Falter

Chapter Three

Wanda started sending me letters. At first she was brief.

“Bernard and I are leaving for Arizona October first. If you want your stuff before then, let me know.”

“Sorry, no –– really busy,” I wrote.

Every time I contemplated the reality of arriving in Fox Hollow, I imagined our house, waiting like Charybdis to suck me into the void. I could picture all its details: the yellow carpet on the curving staircase, the sheer curtains in the living and dining rooms, the lighted windows of the china cabinet in which Bev stored her collection of smiling shepherds and milkmaids. The day my father left, I sat outside on a wrought iron settee, folding and unfolding his note to me, black ink on blue legal paper: “I love you. Use the check to take care of yourself. Dad.”

By chance, Wanda and Bernard had driven past and seen me sitting stunned in the sunshine. They waved; from across the ocean of our brick half-circle drive, I turned my head.

In late November Wanda wrote again.

“Hannah flew in from Berkeley for the holiday. She is genuinely thrilled with college. I’m so glad she’s getting the opportunity. I never went myself, as you know, and look at me now! There is hope for change in life, Amy. Don’t ever forget.”

“Dear Wanda,” I began my reply. “I am fine. I have an apartment, a good job, and the freedom to read whatever I want. Will let you know about picking up my stuff.”

Her next letter appeared in my mailbox a week before Christmas. I’d just received a $1,500 bonus at work. On Christmas Day, I planned to take the train to Glynnis and Marshall’s. Glynnis had pointedly wondered about my decorating, and I suspected she’d bought me something big, like a couch. Whenever they stopped over, she stood around, pointedly eyeing the empty spaces. I hadn’t bothered with furniture beyond a bed, a stool, and a big yellow rug for the living room floor. I liked the architectural details of the apartment, anyway: the mortise plates fastened to the heavy doors with tiny, blackened nails; the arching nickel spigot over the deep porcelain kitchen sink; the finger-like spindles spanning the water knobs. In the bedroom, a bank of cross-paned windows overlooked a tall white birch that grew in the courtyard. I had a new philosophy since leaving Fox Hollow: Never own anything you couldn’t walk away from, or for which you weren’t going back.

A fragrant sack of Indian take-out in one hand, Wanda’s letter in the other, I rode the coffin-like elevator up to the third floor. My eye was always drawn to the peaked and slanted inspector’s signature, posted behind a thin sheet of protective glass: “Signed this day of April 17, 1984.” Strangely, I never saw other tenants, though it was easy to sense the life behind the dozens of closed doors, the entire building humming like a hive. Once inside my apartment, I stood at the kitchen counter, reading as I ate.

“You and I have a lot in common, Amy. We’ve both had to make it on our own. Aren’t you proud of yourself? You’re a wonderful example for Hannah,” Wanda concluded.

I thought for a while, then found a pen and paper.

“Dear Wanda, Don’t write to me anymore. I don’t need your bullshit cheerleading. Throw out my stuff because I’m never coming back.”

I stood for a moment before crumpling both letters and tossing them in the garbage with the remains of my dinner. Then I threw on my coat and walked two blocks to Lake Michigan, where I sat on a bench staring out at the rippled grey-green surface of the still-unfrozen water. In the mornings, the express bus passed along the shore, but I was always jostled away from the view. Sometimes at dusk on Sundays, when the combination of lonely restlessness drove me outdoors, I went to the lake, where the murmuring waves seemed to echo my thoughts: “What will happen? What will happen to you?”

In March, I was promoted, with another raise. Now instead of working the floor, I ascended to the office, where I tabulated put-call ratios and assisted with expirations. I was given a desk and a computer.

Barry Doyle was my new boss. After shaking my hand, he said, “I’ll say this once. I don’t care how it happens, but I want the work done correctly and on time. That’s all I care about.”

The whites of his eyes were perpetually red. Barry was 44, with a pair of ex-wives about whom he complained.

“I said to her, ‘You want my nuts? Take ‘em! You’ve got everything else!’ No offense, ladies.”

May, the other female checker, and I laughed. Other than we two, there were Donny, Mick, and Doug Dintz. No one liked Dintz. During my first week, while he instructed me on the computer, I got confused and mistyped a digit.

“Are you fucking stupid?” he asked.

“Shut up, Dintz!” Donny said.

Mick said, “You asshole, Dintz!”

“You probably learned her wrong, you stupid Dintz,” May said.

“It’s no big deal,” I said.

“You suck, Dintz,” Donny added.

Donny had his martial arts magazines delivered directly to the office. Sometimes he read the classified ads aloud. “Lovely Asian brides seek masterful husbands. Satisfaction guaranteed. Photos available.”

“If I had a gun, I’d blow your fucking brains out,” Dintz said to the room at large. He was short and wide, with an abbreviated moustache like a smear above his thin wet lips.

“My ex-wives would sue your fat ass,” Barry answered. He rubbed his chin. “It would save me alimony, though.”

In the midst of learning my new responsibilities, a letter came from Hannah.

“Dear Amy, I got your address from my Mom. Berkeley is cool; very different from Fox Hollow. No one cares what you do, or how you look. I like it here a lot. My Mom says you’re doing well in Chicago. I’m glad. In a way, I envy you being free of all the shit that parents dish out along with their checks for tuition. You have relatives there, right? Are they nice? If you ever want to come out to Berkeley to visit you’re welcome, only don’t say anything to Wanda if she asks, since I’ve never invited her.”

“Dear Hannah,” I wrote. “I really am okay. I work at the CBOE. Having my own apartment is great, although it’s weird to me that I can work and pay my rent but still can’t go to bars or buy beer. I think there ought to be a responsibility clause to the age laws: if you’re self-supporting, you should be able to drink.

“Thanks a lot for the invitation, though I probably won’t take you up on it, at least for a while. I just got promoted so I can’t go anywhere. If you want, you can come here, though. I have lots of room.

“It’s good being on my own. It was a lot worse worrying about it, if you know what I mean. It’s like, you think and think about the worst thing that can happen, and what you’ll do if it does, and then when it finally really does, you find it’s not so bad. Remember how we used to worry about failing Mr. Brunswick’s tests? It’s kind of like that, only more so. Nothing worse can happen. I mean, I feel like I can handle it, you know? My cousins have been great. Thanks for writing.”

One day late in April, Glynnis called and invited me to lunch. I walked over to Italian Village on Monroe to meet her. Passing Ann Taylor on LaSalle, I felt pleased to note I could afford everything in the window. Barry was always yelling at Dintz for his poor hygiene.

“Dintz, you stink!”

Dintz got a look like a cornered rat and slammed out of the office, returning with wet-combed hair and his pants belted high across his ample middle. Everyone else dressed well, and I tried to keep up. May almost always wore skirts and heels, so I did too.

Once we were seated, Glynnis said, “Amy, I don’t want to lie to you. I asked you here for a purpose. Your grandmother called last week. She says your father worries about you all the time.”

“I’ll bet,” I said. I held the menu before my face.

She moved it aside. “Honey, you may think you’re punishing him, but it’s you you’re really hurting. You’ll always regret wasting time on anger.”

“You think so?” I asked. “What would have happened to me if you hadn’t been around? He didn’t give a shit about me. He saved his own ass, not mine. What do you think it was like living with Bev after he left? I had to beg her to let me stay and finish high school.”

“Honey, it isn’t about right and wrong.”

“It is. It is,” I said.

The red walls of the restaurant gleamed in the soft sconce lights. Everyone looked prosperous and unconcerned about the future. I wanted to blend right in.

“Things get complicated for people. It’s hard to know what’s best sometimes,” Glynnis said.

I turned my face away while she spoke. Suddenly she reached out a soft, cool hand and lightly held my chin.

“Write to him, Amy. Let him know you’re all right.”

“He doesn’t deserve it,” I argued. I scowled and my eyes were wet, but still I held her gaze.

“Honey, you’ve done well for yourself. No one’s disputing that.”

I opened my mouth but she shook her head and continued. “Your father’s not young. What will it cost you to send him some reassurance?”

“Plenty,” I said.

“Sweetheart, I’m afraid you’ll regret all this anger someday.”

I looked down at the table and rubbed my unused spoon in small circles across the thick white tablecloth. Glynnis was watching when I raised my head. The yellow sapphire necklace she always wore glinted against the pale freckled skin of her breastbone. Blonde hair nestled at her shoulders. She’d gone from home to college to marriage within half a decade. I couldn’t imagine that kind of path anymore. I could mend the tear in my life with money and independence, but even in the pink light of family affection, the scar would always show.

“You’re a different breed from me,” I wanted to say, but didn’t. The night I arrived at her door, she’d taken me right in, saying, “You’re always welcome here, Amy.”

“I hope you’ll reconsider someday,” she said softly. I shrugged. It was time to get back to work.

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