Kiddio was between shoe sizes when we went to my cousin’s wedding in a superannuated church that smelled of cooked dust. All day he tottered like a sandpiper to cope with his Pumas’ constriction. Before we lit out for the journey he walloped my hand away when I tried to slacken his laces, and the sharp report rustled up tears. They brimmed so quickly I had to tilt my head far back.
Not for the pain, no, I was thinking how much more drastic all this would be without him. For he had stood on a chair and zipped my dress to where it needed to be, and touched my hair, which there was no call for at all. I let him spritz gardenia in my elbow crooks and behind my ears. Soon we were all set. It was August then, and so hushed a morning it was hard to believe the tree crickets had played saws for hours last night.
We were only together, he and I, because I had ducked into the church for a pee back in June. It was the longest day of the year, and everything crept like molasses. The church was the biggest in town, with a back end as dour as a storage facility and the frontage made beautiful by rose of Sharon and a string of genial gargoyles. I hadn’t been inside since I didn’t know how long. Beeswaxed corridors and a poster from Isaiah, Behold, I am doing a new thing! I wondered the prophet didn’t trim to a goatee and sign up for OkCupid.
When I walked back up the stairs twenty-five or so people had materialized against the lobby wainscotting. Their heads were slung low and they looked woebegone, especially the older in their number. There were intimations of beautiful bones and good looks in the younger ones. The overall picture gripped me, the collective sangfroid, the clothes all cut from the same rain cloud. I didn’t see the two or three kids beaded among them.
Then, from the cockpits of Nissans and Subarus, came the wives of southern burghers, bringers of food on oblong plastic platters. They unfolded tables and snapped out plastic floral tablecloths. They billowed thermal waves of kindness and solicitude. My mother had been one of their reservists until she deserted in favour of the Northeast.
Some of them knew me from old. We regarded one another with the truculence of friends who had gone on to better things and didn’t want reminding of the ungainly days.
They asked after my mother’s welfare. I said she was much better, thanks, after a bout of midepigastric discomfort. Her words not mine, I told them, and I syllabized the thing out, mid-epi, you get the rest. They asked me to relay their good wishes and prayers. They said how just lovely it was I moved back to town after all this time. I was weakened in the blast of tuberose and goodwill, and it etherized me enough to stick around and help lay the tables.
The ringleader said the group standing against the wainscotting were misfortunate people from the very worst place on earth. They were being prepared for International Friendship Alliances while their refugee status was being ratified. Perhaps would I give some consideration to being an international friend? And I said yes. Not glibly so as to get out the door, nor was it dazzlement from the good deeds flaring round me like Friday-night lights. I said yes because I was asked. The ringleader smiled so approvingly I felt bashful and delighted and confused all in one hot mess. She said I could continue to help with disbursing shoes and clothes.
The misfortunates of the earth moved warily along the trestle tables, giving each platter some long scrutiny. They eschewed the rolled meats, the pepper jack cheese, the pickles and those pimento-stuffed olives I had never gone for because they looked like eyes with gangrene. They settled on the carrot sticks, celery, apple rings and isosceles bits of pita. They assembled modest little plates. Who knew how quietly twenty-five people could eat the crunchiest food? That’s when I noticed the kids. They took slices of everything going. They sat on the carpet and tried each item. Anything repellant they slid through the gaps under their knees.
In a side room I helped another doyenne fuse sneakers to their feet. Five years old, ballpark, she said of the little boy who extended his socked feet to her, No English and no name, and all the way here from one of the most terrible places on earth. She plucked Pumas from a bushel of donations. These people have seen the most unimaginable things. Her voice stopped on a precipice. She turned the sneakers’ green suede over and again, she inspected the soles for wear. She had a fraught place inside her that itched to see the terrible and unimaginable things for herself. She probably watched those YouTubes people were supposed to take down in the immediate aftermath of atrocity. She was the kind of person who knew herself for a good woman, but maintained a healthy vigilance all the same for the bad stuff there was out there.
My son lost an arm trying to help people like this, she said. She pronounced the damage by chopping her hand against her upper arm where the flesh was paler and going pendulous. I could only look at her eyes when they were looking down and away. She got the Pumas on the boy’s feet and palped for his toes at the top. She gave him a Well, look at you cutie, then groaned herself to standing.
I had moved back to the town, the town where I was raised and schooled and churched, where I had been kissed and fingered and split with, the town I fled in a small U-Haul for a degree in computer science. I moved back from a West Coast job, from hunching in a carrel solving online banking snafus and testing encryption, from calls from people who could not see their salary deposited to their account, Was the system down, what the hell was going on? from watching the monthly amounts, credit, insurance, utilities, leaving their accounts. It was always surprising in its measly regularity. I had been doing this work for fifteen years.
I returned to be nearer my parents. They claimed infirmity every so often, plus they missed me like hell, my father said, his voice fracking at the end of phone calls, like heh-ull. They were in their forties when I was born, and they were morose alongside the lively ball-playing parents of my school friends. Much later, I gauged those same parents, in bell-bottom pants and blouse tails tied in bunches, were in and out of one another’s houses for sex. There was a pinkness to their skin back then that wasn’t entirely owing to the humidity.
My parents had dry indoor complexions and the faces of studious monks. When they finally took me on a beach holiday I was almost too old to enjoy it. Over and over I smacked into Gulf shore waves on a bodyboard printed with flamingos, but they never left their safe sand to join me. They taught middle school until retirement and then they gardened diligently.
They won me back home with a broken ankle, my mother’s, incurred in heavy rain and a misjudged doorstep. The same week I had been counselling a colleague to spend money on one of those baths with door hatches and benches so she could stop worrying about her father taking a tumble. You’re so right, she said, you’re too-too right.
My parents gave me what they called the best bedroom. The window was filled with their crape myrtle, and it would bloom all over again, with lavender, by midsummer. My father shut and opened the blinds to enact the surprise it would be on those mornings. He put a hand to his chest and stepped back reverentially. He told me I wouldn’t believe my eyes.
Slowly I came not to despise their apoplectic news presenters and their determination to shop for groceries in small moieties instead of one big weekly cart. I even got used to the woozy cerulean disinfectant cake they hung like an earring inside the toilet bowl. I realized I was fixing to be old, and there were worse ways of doing it than with people who ate candied yams late at night and sought one another’s academic opinion in the matter of bowel movements. They had a new and brazen honesty in their advancing years. I heard my mother offer to insert the suppository if my father was having trouble. She even made a joke about needing a GPS. I let them at it, and they let me be.
To sit on the gray leather couch that yielded affably around me, to place a glass of sweet tea in the cupholder, to half-entertain my mother’s account of one, no, two international professors she saw in the French bakery, all of it was clemency from the tetchy result-driven West Coast. She was liable to invite one of those professors home for dinner, then cluck for days about what to serve. And after her plan didn’t pan out she would say he wasn’t the stuff of a husband anyhow, not with a nomadic lifestyle like that, but a lovely man nonetheless.
I took a job in tech at the university library, and I moved into an apartment next door to the grocery store. My parents were injured by this but said not too much. The apartment was abjectly appointed on the corner of the second of three poured-concrete stories. The front window gave onto a distressing view of purple Christmas cabbages. Rain raised oily puddles in the grocery parking lot, peacock blue and burnt orange, and until well after midnight a corrosive smell of exhaust stole through the vents. The aisles of the grocery store were filled with college students. They dawdled in formation, and stared in perplexity at fresh produce like they were encountering obscene paintings. In the early mornings my toilet flushed with an ominous upskiddle. Some bigger and better place will come up, my father contributed.
The year turned over in its customary manner. Agreeable chilliness gave way to spring nights when the skies shook and snapped sheets of lightning. The Doppler hemorrhaged nearby tornadoes, said to be seen on the ground somewhere, never coming close. My parents watched television for acts of terror and old-house renovation. The next year was not all that different.
My parents were the ones to move on. There was something loudly embarrassing about it. It’s considered the most terrible thing to outlive a child, but what about when fiendishly selfish parents outflank you and head for the doughty preppy life of the Northeast? I put this to them, with my hands spread as wide on the kitchen table as if I were pushing a car backwards.
My father remonstrated with me in full cool phlegm. Had I forgotten it was always part of the plan, did he not have roots in New England after all? The shipshape little house with the steep shingled roof would be mine when the time came, was that not a consideration? Snow would always slide off such a roof, and it wasn’t so very difficult to manage five months of winter. Hell, it was downright cosy, as long as you had enough logs and food. He had stopped spreading one-syllable words across two for maximum emotive impact, the charlatan.
From up there they posted to Facebook every day. They pointed out some curious domestic or village feature, a kitchen hutch with handles made from big old playing marbles, a shop that sold fishing flies far too beautiful to be fishing flies. My mother tried to buy some for earrings. I told her that’s what all the old teachers in New England did, they wore feather earrings down to their shoulders. She was patient in the circumstance.
They even secured a dog, a wire-haired terrier called Thoreau. He came with the name, they said, and they hadn’t the heart to change it. Besides, he was a strong-willed little so-and-so, unlikely to accept rebaptism. In one photo he sat between them on a picnic blanket and flashed the yellow incisors of a usurper.
I agreed to make a visit once they had completely settled in. I was assured of my very own bedroom. I put a running shoe beneath a cushion and sat on it and jumped up quickly in instinctive preparation for an accident involving Thoreau. I swore never to walk past their old house again.
I collected my little friend for the first time on a Sunday morning, in the lobby of the retirement home where he and his refugee friends were being housed until their status was ratified. The air was briny with lunch preparations and too many people. The church women were there to effect punctilious introductions, to make sure each refugee was paired with the correct international friend or friends.
There were families in troikas and some pairs of students. Everyone looked a little reluctant or bashful, but the church women had no truck with that and ushered people together. Had everyone done their homework concerning suggested activities for friendship families? Good, then they would see us back here in three hours. My assigned little friend stood fully still even as I took him by the hand. A refugee woman shrank to the dusty pink wallpaper when a sincere young blond couple stepped forward enthusiastically to make their claim on her.
I hadn’t done the homework, so we walked around the building to see what there was to be seen. Pale green grass frizz-permed to brown on the verges. We found a declivity where the ground dropped off to red-brick rubble. A massive wall of beautyberry confronted us when we turned the last corner, its knots of vivacious phlox strung on stems like cheap jewelry. The air conditioner for the retirement home was as big as a shed. We walked past its baleful drone, then out into the neighborhood. We walked slowly so we could see what was on people’s lawns and in the shape-shifting darkness at the back of open garages.
After an hour of silence, I told him I was his friend, we were international friends, we might be friends forever. My voice reverberated strangely, as it had done in times I had not spoken to a soul for several days. He said not a word, he made not a sound. I showed him a picture of Thoreau. At that he laughed, maybe because the dog was wearing knitted bootees, or maybe at the enchantment of the creature’s sudden appearance on the screen and how we could evaporate him with a swipe.
After toying with Thoreau in that manner he chased an orange cat down the sidewalk. I gave him a stick of Twix and brought him back early. We sat awhile in the lobby. He paid baffled attention to two electric wheelchairs moving soundlessly along the carpet and out the front door. Their riders were synchronized in snazzy straw boaters and college football shirts.
The following week I brought him to my apartment to make pizza. My neighbor the ancient ex-marine was on the balcony reading a new fat paperback. Well what’ve we got here, then? His face went lax with sentiment, What’s new, kiddio? He returned to the thrills and spills of his book. He could not give a damn about the little boy’s origin, which made me like him a moment, he who was the soul of lechery, he who averred there was nothing but nothing to look at when the college girls depart in May, not one bit of skirt in all of skirtnation. I thought to bring a margherita slice out to him, but then I thought the better of it.
I started to use Kiddio as a placeholder until his status got ratified. I was comforted to have a name to tack onto the end of sentences, statements, inquiries, even if I didn’t get an answer. We watched a video of the cool guy who sang Won’t you say yes, don’t you say no, make me feel good, kiddio. I told him the singer’s slim gyrations were like my uncle’s who used to walk backwards out a door singing, always desperate to please people he was leaving after a half-hour visit.
We went to playgrounds, down by the river, paved with that stuff kids supposedly bounce off if they fall. Kiddio never climbed or swung high enough to fall. He mostly walked around the base and looked up at kids clambering and sliding and advancing hand over hand. We went for ice cream and frozen yoghurt. People smiled affectionately at us, Well look at you two. Whenever it seemed like he might be silent for the entire outing, I brought Thoreau into play.
My cousin’s wedding took place at a tiny non-working Methodist chapel, followed by a hair-down at a country club. Nobody in the picture was Methodist. My cousin had somehow wrested the chapel from the heritage council for a day. She posted that she wanted a wedding with the illusion of a full congregation. She would stuff it to the rafters, she said, she would pack it cheek to cheek.
It was an hour’s drive each way. Birthday parties were on the International Friendship Alliance’s list of suggested activities, weddings were not, and certainly not anything that far out of town. I asked my church woman permission for a six-hour visit with my international friend. I said we planned to throw and fire and paint clay pots. I weighed that insider terms like throw and fire would be compelling to her, and indeed she flushed with earnestness. It was no problem, she told me, only I was to make sure the little guy didn’t get worn out.
Many miles from the Methodist chapel I came to believe I was in the wedding cavalcade. Faces in the next lane were tense and grim. They wanted this marriage to work, pray God let him show up! My cousin had a history of failed mergers, but finally, in the lurid Caribbean sun, she had beached a whale of a man. He worked in the high echelons of finance. He was by all accounts the catch of the county, my mother said, and she was just too-too sorry that my father’s arthritis prevented them from traveling. They wanted full reports, though, they insisted on photos. They hoped I had found a nice friend to escort me. In the back seat Kiddio crackled and compounded an empty Doritos bag.
They knew not one thing about him. I had squeaked out of July Fourth at theirs by inventing malware that ripped callously through the university computer system. I told my father I was working nights to restore things back to health. My mother told me I was a marvel, she was proud of me, I would surely get a promotion on account of my valor. That Fourth weekend Kiddio and I ate ziti and meatballs and watched the Muppets scamper through New York in search of stolen jewels. We listened to the low crunks of fireworks going off near the river.
If I sent photos of Kiddio they would wonder whether caramel was accurate-and-or-acceptable to describe his skin. From there they would wonder who he had traveled to this country with. They would plan a trip of indefinite length to spend time with me. They would make early dinner, let me choose the movie, boil and reboil the kettle for chamomile tea. Then they would begin questions they hoped would lead to the real heart of the matter.
I would lose the exquisite discretion of napping on a blanket in a park, of waking up next to Kiddio in the shadow of clouds about to spill their innards. The thought of having to tell them so disconcerted the speed needle that it hit ninety. In the mirror I saw my little friend fall asleep. You don’t get to see it very often, that twinkling when someone’s heavy eyes stop fighting and latch on to sleep.
The Methodist chapel was insolently hot and musty, and somebody nearby was drenched in Chanel. The doors opened and my cousin steered herself inside. During two weeks’ holiday in France I took a Train à Grande Vitesse from Paris to Marseille, where Scottish people stood in the scathing sun all flabbergasted and elated to have arrived so soon. Here already? Really? That was my cousin’s face. She got her bearings, though, and she walked tulled and grinning past us, as smoothly as if a little turbine were working between her feet. At the front of the chapel stood the impassive dark backcloth of her financier. The crowd simpered like pigeons at the moving strangeness of it all.
An antediluvian great-aunt turned around to glare at Kiddio. He had been dunting her seat with some regularity, Puma on polished wood. She fixed cold as a raptor on him. She didn’t recognize me, but I remembered her and the cigarillos she smoked one edgy Christmas we visited her in the mountains. Her eyes retreated to their rheum. She turned just as the bride drew level with her man. She clasped her old hands into tree roots exposed after high river.
Within half an hour the ceremony had succeeded in hitching the couple. The great-aunt’s hands applauded with an uncooperative knapping sound. A profoundly suntanned reveler released silver confetti at the door. Kiddio sped from my side to grab some. I watched him wet his index fingers and dab tiny petals from the blacktop.
The reception at the country club was small and bespoke. Immense single magnolia blooms floated in glass punchbowls and there were healthy tasteful snacks at the bar. Somebody ordered a sidecar, and a panel of experts homed in to discuss the intrinsic virtues of various bourbons. The invitees were by and large friends and colleagues, with a few pearl-strung ancients from higher branches of the tree. The atmosphere was easygoing. I accepted a drink from a good old boy who said I was always his favorite of the town cousins. I bought a Coke for Kiddio, I propped two straws in it like flowers. We walked around holding hands, and we pecked at little wooden snack bowls.
My cousin came and stood behind me when I was reaching for bread at dinner. She rested her hands on my shoulders. She had visited everyone in this beatific manner. The cuffs of her wedding dress were tight enough for weals, but she had a gorgeous manicure, pale pink waning to white crescents. I smelled the rosy waxiness of her lipstick as into my ear she said it was good to see me after so long, that she made sure to invite me because we were only two weeks apart in age after all, that she felt we each measured ourselves by the other’s destiny, and did I not feel like that? I told her I had felt a disturbance in the force when she met her financier, so yes, we must be somehow conjoined. She told me I was as cynical as ever, but she loved it all the same and she always would. She told me to get out there and enjoy myself.
After dinner Kiddio delighted the younger women. They bent at the waist and stretched out their arms to him. They looked like British royals at hospitals for sick children. I steered him from their reach, I said he was extremely shy. To a person they all thought he was mine, some fiat of adoption or a prize from a handsome-mystery-father-unknown. Nobody had the temerity to ask. Beautiful boy, a woman said to me in the ladies’ room mirror, He’ll be a stunner, you mind you remember I told you that! A few minutes earlier and she would have heard me coaxing him to squeeze out the remaining number two, that last bit always so intractable. I pressed my hands to my cheeks and pushed my face in against my nose and mouth, breathing out in a slow building hiss. I heard the placid plop, I watched his face unclench from torment. We had our system, and it worked just fine.
When dancing time came around I let none of them take him for a twirl. I held him on my knees and relented only to carry him onto the parquet floor. He clasped his legs around my waist and I held his hands tight as a tango. He kicked my hips to make me go faster, he chortled at my troubles. I made it off the floor rickety and exhausted. I was nothing but a fool for him.
Close to leaving, Kiddio wanted to go down to the dock on the lake behind the country club. The light was dropping to evening, mosquitoes were limbering their mouthparts, but he had to visit the little wooden pagoda. He latched to my wrist with both hands, dug his heels back and hauled. There was something so very winning about the gesture. Back at the wedding a woman had belabored a man onto the floor that way, towing and wheedling. He was the only unaccompanied male, outback-looking in loose linen, and she wound her way around him like cat briar.
Kiddio and I sat on a bench inside the pagoda. There were soft conciliatory creaks, wood to water’s undertow. If he fell in I would jump straight after, I would plumb through water not cold so much as oily, and dark as a dirty wine bottle. I would drag him up by the shirt collar, I would cup my hand under his and swim with my free arm, I would lay him on the warm decking lumber. I would massage his chest and breathe into his mouth until he blurted out what portion of lake he had swallowed. The whole thing would take only minutes, a precise and perfect sliver of time to bind us together for the rest of our lives. One time my father came home from the dentist amused and huffed both. The dentist had told him the filling would last him for the duration. They must have blinked at one another like desperadoes, the surgery clock ticking down the appointment.
I let Kiddio extricate his feet from the Pumas and peel off his socks. His feet were solid wedges, no arch to speak of. I rolled his pants and hoiked them up beyond the knee. I let him walk to the edge of the dock, I let him stub the water with his toes.
If someone is hanging from a window ledge or the scruff of a cliff you are best not to grasp their hands, for they will slip through your fingers. But if they clamp you above your wrist, and you hold them that same way, then there is a better chance of not letting go. So it was I dandled Kiddio in the lake. First to the tops of his knees. My feet were planted stout and wide on the dock. Then I lowered him further, to his waist, where the water made incursions on his bared belly, then a little further down. The hair on his head was buzz cut to a dark gray downiness, and there was a smidge of sunburn on the tops of his ears. He made no sound. I wanted something to issue from him, some call like a bird or a forest animal. But in the silent dead weight of his body and the small tight circumference of his grip he needed me more than anything.
Who would call me to attention, who would yell some frenzied halt from the long porch where they were boozing out the end of the day? Who would be sober and sensible enough to figure a yell would startle me, so who all in the name of God would sneak up behind and calmly save the situation? The man in loose linen maybe, if he had not been brought captive to some storeroom behind the kitchen. The music from the wedding was now Frank and Nancy Sinatra, singing insinuations about how to go and spoil it all.
I wrung Kiddio’s pants in the pagoda. He looked out on the lake, po-faced as an owl. Gnats began to drizzle in our direction.
On the drive back we turned in to a rest stop. I had to hustle Kiddio from the back seat, I had to hold an imagined penis in my hand and hiss so he’d know why we were there. He didn’t want out, and he hit my hand for the second time that day.
The day’s heat was hanging round in sultry leftovers. My dress bit the backs of my knees, and I worked to flap it free on the walk to the restrooms. I held Kiddio tight by me.
We slowed to watch a long-distance truck driver drop heavily from his cab. He doubled over to grip his ankles, big man, he did it five times. At each rep he stayed longer to brood. I wondered where he had come from and how far he had yet to go. His eyes were tapered, as though still fixed on a road in the full beat of sunlight.
I let Kiddio trot ahead of me. He wanted nothing of me and each time I drew within arm’s reach he shot forward. His jeans were dyed dark from the lake. We got our toilet business done, and I indicated the vending machine for a treat. He stood in the machine’s wistful fog of green light, studying every sweet thing the shelves held to eat and drink.
I walked ahead to the bench where we would sit. Kiddio collected the cans from the drop drawer. He made slow and cautious work of it, pushing on the hatch, peering in, taking the first can and setting it on the ground. When he had both Coke Zero and Mountain Dew in hand he walked to the bench with a delirious grin. The air parped and burped with tree frogs. For a moment they dropped into silence, then made a triumphant return to lewdness. Out on the highway asphalt was getting poured from a caravan of huge square vehicles. Alongside them men in yellow vests walked like bodyguards. Large round lights, as absurdly beautiful and tremulous as Chinese lanterns, lit the work. Above the trees the stars were indisposed. I opened the can Kiddio couldn’t snick for himself, nothing but nothing but happiness metastasizing within me.
Photograph © Eamonn Doyle/Neutral Grey