At daybreak William was already awake, anticipating sounds outside at the curb–the engine, the brakes, the driver side door. When the sounds did come, he no longer had to sit up in bed and look. He knew too well the haze of her car’s interior lights and the yellow wedge they made across his grass. He had memorized the trip she made across his lawn, yardstick in one hand, milk jug in the other. He recognized the creak of the faucet next to his front door and the rush of water–his water–through his pipes and the splash as she poured it over the concrete urn. First there had been pansies, then marigolds, now chrysanthemums. Each day she would rearrange the stuffed animals, pop open her trunk, and add a new one to the pile on the grass. For more than six months, twice a week, Monday and Thursday mornings, a few minutes before six, she spent her grief on his front lawn.
When it first happened, he had expected flowers but not the 8×10 laminated photo, not the Mylar balloons, not the football helmet and baseball trophies, certainly not the stuffed animals–rabbits, bears, puppies, unidentifiable creatures with pastel striped fur and strange appendages, breeding and multiplying while he was trying to sleep or while he was at work. There were the notes, “U R the best” and “Keep shining,” and long letters held down by a grapefruit size rock. These long, unsigned letters on lined notebook paper arrived before or after school, the backs and fronts of the sheets filled with all the romantic sentiments and angry clichés young girl hearts could engender. He had read the first dozen, the paper damp with night dew or bleached by the afternoon sun, the penmanship half-cursive, half-print, in smeary pink, purple or turquoise ink.
By the time Will had arrived home from his job on the day of the accident, there were no longer any telltale signs. No tire tracks across the spring grass, no glass on his lawn, no chrome or plastic pieces embedded in the dirt, not even a depression where the car had thumped down. But in the next day’s newspaper, he saw the photos of his house, the crumpled car, the clumps of teenagers from the school across the street. The boy, seventeen years old, a month from graduation, had barreled out of the high school parking lot and into the path of a semi. His car ricocheted off a light pole, winged a pine tree, then flipped. The boy died there on Will’s lawn. A week later the cross appeared, four feet tall, three feet wide, whitewashed, the boy’s name and numbers painted in fluorescent orange, flicking off the lights of passing cars.
On those nights when he had tried bringing a woman home, her car pulling into the driveway after his, her stepping out about to link her arm around his waist, she always saw the cross. The night was all but over then. The women always wanted to hear the whole story, to cry in the dark. They wanted him to get a flashlight and stand with them, his arm around their waist, as they touched the glossy photo of the boy. Will repeated the platitudes from the notes but they never did any good. The women wanted to coo over the stuffed animals–under the streetlights their beady eyes sparkled, the heads of the marigolds looked like cheerleader pom-poms—and rearrange them, unless it had been raining and they were a soggy pile. When they sighed, he sighed. They couldn’t have sex with that outside the window. They just wanted to cuddle.
The first time he met the mother up close it had been the end of June. There were American flags on sticks, a big foam bear in an Uncle Sam costume, and red, white and blue bunting draped over the crossbeam. She appeared unexpectedly when he was out mowing his lawn on a Saturday. She was ten years younger than his mom but had the same sense of style. White ankle socks, blue jeans with an elastic waistband, sweatshirts with birds or flowers, or both, hot-pressed onto them. She stopped the car, popped the trunk, got out her yardstick. She didn’t look at him, clearly his lawn was her public space. She dropped to her knees as she shuffled through the pile. When he came to the edge of the lawn and turned the mower around, she was there in front of him, a short squat woman with black hair like a helmet around her square jaw. Her lips twisted into one word. “Twenty-two.”
He turned off the mower, thinking he had missed something.
“Twenty-two,” she insisted. Her hands were fists about to punch him. For what, he wasn’t sure. Twenty-two? Not the boy’s age. Not the date. Not the number of days he had been dead.
“Only twenty-two. One’s missing. Pink Kitty.”
Only then did he realize she had counted the animals and come up one short. He knew where it had gone. Three nights before he had come home late after a terrible wind storm and one of the creatures was in the road, flattened to a pad of pink fur by passing cars. He knew what you were supposed to do with dead animals–get out a shovel and move it. But this barely qualified.
On a Thursday morning in August, which he figured had been long enough, after the mother left, he tossed the whole mess, the cross, the urn, the notes, the balloons, toys, trinkets, photographs, stuffed animals, into the trunk of his car and put it all in the dumpster behind the auto parts store where he worked. He figured he would have until the next Monday before she discovered it gone. But someone dropping off their kid at the school noticed the theft, and called the mom and the police. By the time the incident was over, there had been seven crank calls, three articles in the town newspaper, a dozen letters to the editor vilifying his behavior, and a conference in his manager’s office about customer relations. The pile was back even larger. Girls from the high school organized a service project, dug up a 2×6 foot patch of grass and planted petunias. Another cross replaced the original, this one bigger and outlined with a string of tiny, battery-powered LED lights and a puddle of cement hardening around its base.
Will knew his crosses: the occupied one in St. Paul the Apostle, the empty one in his own Presbyterian church, the Greek cross, the Celtic cross, the Russian Orthodox one, baptismal crosses, trefoiled crosses, the victor’s cross, the gilded one at St. Nicholas Antiochian, the simple gold-toned stickpin on his grandfather’s lapel. He believed in them, but the cross in his yard was something else, not a father’s emptying but a mother’s filling up, like the one tattoo parlors put above the bikini line or the one Nazi skinheads hide under their shirts.
“Proportion,” his sister Celine said. She was inspecting the page layouts he had hung from a monofilament line strung across his kitchen. A friend had given him a book of Lovecraft’s stories and as soon as he read this one, he knew he had to illustrate it. The narrator on his coming of age tour. The mysterious reef. The inhabitants of Innsmouth with their peculiar and peculiarly similar appearance. The dreaded attraction on the narrator’s face when he sees himself in the mirror. Each night Will’s imagination lived in that strange city and he drew another panel to the story. Whenever he finished all six panels on a page, he hung it up with the others. Celine taught art at the high school across the street and could tell him what he was doing wrong. “Helicopter moms. They’re the worst, Will,” she said, “always hovering, they lose all sense of proportion. You have to be firm with The Mom. Tell her to back off.” She had brought the school’s yearbook. Blue sticky notes marked the pages where the boy appeared. “There he is in the jazz band, here with the football team.”
“Why do boys wear their hair like that?”
“Here’s a close-up. He played right field on the baseball team.”
“Does the school still require driver’s ed?”
“Here he is on student council. He got a scholarship to U of M.”
Celine paged through to the pictures of the high schoolers she had seen on his lawn. She knew their names and their history with the boy. “That’s his sister. That’s the girl he dated all sophomore year. That’s Kristie Culofti, they sang a duet together at the spring concert. And this is the hot little dish he took to senior prom, Brandi Murphy. The Mom did not approve.” He had seen all these girls and more on his lawn. They never came one at a time but arrived like pigeons in groups of three or four, picking through the stuffed animals to check out what was new, comparing cuteness, and leaving a few droppings of their own: a doughnut in a plastic sandwich bag, a Hallmark card, a pair of flip-flops, a pop-bead bracelet, a bandanna, a rock painted with a peace sign, a necklace made of macaroni, a feather, selfies. Will was young enough to remember and foreswear the prickly, self-centeredness of teen girl sex but not old enough to delude himself into thinking he could cure it. He knew he wasn’t a good enough artist that his sister could recognize them in a panel when he needed faces for the loungers leaving the bus stop where the narrator waits.
In October his sister came with more bad news. He had hoped interest in the boy was dwindling, that the high school crowd had moved on to their next tragedy. Celine held out a flyer. The boy’s mother was passing them out at school, posting them at the library, plastering them on the community bulletin board at the grocery store. November 7 was the boy’s birthday. There was going to be a party. On his front lawn.
“You have to say something to her.” Celine’s opinion was that a party was way out of line. “I see moms like her all the time. Push, push, push, won’t let their kids out of their shadow. Poor kid, he can’t even rest in peace without The Mom organizing it.” She was inspecting his recent pages, the ones where the narrator is riding the bus and when he gets to Innsmouth, he goes into the grocery store. “It’s not like he’s buried here. Doesn’t she know what cemeteries are for? It’s your property.” Actually it wasn’t. He had measured it. One morning after the mom left he got out his tape measure and marked off from the center of the road. The cross was two inches inside the public access. With the toe of his sneaker, he pushed the stray animals back across the line
Celine was squinting at the last page he had drawn, approving of the way he had laid out the town in relation to the beach and the way he had drawn the water so that it rippled ominously out along the reef. She went back to the bus driver. “This face looks vaguely familiar.” She hadn’t read Lovecraft, didn’t know this was readers’ first glimpse of the “Innsmouth look.”
“A birthday party,” she laughed scornfully, “give me a break.” She pushed the flyer towards him, then spoke like a true big sister. “Next time she shows up, take care of it.”
The next Monday morning he was waiting on his front step and stopped her halfway to the water faucet. There had been a cold rain over the weekend and a hard frost that night. The grass crunched beneath their feet and in the morning light the cross looked like something leftover from a carnival, its lights casting red, blue, yellow, green across the icy lawn and up into her face and his.
“I don’t think this is possible,” he said, holding up the flyer so she could read her announcement. The moment he said it, he knew it was not his best move. He should have started with something more forceful.
“I’ll tell you what’s not possible.” She had a long story that began with the son’s death and led to the PartyMaster. “I’ve already reserved the popcorn truck and the tent. The food’s been ordered.” She moved past him, water burbled into the jug. “The entertainment’s all planned. Obviously, you’ve seen the flyers.”
He had rehearsed what he meant to say, It’s my lawn. I understand it’s your son, but it’s my lawn. It wouldn’t come out.
She poured water over the flowers in the urn and then across the bed of petunias. Their leaves were blackened and shriveled from the frost, but that didn’t stop her. “We’re going to have a good time, that’s what my boy would want. I ordered the cake this morning and everyone has picked out their mo-mento.” That had been on the flyer too. Everyone was to bring a memento and leave it by the cross as a reminder of the son. More junk.
She went to the trunk of her car and took out her yardstick, a shovel, and a plastic shopping bag. She measured the pile, sorted out the soggy animals from the not so soggy, replaced the soggy ones with three fresh ones from the bag and then remeasured the size of the pile. She paced off three steps towards his house then two steps west. She cut out a square of sod, set it aside, scooped out a shovel full of dirt and scattered it across his grass. She put the soggy animals down in the hole, put the sod back in place, and tamped it all down with her foot. “Cheerleaders have promised to come and the high school choir will be singing. If you have any extra lawn chairs, we could use them.” She took off her gardening gloves, put everything back in the trunk and left without looking back. In the dull morning light, he could see what he hadn’t seen before–a checkerboard of bumps and hollows where she had buried things too deep or too shallow.
Two weeks before the party a teenager appeared on the sidewalk in front of his house. Thin, almost gaunt, she seemed an icicle dressed in a leotard, full skirt and combat boots. She appeared in that moment between when he pulled the car into the garage and when he hung up his coat. He was sure she had not been there when he drove in. In the thin gray light of evening, she was moving down his sidewalk in a slow ballet, practicing turns and steps and twirls and leaps. Every so often she stopped to refresh her MP3, then moved back to the pine tree on the corner, and began the routine all over. Her eyes were closed, her lips moved as she practiced, counting to the music, one-two-three-four-five-six-seven-eight. She must have sensed he was there in the window because whenever she tried a fancy turn, lost her balance and stepped on his grass, she would glance at him apologetically. Then she would go back to the pine at the corner, hit replay, and start her dance again. He put his jacket back on and sat on his front step. Late that night as he sat drawing he thought he was imagining her. She appeared again the next evening and the next, and for several more. Every day she would add a few more steps to the dance, advancing down his sidewalk from the corner tree, practicing and revising the dance, trying to fit in all her moves before she got to his driveway.
On Saturday he went to the township cemetery and parked in the old part where his grandparents were buried among angels, grapes, and praying hands and where his parents had reserved spots for the whole family. He walked to the new section and found the boy’s row, the sunken, unadorned depression where he had been laid. Will had expected a stone and an even grander display than what was in his yard, something more than the cemetery’s regulation stake with a metal tag engraved with the boy’s name and plot number. Someone, probably the sexton, had killed the weeds and scattered a few handfuls of grass seed across the bare dirt. He studied the matte gray sky, the threadbare pines at the edge of the cemetery, the dry, winter-bitten grass, and the tombstones rolling row after row down one hill and up over another. He wanted to take the mother by the shoulders. “Look here, look here,” he wanted to point, “the body, it’s here. Get over it. Get your cross off my lawn.”
By Monday the temperature had dropped ten degrees. All day at work he had watched a line of thunderstorms move through, and by the time he pulled into his driveway dark clouds were rumbling above his house. The stuffed animals were water-logged and stiff from the cold. The LED lights on the cross had blown a fuse. Raindrops coated his front window, blurring the edges of the lawn and sidewalk. He took an umbrella with him. Instead of sitting on the porch, he held it above her head. She had practiced enough that she no longer stepped off the sidewalk and he could shift this way and that, doing a little two-step forward and back, so that he stayed with her but out of her way. She had no need to look at him. It was as if she had expected this gesture, as if he had become part of the dance. She wore thick wooly socks inside her boots, the tops folded down over the laces. A muslin cape hung like drapery over her leotard. He was close enough that for the first time he could hear the rhythm of the music coming through the headphones. It matched the rhythm of the rain on his umbrella, but it wasn’t moving towards a thunderstorm. It was moving towards a river. His feet, wet from the grass, were already wading in it.
That night he came to the panel where the narrator sits with the crazy man and looks out to sea. He drew the threadbare pines he had seen at the cemetery in a line along the beach front. He speckled the sand at the narrator’s feet with unsprouted beach grass. The bus was becoming a hearse, the reef a charnel, the hotel a funeral parlor. In the reef’s shimmering, he drew a figure as thin as an icicle.
“Have you talked to her about it?” Celine was at his kitchen table. She had taken down the page where the inhabitants are pounding on the door of the narrator’s hotel room.
His first thought was that she somehow knew about the dancer. He hadn’t told her, but perhaps the kids at school were talking.
“Have you told her she can’t have the party here?”
His silence made her sigh. She pointed to the panel where the narrator is at the door of his hotel room. “It’s not clear what’s happening here. I can’t tell, is he locking the door or unlocking it?” He watched her as she studied the drawings, wondering if she would notice who it was that the town’s inhabitants were beginning to look like–a nose here, a chin there, her ears on this one, her figure on that one. The hotel keeper had her square jaw and her helmet-like hair. By the time he got to the angry mob, they would all be the same tribe.
“How’s the boy’s sister doing?” he asked. “How’s the girlfriend?” He had asked Celine to bring the yearbook over again and he began paging through it. He had the impression that the dancer was either the dead boy’s sister or girlfriend. He wished he had paid closer attention when Celine had first shown him their pictures.
“You know kids that age. The girlfriend’s moved on, dating someone else. The sister hits the counselor’s office once a week, she’s always had a smart mouth and her brother’s death has given her one more excuse.” She studied him as closely as she had studied his drawings. “I was afraid this would happen. It’s not healthy. You of all people shouldn’t have to live with this outside your door.” He understood her concern. He had been diagnosed with leukemia two years before, during his junior year of college. Even though the doctors thought it was in remission, grief hung like a fine mist across the face of his life, blurring his future whenever he thought about going back to school or getting a better job, whenever he found himself getting a little too close to a woman he liked. The week before, while he was standing in the grocery store, the face of a young child not more than two looked at him with complete trust. It was a hope he knew would never be fulfilled. It left him in a fog.
Celine put her hands on top of his. “You aren’t fixating on this, are you? It’s all so morbid, have you been depressed? Do you want me to talk to her?” He assured her that he wasn’t, hadn’t been, and she didn’t need to.
After she left, he went through every photo in the yearbook, looking for the dancer on his sidewalk. He found only traces–the right face, wrong body, the right body, wrong face.
On the night before the party he had trouble drawing. He had come to the place in the story when the terrified narrator is escaping and the inhabitants are tramping through the damp, sea-water night, looking for him. Will went back and reread the story–were they coming for him because he is different or because they recognize him as one of their own?
The popcorn truck was the first to arrive, a red and white RV ready to serve cold pop, caramel corn, hot dogs and elephant ears out the side windows. In big red letters the word “PartyMaster” appeared above the motto “One Quick Call Does It All”.
“Are you the mother’s son?” the driver asked, rolling down his window.
Will frowned. “No. I live here.”
The driver looked as if he didn’t believe him. “Well, where do you want me to park it?”
Will directed as the popcorn man carelessly backed up over the curb, a little this way, a little that, until the cross disappeared and the stuffed animals emerged from under the front bumper. The driver opened the awning and ran an extension cord in through Will’s bedroom window. Soon the smell of hot cooking oil wafted across the lawn. When the mom arrived, she was so distracted–the dunking booth, the tent, the DJ, tables and chairs for fifty–she never noticed the cross was hung up somewhere under the back wheel well.
Two cars drove up. Will guessed from the faces that they were relatives, the boy’s siblings, aunts, uncles, a couple grandmas. As the mom dumped her bag of fresh animals on the pile she called, “Mo-mentoes, put your mo-mentoes here.” One relative deposited a panda, one a baby’s rattle. The sister brought a photograph of herelf and the dead brother in prom clothes. The curly-haired grandma brought a sock monkey which, from the looks of it, she had knitted herself out of brown and red yarn.
Soon the partiers took over his lawn, a hundred, maybe two hundred, people circulating around under the tent, across the grass, in the front door to use his bathroom and out the back, students, coaches, teachers, friends from the mom’s work and exercise club, cheerleaders, football players, the chess club, pregnant women, insurance salesmen, used car dealers, the lead singer from a local rock band, a balloon artist, two face painters, three jugglers left over from the Renaissance festival in Holly weeks before, forty very elderly Detroiters—canes, walkers, oxygen tanks–from off a tour bus, guys from the homeless shelter four blocks over who had read the flyer and stopped by. Firefighters were giving tours of their new hook and ladder. Kids took turns sitting in the DARE car. People were lining up for food, sitting at tables or on the sidewalk or curb, eating cotton candy, popcorn balls, frosty shakes, sloppy joes, chili dogs, pigs in the blanket, ham buns, drinking pop, bottled water, sloe gin fizzes and playing ring toss and cornhole and winning giant pandas, fuzzy dice or drinking glasses emblazoned with the dead boy’s picture, the date and the words “First Annual Birthday Bash”. Cheerleaders were doing their routines. Football players were scrimmaging on the side lawn. The mom kept pointing towards the front bumper of the PartyMaster-mobile, calling, “Mo-mentoes, put your mo-mentoes here.” During a lull, she went to the trunk of her car, took out her yardstick and measured. “Come on, we can do it, the bumper’s covered, let’s get up to the headlights.” She brought the cheerleaders over and led the squad in a sis-boom-bah.
Will sat on the front steps, watching the pine tree at the corner, waiting for the dancer to appear, waiting until the last of the crowd disappeared and the popcorn man wrapped up the leftovers, rolled up the awning, disconnected the electric, and tried to settle up the bill with the mom. She was standing at the front bumper, staring.
“They ate a lot more than I thought they would,” said the popcorn man, “and football players don’t come cheap. I got to get going. My next gig’s an hour away.”
It was a huge pile. Party-goers had left all sorts of things, carnations, silk butterflies, shotgun casings, a cowboy boot, pencils, figurines (Will counted seven Snoopys, five gnomes and one SpongeBob), Barbies, windsocks, rocks, refundable pop cans, more rocks, gum wrappers, half-eaten hot dogs, dirty socks, lint from their pockets. But the pile hadn’t made it up to the headlights.
The popcorn driver tried again, holding out his bill. The mother had dropped her megaphone and wasn’t moving.
Will glanced at the mother’s face then at the pine tree. The dancer was there waiting at the end of the sidewalk. Her combat boots were covered with mud. Dirt clung to the hem of her skirt. Again he glanced at the mother’s face then studied the length of the sidewalk. It would never be long enough. He took the bill, “She’ll send you a check,” and watched as the man backed up the RV. The cross was still tucked up under there. Will could hear it rubbing against a wheel, the drivetrain grinding. The driver had to gun it to get out of the grass, down over the curb and out onto the road.
Will put the mom in her car. He put the unpaid bill, the yardstick and the shovel into the trunk. He put the dancer in there too and unloaded it all at the cemetery. As soon as he opened the lid, she unfolded herself, shaking out the wrinkles in her muslin wrap. Taking his hand, she stepped up onto the rim of the trunk then, as if descending a staircase, stepped to the bumper to a nearby tombstone and then to the grass. She moved past the boy’s grave, straight down the row to where the threadbare pine crossed the horizon.
The mom didn’t want to get out of the car at first, so he swung her feet out, pulled her out by the hand and showed her how to sit with her back against a tombstone one row over from the boy.
He could see that the dancer was waiting for his signal so he sat down too. Remembering that the mother had never seen the dance, he put his arm around her shoulder. He knew that his face and her face if he had to draw them would be identical. He gave a little wave, the dance began. He hugged the mother tightly, felt a silent sob. The dance had a long way to go–the length of the cemetery and beyond–and would not miss a beat. It was always a practice run, gravestone to the left, gravestone to the right, and there were surprises–the turn, the spin, the steps backward, the twist, the leap.