Annie lifts her father’s old binoculars off the porch. Out past the cornfield a lime-colored pickup idles in the fog of Mrs. Lanie’s tangelo grove next door. The driver’s side hangs open, but no one is behind the wheel. Clutter juts from the truck bed, vapor rises from the tailpipe. Annie knows most of Mrs. Lanie’s pickers, but she doesn’t know this truck.
A ridiculous thought occurs to her. Owen’s come back. He’s sneaking through the grove and coming around the back of the house to surprise her. He’ll cup her eyes from behind and say something stupid like, “Guess who needs glasses?” Or “Who turned out the lights?”
It’s early. She hasn’t brushed her teeth or concealed her dark circles. She hasn’t washed her hair or even pulled it back. The ropey ends catch on her mouth as she sips her coffee. She scans the grove for the shape of a person stealing tangelos. There’s no one she can see.
The last thing Annie wants to do is think about Owen. But it’s like one foot tumbling over a slippery edge of earth the way she unexpectedly falls again and again into the same opening. Her thoughts have become flimsy, sentimental, throwaway songs. Nursery rhymes. Where oh where have you gone?
Steam rises to her lashes from the coffee stalled at her lips. She lowers the cup and presses its warmth into her chest, into the pocket of chilled bare skin above the zipper of her fleece.
It’s not as if their five years together were perfect. They were riddled with rough patches, cruel things slipping from their mouths. She watches the fog shift over the field and remembers all those brassy, merciless words. No doubt she’d use them again, given the chance.
The problem is the nights she couldn’t sleep for all the pleasure rushing through her. The malty scent of his skin, like freshly cut grain, something meant to be eaten. The feel of his cuff brushing her wrist made her greedy for sex and food and music to be played even louder. She’d spent years floundering in smoky, mediocre venues hoping for a crowd to show, and suddenly, here was her muse, her good luck charm, making her old hopes seem puny, amateurish in comparison to what she had with him.
She can’t forget this is the porch where most of the songs for Gull on a Steeple were written. Detour the same old dog that howled at the harmonica. These Adirondack chairs the ones whose red paint Annie and Owen wore away from so much use. Annie circles the rings of coffee and wine with her finger, the oily bug spray sealed into the arms like evidence of mornings, evenings, late nights spent trying to get it right. He made an honest-to-God singer-songwriter out of her. She made a sought-after music producer out of him. Rolling Stone declared Gull on a Steeple “An instant classic filled with vivid tales of love and loss without the slightest hint of sentimentality.” Depression magazine claimed, “Annie Walsh’s painful, clear-eyed, storied songs are woven with a voice reminiscent of the great Patsy Cline, Lucinda Williams, and Aimee Mann, all spun into one.” The comparisons flattered her for the first few minutes, but after that and ever since she’s done nothing but worry about measuring up. Even when Entertainment Weekly came along and knocked her down to something of a Disney production. “A sprightly, nearly elfin frame that charms its way across the stage and into your heart.”
Now it’s hard to even listen to music, let alone play it.
Cold fog quiets the birds and shifts like hot steam above Lake Winsor to the east. Minutes earlier hailstones sliced past Annie’s bedroom window and skipped off the ground like pearls on concrete, escaping in all directions. The timer on the coffee pot had already gone off, and Annie dressed quickly in a fleece and jeans, her red rubber boots with the knobby black soles. She emerged onto the porch as if from a cave, coffee sloshing down her wrist, Detour stumbling at her heels the way old dogs do, scared old dogs, with no direction. Annie wanted the hail to prick her skin, to shake loose the stubborn reveries pinned behind her eyes. But in the time it took to pour coffee, the hail had already moved on.
She flips on the small radio she keeps on the porch. It’s set to a station she found by accident at the end of the dial, thinking she was turning up the news. It runs crackly old serials where salesmen and seamstresses make their way through hard times–characters who do things that don’t always make sense. But then you hear the backstory the next day, something to do with an aunt’s dying wish, or an orphan on the side of the road whose true identity is just becoming clear. Today it’s a butcher in New York and a young boy, his nephew, the son of a brother the man hates. He seems to love the boy in spite of this. “You remind me of me at your age,” the butcher says. The accents are a little overplayed.
Backstory. A word she’s been trying to think of. She ought to write a song called Backstory. Some days it feels as if every cup in the kitchen, every tree in the yard, patch of crabgrass, anthill, the pine planks beneath her feet, even the sky itself is buzzing with backstory, existing for the sole purpose of reminding her of Owen. The songs, the jokes, the curious observations resonate like a tuning fork to the head.
Detour heaves himself up and lets loose a sharp, single bark at a chase of squirrels in the live oak tree. Acorns tumble and click in their wake. The bark pierces the quiet like a gunshot.
“You’re a big man when it comes to little squirrels,” Annie says. He’d trembled when hail struck the cedar roof. But he’s a good dog. Bulky and older than he has a right to be.
It takes her a moment to realize he wasn’t barking at the squirrels. At least one of his senses is still keen. Annie barely sees the man in the grove. He quickly hops into the truck and shuts the door as if he’s gone out there to relieve himself and doesn’t want anyone to know.
The truck starts on the road toward to her driveway. Annie knocks the binoculars into the spongy grass, hops off the porch and snatches them up. It’s hard to focus on a moving target. She quits trying when the truck reaches her gate. Her driveway is at least an eighth of a mile long. But the far-off, tinny sound of music reaches her ears.
Detour lumbers down the steps as if each leg is made of a wooden cane. He strains his hips in the muddy driveway. “Stay here, boy,” Annie says. “Over here.”
All at once the sun bores a hole through the fog and glares off the filmy windshield, hiding whoever’s behind the wheel. But she can see that the clutter sticking out of the back of the truck is rakes, shovels, a mower, and a mess of brown clippings, and she knows just who it is.
Detour knows too. He escorts the truck toward Annie, so closely his tail thumps the door. Her brother hangs his hand through the open window and touches the tip of Detour’s nose.
The music on the stereo is The Beautiful South doing a cover of “Dream a Little Dream of Me.” “They’re the cheeriest bunch of sad songs you’ll ever hear,” she’d said when she gave it to him years ago.
The truck comes to a jerky stop. Walsh Landscaping is spelled out in bold, cursive script beneath an outline of a live oak tree on the door.
My name is Annie Walsh. She used to say this, gently, after walking on stage. Then came the applause. The swirling whistles. The screams.
The music dies down in the truck, and the engine rattles off in stages. The air smells like french fries.
Her heart pulses against the thin wall of her chest, her brain, her ears, her hands. She’s not prepared to see her own brother, no matter how many times she’s imagined him showing up like this.
He steps out in a T-shirt and canvas shorts. He isn’t wearing a jacket. A sure sign it’s going to be warmer than Annie has hoped.
He isn’t smiling so much as grinning, just slightly, to one side as if to say, “What do you make of this? Here I am after six whole months, showing up like it’s nothing to nobody.” He has a habit of running his hand through his floppy hair, and when he gets within fifteen feet he stops and does exactly that.
“Did you see me in the binoculars?” he asks.
Detour slides his ribs along Calder’s legs like a cat.
“Detour, come,” Annie says.
“I was making the pig face you used to laugh at.”
“I guess not.” He scratches Detour’s back. “Christ almighty. You’re an old man.” He flings loose fur from his fingers and gently pats Detour’s stiff hip.
Mrs. Lanie’s house is close enough to see her eyes go wide when she pulls the curtain back in her kitchen window. Her hair is an early morning tangle of gray.
Calder turns and lifts a meek hand as if he’s embarrassed, as if he’s remembering all that went on the last time he was here, Annie screaming until her voice gave way. How long? At least tell me that! How long did you know he was seeing her?
Mrs. Lanie waves against the glass, and then the curtain drops and she’s gone.
Calder sighs and studies Annie’s house up somewhere along the trim of the low-slung roof. The gutters obviously need cleaning, and she expects this is what he’ll say. “hLooks like you had the place painted,” he says.
Annie turns toward the Buttery Cream siding and Dove White trim. Her pale creamsicle of a bungalow, more cabin than house, cloaked by overgrown trees. Maple, tupelo, sweet gum, willow.
“Looks good,” he says. “Looks new again. Amazing what a little paint can do.”
He doesn’t say Owen’s name, but it’s there in the air, the thing missing from this house, this picture. It seems to touch Calder’s face, his eyes, which he rubs.
“What are you listening to?” He gestures to the radio on the porch.
“You’re too young to understand, son,” the butcher says.
“Nothing,” Annie says.
He nods as if he’s just agreed not to ask any more questions. “Well. The hail did a number on that tupelo. It’s hunkering down like a kid getting pelted with rocks.”
Annie glances at the tree. The limbs are twisted at odd angles, their ends horned and jerking, barbed wire claws.
“Anyway, I’m doing a job right up the road,” Calder says. “I figured it was like some kind of sign or something, being this close, and being on your birthday and all. Happy birthday. You don’t look a minute past thirty.”
She’s forty years old today. She thinks of her chaffed hands and clasps them to the binoculars at her back.
“I swear, Annie. You’re pretty as ever.”
She’s well aware that another year, one half-filled with a mountain of stress, has changed the way she looks.
“I heard one of your songs on that Chevy commercial. and someone said another was in that movie with what’s her name, Jessica Lange.”
“It’s been six months,” she says, keeping her voice in check. “This probably isn’t the first time you’ve been within a few miles of here.”
Calder chews the inside of his cheek, something he’s done since they were kids. “No. I can’t say it is.”
Detour hobbles over and leans against her leg.
“It’s been a long time,” Calder says. “I thought maybe it was OK to come and see you—it’s your birthday. And Christmas less than two weeks away. How have you been?”
She tucks the binoculars under her arm and shoves her hands into her pockets. “Fine.”
Calder turns his head as if wishing he could take back the question. He studies her yard. She follows his line of sight, sure he’s taking stock of broken branches and anthills and the fact that the soil doesn’t drain quite right with the tree roots exposed like that. “It’s been a while since you’ve seen Uncle Calder,” he says.
It’s not what she expects. He’s caught her off guard. Her mind tunnels backwards to the first time she lost someone she loved. She and Calder are twelve and eleven, Uncle Calder is wiping her tears, patting the top of her head with his oversized palm after setting flowers on her father’s grave. “It’s going to be all right, squirt,” he’ll tell her more than once. A far off ringing pricks her ears.
“He’s not getting any younger,” Calder says.
It takes a moment to clear.
“You mind if we sit down on the porch for a minute?” Calder asks.
She looks at the porch, now drenched in sun, the empty chair where she had planned to eat breakfast. Granola, fresh yogurt, and blackberries from the farmer’s market. More than enough for two, but she doesn’t offer, not that or anything else. Not even the chair.
Detour drags himself onto the porch, lies down between the chairs, and sighs.
It’s clear that the boy on the radio is being played by a man. He raises his voice in some kind of anguish and the switch gives him away.
The sooner Calder says whatever he’s come to say, the sooner he’ll leave. Annie throws her arm out as a signal for him to head up the steps. “They’re slippery,” she says, and immediately regrets the impression that she cares.
Calder steps onto the porch but doesn’t sit in a chair. He sits on the railing and grips it near his hips. He’s already talking a blue streak about work before she joins him on the porch. “So anyway, I’m pulling these thorny sonsabitches out while Jerry’s gone off somewhere with my gloves. You remember Jerry…”
Annie shuts off the radio. She feels outside of herself, leaning against the doorframe, studying the two of them, the dailiness of their chitchat, the ordinary scene. He’s still so good at conversation, hard won from a childhood marked by tics. Blinking, jumping, swinging legs beneath a chair. He learned to switch conversations from one thing to the next, drawing attention from his jerky body to anything from a USDA Textural Triangle for measuring sandy loam to singing a Hank Williams tune to predicting sinkholes in parking lots. He’s doing it now, even though he hasn’t had tics in years—going from old houses to cutting back thorny scrub plums, from his third pickup in five years to their mother’s inability to grow anything aside from weeds, from Uncle Calder’s paid participation in medical studies to a woman Calder met downtown while landscaping the law office next door, “and well, I’ll get to her in a minute, but first,” he says, and the ebb and flow of his voice is so familiar that Annie begins to move with him, her nods, her half smiles, signaling him on.
His laugh lines have deepened. Especially when he gets back to talking about the woman downtown.
“She owns a Danish bakery on Church Street,” he says. “Got all these raspberry and pecan Kringles and bread pudding that sweetens the whole block by seven every morning. I swear she’s got eyes the color of limes. Her name’s Sidsel Jørgenson. A slash through the first O.” He slices the air diagonally with his finger. “That’s how you spell her last name in Danish.”
Annie nods, just a little, in reply.
“The only problem is, Sidsel has a husband named Magnus. A big ol’ Dane.” He opens his arms to the sides, and then he hesitates as if he’s thinking something else about the man that he’d rather not say. “And meaner than a skillet full of rattlesnakes.”
This sounds funnier than he seems to have intended. He sounds like their father, and the soft, thrown-back cadence of his laughter is so familiar, so suddenly missed that she can’t help herself. She laughs with him, still conscious of her every move, every sound that comes from her mouth like a token she grudgingly hands him in exchange for another minute in her world.
When the laughter runs its course, Calder shakes his head at the porch and smiles a taut, self-conscious smile she’s sure isn’t meant for her to see.
It’s getting warm on the porch. Annie slips off her boots, unzips her fleece, and goes inside for something to drink. She comes back with two glasses of tangerine juice and finds Calder whistling a tune at the yard. She barely reaches his shoulders. Other than that, they look more alike than any siblings she knows. Heads full of dark wavy hair, light blue eyes, and a mess of summer freckles they inherited from Grandad Walsh. She follows the fine, curvy line of his brow down to the blotchy Irish red in his cheeks. He appears happy. Relaxed. Unquestionably sober.
She takes a seat next to him on the railing and places the juice in his hand like a peace offering. Sandy soil smells drift from his skin. No alcohol. Not even the acrid kind that could seep from his pores and give away recent days of drinking. Six months ago she’d found him at Hal’s roadside bar, red-faced and yeasty, slung onto the counter with red-and yellow-tinged eyes. He could barely utter the sloppy, sour words in her ear. “You don’t want to know how young she is. I should have told you. I wanted to tell you.” Before he passed out he called Owen an asshole. Owen had been his best friend.
Several days after that he stopped by to pick up his Bobcat loader still sitting in Annie’s backyard from the landscaping he’d done. He smelled like whiskey and days of unwashed skin.
Then came the screaming, the cursing. “How could you do this to me!” She must have yelled that at least ten times. When he refused to answer, refused to even look her in the eye, she realized there was more. She thought of the times he and Owen had gone off to buy sound equipment, fish the St. John’s, and haul trees. She realized they hadn’t gone off at all. “You covered for him, didn’t you?” He shielded his eyes from the sun, and then massaged what must have been a nasty hangover in his forehead. “Answer me!” He didn’t know the half of all she’d been through in those three days after Owen left. She would have given anything to have the one saving grace be that her own brother, the one person she had counted on her whole life, hadn’t helped the man she loved cheat on her. But her brother flinched and stammered, and that was all the answer she needed. “Don’t you come back here again,” she’d said. “I mean it. Not ever.” The sickest kind of betrayal she’d ever felt, sicker even, than Owen’s betrayal days before, had wormed its way inside her.
Now, here he is six months later, smelling fresh like the earth. Like strong coffee and cinnamon.
The breeze is warm and moist. The birds have started up again in a sky that’s practically clear.
“I’m in love with her, Annie,” Calder says. Then softer, “And she’s in love with me.” He swallows a gulp of air. His hands shake. He looks off to the side when he speaks. “I’ve never known in all my life what it is to love like this.”
All she can do is stare. She almost laughs. Then she does laugh, but it’s awkward, too close to a cry. “What?” Her voice breaks. She looks down at her cracked hands, at the tiny lotus tattoo inside her wrist, remembering how Calder had gone first and told her it wasn’t so bad, no worse than a shot in the arm. But it was, it was much worse, and she thinks of the needle dipping in and out of the thin, tender skin of her wrist.
“Tell me you didn’t come here to say how happy in love you are.”
Calder knocks a rusty cowbell to the porch when he comes to his feet. Detour jerks his head at the clang.
“It’s bad enough what you did. It’s bad enough,” she says, and catches herself before adding–that I was at the supermarket buying chicken, cheddar cheese, and a pregnancy test when he left me. “That for months,” she continues, “I’ve been waking up wondering if there’s something wrong with me for someone to leave me the way he did, but now you want to rub all your happiness—with a woman who belongs to someone else by the way—in my face?”
Detour thumps his tail but doesn’t get up.
Calder places a hand on her shoulder. “I’m sorry. I’m sorry about what happened between you and Owen. I can’t imagine being without Sidsel, and I just—”
She knocks his hand off. “Are you kidding me? She’s married, Calder! I’m beginning to think the world is made up of nothing but liars and cheats.”
“You don’t understand. I’ve known her for a long time.”
“And just what is that supposed to mean? You two setting some kind of record? See how long you can go before someone finds out, or better yet, runs off and leaves a goddamn letter in his place?”
“I’m sorry. This was such a bad idea.”
“Hold on.” He catches her eye and she quickly turns away. “What letter?”
She holds her bottom lip between her teeth and focuses on a heron’s nest across the lake.
“He left you a letter? You mean in place of saying good-bye?”
It’s too far away to tell if the heron is in there.
“He didn’t explain things to you himself?”
Annie meets his eyes. “What was there to explain?”
Calder flexes his fists. He looks as if he means to say more, but instead shakes his head at the lake and turns and steps off the porch.
“Explain what, Calder?”
But he’s already started the truck and is pulling it around in the circular driveway with the shovels and rakes clanging at his back. His bumper sticker reads, POWERED BY VEGETABLE OIL. The smell of french fries fills the air again.
From the stereo comes, “Say nightie-night and kiss me. Just hold me tight and tell me you’ll miss me.”
He shuts the truck off and it rattles like before. He gets out and climbs into the bed where he slides out a piece of plywood for a ramp. He jumps down and pulls the mower to the ground.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“This here’s a lawn mower.”
“Stop it, Calder.”
“It’s your birthday,” he says.
“Put it back. I don’t want you here. I don’t want you doing this. The grass is wet, asshole.”
“I’m trying to do something nice. I’ll be the judge of wet grass.”
“You’ll be the judge of bullshit,” she says.
“You shouldn’t be alone.”
“You should have thought about that before you decided to cover for him.”
“He might still be here if I’d known what was going on. Maybe I could have stopped it.”
He pulls the mower to the edge of the lawn. The grass is higher than the wheels. He stares at her as if to say no one could have stopped it. “This whole thing has eaten me alive,” he says. “It’s a wonder I’m standing here sober.” He picks up the larger branches and tosses them into the driveway.
“Well, thank goodness for that girlfriend of yours. It comes in handy to have someone around when you need them.”
He walks back to the mower.
“Where is he, Calder?”
“I don’t know.”
“No one has heard from him. Where is he?”
“Maybe they’re just not saying.” He reaches for the ripcord on the mower. He holds it between his fingers without looking at her. “I honestly don’t know.” He yanks the cord and the blade rips through the overgrown grass.
Annie scoops up the scratched aviator sunglasses off the oak stump side-table. Were they hers or Owen’s? She snaps them against her eyes and lowers herself into the Adirondack chair. It could be spring for all this weather. Sunshine and cut grass, the buzz of a mower growing distant. Detour sprawls sideways in the sun at her feet. Within seconds his paws twitch in his sleep. He dreams of running, Owen used to say. With you, at the beach.