THE GATHERING BROOD
The corn, still wrapped in its husk, smelled both sweet and fresh, reminding Lottie of the farm stands she used to stop at on her summer jaunts to the East End of Long Island with her mother. This corn though was purchased from a mini-mart in the Village. She placed it and a container of tossed salad on the passenger seat of the Volkswagen and then looked up at the third-floor window to see if Sandy was standing there. She was not.
Lottie jingled her keys, debating running back up the three flights of stairs in an attempt to appease Sandy, but then she was certain the outcome would end up frustrating her more than anything else, so she walked around to the driver’s side of the car and got in. The Volkswagen was a rental, since living in Greenwich Village didn’t accommodate owning a vehicle. She tugged the sleeves of her shirt down to cover the scars on her wrists, something she’d been doing automatically for the last few years, before placing a hand on the steering wheel. With one eye on the third-floor window, Lottie turned the bug of a car on and revved the engine before pulling onto the street. Her foot went from the gas pedal to the brake, then back to the gas as she pressed down with decided abandonment. She turned the radio on and pushed buttons, going from static to prattle until she came upon Springsteen’s Born in the USA; perfect for the Fourth of July.
The freedom song serenaded her as she drove out of the Village toward Connecticut, toward her sister Denise’s grand old colonial in the ‘burbs. The clear blue sky with no hint of cloud should be a good sign the day would be nothing but placid. But Lottie didn’t believe in signs. She couldn’t recall if she ever had. However, it had been matriarch Margaret Lamb who insisted on the family reunion in celebration more from getting a clean bill of health from her oncologist than the actual holiday. Lottie figured her siblings also found it impossible to turn down the invitation, even though they’d all managed to avoid each other over the years with one excuse or another. Allen, who was the oldest and lived in Chicago, was little more than a stranger to her, even though her mother always found a reason to talk about her only son. “You know, he was quite famous in the 60’s” she’d tell anyone who’d asked about her family. “Are you familiar with the show Benny and Crow?” she’d say with a forced air of ennui, even though Lottie heard the hint of pride. Then, without listening for a reply, her mother would say, “Well, my son played Benny.
The thing is, most people were familiar with the show and said how cute it was and how charming little Benny had been on it. Margaret would beam until they’d ask, “Did he do anything else?” That’s when Lottie discerned her mother’s expression changing, her hand waving them off. “Oh, he worked so hard during his young life that he took a break from all that. But now he has his own morning talk show.” What her mother failed to say was that it was a local talk show, as opposed to national, even though Allen’s notorious sexual escapades did manage to create embarrassing gossip, thanks to the internet.
“Yes,” Lottie said aloud as she approached the toll booth, “this is going to be a very interesting day.” What she didn’t say, but thought, was how much she was dreading it, and yearned for Sandy to be at her side.
Unbeknownst to her, while she was riffling through her purse to find change for the toll, her brother, Allen, was enjoying the company of a female at that very moment.
Allen gave a final, desperate lunge before relinquishing to the disheartening limpness, having spent himself much too quickly on the blonde beauty. Blonde beauty…blonde beauty. Her name escaped him, and he had a moment of panic until it came back to him. Gail. Yes, Gail. No need to concern himself with the last name, recalling the first was accomplishment enough.
“Mmm, more,” Gail said, wrapping her lengthy, limber legs around his ropy ones.
“Later, babe. We have a reunion to go to.”
“They know you’re bringing me, right?”
“Sure.” Fact was, he hadn’t mentioned it. Didn’t matter, though, since it was a given he’d be bringing someone; didn’t matter if she was blonde, brunette or redhead, his family expected him to be bringing someone. Weddings, funerals, no matter, Allen Lamb never appeared without a beautiful woman at his side, as if the paparazzi were still hounding him all these years later.
He smacked Gail lightly on her curvy bottom. “Come on, let’s shower. We’ll be late.”
“You sure there’s no place nicer than this dive?” Gail slid off the bed. “Everything smells like mildew.”
“This is the nicest place,” he said. “My sister lives in never never land.”
“Sure isn’t Chicago, that’s for sure,” she said, padding across the floor toward the bathroom. He followed her, letting her set the temperature to the shower, waiting for the water to turn from a faint brown to clear, before climbing in.
True, he had been accustomed to four-star hotels where the beds were turned down each night with a mint on the pillow, but the suburbs of Connecticut didn’t offer any such ambiance. At least that’s what he’d told himself while trying to brush off concerns that he might soon be out of work and needed to keep a close watch on his spending habits. After all, the residuals from his time in the spotlight were now paltry and the head honcho at the station where he worked appeared to be grooming younger talent to take Allen’s place.
Of course, Denise had offered him a bedroom at her sprawling colonial, but she’d also mentioned sotto voce that her boys were at an impressionable age, which meant he and Gail would be required to sleep in separate quarters.
“You’re serious?” he’d said.
“Allen,” Denise had replied, “Josh saw that story about you online and I caught him showing his friends.”
He wasn’t quite sure which article she was referring to, but he doubted it was as innocuous as Good looking local talk show host Allen Lamb certainly enjoys the “whiff of women” since he can be seen at any number of social gatherings with a new woman at his side for every occasion. What the article didn’t mention but implied was how those same women would later end up in his bed. Or perhaps Denise was referring to the incriminating article from a few years back where a telephoto lens caught him bare-assed riding a sumptuous raven-haired up-and-coming actress at the public pool at her hotel only hours after he interviewed her on his show.
“Denny,” he said, hoping to change her mind, “you can’t believe everything you read.”
“Pictures, Allen. There were pictures.”
He sighed. “No worries, Sis, we’ll get a hotel.”
Now, standing beneath the shower, Gail was pressing up against him as she reached around scrubbing his chest with the bar of soap. Normally, his manhood would immediately stand at attention, but not today. He attributed the impending reunion to be the culprit. Off in Chicago, it was easy to forget that he was the Lamb’s firstborn and the apple of his mother’s eye. God help him, he couldn’t bring himself to visit when she was going through her chemo and radiation, even though he made a point to call her at least once a week. She told him she understood how difficult it would be for him to see her so weak and fragile. It was the copout he accepted when in reality he was afraid that she’d see the man he’d become—no longer successful Benny who held audiences captive for several years on the very lucrative television show. How rapidly he’d gone from being up and coming to diving into a freefall.
“You’re so tense,” Gail said, rubbing his shoulders, before backing away and climbing out of the tub while he stayed behind, water beating on his tense shoulders, cascading over him, over his pathetic excuse for being a man, for a few minutes more before turning the shower off and climbing out. He reached for the flimsy towel on the rack, the water dripping off him. He stopped and stared absent-mindedly at Gail as she slipped into a sheer summer dress. It didn’t hurt to be seen with such gorgeous women, he thought, but it was time perhaps to change his image, be taken more seriously and not just be some good-looking has-been who still tried to live in Benny’s shadow.
“What?” Gail said, glancing up while sliding her foot into an open-toed sandal.
He shook off the thought and sputtered, “Just thinking how beautiful you are.”
She sashayed over to him, tousling his thick head of wet brown hair. “I like being with you.” She took the towel from him and patted his moist body dry, crouching down in front of him.
He reached down, pulling her to her feet, and said, “We’d better get moving.”
The Village Apartment Complex was now home to Emily. It certainly wasn’t the roomy hi-ranch she was raised in, but roomy enough to hold her memories. While she’d grown up on the North Shore further out on Long Island, she had now made home on the South Shore closer in to Manhattan.
Her alarm went off and she gazed at it for a moment, distracted by the annoying buzzing until it registered that she had it in her power to stop it. She reached over and slammed the snooze button, then dropped her head face down on the pillow, hugging it, trying to inhale him. It had been eons ago since he’d been in her bed, but she couldn’t accept his redolence having vanished forever. It was inconceivable, but that did not stop her from recalling him by filling in the memories with scenes that hadn’t occurred, yet might have, if only…
The phone on her night stand rang. She could have easily reached over and snatched it on the first ring, but she did not. No, she let it ring three times more before grabbing the receiver and mumbling hello.
“You haven’t left yet?”
“Almost out the door.”
“Doesn’t sound it.”
“Nat, I said I’m going. I’ll be there.”
“You sure you don’t want Bethany and me to pick you up?”
The audacity. Natalie had abused her in so many ways all through their growing up years and Emily had little desire to allow her to continue doing so during a lengthy drive from Long Island to Connecticut. “No, no. I have things—”
Damn. She should’ve hung up before Natalie put Bethany on the phone. Of course she would put her daughter on the phone. It was Natalie’s diabolical way of reminding Emily she had something that her sister didn’t. She said, “Bethany, put your mother back on the phone.”
“You can come with us,” Bethany said in her angelic voice. “Mommy said she’d make sure there was room for you.”
Emily squeezed her eyes shut and tried to contain her anger. Certainly the comment was intended to bring attention to her oversized body.
“See,” Natalie said, “even Bethany wants you—”
“I’m not going with you, Nat. I have to stop by the bakery and—”
“The bakery? The apple pie will be enough.” When Emily didn’t respond, Natalie said, “Em, you did bake the apple pie, right?”
“You didn’t bake the pie! Everyone’s gonna be so disappointed. Mom’s going to be so disappointed.”
“You had no right to volunteer me to bake the pie,” Emily said.
“Why not?” Natalie said. “Denny’s hosting and I have a lot on my hands now that…”
Truth was, Emily’s oven hadn’t been turned on in years. She’d come to rely on take-out daily. Before she allowed Natalie another word, though, she did what she’d wanted to do earlier and simply hung up.
Emily used to want to protect Natalie from herself. She’d helped Natalie get a job at the same school as the secretary where Emily taught young students how to appreciate old music but eventually regretted it, since it made it difficult to keep distance between them. Now the reunion their mother insisted upon was complicating that motive.
She curled up under the covers and closed her eyes. It was the Fourth of July, but in her imagination it was one where he was in bed with her, one where he’d suggested they not get up till late in the day—in time to watch the fireworks down at the pier. And there they were, he with his arm draped over her shoulder, the two of them awed by such colorful splendor and by each other; always awed by each other. Suddenly her reverie was interrupted once again by the snooze alarm going off.
She reached over, smacking the off button. A long, luxurious day of fantasizing had so much more appeal than the day she was committed to. Still, as difficult as it would be, she was expected to be there to celebrate her mother’s triumph over a disease that was supposed to have won, according to the doctors. She tossed the covers off and swung her thick, wobbly legs to the side of the bed. Her once firm, ample breasts were now pendulums, unattended pendulums, while her abdomen rested on her lap. She’d always been curvy, but she was no longer exotic like a Renaissance painting because there was no one to tell her so. Not anymore.
She pushed herself from the bed and shuffled down the short hallway toward the bathroom. No one understood the effort it would take her to travel the hundred or so miles to Connecticut from Long Island. Her phone rang, but she decided to let the machine get it, expecting to hear Natalie’s nagging voice.
“Emily? Emily! It’s your mother. Natalie just called. I don’t know why you two can’t ride together. She also said you were going to bring a pie from the bakery. Why didn’t you tell me you weren’t going to bake one? Well, you’re probably already on your way.” Never one to understand answering machine etiquette, Margaret Lamb hung up with a loud abrupt clunk.
The thought of climbing into the shower to begin the day was daunting so she turned around and headed back to the bedroom. Just ten more minutes with him. She climbed beneath the covers, and moments later she was sitting between his sprawled legs, his arms around her as they continued watching the fireworks.
Happy Fourth of July.
Hugging her pillow, she said aloud, “Happy Fourth of July, Coach.”
Unlike the stifling apartment that Emily confined herself to, Denise had plenty of room in her spacious colonial in rural Connecticut. Her front yard was rolling with manicured green grass, thanks to the pricey landscapers her husband hired, while the closest neighbor was out of eye’s view due to a small copse separating the properties, the town proper several miles away. When she and Jeff bought the house, Denise felt she would be able to breathe for the first time, having little idea that the air would eventually be filled with a house full of teenage boys’ toxins.
“Boys! Please take care of your roller blades!” Denise shouted from the kitchen window into the backyard just as Danny and Elliott dove into the pool, the plunge a sound of blatant disobedience. That was how Denise took it anyway. Jeff would tell her it was just the sound of “boys being boys.” Just then boiling water began spilling out of the pot filled with potatoes onto the stove top. She ran over to lower the flame.
Josh strolled into the kitchen wearing board shorts and a shirt that made the statement: Faggots should DIE.
She wiped perspiration from her forehead. “Josh, please, go take that off. That is much too inappropriate…” She stopped, realizing he couldn’t hear a word she was saying with the headphones plugged in his ears. She walked over to him, tapping him on the shoulder.
“What?” he shouted.
“I want you to change that shirt.”
“Fags are offensive.”
Elliott came in through the back door, a towel wrapped haphazardly around his pre-adolescent frame dripping with water. He had two sets of Rollerblades cradled in his arms.
“Speaking of fags,” Josh said, walking over and shoving Elliott’s shoulder, causing him to drop a Rollerblade on his bare foot. He howled in pain.
“Josh!” Denise screamed, her damp face now flushed. “Now pick that up for your brother.”
“It’s okay, Mom. I got it.” Elliott scooped up the Rollerblade and limped as he carried it down the stairs to the basement.
Josh plugged his ears with the headphones then opened the refrigerator, taking out a two-liter bottle of Coke. He slammed the door and strolled out of the kitchen, heading toward the family room, gulping down the soda.
Don’t cry…don’t cry…she demanded herself, pulling a kitchen chair out and sitting down, trying to collect herself, only to be interrupted by the ringing phone. She sighed and got up, grabbing the receiver before Josh did. Seems the phone was always for him lately and sometimes it was a girl on the other end. Sometimes Denise wondered if taking his cell phone away as punishment was worth it. “Hello,” she said.
“You’re not going to believe this,” Natalie said.
“Don’t tell me you’re not coming,” Denise said.
“Em didn’t bake the pie.”
“And, it’s the only request Mom made from her. We have to have apple pie. Are they there yet?”
“Who?” Denise said.
“Mom and Dad.”
“Not yet,” she replied, glancing at the clock on the wall. “They said they’d be here around elevenish.”
“So, what are we going to do?” Natalie said.
“What do you mean? About the pie? Mom’ll survive without it.”
“With everything she’s been through, I don’t think a pie will matter, Nat.”
“I’m just saying, it’s the only request she’s made.”
“Then why don’t you stop at a bakery and pick one up?”
“Denny! You know how she feels about bakery pies. That would be an insult.” After a slight pause, Nat added, “Do you think maybe you could whip one up?”
Whip one up? Denise had to will herself to stay calm. Without knowing why, she muttered, “I’ll see what I can do, okay?”
“I’m sorry. I mean, it’s unfair that you have to fix what Emily was supposed to do.”
Elliott came back up from the basement. “The skates are in the closet, Mom.”
Denise looked over at her son—her saving grace. He and Danny were twins, on the cusp of becoming teenagers, but Elliott didn’t seem as eager to cut the apron strings as Danny did or how Josh had done some time ago. “That’s fine, honey—”
“Great!” Natalie blurted. “I gotta go, but I’ll be there in a couple of hours.”
Denny realized that Nat thought she’d agreed to make the pie. She shouted into the receiver, “Nat! Nat! I was talking to Elli—” But her sister had already hung up. Just then, she heard her husband coming down the stairs.
“Anything wrong?” Jeff strolled into the kitchen, his paunch hanging over his bathing suit.
“Aren’t you going to put a shirt on?” she said.
“Not to take a dip into the pool.”
Denise went over to the stove to check on the potatoes. They were done. She turned off the burner. “You have time to go for a swim?” she asked, hoping her husband would offer to help.
He shrugged. “Yeah, then I’ll check on the grill.”
“The grill?” she said, lifting the large pot of potatoes over to the sink and pouring them into a strainer, the steam warming her face. “You haven’t checked the propane, yet?”
“What’s the big deal, Denny?” he said.
Her throat was closing up, her eyes filling with tears.
“Listen, this whole reunion is getting to you. Maybe it’s just too much for you.”
She stared at him, wanting to tell him that if he helped it wouldn’t be too much for her. Instead she said, “Would you please tell Josh to change that horrid shirt he’s wearing?”
“Shouldn’t stifle his opinion, Denny,” Jeff said. “If we make him change, it’ll only make him all the more rebellious.”
“Either that,” she muttered, “or he’ll go to the next level to try and push our buttons.”
But Jeff was already out the back door; seconds later, the plunge. This time it was of unconcern.
If there was any justice at all, Natalie was getting her just desserts for what she’d put her mother through as a teenager. Even though Bethany was still very young, she already showed herself to be a determined five-year old. Now she was on her third trip out to the Caravan, this time lugging several Barbie dolls, including Nurse Barbie and Astronaut Barbie, along with their wardrobe and paraphernalia. Natalie sighed, following with a tuna casserole.
“We’re not staying overnight, Bethany,” she said. “You really need to bring all that?” Even as she asked, Natalie knew what the response would be.
“Yes. Someone might rob us,” Bethany said, standing next to the vehicle.
“No one is going to rob us.” Natalie wondered if the psychologist, who was taking a hefty chunk out of her paycheck, was doing her job. “Besides, I don’t think robbers are looking for Barbie dolls.” She slid open the side door of the Caravan.
“You don’t know that,” Bethany said, climbing up onto the seat and placing her toys all around where she’d be sitting.
Natalie went to the back and opened the hatch, placing the casserole on the floor. It’d been months since she’d bothered counting in order to keep her patience reined in. She didn’t think it was worth the effort since it only made her all the more eager to scream once she reached number ten. Besides, there’d be no arguing with the little girl whose father had been taken from her two years earlier without so much as a warning. Even though Bethany rarely talked about Greg anymore, his sudden absence was an obvious void in her life, one that she attempted to fill with toys, games, stuffed animals and every Barbie doll manufactured.
Natalie headed up the driveway and called back to Bethany while jingling the keys as proof that she was locking the door. “See?” She pushed the key into the chamber with great fanfare.
“Wait!” Bethany shrieked, clambering out of the vehicle and running toward the house. “I forgot somethin’.”
“What?” Natalie said through gritted teeth.
“Let me in!” Bethany squealed.
There’d be no arguing. With another sigh, Natalie unlocked the door. While Bethany ran up the stairs and could be heard scrambling around her room, Natalie surveyed the house she and Greg had bought months before Bethany was born. It was a modest Cape Cod, something the realtor had referred to as a “starter home.” The word “starter” had thrown Natalie off her game. It meant she was expected to continue with what she’d begun, which had never been her style. Still, she agreed with Greg that it would be perfect, and they were soon a married couple expecting a baby while living in their new home. It had a dizzying effect on Natalie. Settled? It was the biggest mess she’d gotten herself into.
“Bethany, what on earth are you doing?”
“I’m coming!” Slow and cautious footsteps could be heard navigating the stairs. When Bethany came in sight she was lugging Barbie’s playhouse.
“Bethany Jane, do you really…”
With wordless determination, her pigtails swaying, Bethany took guarded steps down the stairs, huffing past Natalie and going out to the vehicle.
“Be easier if we just brought the entire damn house,” Natalie mumbled as she locked the door. When she got to the Caravan, she found Bethany standing there waiting for her. “That’s got to go in the back,” she said, taking the playhouse from her daughter. “Now get in!”
Bethany scrambled in and got onto her knees facing the back, watching Natalie place the playhouse next to the casserole.
“Come on,” Natalie said, slamming the back door shut. “Get your seat belt on. Aunt Denny’s gonna wonder if we’re coming or not.” She walked around and climbed in to the driver’s seat.
Oh, dear god, now what?
Bethany didn’t wait for a reply. “Christina’s dog has puppies.”
“You told me that yesterday,” she said, turning on the ignition. “And the day before yesterday.”
“Can we get one?”
“What did I tell you yesterday and the day before yesterday?”
“But I’ll feed it and comb its hair and everything.”
Everything? Will you clean up its shit? “Hey,” she said, “I brought your Barney CD. Want me to put it in?” The purple dinosaur grated on Natalie’s nerves, but it wouldn’t be as annoying as the whine of a five-year-old. Bethany said a disheartened okay.
Soon they were on their way and while Barney sang about how much he loved everybody, Natalie debated taking a detour past Emily’s apartment to see if she’d left or not. She glanced at her watch. If she did go to Emily’s it meant risking missing the Port Jefferson ferry. Even now, it was going to be close. The very idea caused her to press a little harder on the gas pedal.
A reunion should be something to look forward to, but so far, the day had meant nothing but work. Still, she knew she’d be treated with kid gloves in her state of widowhood. And with such a young child! True, her mother was the one who’d been the center of attention during the last few years, but the loss of Natalie’s husband threw everyone a curve ball. Comments like, “He was so young” and “Just goes to show you, when your number is called there’s nothing anyone can do about it” were muttered as Natalie sat thunderstruck in the funeral home staring at her husband’s lifeless body. There wasn’t a day since she didn’t think of Greg, wishing she’d had a chance to say what she’d wanted to say to him. Two years and she still couldn’t get the image of him lying dead in bed out of her mind. One moment, vital and expecting—what? Pleasure? A release? The next, an aneurysm seizing his day. His life.
The psychologist said it was normal for a grieving wife to be angry; that was one of the stages. But she was supposed to have moved from anger to acceptance by now.
Of course, Natalie wasn’t one to follow the norm.
“There’s the boat, Bethany!” she said some time later. “See it?” There were several cars waiting to board and she pulled up behind the last one. “This’ll be fun.” She could be optimistic when required. “Maybe your Aunt Em is already on.” She followed the slow-moving line of cars, stretching her neck to see if she could spy Em’s beat up Camry, until a shriek from the backseat caused her to slam on the brakes.
“I forgot Pooh! Pooh’s not here.”
Natalie clutched the steering wheel. “Of course he’s here. You brought everything.”
“You sure? Look in your bag.” Please, please, Pooh, be in the bag. To turn back now would be beyond reason—to an adult anyway.
“He’s not here.” Tears came to Bethany’s eyes. “He’s not going to be home when I get back. I know it.”
“Maybe…” Think, Natalie think. Only two more cars to go and they’d have to board the boat. “…maybe he wanted to stay home today. Maybe he wanted to just relax around the house.”
The tears grew into sobs, Bethany’s tiny body trembling. “He hates being alone. He’s waiting for me.”
Natalie slammed the car into reverse, whipped it around and pulled away from the boat. If she didn’t go back, Bethany would be inconsolable all day and Natalie didn’t have the energy to deal with that.
“Mommy? Are you mad? Mommy?”