Some things I forget because they weren’t worth remembering. Other things I forget as an act of will, because I don’t want to remember. And the rest, my life forgot for me. Time flattens life out, I find, and it becomes easier to stack memories on top of each other, each pushing the others down, obscuring the layers below. My childhood has been compressed by teenage years, which are buried under the silt of adult life.
At the dig in Arizona that I’m supervising now, that’s what I notice: not so much the remnants of the long-gone people that my students pull out to be puzzled over, the pottery and the bone knife fragments, but the layers of ground that buried them Here is a white streak, representing, what? Then a gravel layer, reminding us of, who? A silent testament to something that happened here, then, which no one remembers. Isn’t it better that way?
The summer I was 12, we spent our last visit with the Chandlers. Our mothers had been best friends in college. We kids didn’t really understand the concept of college, but it seemed to be something that bonded people together for life, since it brought our mothers together, and, then, us. I was turning 13 in October. Billy Chandler was 11, but taller than me, which made us sort of equal. Then there was Jenny, Billy’s sister, who was 9, and my baby sister, Lil, who was almost 7 that summer.
Every summer since college, both before and after Mr. Chandler had died, Mom had visited Mrs. Chandler for one long weekend, while our dad went fishing with Uncle Pete up near Tyrone. Not only would Mom and Dad both come back happier from their time apart, which trickled down to small kindnesses for Lil and me for a while, but on these visits, keeping my mom happy became Mrs. Chandler’s problem, while we kids did what we liked.
Being together doubled us, turned us into a unit instead of a pair. There were so many more things we could do without our parents’ assistance. We could play Go Fish, while our mothers lingered over half-empty glasses of wine in the kitchen. We were allowed to roast marshmallows on our own, with two of us old enough to supervise the fire pit in the Chandlers’ backyard, while our moms sat at the picnic tables and sang old songs together, Mrs. Chandler playing the guitar. We could almost have our own table at Edna’s, the breakfast place down the street from the Chandlers’. We sat on the four-person side of the long table in the middle of the restaurant while our mothers picked at cinnamon rolls just across the low partition where they were seated on the two-person side.
Together, we kids could solve a lot of our own problems. And when one of us wanted something so bad that it felt like a need, we sensed it and we worked together to swindle our mothers until we had it. They weren’t so strict with us, when we were all together. We could wheedle candy, and be excused from reading, and watch PG-13 films, and stay up past midnight, even Lil.
Wheedling and swindling is what got us to Idlewild, an even-then-decaying amusement park tucked into a pine forest that lined a dip between two of the Allegheny Mountains. It was not a great park, not even as good as Hershey Park in the center of the state, and certainly no Cedar Point, a three-hour drive away in Ohio. No, Idlewild was just okay. But we knew wandering around its dinky rides was better than the other options we’d heard our mothers discussing—a flea market, a trip to a historical fort—so we expressed enthusiasm for Idlewild loudly and repeatedly when asked what we’d like to do that Monday in July.
“Idlewild!” we chorused as one.
“Hmm, I don’t know,” Mrs. Chandler said, turning towards Mom. “There’s this real pretty church I’d like to show you.”
I summoned my newly forming powers of teenage surliness and rolled my eyes emphatically at my mother behind Mrs. Chandler’s back. The other kids folded their arms or glared at our moms as a show of communal will.
“The kids probably would enjoy the park more,” she said to Mrs. Chandler, who sighed, and caved in, and we went to Idlewild.
The only really good parts of the park were the animal cages—that section was too small to be called a zoo, but they had a tiger—and the roller coaster. The park had been unusually empty even for a weekday—perhaps because it was unusually hot for that part of Pennsylvania—and we had faced no resistant crowds as we raced to the roller coaster. It was called the Log Rider, a name that made Mrs. Chandler laugh and elbow Mom. I wanted to ask what was so funny, and then I realized what was so funny, and then I wanted to not have seen their interaction.
We rode the Log Rider three, then four, then five times, in a row, with no one else in line and a bored teenager behind the controls who let the cars zip past him. The coaster was going slightly too fast, we vaguely sensed, and we lurched around in our sets, butts zooming across the polished metal to smash us into each other, hip bone against hip bone. When we came around the bend, the one that seemed like it might send the coaster cars flying, snaking off into the grove of tall oak trees by the Sno-Cone Shack, we glimpsed our mothers deep in conversation on a bench to our right. As we went by a second time, Jenny waved at them, although they weren’t watching. On the third time around, Billy yelled “Hey! Mom!” but as we were jerked away on the track, we saw out of the corner of our eyes that they hadn’t looked up. As we zoomed by the next time, we all pointedly ignored them, to show that we didn’t care that they were ignoring us. I felt a strange mixture of relief and anxiety.
We trudged along behind them after the roller coaster, waiting to be given money for lunch. Their lack of interest in us made us feel mercenary.
“So, why didn’t it work out, do you think?” Mom was asking Mrs. Chandler.
“Because he smelled,” Billy said to me, low, and I realized that our mothers must be talking about the latest of Mrs. Chandler’s boyfriends. I raised my eyebrows at Billy, who nodded emphatically.
“Bad,” he said.
“I don’t know,” Mrs. Chandler said. “I feel like I haven’t met a decent man—a decent person—since college.”
Billy rolled his eyes.
“Hey, Cal,” Mom said to me, peering around Mrs. Chandler. “There’s a dinosaur exhibit here, you interested?”
“Maybe,” I said. “Do they have, like, a dig?”
“In Western Pennsylvania?” Mrs. Chandler laughed. “Hardly.”
“They’ve found several types of fossils,” I said. “In the shale.”
“Oh, yeah?” Mrs. Chandler replied, but in that voice that adults use when they don’t want to continue the conversation. Mom turned back to her friend, and Billy said, “Hey, Cal, what’s shale?”
“Here we go,” said Mrs. Chandler dryily. But the other three kids drew closer to me to listen while I explained that while dinosaurs hadn’t been found here, other fossils had been, sea creatures and invertebrates. It only took a few minutes for me to exhaust my knowledge, and then Jenny said, “We’re hungry!” loudly. Our moms had to dig into their purses then.
With so few people in the park and our mothers paying us no attention, deep in conversation, we went a little crazy. We used the 40 bucks we’d been given to buy Sno-Cones and taffy, hot dogs and onion rings, a long strand of pink and white twined marshmallow, nachos, caramel corn. We went on all the rides we liked, then the rides that were just okay, and finally, the rides we didn’t even really like. At the ring toss, Billy won a stuffed cactus, of all things, for Jenny. I helped Lil beat my high score in Skee-Ball by rolling the balls with her, slamming them one after another into the tiny 100-point hole in the middle.
“He’s good at nailing the hole,” I heard Mrs. Chandler say to Mom through stifled giggles, and I turned around and made eye contact with each of them, my mouth shut but my eyes blazing, so that Mom pulled Mrs. Chandler away from the arcade to a bench outside.
“Paddle boats,” I said to Billy, who’d just finished losing to a pinball machine with Alf on the front. He raised his eyebrows at me, then turned to our sisters to say, “You guys up for getting soaked?” They nodded their heads eagerly, smeared with candy and ketchup and, somehow, dirt.
Billy and I helped the girls into the paddle boats calmly, graciously, since our mothers were watching, possibly alerted by some ancient fear about kids and water. An agreement tacit between the four of us, we paddled serenely out to the center of the pond and circled away from each other each other, once, twice. We looked over at our mothers, whose heads were together, talking, again. Billy screamed, “Speed Boat Collusion Course!” and we aimed our boats at the other and paddled, hard, the girls, too.
We flew by each other, just missing, Jenny yelling that Billy had chickened out. Still, our mania cleared the pond of all ducks, which flew to land and quacked at us indignantly. A park employee picked up his bullhorn to call across the pond, “Take it easy, little dudes.” We all nodded in agreement and I gave the guy a thumbs up. Then we paddled away in a circle again. This time we connected, slamming our boats together in one corner. Billy said, “I’m not a little dude,” with great satisfaction after he cracked the hull of our boat. The sound of snapping plastic finally caused the kid running the ride to go to our mothers, who got up from the picnic table where they had been talking and called our names in increasing agitation until we got tired of enjoying their attention at last and paddled in.
“I don’t have the money to pay for that boat,” Mrs. Chandler hissed at Billy as she dragged him and Jenny away from the pond.
Billy was unrepentant. “I’m hungry,” he said, glancing back at me.
“Yeah, can we go to McDonald’s?” I asked.
“Happy meals!” Lil said. “Oooh, Happy meals!”
“No McDonald’s for you!” Mrs. Chandler scolded us, over her shoulder, snapping the pine needles and kicking up the sand of the pathways beneath her feet as she marched.
But Mom was quiet and when Mrs. Chandler asked her why, she said, “I was really hoping to get some fries. Dave never lets us stop.”
It was true: Dad hated McDonald’s, and rarely gave into Lil’s pleas that the toys were the best there.
I was shuffling alongside of Mom as we went, and she caught my eye and winked after saying this. I felt a warm rush of relief: she was still on our side.
So we went to McDonald’s anyway, although Mrs. Chandler reminded us twice that we were there for our mother’s sake, not our own. “After the way you acted,” she said, peering back at us in the rear view mirror of the Chandlers’ big Buick. Mrs. Chandler looked over at Mom for confirmation, but she was staring out the window, watching the junk shops and antique stores on the old highway go by.
“Maybe after,” Mrs. Chandler suggested, “we could go see that church.”
“What is your obsession with that church?” Mom responded, her voice gentler than she would have used with Dad, but still, harsh. But she was right: What was up with Mrs. Chandler and the church?
“I took the kids out to see it a few weeks ago,” Mrs. Chandler said, glancing in the mirror at Billy and Jenny.
Billy said indignantly: “Not me!”
“Oh, right,” Mrs. Chandler said, like it didn’t matter. “Just Jenny.”
“It was fascinating,” Jenny said dryly, which caused Billy to snort and look out the window.
Then, after a pause, she said it again: “Fascinating.”
Mrs. Chandler frowned, annoyed.
“I’d love to see it,” Mom said. “And I bet Cal would too. He just did a whole school report on a church, didn’t you, Cal?”
I looked up at her, but she hadn’t turned her face to me. “I did a report two years ago,” I said. “On the Notre Dame.”
Mom nodded, as if I was confirming the point she was making.
We were not much better in the restaurant. At the park, there was more space, but by the time we were all in the booth, we could feel their impatience with us radiating off of them—they wanted to be talking to each other, not to us. They wanted us to be older, to want to sit in a booth by ourselves far away from them, to be capable of opening our own ketchup packets. They wanted to be waving good-bye to our backs while we ran out to the station wagon where our friends were waiting to take us to football games on Friday nights. They wanted us to sneak into R-rated films.
We weren’t those things, so we kicked each other under the table and said mean things under our breath.
“You’re going to get pimples,” Billy hissed at Jenny as she reached for the rest of Lil’s fries, while our mothers talked about someone they had known in college, someone Mrs. Chandler had run into at the Pirates game she’d taken Billy and Jenny to.
“He was cute,” Mom said. “Is he still cute?”
Mrs. Chandler made a funny expression.
“Oh, he was,” Mom said. “Very, very cute.”
Billy said, “Pimples,” to Jenny again, but she didn’t respond, and didn’t stop eating the French fries.
“Those are made with horse fat,” I said to her.
“Ewww,” Lil said, and pushed her tray away.
“More for me!” I said, and gobbled them down. Lil hit my hand, and said, “Stop it, Cal!”
I ate another handful of fries, half-watching Mom, who looked a little bored with Mrs. Chandler’s story about running into the very, very cute man they’d once known.
“Mom!” Lil bellowed, and Mom had to turn to Lil and solve her problem.
“And Dave gets the whole weekend off,” Mrs. Chandler said to Mom.
“Tell me about it,” she replied.
“That doesn’t bother you?” Mrs. Chandler said.
“Sure, it does,” Mom said. “But he needs some time to himself too. He’s always…” and her eyes shifted around to the four of us kids before she went back to meeting Mrs. Chandler’s “…always better when he comes back from some time off with Pete.”
“I just want you to be happy,” Mrs. Chandler said to Mom.
Billy began to neigh quietly under his breath, and after Lil was looking at him, he made a motion like slitting his throat, and a low bubbling noise.
“That takes a lot of nerve,” Mom said to Mrs. Chandler. And again, calmly, but after a deep breath: “That takes a lot of nerve.”
“Oh, Bess,” Mrs. Chandler said, but Mom wouldn’t meet her gaze, which implored her to look up. I felt a moment of recognition: it was a look I regularly shot my mom’s way, too, had done so just a few hours before on the roller coaster at Idlewild. Look at me.
Just then, Lil burst into tears and said she felt sick, and because she was the littlest and the cutest, the mothers had to give in and coo over her. We suspected Lil wasn’t really sick, until she threw up on the way to the bathroom. Then we felt sorry for her, too, all of us, and in the car, we were quiet and kind to each other in the back seat, petting Lil. We didn’t quite notice that our mothers were not part of the quietude and kindness. I barely registered that Mom just sang along to the old Drifters’ song on the radio while Mrs. Chandler drove and glanced over at her from time to time.
“So, the church,” Mrs. Chandler said. “It’s only about a half-hour away, and there’s plenty of sunlight left.”
“But Lil’s sick!” Jenny said, and we all looked over at Lil, who nodded: Yep. Still sick. She’d been playing with the My Little Pony she got in her happy meal for the last five minutes, sticking it in Billy’s hair and making it cantor down his arm, but she immediately grasped that we wanted to go home, so, still sick. Sure.
“You’re not sick,” Mrs. Chandler said, and then, before we could mount a convincing case, she turned the car onto an exit and we turned down a country road. I thought about the way we had circled the boats far away in order to slam them with more force. This felt the same, like we were heading toward a collusion again.
As an act of defiance, I decided to sing all the words to all the Bon Jovi songs I knew. I only knew two of their songs, and really just the choruses, so I was pretty sure I was going to be annoying. Billy, by the other back door, slumped against his window and watched the scenery go by, making a half-hearted attempt to count the cows. Lil and Jenny, between us, played games of patty-cake and hand-stacking until they grew bored, too, and just held hands limply, each lazily looking at their respective brothers, and the view beyond them, out the window, to where the mountains were beginning to glow in the evening light.
In the front seat, we heard Mrs. Chandler ask Mom if she remembered driving like this, “driving around for no reason,” in college. Mom said that she did, and she laughed. “What’s so funny, honey?” Mrs. Chandler said, and Lil and Jenny smiled at each other, at the rhyme.
“Cindy, there was always a reason for me, you know,” Mom said. She didn’t look over at Mrs. Chandler, just waited for a minute, and then said again, “You know that.”
“Oh, Bess,” said Mrs. Chandler in a strangled voice, but her eyes leapt up to the rearview mirror again, and saw me looking at them. I shifted my eyes away.
“How you guys doing back there?” Mrs. Chandler said in a way that sounded too cheerful.
“Why are we going to this stupid church?” Billy said. “The A-Team is on.”
“It is?” Jenny said, sitting up, and peering at her brother.
“Well, it will be,” Billy said.
“I’m not allowed to watch The A-Team,” Lil said.
“Never mind,” Mrs. Chandler said, and adjusted her sunglasses. “We’re almost there, anyway.”
It took almost an hour, not the 30 minutes she’d said. When we pulled into the old parking lot, the edges crumbling back into the ground, the sun was lower in the sky but it was still very hot. The little white church was pretty, we guessed, like a calendar we saw at our grandmothers’ houses, but not anything really interesting, just stuck out in a field in the middle of nowhere, the mountains sloping off behind it. There was a sign that said Faith of God Church and an invitation to come on in and pray, which made the entire outing seem even worse. Were we going to go in and pray? I hadn’t been in a church since Mr. Chandler’s funeral. Was this praying business connected to Mrs. Chandler’s crazy need to show Mom this church? Also, how could it still be so hot at seven in the evening?
The four of us listlessly got out of the car and wandered over to the only place to sit, a prickly, splinter-filled wooden picnic table. I looked over at my mom to see what she was thinking, and saw that her face had assembled itself into a look of patient forbearance, the same way she looked at me when I described the different types of dinosaurs to her. She was going to endure this.
“Go play, you guys,” Mrs. Chandler said. The cemetery behind the church was full of bumps and rolls, it was true, and on another day, she probably could have gotten us to wander over and explore. But we were tired and annoyed, and I thought to myself, “I am way too old to play.” Thankfully, the heat and the long day had gotten to her too, and her voice withered away. She watched us flop around the table, pressing ourselves into the half of it that was somewhat shaded.
“Well,” Mrs. Chandler said to Mom “it is a pretty church now, isn’t it?” We noticed that there was something odd in her voice, but we didn’t know what it was, so we ignored it. We were hot. There was nothing to do. We began to look sideways at each other to make a plan about how to get away from here. Could one of us get sick again?
But before we could begin, Mom looked at Mrs. Chandler and frowned, then suddenly began to walk quickly across the gravel towards the church. She ignored Mrs. Chandler calling, “Bess! Now, Bess!”
Lil turned to me, and said, “Where’s Mom going?”
“Like I know,” I said, affecting teenage disdain and lying back on the picnic table bench. “Ask her.”
Lil stood up on the bench and screamed, “Mom! Where are you going? MOM!”
“Seriously, Lillith?” I said.
But Mom turned back to call, “Stay with the Chandlers.”
Lil sat back down with an expression that was both mollified and confused.
Mrs. Chandler put her hands on her hips and cocked her head at Mom’s back. We all knew that look. It was the same look she had when she’d tried to figure out whether to buy a family pass for Idlewild Park, or to use their AAA membership. The church’s front door banged shut: Mom had gone inside.
“It’s unlocked?” Mrs. Chandler asked the air.
“Obviously,” Billy observed. Mrs. Chandler set off for the church, as well.
“Hey!” We all yelled. “Hey, hey!”
“Just wait here,” she said to us.
“But it’s getting dark,” Jenny said, as if we were in a vampire movie.
“Oh, you’ll be fine,” she said to our dismayed looks. The door banged shut behind her, too.
“It’s not dark yet,” I said. “It’s going to be at least two hours until it’s, like, really dark.” I sat up, though, to keep an eye on things.
It was quiet then, a dull, hazy quiet, the kind that seems to have the soundtrack of insects buzzing around your head, even when there aren’t any. We found ourselves sitting two by two, across from each other, shoved into the shaded part that wasn’t lit by the setting sun, but holding ourselves so that we didn’t touch. We looked at each other, searchingly, wondering what to do. How long were they going to be in there?
Lil said, “Remember that book you read to me?”
“What book?” I said. “I read a lot of books, Lil.”
“The one about the man with goat feet.”
The three of us older kids looked at each other: What?
“The kids in it go through a cupboard,” Lil continued.
“The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe!” Jenny said, getting it first. “We read that, too,” she said to Billy, who nodded.
Everyone looked at Lil expectantly, waiting for some explanation as to why she’d brought this up, but she looked worriedly at the church.
Then I got it. “Oh, God, Lil, come on. They’re just inside!” I said, then turned to Jenny and Billy and said, “She thinks they’ve gone to Narnia or something.”
“No, I don’t!” Lil said. “That’s dumb.”
“Why’d you bring up the book then?” Lil glared at me and folded her arms, looking away from us and towards the tree.
“What are they doing in there, though?” Jenny asked.
“I don’t know. Does your mom bring all of your visitors here?”
“No,” Bill said sharply. Then, “I don’t think so. I’ve never been here before.” He turned to his sister and said, “You were here before. What’s here?”
“Beats me. We drove in, and she got out to look around. I was reading a book. Then she got back in and we drove away.”
“I hope you’re planning to be a detective someday, Jenny,” I said.
But by then, Billy had gotten up and taken a couple of steps towards the building. Jenny got up too, and then we all were on the move across the parking lot. We told each other, “Quiet, quiet,” and we didn’t even squeak the gravel as we moved, until we all four had climbed up the cracking concrete steps, holding on to the rickety, rusting railing, and collectively pressed our ears against the door, jockeying for position, with Lil and Jenny finally kneeling down, leaving me and Billy facing each other. I pressed my right ear against the door, and Billy did the same with his left.
We couldn’t hear anything. We looked across at our partners in crime and made faces: Nope. Billy, closest to the door crack, shooed us all away and peeked in, then again pressed his ear against the crack.
Jenny said, “Can you hear anything?”
“Not with you talking, God,” Billy said.
We were quiet. The expression on Billy’s face changed so that he looked worried. He pulled away from the door and leaned in towards me, but Jenny and Lil wanted to hear, too and kept jostling us.
“Just say it, Billy. We’re all in this together,” I said.
Billy didn’t look happy, but he hissed at all of us, “I think I hear someone crying.”
I didn’t wait for a moment longer, just reached up and very slowly turned the doorknob. If there hadn’t been a vestibule, we would have been toast, but there was, a little buffer of a hallway before the main room. When the door was creaked open, we crawled in, Billy first, then Jenny, then Lil, then me, pulling it shut behind me with my fingertips. Billy moved slowly at first, testing to make sure the floorboards wouldn’t squeak and give us away, until Jenny breathed, “It’s concrete.” As fast as we could, we all crawled through the room at the back, and through the open doors of the sanctuary, and pushed ourselves up against the back of the last row of pews. It was cooler in the church, although not by much, and we pressed our faces against the polished wood, waiting and listening, moving our heads from side to side so each cheek got an equal share of the relief.
Someone was crying, we could hear, the kind of sobs that we weren’t used to hearing from grown-ups. I remembered the crying at the funeral for Jenny and Billy’s dad. Mr. Chandler had died after a long illness of some sort, and the crying at his funeral had a lot of relief in it, like people were sad, but also really glad that everything was finally over. But this crying reminded me of the noise Jenny had made when Billy had been trying to teach her to dive a couple of summers ago, and she belly-flopped into the pool. When my mom had pulled her out and she had caught her breath, the pain and embarrassment made her sound like this.
I signaled for everyone else to stay down, and then sat up on my knees just enough to see over the top of the pew. Mom was sitting slumped up against the railing at the front of the church, and, a few feet away, on the steps, Mrs. Chandler was crying. I stifled a gasp of horror and sat back down, with a thump that would have been heard if anyone had been paying attention. “What’s going on?” Billy asked. “Why is my mom crying?”
I didn’t answer him. I suddenly felt wrong about being in the church at all. It seemed like something private was happening between our mothers, something that we shouldn’t hear. Jenny and Lil were scared, anyway, and I was about to order us all to crawl back out.
Then, we all heard it, sailing over the pews.
“Why now?” Mom said loudly, harshly. “Why would you ask me this now?”
Mrs. Chandler murmured something through her tears.
“What do you care if they hear us—” Mom began, and then was cut off.
We heard more wet murmuring from Mrs. Chandler, and the names Billy and Lil. We all looked at each other, wide-eyed, scared.
“Of course, let’s not traumatize your kids,” Mom said.
“They’ve been through enough,” Mrs. Chandler said, her voice lacking the sarcastic tone, for once.
“What about my kids, Cindy? Cal’s almost a teenager. What do you suggest I tell them, that we’re just really good friends who live together? He’s not an idiot.” Mom’s voice climbed with each question: “What do you suggest I tell Dave? That ten years—ten years!—later, you’re finally ready? Now you’re ready? You’re ready now?”
There was a silence in the church.
“It’s too late,” Mom said, quieter, but still angry.
“You’re right,” Mrs. Chandler said.
“I know I’m right,” Mom said.
“I should have said ‘yes’ when you asked me. I should have said ‘yes’ right then.”
Mom’s voice sounded slightly calmer. “We were so young.”
“We’re not old now,” Mrs. Chandler said to her.
“Yes, we are,” Mom said. “Oh, honey, yes, we are.”
“I’m not,” Mrs. Chandler said.
“Why did you bring us here?” Mom asked her. “Why to a church?”
“Don’t you remember?”
“What?” Mrs. Chandler’s voice had a small hiccup in it. “You told me you loved me in a church. Remember? The chapel on campus.”
“We were never in the chapel on campus,” Mom said, her voice calm now.
“Sure we were, honey. Remember? Dave was in that choir that sang on Sunday mornings and we went that one time…” Mrs. Chandler’s voice dropped off.
I felt the silence change.
“I changed my mind, Cindy,” Mom said. “You are still young. You’re right. You are still so young.”
For the first time, since we started eavesdropping, I looked over at the other kids and it was like Mom’s words were an evocation: they, too, suddenly seemed so young, just babies, and I felt so old. Before I could say anything, we heard the sound of Mom’s Birkenstocks hitting the sanctuary floor.
“We’ve got to get out of here!” Billy hissed.
And then, we split up.
Jenny crawled out of the sanctuary and back into the foyer and out the door. She took a seat at the picnic table and saw the minister pull into the parking lot in his Oldsmobile, watched him emerge from the car dressed in his clerics, and witnessed him peer at their Buick and then at the church. She waited quietly for the rest of us, the sun at her back.
Billy waited and then crawled to the door, and stopped and waited some more, and then went out into the vestibule and stood up. He picked up and put down the literature he found on the table there, not paying attention to what he was doing until the minister came in and greeted him in a friendly, if slightly befuddled, way, and then directed him away from the pamphlets about help for pregnant women and towards those that were about his upcoming bodily changes. Billy took a few and walked outside to lean against the car and wait. He couldn’t see his sister, except in silhouette, once he was outside.
In the back of the church, Lil burst into tears. She stood up and faced the front of the sanctuary. She cried quietly at first, so that no one noticed, but then louder and louder, until Mom heard her, her head perking up like a deer in the forest who hears a hunter. Her sandals thwacked on her path to the back of the church, where she gathered up Lil. Once out of sanctuary, Lil claimed she had fallen and scraped her knee. Mom couldn’t see the scrape—neither could the minister, who they met in the narthex—but she kissed Lil’s knee anyway, and sat outside with her, near Jenny and Billy, while Mrs. Chandler “finished looking around” as my mom explained she was doing.
I remained sitting where I was in the sanctuary. After a while, I began to pull at the carpet on the floor, picking away at the edging so that grooved bits of red yarn came away under my fingers. When my mom walked out of the sanctuary with Lil, a few long minutes later, she walked right past me, not noticing. Not long after that, the minister, coming in, saw me, and said hello, and told me my mother had taken my sister outside. I nodded solemnly, waiting for the minister to realize that there was a crying lady sitting on the steps at the front of the church. When he turned toward the altar, and made a half-noise of surprise, I walked out of the sanctuary and leaned against the doorway into it, waiting, my back toward the altar. I wanted to give them some privacy, I guess, so I didn’t see the minister encounter Mrs. Chandler, her face soaked with tears, nor hear what they said to each other. After a few minutes, Mrs. Chandler exited the church walking right by me, ending up out by the car, saying it was time to go and that we should stop for some ice cream if we could find a stand. From where I was standing, I could see in both directions: Mrs. Chandler reaching the car and talking about ice cream to my sister, but also the minister in the church, who straightened up the hymnals in the pews and never turned around to look behind him, just hummed lightly, a hymn, maybe, or maybe just a television jingle.
I turned back to look out the door. Billy was walking over to his mom, who ruffled his hair. Jenny got up from the picnic table. It looked like Lily had stopped crying. “I’m the only who knows,” I thought. Which was silly, because my mom and Mrs. Chandler knew, and I’m sure Billy and Jenny, at least, got it at some level. But I said it to myself again: “I’m the only who knows.”
Years later, when I was a willfully despondent 19-year-old in love with a girl named Rachel who I met in my second-year paleontology class, Mom called me at college because Lil had filled her in about Rachel, how she had been to Turkey and saw a dig there, and was a little too tall, and liked Joni Mitchell’s earlier albums, and didn’t love me back. Mom had told me, “I think the most important thing about love is to be glad when you have it, and to let it go when it wants to go.” I had nodded into the phone, because I knew that this realization was hard-earned, knew exactly when and where Mom had earned it, knew that she had, in the end, chosen me and Lil and our dad, the sensible choice. The choice of a grown-up. On the other end, Mom waited, and I thought that maybe she wanted me to ask a question. But then I thought that maybe she just wanted to be sure I was ok, so I said, “Thanks, Mom. That helps.”
“Good,” she said.
And then, because I was still young and just thought I was old, I went right on loving Rachel, until, at last, finally, I didn’t.
That was our last Chandler-Shuster visit together. I wasn’t surprised. Mom decided the Shusters should go to the shore the next year, all four of us, and ignored Lil’s pestering about why things were changing. Finally, Lil cornered me in the kitchen when Mom and Dad were out and asked, “Why aren’t we going to see the Chandlers this year?”
“Sometimes friendships are over,” I said.
“I don’t like that,” Lil said.
“Well, no, of course you don’t,” I said.
She dropped it.
The Chandlers took a trip to Gettysburg that summer, and the year after that, to Yellowstone with Tom Donaldson, Mrs. Chandler’s new husband. She became a Donaldson, but Billy and Jenny stayed Chandlers. We missed each other, missed how we paired up and twinned. But gradually, as these things happen, we forgot to miss each other, then forgot what it was like to be together, and then, finally, we forgot, mostly, what we had heard and didn’t worry over it anymore, burying it in under layers of new history, seeing things through the scope of time gone by. I forgot it, or I told myself I did, which was essentially the same thing.
But when I got the sympathy card with a note from Jenny, forwarded by my office to here in Arizona, I remembered what had happened. It came back to me: not just those moments at the church, when I realized that Mom and Mrs. Chandler had been a couple in college, and that they each had wanted, at one point in time, to build a life together, just never at the same time, but also the day at the amusement park, when we had been wild and unconstrained, desperately wanting our mothers to step in and, well, mother us. But they hadn’t. The world wasn’t about us, after all, and our mothers weren’t about us, either. They were separate. We kids were all separate, too, and I, as the oldest, was the most separate because I was the first to begin growing up. We could think of ourselves as a unit and pretend to be “we” but really, we saw, there was just I and I and I and I. All of us alone, together.
Holding Jenny’s note in my hand, I thought about calling Lil, who would be putting her kids to bed, or my dad, to see how he was doing, two months after Mom’s death. I thought about Idlewild, and about that church, and its odd little minister who’d managed to say something to Mrs. Chandler that allowed her, somehow, to get herself together. But I didn’t call anyone. I just stood under the tent we set up by the dig site and watched the sun start to ease down the Arizona horizon, blasting out heat like a benediction. I wished I hadn’t been reminded of that day.
But then, after a few minutes, the way the sun was slanting made me remember the drive home from that church, after ice cream cones and washing our hands, sort of, in the drinking fountain at the stand, the kids piled up in the backseat. I held myself apart, until Lil buried her head in my shoulder, and then we all linked up arms and intertwined our legs, all of our browned skin blending together, cuddling up like a pile of puppies, resting on each other in the back seat. We all fell asleep off and on during the long, dark drive home, always one of us awake to keep an eye out. When we woke up, we’d peek out from under our eyelashes and look at each other, then check to make sure that the mothers were watching us. They were. They looked in the rearview mirror and poked each other, whispering, “Look at them!” They smiled at each other and at us, all the way home, like something good had happened that day.
Shannon Reed is an MFA student in fiction at the University of Pittsburgh, where she also teaches Intro to Writing Fiction. Her work was recently featured at McSweeney’s, and her first book will be published by McGraw-Hill in May of 2014. This story is partly inspired by Idlewild Park in Ligonier, Pennsylvania, where she spent many happy days as a child.
Photo by Simmons B. Buntin.