Fair warning, this piece is a bit longer than our usual content. Nevertheless, "No Direction Home" is a wonderful story that will stick with you even after you've finished reading it, and you'll just fall in love with the characters. —G. Michael Rapp, Editor of Palabras
It was cold and damp that morning in August when we crossed the border into Maine after visiting Miriam's brother in Halifax. The heater in my '63 Skylark was broken, so Miriam had her sleeping bag unzipped and wrapped around her bare legs. The two-lane highway meandered south, alternating between thick pine forests and the rocky coastline. The views might have been spectacular but for the dense fog.
All the radio stations had been replaying Ford’s speech nonstop for the past three days. We were glad that Nixon was finally gone, but the repetition and monotone were mind-numbing. Miriam slammed an Allman Brothers tape into the player. “Sanctimonious dip-shit,” she muttered and turned the volume up.
By noon, the sun had burned through the fog, and it was warm. We stopped for lunch at a roadside stand and shared an order of fish and chips at a picnic table overlooking a salt marsh.
"May I have some more French fries?" she asked, giving me the little smile that always seemed to work.
I stood up and reached into my pocket. "We're going to need to fill up the tank at least two more times, and there's going to be some tolls," I said, as I counted the bills and loose change in my hand. “How much money did Ben give you?"
"I guess we have enough to get you some French fries. Do we need another Coke?"
I heard the gurgling from the straw as Miriam drained the last of our soda. "I guess we do."
I stepped up to the window of the weathered shack and ordered Miriam's fries and another coke. The woman behind the counter was dressed in overalls and a plaid flannel shirt. She was heavyset, her face rough-hewn and red. As I counted out some nickels and dimes, she asked me, "Where are you kids headed?"
She turned away and opened the freezer. She pulled out two pieces of battered fish and tossed them into the fryer next to the French fries.
"That's what I figured," she said. She nodded over to my car, parked on the gravel about twenty feet away. "What year is that?"
"It's a '63."
"You don't see many of them anymore," she said. "Especially with a ragtop."
A rusty panel truck that had been coming up the road slowed down, pulled into the gravel lot, and came to a stop next to my Skylark. The driver switched off the ignition, and the truck shuddered twice as the engine coughed, then fell silent. The top corners of the truck were rusted, and the paint, once white, was now gray, like dirty snow. The red lettering on the side was faded, but I could still make out:
Consolidated Laundries, Inc.
Hospitals, Hotels, Institutions
The driver stepped down from the cab and slammed the door. He looked over my Skylark for a minute, shook his head, and started toward the shack. His jeans were tucked into his partially laced up construction boots. He wore a plaid flannel shirt and a dark blue quilted vest. He took long strides that matched his height. He was smiling broadly, and his hair was full and white.
"Two specials and a giant cup 'o mud, Lucinda," he bellowed.
"You got it, Francis," the woman behind the counter yelled.
"Don't call me Francis, you salty old bitch."
"Whatever you say, Francis."
As he stepped up to the counter, he said, "Is that your car, kid?"
"That's nearly as old as my fuckin’ truck and just a little less dirty," he laughed.
Lucinda turned to the fryer and lifted the basket of fries. She shook the basket over the fryer letting the grease drain and then poured the fries into a paper tray. Then she lifted the other basket with the fish. She grabbed some tongs from the railing on the front of the fryer, extracted the two pieces of fish, and then set them dripping on a sheet of newspaper. She rolled the newspaper up and then folded it over.
"Here's a little extra for you," she said, setting the fries and the fish down on the splintering counter. "You look hungry."
"Thanks," I said. "We are."
"You look hungry," Lucinda said. "She looks just fine. Quit starving yourself for her."
"She's worth it," I grinned.
Lucinda moved the fries and the fish onto a plastic tray and filled two large Styrofoam cups with ice and coke from the soda fountain. "Wait a minute, son," she said as I was about to pick up the tray. She reached below the counter tossed a handful of ketchup packets onto the tray. Then she reached down again and produced an equal number of tartar sauce packets.
"Thanks," I said again.
"When you're finished, bring the tray with the trash back here, so the gulls don't make a mess."
Back at the table, we devoured our unexpected feast in silence. Miriam didn't ask about the additional food.
After we finished, I took the tray up to the window and handed it to Lucinda. "Thanks again," I said.
"You kids get home safe," she said.
"We will," I promised, as I walked toward the car where Miriam was waiting.
"And get that car to a car wash," Francis yelled.
Miriam was bundling up her sleeping bag and stuffing it down on the floor in front of the back seat. I put the key in the ignition and opened the latches above the windshield. Miriam settled in on the front seat, slipping off her sandals as I started the car and lowered the roof.
"You ready?" I asked.
"Yes," she answered. Then she reached over and placed her palm on the side of my cheek. "Thanks for feeding me."
I put the car in drive, pulled forward, and made a U-turn around the dirty laundry truck. I hit the gas to push the front wheels over the lip of the asphalt road and heard some pieces of gravel kicking up and bouncing off the floorboard.
We turned onto the two-lane highway and followed it south as it wound its way in and out of pine forests and rocky shores.
Miriam's brother, Ben, had been living in Halifax for four years. His number had come up, so he had left Port Jefferson never knowing when he would return. He made his way to Halifax, where he managed to find work doing odd jobs labor: emptying boxcars at the lumberyard, painting houses, and occasionally doing some carpentry work.
He shared a one-bedroom apartment above an old drugstore with a woman he had met one night at a pub. It was an open mic night, and they were both performing. Ben did a mixed set of Beatles, Bob Dylan, and Neil Young; Miranda did a Joni Mitchell set. Afterwards, they got high.
Ben and Miranda told us this on the night that we arrived in Halifax. Miriam was in shock because although she’d received several letters from Ben, he had neglected to mention Miranda or their two-year-old daughter.
Miranda was a cashier at a convenience store. With her salary and the part-time work that Ben was able to find, they barely had enough money to pay the rent on their apartment.
"The money that mom sends keeps us in baby food and diapers," Ben said, further shocking Miriam, who had no idea her mother was sending them money.
Miranda might have once been pretty, but she had a hard, worn look to her. Her complexion was grey over her gaunt face, and there were dark circles under her eyes. She chain-smoked, filling the small apartment with a blue haze in the light of the setting sun that shone through the living room’s windows. The whole apartment smelled of stale cigarette smoke, moldy bread, and wet diapers.
Miranda had a loud voice, and she spoke in sharp, cutting tones. Everything she said sounded like a command.
Miriam and I sat on the sunken sofa in the living room and faced the small black and white television that sat on a metal cart between the two windows that were open to the street. Miranda was seated on a dilapidated easy chair with Chelsea on her lap. Ben sat cross-legged on the floor to my left. I wouldn't have recognized the clean, short-haired athlete, who had played touch football on Miriam's front lawn four years earlier. Like Miranda, he was pathologically thin. He wore paint-splattered white overalls that seemed two sizes too big for him. He wore no shirt under the overalls, and his chest seemed shrunken. His wiry brown hair was now long and pulled into a ponytail, and he had an unkempt beard the color of rust. In contrast to Miranda, he spoke quietly, almost in a whisper. At first, his voice was calming, but after listening to him for some time, you felt as though you wanted to grab him by his bony shoulders, shake him, and yell at him to wake up.
I think what bothered Miriam the most about her brother was the casual way he treated her. He spoke matter-of-factly about Miranda, their little girl, Chelsea, and their life together, as if Miriam already knew about them and their circumstances. She’d learned of them only when Miranda had opened the door and greeted us with Chelsea in her arms.
Miriam’s mother had apparently known something about Ben’s circumstances, and now I understood why she tried to talk Miriam out of making this trip. She had even spoken to me alone about it, but Miriam had been begging me since the beginning of the summer when I bought the car, and for my own reasons, I felt that I owed it to her.
My brother Tommy had avoided selective service by getting accepted to Columbia. On the rare occasions that he came home to Port Jefferson for a weekend, he ingratiated himself in my father’s good graces by beginning some home improvement project that he would never quite finish before he left. It would remain unfinished for a month or two before he returned to start yet another project. In the years since my mother died, my father’s interest in the house had faded. Nevertheless, he appreciated Tommy’s initiative, even if it meant cooking in a kitchen with half of the cabinets on the walls and the other half on the floor, or eating in the half-painted dining room, or sitting on the front porch, looking out at a split rail fence, one half-fresh from the landscaping supply store, the other half, collapsed and rotting. Tommy showed initiative and wanted to make something of himself, and that was enough for my father to support him through college and beyond. Miriam and I referred to him as the “Golden Boy.”
My father didn’t have much use for me. He had always been disappointed in me for not overachieving and not flying straight like Tommy, even when we were kids. Tommy knew how to curry favor with him and took every advantage he could. I rebelled by drifting through high school, getting mediocre grades, but mainly getting stoned. I don’t know why, but he didn’t like Miriam either and somehow thought that she was a corrupting influence. Maybe because she was Jewish, although he’d never in his life shown any sign of anti-Semitism. Or, perhaps, it was that her parents had split up and her father, his insurance broker, had moved in with his receptionist. There had been a few other divorces in the neighborhood, but Miriam’s parents had been the first, so maybe all the subsequent broken marriages were their fault.
After graduation, I had returned to my summer job at the lumberyard. My father couldn’t pay for Tommy and me to be in college at the same time. Since Tommy was older, had better grades, and knew how to take advantage of the situation, I was on my own. My father told me that if I could get myself together and “get back on track,” he would help me out after Tommy was finished.
When the first summer after high school ended, and I stayed on at the lumberyard, my father softened a bit and said, “Apply to some state schools, and I’ll see what I can do.”
Miriam worked part-time at her father’s insurance agency and started classes at Stony Brook that fall. When I told her I was applying to schools, she urged me to apply to Stony Brook, and the two of us could get an apartment. When I got the acceptance from New Paltz a few months later, she asked about Stony Brook, and I lied and told her that I had been turned down. I hadn’t even applied there. I’d filled out the forms, but thoughts about the possibility of leaving Long Island stopped me from submitting them. If you asked me why I wanted to leave or what I wanted, I don’t think I would have been able to say anything but, “I don’t know, but I want more than this.”
Ben got up from the floor, stepped across the living room and sat down next to the portable stereo that was next to the television. He turned on the stereo and set the needle down on the record sitting on the turntable. He leaned back against the windowsill and pulled a plastic bag and some rolling papers out of the large pocket of his overalls and started rolling a joint.
“It’s about time,” Miranda said. “I was beginning to wonder about your manners.”
Ben grinned. “Patience, Miranda. I need to determine whether or not it would be appropriate to offer drugs to the little sister I haven’t seen in four years.”
“I don’t want any,” Miriam snapped. I looked at her curiously, but she just glared at me. Ben stopped and looked at us.
“It’s all right Ben,” I said. “Miriam’s cool with it, and I could really use some right now.”
“Are you sure?” Ben asked.
“Please,” I said.
As Neil Young’s fragile voice filled the room, Ben sealed the seam on the joint. Miriam suddenly decided that she didn’t want to be there and for the first time took notice of Chelsea, who was fidgeting in her mother’s lap. She leaned toward the child and asked, “What do you like to play?” She smiled that smile that I knew meant “Lookout!”
“Thwing?” Miriam asked. “Oh, you said swing! I like swings too. Where do you swing?”
“There’s a small playground up the street,” Miranda answered. We usually go there this time of day. Chelsea gets bratty right about now, and it helps wear her out.”
“Could we go now?” Miriam asked.
Miranda looked over at Ben, who was lighting the joint, and then said, “Sure, I guess it would be a good idea. Otherwise, she’ll be keeping us up all night. I need to get some cigarettes anyway.”
“Let’s go,” Miriam said eagerly.
“Let me put some shoes on.” Miranda lifted Chelsea off her lap and held her out to Miriam. Miriam looked a little frightened at the child being held out to her. Like me, Miriam was the youngest in her family and, with no little sisters or brothers, hadn’t had much experience with children. She awkwardly took the child and set her on her knee. Miranda got up and walked into the bedroom.
Miriam struggled with Chelsea, trying to find the right way to hold her. The little girl wouldn’t sit still, squirming while Miriam was trying to hold her away from her.
“You’re a natural,” I said.
“Didn’t you practice with dolls when you were little?” I asked.
“Again, not funny. Somebody’s going to be sleeping in his car tonight.”
Chelsea finally twisted herself free from Miriam’s grip, wiggled up her thigh, and wrapped her arms around Miriam’s waist. Miriam tensed up and then relaxed after seeing that Chelsea had settled down with her head nestled in Miriam’s arm.
Ben crossed the room and settled into the easy chair with his joint. He reached out, offering it to me. Miriam leaned back on the sofa and wrapped her arms around Chelsea as if to hide the child from the reality of her everyday life.
As I took a hit off the joint and held the smoke in, I wondered if I could have ever imagined when we were growing up smoking a joint with Ben.
Miranda returned and said to Ben, “Are you coming with us?”
Ben shook his head.
“I’ll stay here with Ben,” I said.
“Okay, it’s just us girls.”
Miranda leaned over and reached for Chelsea. Miriam sat there with Chelsea still holding on to her, not knowing what to do.
“All you have to do is pick her up,” Miranda said. “You’re bigger than she is.”
Miriam gingerly tried to put her hands around Chelsea’s waist.
“Oh, for Christ’s sake,” Miranda said, and she reached down and scooped the child up.
“Let’s go while there’s still some daylight.”
Chelsea let out a scream and started crying. I took another long hit off the joint. “We’ll be back in a while,” Miranda said. “Think about what we’re going to eat tonight.” I tried to pass the joint back to Ben, but Miranda reached out with her free arm and intercepted it. She took a hit and held it out to Ben saying, “And save some of this for me.”
As Chelsea’s shrieking receded down the hallway, Ben and I settled down and smoked quietly while we listened to the music. “Are you thirsty?” he asked.
“I could use something to drink, yeah,” I said. My mouth was dry, and my throat was burning.
“I think we have a couple of beers. I’ll check.” He rose from the chair and shuffled into the kitchen and opened the refrigerator. “What do you know, we have exactly two, unmatched. We’ve got a Molson and a Bud. Which one you want?”
“I’ll have the imported one.”
Ben laughed that laugh I remembered from years ago, an easy middle-class laugh of a young man looking forward to an assured future. It was the first glimpse of the Ben that I had grown up with since we had arrived.
“I guess that means Bud,” he said. “Tell me, how’s life back on Long Guyland?” he asked, as he rummaged through some drawers looking for a bottle opener.
“Calming down, now that the draft is over,” I said.
He returned with the beers, handed me the Bud, and settled down again in the easy chair. The joint had burned down and was beginning to burn my fingertips. “Let me fix that,” he said reaching into his pocket, producing a roach clip. I passed the burning ember to him and took a sip of my beer. It wasn’t very cold; the old refrigerator wasn’t working very well. I made a note not to eat or drink anything else that came out of it.
“How’s your father doing?” Ben asked.
“He’s doing okay,” I said. “He’s looking forward to retirement.”
“I’m sorry about your mom, John. I was so sad when I heard what happened. It was pretty sudden, wasn’t it?”
“She was diagnosed in October and died the following April. That was four years ago this past April.”
“I’m sorry, John.”
He raised the roach clip and took the last hit before he set it down in the ashtray on the coffee table between us. Then he took a long drink from the green-bottled Molson. He looked up at the ceiling and said, “I miss her. I miss both your parents. They were my favorite people in the neighborhood. They seemed like a perfect couple. How’s your father dealing with it?”
“He’s coping,” I answered. “He has Tommy to keep him going.”
“How is Tommy?”
“He’s at Columbia, pre-law.”
“That sounds about right,” Ben said.
“Miriam calls him Golden Boy.”
Ben laughed. “That’s right! He was always such a perfect son! I remember my father telling me that I should be more like him. All I could do was think that my father should be more like your old man.”
The record had played to the end, and the room went silent except for the rhythmic clicks and pops of the needle in the lead-out groove. Ben crossed the room to turn the record over.
“Ben,” I said cautiously, “I’m curious about Chelsea.”
He laughed again. “I guess you are. She’s mine. This is my choice.”
“Ben, why didn’t you tell Miriam?”
He returned to his chair and started rolling another joint. “That’s hard to say. You know she’s the baby in our family. We all sheltered her a lot.”
“She adored you, and you left. We all know why you left, and we don’t blame you, but you left. Her father left. My mom died. She’s been through a lot, Ben.”
“Haven’t we all?”
After I found out that I had been accepted to New Paltz, I had to work six days a week to save up the money to pay for it. In the spring, I found the old Skylark on one of the used car lots on Jericho Turnpike near Smithtown. The cloth roof had been replaced, and it had new tires, but the quarter panels were rusting, and the heater didn’t work.
Convertibles had gone out of style in those years, and Detroit wasn’t making very many of them. As a result, the dealer was having difficult time getting rid of this one, not to mention the fact that it had eleven years and eighty-thousand miles on it. For four-hundred dollars he threw in an eight-track to sweeten the deal.
Miriam fell in love with it the first time she saw it. On the way home from the dealer I stopped by her house. It was the first warm Saturday in May, and I pulled it into her driveway with the roof down. Her mother was in the front of the house on her knees in the flowerbed, surrounded by trays of pansies and impatiens.
“Hi, Mom,” I shouted, as I jumped out of the car and bounded across the lawn. “How do you like it? Wanna go for a ride?”
She looked up at me and rubbed the sweat off her forehead with her sleeve. She smiled at me and said, “Johnny, congratulations! I think I’d better wait until after the princess gets her turn.”
“Is she home?”
“She’s been waiting all day.”
We drove into town and down Main Street toward the harbor. The town was busy that afternoon with city people taking their first day trips of the season. The craft stores and the snack shops were open, and the sidewalks were crowded. At the bottom of the hill near the ferry terminal, I turned on to 25A and headed toward Stony Brook. As we left Port Jefferson behind, the traffic thinned out, and we were alone on the winding road. The trees weren’t completely leafed out yet, but there was shade, and it felt cool. The wild irises lining the road were beginning to bud, and the houses we passed seemed to be trimmed with pink azaleas and yellow forsythia blossoms. Miriam’s face was lit up, and her long black hair was fluttering in the wind and glistening in the patches of sunlight that filtered through the trees.
I was glad to see her smiling. She had been moping since I had told her that I was going to go to school upstate rather than to Stony Brook.
I drove toward West Meadow, the county beach located on a strip of sand in the Sound about half way between Stony Brook and Port Jefferson. The road along the beach was dotted with small summerhouses, shacks really, owned by city people who paid far too much for property that had officially been condemned. The land was under environmental protection, so tearing anything down or building anything new was illegal, but that didn’t stop the owners from taking extreme measures to repair them after winter storms. The houses had been bought and sold for years.
When we emerged from the woods into the bright afternoon sun and down the hill onto the sandy cracked asphalt of Shore Road, I hit the gas. Miriam alternated between screaming and laughing as we hit ninety. The road was narrow but straight, and at that time of year, there was nobody around.
As the end of the road approached, I took my foot off the gas, and we coasted toward the little green boathouse that stood at the end of the road, surrounded on three sides by water. I turned off the road by the boathouse and pulled on to the beach, facing the narrow channel that led from Stony Brook Harbor into the Sound. There was a strong current here that made it too dangerous for swimming, but there was a rock jetty that attracted fisherman. There was only one there that day, an old man with a black watch cap and baggy pants perched high on a rock casting into the swirling water.
I switched the engine off and said, “Let me get something out of the trunk.”
“Just a minute, asshole.”
She’d taken to calling me “asshole” since I had told her that I was going to school upstate.
She grabbed my arm and pulled me toward her, rising in her seat. “This,” she said, and she kissed me.
I went to the trunk and pulled out the six-pack I had picked up on the way home from the car dealer. When I got back in the car, Miriam said, “Somebody came prepared. What else you got with you?”
“Wouldn’t you like to know,” I said, handing her a beer. “When I saw what kind of day it was going to be, I planned on coming out here with you.”
I reached into my shirt pocket and pulled out the joint I had rolled in my bedroom before leaving my house. Miriam looked at the old fisherman and said, “You sure Captain Courageous over there doesn’t mind?”
“He can’t see us from there.”
“I hope not. I was planning on doing something else to you.”
I was lighting up the joint, and I started coughing. “I think we should wait and see if he leaves first.”
We shared the joint and drank our beers. “Did your father help you with the dealer?” she asked.
“A little,” I said. “First he tried to convince me not to buy a convertible. He said, ‘It’s gonna leak, and you’re going to freeze in the winter.’” I left out the fact that he had said, “You’re going to freeze in the winter upstate.”
“That’s your father being practical.”
“Then he finally said, ‘Oh all right, get it out of your system.’”
“What’s all this stuff we keep having to ‘get out of our system?’”
“I don’t know,” I said, “But there sure seems to be an awful lot of it.”
“Your father loves you, you know? Someday maybe the two of you will finally realize that.”
“I’m not Tommy.”
“You’re certainly not.”
“Gee, thanks,” I said. I opened another beer.
“I meant that in a good way. Hey, he’s helping you go back to school after he told you he wouldn’t. That’s a good thing.”
“Yeah, it is,” I agreed. “Tell me, has your father spoken to Ben on the phone since he left? Do they write?”
“No, not that I know of,” she answered. “I think that’s why your father has decided to help you.”
“Well, I don’t think I’m in danger of being drafted anymore.”
“That’s not what I meant,” she said. “I think he saw what happened between my father and Ben, and he doesn’t want that to happen to the two of you. Sometimes when I see my father, he asks if I’ve heard from Ben and wants to know how he’s doing. Speaking of which, I want you to drive me up to Canada to see him. Before you leave.”
“I don’t know if this thing can make a trip like that,” I said. “Besides, I don’t know if I’m going to be able to take any time off between now and when I leave for school. I need every paycheck I can get.”
She frowned at me. “Come on, John. I haven’t seen him in over four years. It’s the least you can do before you abandon me.”
“All right, I’ll think about it. I promise.”
“You do that,” she said. “And I’ll think about what may or may not happen when Captain Courageous up there decides to leave us alone.”
She hounded me throughout the summer, and I felt guilty about leaving her, so by the end of July, I’d relented. I was able to get a week off work for the trip. It would take two days to travel each way, and we didn’t have much money between the two of us, so we took our sleeping bags and planned on sleeping in the car or camping somewhere along the way. Miriam’s mother tried to talk Miriam out of taking the trip, but finally gave in. On the morning of our trip, she presented me with a cooler full of sandwiches and fruit for the long trip up to Nova Scotia.
On the way up, we stopped the first night in Maine near Arcadia National Park. It was dusk when we reached there, and although camping was only allowed in designated areas and you needed reservations, we carried our sleeping bags into the woods and spent the night near a secluded beach. It was cool under the trees and the salt air from the ocean mingled with scent of the evergreens. The crickets were starting up, and through a break in the trees we could hear the waves breaking. I gathered up some pieces of driftwood on the beach and brought them back to build a fire. Miriam decided to go for a swim after spending eight hours in the car.
“Oh my God, that water is cold,” she screamed as she returned to the fire. “How can anybody go swimming here?”
“It must be the Gulf Stream or something,” I said. “I think it bounces off Cape Cod and misses Maine.”
“Whatever,” she said, shivering. “It may be pretty here, but I’ll take the beaches back home any day. This is for polar bears.”
I heated up some cans of beef stew on the fire, and we drank some red wine.
Later that night, when Miriam was falling asleep, and I was feeling restless, I got up and start looking for some more wood to keep the fire going. We had neglected to bring a flashlight, so I couldn’t wander too far away from the fading light of our campfire. There were plenty of dead branches near the bottoms of the tall pines that were around us, and I started snapping them off and throwing them into a small pile. In the silence of the night, the snapping of the dried branches sounded like gunshots. When I returned with my arms full, Miriam was sitting up in the firelight. I dropped the wood into a pile near the fire.
“What happened to you?” she asked.
“I couldn’t sleep, and I wanted to get some more wood for the fire.”
“You scared the shit out of me.”
“I’m sorry. I wasn’t more than twenty yards away.”
“Oh, that’s all right. I figured out what you were doing when I heard you crashing around in the dark. I’m sure bears don’t make that much noise.”
“It might have been a good idea to bring a flashlight with us,” I said. “Next time.”
“Yeah, next time,” she said. “Just come back to bed, I’m lonely.”
I knelt and started feeding the fading fire from the stack of wood I had collected. The fading fire slowly came back to life, and the flames grew taller as the dry wood crackled and popped.
We’d used our sleeping bags to form a double bed. Mine was unzipped all the way around and opened on the ground, Miriam’s was unzipped and laid on top. I undressed and slid in between them next to Miriam. She turned on her side to face me.
“Thank you for bringing me,” she said quietly.
“It’s my pleasure.”
“No, it’s not.”
I could see her smiling at me in the firelight. “It is,” I said, “yes, it is.” I kissed her forehead and then her lips. I felt her hand on my chest, and she leaned in and kissed me.
By the time Miranda, Chelsea, and Miriam returned from the playground, Ben and I had finished our beers and smoked three joints. I was buzzed, and I was starving. I still had enough of my wits about me to remember the old refrigerator, so I asked if there was a place nearby for us to have dinner.
“There is a pizza and sub shop a few blocks away,” Ben answered. “It’s about what you’d expect pizza to be in Nova Scotia, but it’s not bad.”
“That’s great,” I said. “My treat. Do we eat there or is it a takeout place?”
“You can eat there,” Miranda said, “but Chelsea’s about had it.” She looked at Ben, “We did our part, so now you do yours. You two go get the pizza. I’ll make some noodles and butter for Chelsea.”
“I’ll come with you,” Miriam said.
“You sure?” I asked. “You told me you were dying for a shower this afternoon. Why don’t you do that and relax while Ben and I get dinner?”
“I said, I’ll go with you,” she said through clenched teeth. I was wondering what had gotten into her, but I knew enough to drop it.
We followed Ben down the stairs and out onto the street. “It’s just a block past the playground you were at,” Ben said.
The neighborhood hadn’t seemed too bad in the daylight, but in the twilight, its seediness came to the fore. All the houses were narrow and attached, and most of them were poorly maintained. My old rusting Skylark fits right in with all the other cars lining the street. The sweltering summer air was tinged with the smell of garbage, and I could see into the wide-open windows of the houses as we walked up the street. None of the windows had curtains or shades. Ben was a long way from Port Jefferson.
“Tell me, Ben, do you think you’ll ever come home?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” Ben said. “I have a minor problem with the law.”
“That’s eventually going to get worked out, I’m sure.”
“Maybe,” he said. “What do you think of your new president? The first one in history not to be elected.”
“Oh God,” Miriam said. “What a dipshit.”
“Hey, it could be worse,” Ben said.
“How?” Miriam asked.
Ben laughed, “I don’t know. It just could be. Hey, at least Nixon’s gone. That alone makes me consider moving back someday.”
“Would you bring her with you?” Miriam asked. She stopped walking.
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Ben asked. He stopped and turned to face Miriam. “Of course, I’d bring Miranda with me. And my daughter, too.”
They stared at each other, and then Ben shook his head. “Let’s not do this,” he said. He turned and started walking.
I put my arm around Miriam and gently nudged her. As we walked past the playground, Miriam leaned over and whispered to me, “Go ahead, take a good look.”
The playground looked like a large vacant lot between two buildings. There was a set of monkey bars built right on the asphalt, a set of swings, and three see-saws, two of which looked to be broken. I could see shards of glass scattered about on the pavement, glistening in the pale streetlights.
When we got to the pizza shop, we ordered and sat down in a booth to wait. The place was empty except for a family seated at another booth. There was a radio on, and again, it was replaying Ford’s speech. “May God bless this,” and “May God bless that.”
“Jesus, we can’t get away from it,” Miriam said.
“Even here,” I added. “I’m surprised Canadians even give a shit.”
“Tell you what,” Ben said. “There’s a liquor store across the street. You guys wait here, and I’ll go get some beer and some wine.”
After he left, I moved to the other side of the booth and faced Miriam. I reached across the table and took both her hands. “Talk to me.”
“I don’t even know where to start,” she said.
“I know every mood you have, and I can tell when you’re hurt and when you’re pissed off. Talk to me.”
“This was a mistake,” she said. “Coming here. My mother was right; we shouldn’t have come.”
“What do you mean? All right, it looks like he’s having a rough time of it, and she’s probably not the sister-in-law you dreamed of having, but he’s still your brother.”
“He’s a fucking junky. She’s a fucking junky.”
“What do you mean?”
“When we were at that playground. Some sleazy guy came up to her. She knew him. She left me with Chelsea and went off with him for about twenty minutes. Chelsea knew this guy, too. She said mommy calls him ‘Uncle Bob.’ They see him at the park every day. You should have seen this guy. He looked like Dustin Hoffman in Midnight Cowboy.”
“Ben’s using too, I know it,” Miriam said.
“You can’t be sure of that.”
“Yes, I can,” she insisted. “He’s my brother.”
She looked at me, and her eyes were glassy. Tears were beginning to form. “Take me home. Tomorrow.”
“Miriam, we were supposed to go home the day after tomorrow.”
“I know, but I want to go home. I can’t deal with this.”
“All right,” I said. I raised her hand, pressed it to my cheek and then I kissed it. “If that’s what you want. We’ll go home tomorrow.”
Gerald Ford’s pleas for a nation’s prayers faded out, and the radio station faded in, with appropriate irony, to Carole King singing, “It’s Too Late.”
By the time Ben returned Miriam had composed herself. It might have been that she was relieved by the fact that we were leaving in the morning. Or, that I hadn’t tried to talk her out of it. Or, given her a hard time about trying to get along with siblings. I knew from my own experience that sanctimonious lectures about family don’t help very much. For whatever reason, she seemed more relaxed. I, on the other hand, was suddenly wound up. I had begun our walk to the pizza shop feeling mellow and peaceful, quite possibly due to the better part of the three joints I had smoked. Now I was suddenly stone cold sober. I kept trying to get surreptitious looks at Ben’s arms. I couldn’t see any marks, but I never got a good look, and I also knew there were other ways to do smack beside shooting it in your arm.
When we arrived back at the apartment, Miranda had just finished feeding Chelsea. “You go ahead and eat,” she said. “I need to put her to bed.” Miranda’s voice had changed. Where it had been sharp and cutting earlier in the day, it was now soft, like a whisper. Her words came out slowly and precisely, as though she were trying to solve a puzzle. Ben looked at her, and I saw a sadness crawl over his face. He shook it off and said, “What would you like, Canadian beer or California wine?”
“Pour me some wine,” Miranda said, as she shuffled toward the bedroom with Chelsea cradled in her arms. “I’m not that hungry, but I’ll drink it later. I think I need to lie down for a little while.”
Again, I saw a look of hurt mixed with embarrassment on Ben’s face. This time Miriam noticed it. “I’ll have wine too,” she said. She walked over to Ben and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks for buying it.”
We didn’t see Miranda for the rest of the night. After dinner, the three of us drank the rest of the wine, followed by the beer.
“When do you start school?” Ben asked.
“Right after Labor Day.”
“Asshole,” Miriam blurted.
“Miriam, stop it,” Ben said. “It’s not like you’ll never see him again. Take the train into the city, then a bus ride and you’re there.”
“Just like that,” she said.
“Just like that.”
Miriam got up from the sofa. “Guys, I don’t know about you, but it’s ten o’clock, I’m exhausted, I haven’t had a shower in two days, and I’m disgusting – and so are you, John.”
“Okay, I guess you’re telling me to leave the two of you alone,” Ben said. “Are you still leaving in the morning?”
“Yes, John has to be back at work on Monday,” she lied.
“All right, let me find you some clean towels. I think this sofa opens up. You two are the first guests we’ve had so I don’t know.”
“We’ll figure it out.”
Ben disappeared into the bedroom while Miriam and I removed the cushions from the sofa and pushed the coffee table out of the way. We found a stash of pot, some loose change, assorted bits of unidentifiable crud, and the headless torso of a Barbie Doll under the cushions. I pulled up on the metal bed frame, but it wouldn’t budge. “Give me a hand with this.” Miriam stood beside me, and we both started yanking the frame, but all we managed to do was lift the entire sofa off the floor.
Ben returned with some towels. “Oh God,” he said, “Let me help you with that.” The three of us grabbed hold of the frame and started jerking it up and down, trying to shake it loose. I could feel the floor shaking beneath my feet. “That’s not working,” Ben said, “Let’s try this. I’ll hold the sofa down, and the two of you try pulling the bed frame up.” He put his knees up on one arm of the sofa and leaned forward with one hand holding on to the back of the sofa and the other holding on to the front edge. “Try it now.” Miriam and I grabbed the metal frame and pulled. It still wouldn’t budge, and, again, all we managed to do was to lift the front of the sofa off the floor, this time with Ben’s full weight added to the load. We rocked the sofa up and down and, finally, with the shriek of some metal part giving way, the bedframe came loose. With some high-pitched squeaks and the sound of springs reluctantly stretching, the bed opened. The mattress was lumpy and covered with stains.
Miriam stared down the bed before her and said, “John, I think you should get the sleeping bags out of the car,” Miriam said, staring down at the wrinkled, stained, and lumpy bed before her.
“Sorry,” Ben said. “That’s the best we can do.”
We said goodnight, and Ben gave Miriam a kiss and a hug, but she paid him hardly any notice as she looked fearfully down at the bed.
I went down to the car and got the sleeping bags. When I returned to the apartment, the living room was empty, and I heard the shower running in the bathroom. I unrolled my sleeping bag, unzipped it all the way around, and laid it out on the bed. It just about covered it and almost managed to smooth out the lumps. I unrolled Miriam’s and unzipped it and laid it out on top of mine.
While I was doing this, I thought I heard Miriam whimpering a few times through the bathroom door. I went into the kitchen to get something to drink. I was afraid to open the refrigerator, so I decided to just get some water. There were no clean glasses in the cupboard, so I leaned over the dish-filled sink and drank from the tap.
I heard the shower in the bathroom stop. I picked up some cold pizza from the kitchen table, took a few bites and then stuck my head in the sink again and drank some more water from the tap.
When I returned to the living room, Miriam was there in a pair of light blue panties and a fresh white t-shirt. Her hair was wrapped in a towel. She was sitting on the bed, leaning against the back of the sofa as she pulled her open sleeping bag over her legs.
I sat down on the bed next to her and heard springs popping and grinding. “You look refreshed,” I said. I kissed her lips. She tasted like Crest, and I could smell the apple scent from her shampoo.
She smiled at me and said, “You look like shit, and you smell worse.”
“Okay, Okay,” I said as I got up.
As I headed for the bathroom, she said, “Oh, by the way, I think I used all the hot water.”
When I returned to the living room, she was laying down in the bed. She had stuffed some clothes into the Monet printed pillowcases, and we had some lumpy pillows to go with our lumpy bed. I slipped out of my towel and into the bed next to her. I kissed her on the cheek, and we lay there in silence for a few minutes.
“So,” I finally said, “I guess sex tonight is out of the question.”
Miriam burst out laughing. “You’ve got to be kidding,” she said. “After the day we’ve had? Besides, with the noise this bed makes, we’ll probably wake up the goddamn state. Or province. Or whatever the hell they call it up here. Honestly, you men are unbelievable.”
“Yeah, I’m kidding,” I said. “I feel like I’m eighty years old, and I’m getting my hangover.”
“Good,” she said. “I promise you’ll get some when we get back to Long Island. Shit, we can even stop at a gas station on the way home and do it in the bathroom. Anywhere but here.”
When I woke up in the morning, I smelled coffee in the kitchen. Miriam was still sleeping so I slipped out of bed as carefully as I could, trying to keep the bedsprings from screeching too loudly. I put on my pants and wandered into the kitchen to find Ben feeding Chelsea in her highchair. It looked like cream of wheat, and she seemed to be wearing more of it than she was eating.
“Good morning,” Ben said. I made some coffee, and there are two clean mugs for you on the counter.”
“Where’s Miranda?” I asked.
“Sleeping in today,” Ben said sharply.
The coffee was in a steel electric percolator on the counter. I poured some into a mug. There was a milk container sitting on the counter. I picked it up and carefully sniffed it before pouring it into my coffee. Better black than sour, I thought.
“I’m clean, you know,” Ben said. “I wasn’t before, but I am now.”
I was a little startled and didn’t know what to say.
“Ben, you don’t have to—”
“I want you to know that,” he said, cutting me off. “I want Miriam to know that, too. We’re both trying. We can’t do it at the same time because someone has to be able to take care of Chelsea.”
“Ben, it’s all right,” I said.
“No, it’s not,” he said. “Jesus Christ, why did you have to come now? A few months from now, maybe a year from now, it would have been better.”
“Ben, we didn’t know.”
Chelsea pushed her bowl off the tray of her highchair onto the floor.
“Damn it, Chelsea!” Ben yelled, “Goddamnit!”
“Easy Ben,” I said. “Don’t worry about Miriam, or us. We’ll be okay. Take care of Chelsea. And yourself.”
I brought some coffee into Miriam who was just waking up. “What was that racket in the kitchen?” she asked.
“It was nothing,” I said. “Just the normal noise of a two-year-old eating breakfast.”
Later when we were ready to leave, Miranda was up and moving around the apartment slowly. She was in a bitchy mood and started complaining about the mess all over the floor in the kitchen. Ben had to coax her down the stairs to see us off.
While I loaded the car, Ben and Miriam walked up the street alone. I couldn’t hear them, but I could see that he was doing most of the talking. She just looked down and nodded a few times in agreement with whatever he was saying. When he was done, he wiped some tears from her cheeks, and they embraced. Then I saw him press something into her hand and she hugged him again. They walked back toward us with Ben’s arm around Miriam’s shoulder and her arm around his waist. I shook his hand, and then we hugged.
“If you see that brother of yours, “Ben said, “tell him… tell him—"
I laughed and said, “Don’t worry. I’ll think of something.”
Ben took my hand again and held it firmly. “Thanks, Johnny. Thanks for being there for my little sister.”
“Take care of yourself.”
That afternoon, after we left Frank and Lucinda behind and were driving south toward home, Miriam’s hair was again blowing back in the wind. She slid down in the seat, stretched her legs out, and put her bare feet up on the dashboard. She rested her head between the corner of the seat and the edge of the door and closed her eyes and turned her face up into the sun. On the radio, Gerald Ford was talking about binding up the nation’s wounds and beseeching us to confirm him with our prayers.
I rested my hand on her bare thigh. Her hand was on top of mine. I turned my palm up to meet hers and our fingers entwined.
Fred Bubbers lives in western Maryland with his wife, Susan, where he teaches school and writes short stories, essays, and poems. A native of New York City, Fred received his Bachelor of Arts in English from the State University of New York at Albany in 1982 and his MFA in Writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in 2019.