I know the two girls are lying, so I invite them in. They’re leggy and slender with sharp little noses, teacup breasts, straight hair and pearlescent skin. If they had been a touch more professional, paid some attention to detail, I might have believed them and said sorry, I can’t help you. But now I’m curious.
“What did you say your name was?” I direct my question to the blonde, who so far has done the talking. Behind them a cardinal whistles in the big autumnal maple in my yard, red against gold against a clean blue wash of sky, a beautiful sight that even so does nothing for me.
“I told you already, it’s Vanessa.” She tilts her chin up at the ‘V’ and hisses the double-‘S’ through bared teeth. If she eased off the attitude, lost the squint that looks like holding in tears, I might buy the toughness she’s trying to sell. I suppose in time she’ll either outgrow the act or perfect it, according to how life unfolds or unravels. It’s the sort of choice we all have to make, or if we’re lucky it gets made for us—we may dislike the outcome, but at least it’s unambiguous. I don’t really know what to want for these girls, other than as painless an enlightenment as possible.
“Like I said before,” Vanessa continues, “we’re sixteen and both our fathers are firefighters.” She wears the requisite skinny jeans and a cutoff white tank top exposes her shoulders. The left one bears a tattoo, tongues of flame engulfing a word in Russian.
“I’m Jenny,” the other girl says suddenly. She’s taller and has dark brown hair, and keeps looking at the sky, her pink-lacquered nails, the desiccated flowerbeds by my lawn. Everywhere but at me. An uncomplicated smile stays fixed on her face and she sports a black t-shirt with a cartoon panda on it. Morning light catches the ring in her eyebrow.
All nuances aside, these girls would look like twins to anyone but themselves. Sixteen and trying to differentiate, the result utter conformity, and yet they can’t help being unique inside. They try to suppress it but it always comes through. My daughter, grown up and grown away and living across the country, was sixteen once. That’s just how it goes.
“The Firefighters’ Daughters’ Fund gets no government help,” Vanessa repeats. “Would you like to donate?”
“We need the money,” Jenny says. Even when she finally looks at me, her eyes seem to be elsewhere.
“She means the Fund does,” Vanessa clarifies. “What’s your name, sir?”
I hesitate at the question. My wife died forty-six days and three hours ago, and if you want the minutes, thirty-five. Since then my identity is in exile somewhere, at least that’s how I feel, and I’m waiting for it to return or for a new, resigned version of me to take its place. Meanwhile I’m unfamiliar to myself and probably to anyone who knows me, a man who looks like me but projects something so desolate as to be unrecognizable. All day long a voice that is not there says my name and I don’t want to hear it from anyone else, especially me.
“Sorry about my clothes,” I say, “I can put on sweats.”
“If you want,” Vanessa says. The girls don’t appear troubled by boxer shorts, a mustard-splashed singlet and a week of beard. Maybe they see worse at home, or maybe they only see me as lunch or beer money. I don’t know what they do see, those four blue x-rays me staring up at me. But they could just ask for the cash. They don’t need to work this hard.
“I never heard of your fund,” I say. But I modulate my voice and slouch down to make myself as small as possible. I don’t want to scare the girls, if that’s even a risk, but I inherited my Samoan father’s double-XL frame and I fill the whole door. I have to submit a million forms these days, the dull bureaucracy of death, and I’m supposed to check “Pacific Islander” in the ethnicity box. I always write in “Proud American,” I have for years and there’s never been an issue. Sometimes I get a file copy back with a note: right on brother, God Bless the USA, a smiley face. It’s always good to know I made a civil servant happy.
“Fighting fires is dangerous and insurance won’t cover college costs. Did you know that?” No one would call Vanessa a slacker. She rattles their collection box, a plastic takeout container stained chicken-fat yellow from the soup that once sloshed in it. There’s a ragged hole in the lid, a badge cut from some website taped below it and “Firefighter’s’ Daughter’s Fund,” printed in red marker on one side.
If you want credibility, mind your apostrophes, the lawyer in me wants to say. An accordioned five-dollar bill looks miserable at the bottom of the box, probably put there as a suggestion. For a moment I want to drop my house keys in, say “all yours, ladies,” and vanish.
“Come on in. I’ll get my wallet.” The girls follow without hesitation. I stop in the entryway, straighten my back and massage a sore spot, but it never feels as good if you have to do it yourself. In the living room photos of my wife crowd the mantel, a memory gallery, a two-dimensional parade.
“So what colleges are you two thinking about?” I don’t expect an answer and none comes. I scan the living room’s still life of clothes, dishes, correspondence and snack bags and spy my wallet on top of the TV. I watch cooking shows all day, the best distraction ever created, a flow of meaningless detail presented with utmost urgency. On the screen a fat hyperactive chef drops battered meat into hot oil, the meat sizzles, the audience goes wild. As I reach for the wallet my bare feet grind popcorn into the carpet while from the bedroom my alarm clock beeps. I wondered how long that’s been going on.
When I turn around, I catch Jenny winking at Vanessa. Just as I suspected, but I’ll indulge them anyway—I can’t see a reason not to, other than to be confrontational and I don’t have the heart for that now. I’m on the receiving end all day, whether I’m looking at pictures, the meds still in the kitchen or the cosmetics in the bathroom. Jenny and Vanessa trade smiles and suddenly it occurs to me that two young girls have entered my house, all the blinds are down and some neighbor might decide to be a good citizen. What a fine world it used to be, back before “if you see something say something.” I move around opening blinds, dust flies from the slats and I’m headed for the bedroom when Jenny says “is that your wife in the pictures? She has pretty hair.”
“She did.” The past tense slips out. I don’t want it to, but the past itself always slips in.
“What happened?” Vanessa asks, and something inside me softens. Almost no one says what I want to hear—instead I get the weather, sports, politics, et cetera. As if it weren’t obvious there’s a subject being avoided. Don’t help me forget, help me remember, is what I want to tell people. Some say too little, others say too much, but either way I feel their pain. I don’t fault anyone for not feeling mine.
“She died of breast cancer,” I say.
“I wear pink every day in October,” Jenny says.
“You stupid shit,” Vanessa says, “he doesn’t care.”
“It’s okay,” I say.
“But I really do,” Jenny protests, “even my socks.”
“Jenny never thinks,” Vanessa says, “she just talks. I’m sorry about your wife.”
“Thanks. And no worries, I’ve heard it all.”
“What’s the worst?” Jenny asks. Vanessa gives her friend a lethal stare.
“Someone asked if my wife ate meat. When I said yes, they nodded in this sad way.”
“Like that caused it,” Vanessa says.
“I’ve been vegan for two years,” Jenny announces. I can’t help liking this girl.
There’s a sudden noise from the direction of the bedroom. I hurry down the hall, open the blinds and spook two wild turkeys pecking under the empty bird feeder out back. They’ve hung around since the woods nearby were cut for an office park. Too bad they lost their home, but I’m glad they chose my yard for a new one. I pause to wonder how long they’ve been a pair, then go back to the living room. Jenny holds a photo of my wife and me in Maui for our thirtieth.
“Are you Hawaiian?”
“Oh my God,” Vanessa says.
“Samoan, technically. But I was born at Ft. Hood, Texas.”
“Can I get some water?” Vanessa asks. I tell her to help herself.
“My dad says Samoans make the best linebackers,” Jenny says. From the kitchen, a groan.
“Actually I’m an attorney,” I say.
“Why aren’t you at work?”
“I’m taking some time off.”
“Are you going to move?”
“Good question. Yes, eventually.” Vanessa comes back in with a mug of water.
“Don’t you eat anything but cheese and crackers? That’s unhealthy.”
“Sometimes I put mustard on them.”
“I really need to pee,” Jenny says.
“In the hall. It’s a sliding door.”
While Jenny is in the bathroom, Vanessa observes the turkeys through a side window. “They walk like giant pigeons,” she says.
“They kind of do.”
She turns around and she is crying.
“My father’s dead too. He was forty-one. His name was Vladimir. That’s his name on my shoulder.”
I get a sick feeling that starts in my throat and drops right through me.
“How did it happen?”
“A floor collapsed. He stayed inside too long. They thought there was someone still in the building.” Her voice goes thin and high, all its confidence gone. She wipes her eyes on her forearm and a smudge of mascara blackens her wrist.
“What about Jenny’s father?”
“He got out.”
During the silence that follows, I try not to look at Vanessa, but keep stealing glances as she stares out the window at the birds. I learned early on to doubt absolute truth, but I never thought about absolute lies being just as questionable an idea.
“Please don’t tell me ‘greater love hath no man,’” Vanessa says when she turns around. “Even if it’s true.” I wonder how often she has to hear that. I have my own version.
“Deal, as long as I don’t get, ‘she’s in a better place.’” Vanessa rolls her eyes and I want to hug her, but I don’t dare. “My name’s Eric,” I say instead, and I’m surprised at how good it feels. I take the collection box from the side table where Jenny left it, push in a twenty and then another.
“That’s nice of you. We haven’t had much luck.”
“Don’t give up,” I say. Vanessa reaches for the container but I hesitate. I should take my own advice. An idea comes to me but just then Jenny comes back in.
“Wow, amazing bathroom.”
“You really don’t have to be that stupid, you know,” Vanessa says.
“But it is. Go look.”
I hope these girls will be friends for life, or lovers—that would be fine too. They seem just dysfunctional enough to be a perfect match.
Already in high school my wife and I knew each other. We met at a party where no one would talk to me because I’d singlehandedly lost the week’s Friday night game for my school. It wearies me to have to say this, but just because you look like something doesn’t mean that’s what you are. The coaches probably knew it, but they thought only of winning. I understand that. I’d have been hopeful about a six-three, two-hundred-thirty pound seventeen-year old too.
I drank too much that night and my future wife said, “you were terrible out there” as she drove me home. She was never the consoling type and during her illness she hated the cards with clouds on them, the overly delicate words, the encouragements and prayers. You-can-beat this-don’t-give-up-I-had-a-friend-who-was-worse-and-she’s-fine-now. On and on. Consolation doesn’t much help those left behind either, I can attest to that; quiet sympathy is the best approach but also the hardest. Early into chemo my wife lost her auburn hair, the big waves of it that always looked windblown, and sometimes that wild blaze is all the color I see in dreams that are otherwise strictly monochrome. We were married forty-one years and I’m not even sixty, but sometimes it does work, don’t believe what you hear. No one has a clue about why love lasts, it’s all platitudes and noise, but what I can tell you is we never looked for reasons and I don’t know why anyone would.
Our house was—this house is—a light blue Cape. The master bedroom is to the left as you enter, past the bathroom I re-did years ago to look like the one in our Maui hotel. The black granite makes the hallway’s yellow wallpaper and cheap crown moldings look dowdy, ditto the used bedroom set we bought before my practice took off, the metal desk and ugly fireproof cabinet in the second bedroom that we used as an office, the avocado kitchen we never updated, the living room sunk into the floor as if it were still the sixties.
Whoever buys this house might see the bathroom and wonder what the hell we were thinking, but to me it’s obvious. When my wife and I stood under the stream in that glass shower, when we made love in the pale glow from the skylight, we felt like we were living a different life. I think every home ought to have a room that makes you feel that way, but you never imagine it becoming the opposite: where there is only the life you have and it is unbearable.
The idea I had earlier comes back to me now. I wonder for a moment what my wife would say, then I know. It’s fine, I hear from somewhere, it might as well be them.
“Wait here,” I tell the girls. They whisper behind me as I take the collection box to the bedroom. I go to my wife’s side of the bed—I mean Serene’s side. Her name was Serene, it’s still easier to say “my wife” it but I have to begin sometime. On Serene’s dresser is Serene’s jewelry box, the felt-lined kind with a tray for earrings and a compartment below for bracelets. Next to it hang Serene’s necklaces on a glass treelike contraption made for the purpose. I pry open the collection box, put the bracelets in and drape necklaces on top of them. I can’t see how to keep the earrings orderly, but Vanessa and Jenny can figure that out. I tilt the tray and flashes of gold and silver tumble into the container.
“Here,” I say, “you did well.” A lifetime of gifts compressed to a moment, a gesture, but isn’t that the fate of everything that outlasts us? When Jenny takes the container from me I feel a lightness, as if I’ve given away the years but kept the memories, made them easier to carry.
“This is so awesome,” she says.
“Give me that,” Vanessa says. “Are you sure?” she asks me.
“What would you do?”
Vanessa rotates the box, inspecting the contents through the opaque plastic.
“Okay,” she says, “I get it.”
“I knew you would. But the two of you can’t leave until you put some of it on. That’s the deal.”
From the door I watch them walk through slants of mid-morning sun. The street is empty and they ring no other bells. Around Jenny’s wrist loop silver bangles from Tucson, Vanessa wears cloisonné dragon earrings bought in San Francisco. Serene and I went everywhere we could, and though I never wanted to travel alone, now I suppose there’s no choice regardless of who I’m with. The girls talk but I can’t hear the words, and in the distance earthmovers crawl across the office park site.
I go to the kitchen and in a cupboard see stacked plates, a waffle iron crusted with dried batter, a soup tureen shaped like a chicken and the world’s ugliest salt-and-pepper set. It came from Napa Valley and looks like two bunches of crystal grapes on a silver vine. I figure I can get the kitchen stuff into boxes by mid-afternoon and then start on the living room.
But first I take a shower. Fragrant steam envelopes me and under the stinging spray I shave my face clean. I’ll sell the house, do my own closing, do the buyer’s too if they want, no charge. I think about where to live and Hawaii comes to mind. I never felt more at home than when we were there, but also less. I could use some time in purgatory, it would be a step up. Or maybe Fiji, Tahiti, the Solomons, Rarotonga. According to government forms, there’s a whole ocean of places I belong to.
I wipe the bathroom window and see the girls at the bus shelter on the corner, near enough for me to make out Vanessa’s tattoo. They take pieces of jewelry from the container, one after the next. They smile as if charmed by their luck and put on necklaces and model them. I turn away before I can see which ones they selected, and I don’t look again until after I hear the bus leave.