He is so old that you can see Heaven in his eyes.
The fat doctor calls it cataracts, but the psychic at the bus stop says his eyes have forsaken this world. He trusts the psychic. His pupils are murky islands floating in murkier seas. If you look carefully into the brine, you can see the faint silhouette of children laughing. At least that’s what the neighborhood kids say. They’ve made it a game: get close enough to see his eyes, and you win three dollars. A kid could do big things with three dollars; they all know this.
He knows this too because he was a child once, and better yet he was a banker’s child. He knew his times tables at age six. He understood money before he understood rain or school or why flowers poked out of the earth. The old man doesn’t remember his mother’s nose or his father’s laugh, but he remembers his first three dollars.
His skin is a crinkled paper bag, so thin it might tear off his cheekbones. His eyes are slits beneath folds of skin so tired they must drip down his chin when it’s hot out. His mouth is a tight line where threads of sound crawl out, tumble over his lips, and fall dead to the ground.
He walks hunched forward, as if he is continually falling, falling, falling … Only the momentum of his shuffling steps keeps his nose from brushing the asphalt. His long tapering fingers are mere slabs of flesh stretched across bone. They shake. His whole body shakes. He is so very old.
Old men are either very happy or very sad. They rarely enjoy an average temperament. Life has a way of pushing the old to the edges. Is he shaking from joy or sorrow, from age or the cold? It is the first snow of the season, and the old man is maybe the only old man outside. He stands by the old ice cream shop, waiting for a very old friend. It is a good thing he’s meeting her now, this winter, this snowfall because he has a feeling this will be his last.
She was mentally unbalanced. When she squeezed the bloody lump out into the world, they didn’t let her hold it. It was hers. It belonged to her. Nine months of fatness and hunger and blood, and they wouldn’t let her hold it. She was never angrier in her life.
She squeezed the filthy once-white bedsheets in tight fists until her fingers went numb. Her sweaty face stuck to the pillow, oily hair plastered to her cheek, mascara-black tears crossing her lips and landing salty on her tongue.
“Let me see it,” she demanded. The nurses pursed their lips and glanced frantically from their hands to the bedpost to the ceiling. “Let me see it,” she repeated, louder. Her voice, hoarse from screaming all night, flew from her throat like a lodged projectile.
The beak-nosed doctor recoiled, wiped the words off his shoulder, and murmured to the nurses: “She’s getting back on the meds next week.” They nodded rapidly, like caged chickens. What a worthless man, she thought. What worthless women.
The doctor smiled tightly and scooped the lump into her arms. She startled. The lump was warm and wet and gurgling, and she didn’t want this. The lump opened his father’s eyes and his mother’s lips, let in a shaky breath and howled. She pulled back, heart frozen against her rib cage, but then the voices in her mind pulled back, too. They clapped hands over their ears and crawled into faraway corners. She blinked, smiled, laughed in delight. She wanted her lump to scream forever, if only to silence those other screams.
Her small bent body cradled the smaller bent baby. Mother and son, in a stinky room with too-bright lights. Outside, snow fell.
On snowy days, Stanley’s mother used to say that God had bad dandruff. She rummaged through the bathroom cabinets, retrieved Dr. Whizz’s #1 Renewing Shampoo for Dry ScalpsTM, and placed it on the porch like an offering. It was on one of these days that Stanley first met Atticus Ramona. She was a ratty, wide-eyed girl with skin brown from the sun — even in the winter. She was on their porch, inspecting the shampoo bottles like museum exhibits. “Hey, what’re you doing!” Stanley shouted — but it was more like a whisper-shout, head poking out the door, fingers numb from the cold.
“My mom’s got dandruff. Can I take this?” she asked.
“No! Definitely not!”
She shrugged and then pinned him down with a stare, looked him up and down. Took her time doing it, too. She laughed. “Why’re you so scared?”
“I’m not scared of you!”
“I’m not talking about that,” she said — and she bounced off. She took the shampoo bottle, too, but he wouldn’t notice that until hours later, when his mom was yelling about the angels who took her shampoo to Heaven.
He saw Atty often after that. He didn’t know why he talked to her. She was too loud and nosy, and her eyes saw too much. She chewed too much gum and stuck it on trees as they trudged through the snow. She liked money, though, and so did he. She lived in the shack at the far end of town with two brothers whom she didn’t particularly like, but one of them — the older one — had recently bought three French vanilla ice cream cones with one green paper.
Stanley thought his lemonade stand last summer was a good idea, but Atty was far more innovative. She had flair, a secret smile that made you want to believe in her. Her mom was a psychic, she said — that meant people paid her money to hear make-believe stories. Atty thought this was brilliant, so they set up the booth, right in front of the ice cream store for motivation’s sake. Stanley spread the word, and Atty read palms for 50 cents. The neighborhood kids lined up like her disciples, coins jangling in pudgy, greasy fingertips. They made six dollars that first day, and they split it halfway. “We’re buying our French vanilla today!” Atty said afterward, beaming until her eyes disappeared behind her cheeks. “Meet at noon, kay?”
Atty was always late, but he always waited for her. This time, though, he waited for hours. He waited so long that the cold burned his temples and his ears went numb. He sat in the snow and curled into himself and rocked and waited. Rocked and waited. When Atty showed up finally, a distasteful look crossed her brow and crinkled her nose.
“Why’re you so late?” demanded Stanley.
She shrugged. “I wanted to see how long you’d wait for me.”
“What?” Stanley shouted. He had never been so furious in his life.
“You’re always waiting for me. You shouldn’t do that. I mean, you shouldn’t wait for anyone that long — even me. Kay?” She said this all in the all-knowing, matter-of-fact tone of a mother berating her child.
Stanley shrugged, let the anger blow out his nose in puffs of steam, and freeze into the afternoon air. They went inside and ate their French vanilla, and it certainly tasted like three dollars.
The banker was an aggressively mannish man. He was very tall with a booming voice and suits that stretched wide across his shoulders. He had always been big, so he was used to looking down on people. He carried himself with the swagger of someone who had never been doubted or slighted or cast off in his life.
The banker did not understand his son Stanley. His son hid away in corners at dinner parties and stared at the ground while he talked. His son drew little flowers on his hands and ate french fries with a fork. The banker did not understand Stanley, and Stanley did not understand the banker, but they both understood numbers — so this is how they talked.
“Nine times three is what, Stanley?” he asked him on their way to Pebble Beach. The road stretched out, long and lazy before them, and the radio was broken, leaving the air pregnant with the unspoken.
“Twenty-seven,” Stanley replied.
“Twenty-seven divided by two?”
At Pebble Beach, Stanley’s father parked the car as close to the dock as possible and handed Stanley the fishing rod. The rod felt like an executioner’s ax in his clammy palms, and he shifted it nervously from hand to hand.
Stanley’s father hooked a couple of limp worms onto the metal and cast his line into the water. “Wait for the tug, then yank it out — ah! Like this.” His arm catapulted backward and his line flew out of the water, fat flounder hooked on the other end. “That was damn fast. Most days you don’t get one that fast. You must be my lucky charm, kid.” Stanley couldn’t decide whether to smile or throw up. The flounder’s eyes were wide and bulging, as if paralyzed in a state of shock. The hook protruded from spotted, sickly skin and tiny little teeth flashed in and out of view. It was the saddest thing Stanley had ever seen.
His father threw another line in and handed the rod to Stanley. A few minutes passed in silence before the rod jerked. His father jumped up. “Pull, Stan, c’mon!” he barked.
He hesitated. But then his father yelled again, and he pulled, and the flounder came flying through the air, and Stanley’s entire body froze as he screamed. The flounder landed with a smack on the warm plywood. There it was again — the spotted skin, the teeth, the sad eyes. Stanley swallowed down his vomit, and before his father could react, he kicked it back into the sea foam. It was over. Stanley’s ears roared with his panicked breaths. He hid his head between his knees.
“Stanley, what the hell was that for?” his father murmured into the silence. Stanley said nothing. So they packed up the rods quietly and clambered into the car, and the radio was still broken. They drove for a while in silence, and Stanley’s cheeks were still burning in shame when his father spoke.
“Eleven times twelve is what?” his father asked the dashboard; it was almost a song.
Stanley sighed in relief. “One hundred thirty-two.”
When his mother died, he was the only one in the room. He was fourteen, but he still crawled into her bed in the mornings after nights filled with bad dreams. His dad hardly came home anymore, anyways, and she loved holding Stanley close to her, singing soft lullabies like he was still a small child. He was fourteen, and at school he wore leather jackets and whistled at girls, but at home he hugged his mother tight and cried into her hair. She never asked why.
He was there the moment the breath froze in her mouth and fell flat against her dry tongue. She was talking about doing laundry later that day, and then she paused mid-sentence. The right side of her face fell flat and her eyes clicked shut. He thought she had just fallen asleep, and he did, too, but when he woke up she was colder than snowfall and her breath smelled of death.
“Ischemic stroke,” the doctor told them over her stale corpse the next day. As if that meant anything.
Stanley cried often. He cried over beautiful songs and bad headaches and good books that came to an end — but he did not cry at his mother’s funeral. Instead he stood at the back of the stuffy church and tried his hardest not to scream as the wrinkled, red-nosed mourners lined up to pat his back and say the damn same thing: “I’m sorry for your loss, Stanley. Stay strong. She would be proud of you.”
He did not cry even when he was alone at home, on the tire swing, swinging as hard as he could, thinking that today might be the day the rope finally snapped. This is where Atty found him, two days after he woke up to his mother’s frozen corpse.
She watched him on the swing for a good minute before she called out. “Wanna learn how to knit?” she hollered. He paused, dug his shoe into the dirt until the tire, too, paused in its wild, haphazard path.
She called him to the stone bench and gave him a pair of needles. A ball of old yellow yarn, too. “Over, under, through,” she murmured, and her needles waltzed through the thread like dancers. When he tried imitating her, his feet tapped to his racing heart and his needles got tangled up in the yellow.
“Calm down,” she said. “Don’t know why you’re so wound up.”
She didn’t talk about Heaven or how beautiful and strong and proud his mom was. Or how sorry she was for his loss. She didn’t talk about his mom at all. She just clinked her needles quietly, guided her yarn into little squares, and hummed Brother Can You Spare a Dime. He breathed in, breathed out, pulled the yarn over, under, through. Over, under, through. And it was only then that he began to cry, with yarn wound about his fingers on a stone bench and Atty Ramona beside him, humming off-key show tunes under her breath. He sobbed for so long that the sun dipped below the trees, and he couldn’t see where the needles ended and his fingers began. When his aunt peeled back the screen door and called him inside for supper, Atty squeezed his hand and walked back home. He was alone, but not alone. The wind tasted like winter and the cheerful little scrap of knitted yellow yarn rippled against his fingertips.
In October 1941, Stanley was drafted into the army and shipped off to Germany.
There was an air of feverish expectation at the base; impatience was laced into their oversalted meals and scrubbed into their shiny new helmets. Every soldier was itching for some ammo, a gun, and a German to shoot at.
Stanley was scared. He remembered fishing for flounders on Pebble Beach with his father, and he suddenly wanted to vomit all over the shiny floors of the army base. He frantically scoured his bag for the needles and yarn and almost cried in relief when he felt the familiar cool metal against his feverish skin. He knit and knit and felt his lungs expand in shaky, steady breaths. He pictured Atty guiding his fingers and let the memory of her cool breath and warm kisses wash over the fear. Over, under, through. Over, under, through.
“Look at this queer! What’re you, a fucking broad?”
Stanley’s fingers froze. His whole body froze, except for his cheeks which burned his flesh to a crisp. Three men stood by his bed, all leaning casually against the bedpost and sporting the same roguish half-smile. One of them snatched a needle from his fingers and stuck it in his mouth like a cigar.
He pictured himself standing up, socking the guy in the nose, and snarling a devilishly witty reply. He pictured himself looming over the meatheads and bouncing their heads together like Newton’s balls. He was tall, after all. Skinny and gangly, but tall like his father. Instead he pursed his lips and stared very hard at his hands, bony and cracked. He imagined his heart must look very similar.
“This ain’t gonna stop Hitler,” sang one of the soldiers, snatching the yarn away. “Momma’s boy, aren’t ya?”
Of course I fucking am, Stanley thought automatically. Then he looked up at the soldiers and realized he had said it aloud. They pummeled him until his ears rang and his blood ached and his bones turned black and blue. He didn’t cry out. Instead he replayed his memories like old TV reruns and found his dad’s shoulders, his mom’s tapioca eyes, Atty’s mud-caked palms. He latched onto her hands a million times, and he didn’t report the beating to anyone. They must’ve known he wouldn’t; he didn’t want any trouble.
The others caught on, and they took his yarn, his gum, his cigarettes. He took on their shifts. When they were bored a few of them took turns landing punches on his flesh — anywhere but the face, or the officers would notice. He was straw-haired and blue-eyed and looked enough like a German, anyway.
By the time they entered the battlefield in earnest, Stanley was tired. His skin was a blue ocean, quickly fading to purple and green and yellow. It hurt to breathe. He was so tired that he only hesitated for a brief, panicked, light-headed minute. Then a crying officer seized his shoulders and screamed words he could not hear over gunfire. Men fell like dominoes on either side of him. The gun slid between his fingers, sticky with sweat, and when he fired, he pictured his bullet like his needles, weaving through blood and smoke and bodies that convulsed on the ground like flounders on Pebble Beach. Over crouching men, under black skies, through flesh and bone. Over, under, through. Over, under, through.
The summer that Atty changed her name was the hottest summer in decades. The heat pooled in their breaths and chafed their lungs, flickered into flames at the bottoms of their bellies — especially Atty’s, which grew big and round and warm as an embrace. She’d never liked being an Atticus, Atty told him, folding the water bill into a flimsy fan. It looked misleading on paper. People thought she was a transvestite or something complicated like that, she said, and she just wanted to live her life with a normal-ass name. She changed her name to Addison, and Atty became Addy.
Stanley was an accountant. He picked a safe job, a safe home, a safe health care plan. The summer heat changed things between them. They grew snappier. When she first told him about the heartbeat living within her, he nearly jumped, he was so happy. He held her close to him, and crinkled his nose when he felt his shoulder grow wet with her tears. She didn’t want the baby, she murmured. She never wanted a baby. Soon her belly grew so big that they couldn’t hold each other.
She released life into the damp, sterile hospital room, and when he asked her what they’d name the child, and she said she didn’t really care. He could decide. The baby was the happiest thing he’d ever seen. It giggled at the sound of warm blankets and crickets and snow-packed shoes against linoleum. He was convinced that all of Addy’s joy had sunk to her womb and wrapped itself into the newborn’s veins. He named her Joy.
For when Joy left Addy’s body, Addy was a different kind of woman: less bouncy, less loud, and infinitely more hollow. They held each other on the second-hand mattress, and Addy stared hard at the little wrinkles by Stanley’s eyes, traced them with her fingers, exhaled and felt herself grow smaller.
She couldn’t describe it, she told him. She cried for no reason. She looked at the baby sometimes, and its eyes were telescopes. She gazed into its pupils and saw time scratching canyons into her skin. She saw herself growing into her mother, gray and croaky and beer-breathed, reading palms in a leaky shack. She traced Stanley’s wrinkles with a shaky finger, and she wasn’t a warrior knight like she always told him she’d be. She wasn’t even a damsel-in-distress. She was just a tired accountant’s wife with stretch marks on her belly.
When Addy moved away, she left behind nothing but a brief note and her Joy. He didn’t even get to say goodbye.
Joy went through phases, like the planets. She liked dinosaurs, stars, antelopes, pirates. Chefs, skateboards, horoscopes, karate, rock ’n’ roll. Stanley took her to the big roller coaster park every Sunday, and she only ever tried one ride a day. She picked one and rode it twenty, thirty, forty times, back-to-back, ran straight from the exit back to the line, her hair a frizzy windswept nest around her flushed cheeks. He didn’t know why she did this; never asked. Stanley didn’t want to vomit in front of her, so he always waited right outside. Brought his needles sometimes, or a good book, or his paperwork, which flew out of his lap every time the roller coaster flashed by. He squinted into the blur sometimes, tried to pick out which young, gleeful, squealing face was his little girl’s. Most days it was too fast.
When she was nine-and-a-half years old, Joy abandoned piano and latched onto fishing. She liked watching the nature channel, where wild-eyed Australian adventurers caught angry fish in roaring river rapids, sometimes with their bare hands. She liked the idea of almost dying.
When Stanley drove her to the pier, she rolled back the windows and stuck her head out the whole way, grinning like a lazy dog. “Roll them up,” he told her. She’d catch a cold. She pretended she didn’t hear him.
At the pier, the ocean slept. The waves were soft and muted. If he didn’t know any better, Stanley would’ve thought they were gazing out at a vast, somber lake. When he handed Joy the rod, her eyebrows dropped into terse little furrows. “We don’t catch them with our hands?”
“Of course not.”
“Oh,” said Joy. She pursed her lips; in her hands the rod might as well have been a foam finger.
“The flounders are actually quite frightening,” assured Stanley.
Her head jerked up. “Really?” She threw her line in, and she wasn’t a child on a fishing trip. She was a deadly, barefoot beast killer sent to the distant Pacific to cleanse the sea of monsters. When she flung a small halibut by their feet, Stanley flinched a bit. He taught her how to throw it back into the water, and she flung it as far as she could. It sailed across the water, sunshine glinting off its scales, and landed with a faraway splash. She fished like this for hours, but the waters were too still, and darkness descended early. They didn’t find any flounders, but she kept one of the halibuts. Named it Hallie. He promised they’d come back next week.
“Seatbelt,” murmured Stanley as they climbed into the car.
“For Hallie too?”
“She’s already dead, Joy.”
She cradled the halibut against her chest on the way home, stroked its gills, stuck its head out the window, and the whole car smelled like fish.
She hated him. Joy looked very much like her mother, but she looked the most like Addy when she said she hated him. She hovered by the door, fingers cradling the doorknob like a threat, back ramrod straight, just like he’d taught her. Soldier straight.
She stood in front of the refrigerator, plastered two-layers deep in her mother’s postcards. Look, here I am in Barbados. Here I am, going on adventures without you. Here I am, happy. The sunshine lit her hair on fire, and if it weren’t for her freckles and gangly legs, he would have thought she was Addy herself.
He was a control freak. He was a coward. He was afraid of everything. He didn’t let her do anything. He wouldn’t let her go. He lied to her. He lied to her about everything. She hated him.
Stanley stood frozen by the toaster as his daughter peeled away his happiness. She opened the door and stepped out.
Stanley had always expected that someone so similar to Addy would marry someone like him. Instead Joy fell in love with the striking, no-nonsense woman who sold car insurance down the street. On her wedding day, Joy wore a poppy blue dress, and he walked her down the little path in their backyard, both their hands sweaty, clenched tight in one another.
He woke up at 6:45 and poured himself cornflakes. He watched the news, read her letters, filled in the crossword, called Joy. Made a sandwich, took a walk, wrote her letters. Cleaned the house, microwaved yesterday’s pizza, took a shower. Then he went to bed.
When you are waiting you are not really living. You are expecting life to happen. So Stanley was dying and waking up at 6:45 and waiting.
At the old ice cream shop, the very old man eats French vanilla ice cream with a very old friend. They talk for hours. Outside, snow falls.