She had to match up his little socks last.
It probably made no difference to anyone else how it got done, just as long as it did. A chore for most. They might save socks for last because you always had to hunt for the other one, the match, at least once in a whole load of laundry. Always. Sarah knew the comfort she took getting a load folded while it was still warm was unhealthy, neurotic maybe—especially a dryerload of whites, when her fingers became chapped and numb at the tips from folding it so hot, this new house’s commercial Maytag’s High/Cotton setting was that strong. Even if, chances were, she might end up frantic, screaming sometimes at not being able to find a little sock’s mate at the end of the cycle, getting her hands on the missing one in what felt like the last possible second would stop one of her episodes coming on. But then, she felt she had only herself to blame, putting herself in the same uncertain circumstances to make it happen over and over again.
Sarah usually ran Jamie’s and her wash separate from Jake’s, but since they were just getting settled in this new house, she hadn’t felt quite stable enough to return to that old routine yet. Three weeks since the move, stacks of boxes labeled kitchen, kid bathrm, attic, stood along the wall of the den beside the big armoire housing a giant TV. She moved the neat stack of Jamie’s undershirts, the folded wad of her thongs and panties she’d never really figured a good way to make lie flat, and made room on the huge leather ottoman for the small, empty basket she used just for Jake’s clean, folded clothes.
Her baby boy was supposed to be home from PrePrepSchool at East Day within the hour. A brand-new program thought up by the Development office to make well-off, involved parents like them feel their son was getting special treatment for one more week, in these late summer days right before his first “real” school year of Kindergarten officially began. And even though Jake had been in Parents Day Out there as a two-year-old, pre-K at three (where he began learning Spanish), and JK at four (Latin basics), she and Jamie readily agreed to sign him up for this extra, expensive week as well, to be sure he’d be fully acclimated to his small but expanding world, ready as they knew to get him.
Her hands shook as she spread the clean clothes before her to feel what warmth remained pocketed among the wrinkles and overlaps of clean cotton. Piling Jake’s small socks into a loose little mountain, she knew this routine was just another lonely way she kept going without coming apart. But unlike the useless prayers she’d offered to God over the past four years, this was something real she could do with her mind and hands, true or not.
She wouldn’t feel quite this frantic, she told herself, if Jake hadn’t been allowed to start walking home, all on his own this past Monday with the start of PrePrepSchool, pulling his little wheeled backpack on the sidewalk behind him. Both had grown so small, and then impossibly smaller, as she watched them recede in size toward the Presbyterian church’s campus, away from her. Jamie had argued that it was only a block or two, basically, from their new home—and somehow, once again, she’d ended up agreeing with what he declared as the actual truth of where they all found themselves now.
Our area’s one of the safest in the city, even compared to other east Memphis neighborhoods, Jamie had said that past Sunday, the night before PPS was to begin, arms held out before him as if in false supplication to some benign higher power. I talked to Eddie the crossing guard and he said he’ll watch J from the school door all the way to ours, practically. It’s almost a straight line of sight. He said no trouble for him at all. As Jamie had talked in that even, comforting tone of his, he leaned and rubbed the small of her back the way he did when he wanted to reason with her—unstable as they both knew she had been and still was—Sarah could feel her stomach giving way at the words practically and almost, the veiled threats each word held as real possibilities.
Jake had overheard their conversation in the kitchen and come in as if on cue, Power Ranger in one hand and juicebox in the other, dressed in the footie pajamas he insisted on wearing even in the smothered August air of Memphis. She’d let him wear them long as he asked—she’d decided that on her own—because footie pajamas were one of the few items she could actually cling to, of him still being her baby boy.
She’d meant to say No. To raise her voice and declare to her husband, No way in hell am I going to let our five-year-old walk to school on his own, out of my sight. But Jake was right there hugging her leg, looking up to her and pleading, Pwease, Mommy? before she could think to say it. You said I’m geddin to be such a big boy now. Not bratty, not whining, with such hope in his eyes. An I’m awmost six too. Remember? He took a long, slurping drag from the toylike juicebox straw until the sides began caving in, waiting patiently for her answer. He never even looked to his father, which told her Jamie had already said yes, leaving no real decision to her. They all knew decisions big or small had not been her thing for a while.
In that moment, Sarah remembered she had felt herself coming close to a full-on nervedown, her name for the episodes when they happened. In the past two years they’d fallen off a little in frequency, but when she gave herself over to one, it could be even more intense. In the old house just three months ago, just three blocks away, she’d let dinner burn so badly on the stove during one that the fire department had responded from the neighbor’s call, while she’d been standing in the empty bedroom, staring vacantly into the dark underbrush of the back hedge. That evening, with the acrid smell of burnt paint thick in the night air even though they’d opened every window in the house, Jamie had declared they needed to move, even if it was just around the corner. Make a change. A fresh start. Put some of the past behind them. He’d gestured to the oven, sitting squat and sootblackened in the center of the kitchen’s far wall as he said it, as if the old oven was the thing they both should have recognized as their hidden curse all along. We’ll do some updating here. Place needs it anyway. That way we’ll be sure to get the money it should go for. He smiled then and rubbed her back. It’s all going to be okay.
Another time since then Jake had found her in the corner of their old backyard by his elaborate swingset, sitting with her knees drawn under her on the soft mulch bed, swinging the empty flexible seat beside his, the one he hadn’t claimed for his own. She had been crying like there was no end, at eleven on a fair and sunny Tuesday May morning. Not a cloud in that sky.
Okay, she’d said to Jake on Sunday night. Sarah had to hold to the granite counter as she said it, leaning precariously to kiss his little forehead for balance. I guess we’ll give it a try. Her son lifted his face and smiled, and Sarah looked into eyes an identical blue to Jamie’s. If you promise to be so, so careful. Which, of course, yes ma’am, he did.
It was her own words that betrayed her, because she had said he was getting so big. Either she or her son was going to be upset by the answer of big enough or too little, and she decided she would bear quietly the unnerving disappointment of hearing herself say yes instead of no. She already felt that was what her life of the past four years had been anyway: a quiet, almost unbearable disappointment. Herself, maybe, the most disappointing part.
But that was almost last week now, thank God. Here it was Friday, and PPS would be over for good as soon as Jake made it safely home. She’d have him all to herself for one more week until Kindergarten came to claim him for the better part of this year, and then school would do so for the rest of his life under her roof.
Sarah took the first of Jake’s little blue school polo shirts, still warm like a popover, and laid it out facedown on the ottoman. She folded both arms toward the center and then in half and flipped it over, facing her, flat, a perfect little collared rectangle. The next she began to fold likewise, doing level best to keep her self-serving truce with God in mind, that by simply folding his clothes before he made it home, her son would have to be kept safe. But seeing the finished shirt by itself on the thick leather, her legs began trembling where she’d crossed them beneath her and her breathing came in an uneven rush. She knew this routine meant nothing, and neither did anything else she tried to do to move on.
A confined space with clothes too small for dolls is what she sees as she turns her head and gasps for a full breath. The pain in her abdomen catches her off guard, yet she’s happy as she can ever remember. Two incubating tables sit on the right side of her hospital bed like oversized plastic bread pans. Heat lamps warm each of them against the bare fluorescent light of the low ceiling. Jamie is beside her on the left, soothing with his even voice, counting for her and telling her when to breathe and when to exhale, until the doctor calls abruptly from between her open legs for the nurse and Jamie is instructed, Move away. Please. That’s when she remembers her grasp torn from his, being wheeled quickly away from him and the sets of doors banged open with the rubber curb of the bed just ahead of her flat pillow. Whatever the fat nurse has injected into her IV while she says, Everything will be fine, hon, just relax best you can, is making her eyes close. She is very, very tired all of a sudden but does not want to be asleep.
When she comes out of a short darkness—seconds, it feels like—and sees a smear of blood on her OB-GYN’s white gown next to the surgeon, the white of Jamie’s face around his eyes behind the mask, she’s expecting something like the worst. She sees Jamie trying to force an expression of calm from behind the white mask, even with his tears. She hears a monitor signaling the beep of her own heart—a cold, steady sound. Jamie squeezes her left hand, which he must have taken hold of again for the duration of what they had to do.
Only when she looks past the closest clear plastic tub that holds Jake, now clad in the tiny blue-and-white hospital onesie, can she focus on the other bassinet. It sits in the corner of the OR with its warming light on. The matching little blue-and-white onesie is still there, folded like a little envelope that hasn’t been opened, Baptist Memorial Hospital repeated in small blue letters all over it as if someone else has marked a rightful claim while she lay unconscious. It will be long minutes before they tell her where Eason is and what they had to do to get him breathing on his own.
The spongy wafer of mattress beneath the onesie features images of smiling seahorses and kitty cats and puppy dogs cavorting. That part she still remembers best. Her eyes fix on that empty container even as Jake, held near for her to kiss, flails his tiny limbs and screams. The little, professionally folded clothes are centered neatly. She reads the single word again, memorial, declared over and over on the white rectangle of folded cloth. That’s how fast and sure everything in a world as safe, secure as hers—she believes this now—can so completely change.
After some blanked space she realized the giant television housed in the armoire was on, murmuring. E! was telling dirt about some recognizable Hollywood face. Sarah never watched TV during the day, but she had been leaving it on while no one else was with her so this big house, new to her, wouldn’t be so absolutely silent.
She tried a cleansing breath as the last counselor had suggested be used to manage the onsets of her hysterical fits, even though the small discipline of careful breathing reminded her of labor. Why wouldn’t the counselor have thought of a connection like that? Forget it, she whispered as her eyes focused again on the folded, collared shirt on the ottoman. Everything was a connection for her—no one, hired professionals nor ministers nor Jamie nor herself, could guard her from that. Moving to a new place made no difference.
Sarah stood to go and collect the next load of laundry—she would make it through this one daily task to orient herself here, she decided. The smallest of daily victories. The length of the hall back from the kitchen to the laundry room was padded with a thick, expensive Oriental runner because it had been so firmly anchored to the hardwood floor. Just like everything with this property, Jamie had whispered to her on their walk-through with their realtor friend from Sunday School, pushing the runner with his loafer to test any slide, any give it might have. Solid, he had quietly proclaimed. And that whispered word had sounded like a threat to her too.
But the plush weave did feel good to her bare feet as she passed the wall lined with three stylish, expensive black-and-white photos she’d been sure to get hung the first day they’d moved in three weeks ago. She’d been eager then, thinking such an act might get her in better condition to give this place a chance to become a home sweet home. The first was of Jamie smiling and hoisting his babies above his head, one in each hand, sons gazing down on father and laughing, the second her smiling faintly, cradling both infants within the bends of her arms. The final one included the four of them, Jake and Eason balanced on parents’ arms joined beneath them, Jamie and her in a staged kiss above their sons’ fetal-curved, relaxed bodies. They looked so tiny in those pictures. They were.
Were. She’d tried to talk Jamie out of ever having the pictures taken, but it was another thing he thought might help them remember a happy time with both the boys. We need to have some good memories of at least some of these baby days, he’d said back then. She paused and looked at the signature written in the first photo’s corner, Duggan, and wondered how someone in Memphis could make such obscene money capturing stark images of young couples and their offspring. The one dead center, of her and Jake and Eason alone, she couldn’t help but focus on now—the little space of shadow their bodies made there against her stomach. It was a sight she still did not understand how Jamie could walk by on his way out to the garage each evening after he’d made his first drink without collapsing inside too. The dark void cast against her bare flesh was such a visible reminder that two should still be held right there, within the cradle both her arms could have, should have still so easily made.
But no one was home with her now to share in these extreme memories. And like many parts of her days, she would not tell Jamie the particular depths of this one. Some kind of gap had widened between them, even though she used to feel she could say anything to her husband, her best friend, without any worry of how he might take it. She didn’t know how to account for her recent feeling he was moving away from her—ever so slightly, true, but fluidly, like the barges she liked to watch slide by on the wide Mississippi when she and Jamie used to go downtown, where the speed of things was hard to reckon from the massive current pushing everything downstream at the same epic pace. Maybe, Sarah thought, I’m the one moving away from him, in all truth. Or maybe all that’s making me wonder if something’s different in one of us is just this recent change of address—which can’t really change anything.
But Jamie did say we needed to finally put some things behind us, try to make a clean start. We means me, she thought. Us means me. And with that thought she worried again, not sure how long she might stand motionless before those framed photographs she’d been sure to get hung as soon as the movers had unloaded the last of their possessions from the truck. Get away from here now, she tried to tell herself. But before her reflected face in the glass that shared shadow beneath the naked-baby bodies, cast against the captured image of her own naked belly, caused her to surrender to how dark that space still seemed to be.
And this is while she’s folding a load of clothes with the small baby monitor on in the background. The monitor is the best kind, one with a split screen to show both ends of the shared crib, a hypertuned mic that telegraphs all ambient sound to her from the nursery at the end of the one long hall in their small ranch-style home. Both the boys had been preemie small at birth, as many twins were, and Sarah was happy that the time of them both having to sleep with wires attached to their little heaving chests was two months in the past now. Both of them fit as fiddles, in the clear and growing strong, their pediatrician had assured.
The clothes are still ridiculously small. Hard for her to believe they fit onto live little people even though Sarah is surprised to look at pictures of them from two weeks ago and see how much bigger and different looking they’ve become. And yet a whole load of their baby clothes, including all of the pocket-napkin-sized cloth diapers she’d decided to use despite the trouble and mess and the fact that she had to deal with twice as many, only fill the space of a flowerpot-sized wastebasket. All of it so small to be able to fit them.
She thinks she hears a muffled cry. Turning from folding the tiny diapers in mated stacks, though, Sarah sees that both boys are nestled together, faces up and touching, sleeping sound. She turns back to her task and thinks how she’s already mourning them not being this small much longer, tired as she is from lack of sleep and even as much as she wants both of them to grow and get past the landmark of waking at two and four a.m. and simply sleep through the night.
Still, she’ll just check. She loves their sweet baby smell, savors it, wants to watch the wonder of their little nostrils flaring in and out, in and out again. The door to the nursery opens quietly into the cloistered dark created by blackout drapes and a muffled hushhh of an air-purifying sound machine. Because she’s holding the little stack of folded diapers, she has to take turns putting one hand to Eason’s chest and resting it there, then shifting it to Jake’s where she waits but feels no small heave. And it’s dark but she can tell his face has less color than Eason’s. She drops the diapers, grabs him up. He doesn’t react. Where’s Jamie? she thinks. Help. She is going to run with him somewhere. What about Eason? She stops in the long hall, and she’s going to put Jake down on the hardwood floor to try to perform the infant CPR routine she learned in the NICU, to save him. But instead she’s shaking him, she remembers doing it, jarring his little neck back and forth like she means to do him harm.
He comes to with a groggy inrush of breath, and his eyes open and lock to hers, terrified. He screams a baby wail. Eason hears his brother and answers with his cry. But Jake’s fine for now. They’re both fine. The specialists will tell them they have no idea, after running tests. A complete fluke, not SIDS, it does happen to sometimes to babies who are otherwise perfectly healthy—news that’s no comfort at all.
The loud bong of the new house’s doorbell echoed through the cavernous entryway and came to where she stood frozen in the hallway. Sarah ran and looked through the narrow window that flanked one side of the wide front door. She tried to see who stood outside but from the angle could only view a bare knee, thin blond hairs along the bobbing leg, impatient. Oh shit, oh shit. What’s happened to Jake? she thought. She pulled the door inward on its big brass hinges. It swung easily.
The man standing there took the opening door as a sign to hoist the box held under one forearm, support it with one uplifted knee, and scan the barcode on the top with the little brown keypad in his other hand. His sweating face crinkled downward in concentration. H’lo, Missus—Floodwell? Got one for you here.
Once the faint red of the scanner registered the code, the man flipped the keypad back toward him, one-handed, gunslinging, and used his thumb to punch in a few numbers ringing quiet beeps in the muffled heat. He was blond and a little older than her, Sarah thought, maybe early forties. Tan, leathered skin like a surfer with that persistent boyish look. Like he doesn’t have a care in the world, she thought. He spun the keypad back around in the palm of his right hand and held it out to her. When he looked at her face for the first time, she bowed her head to where she hoped he couldn’t see.
She took the brown plastic stylus and wrote Sarah Floodwell in halting script across the brown LED display, more difficult to do this time than she expected. It was always hard to write on these screens, but it felt strange at that very moment, even after twelve years of being Jamie’s wife, to see her married name written out in her own hand. Signing for something she hadn’t asked for and didn’t want. She handed it back and took the box from him without meeting his eyes. She pretended to read the label closely, as if she couldn’t make good sense of why it was here.
Cabela’s. All that name meant to her was another hunting accessory Jamie found some evening online that he couldn’t really need. Their new garage here had a separate room attached to it for his hunting gear alone, and she knew by the sheer number of purchases delivered to their old house that the little room here must already be packed with hanging clothes and waders and decoys lining the walls and suspended from the ceiling. But none of Jamie’s thoughtless stocking up bothered her—it was the only way he still showed her he dealt with the profound loss they were both still trying to get used to. He needed a way to cope too. And, any way he hinted he was still actually feeling it connected her to him in this new place they found themselves. Even if he seemed past it in so many ways, even if it meant for her that many evenings in this bigger house had been spent alone too, when, after Jake had been tucked in by both of them, Jamie would mix himself a drink and tell her he was headed outside, where she imagined him rearranging his expensive camping and hunting gear one more time. The only thing he’d ever said about it was that he needed to be sure everything was ready for when Jake would be old enough to go on a first real trip with him, only the two of them, just father and son.
It’s a mistake, Sarah said quietly.
Ma’am? Oh, yeah. You were probably expecting Fed Ex. We got the Cabela’s account and a bunch a others last week that run through Memphis. Probably be seeing me more around the neighborhood now, I imagine. Big push by UPS to take over some of Fed Ex’s hometown business.
Sarah lifted her eyes from the box to the chest of his brown shirt. Why was everything of theirs brown? Written in white there, Terry, the name struck her as innocent, cute. She lifted her eyes to his face. His forehead popped with sweat, malarial, the front of his brown shirt and the lower edges of his brown shorts wet as if he’d just ended some jungle experience in this heat. They should wear brown safari hats, she thought. Carry big brown Bowie knives. His blue eyes regarded the smeared raccoon look surrounding her own, and then, wonder of wonders, they focused on her and did not look nervously away. She had grown so accustomed to friends, acquaintances, Jamie not seeing her. Eyes that only pretended to see her scared face while they focused on themselves, trying to think of something safe to say. Terry. It was a nice name.
So today, she tells Jamie later that evening, I’m somewhere a little past my second nervedown of the afternoon—
Are you okay? he says too quickly. Now—I mean? Jamie asks it dutifully, not turning to her from the built-in block in the kitchen where he’s been chopping jalapenos for his chili recipe, his meal to prepare once a week after Jake and Eason were born, and one of the many practical ways he’s offered to take the pressure off her in the past couple of years. Resuming his weekly meal marked that time when both of them understood she was in the grips of a severe depression, which, under the terrible circumstances of losing a child so young, was totally understandable. Everyone they knew had agreed back then about how intense a thing it must be to live through, the sheer shock of tragedy in what was otherwise, and for most, an unadulterated, happy time. Though after two years, those same everyones had moved on from that way of thinking about what happened. That way of thinking about her. Her husband seemed to have moved on from that past way of thinking too.
But Sarah knew moving on and being delivered from a life undone weren’t at all the same thing. A matriarch of East Presbyterian—the kind, aged woman she and her church friends called Old Faithful—had come up to her the first time they made it back to church, three months after Eason’s death. It had been the first time Sarah was able to return without breaking down at the sight of the two massive front doors thrown wide for the spring air to enter. Jamie had thought way back then that a return to formal worship, a settled routine they both knew, might help both of them cope a little better just by getting out of the house for an hour, back into their wider world. Sarah had secluded them in the Crying Room, built into a back corner of the sanctuary—what a name, she had been thinking. I don’t belong here, she thought too, as she tried to keep Jake from sliding out of her lap to run around the tight space among the mothers holding their newborns. But she didn’t want to see anyone she knew, and, she had just been crying and was thankful for the darkness, whispering the words to the recessional hymn, “It Is Well with My Soul,” words impossible for her to mean, after she’d finally convinced Jake to come back to her. He’d finally fallen asleep on her shoulder. Watching the service from behind the smoked one-way glass had been like not having to be present, her and Jamie spectators into the place she used to inhabit so easily, so faithfully, comfortably too. As soon as the benediction was pronounced, her plan was to slip away quiet and quick before anyone saw they were there. She opened the door to the wide sunlit foyer, empty.
Somehow, Old Faithful had seen her first. The humped little lady came to Sarah and clutched the wrist of her arm holding her now-sleeping son and said, I heard what happened to y’all in the Prayers of the People a few weeks back. Just know there’s some of us here who’ve been praying earnestly for you to be delivered from this loss, my dear. Having to bend her neck at an awkward side-angle as she spoke from how completely osteoporosis had claimed her. Jamie said thank you. And then the old woman patted her hand and shuffled away, out the front entrance and into the sunny springtime air. Sarah had wondered from that moment on what the word delivered even meant, at how presumptuous a thing it seemed to say to a person who had barely survived the past year of her life at all.
If Jamie never gives thought to such memories now—she thinks, as she watches him rapidly chop the chilies—he can still identify and be good to me in these more practical ways. Good in helping out with predictable events of days he’s happy to make even easier on me than they already are.
Sarah takes a sip of her wine, gives an answer to her husband’s question, one she knows he doesn’t really want to hear her pat response to anymore. Yeah, I’m fine, she says quietly, not able to fathom what else he’d want to hear, even though they both know her words still aren’t true.
Still, she thinks she might risk really trying to talk to him, given what happened with an absolute stranger this afternoon. Sarah takes a breath and says, But then the doorbell rang. First time it’s happened since we moved here, I think. Even though we’ve got plenty of friends just around the corner who know right where we are.
Jamie’s chopping hand freezes over the butcher block. What did you do? He turns slightly to wait to hear. Did you answer?
She exhales and tells part of what he really wants to know, offering that she rushed to the door, mascara smeared all over her face and it puffed and red and begging some explanation. I guess I got tired of trying to act like I’m okay when I’m not, Sarah lies to her husband’s back. So I decided to open the door. She hadn’t had the time to think of anything, is the truth. I was scared shitless something had happened to Jake is what she really wanted to say, because of your dumbass idea to let him walk by himself to school, but she keeps it to herself.
Jamie wipes the length of knife on a dishtowel tucked in his belt in the front and sets it on the block, but too slowly, she will think later. He looks her full in the face for the first time that evening. Her breathing shallows, but she steels what bare nerves she feels are left inside, eases over beside him, leans her butt against the granite lip of the sink, and sets her glass of wine close by.
She decides she’ll try to cover some of this distance back to him, even if she’s the only one who might feel it. Soooo, she says, I looked up at the clock when the doorbell rang, that clock with the hand-painted numbers your mother gave us for our first anniversary? Remember? She’s still making it up, and she doesn’t know why, but it’s satisfying right now to be telling him this part, a story she’s made up all on her own. And it made me feel so out of place. Reminded me I was somewhere else now. You know? It scared me. So I think I just decided right then, this is the way it is now, and life is moving on, right? Isn’t that what the counselor has been harping on so long? She takes a sip of wine, not really expecting him to answer those questions. So, yes, I answered the door. Didn’t even worry with making myself presentable. Something new, I guess. A change. She says it gazing at the big kitchen around them. Like here.
Sarah remembers for a long time after, in exact detail, the look on Jamie’s face when her eyes settle on his, their surprise at her pretended epiphany, the concern showing along the raised line of his mouth, a two-year wince he’s been trying best he can to hold inside.
So she would never go on to tell her husband that when she approached the front door, she had no concept what wedge of time had been subtracted from her day but was crystal clear she looked like homemade shit and didn’t care to explain why to whomever she found on the other side. But it was how he looked at her when his eyes moved up from the tiny screen where she’d written her name, not avoiding the fact she looked terrible, aware he’d interrupted whatever had made her that way.
This stranger, Terry, held his brown keypad down by his side and asked, deliberately, Ma’am, do you think you’re going to be okay?—not Are you okay?—which ever since that lost time had been an obvious No, yet what everyone who knew her well preferred to ask now, for their own reasons. The openness of this man’s question had made her want to hug him. Or have him stand there and hold her safe in one place, for a long, long time.
Such a direct question surprised her too. She felt she might burst into tears before she could say anything, so she looked past him to his truck, the back door raised fully on its tracks where she could see inside. The yellowed Plexiglas skylight made all the brown packages neatly aligned on the shelves take on a hazed, unnatural glow in the middle of the hot day. Such a bright, confined space cast her back to others, one lit from above by glaring fluorescents, capable people in white surrounding her legs splayed wide open in the metal stirrups, one of her hands clutched in Jamie’s tight as she could while he counted out controlled, even breaths for her to take. Another, the small room where the sun was shining bright in the big picture window looking out over the green canopy of east Memphis. Even so, they had all the fluorescents on in there too so that they could ease Eason’s suffering and keep an eye on his troubled breathing, to empty his pain at the end as much as they knew how.
Any little closed space takes me back, she could have said to Terry, point to his rectangle of brown truck as the immediate example. I can’t handle the crying room at church. I don’t dare set foot in my husband’s stockpiled closet off this new garage. Even the laundry room scares me if I stay in there too long. How fucked up is that? she wanted to ask. She’d be free to keep going on about the first little doctor’s room they’d been in when they’d first received the news on Eason, and how much she remembered it as the same hospital room where he died—even though she knew that memory wasn’t true. They’d been two entirely different places. Remembered Jamie still holding her hand down through the elevator’s dings after the diagnosis, but not leaning close now, unable to speak. She could say it as plainly, coldly as she had been told, to see another human being’s face reflect what hers must have been when the words were said. The specialist had come in and stood by their pediatrician and then had thought better of it, asking the pediatrician if they could all step into his office for this. That’s what had terrified Sarah the most, the whoosh of blood pumping through her ears following those men down the hall past all the patient rooms, to one locked door their doctor had to open with a key. Once in there, the specialist they’d only met twice tried to stare at her eyes with a practiced, faraway gaze he couldn’t quite manage, before returning to the safety of information his clipboard provided. I’m not sure how to say this, he said. What Eason has is very rare. That’s why it was so hard for us to diagnose. We’ve never even seen it at this hospital. There’s only been one case in Memphis in the past ten years.
What is it? Sarah managed to say.
Well, the specialist said, and put his clean hand on the sofa in the vicinity of hers. He was sure to direct his eyes at Jamie as well. There’s no good way to say this. It is very rare, he said more confidently. First, let me assure you that Jake does not have it. For sure. We tested both of them at the same time.
As if that explained anything.
What? she said.
She wanted so badly to tell this Terry what she’d heard the next two minutes. Eason had Batten disease. The infantile version. Sarah remembered looking at the edge of the coffee table and moving her eyes to a pyramid-shaped crystal award set there as the specialist recounted what they, as his parents, had seen at first at home that had caused concern—the tremors of his fat little hands proudly grasping Duplo blocks, falling down suddenly after he’d learned to walk when nothing was in his way, the momentary trance-like states that made his eyes roll slightly upward. This man had recited the “symptoms” so evenly. But what he was telling them was that those bruises on his tiny chin and cheeks and still-soft head covered in that fine, downy baby hair would only get worse from here. They could do things to make their house safer and guard against further injury, yes, but there was no stopping it. The disease was terminal, with no known cure.
Sarah had watched the crystal pyramid—epoxy, whatever it was—as he spoke, remembered her pediatrician’s crossed leg refracted through it, the clean crease of his trouser, and of how all her life would be when she looked away from that meaningless, momentary view because of the unfathomable words coming to her. The ability to walk, which Eason had mastered not that many months ago and a week ahead of his twin brother, would depart his little body likely before another year was out. His seizures would get worse and more frequent as well. He might plateau for a long while there—there was really no way to predict—but then his ability to see would be lost, and then to swallow, and shortly after that he would die. The specialist did say he might make it to eight or ten or twelve, but it would be in a highly vegetative state, as if a few more years were the sole silver lining he could offer.
Sarah had blurted out that she’d felt wrong tugs once in the last week before labor, deep tremors, something not at all like the boys’ coupled shiftings throughout her whole pregnancy. This was while both her babies were still safe inside her. She’d apologized as soon as she said, because she knew it sounded crazy.
The bemused specialist had looked at his clipboard, had written something down. He turned his face to Jamie, who was perched uneasily on an arm of the sad hospital-room-style loveseat beside her, already away, by himself. It was a psychosomatic reaction, the man said to Jamie and not to her, words trying to make sense of something inexplicable, the mind and body’s built-in way of protecting against this immediate shock. He regarded the clipboard. A completely natural response, under such difficult circumstances, he’d said, nodding gravely. Sarah came out of herself then, back to this UPS man’s blue eyes watching hers, waiting for her to say anything at all. She realized she may have been talking the whole time.
Tears had been sliding off her face once more, unchecked. No, I don’t. I don’t think I’m going to be okay, Sarah answered, too tired of herself for the blank space of one meaningless, daily exchange of her life as it now was. She did not move to wipe her face, one hand clutching Jamie’s package, the other at her side.
Well, he said, eyes still holding hers, keypad held loose beside him. Can you name one thing you’re looking forward to? Just for today? Just today’s enough.
My son coming home from summer school in a little bit, she said. My husband coming home from work today. That’s about it. She was surprised to be able to say both things so easily.
Then you’re going to be okay for today, it sounds like. He didn’t smile, and then she knew for sure he wasn’t patronizing her. As long as there’s one thing to look forward to, he said quietly, the trace of his north-Mississippi accent evident to her now. Sounds like you still got two. He didn’t seem desperate to get out of there, even though she knew nothing scared men as deeply as a crying woman who needed to talk.
Terry smiled. You take care. Hear? He pointed at the Cabela’s box she held. I’m sure I’ll be seeing you again soon. Welcome to the neighborhood. He reached and held and squeezed her hand before turning to lift a leg over the monkeygrass hedge of their slate walk and bounded the length of the front yard to where his truck idled at the curb.
She waited at her open door long enough to watch him climb and close the truck’s rear and then mount the single high seat and grind the long floor-shifter into gear. She waved and closed the door then, slowly, satisfied that something had happened to her.
So who was there? Jamie asks tenuously, trying to sound casual, turning back to the butcher block with knife in hand but halted over the second jalapeno, not looking at her this time while awaiting her answer. She knows he’s afraid it might be one of their neighbors, a new neighborhood for them, and how could you continue to explain it, socially, if that’s how your wife answers the door?
And when Sarah hears herself answer too quickly, telling him, Just the UPS guy, she knows he’s missed her altogether, which she still thinks of as rarely happening but, in fact—his back turns to her again, reminds her in a second how common it has become—this gentle slide is the bare truth of their yawning space from each other. Jamie had always been so good at listening to her, before. He misses her for sure this time, she can tell from the visible sigh of his shoulders as he begins chopping the peppers again, knows it more so from what he says.
Baby, you know you can just tape a note to the door with your signature and they’ll leave a package? Then you won’t even have to worry about answering. The obvious relief in his voice tells her he hears nothing major at all, thank God, in this daily encounter she feels—for some reason—she needs to recall aloud. He turns, smiles at her as he rakes the cut jalapeno off the block, into his open hand. They just have to be sure it’s delivered the right place. Your signature’s all they need. Just one time.
He thinks he’s making things easier for me one more obvious way, less stressful. Just like his decision to move here from the old house, she thinks as she tests the chili with a pinky and tells him how good it is. Yet all of us still in the same familiar neighborhood, only bigger, better. Later, as the three of them eat together the tasty meal he has prepared, Sarah will think of how well Jamie means by it all.
Back inside the new house, a look at the stylish, hand-painted numbers of the clock told her seven minutes remained until Jake would be home. But her faint anxiety now was no longer for him. The little basket of clothes may have gone cold in the time she’d been away at the front door. She knew it was stupid, like the little mental bets children make to stave off boredom, or to prove something only they will ever know matters. She could not stop herself caring and now felt freer because of Terry not to even try. It mattered.
Her hand reached into the small basket and she sighed at the feel of faint warmth still there, pocketed at the bottom. She kept herself from hurrying folding the rest, worked her way from T-shirts to Jake’s small shorts, a pair of swimming trunks, and that load was finished. She hoped Terry would be their UPS man for the length of time they tried to make this house their home. Their exchanged words felt like what she hoped it would meeting her first real neighbor, one she thought really might be a friend.
Hearing the dryer buzzer for Jake’s cotton whites, she stood again and walked past the three photos without having to see them now, never lifting her eyes from the thick, narrow rug underfoot. She put the empty basket on the floor beneath the dryer door, opened it and felt the rush of warmth, extended her arms and hugged the blazing whites into the basket in one pull. No hurry. She knew she could do this part fast and it would be more satisfying than the colors she’d just folded for one small reason at the end, insignificant to anyone else. Back to the couch in the den, she sat and poured the warm whites onto the ottoman, folded the couple of white dressy shirts Jake had grown big enough to wear, then his little boys’ Hanes underwear which confirmed how big he was getting now. No more diapers, no onesies, nothing of the sort.
But, at last, the socks. These were still tiny looking and could ease and break her fragile heart at the same time. So she always saved them. She held one, then two, in her open palm. Little feet went in these; feet still too small to fend for themselves out in the world. Sarah piled them quickly, with deft, warm fingers, and then sorted them into twos. One, two, she breathed. One, two. She eased into the rhythm she’d been expecting for so long and wanted to go back to.
She held a last, lone, tiny sock in her unsteady palm. Even the same brand, the same kind—she just knew the one that should be matched up with its partner from the pack, the way that individual pair would have worn in together, the slight inward curve of the right and the left that even this powerful new Maytag could never erase all signs of. She knew, and it mattered to her in a way she would never tell anyone because it would sound so crazy if she ever said out loud.
And yes—she would get frantic, hysterical even, if one went missing, would become self-admittedly maniacal until that little lost sock was found and paired and put away in the small top drawer of Jake’s little dresser. Jake’s alone.
But none of that for the rest of this day, thank God. She had been spared somehow. Delivered, she did not know. She knotted the last matched pair into a ball and balanced them atop the folded pile of whites with the other little yin-yang white orbs, and waited. Her conversation with Jamie would—and, in large part, would not—happen later. She seemed to know it even then. Sarah arranged Jamie’s Cabela’s box on the big ottoman so he’d see it right where he expected, and she gathered up the part of Carson’s colored load already folded, stacked it close beside Jamie’s and hers. Then she sat among the stacked boxes still awaiting her attention, boxes she knows are packed full of mementos she can’t bear to find places for in this new house, places they can’t ever belong. So she waited for the front door to open and one small voice to cry out to her, Mommy, I’m home! Her little boy would run right to where she was, come within the uneven circle made by her arms, now just for him.
Even later, after supper and dishes are done and each of them has tucked Jake in, Sarah finally sits and wills her feet to rest on the comfortable ottoman for the first time that day. She hears the echo of clinking ice to glass in the kitchen and wonders if Jamie will come check on her before he heads out to the garage for a little while, before bed. She picks up the remote and clicks on the giant TV just to feel she isn’t so alone. There are so many things needing to be said.
His voice gets closer behind her. Oh. Hey. That for me? He comes around the couch and Sarah leans forward, picks up the box, heavier than she remembers from earlier. She has to use both hands to keep her thin arms from shaking, delivers it into his hand. Thanks, he says, and tries to smile. He leans down and kisses her forehead, raises himself, watching somewhere near her eyes as if he’s trying to remember something he needs to tell her. Maybe they’ll speak of their loss and what may come after. For a moment, it seems to Sarah that might come true.
I’ll see you in a little bit, he says. Thanks, he repeats as he moves away, lifting the box to show her that’s what he means.
Okay, Sarah says. After she hears the door between the kitchen and the garage close behind him, she tries to give her attention to an episode of Trading Spaces on HGTV, where the perky cheerleader host is pulling a young blindfolded couple by the hands down a darkened hallway, all three of them ready to be surprised by what the neighbors have done to redecorate a formerly forsaken room of their little home.