Featured in Colorado Review
Rock Salt and RabbitFeatured, Fiction
Published Fall 2016
There it is again. The sound of the mortars, fired overhead, hitting the target, this time a nearby village, sending red earth, fire, and smoke into the air. We are too far away to hear the cries. vc meet there at night, though intel is not always exact on these things. Especially when most of our information comes from the children—surveillance in return for sweets. I wake to the sounds, small-weapons fire marking the silence between blasts. A tracer sighs and I breathe in red dust and I’m up and out of my bunk and through the door, and only then do I realize where I am. In the backyard of the Florida lake house that once belonged to my grandfather, and now to me.
The air is not as heavy here. The scent is not thick with the nascent trace of powder that lies everywhere in Nam. And there are no cries, except my own. I wake myself now. There’s no one else to wake me.
I stand in the dark and the lake water shines like black oil. There is reflection and no reflection. The moon is out, but its light is dull, meaningless. August has become a month lidded with clouds, as if the world were canopied by MEDCAP gauze, gray white and used up.
Over at the edge of the yard, the rabbits scuff about inside their hutches, the ones my daughter LuLu helped build. There are three hutches and three kinds of rabbits. I watch them from a distance. The brown lop ears lie like lumps, sleeping, while the dwarf rabbits are hunched together at a corner of their cage. The male rex is mottled with dark spots, but mostly white; his eyes burn an empty space into the darkness.
The rising moon seems to warm the still air. I take up a canoe paddle that rests against the corner of the screened porch. Between the paddle’s handle and a length of support beam, a spider has sewn a long web, which falls like sticky thread to the ground. Beyond the porch, flat green grass leads out to the lake. The rabbits clatter about, their white-gray-brown movements doing nothing to disturb the night—at that moment, there is only the lake, like glass. I anticipate setting the aluminum canoe onto its surface and breaking its quiet.
Across the water, a figure stands under a bright dock light. Lillian Walbright. She wears her white bathing suit and swims nearly every night. I will pass her in the canoe, and she will ignore me, the one-armed man who marks his passage with wide, one-armed strokes.
The canoe is facedown on the sand beach; nearby, a rock for ballast. I lift the canoe by the center yoke. Its sandy keel line meets the water, and I set the wooden paddle next to the bow seat and the rock in the forward-facing stern, step in with one foot, and push away from the shallows. I sit backward in the bow seat so that the boat works with me, not against me. There is a new definition of balance in paddling solo, left-armed, sweep stroke, J stroke. I appreciate the lack of wind and spare black skies and pass the cypresses that edge the shore.
At the center of the lake, Lillian is swimming. Breaststroke. Her white bathing cap shines, and she creates a line through the water. I lean into the paddle, concentrate on moving forward, and Lillian disappears, first her shoulders and then her head. Closer to me, she surfaces. The lake is wide, but she is a strong swimmer and I am making good progress.
“Royal,” she says, not out of breath, not ignoring me.
“Lil,” I say, holding up my paddle, letting the canoe glide and slow, while the druggist’s wife reaches up and touches the gunwale.
Her fingernails are dark with polish, and her fingers are long, her hands large.
“It’s late,” she says, then lets go of the canoe and treads water.
“Yes, it is.”
Lillian looks past the floating dock, where daytime swimmers rest and sun themselves, in the direction of my house, one of the only ones on that side of the lake. “Things we do in the dark.” She laughs a quick, breathless laugh and then sighs. “You are something, though. I have to say. Cutting straight across the lake on your own.”
“I could say the same about you.”
“Well, I guess we have something in common.” She leans onto her back and raises her arms, one after the other, in a beautiful backstroke.
I smile and remember what it felt like: the unparalleled backward sweep across the water while watching the sky. Another thing that the doctors and therapists say I’ll never do again. I hope to prove them wrong.
Over a year ago, I moved into the small, rough cabin my grandfather had once kept for fishing. A single large room with a view of Lake Sybelia and the modern homes on the opposite side. And up the road a ways from that shore, the house I built, the three-bedroom ranch where Minnie and our kids live.
Months after my last view of Vietnam, face up and staring past the tall, switching grass into the blank sky, from the string of hospitals—Da Nang, Asaka, San Francisco—I finally made it home. But within weeks Minnie started to wear down under my newness—my inefficient, inconvenient, indelible newness. And then she asked me to leave, to stay, to leave again. And now it’s one year out and that much closer to the divorce she’s asked for.
It’s not every day your husband returns home with one arm less than he once had. Or is it, these days? We’re all lacking something we once had. Arms, legs, egos, energy, will. Will. Sheer and impossible. Try to climb it. Like a plate glass window, straight up and slick. You can’t climb it, but you can see yourself in it. Whatever’s left. You can see that.
The month before I shipped out, September 1967, Minnie held me to a promise. We were alone, the kids spending the weekend with friends, and dusk hung on, the evening taking its time. From the stereo in the living room Percy Sledge belted, When a man loves a woman, and beyond the open sliding doors of our bedroom, the lemon and tangerine trees looked overly green. Minnie breathed against me. “You have to come back,” she kept saying. “You have to come back the same. Don’t let anything over there change you.” Her hair was in my eyes, and side one repeated.
Afterward, still naked, Minnie got out of bed and slipped through the open doors into the grove. She came back with an armful of tangerines and dropped them beside me. They fell into the folds of the sheets, between my legs, onto the floor. She sat, peeling one after another, eating sections, offering them, stems and skins falling on the floor. The bitter scent of citrus penetrated the air, and seeds littered the bed. And then Minnie leaned over me and made me promise again. I did, and down the hall the song ordered, Do her no wrong.
Minnie volunteered at the VA hospital and knew what might happen. Already boys were coming back, riddled with anxiety, misunderstood. Some without faces, some without family. She made me promise because that’s all she could do. She didn’t depend on hope; hope was something different. She knew better than that. She grabbed on to what she could hold, and at that moment, she held on to me. Clothes draped over chairs and across the floor, doors open throughout the house, and empty bottles on the bedside table—wine and then whisky. And so the evening went forward into the night, into the next day. The weekend ended and the kids returned, and the next month came and I took up my duffel to leave.
Her last kiss was fierce. “Don’t you forget,” she said. Her eyes narrowed into shards of blue and she tried not to cry.
In the yard I sit and smoke and watch the moon sink. The canoe leans on its side against a paper birch. I’m alone, but not left alone. Minnie comes around when I’m not home and leaves baskets of clean laundry, bottles of wine hidden in the bottom. She takes up my worn clothes and the cycle keeps on. The scent of soap powder and perfume, the bottle of Barolo. How a woman can be so damned domestic and sexy, all at the same time, is nearly beyond me. But that’s Minnie. Lingering in my world, while she’s asked me to exit hers.
In a few hours the sun will come up, marking the beginning of a Thursday morning, and I’ll finally sleep. The rabbits are still, until a sound by the house makes them jump. The screen door is opening. I can tell by the long sigh of the hinges, and over my shoulder I see someone go inside. I field-strip my cigarette and stand up slowly. Someone is on my porch and, none too shy, rattling something heavy onto the pine floor. I make my way from lawn chair to porch. A flashlight comes on and shines across me.
“Lord!” The light lowers, and I know my trespasser is a woman.
“Who’s there?” There’s a strange, wet smell to this stranger. Algae, lake water.
“Damn straight.” I push open the door and step onto the smooth floorboards.
“I’m bringing things over. Damn it, you scared me.”
I pull the cord that drops down from the ceiling, the porch light clicks on, and there she is. Lillian Walbright. Blue shorts, white blouse, loafers. Her hair is slicked back and at her feet is an ice cream bucket, the kind with a crank, the kind that asks for rock salt and physical labor.
“What the hell?”
“You’re still having that picnic, aren’t you?” Lillian’s eyes are wide, rimmed with red, and she’s taller than I remember.
“Not until the weekend.” The lightweight door bumps behind me, and there we are, boxed in. I let the silence snake around us until it gets too strange. “You know how to use that?” I say.
“Of course, I do. It could be fun. You’ll have your kids here, right?”
“Sure.” I think of LuLu and Saul and Rainey, all arms and legs and probably more in the mood for their own parties. Teenagers who moved on from ice cream and backyard picnics a long time ago.
“You like strawberry?” She nudges the bucket with the side of her shoe, not nearly the same woman who spoke to me earlier. Under the half-lit moon, out on the water, she seemed to belong to the night. Under the electric light, she disappears.
“LuLu’s favorite. I like it fine.”
“All right, then.” She moves to go, but I don’t make room. I’m in the doorway and she’s trying to leave.
“Breakfast?” I say. “May as well. You came all this way, lugging that thing.”
Lillian looks as though she doesn’t know which way is up or down. “I couldn’t.”
“Well, you could. I’ve got eggs, bacon. A new percolator.”
I move away from the door, and she raises her face, looks straight at me. Eyes the color of Coca-Cola bottles, a transparent, pale green. She brushes her damp hair back and finally says, “That sounds nice. Thanks, I’d like that.”
We move inside and, while rashers of bacon heat up in the skillet, don’t talk. I feel her eyes on me, taking in my work at the stove, one-sided, deliberate, less than new. In the corner behind a curtain is my unmade bed. In the center of the room are a sofa, stacks of books; on the only side table, a tall lamp and a level that shows the floor there is uneven. The room changes as the night becomes morning, crazy with birdcalls, and the coffee kicks up, bitter-smelling and brown. We eat our eggs and toast, and Lillian stares out the big windows that look over the lake, back to where her house and dock and long green lawn all lie. She stares and she breathes like she’s underwater.
June 1969. Quang Ngai Province. Vinh An, a village at the mouth of Song Tra Bong. The days were sweltering, leaning into each other like unbathed bodies. Sunk inside a bunker were sleeping pallets, men slung over them, those who had been on patrol during the night, and the heavy odors of breath and mildew. A radio droned. In July, astronauts would land on the moon. Every day men landed and walked the DMZ without the benefit of zero gravity.
USMC, Combined Action Patrol, I Corps, TAOR, Tango, Tiger Papa, one thousand klicks from home. Walt sat propped up and fingered his Guild, the wide strap across his right shoulder, the strings slightly rusted but still taut enough to play. His music, like Hank Williams’s your cheatin’ heart and I’m so lonesome I could cry, was lean and raw and stretched into the wide unending afternoon.
PFC Titus Shields leaned over and pulled a dented can of beer from below his bunk. The gold sheen glinted between his enormous brown hands. He pulled the tab off and pointed it at Walt. “You have to play like that?”
“You don’t like my playing, Tight-Ass?”
“Don’t mind the music.” Titus smiled and drank from the can. “Just mind the sound it makes.”
“Throw me one of them.” Walt nodded at the beer, and Titus threw the metal tab at him.
Maurice pulled his hands over his eyes and moaned. “Why don’t you farm boys shut up? Trying to sleep in this mess is hard enough without all that noise.”
Maurice was the only man in my squad from north of the Mason-Dixon. New York City. The rest of us came from small towns. Bogalusa, Eufala, Dawson.
“I believe we’ve been insulted.” Walt put the guitar down and threw his legs to one side of his cot. “Hand me one, Titus man.”
“This here’s the only one.” He stretched and handed it to Walt.
I watched the men, dozing, drinking, from over the notepad propped on my knees. A letter I’d begun again and again but hadn’t had a chance to end. Another letter to Minnie. I wrote about my squad, the hamlet children, the school we were building. I didn’t write about the patrols, the coconut mine that took down Jimmy, changing our number from seven to six.
“Where’d you get this shit, man?” Walt wiped his mouth with the back of his hand and tipped the beer to pour it out.
“You crazy?” Titus grabbed the can. “Same time, same place, same shit. From that little girl and her brother. Where you been?”
“Mm-hmm,” Maurice said. “You boys better watch out. The suds don’t kill you, that girl’s mother just might.”
“Girl’s okay,” I said.
She was thirteen, granddaughter of the district chief. A little twist of a girl. Small but long-limbed. Good at climbing trees. Not afraid of pushing her way into tunnels. She had short black hair, a pigeon-toed run, a laugh that rose in spirals.
“Her mother is the one sending the kids out with beer and cigarettes and anything else she can find. Your American dollars at work.” I pulled my last cigarette from a crumpled pack and waved it in the air. The last time I’d asked her mother to keep her home, she’d yelled. Something about peace and quiet. Later, I’d understood the girl’s name, An, meant peace.
“Maurice, you’re on surveillance tonight. With Pete and McPhee.”
Titus looked at me, his light brown eyes wide. “Then we’re gonna need more beer, Sergeant.”
A month later, once we’d landed on the moon, once Walt was gone, caught in a haze of cross fire under a tree covered in yellow flowers, Titus stopped drinking. Along with his M-16, he now carried a quiet kind of desperation. An’s younger brother, Walt’s go-to boy, now followed Titus, his hand held out, offering him tree frogs and crickets when cans of beer were turned down. “You take,” Huy said. Titus always refused, until the boy brought him a small rabbit from one of his grandfather’s hutches. Wide-eyed and dark brown, the rabbit disappeared inside Titus’s large hands.
Years later, when the man on point doesn’t go back to Dawson, Georgia, and ends up in the yard of my lake house, I hear him laughing. He stands before the open door of the rabbit hutch and takes out a dwarf rabbit the color of cocoa. He holds it high and then tips it into his top pocket.
LuLu questions me, like any teenage girl would. She sees past the old and the new—three years lost while I was in country and then in rehab—and then kicks her way through the rest of it. The garbage she’s read and heard about the war, the shift in her mother’s skirt length from high to higher, the shit her brother gives her, the fact that I came back and then left again. She kicks past it all like she used to in her swim class, way back when she was a minnow. Long since graduated from dolphin to flying fish, her suit with the YMCA swim patches outgrown, she busts through the water like she can’t go fast enough, and even then she hardly causes a wake. She glides through life the same way. My Lu-girl.
Arms folded across her chest, Lu didn’t want to come with me last April when I added the rex and several lop ears to the collection of dwarf rabbits.
“You still haven’t told me why you want to keep rabbits,” she’d said.
“To raise them,” I told her.
“I think that’s a dumb idea.”
“Well, you’re entitled to think what you want.”
“Which means you’re going to do it anyway. Build the stupid hutches and stuff them with cute little bunnies that will make more cute little bunnies. And then what?”
“I’ll sell them.”
“Well, it’s still a dumb idea.”
I haven’t told Lu about the villagers in Vinh An and their mangy hares, long, stringy animals with wild eyes. Not good eating, but we ate them out of courtesy, one less C ration, one more hot meal.
“Why on my birthday, then?”
“Something to do besides cake and candles. Your mama takes care of those things.”
Truth is, a hammer and a handful of nails, a cane pole, and a tin of minnows would teach her what she needed to know. Birthdays are just another day on the calendar. And I needed help then. She managed fine with the hutches, from holding boards while I tacked them together to angling their roofs at a pitch where the rabbits could stay dry even when the wind drives the rain broadside.
In late spring, after one of those rainstorms, Lance Corporal Titus Shields landed on my doorstep, Walt’s guitar hanging from a strap across his shoulder. For days he slept on my couch, that dwarf rabbit nestled inside his hands. Lu seemed to find his endless sleep a great puzzle, and she whispered things over him, touching his face and the guitar frets, and then said loudly to me that he should wake up. And finally he did.
And then, under a ceiling of blue skies and lengthening days, as if to make sure that days were for waking and nights for sleeping, Lu, lugging a tool belt like she knew how, announced the next project. Along with me and Titus, Saul, and one of the Callahan boys, she took on the porch, tearing down the old structure and then deciding on a red tin roof, the yellow pine flooring, the cypress beams for the new one. Titus stayed through the end of June and tried to teach her to play the Guild in the evenings, and she seemed to get the hang of it. “My dog has fleas,” she’d say out loud, trying out the strings. And then at me, “Your bunnies are gonna have fleas, for sure.”
And Titus, holding a sweating Coca-Cola, would say, “A lot of talk about nothing. Give me that guitar and y’all shut up and listen.” He played songs by some new band that played up in Jacksonville, by way of Georgia—“Where I’m from.” He’d smile and pull blues out of the box, the same ones he’d complained about when Walt had played those long afternoons, below the South China Sea and above the backyards of the Binhs.
“How come you know the Allman Brothers?”
“How come you ask so many questions, girl?” Titus was still as sore as he’d been in Vinh An, but now he had something to curl his hands around, something that would mostly keep folks quiet and listening to him.
“You know Duane and Gregg Allman are from Daytona Beach, don’t you?” Lu narrowed her eyes at Titus. “Not from Georgia.”
Titus smiled. “Darlin’, you know a lot more about those boys than you probably should. What’s important is they’re brothers, like I got brothers and you got one, too. Brothers staying together, keeping each other good. You know? Now settle down.”
Titus’s words were strung with something bitter, something steely. More than anger. Whatever ailed him was deep down, but pushing at the surface. He leaned into the guitar and struck blues chords, forcing the conversation to a close. Lu eyed him and hushed, a frown across her face. Still, she folded her arms around her legs, rested her chin on her bent knees, and listened, eventually falling asleep on the sofa. Not long after, I sent Titus to bunk in my bed. In the kitchen I sat and smoked with the lights off, letting the dark sift around me, thinking of where I’d been and where I’d come back to.
With Lillian, I feel like a coin found on the tracks, flattened, but still of some value. She stands next to me and touches my arm. Her fingers press through my shirt and there’s weight and warmth behind them. She slips out of her loafers, then moves across the room, pushes past the curtain, and lies down on my bed. Each loafer is lined up, the heels and toes a lighter color, worn from all the slipping on and off.
“You shouldn’t smoke in bed, you know,” she says. I hear her moving the glass ashtray, the sound of solid glass against the bedside table’s surface. And then the click of my lighter, the odor of butane. “You could burn the place down.” Her voice travels across the ceiling and back to me.
“I’ll try to remember that.”
I wonder what Titus would say to this woman in my bed. Titus, who comes and goes, who never stays around for too long. Then I know he wouldn’t say much of anything. He’d just climb in next to her.
I leave the breakfast dishes on the table and go outside on the porch. The bin of feed is there, and I take up a large scoop and head outside. The sky is threaded with thin lines of white, no chance of rain. The grain falls into each bowl, and the rabbits gather, bumping heads. With the hose I replenish their water.
I turn around and Lillian’s there.
“Sure,” I say. And then I see Saul sitting in a lawn chair, watching us.
“Morning,” he says. He’s wearing the cutoffs he always wears, and a T-shirt, faded brown, the words TUMBLEWEED CONNECTION across his chest.
“Hey there, Saul.” Lillian approaches him and he smiles.
“What are you doing over here?” he says to her.
“Awful early.” He glances at me.
Next to the chair are a small pail and a cane pole, one of mine.
“What’d you catch?” I motion to the pail.
“You coming to the picnic?” Lillian touches his arm, and I realize this is just something she does, nothing special in the way her hand grazes and rests, then finds another place to fall. She holds on to the back of Saul’s chair and leans down to examine the bluegill.
Saul stares at me like I am this morning’s biggest problem. His hair has gotten longer, nearly to his shoulders. Lillian’s question remains unanswered. Saul doesn’t acknowledge her and instead points to the scoop in my hand.
“What’s the point?” he says.
“All those rabbits. What’s the point?”
“Does there have to be one?”
He looks at me, his eyes lidded, that same blue as his mother’s. “Yeah,” he says. “There does.”
“There isn’t one. Just there to remind me.” I thought of An and Huy, their rabbits. Titus’s little brown one. “Here.” I pitch the feeding scoop at him. “You’re in charge now. Mornings, so I can sleep in.”
He catches the scoop.
“All right,” he says. He seems on the verge of telling me something else, something I have no idea about.
I know I won’t be sleeping in. It’s just a reason to keep an eye on him, and by the tone of his acceptance, I can tell he’ll be doing the same. Keeping an eye on me.
Saturday afternoon is blazing, the air motionless, the sky stippled with clouds. I lie on my back in the lake, floating, balancing, trying not to tip to one side. The right side. No one is around. No one would want to see the scars, the man who moves through the water and the world at an angle different from the way he once did. The sky flips yaw ways and I get a mouthful of water. The soft, green taste of algae brings me upright, treading water once again with my left arm, my legs. I breathe, lie back, straighten out. I frame the possibility of pulling backward, slowly, steadily, to the opposite shore, to Lillian, watching from her dock and waving me over. And then I raise my arm a few inches above the water, legs outstretched and ready, but I fall once more to the side.
“What the hell are you doing in there?” Titus stands on the narrow strip of sand that leads down to the lake. He shades his eyes but still squints. “Looks damn foolish.”
I pull myself to shore, kicking until I find the soft sand bottom where I can stand and walk. Titus is grinning, the sole of his square-toed boot against the upturned canoe. He throws the towel I left there, and I catch it.
“Thanks.” I run it over my hair and let it fall onto my right shoulder.
“Looking good for an old man.”
Titus isn’t looking too young himself, tired around the eyes, those eyes that drilled through black nights and heavy white days. On point, or bringing up the rear.
We walk up the sloping lawn, the grass going bald in places, Florida soil too thin to keep it tamped down. By the hutches, LuLu is leaning in to check the rex. His double coat, like velveteen, always tempts her.
“Rabbit girl!” Titus says. His call reaches up and over, the same way his singing does, teaching the day another tone.
LuLu bumps her head on the top of the little doorframe. “Titus—” She holds her head and looks annoyed. Then she smiles. “Hey, Daddy. Thought we’d surprise you.” She shuts and latches the hutch door and walks over to us. She’s seen me before without a shirt, but the marks are too definite for her not to stare.
“Well, I am surprised. Here to help?”
“Course we are. Brought things from the store like you asked. Coca-Colas and ice. All the things you wanted.” She points to the porch, where grocery sacks, buckets of ice and bottled drinks, and a bag of charcoal are lined up.
Saul stands inside the screen door, and I realize they’ve all come together. Titus’s truck is parked in the drive under the stand of pines. On the driver’s door are the words TROUBLE NO MORE, painted in slanting black capitals.
“When did you get here?” I ask Titus.
“Last night. I went for a swim, met up with Saul. Stayed over at your house on the other side.”
I think about the other side. How I want to swim halfway there, stand on the floating dock, and shout for another chance. Scream past the rooftops to the heavens for another chance.
I nod at Titus. “Minnie let them get in that truck with you?”
The screen door opens, and Saul stands on the threshold. “She doesn’t care where we go. And she thinks Titus is just fine. Likes talking to him, feeding him pie, hearing about his family back in Dawson. About his brothers signing up and about going back himself to hunt down more VC.”
“You are such a liar, Saul. Titus did not say that to Mama.” Lu tugs on Titus’s sleeve. “Did you?”
Saul stares at me, and I can tell he’s not lying. He’s pushing the truth as hard as he can. Only this truth belongs to Titus. Titus and Walt and Jimmy. Titus and his brothers. And Titus will spin the truth.
He puts his arm around Lu and shakes her a little. “Not going there. No, uh-unh.”
“Come on,” she says. “You promise?”
“Told you, girl.” Titus squeezes Lu and she leans into him. “Not going there.”
Titus is spending time with my family in my house on the other side of the lake. Saul recognizes this, too. I can’t, though. The words across the truck’s door would then be meaningless.
Soon Lillian will be here with strawberries and cream. The Callahans and Lingstrums will arrive with their large dishes of potato salad and their lawn chairs and wonder where the beer has been stowed. Vita Hull is certain to bring kielbasa and her small white poodle, red bows tied into his curls.
Inside I dress, and shirt buttons slip between my fingers. Every extra moment I take for the simplest tasks is set in a heap of all the extra moments. I remember Minnie, her fingers unbuttoning, buttoning, following the edges of a shirt until it was undone, done. I think of how she reels me in and then pushes me away, and I pray she doesn’t come.
Outside, I hear Titus pouring charcoal, Lu asking where the sparklers are. Titus tells her they are still in the truck and what’s the hurry anyway. “For later, when it gets dark,” she says. I hear a Frisbee hit the side of the house and Saul laughing.
The clock shows that it’s nearly four. I look around and empty ashtrays, clear books off the floor, slide the kitchen chairs under the table.
Lillian pushes through the doorway, a large basket in one hand. The promised berries, the cream, eggs, sugar. She piles them onto the kitchen counter and waves me away.
“No,” I say and touch her elbow. “Show me.”
“All right, then.” She smiles and pushes my hair away from my forehead. I imagine she’s done this with her son, not her husband. The gesture, and the recipe. “Watch first.”
There is the process of making the custard: a saucepan, a wooden spoon, the stirring. Lu bumps her way into the kitchen, and I quickly take my hand away from Lil’s back. But she’s seen. Her scrutiny is wide and her eyes won’t meet mine. She leans over to peer into the pan. Lillian hands her the spoon and Lu stirs, letting the custard burn just a little.
“I’m going back outside,” she says to me. “I know how to do this already,” she says to Lil.
“LuLu,” I call to her. I wonder when she started lying. Her mother knows how to get around in the kitchen, but Lu is never there, except to tear open a cereal box, spoon her way to the sugared milk in the bottom, and then leave her bowl in the sink.
From the porch comes the clatter of the rock salt and the ice. I step out and LuLu is telling the Callahan boy to get out of the way, she can do it herself. Salt and melting ice cover the floor, and Todd Callahan stands there, holding a watermelon against his chest.
“Nice, LuLu,” he says, sets the melon down, and backs out.
“That’s enough.” I try to take the bag of salt from Lu and she throws it down by my feet.
“That’s enough yourself.”
The screen door slams and she heads across the lawn.
Lillian takes a broom and I hold the dustpan, and together we clean up the mess, setting up the layers of ice and rock salt inside the ice cream bucket.
“She’ll be fine,” says Lillian. “We’ll all be fine.” Her gaze meets mine, and she shakes her head and smiles. “The custard needs to set a while. Go on and greet your guests.”
The Lingstrums all stand in a semicircle, and their youngest, a granddaughter, runs to LuLu. Lu scoops her up and shows her the rabbits. She unlatches a door and takes out the smallest dwarf, dark brown and all eyes. Its ears lie flat and it doesn’t move.
“What’s its name?” the little girl asks Lu.
“My father didn’t name them.”
And Titus is there, leaning over and stroking the rabbit’s head, its back. “This one’s Huy.” He winks at the little girl and Lu frowns.
“Since when?” Lu says.
The rabbit stretches, sniffs, and hops. The little girl squeals and laughs. The afternoon is a bright, uncertain thing filled with those arriving, waving and calling. The heavy smell of charcoal caught in flame, a plane overhead, the sound of a Volkswagen. Someone hands me a beer, and I turn to see Minnie climbing down from the VW bus.
She is always beautiful. Beauty crossed with anger. She wears polka dots and stripes, her hair around her shoulders. And like Lillian, she carries a basket, but hers is filled with wine and shortbread cookies and a carton of Lucky Strikes that she will leave on my kitchen table. She nods to me, mouths my name, and walks into the house.
I follow but stop shy of the doorway when I hear their first words—hey and what you making? I picture Lillian looking up from the colander of rinsed strawberries and Minnie standing still, trying to decide where to set her things. I should follow Minnie, but what would I say? That I’m trying to move on, that some days it’s easy and others impossible?
The Lingstrum child is crying now and LuLu is kissing her finger. Titus holds the rabbit and it burrows against his chest. Across the yard, Saul sets the kielbasa on the grill, and the picnic table is crowded with dishes, and Vita Hull and Esther Wild are mixing drinks. Mrs. Laurent, our elderly neighbor who rarely leaves her home, sits in an aluminum chair and closes her eyes, then leans her head back, her face to the sky. No birds, only bare cloud lines and a swatch of blue. The lawn lies green and sparse under sandals and sneakers and bare feet, the lake is level behind the standing and sitting and roving guests, and the screen door yawns and slams.
Minnie is beside me. Lillian is crossing the lawn to join the ladies with their tall drinks.
“Hey, baby,” I say.
“Hey, Royal.” She blinks and smiles.
Her perfume reminds me of our past, and I’m sad and filled with longing all at once.
“You invited everyone, didn’t you?”
“I did. Didn’t mean to, but it just happened. To be honest, the kids had more to do with it than me.”
“I know they did. They even found your Lance Corporal and brought him.” She points in Titus’s direction. “I think Lu’s kind of sweet on him. But she’s way too young, and he’s a good boy. Treats her like a little sister. Nothing going on, don’t worry.” Minnie reaches for the second button of my shirt, where I’d given up, and holds it between her fingers.
“No, you weren’t.” She lets go. Grins at me. “But you should. Especially if he keeps on hanging around.” She brushes her fingers against my sleeve and moves toward our friends, our neighbors, stopping at Lillian’s side to laugh and put her arm around her.
The evening closes in and the party’s laughter opens out. Fireflies dart and spin in the dimming light. Cream custard and berries are working their way around the cold interior of the basin, which rests in the bucket of rock salt and ice. There is uncertainty in your mind, about what you have chosen from this life, and you try to move forward, past all the thinking and back into this yard full of friends enjoying themselves. But the uncertainty persists. Uncertainty combined with the acrid scent of mosquito repellent, the ladies downing their fourth and fifth drinks, Lu watching Titus as he plays the guitar, Saul leaning in toward Minnie and Lil, the Lingstrum child running across the lawn to you and the ice cream bucket, begging for a chance to turn the crank.
Things you cannot do with one arm: hug your daughter, drive a car, carry a load of firewood, row across the lake, turn the crank on an ice cream bucket, build a porch, shoot a rifle, make love, make amends. This is what people think. This is what people will tell you. You never argue. You never disagree and muddy their misconceptions. You let them have them. With ice and rock salt at your side, you invite them over one day. It is summer, and they are neighbors and old friends, and they comment on the rabbit hutches, how your son must have helped construct them. You nod, knowing that he did, for a day or two, then disappeared long enough that you tried to finish them on your own. And then your daughter showed up because she knew her brother had abandoned you. Even with a tool belt at your waist, there was still the need for another pair of hands.
On your porch, the floor still smelling of new pine, the screen door sighing but not yet creaking, you carry out the bowl of chilled cream custard, the sugar and strawberries. The metal basin is waiting inside the bucket of rock salt and ice, its sides glistening with condensation. The little Lingstrum girl looks up in expectation and you say, “It’ll be a while yet.” Still, she stands by the bucket while you pour the bowl’s contents into the basin, add the dasher, and cover it tightly with the lid and hand crank. She reminds you of LuLu at age five, all wide eyes and curiosity. She touches your empty sleeve, and you smile. The crank goes around easily, your left hand on the handle, until you feel a little hand on top of yours. It is small and warm, with the barest weight, and you remember the weight of your rifle and the way there was never a breeze, the weight of your new wife in that first week after your wedding, the weight of your dreams that come every night.
You wish for better things. Friends who laugh without worrying how you will take their jokes. Lillian’s smile when she looks up from her dock to see you out on the water, your single oar angling alongside the canoe, sending you across to the other side, your direction straight and steady. The moon crossed by cirrus clouds, rabbits resting in their hutches, the breath of night deep in your lungs.
The small hand is still over yours, helping you turn the crank, not taking anything from you and giving you nothing you’ve asked for, but there, slight and new, returning again and again with each revolution, bringing you both closer to something sweet and unexpected on this still afternoon.
Karin Cecile Davidson's stories have appeared in Passages North, Post Road, StorySouth, and elsewhere. Among her awards are a 2015 Studios of Key West Artist Residency, a 2014 Ohio Arts Council Individual Excellence Award, and a 2012 Orlando Prize for Short Fiction. karinceciledavidson.com.