As Nora lay in bed, the scratching sound that had infiltrated her dream magnified and filled in. Scratch, scratch, scratch, like claws on newspaper. She lifted her head slightly to listen. The sun beamed through a crack in the chintz curtains, a hint of the warm California day taking shape outside. When she turned onto her side, this slice of sunshine stretched across her abdomen, cutting her body into two shadowed parts. She remembered: Their daughter, Erin, was arriving that day.
Another sound filtered in, the splatter and slap of water, momentarily interrupting the scratching. When Nora was young, her stepfather bought three chickens—a rooster and two hens—and tried to teach responsibility to her and her brothers by making them care for the birds. Nora was only ten and her brothers eleven and seven, and her stepfather, although well-meaning, gave instructions that were incomplete and inconsistent. Often, they’d forget about the chickens for days at a time. When something killed one of the hens, Nora was the one who found the bloody mess and ran inside to tell her mother. Another time, the rooster escaped and chased a neighbor’s cat; her older brother was spanked for leaving the gate open. Eventually, the birds were gone and Nora couldn’t think now what had happened, when they’d died or been removed from the yard.
She stood up, walked to the window, and peered out.
Alan was shirtless, bent over the concrete slab in their backyard, pushing sudsy water around with an old, wooden broom. The bristles scratched against the cement and his sweaty back gleamed in the morning sun.
“What in the—” Nora said to herself, pulling her robe on. She drew the colorful curtains all the way back, wondering as she always did about her younger self, the woman who had chosen the garish pattern of vines, fat leaves and bursting cabbage roses. The roses were coral pink and pale blue, and the vines and leaves were such a dark green they appeared almost black. All in all, colors quite unlike anything you’d find in actual nature. Nora made a mental note, as she always did, to replace the curtains.
She was no longer the twenty-six-year-old Nora who’d envisioned a Laura Ashley-themed life and yet, the buying of new curtains was something that never seemed to make headway on her many lists of things to do. Maybe she could ask Erin if she’d like to help redecorate during her visit. She was supposed to stay for several days, after finishing her radiology conference downtown and before heading back to Denver, where she lived. Nora and Alan hadn’t seen their daughter for close to a year, but it was a contented absence. Many times throughout her life, they’d wondered if Erin would ever survive on her own for more than a few weeks or a few months, before coming back for money, for reassurance, for recovery. Still, Nora felt nervous and knew her husband’s early morning activity was symptomatic of the same uncertainty.
In the kitchen, a small puddle of coffee shone next to the French press Alan used whenever he wanted his morning brew especially strong. Nora noted that the carafe was almost empty. She wondered what time he’d woken up, if he’d slept much at all.
She pulled her shoulders back and walked outside. The patio furniture was spread out on the lawn. He had turned everything upside-down to scrape out the spiders and their webs. On the grass, the cushions were scattered like swollen, orange stepping stones.
“Careful,” Alan called. “I've rinsed off the patio.”
“I see that,” she said.
He stood in belted khaki shorts and bare feet, the broom propped beside him.
“You look like that painting,” she told him. “You know, the farmer and his pitchfork.”
“American Gothic,” he said. His upper lip was gleaming with sweat.
“Have you eaten?”
“I had the rest of the pasta primavera,” he said.
“For breakfast?” She noted the pasty color of his face, his hunched shoulders.
“It was good,” he said.
They’d gone to Vincenzo’s the night before, a favorite restaurant nestled in a strip mall near their house. They’d shared a bottle of Chianti and Alan had ordered a glass of Moscato after that. Nora had watched him carefully as he drank. He’d talked about Erin and her husband, and about how they planned to move back to California after Justin’s hematology study was complete. Both he and Erin worked at the University of Colorado hospital. They’d been married for seven years but there’d been no talk of children.
Alan also told Nora the long story about the vendor who’d tried to get away with partial payment on a huge shipment of semiconductors. Alan claimed to have hounded the man across oceans, threatening to board a private jet he did not own with bodyguards he did not employ in tow. Nora had heard the story many times but last night Alan told the funny version, not the one where he ends up indignant and furious all over again. Nora had been quite fuzzy and comfortable from the Chianti and had enjoyed the telling, all the while thinking in spurts of Erin, important and controlled in her white coat, walking the halls at the hospital in Colorado.
“What time did she say?” Alan asked, wiping sweat from his brow.
“Maybe four o’clock.” Nora left off the fact that she had given him this information a dozen times already.
He brushed the last bit of soapy water onto the lawn. “I still need to buy the short ribs.”
“Is that alright for the grass?”
He looked up, one strand of wet, brown hair flipped onto his forehead. “What?”
“That soap,” she said. “Will it hurt the lawn?”
“Of course it won’t.” He walked over and let the broom handle fall against the house, where it clanged against the window shutters. “What do you take me for?” He held his hands out; they were smeared with dirt and water. “Have you noticed at any point during our thirty-three years together, I mean, have you looked out the window to see patches of dead grass? Really, Nora, you can take over the yard work any time you’d like, instead of questioning everything I do.” He leaned over and the flap of his belly covered the front of the leather belt. He lifted one of the patio chairs and pushed it loudly into position under the umbrella. His jaw clenched. “You know, I’m just trying, Nora, to make things nice for today.”
“Okay, Alan, okay.”
He looked at her, pushed his hair back with a clawed, rigid hand. “I’m out here working and that’s all you can say?”
Overhead, two geese honked by, refugees from the nearby man-made lake. Their long shadows traveled the length of the yard.
She saw it clearly now, the strain in his eyes, the three deepening lines splitting his brow. “It looks great,” she said.
“I can’t do everything,” he said. “If I was here all day—”
Her privileged life, she thought. “Would you like some more coffee?” she asked. “Maybe iced?” She wanted to ask, “Wouldn’t plain water work just fine?” Calm down, she wanted to say. Any number of reasonable things that people say. Slowly, she edged towards the door.
“Sure,” he said. “I hardly slept.”
When she looked back, he was concentrated again on the task, hauling the patio furniture back onto the cement, patting the cushions into place.
Erin was an adorable baby. Curly blonde hair, perfect creamy skin, and a radiant smile. That is not to say her older brother, Kyle, hadn’t been cute in his own way. Brown wavy hair, crooked smile, those meaty little hands. He was a handsome man now, completely respectable and always kind-hearted. But Erin charmed everyone she ever met, especially her father.
Nora put on the kettle and cleaned out the French press. Not a coffee drinker herself, the process always seemed unnecessarily messy. Teabags were much more sensible, each its own easily disposable container. She’d grown to hate the smell of coffee.
Alan appeared in the door frame. “I’m going to the shower.” He looked at some point over her head. “I still need to buy the short ribs and wash the car.”
“She won’t notice the car,” Nora said.
“Needs done anyway.” He rummaged through the kitchen junk drawer then shut it loudly. “It’s ten o’clock already.” He stood looking at her, expectantly.
“Don’t worry,” she said, cautiously.
“I’m not,” he said. “I promise, I’m not. I’ll shower first.” He walked by and gave her waist a quick squeeze.
Nora leaned against the counter, taking deep breaths, until she heard the steady stream of water upstairs. Then she dumped the contents of the French press into the sink.
“This traffic!” Erin breezed into the living room, a leather duffel hanging from one shoulder and a red, rectangular purse clutched against her chest. Her blonde hair, no longer curly, was pulled back into a ponytail. “I’d forgotten how bad it can be.”
Alan leaned over and hugged her awkwardly, around the purse. “Pretty congested where you are too, Dove. Took forty minutes from the airport last time.”
She maneuvered around him and pressed her face against Nora’s. She smelled like rain, talcum powder and vaguely, something sour. Nora held her a moment too long and they both backed up, chuckling.
“Really, Dad, there’s no comparison.” Erin opened her purse, found a case for her sunglasses, and snapped them inside. “The walkway looks good,” she said to Nora.
They’d had it done, whitewashed pavers with a thin stone trim. Alan’s pet project, because Nora had thought the old red bricks looked fine. “Your father picked everything,” she said.
“Nice.” She walked past them, down the hall to her old room.
Alan fidgeted. “Should I start the barbecue then?”
“Not yet,” Nora said. “Let her settle in.”
Erin reappeared at the opening to the hallway. “You got a new bedspread for my bed. Very chic.”
Nora couldn’t tell if her daughter was pleased or not. “The old one was frayed,” she explained.
They wandered out to the backyard, but Erin declared it too warm so they sat at the kitchen table instead. Nora poured sun tea for everyone and Erin put two large spoonfuls of sugar into hers, as she had done since she was a teenager. They watched her stir and stir until the granules dissolved.
“Everything all right with Justin?” Alan asked.
Erin’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“The study, his work. Still looking to finish up this winter?”
Nora noted her daughter’s pink silk shirt, the tailored herringbone skirt. A smudge of eyeshadow had made its way onto her temple, and the ponytail was crooked. Erin had probably pulled her hair back in the car, because of the heat. She had probably been much more put-together for her conference. “Don’t you want to change into something comfortable?” Nora asked.
Erin shook her head and looked at her father. “Yeah, the study should be finished in November, but it looks like he’ll be offered a permanent position.”
Alan leaned forward, his hands folded. “Oh. I didn’t—I mean, I guess we didn’t know that was a possibility.” A vein in his temple pulsed.
“We’re happy about it.”
“That’s wonderful,” Nora said.
“Justin really likes his colleagues,” she said.
“And you’re still happy with your job?” Nora asked.
Erin shrugged. “It could be worse. The people are nice but I’m getting the worst hours, and the place is so busy, all the time.”
“It’s a hospital,” Alan said. His glass clanked against his teeth as he took a drink of iced tea.
Nora got up to get the snack she had prepared. “Can you ask for another shift?” she asked.
“I have to wait until one of the senior people leave, or someone above me wants to change.”
“Seniority,” Alan said. “All jobs work that way. You keep your head down, put in the time. Eventually, there are benefits. Everywhere you go, there are short-timers. The world needs them, I guess, but they’re not the ones who get ahead. Quitting never got anyone ahead.”
Erin shook her head, looked at her mother. “Who said anyone was quitting?”
Nora set a plate of crackers and cheese on the table and put her hand on Alan’s shoulder. She felt the sinew and bone, the quivering muscle underneath.
Upstairs, a thump sounded against one of the windows. “What was that?” Nora asked.
“I didn’t hear anything,” Erin said.
Nora stood up. “Do you need to rest for a while? Your father got the short ribs you like.”
“I haven’t been eating much meat lately,” their daughter said.
“There’s salad too,” Nora told her.
Alan slurped his tea, then got up and put his glass into the sink noisily.
“Maybe I will go and change clothes,” Erin said. “I’ve been wearing this since five this morning.”
“There are clean towels if you want to shower,” Nora said, glancing over at Alan. “Take your time. We’re so glad you’re here.”
Nora and Erin watched as he opened the refrigerator and closed it, then opened the drawer next to the sink, then closed that.
“Alan?” Nora said, but he hadn't heard her. Lips moving, he left the kitchen.
Nora was tossing the salad for dinner when a shadow passed over the counter. A flutter of air lifted the hair from her neck and she shivered. She looked over her shoulder at the high corner, where an antique milk jug filled with fake plants sat on top of the cupboard. “I know you’re back there,” she whispered. She hadn’t seen Alan for a while, but she’d heard him in the backyard, knocking things around in the shed at the side of the house. She’d smelled the gas when he started the barbecue.
“Can I help?” Erin asked. Her hair was wet and she’d changed into yoga pants and a long T-shirt that said Telluride in big, block letters.
Nora finished putting plastic wrap over the top of the salad bowl and wrapped her arms around her daughter’s waist, pulling her close. “Oh, I missed you.”
Erin exhaled, let herself be hugged. “Where’s Dad?”
“Cooking the ribs. Can’t you have a little?”
“I’m A positive blood type,” she said. “We don’t do well with meat. Have you heard about the blood type diet?”
Nora released her, shook her head. “I’m A positive too,” she said. “You must have gotten that from me.”
“Maybe you should skip the meat too.”
The back door opened and Alan came in. “There they are,” he said, “my two little ladies.”
“It’s weird when you say it like that,” Erin said. “What are we drinking, Mom?”
Nora found the bottle of Cabernet they’d purchased. Just the one bottle.
Erin took the wine from Nora and went to the drawer for an opener. “What’s new at your job, Dad?”
“Ah, you know the import-export business, Dove.”
“Lots of comings and goings,” she said.
It was something he always said, thinking it was funny.
Erin poured each of them a glass and handed them around. “Salut.”
Nora kept herself busy at the stove, stirring potatoes that were already mashed, checking on the green beans with the tiny slivers of almonds that Erin liked. She took a sip of wine, unsure whether she should drink her share or keep her wits.
One of the worst times she’d ever had was Erin’s accident. That day, and the night that followed, and the haze of days afterward. Nora drove back and forth between home and the hospital, where Erin lay with a broken collarbone, three broken fingers, and a perforated left lung. One scorching afternoon during this distressing time, Nora found Alan in the garage, perched in the storage loft with his father’s Army pistol from the Korean War. Kyle had just left for college, thank God, and Nora’s stepfather came over to talk his son-in-law down. Nora was ashamed and didn’t know what to say. Over the years, she’d been able to handle Alan, to contain everything, but after seeing Erin in the hospital, he’d unraveled like never before. She called Dr. Harrison for a sedative, which her stepfather kindly picked up. She fixed dinner for both men, coaxed her stepfather into his car, and waited for Alan to sleep. Then she drove back to see Erin.
Even now, these many years later, Nora’s heart skipped a beat when she remembered the phone call from the police. Erin had driven her car into a cement barrier at the aqueduct. She’d been drinking with friends after a school dance. She was seventeen, continually at odds with her dad, who had always held her too close, and was prone to excessive behaviors. Yes, in Nora’s estimation, that was one of the very worst times, Erin pale and damaged and the maelstrom at home. For those long, sleepless days, she never knew what to expect from either of them. She found strength in remembering those horrible days; everything that came after didn’t compare and so, she always knew she could get through whatever setback came.
Erin nibbled on her salad during dinner, picking out the mushrooms she used to like, using only a dab of dressing. Nora thought their daughter looked rather thin and wasn’t sure how she hadn’t noticed before.
Alan held a short rib in his greasy fingers. The sauce had found its way to his chin, and the collar of the golf shirt he’d worn for the dinner. “You’re missing out, Dove. How long have you been a vegan?”
“I’m not a vegan, Dad, or even a vegetarian. I haven’t been eating much meat, that’s all.”
He leaned across the table, reaching for the wine. “What does Justin think about that?”
Erin’s eyebrows creased. “What does he think about what?”
“Your diet.” Alan looked at Nora and shrugged.
“I haven’t asked him. See, we have a lot of freedom in our marriage, to live our own lives.”
Nora closed her eyes.
“What?” He looked back and forth between them.
Erin got up and went to the kitchen. She came back with another bottle of wine that Nora
had hidden on a shelf with the canned food.
“I’m not sure we need to open that,” Nora said.
Erin’s mouth spread into a sly smile. “Dad will help me with this, won’t you?”
He waved his hand. “Open it.”
Once Erin was home and healing after the accident, Nora’s stepfather had called one evening. He wanted to know what in God’s green earth was going on with Alan, whether it was something Nora had to deal with regularly, whether she needed any help. He and Nora’s mother had recently suffered the first health setback of their own, a minor heart attack that had landed him in the hospital. He said he’d always known that Alan was moody, but this seemed like something else. Nora reassured him, reassured herself that she could manage it.
Later, they were in the backyard, sitting on the cushions that still felt damp to Nora; she knew better than to mention it. In the trees, on the roof, the scratch of claws, the musical chirps.
“That is not what happened!” Alan said. “I was always supportive of the gymnastics. I didn’t understand why you kept starting and stopping, then starting again.”
“What did it matter?” Erin leaned her head against the seatback, her wineglass held to her chest with both hands. “I was a kid. I changed my mind.”
“It matters!” Alan said. “To join something is to commit. All in, or why bother?”
“It’s not the Army,” she cackled. “We’re talking about gymnastics classes for a ten-year-old.”
“Your mother was too easy on you and your brother. I would have insisted that you stick with it, at least for a couple of years. You have to give everything time.”
“What do you mean, you would have done this or that? You lived here at the time, you know!” Erin raised her glass to her lips and the red liquid looked black and thick in the muted light.
Alan spread his legs, sitting up in his chair. “Dedication to the thing, that’s what’s required. My first job was at the hardware store and—do you know—I worked there every summer for four years.”
“And the owner made you count nails and screws and you didn’t think it was really something that needed to be done but you did it anyway, because you had commitment and dedication.” Erin recited this in a sing-song voice.
“You’ve done well with this new job?” Alan asked.
“Would you believe me if I said I have?”
In the corner of the yard sat an old Magnolia tree. Nora heard a rustle, something scampering from branch to branch. She looked across the grass, watching for movement amidst the dark leaves. “I’m losing my mind,” she thought.
“Nora,” Alan said. “Tell our daughter she’s done well.”
“She knows what I think,” she said.
Erin finished her wine and reached for the second bottle, which was propped on an empty chair and was almost empty too.
Alan held his glass out.
Two Christmases ago, Kyle had brought his wife and newborn daughter for the holiday. Nora prepared his old room, bought food and presents, scrubbed and arranged. The last thing he’d said before they left for the hotel was “I don’t know how you do it, Mom. Or why.”
“Have I ever done anything right?” Erin asked. “No, really, try to be objective. Name one thing I’ve ever done that you thought was okay. Start to finish. Good decision, good implementation, great result. Anything?”
“Erin,” Nora said.
Alan looked down at his hands, brow furrowed. “Well, of course, there are so many things. Look at you now, Dove.”
“I’m tired,” Erin said. “Such a long day.”
“Can we talk about this?” Alan said to Nora.
“I’m tired too,” she said.
“You’re crazy if you think I’ll allow the two of you to turn against me.”
“What did I do?” Nora asked.
“This is always how it goes, right? The two of you, against me. Good thing Kyle’s not here, or I’d really be outnumbered.”
Nora sighed, stuck in her chair. “No one’s against anyone.”
Erin drank her wine, looking back and forth between them.
Nora remembered now: One surviving hen and the rooster had escaped. One day they were there, and the next they weren’t. No one in her family ever talked about this, their collective guilt. Once, when traveling along the dirt roads near the house, Nora saw the rooster—or at least she thought it was their rooster—walking alongside an empty lot, stopping now and then to peck at the ground. And she felt a strange mixture of relief and culpability and unsettledness. Was the rooster happy to be away from their yard, where food and attention were unreliable? Or was he truly lost, wishing for the tiny wooden house, feathers littered all around, and the shady pen he could fly over any time? Basically, was his life better or worse as a result of this freedom? That’s what she wondered, and she could never figure it out.
“You have always interfered with my relationships with the kids,” Alan said. “It has ruined everything.”
“I don’t know what you mean.”
“If you had any idea what I have to go through during the day,” he said.
“Alan, I’m tired. Erin’s tired. You were both up early this morning.”
He threw his wine glass against the side of the house, where it shattered and left a dripping, red stain.
“The neighbors!” Nora said. “What is wrong with you?”
And so it went, angry whispers and pleading and accusations and recriminations. The night air swirled around Alan’s head, lifting his thinning hair in tufts. Dozens of glinting eyes peered out from the trees. Something was scratching on the roof. Nora covered her ears, covered her eyes, watched everything and saw nothing.
“Let’s stop,” she finally said, but this only made him more furious.
Alan rose up from his patio chair and shook off his golf shirt, which fell in tatters onto the cement. Above him, the outdoor lights glowed yellow on his bare skin. Next to Nora, Erin pulled her knees to her chest and buried her face. Nora threw one arm across their daughter, a barrier, a blockade. Against the night sky, in the jaundice gleam of the canned lights, Alan hovered above them. A great whoosh, the extinguishing of light and noise, and two large, black wings extended from his body. They were great to behold, majestic and strong, and they stretched to a great height and extended to a great breadth. They blocked everything out. When he began to beat them, to unfurl the terrible expanse of feathers and darkness, the gust of air forced the remaining wine glasses from the table, blew the back door shut and spurred Erin to seek shelter in her childhood room. Nora imagined her there, underneath the stylish bedspread, fuming and remembering, fuming and remembering. Eventually, wings were tucked in for the night; black eyes closed amongst the branches.
Nora woke early and started the coffee. Both women would need it, that much was certain. She looked through the kitchen window. Another perfect, sunny day. The yard showed no evidence of the squall the night before. She had stayed up until the house was orderly and quiet.
Erin came into the kitchen, fully dressed in a pair of jeans and a white button-up shirt. The red purse hung from her shoulder; she set the duffel on the tile floor.
“Coffee?” Nora asked.
She sat down at the table, cupped her hands around the mug.
“Do you want toast? Eggs?”
Nora sat across from Erin. “Have you finished fixing up the new apartment?”
“Hm? Yes, we’re all unpacked. I had to buy a few things but not much.”
“I’d love to come see it.”
“You should! Why couldn’t you, Mom? We’d love to have you.”
Nora set her cup down. “Maybe I will.”
Erin looked well-rested, calm. She’d pulled her hair back again, only this time, the ponytail was neat and curled a bit at the ends. “I changed my flight,” she said.
“Will Justin pick you up?”
“And things are okay?”
Erin shrugged. “We’re having a rough patch, but we’ll get through.”
“Yes, you will.” Nora reached over and squeezed her hand. “I’ve been volunteering down at the senior center where I take Grandma.”
“I help plan some of the social activities, organize bridge tournaments or movie nights, stuff like that. They’ve asked me to take a paying position.”
“Makes sense,” Erin said.
“You, taking care of people.”
“They are so appreciative, so happy to have someone there.”
“That’s great, Mom.” Erin got up and put her mug on the counter. “I have to go.” She exhaled, her shoulders shaking a bit at the end. “I really hate flying.”
“I know you do,” Nora said. She got up and hugged her daughter, took in the smell and feel of her, trying her hardest to store the sensations.
Erin picked up her duffel and they walked to the door. Outside, the sun was relentless.
At the end of the walkway, Erin turned, opened her mouth.
“Don’t,” Nora said.
Overhead, a formation passed by, mere blips against the big, blue sky, tiny, insignificant forms from that distance, organized and close-knit and moving forward with some inherent, uncommunicated purpose.
Nora watched Erin load her things into the rental car and drive away. She looked down the quiet street at the line of similar houses, then she walked down the new, stone path and went inside.