By Denise Kline
Jenny’s sleep had been full of strange scenes—a woman knitting nothing but air, the knitting needles clacking as she rocked in her chair; an apple as big as a watermelon on the kitchen table; a starfish crawling up her bedroom wall. In the morning, her mother had touched her forehead with cool fingertips and then taken her temperature while Jenny, propped up against her pillow, watched the tip of the thermometer throb in time with her heart. Her mother removed the thermometer, angled it toward the lamp on the bedside table, frowned and patted Jenny’s arm. Jenny closed her eyes and listened as her mother’s slippers shushed across the bedroom floor, down the hall and into the bathroom. Water splashed in the sink and the medicine cabinet door squeaked open. Then her mother was back at her bedside with an orange pill cradled in her open hand.
“This will make you feel better sweetie,” she said.
Jenny stretched in her bed. Across the room, her gray plaid uniform jumper and white blouse hung on the closet door. By her desk, her book bag was packed and ready. Not today. She wouldn’t have to wear her scratchy uniform and carry her heavy book bag. She pulled her blanket up to her chin. Downstairs, in Don Riddick’s TV and Radio store, Mr. Riddick had turned on all his radios. They all played the same station. Jenny closed her eyes and listened to the music. Lots of violins sounding silvery and happy. Then a man’s voice, rumbly and deep, announcing the name of the song. Jenny didn’t care what the name of the song was. She just liked the violins. The man paused the music and said rain was coming this evening. A steady rain with gusty winds. Jenny’s eyes ached. She was thirsty and wanted to sip from the glass of water her mother had left on the bedside table, but her arms were too heavy to move. She took a breath and opened her mouth to call out to her mother, but, no, she wanted to sleep more than to drink water. Sleep began to sweep her away, taking her slowly. On the cusp of sleep came the things she saw just before she drifted away. She never knew what she’d see. Today there were trees behind her closed eyes. They stood in a black line as snow fell out of a torn, gray sky. It was the last thing she saw before she slept.
When Jenny woke, the radios downstairs were still playing. The violins were gone, replaced with trumpets. Jenny closed her eyes again. She saw the trumpets, all of them gold and shiny and played by hands in white gloves. No faces, no arms. Just the shiny trumpets and the white gloves. Jenny opened her eyes. She heard a hiss and smelled starch and hot cloth. Ironing Tuesday. Her mother never just called them ‘Tuesdays’.
Jenny swung out of bed. The floor was cool against the soles of her feet. She went to the window beside her desk and drew the yellow curtain aside. This was the window she liked the best. It was big and overlooked Bethlehem Pike. There was always something to see. She watched the traffic. First came a red car, and then a black one, then a green truck, and a red and white milk truck, then nothing for a few seconds and then a school bus. No kids were on the bus. She pictured her empty desk in her fourth grade classroom. She sat in the row by the windows. On clear mornings like this one, the sun was so bright through the windows that the air around her sparkled with chalk dust. Maybe her desk was the only empty one in the classroom. A big splash of sunlight falling across it.
Mr. Campbell came out of his grocery store across the street. He carried a basket of green apples in his arms. The breeze lifted the ties of his white smock. He put the basket on the sidewalk under his front window. The sign in his window blinked on and off. Campbell’s Market in red letters. She imagined touching the sign. It was warm, in her mind, and each time it blinked, the sign made a sizzling sound like eggs frying in a pan. Mr. Campbell went back inside his store and brought out more baskets full of cucumbers and tomatoes. He lined them up under his window, pushing them in place with the toe of his shoe.
When she went to Mr. Campbell’s store to run an errand for her mother, he sometimes gave her one of the red and white peppermint candies he kept in a bowl by the cash register. He told her to savor it. No one she knew used the word “savor” and this made the candy feel so fancy that she always saved it for later. If he didn’t have any other customers, he’d talk to her about his days when he was a boy working in this same store, never thinking he’d own the place someday. He’d been a delivery boy. Almost all the families in Flourtown knew him, he said. He’d been in the place Jenny lived in when it was still a house and not Don Riddick’s store with an apartment over it. At Christmas time, the family in the house always invited him inside and he’d sit in their dining room lit by candles from the chandelier. The candle flames made the wood floor shine. They’d bring him a mug of hot apple cider and a plate of rolls still warm from the oven. Butter too, big pats of it in a cold dish. Sometimes they’d give him a sack of chestnuts and oranges to take home with him. Jenny asked about what happened to the chandelier and the pretty wood floors. Mr. Campbell said the people in the house died and then the house sat empty until someone came along and made it into something else.
The iron hissed in the kitchen. Then came the clean smell of steam and starch. Her mother’s slippers shushed across the kitchen floor.
Next to Mr. Campbell’s store was Stonewright’s Plumbing. A gray spigot, big as a dinner table, hung above the entrance. A drop of water, made of something hard and shiny, hung below the mouth of the spigot. Mr. Stonewright was on a ladder, polishing the drop with a white cloth. He held the drop with one hand while he polished with the other. Jenny used to worry the spigot and drop would fall to the sidewalk and hurt someone. Her father had taken her across the street and they’d stood together, their eyes raised, her father with his hands in his pockets. He was quiet for what Jenny remembered as a long time and then finally he said, “They’re made of tin, I think. Tin’s not that heavy, Jenny. They won’t fall off.” He’d put his hand on her shoulder and then he’d winked and said, “But the drop, if it did get loose, would roll right down the Pike. That would be quite a sight.” She’d laughed and he’d laughed with her. Then he told her gently, “Be a child for as long as you can, Jenny.”
Her father was a radio announcer. He had a deep, friendly voice. His voice was his living, he said. When her father was still at home, Mr. Riddick tuned all the radios in his store to her father’s station and Jenny would listen to him as she got ready for school. He was the voice that said “Good Morning Delaware Valley” and told people whether it was going to snow or rain and when the sun was going to shine. He also told them the places where traffic was bad and the names of the songs he played. But he was in Palm Springs, California setting up a new radio station. He wrote letters and tucked pictures of Palm Springs inside the envelopes. Nothing but palm trees and big open dusty spaces and hills off in the distance. She imagined her father taking the pictures, raising his small brown camera to his eye, lowering it, taking a few steps forward or back, raising the camera again and finally snapping the picture. It’s just a desert, Jenny thought. Flat and hard, the sunlight falling like something hot and heavy on the brown earth. She searched the pictures for dark places where there might be trees. She loved trees. She especially loved woods that were so thick that even in the middle of the day the sun barely got past the treetops. She’d shiver a little in the backseat of the car when they passed woods like that, but it was the kind of shivering that came when she saw something beautiful. But her father loved this new place. It was clean and dry, he said in his letters.
Her mother read his letters to Jenny, but her voice sounded like she was reading a story and trying to be happy about the end. Her father said in his letters that they’d be together as soon as the radio station was up and running. Jenny asked her mother how soon was soon. She never had an answer. Getting a radio station on the air sounded like something that would take a long time. Jenny pictured her father busy far from home as he filled shelves with the record albums he’d play and hung pictures in his office. The busier he was, the sooner he’d call to tell them to pack everything and come out to Palm Springs.
Her mother stood in the doorway. “Jenny,” she said. “You should be in bed.”
Jenny obeyed, slinking on her bare feet to her bed. Her mother felt her forehead and then took the thermometer from the bedside table. She shook it and smiled as Jenny opened her mouth. Mother and daughter quietly waited. A man whistled somewhere close by. Something metal clanged on concrete. Dunlap’s Garage next door was open for business. Jenny’s mother removed the thermometer, read it in the lamplight and then ruffled Jenny’s hair. “No fever, kiddo,” she said. “Now you need some breakfast.”
They ate at the kitchen table. Scrambled eggs, toast, orange juice and a treat for Jenny: hot tea with milk. From the window beside the table, Jenny looked out at the backyard. The backyard belonged to Mr. Riddick. He’d given a patch of it to Jenny’s mother to plant a vegetable garden. Every spring, her mother planted tomatoes, carrots and green peppers. Jenny helped her when the time came to tie the vines to stakes with twine. Rain had fallen all day yesterday and puddles as small and bright as coins shined in the soil waiting to be turned.
When they finished eating, Jenny helped her mother wash the dishes. The window above the sink looked out over Dunlap’s Garage. Through the open Venetian blinds, Jenny watched two mechanics, their arms streaked with grease, as they smoked cigarettes in the parking lot. They inhaled and exhaled the smoke like they were hungry. Beside Dunlap’s garage was the house that filled the rest of the window, right up to the top. Burt’s house. Burt was in his backyard, dressed in the suit and black hat he always wore, hands in his pockets, head down. If all his thoughts were written in a book, Jenny knew the book would be thick and heavy.
On summer days and sometimes after school, Jenny sat with Burt on the porch of his big house. He called the house his honeycomb. Three stories tall, full of rooms. Burt told her this was the last boarding house in Flourtown, but the rooms were usually empty. “People are more well to do these days and don’t need to live in small rooms,” Burt said. “Not like when I was a young man.”
Burt was seventy-eight years old. No one Jenny knew was as old as him. He was thin and moved slowly, like he was thinking out each thing before he did it. His face was long and wrinkled, his eyes so deep-set she knew they were green only when he stood in the sunlight. And he’d nearly died once. Jenny had never met anyone who’d nearly died. He was a boy when it happened, younger than she was, he told her. He’d run into the woods when snow started to fall. The flakes were as big as feathers. The snow fell and fell and the wind blew so hard that it felt like a fist slamming into his chest. Everything around him turned white, like the whole world just disappeared all at once. He curled under a tree, his knees drawn up to his chest and he cried. Jenny had never heard a man say he’d cried, even when he was a boy. “You really believed you would die?” she asked. “Oh, yes,” he said. “I was sure my time had come.” And Jenny wondered what it must be like to know you’re about to die, but the thought was like being locked alone in a dark room and she shook her head trying to get rid of it. Finally, he made his way back home, he told her, but then his voice got low and deep like he was about to tell her a secret. “Blizzards scare me to this day,” he said, “the way they just swallow the world and everything in it.”
When her father left for California, Burt said to Jenny, “You must miss him terribly.” She did miss her father terribly, she said. Her mother called him every other Sunday afternoon, timing the call with a tiny hourglass with sand that sifted from top to bottom in three minutes. The last time she called, her mother handed her the phone and told her to be quick. She’d asked her father when they were coming out to California and all he’d said was soon. He asked her about school and Jenny told him school was fine, but she still wanted to know how soon was soon. “Soon,” her father said and that was all. And then her mother took the phone back and told Jenny to go to her room. In her room, Jenny sat on the edge of her bed. Her mother had lowered her voice so Jenny couldn’t make out the words, but her voice was different. Whispery and upset, like she was trying not to shout.
Jenny looked up at Burt. His eyes were on her and she realized he’d been watching her the whole time she was thinking about how much she missed her father. He’d pushed the brim of his black hat up on his forehead. “I moved far away for a while, too,” he’d told her. “Painted church steeples in Boston and picked fruit in California. Moving far away, it’s hard to do, but it’s a good thing, too. While I was away, Flourtown got polished up in my memory. So I came back and here I am taking care of this old place.” He’d smacked the porch step with the palm of his hand and laughed. Jenny wanted to laugh, but nothing was funny about Burt living alone in a big empty house.
Jenny watched from the kitchen window as Burt took a cigar from his coat pocket. He lit it with a match, tilted his chin upward, breathed out the smoke, turned and walked back to his house, in and out of the shadows of the trees, his head down. As he walked toward the house, Jenny felt suddenly far away as if she and her mother had already packed their bags and left for California. Burt would still be here, alone in his big old house while she was living in a strange place. She’d write to him so he wouldn’t seem so far away and she hoped he’d write back about his house and what was happening in Flourtown, everything going on just as it was now and just as it would be when she was far away.
Her mother gently touched Jenny’s arm. “Get back to bed, Jen. A little more rest will do you good.”
Jenny sighed and nodded as she gazed out the window. The men were still at work in the garage. One of them whistled something sharp and tuneless. The windows on the top floor of Burt’s house reflected the sky and the clouds.
She walked down the hall to her bedroom, skimming her slippers on the floor so she made the same shushing sound her mother made as she walked from room to room. She went to her window and watched a woman in a brown coat, a yellow kerchief tied tight around her head, pick apples and tomatoes from Mr. Campbell’s baskets. The drop above Stonewright’s Plumbing shook in the breeze and Jenny imagined standing below it, catching it as it fell, her father beside her as she held the drop in her arms. Good girl, he’d say. Jenny leaned her forehead against the window. The cool glass trembled slightly. She closed her eyes and sighed. Tomorrow, California would still be far away and she’d be back in school, sitting beside the windows, waiting for the sun to climb in the sky until it was high enough to shine across her desk and turn the air around her bright and warm.
Denise Kline resides in Virginia.