Legacy of a Tragic Hero

“Damn it! I just cleaned this place.” Looking down, Katherin sees another assemblage of toys, clothing, dolls with and without appendages, and filthy indefinable things which, God willing, came from outside. Repeating a little mantra to calm herself, she calls out in a melodic tone through stiff teeth, “Madeline. . . Andrew.” She gives over to rage and calls out again, “Mother! Mom, where are you?”

“In here, Katie.” Her mother’s voice drifts in cheerfully from the hall closet.

“Mom, I took a quick nap.”

“You still have time. Go back to bed.”

“I can’t.”

“You have a good forty five minutes, Katie.”

“You let them run around like monsters.”

“I hope they didn’t wake you,” says her mother while Katherin stares in disbelief. “Did they? You know I was going to put them down for a nap, but then I decided that I didn’t want them full of energy for Stacy.” While Kathrin had slept, Stacy had come and taken the children with her for the night.

Katherine felt her cheeks cramp into a rigid smile like an unpainted clown, “Aren’t you the considerate one today?”

“You know, I don’t know why you don’t let them sleep with you.”

“I don’t want them to become too reliant on me.”

“You don’t even let them when they have a bad dream. Cumeonow.”

“I don’t let them. Those are my rules and if you have any respect for my children then you will let me raise them the way I see fit. End-o-discussion.”

“Well you should let them now and again. It would do you some good too you know. Anyway I’m glad they didn’t wake you.” Skirting around Katherin, she moves to the kitchen.

“I wish they had,” Katherin snipes at the molding of the kitchen door frame.

“You should get a little more sleep,” she says leaning in from around the corner.

Katherin, feeling defeated, whips around to face the living room grousing gutturally, “I have to clean and then I have to get to work and I am not going to spend tomorrow cleaning a damn thing.”

“Don’t worry dear, go get ready, your father will take care of that when he gets home,” she says synching her apron strings.

Katherine bolts into the kitchen. Through the window a tree is writhing with pleasure. The wind is pushing stiffly against it massaging and stretching its appendages. “He isn’t coming home!” Grabbing her mother, “He left us Mom! He left us when I was twelve!” She pleads silently for some glimmer of recognition. A bird is swept past the tree. It works its way into a windless pocket to rest on a wobbling perch to pick between its feathers. She hadn’t meant to react like this. She usually swallowed and tried to remember that her mother was her mother and scaring her wouldn’t help anything, but today fresh from sleep still not centered and annoyed by all the stresses she’d let become normal she held her mother eye to eye in an unforgiving glare.

Katherin’s mother grasps for any words to say. “You wait until your father gets home.”

Her teeth grind and pop as they shift under the pressure. Tendrils of pain seep into her skull. She imagines that her teeth may shatter and is pulled back a little from the fear of it. “I stopped waiting after my thirteenth birthday.” A flash of compassion softens her voice, “He left us mom. He is gone. He is still alive, and he is gone.” They stand in silence. They each scan the other’s eyes.

Katherin’s mother’s mind becomes submerged in panic, “When your father gets home, he, he is going to have a word with you.” With that final note, she flees to her bedroom.

Katherin continues to clean, “Yeah, I have a few choice words for him too.” Straightening up, she glances at the mantle. There are four pictures framed elegantly in discount store frames. There was a time when five memories had been set out for guests to see and ask questions about. The once fifth picture holds a special place. It rests alone on Katherin’s nightstand beside an antique box filled with buttons. It is a snap shot of Katherin’s husband, Jason, holding their daughter, Madeline, when she was two years old. They went to the park that day. Madeline was wearing a one-piece pink bathing suit with an inner tube sewn into the lining around the waist. Two pigtails of fine curly blonde hair jutted above her head. Jason held her in his left arm as she balanced herself naturally. Madeline gazes at him laughing. Ear to ear across Jason’s face is a loving, paternal grin. It was a good day. Katherin blows some dust off the four photos and continues cleaning.

“How can you let them do this Mom? Dad would never have tolerated this even when he really did come home. I took a nap. I just wanted to relax. Now I have to clean up this — -.” Even with no little ears around to hear, she kept herself from saying the last word. “I have to leave for work in less than half an hour. I don’t have time for this.” She is seizing dolls from off the floor and the odd cushion also placed, with a feeling of intent and careful precision, on the floor. Her nails leave consecutive dents in the fabric that slowly release their tension. “I don’t get to see my babies tonight. I can’t give them their kisses.” Stifling a sob, “I don’t want to go to work tonight. I can’t call in sick. Doing — -ing inventory. I told Mom to wake me up when Stacy got here. I can’t even see them for twenty damned minutes. Thanks a lot Mom! Crazy old bitch. You work at their daycare and they still charge us eighty-five dollars a week.”

*****

Stacy is a lovely girl. She stands five foot three if she is mindful of her posture. On her one-hundred-five pound body, if there is an ounce of fat out of place, it has never shown itself. The halo of white hair that compliments her porcelain skin drapes just beyond her waistline. For convenience’s sake, it is usually kept swept back in a ponytail. And it was Stacy who had introduced Katherin to Jason.

Jason had blocked traffic through three light changes trying to get a grip on a large and unmanageable turtle. Stacy watched, held up in the growing traffic jam, wondering whether to be upset or charmed. Prodding the turtle with sticks, Stacy and Jason finally got it across the intersection.

After one month of seeing him, Stacy decided she would begin to parade her spectacular find of a man to her friends, starting with Katherin. Since they were five years old, thoughts of theft, sabotage, vicious rumors written and at times leaked, and the general vandalism of each other’s personal and social lives has punctuated their history together, as it goes with the closest of friends. Yet, before Jason, it had been unimaginable to simply exclude the other from their life.

Jason’s heart was Katherin’s from the first, pick your first: words, sight, glimpse of her eyes. Stacy tried to work her way between them, but she couldn’t get their attention back. Jason did try to ask for forgiveness. Jason explained that he almost felt like he remembered being in love with her. Explanations made her less willing to listen. The days meandered by.

*****

Stacy and Katherin flip through their menus. It was lunch and Katherin’s treat for watching the kids overnight and taking them to daycare that morning.

Stacy teasingly, “Well, pick something already.”

“I’m just going to have my usual I think,” Katherin says fluffing her bangs.

“You never change.”

Katherin bites back in a doofy low voice, “Whatever.”

“I’m going to try the ‘Oh baby’ back ribs,” Stacy says rolling a sultry affectation around in her mouth. “With a white Russian and a brownie bottom pie.”

“Jesus woman.”

Stacy, wriggling in her seat, says, “What. I wanna put some meat on this butt.” They had been talking pleasnlty as they do now-a-days, as they have been again for years. Sometimes, a word or two about Katherin’s mother or Katherin not dating floats around. The subject is quickly changed.

Stacy prattles, “Then Eric decided he was hungry and he wanted Taco Bell. So we all pile into his car. We get there and the guy at the window was like ‘can I take your order.’ And Eric was like ‘Only if you give it back.’ What an idiot.” She snorts through her laughing causing a new round of full-bodied giggling.

“And Eric’s the one you’re dating, right?”

“He’s a dummy, but I love him.”

“No you don’t,” says Katherin, surprising herself.

“He isn’t so bad.” Stacy said feeling a defensive twinge in her throat. “He just needs to calm down a little, that’s all.” Stacy leans in alluding that she is in danger of being overheard, “So then we get back, and Derrick calls.”

“Derrick is again?”

“Oh, he has some schoolboy crush on me. Anyway, he calls, and Eric answers, right.” Stacy lets a pregnant pause percolate. “It all broke loose. All I heard was, ‘What the ‘f’ is your problem bro?’” Despite saying only the first letter, Stacy still whispered. “I heard you was looking to ‘f’ my girl. So what’s up! Come the ‘f’ down here.’ And he won’t let me have the phone, and I am trying, right. I hear Derrick yelling back through the phone trying to be all hard.”

“I remember him now. I thought we liked Derrick?”

“We do. But he is the typa guy you marry when you’re done. So Derrick comes over, right, and starts saying that everything got blown out of proportion and taken out of context and stuff. Basically, he unloaded a huge pile on Eric’s ego. Cunning little minks. Took him two minutes and Eric was like, ‘We straight bro.’ Eric doesn’t stop me from talking to him now. He doesn’t like it but, oh well.”

“So was Derrick trying to, well, was he trying to?”

Half giggling, “Oh he didn’t have to try at all. He is so sweet.”

“You are too much.” Katherin takes a sip of her tea. She wanted anything to shield herself from the story.

Stacy also sips her drink. “I’m telling you this for a reason. I need you to do me a favor.”

“No.”

“Oh come on.”

Katherin gives a forced smile as she sets down her drink.

“Oh, please. You need to get over yourself. I need you to help me hide Derrick for a while. Eric is sniffing around too close.”

A vague sense of nausea moved through Katherin.

“When it’s this good you want to share.” When Stacy had planned this conversation out, she remembered that line being funny. Now, her jaw felt pulled closed like her teeth were magnetized

Smacking the table gently like she would if she were trying to vie for the attention of one of her children, Katherin says, “No!”

“Ok, fine. At least say you are. Just please help me hide him.”

Katherin growls through her teeth, “No,” before quietly withdrawing into her drink. She notices how round the ice cubes have become. She ponders how perfect ice is for cooling beverages. As the ice cools the drink, the cool liquid falls to the bottom and pushes the warmer drink upward to be cooled by the ice. She thinks of odd things at times like this.

“Jesus, you act like no man ever lived that could compare.”

Katherin wipes a trail through the sweat of her class. A small puddle collects under it then hides in the crevice between the table and the glass.

“You just can’t live with moving on. Even pretend moving on.”

“I don’t need to.” Katherin said feeling ashamed at how much she sounded like a pouty little kid. Regaining her voice, she says, “What would the children think? I don’t ever want to hear them call another man ‘Daddy.’ It wouldn’t be right. It isn’t right. He is a good man and he deserves to be known by his children.”

“He is dead.”

“And still he does more for me than anyone I’ve seen you with in as much time. I will not deny him the only thing he ever wanted!”

Stacy reaches for Katherin’s hand wanting to hold it and pet it gently. Their hands overlap around the base of Katherin’s drink. “He wanted his children to have a family. Something he didn’t ever have was a mother and a father. That is what he wanted, for his children to have more than he ever did. You are denying him the only thing he ever wanted. That was like one of the first things he ever told me. God! Did you two ever talk?”

Katherin’s fingers try to withdraw. Stacy holds them firmly with both hands. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to move on today, but you do have to move on.”

*****

A deep forest green late nineties Isuzu Rodeo pulls off of the freeway. Flowing through the crisp afternoon air, it winds its way down the off ramp. Birds flitter from tree to tree dancing with each other and dancing with the trees as they sway with the currents in which the birds swim. Mating, playing, foraging for sustenance; who is to say if this display is any of these? Who is to say those things are separate from themselves?

“Mommy? Where do birds come from?” Andrew asks while bouncing himself in his seat. “Why don’t they fall? Why do they like trees? Is there a birdie heaven?” Next to him, his sister attends diligently to a doll’s hair. “Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy, Mommy I hit a kid,” Andrew says apologetically.

“What? What did I tell you about that?” Katherin pulls the car to the side of the road.

“But, But But, he hit me first Mommy.”

“That doesn’t matter. What did Mommy tell you?”

“But Mommy, he he he was big an he hit me an an he called you a bad name.”

“I don’t care.”

Madeline has stopped brushing. Her eyes excitedly dart between her brother and mother like a trapped cat.

“He did Mommy. He did.”

“I don’t want to ever hear that you hit anyone else again. Do you understand?”

He says pouting sullenly, “Mommy, is Grandpa going to be mad at me?”

Madeline forgets her nervousness and asks, “Why don’t we ever see Grandpa, Mommy?”

“Ohh honey, I…. I… I am sorry. I am so sorry.”

Madeline, in her beatific voice, asks, “Why are you sorry, Mommy?”

“Honey, sometimes when people get old they forget things. And sometimes when someone has a very bad thing happen to them, they don’t want to remember it. And MaMa is getting old now honey. She is having a hard time remembering some things. She loves you and she will not forget that ever. Okay? Grandma will never forget she loves you. But Grandpa went away honey. He went away a long time ago. Grandma can’t help it. She doesn’t remember honey. I am so sorry, baby. But she loves both of you and I love both of you.”

Andrew asks, “Is Grandpa in heaven, Mommy?”

Katherin quells sobs and screams to find her words. “Yes honey. Grandpa, your Grandpa, is in heaven.”

“With Daddy?”

The idea that the man she has despised for most of her life resting peacefully and sitting with, even friends with, her husband was horrifying. “Yes honey. Your Grandfather is in heaven with Daddy.” She is silent just long enough to see that the children understand as best as they can. “Hey!” she says excitedly. “I want ice cream. Who wants ice cream?”

*****

Katherin sits silently and alone bathing in the moonlight that flows through the room. She is slouched on her couch peering into a glass of red wine. Her index fingers caress the rim channeling her thoughts to the liquid. In the ambient glow of the room, the wine betrays no concept of dimension. It absorbs her thoughts in its infinite depth. Long ago, forgotten mystics would hover over larger versions of what she now holds in her hands. They pondered many of the same questions she contemplates here in her living room. She peers into her minute scrying pool trying to divine the will of the forces in her own life. She searches for answers, but the glass withholds its knowledge. “Why did you do it?”

Katherin’s mother pokes around the corner of the hallway that leads back to her bedroom. She had been hiding there hoping Katherin would leave soon so that she could sneak some leftover pudding, but now it was not worth the trouble.

“Katie, sweetie? What are you doing up so late? You need your sleep.”

“I’m not tired.”

“Peshaw. One look at cha and I know y’re lyin.”

“I don’t feel like sleeping.”

“It’s Jason keepin’ ya awake isn’t it?” Katherin is silent. “I’m sorry honey.” She sits next to her daughter. She puts an arm around Katherin and strokes her daughter’s shoulder gently. Katherin stops rubbing her glass. She looks like a lost child. Before Katherin can say anything, her mother speaks her mind. “I always said that Jason wasn’t any good. I knew this night would come. He is out late. You don’t know where he is. Let me tell you something. He isn’t worried about you sittin’ up for him. And if he is, then it is not for the reasons you want’em to be.”

“It is not another woman.”

“I know. I know. We all say that the first time. It gets easier. I know it doesn’t seem it now, but it does.”

Soothingly, “Oh Momma… you don’t remember do you.”

“I try not to dear.”

“No, Momma. Jason is not out with another woman. Jason isn’t out.” The first tear runs down her cheek. “He is dead, Momma.”

“OH NO! WHEN? HOW? Come here baby. It’s gonna be all right. You hear me. I’m here and everything is gonna be all right. I’ll call your work in the morning and tell them you won’t be in and we’ll take the kids and all sit down and ……and it will all be all right. Oh my baby.” She wraps around Katherin embracing her as only mothers can. Katherin allows herself this moment.

Wiping the tears from her face, “Momma he has been dead for three years.” She swallows the wine in one gulp and places the empty glass on an end table. “Please tell me you remember. I need to hear those words. Please don’t leave me alone Mom.”

“I’m here, Katie. I’m not going anywhere.”

“He died in the river three years ago. He jumped off the bridge and we found him two miles down stream.” She looks at her mother to see if any spark of recognition burned. However faint, she was going to find it. It had to be there. She will find it. She needs to see it.

“Suicide?”

Katherin shoots up. “No! A car with three people went off the bridge. He went in because they didn’t come up. He saved them.” She wanted to grab her mother’s face and hold it close to hers. She wanted to smack her mother, grab her by the hair, and throw her out. She stands alone like a pillar touching nothing. “Mark? . . . Anna?. . . . Stephanie? We had Christmas with them! For Christ’s sake woman! You need to remember this!” With that said, Katherin storms off into her bedroom.

She leaps for her bed. The bedspread ruffles, but it deflates and leaves her cold and unshrouded. Katherin sobs. Her pillow becomes humid and filled with the heat of her breath, yet chilled where sweat and tears have collected. She grasps at the picture of Jason holding Madeline. Clutching it in both fists, she looks at her love captured forever in this lone tangible memory. In this bottled moment, his warm, comforting smile seems to speak to her now: All is as it should be. There is a flawed but perfect order to things. It appeals itself to an unwilling soul.

“Why Buttons for my birthday? You had to give me buttons, didn’t you? All I wanted was a night on the beach under the stars. But no! You had to give me a box full of buttons. Pretty little things, shiny ones, ugly yellow big ones all in an antique jewelry box. Why? You and your stupid silly grin. And it is stupid and silly. I loved it so much. I loved it. I loved the box. I loved the buttons. I loved the ring at the bottom and I loved the card beneath it asking me to marry you.

They are nice people. You just had a son. Did you really think they were more important than him? Than your daughter? Than us? I know you had to do something. Is regret worse than failure? If you needed to do something, why didn’t you wait for the people who are trained and get paid to do that stuff. Jackass! Regrets. Pesch. . . regrets. I regret losing you! I regret meeting you. I regret loving you. And I really regret saying all of that. I need. . . I need to say these things. What about me? What about us? What about the commitment you made to us? Your family! You have a son and he is going to be just like you, stupid silly grin and all. He is smart, really smart and caring and he loves everyone. He is growing like a weed and he eats like a horse. He is going to be just like you. He deserves to know you! Madeline, she still remembers you. She tells him stories about you, but for how long, huh? How long until she can’t remember her bedtime horsy?

Jason, if she ever calls someone else daddy, I will die. I can’t take it. I just can’t and I won’t, but she deserves one. She is sweet and innocent and she takes care of her brother and she gave her lollypop to a boy at church and I don’t know what to do. But, can I talk to their father? No! He died being a hero. Jason, I am so very proud of you. I know you had to, and now Daddy is a hero. What a great role model. But what am I going to do? I can’t be mad. I can’t be happy. I can’t be with you. I don’t know how to be without you. I love you. I love you and your silly stupid grin. I know you had to, and I love that too.”

Standing now in the living room, she wipes away her tears while she holds Jason’s image. Her lips tremble with sorrowful realization. A peace long foreign to Katherin embraces her. She looks at the picture of him again, the fifth picture on the mantle, and adjusts it so that it fits in with the rest.