They Hadn’t Yet
He ramped west off the 415 and warehouses and streetlamps leaned to stand straight against the sky once again. Restaurant and bistro patios were all Bustle and Laughter. Bars burst with song. The old Little League park off Middlefield boasted smells of hot dogs, popcorn, cotton candy; boasted, too, the dog-day joy of hung-tall flags and patriotic bunting. The Sun ticked brighter shades of bright. Somewhere close, demons folded deeper into dirt.
So. So now.
He looped back toward the city center where the sweet yeast of fresh-baked bread drifted from Fruitful Harvest off Main where his mother took him shopping wholesale Saturday mornings like this. This fruitfulharvest. This is where the beautiful boys and girls working the bakery counter always offered warm honey-buttered slices he and his mother would eat with slow savor and joy on the short drive home, gnashing and smiling across the stationwagon bench seat to say I love you, but I also love this bread, but … Ialsoloveyoumorethananybreadever.
So he remembered. Soheremembered. One of those Saturday bread-buying mornings finished up with his mother bleeding across the vinyl bench seat. Through baby-blue corduroy jeans. In the garage of Home, the home that was and is Home. That one. That one Home he is driving toward. She bled, as, she explained, women, even mothers, especially mothers, do.
They had just finished their honey-buttered bread. They had made peace with the cool, cloudy morning. They were gathering groceries, leaning over into the backseat. When she stopped. When she stopped and looked down. Then held her eyes low and raised them blue-green to look at him, only him, her son. His eyes blurred with tears rising, rinsing through as he murmured, “Mom?”
“It’s the way of life, honey,” she said slow and easy, screwing up her face in compassionate apology. “There is nothing to worry over. You’re eleven now. You should be learning how women’s bodies conduct their business.”
“I don’t want you to bleed,” he said, the garage door scrolling loudly shut. “Ever.”
“Let’s go inside,” she said. “Let’s go inside and make some lunch. I’ll get changed, make grilled cheese, talk about things for a time.”
“And blood.” He hoisted grocery sacks of bread, cantaloupes, cold bacon into his strong young-man’s arms.
“And blood,” she said.
And he followed his mother’s quick, long strides up the steps and into the laundry room and kitchen.
Years ago now, yet he felt it could have been now, like happening right now, as his small city Home bustled with bicycles and young mothers, delivery trucks, mailwomen striding door to door toting those three-wheeled pack horses stoked with messages, station wagons full of families and life lessons and love stitched into the budding ginkgo trees smelling of men, maples carrying the hip-strung methods of women, truestory, the coppery bright-red blood coursing through his young-man’s veins, the trance of rhyming with the other side of town.
The ghost, she tuned the dashboard stereo to KRCK and levered the volume several degrees toward loud. The Go Go’s. “Vacation.” “Our Lips Are Sealed.” All the hits he and Silvi loved. Kelner, he was more into The Clash, Skynyrd, Ozzy.
He ticked from station to station as the streets began to fill, and fill further – food trucks, old women being escorted arm in arm through crosswalks and the automatic doors of supermarkets and chocolate shops and taquerias, blooms torn from dogwoods, cherry trees, maples. It was soothing. A salve he’d forgotten could be a salve, made for him, from him – his life, his Home, his driving south for all this that had slipped from the unmapped folly of his rustic skull one year or another.
So, okay, first stop.
Go see Kelner, that old chum, that old felon.
Leave downtown and drive toward Kelner’s house, that was his thinking. Go find the rickety and familiar shag-carpeted semi-squalor homeplace of his best friend. The What Was, now becoming the What Is, so it all could again become the whatwas. That mobius strip the ghost asked for now made manifest.
He touched his tight-wound chest and smiled.
The Kelner homeplace was a low-rent beige and brick authentic wonder, a stocky ranch house where Kelner lived alone with his mother who worked as a night-shift nurse at the University hospital making rent to keep on after Old Man Kelner, the father, upandgotgoneforgood, as Kelner often said.
He rotely wove through the neighborhoods of his youth, the Go Go’s bursting playful and wise songs from his dashboard’s version of a time machine. So much was the same – the bright-white stucco and sturdy Craftsman bungalows, the elegant Victorian and Italianate domiciles, the few outlier working-class abodes like Kelner’s, the dozens of fake-wood-paneled station wagons, windows rolled down, the taking in of a buoyant, sugared world.
Parked across the street from Kelner’s, the street now hushed, the air still and humming, he notched the Go Go’s back down and turned his car off to have a good long look. The front door was still screened and scratched-up, the lawn dotted with dandelions and blond patches where Kelner’s old dog, Mortimer, often indulged in a good piss. The wide bay window showed the backside – or was it the frontside? – of pleated yellowing curtains framed by long, narrow bricks with pumice-stones jutting from some, but not all, of the grey-brown bricks running the length of the ranch home’s façade. He always marveled at those pumice stones trapped within those bricks, jutting, trying to escape, forever held in rigid midstride. He felt, always, each time he came to hang out with Kelner here, that he could relate to those pumice stones, their essence and aesthetic held firmly askew, yet, yet…they – he and those stones within the bricks – they were the ones setting the symmetry awry. Some rare days this made him angry and confounded. Most days, though, this belonging and not, this half-trapped, half-fleeing, this innate purpose of making certain we were all reminded of the mythology of order, it pleased him to the core.
He touched his chest, reached to cup the tacky skin across his throat and neck-tendons above his bowtie and swallow slow, hard. He shut his eyes, remembering Kelner and he tossing worn baseballs and talking sports, girls, mean-ass teachers for hours on that front lawn. He remembered the Hustler and Oui magazines Kelner had ferreted from beneath his mother’s bed. The coy mystery of sex before he understood what it was. Pulsing warm air seeping from Kelner as he pointed to each place he’d like to touch. Things and parts he himself had eventually gotten to take part in. Things and parts Kelner, he assumed, had never gotten to take possession of. He understood, in a manner he had never quite, that there were things, so many things, withheld from his friend, and what good had that done the world?
None. Never. Neveronce had that dearth done anyone any good.
“Isn’t that right, ghost?” he whispered. “It is right, right?” And he felt her cool palm join his across his neck and squeeze gently. neveronce. didanyoneanygood.
This is when he opened his eyes to see the Kelner’s front curtain had been drawn open and standing at the living room window stood a blond boy the heft and height of Kelner – at maybe twelve, thirteen? The boy stared at him, cocking his head and nodding. And then the boy waved once above his head. Then a second and third wave wave/scooping motion toward his chest to say come, come over here to say hello. comeonoverplease. The boy pointed toward the home’s front door and walked that way across the wide, clean windowpane visage.
Across the street in his car the ghost peeled her hand from his hand so he could open car door, step out, stretch, shrug, and walk to Kelner’s scratched-up front door.
Standing on the ratty welcome mat he rang the doorbell and a moment later the wooden door, the real door, swung open behind the mesh of the crosshatch screen.
There stood Kelner. Young Kelner. Twelve. Thirteen. With a bowl cut of brown hair. A tad roly-poly. Freckled across the bridge of his nose and cheeks.
“Hi,” Kelner said. “Stop ringing the f’n doorbell in constant.” Kelner chopped the air against the rusty screen between them, inconstant. “It’s stupid. Like that is really really stupid to ring the doorbell so often.”
“Hi,” he said to Kelner. “Sorry. You were always kind of mean, and I liked that about you, but don’t, gosh, after all this time I don’t want you to be angry. Plus, it’s just a doorbell I rang twice. Plus, I just wanted to come back Home for a day, reconnect, remember the What Was for a time. I didn’t even think you’d be here.”
“Sorry,” Kelner said. “Okay. I lashed out. I’m just pissed. I mean, they’re keeping me in here. Like trying to teach me a lesson. Stuck behind screen doors for years. Looking out. But not going out. Just because. Because. Once I … Gah. Plus, you’re here at on my street after twenty years of not coming around? It’s unnerving. After all this time? Is this how you make one thing into another?”
“It’s about the ghost.” He reached for the doorknob. “She said I should take a drive. Go Home. She also, she said to say hello.”
Kelner shook his head, waved once slowly, made a fist. “Don’t try and come in here.” He poked the mesh of the screen. It groaned. “They won’t let you. They won’t let anyone. And the ghost. What’s with the ghost? Iamtheghost.”
“Don’t lie to me,” he said. “You’re not theghost. Also, why’d you kill that guy in Santa Barbara?”
“It. Was. Written.” Kelner smiled, licked his lips. “Also…I liked it. I’d always wondered if I would. And I did. So there. Plus, that guy was waiting for the blade. Sorry if that offends your sensibilities.”
“Quit apologizing.” He took his hand off the knob and pressed his palm against the screen. It was warm and softer than it seemed it should be. He looked over his shoulder toward the bay window. “I’d kind of forgotten about these weird bricks.”
Kelner raised his palm to the screen as well. “I found a bunch more magazines,” Kelner said. “Good ones, too. Better scenarios. Longer legs.”
“Remember Silvi? Silvi H?” He pressed gentle into the screen but could not feel the flesh of Kelner. “I’m hoping…maybe…,”
“She rides her three-speed by here every once in a while.” Kelner kept his hand against the screen, pressed harder. “It’s one of the few things keeps me sane. Silvi. And visits like this. She’s looking good. A lot older than we are, but still, she’s kept things where they should be.”
“Maybe I’ll see her, too,” he said, a rawchill seeping into his palm, wrist, forearm, bicep, neck and face and eyes.
“Oh,” Kelner said, licking his lips, running his tongue over his incisors and now luminescent front teeth, “you will. Astheghost, I can with authority, say yes, you will see Silvi H and have some words, or something like words, with her.”
“That would be wonderful.” He lowered his hand and stepped back a yard, two, the warmth returning to his body. “That would be…so good, Kelner. Thanks for letting me know.”
“Or…” Kelner said, hinging the wooden door halfway closed, leaning his head around and huffing laughter, “who the hell knows. Maybe I’m nottheghost. Who can say these days!” Kelner’s huffs grew louder, and then cut short. “Visiting hours are over. Go with god. Also, go see you mother, she’s been asking after you for too long now, comes by here all the f’n time!”
The clap of the Kelner homeplace door slamming pulsed through him and he stood straight and pleasantly shocked, watching as Kelner, or someone, tugged the curtains shut in quick, lurching bursts.
Twelve minutes later. Radio notching. Notching “Sweet Jane” and “Captain Jack” into new blameless marriages.
The ghost, asleep at home, turned the volume right on up.
He veered left onto the U-shaped block where he grew up those years ago, drove directly to his old Home. Parked across the street from a two-story dollhouse – bone-white and blue-shuttered, plaid flannel blankets laid across tight-mown green grass. Home. Normal. More than normal. But, perfect. Whatever, things like childhood Homes and well-worn pop songs deserve their own brand of wailing wall, right?
Devo, Journey, Cars, B-52’s, Go-Go’s, Clash. White noise.
He parked, watched this house across the street as a friend in trouble. As if the house were, like him, like the ghost, atroublefilledfoolseeking. Seekingtobelovedoncemore.
It became clear then clearer that the house, she had had missed him, too. And in a slow groaning motion the house, Home, she leaned toward him sitting quietly in his ordinary sedan listening to all the old anthems and she whispered, somehow louder than Joan Jett, louder than Bon Scott, “What’s on your schedule these days? Time for a yard sale? It’s on the verge of go-time!”
“Sure,” he said. “What’s for sale?”
The house leaned left, right, nodded, “Come have a look,” then saying his name in the gentle timbre of his mother.
As he opened his door and strode across the street, the house stood straight with a troubling notching, popping, and a long sigh. Step by slow step he saw the plaid flannel blankets ripple and crease as they were populated with items, price tags. A lemonade stand and a “Welcome Neighbors – Cheap Shit For Sale!” red-painted cardboard sign floated and woke as he stepped up onto the sidewalk, and onto the neat green lawn.
Cheap shit for sale included: charred and shiny bits and pieces of the plane his parents crashed to earth within, his old Thurman Munson baseball card collection, the dull-chrome set of Ben Hogan golf clubs he’d saved up his driving range money for, the dollhouse replica of this house before him – Home – his father built for the neighbor girl, Mildred, Millie.
There were the knit-tight tapestries of JFK, Neil Armstrong, Elvis, Clint Eastwood he collected. His father’s stickered-up old suitcase from the Eagle Scout days – oval stickers of Mt. Rushmore, Wrigley Field, Niagara Falls, Empire State Building, Coney Island, Wall Drug, Don’t Mess With Texas, a technicolor mosaic.
Stacks of his father’s green-gold law books, his mother’s flowered apron collection, his old rock polisher and a tall mound of shimmering, rainbow-layered stones. Footballs, soccer balls, baseballs, golf balls, basketballs. Generations of photographs – Grandma Klingensmith, Great Uncle Harry, Uncle Joe, Mom, Dad, Great Great Grandma Pearl, as girls and boys, young lovers, Teamsters, proselytizers, parents, dead husks of skin and fear and folly.
He wandered and knelt within the labyrinth, navigating, flipping price tags without prices, tags simply stating “Cash Only.”
He felt his back pockets for a wallet that had not held paper money in years as a tall, bone-thin woman emerged from the dollhouse Home dressed in her prairie best – wool dress hanging neck to ankle to boot-leather filigree, blonde hair pulled tight into an intricate bun, a painted-black stick-made cross tacked above her heart, a red ribbon laced around its stem, a bright wonder in her eyes. He recognized her immediately as the ghost – hisghostmademanifest – as she nodded her long pretty head, winked, put a crooked finger to her plumb-painted lips.
“See anything you like,” she said, holding out a hand to help him to his feet, “amid the ruins?”
He touched at his back pockets once again where now there was no wallet at all, then took her warm rough hand and she pulled him up beside her. “Yes. I thought you were in the city. Having a good day. I’m not sure I have any cash on me, though.”
“Shushhhh on all that city talk. Let’s just look around for a time. We found all this in a room we’d forgotten about,” she said, the smell of coal and sulfur and sun-baked wool embracing the both of them. “Up on the third floor. Let’s just take it in.”
“I don’t remember much about the third floor.” He touched his shirt at his own heart. “I never thought it a real thing, just made for dreaming.”
“Oh,” she said. “I assure you the third floor is a very real place.” She adjusted her dark tea gown. “Case in point. Look at all this very real cheap shit. You should browse for a bit, then we can have a go up there, have a look around.”
“That sounds like,” he said. “That sounds like something I’dliketodothankyou.”
“Never mind the black cross,” she said, fingering the sticks, lacing the ribbon around her pointing finger. “I’m in mourning, or supposed be, you know, to keep up the appearance of sorrow – for the neighbors, or whoever lives up there.” She pointed the abovec theblackshingled house. “My husband died couple weeks back. Consumption. That old racket. You know how it goes. Anyhow, I put him on ice, shipped his mortal coil back to Missouri for a proper burial in the family plot. Circle of life bullshit. Mobius Strip. Call it what you will.”
“I’m sorry for your…”
“Don’t be,” she said. “Really, he was a piece, that one. A weak little man with a wandering eye, a salted-meat habit, a romance with all things gin and gin adjacent. Anyhow, he’s gone now, and you finally made it Home, and plus, I’ve already met someone new, up in the city, a hot young neighbor of ours. Have a look around, don’t worry about the cash-only policy, take whatever you want. I’ll bring out a couple of choice items, then it’s third-floor agogo.”
She turned quick and graceful, floating up the steps, through the front door, and he was alone again.
He did take a look around, draping t-shirts featuring Gary Coleman, the Hamburglar, Kermit the Frog, Rollie Fingers, Farrah Faucet over his shoulder, pocketing the Thurman Munson rookie card, a Billy Martin and Reggie Jackson, one punch-drunk Micky Mantle card, too.
Across the yard he knelt and cupped one bright-blue piece of airplane siding, charred at the edges, two creases stitched across this feather-light mystery of fate. He slipped it into his breast pocket.
He made for the urns, crouching, thinking he really couldn’t shouldn’t leave these relics behind, though how morbid, how ominous it would be to have them lurking about his place in the city, staring him down, frightening the freckled ones, competing with the ghost for attention and lament.
“Hey!” he heard from across the street. “Hey, those aren’t their bones and teeth in them urns, you know. They always want you to believe it, but it’s another in the litany of lies and half-truths perpetrated upon us.”
On the far side of the street, out front of his old neighbor’s house, leaning against the yellow-mustard-yellow fire hydrant stood Noah Hervitz, the tall, awkward Jewish boy he and Kelner often teased for being a skinny-fat kid, for his bowl-cut hair, for the wrong-shaped star around his neck before they understood anything.
“Come here,” Noah said, his voice a coil of distrust, anger. “You might want to take this with you, too, since you’ve decided to circle back and check up on the old neighborhood Jews.”
Across the street Noah – still an aggressively unwieldy young man – pointed to the fire hydrant cap where across the yellow paint a black-penned swastika stared up at the two of them.
“Remember?” Noah said, clapping a strong wide hand to his chest. “Remember when you and that Kelner kid showed up to draw this?” Noah ran his middle finger over the six sure lines of the swastika Kelner had drawn slowly, precisely, one warm longgoneafternoon, smirking.
He did remember the act – spring of fourth grade – but not the way it felt to stand there within the act.
“Don’t lie to yourself,” Noah said, lips tight against just-crooked teeth. “You were the one who drew this.” Noah poked at the swastika in a manner that looked painful, but he did not wince.
“I don’t remember it,” he said. “I don’t remember it that way.”
“Of course, you wouldn’t. But I saw you with these eyes. From right there in our house.” Noah pointed at his own wide amber eyes, then behind them to the black-shuttered replica of his own Home across the street. “This is our hydrant. The Hervitz’s. Hervitz house catches fire, this hydrant helps the fire go out. So, let’s just say we’re super not cool with this mode of desecration, dude.”
Noah produced a bottle of paint thinner, a slab of gauze, began dabbing at the swastika.
“We, I, didn’t know,” he said to Noah’s flat-white face. “We hadn’t gotten to that chapter in History yet. We were in fourth grade. I was, am, an ignorant boy who simply liked the shape of that word – swastika – in my mouth and black against the yellow hydrant. I didn’t know yet what it meant. Like dirigible, lugubrious, smite – just pleasant sounds, shapes, until they’re not. It’s been, this act, this seeing you dabbing…I’m so really sorry.”
“That’s a good story. Most of you like to tell it that way.” Noah clucked his tongue and did not look up as he handed across the gauze which now held the transposed swastika above the hydrant’s clean bright palette. “Glad you finally made it Home, dude. Been waiting to check this off my list. Go. Go finish your shopping.”
He looked across the street where the ghost in her tea skirt emerged once more teetering a large plastic tote onto the lawn. She waved to say come on back over here boy and get what you came for. He waved in return, the gauze-strip swastika flagging in the warm afternoon.
He turned back toward Noah, but there was no Noah, only the hydrant and the black-shuttered replica of Home.
“Found one last bin,” she said, peeling open the translucent blue lid with a crackle, a groan, as he joined her on the lawn. “Cat, dog, angel fish, electric eel, hamster, three lizards, one mouse, one tarantula, one kinkajou. All still warm. Which I’m thankful for.”
She straightened and brushed her skirt, reached into the bin, began laying the bodies onto a red and black plaid blanket, then thinking better and lining the corpses neatly on the grass. “Interested in these creatures still?”
“The pets,” he said. “Thepetsofmyyouth. Where I, we, live now they don’t abide pets.”
“But they abide ghosts? Same dif. Capital F ‘em. Capital F the rules.” She winked, scooped the softwarmdead kinkajou and lay her beside the eel and tarantula. “So much fine print in the world these days. Makes it hard to decipher meaning, volition, what we’re all gathered here to ascertain. Speaking of…find what you came for?”
“I grabbed a few t-shirts,” he said. “Some baseball cards, and I think…I think I’ll take the urns, too.”
“Plus, you have that airplane scrap, and the swastika Kelner drew for the Hervitz fam. Got those both in your breast pocket. Above the heart. Like my little black-sticked cross. Everyone needs talismans and pets, right? Sometimes a good scourge or holy war hits the spot, too.”
“I knew it was Kelner who drew it, not me,” he said, kneeling to pet his old black-and-white cat, Piccadilly, and the spaniel his father had named Virginia Woof. Both of them soft and warm as fontanel and fresh-baked bread. He couldn’t recall the names of any of the other pets, not even the kinkajou, not even the mouse.
“Don’t be so cocksure, just take your goods and the urns to your sedan,” she said. “Then the last thing.”
“The third floor?” He drifted across the lawn, the blankets, took up the urns.
“The third floor.” The ghost lay out the last of the lizards. “Don’t tarry. Or do. It doesn’t matter now. I’ll wait. We’ll ferret-out Silvi, and your mom. Up where some things haven’t yet happened.”
He smiled easing into the street, feeling joyful and a little uneasy holding both his parents like footballs crooked between his elbow and ribcage as with each step the asphalt warmed, softened beneath him, seeping heat up his calf. He loped and loped, the street distending, his sedan pulsing within oily heat waves, retreating. He felt he might never make it across, or that it would certainly take longer than expected, as the warm asphalt softened further and he sunk ankle-deep with each stride. Yet he felt this was okay, this was just fine. More time for him to think, reflect, more time to savor his t-shirts and trading cards and urns.
So he walked on with cavalier torpor thinking of all the things they might find on the third floor, if they could find the third floor at all. They might come across a time when:
Not yet had the ghost come to live with him.
Not yet had the long-legged freckled ones slept atop his sheets until noon.
Not yet had Kelner held their wrists and palms together in a tree-shadowed corner of Mitchell Park, tracing lifelines, whispering proclivities and affections.
Not yet had Kelner moved to Santa Barbara, garnered a machete, wielded said machete into the chest of a nameless human on a summer midnight near the pier, the hush of waves breaking and receding, breaking once more beneath a brackish wind drifting all eternal suffering west.
Not yet had Silvi H and he made it to the junior high courtyard that last day – all birdsong and tears, honeysuckle and skin-to-skin – to part ways forever.
Not yet had Silvi H put the name of another man – the innocuous, inert tutor – into her mouth and the space between she and he so he himself could make a white-hot mess of the needy construct of love.
Not yet had Silvi dropped out of university to walk the Camino de Santiago, met a Spanish boy, eloped to Portugal, changed her name to Larkin Pippit, written an addendum to the Book of Numbers, taken a vow of silence, developed a following, disappeared.
Not yet were there absolutes, stalwart convictions, hills to die on.
Not yet had He Himself come into this realm at all, to bear witness to a litany of dead pets, his mother’s bleeding, the thoughtless etching of too many hateful shapes.
Not yet had he kissed Kelner across his lifeline, traced Silvi’s name forwardbackward down her thigh, told his father he neverevenasked to be born, heard his mother murmur in return, “Well, son, we never wanted children either, but you know…soitgoes.”
Not yet had the baseball seasons ended, the game of golf been invented, this notion of Home been made manifest so he might put it in his breast pocket and drive south to pass through this new version of the old story of Home he’d beentoldwrongly, it seems, somanytimes would remain constant, the way it was and would always be.
“Why? The language is terse and magical at once, and the dual narratives — one set in post-soviet northern Russia, one in suburban Louisiana — are woven together beautifully and brilliantly, slowly peeling away layers of the mysteries surrounding two brothers losing each other. It’s a poetic, character-driven, page-turner, and as a writer and reader I love and admire what Lydia has accomplished with this novel. Can’t wait for her next one! She writes amazing short stories as well.”
Christian Winn, the 2016-2019 Idaho Writer in Residence, is a fiction writer, poet, journalist, and teacher of creative writing. His fiction has appeared in McSweeney’s, Ploughshares, The Chicago Tribune’s Printers Row Journal, TriQuarterly Hayden’s Ferry Review, Greensboro Review, Chattahoochee Review, Gulf Coast, Bat City Review, Every Day Fiction, The Pinch, Santa Monica Review, Handful of Dust, The Strip, Story Houston, The Masters Review, Revolver, and elsewhere. His short story collections of, NAKED ME and What’s Wrong With You is What’s Wrong With Me are out from Dock Street Press. He teaches fiction and poetry with The Cabin. He has written for The Boise Weekly, Thrive, The Idaho Statesman, and Idaho Magazine. He is the founder of the Writers Write fiction workshop series, co-founder of Storyfort, and curator of Modern Campfire Stories and the Couch Surfer Artist Series.