your shirt for dinner.” When Frank and Dr. Boyle came in from the carport, she was at the kitchen counter rattling ice cubes, twisting grapefruit halves on the big metal juicer, and tipping chilled vodka into glasses. Frank didn’t need to know whether the day with Jimmy had been a hard one and certainly it was none of Dr. Boyle’s business. After dinner, while the grown-ups smoked in the living room, Peter lifted the pink rubber mallet from Dr. Boyle’s black bag on the passenger seat of his father’s Buick and stashed it in the brown duffle under his bed.
Peter sat in the flickering light from the TV, oiling the heel of his baseball glove with the little bottle of lanolin his father had given him. Frank had helped Peter break in the glove; they folded the mitt around a ball, tied it up with a shoelace, and left it overnight under the tire of the Buick in the driveway.
“Mind you don’t spill that, Peter. Lanolin stains,” his mother said, settling on the couch.
“Now, Margo.” Frank turned the sound down on Peter’s TV show and eased himself into a chair. The stubble on his upper lip and jaw made a rasping sound when he rubbed his hand across his face. “I want to show you what Dr. Boyle left with me.”
“Frank,” she said. “Don’t start.” Frank laid a colored pamphlet on the coffee table. The pamphlet’s glossy cover showed a brick building with white trim; a stack of brick steps led up a slope of bright green grass to a set of glass double doors. In the lower right-hand corner, a two-toned Oldsmobile and a blue Studebaker with tailfins lined up neatly along a low hedge at the edge of a parking lot. Beyond the parking lot was a dark, fuzzy line, suggesting a row of pine trees. Peter squinted at the black print across the top of the pamphlet: Safe Haven Residence for the Retarded. Frank adjusted his glasses on his nose and leaned in to peer at the pamphlet, as if he hadn’t studied it already.
“Safe Haven is right here in California, especially designed to take care of folks like Jimmy.” He tapped the pamphlet with his finger. “Dr. Boyle was kind enough to do a bit of research.”
Margo straightened her spine. She swayed back and forth like a cobra rising out of a basket. “I’m not having this conversation, Frank. I mean it.” She glared at the TV where an aproned housewife with a toddler on her hip beamed at a gleaming glass she had just pulled from her dishwasher, her lips moving soundlessly. “Peter, turn the sound back on please.”
“Not just yet, Peter.” Peter’s father cleared his throat. “Margo, we all love Jimmy, but keeping him here with us isn’t fair.”
“It’s not fair to Jimmy, and it’s not fair to Peter either.”
“Leave Peter out of this.”
“Listen to me now, Margo. It was one thing when Jimmy was a baby. He’s too big for you to handle, is all. The boy doesn’t know his own strength.”
“Frank Stiles, don’t you pretend you know the first thing about it. Do I run down to the Satellite to tell you how to manage the place? No, I leave you to it.”
Frank’s face softened as he tipped his head toward Margo. “You know, none of this is your fault, Margo. No one is saying that.” He made as if to move to her on the couch, but when she stood up, he sat back down.
Margo stepped in front of Frank and stood over him. “Do you know what your problem is, Frank?” When Frank lowered his eyes, Peter did the same. Peter watched his mother’s bare toes turn white as her feet clenched the carpet pile and the hem of her skirt trembled around her calves. “You have no …” Her voice was low but then brightened as she seemed to seize on the answer. “You have no pride. You have no pride nor any sense of loyalty to speak of.” She strode from the room and a moment later Peter heard her bedroom door slam shut.
Frank removed his glasses, folded them, and slid them with the pamphlet in his front shirt pocket. Without the black frames, his face seemed to sag and his jaw hung slack, like a soldier’s, Peter thought, or maybe a fireman’s—winded from running a long distance in heavy gear. For a moment, Peter considered what encouraging words he might say to his father, but when Frank asked if he wouldn’t like to have a catch under the street lights, Peter said no and turned the sound back up on the TV.
“Dad,” Peter said. “I’d maybe just let it go.”
“I wish I could, son. But I can’t pretend I don’t see what goes on.”
“Still,” Peter said. He turned away to fiddle with the rabbit ears on the TV. “She’s not going to change her mind. That’s no secret.”
“I’m trying to help, Peter, I really am,” Frank said.
“It makes it worse though, doesn’t it?”
Frank let himself out the screen door and soon the smell of cigarette smoke drifted in through the window. Peter screwed the top back on the lanolin bottle and brought the baseball glove to his face, breathing in the oiled leather smell. The truth was Peter couldn’t imagine a life without Jimmy: his smooth, pale face and limbs like lumber, his swaying and thrumming, the tick-tock of him in the house. Peter put on the mitt, smacking his other fist into the pocket they had molded in the leather.
“Jimmy won’t last long here.” Peter’s mother made it sound like bringing Jimmy along to Woolworth’s had been his idea. “Go ahead and pick out your baseball cards,” she said. Peter scanned her face, noting the dark circles and the pinched skin around her eyes, above the bright swath of lipstick. After the business with the pamphlet, Peter could no longer predict his mother. She’d hole up in the house for days with Jimmy, then insist on an outing, leaving Peter to guess at what they were meant to be proving. Just steps inside the double-glass doors, Jimmy was already trying to rearrange a row of hair spray cans. Pink patches bloomed on the smooth stone of his face when Margo tried to take his hand. “Make it quick now,” she said to Peter.
Peter made his way past the bins holding small metal rockets and red plastic eggs of Silly Putty to the packs of baseball cards. As he approached the counter at the back of the store where two women and several older boys stood in line, Peter heard a clattering from the beauty aisle. Down the aisle, several fat cans of hairspray rolled on the tiled floor. Margo was crouched behind Jimmy, murmuring in his ear and coaxing a can of hairspray from his hand.
“Excuse me.” Peter held up the pack of baseball cards to the pharmacist. He tried not to sound desperate.
“Just a minute, son.” The pharmacist held up a palm to Peter and squinted at the price tag on a bottle of Milk of Magnesia.
Jimmy’s shriek filled the store. The ladies and boys turned to stare at Jimmy as Margo held his arms to his sides. She let out a small grunt when Jimmy twisted around and sank his teeth into her forearm. She dropped to her haunches and lay flat on her back, rocking side to side, with Jimmy clasped in her arms. Her dress was hitched up between their bodies, exposing white cotton panties and a pale thigh, and Peter scurried up the aisle to tug his mother’s dress down to cover her legs. Knowing better than to touch Jimmy, Peter stood over them until the rocking quieted Jimmy. Jimmy turned his head and released Margo’s arm from his mouth. Lurching to a stand, Margo hiked Jimmy up on her hip and shuffled toward the door.
“Peter, put the cards back and let’s go.” She pointed her chin at the double-glass doors. Chords in her neck bunched and then pulled taut under Jimmy’s weight. “Daddy can bring you back on Saturday.” Peter looked at his mother as she stood at the door, her mascara smudged under one eye and her purse sliding down her shoulder. He couldn’t see her forearm and wondered whether the skin was broken.
“Peter, please don’t embarrass me. Put the cards back and come get the door before one of those ladies does.”
Peter marched around the aisle to the baseball card bins. He glanced toward the back counter, but the two women were staring at their handbags, and the boys at their shoes. The pharmacist coughed and jangled the cash register drawer. When his mother’s back was turned, Peter slipped the baseball cards in his back pocket and went to open the door for her.
Jimmy sat at his usual place at the kitchen table, sliding his hand back and forth across the turquoise, enameled tabletop. Margo nodded, indicating Peter could clear the dinner dishes and be excused from the table. As she passed her plate to Peter, the white edge of a bandage showed at the sleeve of her cardigan.
“Margo, what’s happened to your arm?” Frank asked. “Jimmy’s bit you again, has he?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. It’s a scratch,” Margo said.
“If Jimmy bit you, I’d like to know about it.” Frank held his glasses up to the light, polished them with his napkin, and put them back on.
“Frank, I’ve just said. It’s a scratch, from a rose bush.”
“Come now, Margo. What rose bush?”
“Why on earth does it matter which rose bush?” She flicked her eyes at Peter. “Darling, don’t stack the plates like that when you clear. Honestly.”
“It matters, Margo. I’d like to understand, I really would,” Frank said.
“Those rose bushes downtown,” Peter said. He thought his voice sounded funny, too high, but his father didn’t seem to notice. “In front of Woolworth’s.” Margo stood and crossed to the sink, tugging the sleeve of her sweater down. Peter felt her fingers brush the back of his shirt as she passed.
“A tiny scratch,” she said.
“Woolworth’s?” Frank passed Peter the butter dish to clear and swept some crumbs from the enameled tabletop with the side of his hand. “So, Peter, did you get your baseball cards?” Peter glanced at his mother pulling on her yellow rubber gloves at the sink. The glass cover of the butter dish rattled when he set it down on the counter.
“I did.” Peter reached into his back pocket and placed the pack of cards on the table.
“Excellent.” Frank peered at the pack of cards. “Let’s have a look at what you’ve chosen.” Although Peter kept his eyes down, he could feel his mother’s stare. The seconds ticked by to the steady squeak of the turquoise plastic upholstery as Jimmy rocked back and forth in his seat, and the floor seemed to tilt toward Peter so that he had to steady himself with two fingers on the edge of the table. Peter looked up and held Margo’s eyes—wide and round under her raised eyebrows—until she turned back to the sink and twisted on the faucet. Peter sat at the table and tore open the pack of cards with his father. Standing at the sink with the water running and her yellow-gloved hands resting at her sides, Margo could have been looking out the kitchen window, but it was dark out by then and the window was black.
A few weeks later at baseball practice, Peter’s coach said he’d had a message from his mother that Peter was to go straight home. Cutting across several lots between his school yard and the house under a darkening sky, Peter wondered if this was about the stolen baseball cards. More likely, she just needed his help with Jimmy. As Peter cut through a neighbor’s yard, he spotted a wooden-handled garden trowel and slipped it into his bookbag. He took his time brushing the dirt off first, picturing his mother waiting for him. In the few weeks since he’d stolen the baseball cards at Woolworth’s, he’d lifted a few more things, including a set of car keys from the teachers’ lounge. This was risky, he knew, but the surge he got when he saw that lone car still in the parking lot over the weekend was worth it. Having long ago sworn he would never steal from Jimmy, he worked around that by taking Jimmy’s Sunday tie and the Red Sox cap their uncle from Boston had sent— things he knew Jimmy hated anyway.
Peter paused on the sidewalk outside his house. He liked being out on his street at dusk when the smells of other people’s cooking mingled in the air and identical rectangles of warm light studded the rows of trim houses like yellow bricks laid evenly in a road. From the street, his front window could have framed a vignette as regular as any neighbor’s. When Peter headed up the walk and entered the front door, he found Jimmy clad only in pajama pants, dozing in the living room armchair. Jimmy’s yellow blanket was draped over his bare belly; sandwich crusts and crumpled mini raisin boxes littered the floor around the chair.
“There you are, Peter.” His mother, seated on the couch in her bathrobe, made a show of licking her middle finger and flicking at the pages of a magazine lying open on the coffee table, but her eyes were red-rimmed and her hair bunched up on one side. “I expected you an hour ago. Didn’t you get my message to come home?”
“I had practice,” Peter said. When he switched on the floor lamp, Margo winced and glanced at Jimmy, but he continued sleeping, breathing heavily through an open mouth. “What is it?” Peter asked. “Is this about the cards I stole?”
“The baseball cards? Goodness no,” she said. She patted the couch cushion next to her, but Peter remained standing.
“What then, if you don’t care about that?” he asked. “Why call my coach to send me home?”
“I needed your help, Peter. That Dr. Boyle showed up here. Unannounced.”
“It seems like he’s trying to help.” Peter shifted his bookbag to the other shoulder.
“He shows up here as if I can’t even run my own house.” She searched the pockets of her bathrobe and withdrew a pack of matches. “It threw Jimmy completely off his day. I couldn’t even get him dressed afterward.”
“Looks like you made your mind up not to get yourself dressed, either,” Peter said.
“Don’t you be smart with me, Peter.” She sat up straighter and held her bathrobe together at the collarbone. “What’s eating you?”
“Everyone stays for the whole practice. No one’s mom calls them home early,” Peter said. He stared at her, but she was opening the lacquered cigarette box on the coffee table and, finding it empty, snapped it shut.
“Well, your father never should have consulted that fool.” She lifted her arm and waved her hand in the direction of her bedroom. “Bring me a box of cigarettes, will you?”
Peter found a fresh box of cigarettes in his mother’s top dresser drawer amid a perfumed jumble of her things: her black sunglasses, a swirl of silk scarves, her white gloves with the pearl buttons at the wrist, and a tangle of jewelry. Peter fingered a heavy gold bracelet loaded with charms. He remembered how the charms used to clank on the side of the bathroom sink when she rummaged around in her makeup kit and tapped the ash from her cigarette. These things, along with the row of brightly colored dresses in the closet, hadn’t been worn in months, and it seemed to Peter that they no longer belonged to her. Nowadays, when Margo did dress to go out, she wore dungarees and Keds with the heels smashed down in the back as if she didn’t plan to be out of the house long enough to warrant putting her shoes on properly.
“Bring me a lighter too, will you, Peter?” his mother called from the living room. “And I’ll need your help getting dinner on.” Peter considered the heft of her charm bracelet in one palm, his pulse knocking against his ribs. When he put her bracelet in his pocket, the corners of his mouth turned up and he rolled his shoulders back to give his heart the room it needed in his chest. Loose and weightless, he swept his mother’s reading glasses off her bedside table and slipped them up the sleeve of his sweater, then hummed his way back to the living room where Jimmy still slept in the armchair. Jimmy’s waxy eyelids flickered when Peter dropped the pack of cigarettes on the coffee table in front of his mother.
While Peter was certain the charm bracelet wouldn’t be missed for a while, the very next morning Margo was asking Peter and Frank if they’d seen her reading glasses. It was fun to know exactly where the glasses were while pretending to help her search. Watching her rummage through her bedside table drawers and stoop to feel around under her bed, Peter imagined he could feel his blood moving around in his body in steady, strong spurts. He looked up to find his father watching him from the bedroom doorway. Frank gazed steadily at Peter, tilting his head and pressing his lips together before turning away.
Boxes of stuffing mix and cans of cranberry sauce were lined up on the counter, although Peter couldn’t recall any talk about who they would have over for Thanksgiving this year. Frank had come home from the car wash bearing a cardboard box of take-away from the burger stand off the highway. Folding up the sleeve of her bathrobe where it was soaked from Jimmy’s bath, Margo took the little foam cup of coffee Frank offered her without comment, shaking her head at the paper-wrapped burger.
After dinner, Peter helped his father clear away the empty wrappers from the table while Jimmy sat lining up a stack of crackers, his rounded face shiny and smooth. Frank stood with his hands on the back of Jimmy’s chair, cleared his throat, and ran through his well-worn points about Jimmy in his measured voice. Margo sat at the window seat with her face turned to the glass. Outside the window in the darkening yard, the grapefruit tree hung heavy and the ground was littered with fruit. She failed to spit out her lines, so to Peter’s ear, the rhythm of their fight was off. Tiny white globes—reflections of the overhead light—bounced in the lenses of Frank’s glasses, so Peter couldn’t be sure where his father was looking.
“Margo, are you listening to me?” Frank asked. Peter looked up—had his father raised his voice? Peter studied Jimmy across the table but there was no question or answer on his face; Jimmy’s hair was freshly combed, the teeth marks from the comb still visible in his damp hair. Peter’s eyes trailed up Jimmy’s neat part to his father’s red and ragged face, which seemed to float, disembodied above Jimmy. His father’s features were so coarse, his skin so rough compared to Jimmy’s. Peter had to look away.
“No one can love Jimmy the way I do,” Margo said finally, her voice flat. Peter had to strain to hear her. She lit a cigarette and held it to the crack in the window, keeping her face turned toward the glass. “You can’t pay someone to love Jimmy. We can send him away and you can pay them to keep him, but they won’t love him.” She tapped a pack of cigarettes on the window sill and Jimmy nodded his head in time to her tapping.
“I’m sorry. But it’s not just about Jimmy anymore. There’s more going on here.” Frank pulled his glasses up to perch on top of his head and dragged his hand across his face. “We’ve lost our way here.” He looked at Peter a long moment. “All of us.” Then Frank strode from the kitchen and returned almost immediately with a brown duffle bag that took Peter a few beats to recognize as his.
“Peter is stealing. For Christ’s sake, Margo.” Frank unzipped the bag, his voice shaking. “Will you look at this stuff? Stashed under his bed.”
“Dad, wait,” Peter said. “Don’t.” But Frank turned the duffle bag over and shook it. Soda straws, a garden trowel with a wood handle, Dr. Boyle’s pink rubber mallet, a stack of library catalog cards, Margo’s charm bracelet, a newspaper, a half a dozen unopened packs of baseball cards and a snow globe from Woolworth’s, a Red Sox cap, a Chinese finger trap, Jimmy’s Sunday tie, two sets of car keys, a piece of pink chalk, Margo’s reading glasses, a pearl earring, and a pair of cracked sunglasses all clattered onto the table.
Reaching out to upright the snow globe spinning toward the edge of the table, Peter looked at Jimmy, worried that this commotion would startle him, but the kitchen was quiet and Jimmy sat serenely working on a cracker. Peter’s thoughts rattled and clanged, picking up speed and blurring together. The empty duffle bag made a soft thump on the kitchen floor when Frank dropped it.
“What is going on here?” Frank asked. He put his hand on Peter’s shoulder, but he was looking at Margo. She stood and dropped her cigarette into the foam coffee cup on the counter. The cigarette popped and hissed. She looked from Peter to the pile on the table and took a step back, her fingers pressed against her mouth. Her face, her shoulders, her whole body it seemed, slumped and crumpled in on itself as she sat heavily back down in the window seat.
Jimmy regarded the pile of stuff on the table between him and Peter, picked up the garden trowel, and began rapping it on the table edge. Peter leaned over Jimmy and gently took his free hand and pressed it to the tabletop, sliding it back and forth across the enamel like a windshield wiper. When Peter took the trowel from Jimmy and put it on the counter behind him, Jimmy continued passing his palm back and forth across the tabletop. Jimmy’s head was tilted back, and he was looking at the cigarette smoke swirling around the fluorescent globe overhead, a look of rapture on his face.
“Peter,” Margo called as he crossed the kitchen to the living room. “Peter?”
“Let him be, Margo,” Peter heard his father say. “Let’s just give him a minute. We’ve got time.”
Peter stood at the front window and drew back the curtain. Folding his arms over his chest, he looked out at the huddle of houses, all outfitted the same and each with a glossy car tucked in its carport. He looked at his own family Buick standing in the driveway with its chrome glinting hopefully under the porch light. Every night this flock of split-level homes slept under the same navy billow of sky. Didn’t Peter’s house suit up as trim and tidy as the rest? It seemed to him a promise had been broken somehow. His eyes stung, the familiar parade of houses blurred, and for a moment droves of ghost trees wavered in the light from the streetlamps. Acres and acres of citrus trees, planted in rows, lemon and grapefruit and orange, tangerine, flickered and disappeared.
Katie Dickson’s short story, “A Matter of Weight,” published in 3Elements Literary Review, was nominated for Best of the Net 2017. She is an assistant editor at Narrative Magazine and non-profit board member at Ms. Magazine, Narrative Magazine, and the Haas Center for Public Service at Stanford University. She is currently at work on a collection of linked short stories about the power and pitfalls of the sibling relationship. She lives near San Francisco with her husband, her pit bull rescue pup, and a revolving door of three children. Her hobbies include swimming, sleeping, and reading in bed.