"A Chevy Chase Morning"
A short story.
Sophie turned in bed and peered at the pillow beside her. For a moment she thought she saw a head with ruffled gray hair sticking out of the covers and thought she heard the sound of breathing. She lay back and stared at the ceiling. Ted had died six months ago; he would never lie here close to her again. “Get up,” she told herself, and swung her feet to the rug.
Sophie finished her cereal at the kitchen table and turned off the radio; she was sick of the whole Watergate business. She rinsed her bowl in the sink and glanced back at the empty wooden table, seeing Ted there, his reading glasses on, the Washington Post spread out in front of him. Such visions came often, then came the loneliness, hulking behind her shoulder like a watching stranger, critical and silent. The gallery show’s only a month away. If she could just finish her sea painting. Of course, the judges might not accept it; they had rejected the one of the dancers last year and this was more experimental, more uncertain.
She climbed the stairs to her attic studio, haunted by thoughts of failure. Ted would have eased her back from that darkness, draped her in a soft cloak of confidence and hope. Without him, she felt half-dressed. She stood a moment staring at her familiar space, soothed by its peaceful privacy. She had painted the sloping beaverboard walls white two years ago and had installed a table under the opposite window as well as two metal cupboards to store her tubes of paint, her bottles of medium and her art books. The easel was near the half-open casement window and beside it was the little paint-spattered table that held her smudged spray bottle and her tin tray covered with puddles of the blue-gray and green acrylic colors she was using. Several canvases were leaning against the cupboards and beyond the white-walled area of the studio; where the eaves met the floor was a low bookcase that held a stack of Ted’s dusty academic journals and some yellowed folders of student papers that she should throw out.
Sophie moved to a line of pots on the table, where brushes stuck up like bunches of dried chrysanthemums. She plucked one out, fingered the stiff bristles and frowned; it was ruined. She had run downstairs yesterday for the furnace man and had not gone back to clean it properly. Maybe she could cut the bristles and use it as a scraper.
She let herself take in the painting on the easel, a scene of waves and beach that she had started before Ted died. On the right, two children were silhouetted against a gray sky streaked with pink. She glanced at her sketches thumbtacked randomly on the opposite wall, then back at the painting. It wasn’t that bad. It had energy, originality; she must get involved in it again.
She selected another brush and paused. The room had a chemical smell. She had stopped using oils years ago when she was first pregnant, and had turned to acrylics, and although they were nontoxic, they smelled. As she pushed up the narrow window on the other side of the room to create a cross-draft, she saw the boy across the street through the reddening leaves of the maple tree. He looked tiny from this attic perspective. He was clutching a shovel handle halfway along its length and seemed to be digging at something beside the driveway.
He and his mother had moved into the house opposite hers two days ago. Sophie had been pulling a bag of groceries from the trunk of her station wagon when the woman backed out of her driveway, rolled down her window and leaned out.
“Where’s the nearest drugstore?” she’d asked.
Intrigued by the arrival of new neighbors in the house that had been vacant for two months, Sophie had crossed to the car. “Hi,” she’d said smiling. “I’m Sophie Baldwin. I’m right across the street.” She had paused, expecting the woman to smile and introduce herself, but the woman had only repeated her question, as if Sophie hadn’t heard. “If you cross Wisconsin and continue about three blocks,” Sophie had told her, “you’ll see a shopping center on your right. Bradley Drugs is right there.”
“It’s a nice store,” she’d added, hoping again for a smile or some sign of friendliness. Getting neither, she’d asked, “What’s your name?”
“Joanne Morris,” the woman had said. “We’re just back from Botswana. Been there three years.” She’d pushed a strand of dyed red hair behind her ear. “I’m at the State Department.” The dark roots of her hair showed in the part at the top of her head and there were small folds of flesh beside her ears. She was in her late 40s or almost 50, Sophie had guessed. “That flight. Sixteen hours with the stopover in London. I tell you, I’m reamed.” She’d batted her red bangs back, revealing a series of horizontal creases on her forehead. “I’ve just got two days to get settled. I begin work Monday. That’s when Toby starts at Chevy Chase Elementary School. Third grade.” The front door had banged shut, and she’d twisted to look back at the thin child on the front steps. “Come on, Toby. We’re going now.”
“I don’t want to.” The boy had stood at the bottom of the steps, his arms crossed defiantly over his narrow chest.
“Toby, I told you it’s just a couple of errands. Come on. Get in the car.”
“No,” the boy had said. “I want to stay here.”
“Chevy Chase is where my children went,” Sophie had broken in, thinking her talk might ease the tension and give the child a chance to change his mind. “It’s a very good school, or at least it was 10 years ago.”
“Come on,” the woman had yelled at her child, ignoring Sophie. “I haven’t got all day.”
Sophie had glimpsed a look of pleading in the child’s eyes. “I could watch him while you go to the drugstore,” she’d volunteered.
“Great,” the woman had said, accepting Sophie’s offer without apology or hesitation. “I’m strung out from that flight. God. And now the house.” She’d reached for the gearshift. “So I cross Wisconsin, then the shopping center’s on the right?”
Sophie had nodded. “Come on,” she’d said to the boy as they watched the car turn out into Bradley Lane. “I have some cookies or we can see what else there is.”
The child had followed her into the kitchen wordlessly. He’d pulled two cookies from a Pepperidge Farm package and settled at the table, dropping crumbs on the wood surface. “My dad’s in Botswana,” he’d announced. “He’s not going to come here. He’s getting a divorce.” Toby pulled another cookie from the package. “My dad’s gone.”
“That’s very hard,” Sophie had said, embarrassed by the inadequacy of her response. She’d scooped Jeffy, the cat, onto her lap and they had talked about cats and animals and Toby had watched her water the violets. When they’d heard the car outside, Toby had stuffed two more cookies in his pocket and darted across the street.
Sophie stepped back to her easel and sprayed the splotch of blackish blue on her tray on the furled wave on the left and watched the dark color spread. One of the children’s arms was stretched out, pointing. The other child was bent as if he or she was about to plunge into the waves. She wanted to mix danger into their look of excitement. She thought about the menacing waves and sighed; she mustn’t be so morose, always thinking about death and loss.
She heard a jingling noise below. Years ago, when the children were small, she had tied a string of sleigh bells to the inside of the front door to let her know their comings and goings. Now the sound signaled Jason’s arrival. She should take down those bells; there was something abnormal about tracking an adult child. She delayed going downstairs, dabbing at the dark shadow under the curling wave, pretending she hadn’t heard him. She knew she should go and talk cheerfully, although there was so little to say. She added some more dark blue, then started down the stairs. The smell of coffee drifted toward her and she paused in the kitchen doorway. Jason was slouched against the counter, watching the coffee bubble up in the glass cap on top of the percolator. He would be a handsome man if he would stand up straight and put on a decent shirt, she thought, then felt a twinge of shame at her maternal criticism.
“Hi, honey.” She stared at her son. Her daughter, Alice, was studying in England and now that she had only one child nearby, Sophie knew that she used Jason not just as a companion at times, but as a focus for her irritation.
His eyes met hers for a moment, sad and thoughtful under his dark brows. He seemed not to have shaved for a couple of days. Oh, Lord. Was he growing a beard?
“What’s up?” she asked. “Getting started?”
“No. Been driving all night. I’m out of coffee.”
Ted had thought that Jason’s cab driving, the job he’d taken after dropping out of Princeton, was a dead end. “Give it up,” Ted had advised. “Finish your education.” Jason had listened quietly to his father and had continued driving. “He’s stuck,” Ted had said, but Sophie had argued that he needed time; lots of students took off a year during college. And yet remembering Ted’s stern pronouncement now, she clutched her arms around herself as she stood a moment longer in the doorway. Completely stuck. And you’ve left me to deal with it. Damn it, Ted. Startled by her anger, she glanced at the back door. “Have a Nice Day” read the smiley-face sticker stuck to a windowpane.
Sophie moved to the wooden table. “Glad to see you,” she said, and for a moment in the bright warm kitchen with the row of African violets on the windowsill and Jeffy sleeping on the woven seat of a chair, she did feel glad, even though Jason was a source of anxiety. “Want to take a nap in your old room? You must be exhausted.”
“No. I’ve got to go home and walk Max.”
The dog, she thought, the one remaining responsibility, now that Tanya had left him. “How about some eggs and toast?”
“Sure. You want some coffee?”
“Yes. Fine.” If she could get back to her painting before 11, Sophie thought, as Jason pulled a second mug from the cupboard, she’d skip marketing this afternoon and work until 3. Actually, with no Ted and no children, she could work right into the evening, but the old sense of interrupted time persisted.
“Looks like a lovely fall day,” she said. Jason made no reply and Sophie pulled the egg carton from the fridge, embarrassed by her vacuous remark. Somewhere along the way she had lost her sense of ease with her son, she thought; his quiet presence made her tense.
Sophie slid the eggs onto a plate and set it on the table. As she sat down opposite her son, she thought of Ted again. He had sat here just six months ago, worrying about Jason’s future. As a professor, he’d been irked to have his son drop out of a university. His grades were good; he could transfer to a local college easily, Ted had said. He could change his major and take more art history, he’d suggested, even though Sophie knew her husband hoped his son would continue in economics, his own discipline. Ted’s approach had been heavy and yet his love for Jason had never seemed so fierce or so poignant to Sophie. He wanted Jason to use his good mind, he’d said, and have a full life. But now it was only Sophie who wanted all that for their son.
“I’m trying to finish that sea painting for the exhibit,” Sophie said to stop the spin of the old unanswerable questions.
“Still working on that one?” Jason said.
“Yes, still.” Sophie pressed her mug with both hands and looked down at the pattern of milk swirling in the brown liquid. What could her private ambitions mean to her sorrowful son?
Jason raised his head. “I heard on the radio Ford might pardon Nixon,” he said, holding his fork midair with its burden of eggs.
“Really?” she said, shocked by this news and relieved to turn away from a sense of their mutual inertia.
“They should arrest the guy, clamp him in jail,” Jason said.
Sophie was startled by his anger. “Oh, no, honey. He’s suffered enough.”
“He’s committed crimes; he should pay for them. Others have to.”
Sophie gazed at her son. Jason had always been concerned about those others; he had wanted to explore a world beyond the boundaries of suburban Chevy Chase or the Princeton campus with its privileged boys from wealthy families. Now, he drove through the squalid parts of Washington late at night, and Sophie imagined leather-jacketed men with slicked-back hair and boozy women in short skirts, exposing their stockinged thighs as they crawled into his cab. Maybe that was a kind of fulfillment.
Jason stood to refill his mug, and Sophie eyed his long, lean back, the line of vertebra visible under his faded blue shirt. Ted’s heart attack had occurred after another evening when he had lectured Jason on his future.
“He’s guilty of more than just destroying government documents, you know,” Jason said. “He’s been lying to the country for years.”
Sophie gave her head a little shake returning to Nixon. “It does seem true,” she said. Was Jason channeling the anger, or regret, he felt about his father into the beleaguered president? She stood and reached for the loaf of bread on the counter. “Another piece? Want some beach plum jelly?” Memories of their Martha’s Vineyard summers flickered through her mind; picking beach plums on the dunes, the sweet smell of boiling fruit, the line of jars above the sink; scenes that would not be repeated now that Ted was gone.
She waited. The toast popped up, and Sophie buttered it quickly, added jelly and put it on Jason’s plate.
“Someone move in across the street?” he asked. “I saw a car in the driveway.”
“Yes.” Sophie pounced on the neutral topic. “A mother and son. Foreign service family. I met her briefly yesterday. The boy’s about 8. He came over here for a while. Kind of a sad child. The husband’s staying on in Botswana. They’re getting a divorce, the boy said.”
“Hard on the kid.” Jason pushed back his plate. “I’ve gotta get going.” Jason put both hands on the table about to rise; the gesture tugged at Sophie. Don’t go, she wanted to plead.
“I’ve been looking at a catalog for Montgomery College,” he said, sinking back into his chair. “Might sign up for an art history course there.”
“Oh, Jason, wonderful. When?” Sophie knew she should mask her enthusiasm, but the news was so sudden, so important.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Sometime.”
“The fall semester’s just starting. Couldn’t you get in now?”
“Mom,” he said sternly. “Don’t rush me. All right?” Sophie pressed her lips together. Ted would have pushed, but Sophie knew she must wait.
The sleigh bells rattled as the front door opened, then closed. Sophie looked up; the neighbor child was standing in the kitchen doorway, ending their conversation. His dark hair was loose and rumpled above his thin, pinched face.
“Got any more cookies?” he demanded and folded his arms over his chest, half covering the image of Evel Knievel on his black T-shirt. He swung his arms, then folded them impatiently again. One of his hands scrabbled into his jeans pocket and pulled out a dirty white dog magnet. He tossed it up in an exhibitionist flip but failed to catch it, and it fell on the floor. He stooped, retrieved the dog quickly and stuffed it back in his pocket. Jason used to have a magnet like that, Sophie thought, part of a pair of little Scottie dogs, one white, one black, that snapped together muzzle on muzzle or side by side until one or the other dog got lost.
“This is Jason, Toby,” Sophie said. “He’s my son.” Toby nodded as if the information was of little interest to him, and looked around the kitchen, pretending a bored familiarity with it all.
“I’ll get the cookies,” Sophie said. She plunked an unopened package of Pepperidge Farm cookies on the table. “Here we are. Oatmeal raisin.” She wondered why she was being so cheerful when the child equaled another interruption in her broken morning. Jeffy jumped down from the middle chair, and Toby took his seat.
Sophie poured more coffee, then sat and gazed from one face to the other. Both boys looked worn, despite the gap in their ages. Toby’s narrow face was peculiarly sharp, and there were gray smudges under his eyes. The new bristles on Jason’s jaws made him look older, and there was a crease between his brows. She thought of him two summers ago, bronzed and muscular, a counselor in a camp for inner-city children, a job he’d loved. He’d even brought home Daryl, an 8-year-old who had spent two nights with them while his mother had a baby. She had a sudden, hopeful thought. What if Jason befriended Toby, talked to him, played catch with him in the yard? They might even unpack the model train in the basement and set up the tracks together. Jason lifted his mug and Toby reached his hand into the bag to extract another cookie.
“What’s that thing?” Toby asked, pointing to a china cat on the shelf above the table. The cat head stuck up smartly, its blue ears flared and its face staring out in a stern smile.
“That’s a tureen,” Sophie told him. “A bowl you put soup in.”
“Oh,” Toby said. Sophie stood and lifted the bowl down from the shelf and eased it onto the table. “This is its tail. See?” She put one hand on the straight blue china stalk protruding from the back end of the cat. “Look.” She lifted the china top to the tureen, placed it on the table beside the bowl, and held up the tail, which ended in a white soup ladle. Sophie looked back at Toby, needing his smile, but his stare was without expression. She glanced at Jason, but he was gazing down at his mug. Feeling the heavy disinterest around her, Sophie knew she should stop, but she continued to talk. “My husband gave it to me when we were first married, long ago in California. He thought it was funny, and, of course, he knew I loved cats.” Why would this boy care what her dead husband had thought? That would be prehistoric to him. “When Jason was a baby….” She glanced at her son. “He used to look at it. Cat. It was one of your first words. Remember?” But Jason continued to stare down at the table, and Sophie put the tureen back on the shelf, feeling humiliated.
Jason drained his coffee mug and stood. “I’ve gotta go,” he said again and pushed his chair back. Wait, Sophie wanted to plead. This child could be your friend. As Jason plunked his mug and plate down beside the sink, Sophie felt her silly fantasy of his friendship with this boy shatter.
“Bye, honey,” she said as he turned to the hall. “Get some sleep.”
“Bye.” The hall door closed with a muffled jingle.
Toby dug his thumb and forefinger into one cookie. “I don’t like these,” he said, and excavated a raisin. He pulled out another, beginning a row of sticky black dots. “Can I watch TV?” he asked.
Sophie frowned: daytime TV, a boy with nothing to do on a bright fall morning. Where was his mother? Buying picture hooks at Strosniders, or perhaps she was at the Safeway? It wasn’t Sophie’s business. She had brought up two children; she didn’t want another. She glanced into the dining room and saw Jason’s denim jacket slung over the chair at the end of the table; he would have to come back to retrieve it.
“I think you’d better go home and watch your own TV.” Sophie felt a flush spread up her neck as she glanced at the boy. He had his hands in his pockets. He was lonely and full of need, and she was being unkind.
“Mom’s off buying stuff. She told me to come here.”
Sophie bristled; so that Joanne whatever-her-name-was had told him to come bother the neighbor. She saw the mother’s tense face again, the wrinkle lines beneath the dyed red bangs. The least Sophie could do was to allow the boy to stay here a while and watch television.
“All right,” she said. “There’s the TV. You can sit here or….” But Toby had already pushed the power button. There was a blur of sounds as he switched the channels, then Rocky shouted to Bullwinkle in a loud, cheerful voice.
“I’m going upstairs to my studio,” Sophie said, raising her voice over the noise. “I’m an artist, you see, and there’s an exhibit….” She broke off. Toby sat hunched forward, eyes on the screen. Sophie started up the stairs, disliking herself and the child.
What had she done with Alice and Jason on Saturday mornings years ago? There’d been expeditions to the Smithsonian and drawing lessons at the Corcoran, but there’d been tantrums and shouting, too. Jason had not wanted to go to another museum. Alice hadn’t liked the drawing teacher. Often she’d doled out their allowances and they’d walked down Maple Avenue to Lowen’s toy store and spent their money on Matchbox cars and clothes for Alice’s Barbie dolls. There’d been piano lessons, trips to the train store, afternoons baking cookies and those painful orthodontic sessions in Dr. Chester’s office, which had to then be compensated for with more trips to the train store and more allowances spent at Lowen’s.
She stared at her canvas. The waves looked clichéd, and the silhouetted figures were clumsy and yet she was working, she told herself; she wasn’t lying in bed or snuffling in the kitchen; she was trying to go on. “Lay’s Potato Chips,” a loud, teasing voice was saying. “Betcha can’t eat just one.” It was difficult to paint with that distraction. But the gallery show was only weeks away. Setting her jaw, she dipped her brush into the mixture of gray-blue and dabbed at the wave on the left, darkening the underside.
She hunched her shoulders against the sound and squinted as she battled the painting. After her show at the gallery a year ago, she had thought she was on the way to recognition, then her dancer paintings were rejected. Now she was falling into an amateur status, from which she might never rise. She dipped the brush again and worked on.
“Can I paint too?” Sophie felt her shoulders jerk. She had not heard the boy on the stairs, but he was in the doorway, thin and slope-shouldered, with his unruly hair and his dark needy eyes. How long had he been standing there watching her?
A voice downstairs was now urging the purchase of Cap’n Crunch. Toby seemed unaware of the TV sounds. A crumb hung from one side of his mouth. He’d probably polished off the whole package of cookies, leaving the detested raisins sticking to the tabletop. His eyes beseeched her.
“Would you like to draw?” she asked, and pulled a sketch pad from beneath some drawings, pushed back some papers and dragged a paint-stained kitchen stool up to the counter. The boy stared at it, then crawled up and sat watching as she opened a new box of charcoal and pulled out two sticks. “See what you can do with that. Draw a house, or some trees or an animal, maybe.”
Toby turned the stick of charcoal in his hands, then hunched over the pad. He drew a tentative line and then another. Sophie turned back to her easel to give him privacy. She dabbed at the front wave, hot with the sense of this stranger behind her. She couldn’t step back easily; she mustn’t sigh. She worked at the pebbly beach, then growing more comfortable, she took another brush and went back to the wave. After a while, she turned and looked surreptitiously at Toby. He was scrunched down drawing, his head low, one arm half-curled around the pad as if to protect it from viewers. Sophie glimpsed what seemed to be a house, surrounded by tall black trees. Bits of broken charcoal trailed across the pad. Encouraged by his concentration, Sophie turned back to her waves and worked on. It was curiously comforting to have him here, drawing right behind her in the quiet.
If Toby’s mother didn’t return by noon, Sophie might offer him a toasted cheese sandwich. Years ago she would go downstairs, open a can of tomato soup and pull out the peanut butter jar before the sleigh bells jangled on the door, or before she glimpsed the children scuffing home through the leaves. Sometimes they brought veined orange and red leaves to be lacquered and pinned to the kitchen bulletin board.
There was a sound of car tires crunching in the gravel driveway across the street. “That’s her,” Toby said; he turned abruptly to the stairs. “Bye.”
“Come back when you feel like it,” Sophie called out. “It’s nice to work together.” She turned to the table and peered at his drawing. He had darkened the trees even more, almost obscuring the house, and had added a crouching figure on one side, then scribbled over it, as if he was angry at that creature. Was it an animal? A lion, maybe? Sophie stared, feeling a curious empathy with the artist, then tipped her head; it could be a man hunched over brooding, his elbows on his thighs.
The house was quiet. She listened for the sleigh bells and heard a shattering sound instead, then the bells and the shake of the door. Sophie hurried down the stairs to the kitchen. She paused in the doorway, her hands pressed to her mouth. The soup tureen was shattered; it lay in pieces on the kitchen floor. Large shards were scattered across the table and a piece of the cat head had landed on the seat of one chair. The TV blared on. Sophie shut it off and picked up the head. One ear was gone and the neck ended in a sharp point. She raked at the pieces on the table, feeling bits of crumbled china prick her fingertips.
She gazed down at the broken pieces on the linoleum floor, meaning to get the broom, but let herself sink into the chair instead, still holding the broken head. Why did he do it? She put both elbows on the table and let out a moan. They had lived with that tureen for more than 20 years. She felt sobs in her throat; she covered her forehead with one hand and let the crying come. Why did everything have to change, break, die?
The front door opened. Sophie straightened and mopped her eyes with the heels of her hands. She must confront the boy, tell him how bad it was to destroy other people’s property, but it was Jason. He’d come back for his jacket.
“Mom, what’s the matter?” He looked down at the splatter of china on the floor, the jagged pieces on the table. “Geez,” he said. “What happened?”
“It was Toby. He came up to my studio. I gave him some charcoal and paper. He was drawing and seemed happy. Then he left, and I heard a crash. It’s pure vandalism, but why?”
Jason sat down opposite his mother and fit his long legs under the table. He picked up a jagged piece of china and turned it slowly. “He’s a lonely kid,” he said and put the china down. “He’s angry. He hasn’t got a dad.” He reached across the table and covered Sophie’s hand with his own. “I know something about that and so do you.”
His hand felt warm and Sophie lifted her head. A shard of china gleamed in the late morning light. ”Yes,” Sophie said, and nodded. “I guess we do.”
Jason leaned over his plate and began to eat the eggs, one forearm on the table, a rude habit Sophie disliked. He had sat there long ago in his high chair, a blond 2-year-old, laughing delightedly when Ted bent close making duck noises. Now at 20, he’d been abandoned by his girlfriend, who complained that she was sick of his depression, of his scruffy apartment and his smelly dog. Still he refused to return to college or even take a night class, stubbornly driving that cab with its dented door month after month.
Ann L. McLaughlin has written five novels, including The House on Q Street. Her sixth novel, Leaving Bayberry House, will appear in 2010. She is on the board of The Writer’s Center, where she has taught for many years. She has lived in Chevy Chase since 1963.