wake from a dream of Marilyn Monroe. The dog is on the bed with me, by my feet; the phone is ringing. Stephanie sleeps on; it's too late in the evening for phone calls. By the time I get to the phone the machine has answered. Whoever has called hangs up.
I lie down again and try to return to the dream, knowing how rarely this works. I push the dog off onto the floor, and turn to my left, my extra pillow tucked up under my chin, curled in the crook of my arm, and fall asleep again. Marilyn looks a little harried, older perhaps, a bit lined but no less beautiful. She is wearing a long, sleeveless dress, a 60's sitcom kind of dress, with a lace apron. Her upper arms are a little too...loose or something, not fat exactly. She raises her arm; the small patch of stubble in her armpit is not blonde. Still, she is engaging. I look up at her. I am 10 and she is my mom. She is fussing with my coat. I am wearing a coat with a fake fur collar, and a hat that comes down over my ears. She is trying to zip my coat up all the way. We stand outside a house that is the home of my childhood, but somehow larger. A typical north Texas autumn day: a little damp, not warm but deceptively sunny. "We can't have you catch cold, honey," she tells me. Her smooth voice is like honey, and I stick to it and cannot reply. I feel a smile build in me, that flows through me like hot chocolate. She's a little thicker than I remember; she must be about forty. A loose blonde curl falls across her forehead from a simplified version of her familiar hairdo; she brushes it away with a smile. I walk out into a crisp autumn day, turn to look back, and she is there waving at me, smiling that smile of hers, and I see the sweet and genuine aspect of the smile, feel a thrum as the arrow of her smile plunks me dead center, and I love her dearly. Joe Dimaggio is in the yard. He looks like Mr. Coffee, only younger. "Wanna play catch?" he asks, smiling. Do I want to play catch with Joe Dimaggio? "Sure, Dad," I answer, and run to the garage for the gloves. The garage is the garage of my childhood, a one-car, detached model, with a workshop built on to the back of it, steps leading upward nailed in just to the right and inside the garage door, and room up in the rafters, where boards have been laid down for storage or a fort. The workshop had been an old chicken coop, but Dad had remodeled it, putting in a floor and building benches and cabinets. A big red Lincoln convertible, with a continental kit, is parked in the little garage, and I slide past it and grab the gloves off a nail on the back wall. Everything seems in its place. The yard is my old yard: a small back yard, backed by roses and a fence, then behind that a "back lot" that belongs to us too: a yard back behind our yard. The former chicken coop once had sat in the middle of the back lot, but Dad had moved it up against the garage before he remodeled it...rolled it on poles, pushed by some neighbors and friends. There's a square of bright green grass in the middle of the back lot, just the size of the old chicken coop. We throw the ball back and forth across the lot, over the square of green. The grass in the square was always a little taller, even a day after I mowed. I take off my hat and coat...it's not cold at all, but you know how moms are. Joe doesn't mind...he tosses me the baseball. The ball hits my glove with a solid whack, and later when I catch one flush against the thin leather of the palm, I swallow the sting and throw it back that much harder. Joe catches each one easily, sometimes at shoelace height, right off the grass, usually at about waist-level, moving up and back effortlessly, turning up in just the perfect spot to catch each one, as if he knows where each one is going better than I do. This seems possible, as throwing has never been my best talent. "Heads up." He spins in one smooth movement and tosses the ball, aiming it so as to make me run a bit, from one side to the other, but keeping it within reach; then throws me a few easy one-hoppers, never hitting the tall grass in the center of the yard on the bounce, never giving me the short-hop, always putting enough on the ball so it doesn't die just as I get to it, and I don't drop many of them. Then Mom calls, "Dinner" and for the first time I see the sky is beginning to darken in the east, and time has flown past, and just then Joe says "pop-up," and flings the ball high, seemingly out of sight, and I look for it frantically and then my eyes pick it up just in time, plummeting down, and I basket-catch it where I stand, almost without moving my glove, waist high like Willie Mays, and we both laugh and he slaps me on the shoulder, and holds his hand there as we head in. "A little better, every time," dad says. And dinner is fried chicken, and the mashed potatoes and gravy each contain just a few tiny lumps, left in to let you know you're eating the real thing; and home-made cranberry-applesauce, made from the apples that grow against the back fence; and fresh green beans from grandma's garden, with just a tiny bit of fatback in them, to give them that special flavor that only moms can create. And there are big home-made biscuits, and sweet iced tea, and we eat and smile and watch the sky color bright in the western windows, then dim into evening, and cricket sounds, and a light wind that blows the last leaves from the trees. The lights are turned down low, and there is a candelabra with five big bright white candles, in the middle of the table. I watch Mom and Dad as they eat. They catch me looking, then smile at one another. Moms and dads are funny, I think, and I find myself hoping I'll be a dad too some day. Mom talks of plans, trips we will take and parties we will have, looking right into my eyes as she talks to me, and her gaze and her soft voice seem almost hypnotic. I watch Dad watch her as she talks to him. He loves her just as much as I do; the light seems to reflect from her and brighten the room. They let me use the candle snuffer, and after we clean up, we all read for a while, the two of them sitting in big stuffed chairs, coffee cups on the table between them. I lie on the floor, in robe and slippers, in the living room of my childhood, except that there is a bear skin rug, and the fireplace is real. Dad stokes the fire and reads the Sporting News, Mom reads Look magazine, and I read part of a play, called "The Man Who Had All The Luck," and it is good, but parts of it are hard for me to understand. Lying on a thick braided rug, of black and red and earth-tones, the smooth sound of my slipper slapping against the sole of my foot as I flip it back and forth, legs crossed behind and above me as I read, prone on my stomach before the fire, the feeling that I have never been more at home wraps me like an old quilt. "Bed time," mom says, and I start to complain, but when I open my mouth a yawn comes out, and I just smile. I get ready for bed, then Mom tucks me in, picks up my slippers and slides them neatly together, under the end of the bed, and kisses me, and turns away, then looks back at me, her hair a golden frame around the shadow of her face, silhouetted by the light from the hallway, and she turns to me again and sits down beside me, and hugs me tight, and kisses the top of my head and my neck, until I giggle and she tousles my hair. "It just came over me, it does sometimes...I love you so much," she says. "You'll just never know how important you are to me." She is so beautiful in the half-light, at first I can hardly speak. And I say I understand, and smile a silly kid's smile back at her, but then I roll over to my left as she moves away, and only hear the brush of her dress against the bed linen as she turns to go, saying, "Goodnight, darling," and I am asleep before I hear another thing. Then my eyes open to the morning, and the morning turns out to be beautiful: the light streaming in beams through the window, and although it seems almost as if no time has passed, I feel refreshed, as if I'd slept long and hard. But it is just now dawn, and the dog is on the bed again. This time I don't make him move; I lie back and watch the spring leaves on the lilac bush outside my bedroom window brush against the screen, and judging the time, I listen for the morning paper to hit the front porch. I can smell coffee, and think how good a cup would taste, hoping Stephanie will bring me one. Closing my eyes I wait, and I can almost see them again in the living room, lit by the flames, their shadows shifting behind them against the flower-papered wall. And I wonder how I could have been as good for them as they could have been for me, and yet I know deeply that I could have been, and a lot more, but then Stephanie comes in, two cups in hand and asks playfully, "Oh, why the sad face?" and I smile up at her. "Nothing," I answer. "Everything's fine. It's good to be home." The dog yawns and rolls over. I can smell the first lilac buds on the breeze. The morning light shadows moving leaves through the window, playing patterns on the wall. "Let me get the boys up today," I say, sipping my coffee, looking under the bed for my slippers as she unfolds the Sunday paper and settles in.
[ FICTION INDEX | ISSUE CONTENTS | XCONNECT COVER | E-MAIL ]