Judith Slater’s story collection The Baby Can Sing and Other Stories won a Mary McCarthy Prize in Short Fiction and was published by Sarabande Books. Recent stories have been published in Storyquarterly, Ascent, Lake Effect, Eclipse, and other journals. She teaches creative writing and literature at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Free lesson plan for this story available in the Carve Classroom.
It was the fall of 1960, the smell of burning leaves was in the air, and Jack Kennedy was beginning to look like he might beat Richard Nixon. In our small Oregon town of McClary, people who used to tell our up-the-hill neighbor Helen Brashler that she looked like Natalie Wood started telling her she looked like Jackie.
“Can’t have that,” said Paul Brashler with his big booming laugh. “What would people think? Me, a die-hard Republican, married to a Democrat.”
“I don’t have to vote like her to look like her,” said Helen in her breathy, little-girl voice. She even sounded like Jackie.
In my opinion, Helen looked more like Jackie than Jackie. She had the same neat slender figure, the same thick dark hair, the same sculptured cheekbones, the same sense of style. It was the last that I coveted. My mother was dark and slender and pretty too, but no one told her she looked like anyone. Her caseworker job required only skirts and sweaters and shirtwaist dresses, and in truth she was happiest dressed in pedal pushers and a paint-spattered shirt, refinishing an old chair she’d bought for a dollar at a yard sale. She was unhappiest when there was an occasion to dress for—the Brashlers’ upcoming election party, for example.
This was an unusually important election because Paul Brashler was running for mayor. Paul had been a member of the City Council for a long time, and people had been telling him for years that he ought to run. At last he’d let himself be persuaded. And so, while Kennedy waited for the returns in Hyannis Port with his family and Nixon waited with his aides in Los Angeles, Paul would gather his closest friends around him to watch jowly, mournful Mel Lyons report the local returns on Channel 2. At the end of the evening, there would be a toast, and the Brashlers’ tabby cat Bunny would perform his only trick – drinking champagne out of a saucer, celebrating Paul’s victory along with everyone else.
Paul’s victory, unlike Nixon’s, was pretty much in the bag. Paul was the kind of man everyone liked—you couldn’t help yourself—and he radiated such good-humored confidence, such effortless success, that the people of McClary would have been idiots not to hitch their wagons to his star. Paul was a decorated World War II veteran. He owned the thriving Brashler Furniture store. He was president of the Kiwanis Club. And he was handsome, which, as his wife said, didn’t hurt a bit. He would have run unopposed, except for Andy Zirkle, who owned McClary’s first and only health food store, a dusty, cricket-infested place that sold sugarless candy bars and energy pills made from dried algae. Andy Zirkle had run in every mayoral election anyone could remember, never getting more than a handful of votes. People made fun of his campaign slogan, “Things will be dandy if you elect Andy,” but it seemed to me no worse than Nixon’s “Stick with Dick.”
My parents didn’t want to go to the party. They would rather have put their feet up on the coffee table and watched Huntley and Brinkley trade dry, wry comments as the night wore on. My father was painfully uncomfortable at parties. He was incapable of small talk and would stare into his drink, putting himself into a kind of trance while the conversation swirled around him. My parents were both social workers, and it was a job, I thought, that didn’t suit my introverted father. He used himself up dealing with people and their troubles, and a party at the end of a work day was the last thing he wanted.
And of course, there was the added problem that my parents—and I—would be the only Democrats in the room. But there seemed to be no getting out of it. “You have to come,” said Helen, sounding like she was about to cry. “You’re our best friends.”
This was news to me. And, judging from the startled looks my parents gave each other, it was news to them too.
“It’ll spice up the party to have you there,” said Paul. “It’ll make the conversation more interesting than if everybody was just standing around agreeing with each other.”
My father blanched. He hated political arguments as much as he hated parties, and the prospect of both in one evening just about did him in. “Why is it necessary to have an opinion on everything?” he’d complained to my mother recently after an evening with the Brashlers. “Why does Paul think I’m an apathetic know-nothing because I don’t interrupt every five seconds with some idiotic pronouncement? Political arguments aren’t real discussions at all, just a bunch of blowhards with their minds already made up, pawing the ground waiting for the chance to jump in with their two cents.”
“I’m not even asking you to vote for me,” said Paul now, smiling. “Just come to the party.”
“Well, of course we’re going to vote for you,” said my mother, looking upset. “Why would you think we wouldn’t?”
“I thought maybe you two voted the straight Democratic ticket.”
“If you think that,” said my father stiffly, “you don’t know us very well.”
“So you’ll come to the party,” Helen prompted.
My mother sighed. “We’ll come to the party.”
“Oh, good,” said Helen, and clapped her hands like a child. “What are you going to wear?” She turned to me. “And you, Lizzie? What are you going to wear? You’re invited too, of course.”
. . .
I was always invited. To the parties, and to the impromptu drinks-before-dinner every few weeks. I was the only child, the one who watched and listened, the one who knew, without knowing exactly what it was I knew, the complicated and uneasy nature of my parents’ friendship—if that’s what it was—with Paul and Helen Brashler.
I measure my childhood on a timeline: Before and After the Brashlers. For all I know, my parents measured their marriage that way, too. Before the Brashlers, I lived in a wildly happy state of nature, playing for hours—with or without playmates, it made no difference—in the enormous weedy field on the hill above our house, a field full of such treasures I woke every morning in the summer desperate to go exploring. I discovered mouse bones and snake skins and rusty horseshoes. Once I found an abalone shell, though we lived a hundred miles from the ocean. I built houses out of rocks for my sock monkey family. My heart pounded when a possum waddled across my path, baring its teeth at me, and when, one misty morning, I looked up from my playing and saw a double rainbow in the distance, right over Mt. McClary.
The Brashlers bought the weedy field when I was ten and broke my heart. When the bulldozers came and destroyed the rock houses and ground the mouse bones and the abalone shell into dust, I knew I would hate our neighbors forever.
But then they introduced themselves, and they were charming and friendly, and they talked to me not the way you’d talk to a child but the way you’d talk to someone who mattered. And when their house began to take shape, it was like watching a magic castle being built. There were picture windows and sliding glass doors everywhere, and impossible inventions like an intercom system and a garage door that opened by itself, and a closet that Helen called a “dumb waiter” that carried laundry up and downstairs at the press of a button. Gardeners arrived, and within days, it seemed, sod was laid and roses were planted, and the rocky, weedy field was transformed into a formal garden with a fountain and a reflection pool and a vast perfect lawn.
“Come up for a drink,” the Brashlers said when they called every two or three weeks. “Bring Lizzie.” And because it was so easy just to walk a few steps up the hill, and because there was never any real excuse to say no, the three of us would go. “Just a short drink,” Paul would say. “We know it’s a school night, we know Lizzie has homework, we won’t keep you long,” Helen would say. But the short drink would turn into two, and sometimes three, and it might be eight o’clock before we got home, and even later before we sat down to dinner.
I loved going to the Brashlers’. I practiced ballet in what they called the laundry room. And there was indeed a washer and dryer in one corner, but the room itself was as large and open as the studio where I took my lessons, and with the space all to myself I could pirouette and jêté like a real dancer. At home, in our tiny basement, I was always knocking into things. On summer nights, I practiced cartwheels or played croquet by myself on their lawn. But always, for at least part of the time, I sat at the end of the wet bar and drank the cherry Coke Paul fixed for me, and listened to their conversations. And sometimes, they would forget I was there.
That was how it had been for three years.
. . .
The year before, my sixth grade teacher Mrs. Kemnitzer had made us keep a Star Book. For homework, we were to go outside on clear nights and record whatever planets and constellations we could identify, and note what phase the moon was in. And if we saw anything we thought looked like a UFO, we were allowed to record that in the Star Book, too. My mother thought Mrs. Kemnitzer’s obsession with UFOs and space was a little nuts. She had observed that we seemed to be skipping math altogether that year. But my father said anything that inspired the kind of intensity with which I kept my Star Book had to be positive. My father was a great believer in intensity.
It wasn’t only Mrs. Kemnitzer who was obsessed that year. Our staid local paper the McClary News Heraldcarried articles, not just on our space race with the Russians, but on such topics as the Italian UFO expert who claimed that a flying saucer had been spotted hovering over the Vatican during the election of the new Pope. No one knew what that meant, but it was thought not to be a good thing.
Mrs. Kemnitzer became a thing of the past—my seventh-grade teacher Mr. Perkins’s obsessions were the Green Bay Packers and, as luck would have it, politics in general and the Kennedy campaign in particular—but I still kept my Star Book, at least in my mind. It had become a habit with me to go outside on clear nights, just before going to bed, and watch the stars. I had identified seven possible UFOs over the past year, including a glowing green one.
But it wasn’t just stars and UFOs I saw on those nights. I saw the white flash of a skunk once, and a moment later smelled a trace of his skunky perfume. I saw a possum, gray as smoke, waddling purposefully down the middle of our driveway. Maybe it was the descendent of the possum I’d seen years before in the Brashlers’ weedy field, or even the same one; I had no idea how long possums lived.
I heard things, too. In the dark, sound seemed to carry farther. The splash of the fountain in the Brashlers’ reflection pool. Even, some nights, the clinking of ice in their glasses when they sat outside on their upper deck, the deck that looked down on our house. If the wind was right, I could hear the sound of their voices, though I couldn’t make out what they were saying. They were just dark shapes against the lights of their living room. I could see the lights from their cigarettes, like twin fireflies hovering over their faces.
More often, it was Helen alone who sat outside on their deck. Paul was gone a lot in the evenings, to a City Council meeting or a Downtown Merchants’ Association meeting or one of the meetings of his various clubs. On those nights there was the clinking of ice in one glass, the firefly light of one cigarette.
I wasn’t spying. The Star Book was a class assignment and therefore legitimate. And in truth I didn’t feel like a spy—the Brashlers were as much a part of the night world as the constellations, as familiar and as mysterious.
My signal to go in was when Helen stood up and leaned over the deck railing and called their cat. “Bunny, Bunny,” she would call, in a plaintive voice, as though Bunny had been lost for years.
Bunny never came when called, at least not right away. He made her wait. But eventually I would glimpse his white chest and the white tip of his tail as, in his own time, he uncurled himself from under a rosebush, strolled up the front steps, and then jumped lightly onto the deck.
On those nights, when I saw Helen up there on the deck alone, when I saw her lean out over the railing and call so plaintively for Bunny, she seemed like the essence of loneliness, an entirely different person from the vibrant, laughing Helen who drifted through party crowds in a cloud of perfume, her bracelets spangling like wind chimes.
I was just beginning to identify the different kinds of loneliness. My father had the capacity to lose himself in one of his history books or biographies—it was unnerving to see the kind of trance he went into, as though he’d actually entered the past world he was reading about and was no longer part of the present one. And my mother, bending over the ledger where she kept our budget, or over a case report from work, would sometimes lift her head and pause, as though listening for some far sound. At those times, I knew better than to try to talk to her; I knew my voice was not what she was listening for.
. . .
In my memory, my parents are holding hands as we walk up the hill to the Brashlers’ house for their election party, but this may not be true—they rarely displayed affection publicly, even when their audience was only me. If they were holding hands, it was probably more a gesture of solidarity than affection.
The party was downstairs in what the Brashlers called their “rumpus room,” so we didn’t bother with ringing the front doorbell, just went around to the daylight basement and in through the sliding glass doors. Paul was already in the midst of one of his Kennedy rants, holding court behind the bar, pouring drinks. He was wearing one of his bright white business shirts. He looked, as he always did, handsome and fit, confident and relaxed. Paul was never happier than when he was hosting a party. I pictured Andy Zirkle, watching the returns alone on a snowy black-and-white TV in the back of his dreary store. The McClary News Herald had run a picture of Andy Zirkle when he declared his candidacy and he looked, I thought, thin and pale and already defeated, hardly an advertisement for his energy pills and his health foods.
“Early returns mean nothing,” Paul was saying. “The east coast skews everything. Boston—you think Kennedy’s own home state is going to vote against him? Daley’s bought Illinois, and there’s nothing we can do about that. We’ll catch up. Kennedy’s way out of his league, a spoiled kid.”
Paul had it in for Kennedy for reasons I didn’t fully understand. I would have thought they’d be kindred spirits. They both had wide, infectious smiles, and good looks, and the kind of confidence and grace that made it seem like nothing bad had ever happened to them in their lives. They both had beautiful wives. And money. It was this last, apparently, that was the sticking point. Kennedy was “a different kind of rich,” according to Paul. Paul had worked for his money and Jack Kennedy had not.
Paul brightened when he saw us. “My favorite Democrats,” he said. He must have said this on purpose, as a warning to the other guests that not everyone at the party was a member of the tribe. And it was true that the men at the bar turned around to stare at us, as though we were aliens. “What’s your poison?” said Paul, already making mine—a cherry Coke with three cherries impaled on a swizzle stick. He mixed my parents’ scotch-and-sodas.
I would have expected the whole town to have turned out to cheer Paul on, but there were only about twenty people at the party. It was still early, of course. The polls hadn’t even closed yet in McClary. The time zone difference was a concept I couldn’t quite fathom. On the east coast, where Kennedy was, the polls had been closed for two hours, and it seemed to me that everyone out there must already know who the next president would be, but they weren’t allowed to say. It was like some kind of secret game.
The television was tuned to Channel 2, but the sound was low, so I couldn’t hear what Mel Lyons was saying. He looked bored, but then he almost always did. A still life of hors d’oeuvres, too pretty to eat, sat untouched on a linen-covered table in a corner. Shrimp with cocktail sauce, carrot curls and radish roses, deviled eggs.
But as with all the Brashlers’ parties, it wasn’t the guests, or the food, or the drinks I paid attention to. It was Helen. She hadn’t seen us yet. She was with the circle of wives sitting on the other side of the room around the coffee table, and yet not part of them. She perched on a sofa arm like a bird poised to take flight. She was wearing a sleeveless knee-length dress in a silvery-pink color, exactly the kind of dress Jackie would have worn. A sheath, I thought it was called, though I wasn’t sure. Silver high heels. Her dark hair, which she always wore in a chin-length face-framing bob, looked even softer and fuller than usual. My mother was still wearing the skirt and sweater she’d worn to work. She saw “no earthly reason to get dolled up on a week night,” she’d said to my father, as though expecting an argument, but he’d just shrugged. He wore what he always wore, a tweed jacket with frayed cuffs. My father was tall and thin and had a hard time finding clothes that fit, and when he did, he kept them till they fell apart.
Because Helen had asked me what I was going to wear, I’d agonized over the decision, finally settling on a navy blue dress with a white Peter Pan collar, frumpy but not as bad as everything else I owned. I wanted to please Helen, but for better or worse, I was my mother’s daughter, and I knew nothing about style.
I had taken five years of ballet lessons, worn out at least eight pairs of ballet slippers from hard practice, but it seemed to me that the key to moving gracefully lay not in practicing jêtés and arabesques but in watching Helen. That effortless lightness—how did she do it? There were rare, precious moments when I danced when I felt that lightness—when my mind and body seemed, for once, not at odds with each other—and I marveled at the fact that Helen must feel that way all the time.
“Lizzie!” she cried when she caught sight of us. “Irene. Matt.” She rushed over and hugged me, and then my mother, and then my father. “I’m so glad to see you,” she said. “I was so afraid you wouldn’t come.” And suddenly we weren’t the enemy anymore; it was all right that we were there. The group of men stood back and made room for us at the bar.
“Your dress is gorgeous,” Helen whispered to me. She touched my collar lightly. It was as if an artist, or a fairy godmother, had come along and painted out the awkwardness, banished the frumpiness. My dress was gorgeous: Helen had said so.
I recognized a few of the men at the bar. Chuck Teeters, editor of the McClary News Herald, for one. “Should he even be here?” I’d heard my mother ask my father in a low tone when we arrived. “Isn’t that a conflict of interest?” My parents often complained that Chuck Teeters was too partisan. Jack Kennedy had barely even been mentioned in the local paper that summer and fall, while Nixon’s every campaign stop was headline news. Even when Kennedy made an appearance at the Pear Blossom Festival in Medford, just an hour away from McClary, the only mention of it was three sentences obscured in a back page.
Also in attendance was Floyd Boivin, one of Paul’s best friends, who was running unopposed for County Treasurer. Floyd was the owner of the local Ford dealership, and Paul bought a new Thunderbird from him every year. And there was Bob Wynne, the retiring outgoing mayor, who everybody said looked just like Ike, but my mother said that was just because of his bald head.
Bob Wynne, who must not have known my father, turned to him and asked, “So, what’s your prediction?”
My father stared down into the drink Paul had just handed him, as though into a crystal ball. “Well,” he said, and cleared his throat, which let me know he did in fact have some ideas on the subject. He always cleared his throat when he was about to embark on one of his theories, but he spoke so slowly and with such deliberation, like a record on a too-slow speed, that almost no one had the patience to hear him out. Certainly Paul did not.
“It’s complicated,” said my father, “by several factors. One,” and he cleared his throat again.
Paul was already starting to fidget. “Well, I think,” he said, when my father paused, but Helen held out her hand and said, “Wait, Paul. I want to hear what Matt has to say.”
In her well-meaning way, Helen could embarrass my father as much as Paul did. She would hang on his words as though she knew—she just knew—that he was on the verge of saying something profound if we would all just shut up and listen. And in the midst of her adoring and expectant silence, whatever theory my father was in the process of formulating would get lost in a tangle of self-consciousness, and he would trail off into silence. Which was what he did now. After a few seconds Paul said, “Well, you know my feelings on the subject. If Jack Kennedy wins this election, it will be because his daddy bought it for him.” He spoke, as always, confidently and forcefully, as though there could be no doubt in the matter.
“No one has that much power,” my mother said, stepping right up to the bar. “Joe Kennedy can’t buy a whole country, no matter how rich he is.” She was tired—it had been one of her hard days—and the more tired she was the less she cared about being polite. She’d been awakened at five that morning by a phone call from one of her clients: Lynette Dugan’s ex-husband had shown back up and threatened her and her kids with his deer rifle. “At least it wasn’t loaded,” was all my mother had had to say on the subject when she got home from work.
“You’re an idealist, Irene,” said Paul. “And I admire that about you. But you have no idea what a man like Joe Kennedy can do.”
“I have some ideas,” my mother said. “I’m not as naive as you think.” Her cheeks were turning red.
“I didn’t say naive,” said Paul. “I said idealistic. Naive means you think a certain way because you’re innocent. You don’t know any better. Idealism is a choice. You choose to think the best of people.”
“Well, I don’t think the best of Nixon,” said my mother. “That man disturbs me. I don’t trust him. And power in the hands of a man who can’t be trusted is a dangerous thing.”
This election was complicated by the fact that Paul himself was less than enthusiastic about Nixon. “Not exactly the life of the party,” was his line about Nixon. But he didn’t agree with my mother that Nixon was dangerous. “It’s Kennedy who’s dangerous,” he said.
“All these dangerous men,” said Helen lightly. She didn’t enjoy political discussions any more than my father did. “Do you want to know what I think?” she asked Paul, leaning across the bar and batting her eyelashes at him in exaggerated flirtation. “I think that if Jack wins the election it won’t be because of his father. It will be because of his wife.”
“Well, it’s true. Pat Nixon as first lady? Those oversized corsages. Those hats! Jackie is so sophisticated, and there’s something magical about the two of them together. There’s certainly nothing magical about the Nixons.”
“Can’t argue with that,” said Paul with a sigh. “They’re not exactly the life of the party.”
“You, on the other hand,” said Chuck Teeters, “are more magical than Jackie. Here’s to the next first lady of McClary.” He slipped an arm around Helen’s waist, and she smiled and spun around out of his grasp, so neatly she made it look like a dance step.
My mother called Chuck Teeters “that dapper little man,” and it wasn’t a compliment. His hands always looked freshly manicured and he adjusted his cufflinks obsessively. You could see the comb lines in his thinning hair. It was amazing to me that such a man had the nerve to flirt with Helen, but perhaps he thought that as the editor of the News Herald he wielded power and influence. It was true he had endorsed Paul as the mayor who would “lead us into prosperity” with his financial genius and his common sense and his solid Republican values. Not that Paul needed his help. Chuck Teeters’s endorsement of Nixon had gone on at tedious length about the vice president’s experience and Kennedy’s inexperience and had concluded that Nixon was “the only reasonable choice.” My teacher Mr. Perkins had made fun of that. “A ringing endorsement,” he sneered. “That’ll fire up the voters, all right.”
Pretty much the entire seventh grade was for Kennedy. Mr. Perkins was the first male teacher we had ever had, and the girls all had crushes on him and the boys wanted to be like him. It was a rare thing for me to be part of the majority: in the last presidential election, our teacher had asked for a show of hands, and it was revealed that the whole third grade was for Ike, except for me, who wanted Adlai Stevenson, and a few ignoramuses who didn’t even know who was running. I wanted to find some way to tell Mr. Perkins that I had been a Democrat my whole life, that I wasn’t just pretending in order to win his favor.
“Sssh,” Bob Wynne said and motioned toward the television. “Looks like we’re getting some local returns. It’s just after eight. The polls have closed.”
“And in the mayor’s race,” Channel 2's Mel Lyons was saying mournfully, “Republican Paul Brashler has one thousand and eighty votes counted so far; his opponent Andy Zirkle has forty-two.”
Everyone cheered. “Want to break out the champagne?” asked Chuck Teeters, smiling.
“No, no,” said Paul. “Bad luck to count chickens. No champagne yet. But what about another scotch?”
“I might have mine freshened,” said Bob Wynne’s wife, who held out her empty glass. My parents joked privately that none of the wives who went to the Brashlers’ parties ever had more than one drink; they just had it freshened five or six times.
The party had begun to loosen up a little. More people had arrived. Someone had dared to eat the first deviled egg, and now people were milling around, eating and drinking. The laughter was getting louder.
“It’s sort of sad, really,” said my mother, her eyes on the television screen. “I know Andy Zirkle’s the town joke, but some of his ideas seem forward-thinking to me.”
“Forward-thinking?” said Floyd Boivin. “Is that a polite term for crackpot? You know his plan for boosting McClary’s economy? Harvesting the lake’s algae for those energy pills of his. Picking cattails along the shore and selling them as edible vegetables. Sheesh.”
“Oh, I know. But I like some of his ideas about preserving our natural resources. I think conservation is going to be more of an issue in the future than anyone realizes,” said my mother.
“Andy Zirkle is the only one talking about that. I can’t help being sympathetic.”
“Irene’s always for the underdog,” Paul explained to Floyd Boivin. He winked at my mother. “You’re sure one of those forty-two votes for Zirkle wasn’t yours, Irene?”
“Of course it wasn’t,” said my mother. She never could tell when Paul was teasing her. “I know he’s not the right person to be mayor. But he keeps running in election after election because these are ideas he believes in. There’s a real, solid platform there.”
Helen whispered in my ear. “I admire your mother so much. No sitting around talking about recipes for her. She just enters the fray. I think,” Helen glanced scornfully at the group of wives sitting around the coffee table “that I admire your mother more than anyone I know.”
“Well, dammit, I wish Ike was running again,” Bob Wynne was saying. “I wish I could get more enthusiastic about Nixon. Frankly,” he said, smiling at Helen, “I wish he was dangerous. He’d be more interesting.”
On the television screen, a group of Nixon supporters somewhere was singing tunelessly, “We Want Nixon, We Want Nixon, We Want Nixon, To Be Our President.”
“See what I mean?” said Bob Wynne. “Is that the best they can come up with?”
“It would be so much easier,” said Helen, “if Jackie were married to Nixon. But she’d never marry a bore like him. Or if Jackie were married to Jack, but he was the Republican and Nixon was the Democrat. Or,” she said brightly, “if we were all Democrats.” Helen saw the warning look on Paul’s face—the look he got when she went too far—and said, “Just kidding, of course.” She took Bob Wynne’s drink out of his hand and set it on the bar so she could do a little dance step with him to the tune of “We Want Nixon to be our President.”
. . .
I felt invisible, as I often did, sitting at the far end of the bar nursing my third cherry Coke of the evening. I understood why it was considered rude to stare—there was such power in it. Everyone had forgotten I was there, and I could stare to my heart’s content. I could see it all.
I saw my father, who had wandered away from the bar and was sitting in a corner, watching the television from an impossibly skewed angle. He was staring at the screen, even during commercials. He was in one of his trances.
There was a lull in the party that felt wrong. Maybe because Paul was so far ahead and, as in Monopoly, it wasn’t all that much fun to trounce your opponent so completely. Maybe because Nixon was not exactly the life of the party and therefore no fun to cheer for. Maybe because there was something wrong with Helen. She had stumbled a little, dancing with Bob Wynne.
I saw Floyd Boivin standing at the bar rattling the ice in his glass. He looked glum. Mel Lyons hadn’t even bothered to announce the votes for County Treasurer. It couldn’t be much fun to run unopposed. Maybe you felt like a sap, the job so unappealing that no one else wanted it. It was worse than running against Andy Zirkle.
Then I saw Helen lean down and whisper something to my father as he sat in his corner watching the television. When my father was in one of his trances, he didn’t hear you when you spoke to him. But when Helen whispered to him, he raised his face immediately and smiled at her. When my father smiled—really smiled—it transformed him. Whatever Helen had said to him had genuinely pleased him. I wondered why my mother didn’t try more often to make him smile. Helen laid a light hand on his shoulder, as, earlier, she had touched my Peter Pan collar.
My mother perched on a bar stool, intent in an argument with Paul and Bob Wynne. She seemed alive and vibrant in a way she hadn’t been earlier in the evening. It was possible she’d forgotten all about being awakened at five in the morning by the news of Lynette Dugan and the deer rifle. Her back was turned to Helen and my father.
I left the three cherries in my Coke uneaten and slipped off my bar stool. Before the Brashlers, my favorite treat was a cherry Coke at the Corner Drugstore fountain. I would sip it slowly, saving the single cherry for the very end. Now, Paul put so many cherries in the drinks he made for me that I had begun to dislike them.
I slid open the glass door that opened out onto the vast front lawn and went outside.
When I slid the door shut behind me, the noise and laughter softened, and the party seemed a long way away. It was a clear, starry night. I wondered if Mrs. Kemnitzer was having this year’s sixth grade class keep a Star Book. I missed her. I imagined this year’s class outside tonight, standing on their porches peering up at the sky, notebooks in hand, wishing hard for the glimpse of a UFO.
The air was cold—a sharp, clear cold that made my lungs feel clean, especially after the smoke from the party. Paul said McClary air was the best in the world, and that anyone who could figure out a way to bottle it would get rich beyond his wildest dreams.
The reflection pool had been drained for the winter. The pool’s concrete shell, exposed and gray in the darkness, made the whole garden feel abandoned. The muffled, faraway party sounds only heightened that feeling of abandonment and desertion, as though the party were already over and what I was hearing was the echo of it.
Bunny the cat was stalking crickets in the grass. I caught a flash of his white chest and the tip of his tail. He sprang, and then there was an unpleasant crunching sound. Although I loved animals, I found it hard to warm up to Bunny. When the reflection pool was new, Paul and Helen had stocked it with beautiful goldfish, but within days Bunny had caught and eaten every one.
I walked past Bunny, who ignored me, out to the edge of the lawn, marveling as I always did at how much better the view was up here than from our house, though the distance between the two houses was so short. I could see the lights of the Esquire Theater’s tower; I could see the cars on Main Street. I thought I could pick out the lights of Brashler Furniture at the far end of Main—Paul always left lights on in the store at night, so that people driving or walking by could see the window displays lit as though for a party. From up here, McClary looked like a tiny toy town owned by the Brashlers. And of course, before the night was over, Paul would own it.
I looked down on our house, just below. The porch light was on, as though the house itself was waiting up for us.
Perhaps I had never looked down on our own house from this particular angle and certainly never this late at night. It looked different: so much like a fairy tale cottage in a magic forest that I half-expected to see Snow White or Rose Red open the door and wander out onto the porch. All those nights I had stood out on our porch with my Star Book, I had looked up at the Brashlers’ deck and wondered about them. It had honestly never occurred to me that they could look down and watch us, or that they would have had any interest in doing so.
The sight of our porch light filled me with an inexplicable surge of homesickness. It felt like we had been away too long. It had to be after ten, which meant after one in the morning on the east coast. Surely we would all know by now whether Kennedy had won. I turned to go inside. I was halfway across the lawn when the sliding glass door opened and Helen and my mother came out.
It was a surprise to see them together, just the two of them. I only knew my parents and the Brashlers as a foursome, seated at the bar with their drinks. I could not imagine my mother and Helen going off separately to shop, or have lunch, or do any of the things women friends did together. My mother thought Helen flighty and did not conceal her irritation very well when Helen spoke of her various fears and worries. My parents worked every day with people who had “real problems,” as my mother put it, and she had no patience with a woman whose most serious concern was what to wear to a party.
“I’m all right, really,” Helen said. Her voice carried clearly, and I could hear her bracelets chime. Her silver dress shimmered in the darkness. She flung herself down on one of the chaise lounges on the patio, and my mother perched next to her on the edge of it.
“I know you are, honey,” my mother said.
My mother almost never used endearments. I could practically count the number of times she’d called me “honey.” It happened only when I was sick or upset.
Inside, under the lights of the party, and with the television casting its blue-green glow, I had felt invisible, able to stare openly. Out here in the middle of the dark lawn, I felt exposed and vulnerable. My white Peter Pan collar, like Bunny’s white chest and the tip of his tail, would have been a dead giveaway, if they had looked up. But they didn’t.
Helen clasped my mother’s arm. “I just want you to know,” she said. Behind her, through the glass of the sliding doors, I could see Paul at the bar, making drinks, laughing at something Bob Wynne was saying. “I hope Jack wins. I voted for him and I don’t care. Nobody knows but you. He brings all that possibility, don’t you think? All that hope and possibility. Paul keeps talking about prosperity, but we already have that, and it’s empty. What is that law? It’s the law of something. Diminishing something.”
“Diminishing returns?” said my mother.
“Exactly,” said Helen. “The first candy bar tastes wonderful, but it’s downhill from there. The tenth one… you don’t even want the tenth one. You would pay not to have to eat the tenth one. Sometimes,” she went on, “I have nightmares where I get lost in our house. It’s too big and I get turned around, and there are rooms I didn’t know existed, and it seems to be my fault that I didn’t know they were there. I was a virgin when I met Paul. Did you know that? Eighteen. He was so handsome, and older, and he seemed so wise. You know that phrase about being swept off your feet? It’s real. It’s an actual true thing. I was literally swept off my feet.”
“Well, maybe not literally,” said my mother. I could hear the smile in her voice.
“Literally,” Helen insisted. “I told Paul I was a virgin, but I wasn’t. Or—I don’t know. Maybe I was. Technically. It was so hard to tell in those days.”
“Helen.” My mother sighed. “I think you should take a deep breath, try to get hold of yourself. You know what Paul said. Probably a television crew will be here soon to interview you both. When they come, you can’t be sitting out here in the dark talking about your virginity.”
“I was already engaged when I met Paul. Did you know that? Alan was his name. Isn’t that a gentle name? It was during the war, and he’d just enlisted, but I was going to wait for him forever. Well, not officially engaged: he said he wanted to wait till he could afford a real ring. But we were engaged in our hearts. But then I met Paul. He was already back from the war, and he was all decorated— he’d been a major, and Alan was only a private. It was terrible what I did. I don’t think the Dear John letter I wrote Alan was even one page long, just a scribbled note. It was all because Paul came along and swept me off my feet.”
She put her head on my mother’s shoulder, and I expected my mother to pull away, but she didn’t. In fact, she stretched her sweater across Helen’s bare shoulder so that the two of them could share its warmth.
“I’ve had too much to drink, haven’t I?” said Helen.
“I suspect you have, honey.”
“I never knew what happened to him. Alan. If he’d died in the war, they would have told me, wouldn’t they? Somebody said they heard he went to San Francisco after the war. I think of him, his life going on without me. I have recurring dreams where Alan comes to the door and says I’m obligated to marry him, that I promised. I’ve never told Paul, because then he’d know I still think about him. Do you ever have dreams that you don’t tell Matt about, Irene? Do you ever have dreams about other men? Do you ever wish things had been different?”
The night was so clear and cold that I could see my breath, so I held it, in case they looked up and saw me. I had waited too long to step forward out of the darkness; if I did it now, they would know I’d been listening all this time. I waited to hear my mother’s reply, but she didn’t say a word.
Above the Brashlers’ vast lawn, the night sky was alive with stars. Mrs. Kemnitzer had told us that stars have lifetimes just like we do, only they live millions and billions of years. Still, they can die. Stars are so far away from us that it takes years for their light to reach us, Mrs. Kemnitzer said, so by the time we see a star, there’s a good chance that star is already dead. The light we are seeing is ghost light, Mrs. Kemnitzer told us.
The glass door slid open. “Helen,” said Paul. “Irene. What in the world are you doing out there in the cold? Lizzie? Is that you out there? What are you girls doing?” He’d seen my white Peter Pan collar at once. I was hiding in plain sight, after all. He must have assumed I’d gone outside with Helen and my mother: just us girls.
My mother pulled away from Helen and sat up straight. “Lizzie?” she said, shading her eyes as though from the sun.
“Honey,” said Paul. “The TV cameras are here. Andy Zirkle just made his concession speech. Helen, where are your shoes?”
Helen made no move to rise from the lounge chair. She looked down at her feet. “My shoes? Why, I have no idea. I must have kicked them off.”
“Well, you have to find them, honey.” Paul was smiling, but he didn’t look happy. “You have to find them or put on some others. The cameras are here.”
“The cameras are here,” said Helen dreamily.
Paul held out his hand to Helen, but she didn’t take it. My mother stood up suddenly.
“He’s right, Helen. We need to go in. We’ll find your shoes.”
“But I have so much more to tell you,” said Helen. “I’m not cold at all. I have so much more to say.”
“Is that Bunny?” said Paul. “Is that Bunny out there in the grass? Let’s bring him in. Let’s see if we can get Bunny to drink some champagne. Bunny!” he called. The cat came running to him, and Paul scooped him up.
. . .
After the Brashlers’ party ended, Nixon would stay up for what he later called “the longest night of his life,” watching the returns trickle in. Kennedy would go to sleep, not knowing until the next morning that he had won. A couple of days after the election, when all the votes in McClary were counted, it would turn out that Andy Zirkle had made a more respectable showing than anyone had predicted: a victory, of a kind, for him.
But that night when my parents and I got home from the party, we turned on Channel 2, where Mel Lyons was saying, “And now we take you to the home of Paul Brashler, where, just a little while ago, we spoke to the newly-elected mayor of McClary.” It was strange to see the party we’d just been to re-played on the television screen, as though it were happening live. There is Paul, smiling his wide, confident smile, talking about prosperity and growth. Helen is standing at Paul’s side. Her shoes may or may not be back on. She is smiling, but it is not Pat Nixon’s fixed, falsely-adoring smile; it’s not even the self-contained smile of Jackie. Helen is looking not quite at her husband, but at a point just beyond him. Paul’s friends are cheering and raising their glasses of champagne, though my parents, being camera shy and not properly dressed, are not in the picture. Neither am I, though my cherry Coke is there at the end of the bar in the corner of the frame, the three cherries still sitting in the glass, untouched.