One Look Back

“Now, after days of asking, she and her mother were finally minutes away from the cabin.”

Illustration by Chloe Cushman
Illustration by Chloe Cushman

Lucretia was eight when she took the walk with her mother in Staunton, Virginia, where they’d moved after her mother’s job in Norfolk ended. Now they lived with her mother’s favorite cousin, Riley Prall, who was 52, and in a weakened condition, though he’d painted a room of his apartment lavender for Lucretia, because it was her favorite color. Her mother, Edith, had been amazed that he’d been so thoughtful—though why that should have surprised her, when he’d expressed delight at their moving in temporarily, Lucretia couldn’t understand. Cousin Riley had gotten pneumonia the previous July and never bounced back, so two health aides alternated making visits twice a week, on his non-dialysis days. Both aides were women: Arna Mae and her friend Marilyn, who’d been sober for 13 years and worked for the same agency. Marilyn parked on Beverley Street and climbed the front steps, rather than driving up the steep driveway rutted with potholes and scattered with stone, as if the sky had opened and one of the gods, in an angry fit, had thrown down boulders. (Lucretia was learning about the gods in school. “This is what education’s become?” her mother often complained to Cousin Riley, who tried to calm her.) Arna Mae, Lucretia’s favorite health aide, drove right up the steep incline, her tires skidding on the stones, and parked with the hazard lights flashing while she visited Riley. She’d recently brought a heart-shaped, red plush pillow with a padded arrowhead sewn to look like it was popping out one side, its pleather tail protruding from the other. She was re-gifting a present her husband had bought her for Valentine’s Day, because she’d thought Lucretia would like it more: her husband was a generous man who approved of spreading happiness. Arna Mae had also recently given Lucretia two potholders made of quilted fabric, made to look like vertical pigs wearing white aprons and hats. Chef’s attire now occupied a large part of Lucretia’s imagination; she’d requested for her ninth birthday an apron just like the pigs’, though Cousin had bought her one on eBay well in advance of that day, just because. It was so long that it had to be folded after it was raised to her armpits, the strings fastened in back, then brought forward to be tied in a bow.

On the day she and her mother took the walk, they were following Arna Mae’s instructions on how to find the log cabin. This was a small house made from timber, which meant wood, and you could see the cement, or whatever it was, that oozed like frosting between cake layers. Arna Mae told them to be sure to notice the funny sign beside the side door.

Lucretia really wanted to go there. She was bored. She was too young for real homework, though sometimes she had to bring in things like autumn leaves, as if she was still in kindergarten, or a family knickknack, otherwise known as a tchotchke, and tell its story. There was a handout list her third-grade teacher often revised of things still to be shown and discussed. She’d just moved a book written and autographed by Michelle Obama to the top of the list, because, she told the class, she was afraid it might be banned. Next up for discussion would be: a chunk of wood that fell off a railing because of extreme squirrel gnawing; a blue bathmat that smelled like feet even when it was dry, on which somebody’s brother had painted clouds that had started to flake; the lace collar a girl’s mother had detached from her wedding dress; a dead dog’s plaid winter vest that fastened with Velcro and remained hanging on a hook beside the coats (Corey Benvanista’s mother sometimes buried her nose in it and sobbed); a little box containing three Mexican jumping beans that had actually been bought in Guanajuato, Mexico, but that never jumped.

Lucretia held her mother’s hand, the one that had been scalded when soup splashed up like a geyser from a big vat the second her mother and another man had dropped it on the tire-size burner in the school cafeteria. Her mother insisted the purple spot was not a burn but a bruise. It was really better not to bring up the accident, so Lucretia just linked pinkies with her. Lucretia also knew not to ask questions about her father. All she knew was that he’d been the captain of his football team, then a pilot, though Cousin said he was about as much a pilot as Snoopy the dog. (He was a flight attendant for United, her mother said. “For a week,” Cousin snorted.)

A white-haired lady whose dog had a nose pointed like a party hat passed by and said hello, and Lucretia wondered if she’d been at the log cabin, and if that was why she was smiling. Lucretia wasn’t afraid of dogs, but she knew to ask before she touched one. There’d been a big dog named Anthony that lived in apartment #4, but in July he went to summer dog camp and never returned, because he was very big and it was better for him to live outside of town. Then, in the fall, his owner went to bed and never woke up. Lucretia wasn’t supposed to know that, but she’d heard Arna Rae talking to Cousin about it. There’d been a gathering on the steep hillside behind the apartments, with someone’s phone playing music, while Mr. Bettius’s wife said a nonreligious prayer (“More like a poem, very inoffensive,” Cousin explained). Mrs. Elber’s son drove to Staunton from Buena Vista. Six or seven other people struck matches and held them up, though it didn’t quite work because there’d still been daylight, and the point had been to light the darkness. Lucretia had not been allowed to join her mother. Cousin stayed in his apartment because he felt poorly. Lucretia had put on her chef’s apron, to see whatever she could through the window.

Now, after days of asking, she and her mother were finally five minutes away from the cabin. Ivy grew up so many trees, they’d eventually be strangled to death. Cousin had a phobia (which meant he was afraid) about ivy, kudzu, and honeysuckle. They passed by somebody’s birdbath. Her mother said that it was another 50-50 situation: When the birdbath was filled, the birds would have a way to sit nearby to wait their turn, but at the same time, the neighborhood cats could lurk behind the clumps of tall grasses and attack them.

It was February. Her mother liked to say that any winter day that wasn’t freezing was “pleasant as a pheasant.” The sky was blue, there was only a little wind. Edith said, “I hope this place lives up to your expectations. If nothing else, I guess it’ll make Riley’s look luxurious, though it was kind of Mrs. Elber’s son to give Riley his mother’s wood stove, so we don’t have to rely on that expensive baseboard heat.” Heat, which was a utility, was not included in Cousin’s rent. In his unit (#3), there was an alcove off the living room that could have been used as a dining area, though after Cousin gave Edith his room, he slept in there on a twin bed behind a bamboo blind dropped to the floor. The bed was placed sideways, so it wouldn’t stick out into the room. Lucretia’s room had no door, but beads hung there, and she had a shelf for important things, with a basket that held her dirty laundry and two baskets that held her clean, folded clothes. She very much wished that once they got to the cabin there’d be a hidden key under a cement lawn angel, or on the ledge above the door. Maybe there’d be one! Then they’d be able to go in and look around. The cabin was empty, Cousin had told her mother.

It was in a gully, so you could barely see it until you got right up to the iron railing along one side of the sidewalk, above it. There was an outdoor seating area, sort of like the one Mrs. Elber had set up in front of her apartment, with a lawn chair and a folding chair. This outdoor area, though, was huge, with real furniture, chairs you’d have in a living room, and an iron bench and a folded umbrella that looked like half of a big white popsicle. Arna Mae hadn’t even mentioned the outdoor living room. Instead of a ceiling, there was sky. It was really nice, even if there wasn’t a barbecue grill (their neighbors in #7 had taken theirs in for the winter, too, though Mr. Bettius cooked on a hibachi he put on the fire escape outside his kitchen window; he stuck tongs out the window to cook the meat.)

“Can we go down there?” she asked.

“There are NO TRESPASSING signs. See that sign? It means there’s a hidden camera,” her mother said.

“What if we just looked in the windows?”

“You can see fine from here. One day you’ll believe me: things can be much more interesting at a distance. Like a house that’s falling into the ground.”

“What does that say?”

“That says … it must be what Arna Mae told us to look at … what do you think it says, darling?”


She was corrected: “Pickpockets. People who steal your money,” Edith said. “It certainly looks deserted.” Edith rummaged in her coat pocket. “The mice are running!” she squealed. This was a joke she made when Lucretia saw her feeling around in her pocket, out of habit, for long-gone Tic Tacs.

“You know why they hung up that sign?” her mother asked.

“To be funny,” Lucretia said.

“Because they’re assholes,” her mother said. “Though when I think about it, they’re admitting their own house looks so disreputable that if you went anywhere near it, you might get robbed, and if that’s not bad enough, Oooooh, look out! Bad women are in there. If the robbers don’t get you, the women will.”

“It’s depressing,” Lucretia said. She’d learned this response from Cousin. Whenever he said it—he often did, watching the six o’clock news—her mother brightened; she’d immediately agree, then there’d be no further discussion.

“It certainly is,” her mother said. “It’s 2023, and we still have the same old sexist remarks. You don’t see a sign saying loose men because there are no loose men, they’re just men. They demonize women because they’re ashamed of their own desire.”

A car drove by. Sometimes she and her mother played the Subaru game, counting only Subarus. This car was something else, though. A dog’s head poked out the window. Lucretia thought about asking again if they could go to the SPCA and get a dog, but she didn’t really want one, and her mother only liked birds, or at least the ones in Cousin’s Audubon book that he’d paid a dollar for at the library sale. At the SPCA, you had to agree to send your pet to surgery when you took it away, after you’d already paid a lot of money to get it. Sometimes SPCA people even came to see where you lived and said no, because your apartment wasn’t good enough.

“If we lived there, we could take the sign down. And we could plant flowers and make the outdoor area even prettier.”

“Well, hold that thought, and when you’re an adult, volunteer for the planning commission.”

“Can’t we do anything?

“What do you mean, anything? We walked a mile and a half to get here. That’s doing something. I hate it when the temperature drops this fast.”

“I can tell you something you don’t know,” Lucretia said.

Her mother considered this. “Tell me something I do know,” she said. “You might have a better grip on that than I do.”

“Okay, you know that Cousin always feels poorly. And you tell me to call Arna Mae ‘Mrs. Cummings,’ but she says to call her Arna Mae.”

“True,” her mother said. “Can’t you think of anything a little less humdrum?”

“What does that mean?”

“Less ordinary. Not the same old, same old.”

“I’d be telling you all day what I know you know.”

“Is that right? You can read my mind? Maybe I should accept that. Okay, go ahead, tell me something I don’t know. I shouldn’t have interrupted. I might have found out you’ve tried fentanyl, or something.”

“I’m nine, Mom! Nobody’s even asked me to do drugs.”

“That’s a relief. You aren’t nine, though. You’re eight years, four months and a few days old. What is it I don’t know?”

Lucretia smiled. She said, “In Norfolk, Kyle’s mother put us in a double stroller, and she wore earbuds and sang along with Tammy Wynette and we’d sing, too, then we went to a bakery and a man handed her pizza dough out the back door.”


“They spoke Spanish.”

“Jessica Stuple speaks Spanish?”

Hola!” Lucretia said.

“She put you in that ridiculous stroller and wheeled you to a bakery to get dough that was handed out the back door? Kyle would agree to sit still in a stroller?”

“We pretended to be babies.”

“You did this more than once?

Lucretia nodded. “If we sang too loud, she’d shush us. We didn’t know most of the songs, so we sang, ‘Oh beautiful for spacious skies.’ ”

“Unbelievable! It’s actually sort of wonderful, Jessica jogging and singing and pushing that stroller. You know, her husband makes a lot of money. He’s a big lawyer.”

The one time Edith had gone back to visit after moving, Ned Stuple had walked in and slid his hand down her hip as she stood at his kitchen sink drinking a glass of water, and had told her, in response to her having told him earlier about the vat of soup erupting, that she definitely had a case against the school, and maybe the stove’s manufacturer, but that he only represented criminal cases. Nonetheless, he’d be happy to meet at the Hilton bar the following evening to discuss it.

“It’s cold. We should start back,” she said. “I’m going to be very very happy when Toyota calls and says the Corolla’s repaired. They must be shipping the part from China. Or Ukraine, with my luck. Darling, did Jessica tell you not to tell me about going to the bakery?”

“No. But Mom, can you take a picture of me down there? And get the furniture in?”

“I already told you: that property’s posted.”

“But there’s a sidewalk.”

“It’s not a sidewalk, it’s a path that belongs to the people next door.”

“Yeah, but they don’t say, NO TRESPASSING. I won’t even touch their stupid grass, I’ll stand right there”—she pointed—“and you can get the furniture behind me, and please please please get the cabin in.”

“Then make it snappy. I didn’t raise you to go traipsing down a stranger’s private walkway.”

Lucretia tilted her body the way she had when she’d leaned into her first steps, intent on propelling herself forward before she fell. Sometimes it had been all Edith could do to look encouraging. Not to crack up.

Lucretia stood with her arms spread, gesturing to suggest that everything in the photograph was hers. Her daughter should want a bicycle and nag her more about getting a dog, but instead she wanted to pretend (“Don’t worry, I won’t put even the toe of my shoe on their precious lawn”) this dilapidated furniture was hers, that the rotting mess was wonderful.

“Move over so you can get it all in,” Lucretia said, turning to stand in profile.

She turned the phone horizontally, tilting it to include the sign, and the missing board below it, as well as the rusted sink near the door, sprouting weeds.

The cement path Lucretia stood on was no wider than an ironing board, with chunks heaved up. Behind her, a bird dove and rose, clutching something in its beak. A squirrel, another bird? That had happened with breathtaking speed.

“One more,” Lucretia insisted, trying to prolong their time outside, oblivious to the fact that they’d be walking back at twilight. They had no car—it was so frustrating, Edith thought, having to ride the bus to Kroger, which was exactly what she should have been doing; at Riley’s, they were down to frozen burritos, and frozen peas in a bag so big, they’d been eating out of it since Christmas. Lucretia would be sad there’d be no guacamole and chips, which they always ate first on Mexican dinner night—that she’d just be eating a burrito with a squirt of cheese on top, and peas rolling around beside it. Lucretia deserved better. Maybe she really should keep the appointment with HR and think about suing, especially since her hand was worse.

A flash in her peripheral vision got her attention. Another creature was flying through the air, darting sideways, then rising straight up. A drone! So who was controlling it? She looked around and saw only an elderly man in a helmet and Lycra pants, panting, rolling his bike uphill—who could bicycle up such an incline? He sounded like Cousin on a bad day. The drone hovered just off the pathway on which Lucretia skipped, pretending she was hopscotching. She had no idea the drone was there. It was almost invisible from such a height. But no more did Edith think that than it dropped lower. Then it shot sideways and disappeared through the window of the house next door.

“Do you want me to take your picture, picture, picture?” Lucretia called, hopping on one foot, then running to Edith’s side.

“No thanks.” No, she didn’t. Who’d want a picture of some middle-aged woman laid off for getting burned, apparently unemployable elsewhere, whose daughter’s imagination had been so warped by the way they lived that discarded furniture and a crappy umbrella were interchangeable with a double-page spread in House Beautiful?

“Yes!” Edith said, changing her mind, “but let me go ahead so you can take it from behind. I don’t want a camera pointed at my face. Wait until I’m really small,” she said, handing her daughter her phone. She turned away, glad to be wearing Riley’s second best jacket, the warm one he’d said more than once could simply be hers, stuffed with goose down, its sharp little feathers occasionally stabbing her. You paid a price for everything.

Jogging uphill in the dwindling light, she tried to shake the thought that her hand throbbed because of something worse than the burn. They’d soon be back at Riley’s. He was probably already sitting in the kitchen with an ice bag plunked on his head (“My crown,” Riley called it), the ice bag he’d rescued from a pile of things Mrs. Elber’s son discarded the day he cleaned out her apartment. He almost always had headaches on Sunday nights, after a weekend without dialysis.

She decided to run up the hill really fast, impress her daughter with her unpredictability, as well as speed. This was the daughter she’d become pregnant with when she was returning from her mother’s funeral in Eau Claire. She’d had a little fling with a male flight attendant who’d also been snowed in at the airport hotel.

I will run like the wind, she thought—a cliché, but it was true. In fact, at the crest of the hill, it was easy to think she could lift off to become a drone, awaiting whatever signal would redirect her: Shoot off into someone’s yard? Zoom over the empty lot? It had been too sad, the visit to the log cabin. What had Lucretia expected? Now that she thought of it, Lucretia never made up stories like other children, she never pretended or invented things. Was she damaged forever by not having a father? Edith had to slow down; her heart was leaping in her chest.

Snow hadn’t been predicted, but big snowflakes had begun to fall. The street glistened. She ran faster, moving closer to the curb after a car swung widely around her. She got so little exercise. She didn’t have a Peloton. Bully for everybody who did. When she was stopped by a spasm of coughing and looked back, she couldn’t see Lucretia. Already, the funny story about the time Mom flipped out began to crystallize in her mind. She coughed again. Her hands were trembling; otherwise, she’d have zipped the jacket. Lucretia had read so many myths in school—those weird, sadistic stories, taught to third graders! Stories of rape, women turned into shrieking swans, morphing into trees, their near escape ruined for eternity because of one look back. She glanced over her shoulder, but didn’t see her daughter. Surely she wouldn’t have returned to the cabin? Well! Maybe by the time she saw Riley, she’d have to tell him that Lucretia had changed herself into a tree. If she hadn’t felt faint—god; why was she choking, like someone had forced an ear of corn down her throat? She was sweating. Even her tears were hot, and when she was reunited with her darling daughter—because surely, once she caught her breath, she could run downhill even faster—Lucretia would simply be an eight-year-old who hadn’t changed into anything.

And there she was!

Lucretia, beneath a street light, looking … quizzical, if Edith had to choose one word to describe that expression. She nearly collided with her daughter as she reached out to pull her close, whispering into her hair that she was sorry for being such a terrible mother, all the while knowing that Lucretia would protest, even if it required lying. A white lie, perfect for a snowy night. Maybe the sharp, weird vibration wasn’t in her chest. Maybe the ground was rumbling. Maybe they were standing on a fault line, and depending on which way it broke … But no, she was catastrophizing; that was way too dramatic, as was the image of two people floating away from each other on chunks of an iceberg, the way the two penguins had in that book that had made four-year-old Lucretia cry. “Show me,” Edith said, as Lucretia stood unmoving, like the folded umbrella, arms at her sides. “Did you get a picture of silly Mama, disappearing?”

“You were really small,” Lucretia said. “You were a dot. But you’ll never see it, unless you find your phone.”

“My phone?”

“I threw it in the trees,” Lucretia said, gesturing behind them. “I called Cousin, and he said he’d borrow Mr. Bettius’s car and come get me, to stay right where I was, under a light.” Across the widening gulf, Lucretia said, grudgingly, “You can ride with us if you want, or you can run all the way home.”

Thus was a rift created, though the daughter still loved the mother. There was also good news: The mother had not, after all, been having a heart attack. Many years would pass before that happened. Edith wouldn’t die for years after Riley did, after she’d met and married Frank. They’d move to Chicago, where, 12 years later, she’d fall to the ground after skipping a stone across the lake, where it hit six times before sinking. That, too, would happen on a snowy day, as Lucretia walked along the shore with her mother and stepfather. She’d die without knowing her daughter had been secretly engaged. When Lucretia married Carl at City Hall, her mother was already gone. Then began the fairy tale: she and her husband moved into their new apartment—a gift from Carl’s father—on the 16th floor of a glassy building with a roof deck, and a view of Lake Michigan.

“I was kidding, darling, just pretending to be making a big escape. Here I am! Now we’ll go back, warm up, and eat dinner.” If Riley offered, she might take one of his pain pills. Meanwhile, she rocked the collapsed umbrella that her thin, rigid daughter had become back and forth, back and forth, thinking, The hell with my cellphone, as they waited for their ride.

“What are they saying?” Axel asked Porter, who disliked the new earbuds and was listening through his old Bose headphones to the conversation between a mother and her daughter. Axel was the one who’d insisted they keep the drone in the air outside the cabin to keep an eye on them.

“The usual shit. How much the mother loves her. She deserved to have her phone thrown away; the kid shouldn’t worry—the phone can be found later. May I inquire: Does it remain your considered opinion that they wanted to score drugs? That woman, and that kid?”

Axel leaned over to see the drone’s position on the screen. It was high above the people on the street. “May I remind you,” Axel said, “that stranger things have happened. What about that jockey in Saratoga? You lost 20 bucks to me on that one, didn’t you? Why do you think they were taking pictures? A selfie or two, sure, real Americana for backdrop: some crappy cabin. But they were there a long time. Hopscotch? C’mon. A little too cute, don’t you think? Or maybe the kid was oblivious, and the mother was checking the place out.”

“Listen yourself,” Porter said, holding out the headphones, though Axel waved them away. Porter said, “I thought the mother was bitching at the kid, but she’s mad at herself. The mother’s bawling because they aren’t, I kid you not, having guac and chips for dinner. Whoa! Now the daughter’s talking, saying it’s all her mother’s fault, her cousin said it was. The mother’s bawling. What the fuck!”

“Since when did you have so much curiosity about family life, Port?”

Porter frowned in concentration. The voice levels had dipped. The new, improved directional mics were worse than the originals.

“Oh, bring it in,” Axel said. “I can’t stand endless chitchat.”

“The mother’s having a meltdown,” Porter said. “This is wild. Says she’s a terrible mother. Daughter’s saying nothing. I grant your point about the mics, by the way. If we both complain, but do it separately, they’ll do something.”

Axel sighed. After almost two weeks in Staunton, they’d made exactly one bust, and it involved only a small amount of coke. If nothing happened by Monday, they’d be sent back to the boarded-up gas station in Waynesboro to watch the parking lot outside Vape Vibes, which was the most boring job imaginable. D.C. had real action. Real problems. What was with the new head of the division, exiling them to Siberia? The guy didn’t like them. He just plain didn’t.

“What now?” Axel asked.

“They’re crying because somebody named Riley isn’t there. The mother should get a grip. The kid’s really upset. It’s killing them that they don’t have a phone. Jesus: Verizon should hire them for an ad! You take over; I’ll go down the street, all casual, and ask if everything’s okay. I haven’t seen one car in the last five minutes, and the snow’s really coming down.”

“I believe intervening’s not part of the job description,” Axel said.

“I know, but it’s 24 degrees out there. Feels like 16.” Porter’s head was close to the screen. He was perusing the drop-down information.

“You know, Port, if you really want to go ride up on your white horse? I think I was wrong and we should bring it in, but for you, I’ll handle the drone and the mics. It’s my strong suspicion no one else is going to show up at the cabin while you’re gone,” Axel said.

“On second thought, I don’t know,” Porter said. “I’m a guy. I’d probably just scare them, they’re so hyper. You’re right. They can knock on somebody’s door and use their phone. I’m not bucking for a humanitarian award.”

“Good call, bro. Super Bowl’s on in 20.”

Porter clamped the headphones back on. He listened, frowning.

“I’d bring it in,” Axel said. “But keep listening, because you know what? We might miss something, otherwise. Constant vigilance. That’s the job description.”

“They’re just standing there. The mother’s still panting from running up the hill and running back, after the kid threw the phone into the bushes. Weird. Hard to follow; we’ve got crap audio. The bugs on the targets don’t like getting wet.”

“So, remind me, Port. You thought you were going to be a forest ranger when you were in grade school? Back before everything started burning?”

“You should talk, Mr. Ship Captain. What’s the last time you were out on the water? Wait: headlights! The kid’s whatever, six maybe? She must have been freezing.” Actually, there was something strange about how unhinged the mother and the girl had become. Porter heard the car doors close through his headphones.

“What now?” Axel asked, cracking his knuckles.

“They got in the car.”

“There we have it,” Axel said. “When people aren’t dealers or users—or dealers who use—things turn out fine.” He walked into the kitchen, opened the refrigerator, and removed the last two Diet Cokes. He set them on the counter, took a big sip from each, then removed a flask from his jacket pocket, and poured a dose of bourbon into each can.

“Lost ’em,” Porter said. “Car drove off.”

“Hey, bro, serious for a minute,” Axel said, carrying the Diet Cokes into the other room. “You had a good impulse, to go see if they needed a phone.”

Porter reached for the can. He looked at Axel. “How long do I have to wait for the but?” he asked.

“Don’t go cynical because you can’t accept a compliment. Let’s bring our buddy in, what say? This is about the third time I’ve asked you.”

Porter got up and opened the window. Once before, a drone had been destroyed because they’d left a window closed. It fell to the ground and bounced around trying to get airborne, but the corner had been damaged and something protruded that looked like an old-fashioned spring. After that their exile began: Charlottesville—that wasn’t bad; then Waynesboro—grim, grim; then Staunton, which was basically a ghost town. At this rate, if the new guy didn’t come around, they’d end up in Mobile, and that sure as shit would give them the Memphis Blues Again. Lake Charles, monitoring crayfish. Tuscaloosa.

“Hello, my little friend,” Axel crooned, as the drone flew in. He pushed the wand, proud of how he could get it to land in its box, like a dog returning to its crate. “Who came for them?”

“Old piece of shit car. White. I don’t know. Family. It’s the South,” Porter said, thumping down in the broken La-Z-Boy that—as Ax liked to say—listed to starboard the minute you sat down.

“Eight minutes to game time,” Porter said. “Ready, Ax? Got any of that famous intuition of yours about who’s gonna win?”

“I’m philosophical. Winners, losers, we still get Rihanna at halftime.”

Axel’s was the more comfortable chair. He had a passing thought that maybe it was time to change jobs, move on, though he’d miss working with Port: James Porter Winters III, from Redding, Connecticut, who’d gone to Middlebury and majored in environmental studies. On graduation day, Port had been recruited by his own uncle! Until that moment, his life plan had been to follow his girlfriend back to her home in Aspen, meanwhile keeping the Old Man happy by applying to Georgetown Law. Life was funny, Axel thought. Anybody in their line of work would agree. He poured another splash of bourbon into the remains of his Diet Coke, took a sip, leaned back, and closed his eyes. In a few minutes: Super Bowl.

Porter had been thinking: Why are Ax’s eyes closed—did he fall asleep? He was holding the remote, which meant a lot to him, so let him have it. Then Porter had another thought: those people, whoever they were, would have made up. They’d be sitting in front of their fireplace, and in the absence of guacamole, they could eat brie on Triscuits. Macadamia nuts. Their little dog would be pawing somebody’s leg, begging to be lifted onto their lap. The mother would have dried her tears. She’d be setting the table with white china, like the plates his Aunt Judy inherited from her mother, and the girl—most kids were cute, but when he’d first seen her through the window that looked out on the cabin, she’d been so plain and gawky, so ordinary in every way, he’d felt sorry for her. Now, though, she’d be curled up in a chair, scrolling on her iPad, looking for fleece-lined tights, or coated elastic bands to gather back her hair. She’d wonder if it was true that Neutrogena hand cream was absorbed quickly, and whether her mother might finally give in and let her order Maus. Because her mother would definitely want to make it up to her: that long time waiting as the sky darkened and the snow fell and the wind blew, numbing their hands, feet, ears, and noses, the father coming so late, they’d pretty much abandoned hope.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Ann Beattie, a contributing editor of the Scholar, has published 20 novels and short story collections. She is the recipient of the PEN/Malamud Award and the Rea Award for the Short Story. Her work appears in five O. Henry Prize Stories anthologies as well as in Best American Short Stories of the Century.


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