by Ann Rushton
Penny never needed an alarm clock. She woke around 5:00 a.m. every morning, every season, every year. It wasn’t precise, more like a suggestion her body made, a gentle prod from her subconscious. The requirement to wake, use the bathroom, have a cup of coffee before the day started. Lately Penny had been thinking about her childhood mornings, those icy-cold days running to the outhouse, and working with her six siblings. They shoveled snow, fed chickens, tended the hogs, milked cows, everything, before they’d trudge the two and a half miles up the road to school. As a child Penny had been prone to earaches, pain radiating through her head as she’d fake her way through math lessons, grammar. At night her mother would pour benzoyl peroxide down her ear and stuff it with wads of cotton fabric, but it rarely helped.
She heard a rattle from the hallway. Someone used the bathroom, and padded their way back to bed. Could be anyone. Her three grown children and their various mates were there for the July 4th weekend, the first time she’d had them all together in years. After twenty minutes of listening to the birds call to each other in the woods surrounding her home, Penny decided to get up, her own bladder calling. Her hips ached as she stood and stretched. She was lucky this was the only thing to affect her at nearly seventy-years-old. Too many of her friends were gone, some of her siblings and her husband, too. Different afflictions—cancer, heart, accidents. Her daughter-in-law, Cole’s wife, Jennifer, died in a car wreck the year before. Her husband, Sam, way too young, not even fifty-years-old, took sixteen months to die of lung cancer, as if he needed to continue punishing her for every malfeasance, real or supposed. But this was nearly twenty years ago. Any guilt she had about their marriage, it didn’t really matter anymore. What mattered was her children had learned to make bad relationships, and for that she could only blame herself.
Penny married Sam when she was twenty-three, in the ‘60s considered an old maid. He’d returned from eighteen months in the jungle and was everything she wanted in a man, exotic with the dope and the old house in the middle of the upper Midwest, filled with friends who smoked and drank, played guitars and imagined a revolution, one without government. They admired the works of Malcolm X, of Timothy Leary, of The Beatles, kids protesting on campuses. He was nothing like any boy she’d dated, with his wooden eyes and long hair and denim jackets, his penchant for driving fast, for making love, for fighting like it mattered. She revved up whenever she was with him, a motor stuck in 3rd. For years all she did was work at the post office and go back to the farm at night, help her parents on the weekends, in the evenings. She never thought someone could possibly love her.
She made her way down the stairs. The house was quiet, everyone still asleep. She hoped it would stay that way for a while. The day promised to be hot. Penny started the coffee, filled the birdfeeder, and watered her potted herbs and petunias and then her garden. Her income at the post office plus Sam’s little convenience store, a front for his pot dealing, could not be relied upon for any sort of income. Penny spent summer months maintaining tomato plants, cucumbers, Brussels sprouts, potatoes, onions, garlic, and herbs. She spent weekends and nights canning, just as her mother had. Now, her children insisted, she no longer needed to work so hard. Everyone had good jobs. Could she even call Matthew’s job a job? He played guitar in a successful rock band, making music Penny didn’t like, didn’t understand. He was a millionaire, he told her, but she turned down his offers of help, as if he thought of her as a helpless child.
She shook off the notion. May as well get started on the dinner. Penny took out the ground beef, crumbled it in one of her ancient cast iron pans. She turned the heat to medium and filled a large pot with water to cook the lasagna noodles. She thought about making bread—glancing at the clock, she noted it was not even 7:00 a.m. She could proof a batch and have it in the oven by early afternoon. She also wanted to make a blueberry pie for Cole, his favorite. He’d not asked for one; Cole never asked for anything. And yet he was the one who had taken the most, who had required the most. This was something she never expected. As a baby, Cole never slept. He had colic so bad she’d put him in his crib and just let him cry, and this was after she’d done everything—had fed him the syrup the doctor recommended, rubbed his back, massaged his belly, and walked the floors bouncing him like she was a mama kangaroo. Later, Cole outgrew the colic but his eyes remained full of remorse, as if he had witnessed something in a former life he should not have. Unlike any of his siblings, he was prematurely ambulatory, crawled early and walked early, pulled items out of shelves, broke into the kitchen cabinets, dumped flour and sugar everywhere. She wanted to tie him up on a chain in the yard, she’d joke, like a puppy. Instead, she put him in the lake down the hill, where he swam endlessly from March to October of every year. During the frozen winter months he’d strap on ice skates and pretend he was a member of a hockey team, his younger brother Matthew as his goalie and sideman.
The sun shone through the netting of the trees outside the row of windows, and beyond, the lake shimmered in the distance. It was not yet strong enough to make the room too hot to work in. She took out a can of tomato sauce, chopped a small onion and a wedge of garlic, plus a handful of herbs she’d plucked from the garden earlier—oregano, basil. Threw it all in another pot, along with a glug of red wine open from the night before, and a large spoonful of brown sugar. The kitchen smelled good. She added the browned beef, stirred it up, set the fire to low, and plunged the lasagna noodles into the boiling water.
She turned to find Cole’s four-year-old daughter Maya standing at the end of the counter, in pajamas, thumb in her mouth, holding a stuffed dinosaur wrapped in a knitted blanket. The hair on her head was so matted it looked like Rastafarian dreadlocks. “Good morning,” Penny said, not sure what else to say to this wistful child. Maya said nothing. She’d not spoken much since her mother died last winter. “Are you hungry?” Penny pulled out a box of cereal, showing it to her, and Maya nodded. She set her up at the counter with a bowl. “I need to collect blueberries for your father after a bit, would you like to help?”
She nodded again, this time as she drew a spoonful of cereal to her mouth, the milk dripping over the counter. Penny talked to Maya, explaining the steps as she made the sponge for the bread, as if she understood. All of her children sat at this counter over the years, learning, Penny hoped, from her, as she learned from her own mother. How to make bread. How to puree a pumpkin. How to add. How to subtract. How to set a table, how to hang the laundry. Now, she wondered if she’d done it all wrong. They were all so mixed up, her children. She knew she and Sam had done poorly—all the fighting, him drinking, catting around, spending money. She knew it at the time, saw their faces scared, their disappearances inside their rooms. And yet, she couldn’t help but become embroiled in another fight with him, because that weighed more than anything else. Then she’d try to make it up to them, by showing them how to live life with logic. You may not be able to handle the emotions, she wanted to say, but you can learn how to fix a meal, how to change the oil. How to live on nothing. A couple of summers earlier Penny had visited Matthew and his (now-ex) wife, Katherine, in L.A. Their house overlooked the glittering city, and Penny found the kitchen cold, unwelcome, much like Katherine, who once asked, over a dinner of a medallion of veal and the types of lettuces Penny grew in her garden for mere pennies, “What’s the deal with Matt and fish? He never wants to eat fish, like, ever.” Matthew had laughed, but this was like a knife to Penny’s stomach. They ate fish nearly year round. Sam spent the money, Penny had to be creative. She’d send the boys to catch a bucketful of catfish in the morning and feed it the kids that afternoon, with a jar of bread and butter pickles and a slice of bread with her own raspberry jam. They loved it back then, or so they pretended to. She could see them at the table across the room, the boys dirty from wading in the murky lake, their faces shiny from sweat, but happy, proud. Now, it was a joke. She didn’t say anything to Katherine, but she wanted to. She wanted to tell them the kids ate what she could forage. Otherwise, they would have been hungry. They would have starved to death out there in the country and no one would have cared.
She put together the lasagna and placed it in the fridge for later. She mixed the dough and kneaded it as Maya finished her cereal. She continued to narrate her way through the process, and Maya sat, almost in wonderment. Afterwards, she rubbed it in oil and set it in a bowl, draped with a wet towel. “Okay, then,” she said. “Let’s go find dad some blueberries.”
Maya held her hand out to Penny, and Penny, after a moment, grabbed it. Sticky and dry, all at once, she noted. They walked outside, the sun now bright across the back garden, and made their way to the blueberry patch. Penny gave Maya a bucket and said, “Only pick the ripe ones.” The child looked at her with puzzlement. Could it be she didn’t know what a ripe blueberry looked like? Penny showed her. “See, you pick the blue ones and put them in your bucket. Only the blue ones, okay? Not the green ones. Your father would not like the taste of green ones.” Maya grasped the handle of the bucket and dove in. Maya focused on her job with intensity that reminded Penny of Cole as a youngster. He’d take apart anything—a toaster, a radio, a fishing rod—just to figure out how it worked, mapping his findings in notebooks she still kept in his old closet. He wanted to find the fastest, most efficient way of doing everything. She thought of the current child-rearing trend, this Asperger’s she’d read about and seen in the news. Most of the time she shrugged a shoulder to this kind of thing, but it had hit her maybe Cole was a child like this, with his inability to understand emotions, to make connections that might’ve kept his wife alive.
Maya picked with efficiency. Within moments, she’d filled her bucket. “Done!” she cried. Her face was red as a cherry tomato, her bangs saturated with sweat. “Done! Grandma, I’m done!”
This was the first sentence Penny had heard Maya utter since before her mother died.
Penny inspected the bucket. Not a green berry, nor a stem, or a leaf, just a mound of the blueish fruit. “Very good,” Penny said. She glanced up at the sun. “If it weren’t so hot I’d have you do more. Maybe the heat will break while you are here and we can pick more and make some jam.”
“I can help.” Maya jumped in response, more animated than Penny had ever seen her.
“You most certainly will,” Penny said. Her eyes filled with hot tears, and she wiped them with the back of her gloved hands, pretending it was sweat. “Okay, then.”
Maya carried her bucket with both hands, walking decidedly across the yard to the kitchen door, where Cole was standing. At the sight of him she began to run, the blueberries popping out of her bucket. “I picked blueberries,” Maya called. “See, Daddy?”
“Yeah, I see,” Cole said. His hair was mussed from sleep, and he still had on the clothes he wore from yesterday, a stained t-shirt and shorts. He gave Penny a look of astonishment. He opened the door and Maya bounced through, handing him the bucket. “That’s a lot.”
Maya went into the den and turned on the television, flipping around. Of course Maya liked television. She liked it for the same reason Penny did. It just took you away. Cole sat on a stool at the counter as Penny went to dump the berries into a colander. “I was worried about her—she usually wakes me up, first thing.”
It was shortly after 9:00 a.m. “She came down here, oh, when? 7:30? I thought I could make you a blueberry pie and she came to help me pick the berries.”
“God, what else did you make?” He lifted the towel off the bowl holding the bread dough.
“Just some lasagna and bread. Stop that, it still needs to rise.”
“Smells amazing in here.”
Penny took a small bowl and filled it with blueberries, and gave it to Cole. “Here. Give some of these to your girl. I don’t think she’d seen a blueberry before.”
Cole said, “She hasn’t? I could have sworn Jennifer would have given her blueberries.” This look he had, Penny had seen it many times over the last months, one of loss, a somber grimace. “I’m sure of it.”
“She’s forgotten, then,” Penny said. “It’s up to you now to remind her of these things.”
He sighed and stared into the bowl. “I guess so. I guess I just forget. Or maybe I never knew.”
“Go on,” Penny said. “Give it to her.” Tapping his arm, she said, “Go on.”
Penny watched as he set the bowl in Maya’s lap and said, “Take one. You eat it like grapes.”
“They are not grapes,” Maya said, taking a berry and squishing it between her fingers. “But I picked them anyway.”
“When dad was a little boy he called them ‘balls’,” Penny called out. “He’d say “ball!” each time he ate one.”
Maya seemed to like this. “Balls, Daddy. Balls!” She settled her head against his chest and curled up, staring at the TV, thumb in her mouth. Penny wondered how often they did this, sitting side by side, watching mindless television. She left them alone as she made the crust for the pie, her mother’s recipe. It was nearing 10:00 a.m. by the time she put it in the oven.
She made a fresh pot of coffee for the late sleepers. Cole and Maya turned off the television. Maya, he said, wanted to go to the lake. The girl had withdrawn again, her thumb in her mouth. She only nodded when Penny asked if she liked the fruit. How hard that was to watch, she thought. She wasn’t at all sure Cole could do it, could pull this little girl out of her shell. If he was even interested in trying. “Why don’t you come down with us?” Cole asked. She frowned, indicated to the oven. “Oh, right,” he said. “I forgot.”
This is how Cole always had operated. He could get perfect grades in school and continually forget where he put his keys. He remembered facts and figures and never knew his wife’s birthday. His life now was a constant worry to Penny. She never imagined it with him, like the others. Matthew divorced, Sabine never able to get it together, but it turned out Cole was the child who concerned her the most. What had changed? He loved everything about school, to her surprise. He was popular because of his cheekbones and a somber attitude teenage girls sometimes mistook for depth, a good enough athlete to impress the boys, and such a strong student each teacher in high school would tell Penny he could go into their field. A writer, a chemist, a social scientist, a historian, a computer programmer. But Cole loved numbers. He didn’t love to play with them like a mathematician. He loved to analyze them, and became something Penny had never heard of. A psychometrician.
Off they went, her little odd couple, Maya holding his hand, staring off into the woods not paying attention to where they were going as they disappeared from her vantage, around the bend of the path. Sparrows darted across the skyline but otherwise the day was still, the sun shining hard.
Penny decided on another cup of coffee and settled in an easy chair to wait out the pie. She heard a creak from the floorboards upstairs, but no one showed. The kids had stayed up late into the night, drinking beer and wine on her patio. She could hear them through her bedroom window as she had gone to sleep, lulled by the chatter and a radio being played. Once in a while she’d hear a burst of laughter, the rattle of the door as someone had gone inside to get a drink. It pleased her they were getting along, especially Matthew and Cole, so near in age—just a couple years apart—but so different in aspect and temperament. It made her melancholy, as well, thinking of her own siblings, now either gone or spread out across the country.
She closed her eyes. The pie smelled good. She breathed in, enjoying the scent, glad to have someone to share her baking with. An unbidden memory of Jennifer came to mind, complimenting Penny on her culinary skills, as if it was her hobby. Penny had liked Jennifer, such a pretty girl, too, with a small, shy smile and pink cheeks that rose to the color of cotton candy whenever she spoke. One could not miss the cloud hanging over her head, but Penny figured she was a deeper soul, with her master’s degree in history. As the marriage progressed, she wasn’t sure if she missed the signs or if they weren’t there for Penny to see. After all, Cole and Jennifer lived 200 miles away. She could only recall a startling visit, when she went to see them after Maya was born, three summers earlier. Jennifer had a difficult time getting pregnant, and her pregnancy, Cole mentioned in passing, had been nothing but emesis and headaches. But when Penny sat in their living room, holding a newborn Maya, Jennifer stayed curled up in a corner, wearing leggings and a long t-shirt, as thin as always. “I’m just not sure what to do with her,” she’d said to Penny.
“You do nothing,” Penny had advised. She lifted the baby and rubbed her on the back. “You just enjoy her.”
Jennifer had blinked but the tears ran down her face, as if she couldn’t help them. “But how? How can you enjoy such a thing? I can’t ever sleep, I don’t have time to take a shower?”
“You will, someday,” Penny said. “But she’ll never be a newborn again. The showers can wait.” Jennifer nodded, as if whatever Penny said was akin to gold. Penny had shaken it off, those baby blues. Every woman had them, or so she’d thought. She returned home and didn’t see her granddaughter for several months. If Jennifer continued in this manner, she didn’t know it. And it occurred to her, she never thought to ask.
Two and a half years later, Jennifer drove into a bus on the day after Christmas, with Maya in the backseat. They’d been on their way home from Maya’s preschool. She died in the ambulance, revived, and died again in the emergency room. Was it an accident? Yes, of course, everyone said to Cole, but one could only imagine. The day had been clear, the streets cleaned of any snow. No black ice, no slick spots. Jennifer had run a red light, maybe on purpose, maybe not. Simple as that. Later, Cole learned from Jennifer’s mother Jennifer struggled with major depression throughout her teen years and her twenties, before she’d married Cole. Jennifer never said a word to him.
The timer on the oven shook her into reality. The sauce from the blueberries bled a little, through a crack in the crust, but otherwise a beauty. She sniffed appreciatively and set the pie on the counter. The dough had risen, so she punched it down and formed it, envelope style, into a loaf, and set it to rise again on the butcher block counter.
She threw a damp towel over the loaf and washed her hands, changed into her swimming suit, and made her way to the lake. Cole and Maya were sitting on the little patch of sand the family always called the beach, although you could barely fit more than a handful of people on it. Cole glanced up, his eyes shaded by his sporty sunglasses. He left Maya to her work on building a castle, and joined Penny, sitting on a deck chair under the shade of the pin oaks.
“She was a great help in the garden,” Penny said. “She has her father’s work ethic.”
Cole smiled slightly and sat back. “Maybe so.”
The breeze had picked up, and the hot air caused the lake to become choppy. Seagulls rode the winds, their wingspan always impressive, as if they wanted to imitate the air itself. Penny wanted to say something to Cole, but she couldn’t identify it. They were not a family who asked “how are you?” or “are you okay?” Instead, she told him her plans for dinner, asked if he wanted a salad. “Eh, I don’t know. Maybe some fruit for Maya? That’s all she wants to eat these days.”
“Of course,” Penny said, thinking of the large watermelon she’d picked up at the store, the plums ready to be harvested, the blueberries leftover from this morning. “I’ll make a fruit salad.”
“Sure,” Cole said. Maya dug furiously, crouched on her heels. She was making a moat, but the sand, packed down from an earlier rainstorm, made her work difficult. “She’d like that.” Cole kept his eyes on Maya. “Me, too.”
“Good,” Penny said. “Good.”
“Thanks. I haven’t eaten this well … in … a while. Makes me want to stay here forever.” And, as if embarrassed, Cole lurched out of his chair and went to his daughter. He sat in the sand and grabbed a small plastic shovel Penny’s kids used when they were small. She recalled the intricate models they made, with sticks, shells, and rocks, and how it never bothered them a rainstorm or a wave destructed their masterpieces. Instead, it motivated them to build more, to try a new plan, to generate yet another fantastic reproduction, as if nature spurred them on. Penny’s heart skipped, and the memory faded as quickly as they had arrived, but she could still see Cole’s determination carrying in in his daughter, the way she focused on the task, her face furrowing and flushed, her shoulders hunched, her knees and arms thick with sand. Cole murmured something to Maya, and she nodded as he showed her how to dig more efficiently, and after following his directions, nodded again.
“A nice job,” Penny called out to them. “A proper castle.” She stood, made her way to Cole and Maya, scooped up the bucket, and walked toward the shoreline, where she filled the container with water. When she returned, Maya was waiting for her, hands open, ready to finish her moat. She took the bucket and carefully tipped it, and the water slid around the moat. Delighted, she squealed, and Cole and Penny clapped while the child jumped up and down, her face opened with bewilderment at what she’d made, as if she was the only person in the world who could do so.