by Jacob Butlett
The man started across the lawn to the front door where my mom, bedraggled from working all morning in the back garden, stood waiting. I watched the man from the top of my mom’s apple tree, the same tree that produced the fruit she used in her cider. He caught my eye not because he was carrying a duffel bag or because he was whistling to himself. It was his bowler hat, with its thin taper and brim, squat crown, orange hue—especially the hue.
It was 1960. I was eleven, just a kid at the time: proud, naïve. And so, in my mom’s apple tree, I reasoned that the man with the duffel bag was queer. No man here, on the outskirts of the city to the north and the rapids to the south, would wear such a bright hat.
He stopped at the stoop and shook my mom’s hand. I descended the tree and started toward them. I overheard them talking. Proud of her flowers, my mom gestured toward the pink chrysanthemums in the front yard. When my dad moved out a week ago, my mom devoted more time to her flowers than to anything or anyone else. If she wasn’t a housewife, she would’ve been a florist or a landscaper or a botanist.
On the stoop, she wiped her thumbs along the sides of her yellow gypsy top. From several yards away, I could still see dirt on her fingertips. She removed her pink sun hat and wiped the sweat from her brow with the back of a hand. When I finished my walk across the yard, the man turned around to face me. I was hoping he’d check out the spare bedroom, say no, thank you, and leave, allowing my dad more time to come to his senses and return home. The man looked down at me with a grin and revealed a straight set of teeth. In the shade of the plastic awning right above the front door, the man’s green eyes seemed to glimmer on their own.
“Robert,” my mom said, “this is Mr. Jon Deerborne. He’ll be renting the spare bedroom for the next three months.”
Thunderstruck, I stared at her, but she made no attempt to explain. She cleared her throat and opened the door. The smell of fresh apple cider and cucumber sandwiches wafted outside. She asked me to show Mr. Deerborne to the spare bedroom, which I did without complaint. Then I went to the kitchen, where my mom was pouring cider into three glasses.
“Why are you so happy?” I snapped. “You’ve been depressed all week.”
She looked up from the cider. “We need the money,” she said. “And Mr. Deerborne was nothing but gracious over the phone last night.”
“He called?” I demanded.
“Tone, sweetie,” she said, and began to set the kitchen table for lunch. “You were outside when he called about the room. With your dad gone, he won’t be able to support us as he normally would.”
“But this man can’t be here for three months. What would Dad think?”
She evaded the question with a headshake.
“He has the right to know,” I said. “Another man is living in his house.”
“He won’t mind.” Her voice was low. “Now change out of that undershirt and put on something more formal.”
“Three months is a long time,” I said. “What if he invites a friend over?”
“A male friend.”
She eyed me. “He’s not queer, sweetie.”
“I’m not saying he’s a bad person, but how do you know?”
“I just know. Now get dressed.”
“You should’ve talked to me last night.”
“Him. Orange Bowler. I live here too, you know.”
“Don’t call him that,” she snapped. “That’s rude.”
“All I’m saying is—”
A glass dropped from my mom’s hand and shattered on the hardwood floor, cider spilling under the table. I gasped. Shards lay in the liquid like ice shelves. As I knelt and started to pick up the pieces, my mom grabbed a dishcloth from underneath the kitchen sink. When she returned, she crouched beside me, panting. Her cheeks bright red, she plucked the pieces I’d just picked up out of my cupped hands and ordered me to go.
“I was only trying to help,” I said.
Orange Bowler hurried into the kitchen. “Is everything all right?”
“It’s fine,” my mom said. “Robert, get dressed.”
I wanted to help her pick up the pieces, but I left. When I returned wearing a polo my dad had bought me, my mom was sitting at the table, talking to Orange Bowler. He said something funny and she laughed with tears in her eyes. I sat down between them and listened to my mom ramble on about her garden. Orange Bowler was listening attentively to her analysis of the local mulch varieties. Suddenly, he glanced at his watch with a panicked expression, stood up abruptly and said he needed to return to work. He said his goodbyes, then strode away. That was when I noticed it: my mom hadn’t picked up all the shards of glass from the floor.
When Orange Bowler left the room, she poured herself another glass of cider.
Two weeks ago, at night, from my bedroom, I overhead my parents arguing.
“I work in the morning,” my dad said. “I need my sleep.”
“Don’t change the subject,” my mom said. “I found the letters.”
“You’re planning on leaving me.”
“Leaving you? What are you talking about?”
“What’s her name?”
“The woman in the letters!”
My dad didn’t speak for several seconds. Then he said, “I work tomorrow.”
“Tell me her name.”
“Evelyn, go to sleep.”
“I read the letters, Adam.”
“I don’t know anything about these letters. I’m tired. I work tomorrow.”
“You’re planning on leaving me, aren’t you? Tell me. Just tell me!”
“Good night, Evelyn.”
The next morning, I found my dad’s secret love letters in the trash.
My dad stayed in the spare bedroom until a week ago, then moved out with his travel bag. Since then, the spare bedroom had been unoccupied, the smell of my dad’s aftershave lingering in the air. Today, just before Orange Bowler arrived, I’d stood in the spare bedroom and pictured my dad lying in a coffin. He wasn’t dead, but without him physically at home, it didn’t matter. He was gone.
After my dad moved out, my mom became aloof. Yesterday, the day before Orange Bowler showed up, I’d called out her name in the back garden several times. It was one in the afternoon and she hadn’t made anything to eat. Several hours earlier she’d promised a big lunch—apple cider, cooked ham, mashed potatoes, and boiled carrots. All morning and early afternoon, she had worked incessantly in the back garden, sowing more seedlings, clawing out the weeds that had almost dominated her lavender bush, organizing mulch and fertilizers into different pots and plots of moist earth. When she finally heard me calling her name, she looked up. I told her I was starving. As if in defeat, she ambled to the kitchen and made me a bologna sandwich, which I could’ve made myself. She didn’t even wash her hands before getting the bread: she’d left dirt prints all over the sandwich.
Too hungry to care, I ate my lunch and noticed her staring at me from the sink. The sun filtered through the kitchen window and submerged her wavy auburn hair in a corona of light. As she looked at me, her face turned red with grief. She began to cry silently. I could taste the dirt prints in my mouth, so I tried not to gag.
“Are you happy?” she asked.
I wondered what she meant but didn’t want to think too much into it. I shrugged. “I’ll be happy when Dad moves back in.”
“I’ll be happy then too.” She wiped the tears from her face with her fingers, leaving dirt smears beneath her eyes.
When Orange Bowler arrived to check into the spare bedroom, my mom no longer seemed depressed, mostly content, as if she felt important having a man in the house again. It had only taken a day with him for her mood to change.
She prepared spaghetti with meat sauce for dinner. At the kitchen table, Orange Bowler removed his hat, revealing a bald head covered with liver spots, which looked like coffee stains on a white tablecloth. He couldn’t have been a day over fifty-five. He was rotund, his lips curved into a constant smile. While we ate, he told my mom and me about his life as a bank teller, how he loved conversing with bank patrons, counting money, balancing the sheets. He talked about his past, which my mom prompted with leading questions:
“Where are you from again?” Gary, Indiana.
“What did you do there?” Owned a haberdashery, but wanted a fresh start, so I joined the banking industry.
“Are you married?”
My attention piqued, I looked up from my plate.
“Yes,” he said, “but Emily and I are separated at the moment.”
My mom glanced at me, her way of saying I told you so. She addressed him again. Her voice softened. “I know how you feel. Adam and I are currently separated.”
“It’s good to know someone who understands,” he said. “Emily didn’t even want to look at me after the incident. It hit her so hard. So suddenly.”
“What happened?” I asked.
My mom kicked me under the table. I winced and apologized.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’m an open book.” His voice softened. “I’d gone into work early when I received a telephone call from my wife: she’d lost Rupert, our unborn son, during the night. I didn’t know what to say, so I sped home and found her still clutching the phone, crying. No man wants his wife to suffer through a thing like that. It’s devastating. It’s unimaginable.”
“I’m so sorry,” my mom said.
I didn’t know what to say either. How does a woman lose her own child if it isn’t even born yet? I didn’t want to look naïve, so I continued eating. Two years prior, my mom had lost me while we were at the supermarket. I’d wandered to the deli department by myself, and when she found me, she picked me up and squeezed me until my arms went numb, she was so worried. Now, drinking my cider, I suspected the incident at the supermarket was nothing compared to what happened to Orange Bowler’s wife.
“When a woman loses a child,” my mom said, “it’s like a piece of her soul disappears.”
“It’s devastating,” Orange Bowler added, then after a beat: “Evelyn, what led to your separation? If you’d rather not say, I’d understand.”
“It’s—fine,” she said.
“It isn’t,” he said, backtracking quickly. “I shouldn’t have brought it up.”
She brushed her hair away from her face, then picked through her spaghetti with her fork. I suppose she wanted to look nonchalant, but she fidgeted and glanced repeatedly at the floor, as if searching for an escape hatch. So, I spoke up, hoping that would mark the end of dinner: “My dad slept with another woman.”
My mom dropped her fork onto her plate. Orange Bowler and I flinched at the loud clattering of the utensil. She kicked my leg again and I apologized without earnest, too perplexed. She ignored me.
Dinner was over minutes later. I began to collect the plates. Orange Bowler rose and touched my shoulder. “Give it time, Robert,” he whispered. “We’re all going through a lot.”
The phone rang. My mom went to the other room to pick it up. A good distraction, I reasoned. While I picked up all the plates, Orange Bowler collected the glasses and silverware and followed me to the sink. Once there, he started to wash the dishes.
“You don’t have to do that,” I said.
He smiled. “I want to contribute.”
“You won’t be here long. I mean, three months will go by fast.”
“I might stay longer.”
“Shouldn’t you be with your wife?”
“Maybe, but she asked me to give her some space.”
I shrugged and considered telling him how I really felt about him but feared he would overreact. Adults overreact too much, I thought. My mom overreacted by banishing my dad to the spare bedroom and my dad overreacted when he moved out. At school, my teachers always taught us the importance of forgiveness, so why were my parents, my mom especially, making life so much harder for themselves?
“Why do you wear that hat?” I asked.
He flashed me a grin. “Emily bought it for me,” he said. “I like to stand out.”
He lifted his hands from the water before finishing and looked at me raptly. I thought he was going to scold me for my quip, as my dad usually did. His gaze paralyzed me. I was not frightened, but mystified, so eager to hear what he had to say that I almost didn’t hear the backdoor opening and shutting in the adjacent room.
“I like you, Robert,” he said. “You remind me of me when I was a kid: bold, childish. I can respect bold and childish. Keep that moxie, but don’t be afraid to grow as a person. Not everything in life is so straightforward.”
“You don’t. You really don’t. But you’re bright. You’ll figure things out.”
Not long after we returned to cleaning the dishes, we heard a scream from outside. Without hesitation, we ran out to the backyard and found my mom yanking out her lavender bush. She yelped with each pull, the moonlight gleaming in her teary eyes, a spectral shimmer. For a moment I thought she was possessed. I touched her shoulder, but she pushed me back and dug out more roots, soiling her shirt and pants. She muttered under her breath, fast and derisive and panicky, not sounding human at first: It’s not right, it’s not right!
Orange Bowler wrapped his arms around her waist and dragged her into the house. She kicked and slapped him, but to no avail. I followed him to the living room. I was shaking so hard, I was breathing so hard, I thought I would faint. I considered calling for help—either my aunt or another family member. But I stayed in the living room, watching Orange Bowler restrain my mom in a tight hug. Then she rested her head on his shoulder. He carried her to the couch, where he lay her down and covered her with a wool blanket. I touched her forehead: it was on fire. Orange Bowler touched her forehead too and left the room. I knelt down beside her. She looked past my shoulders, as if too embarrassed to look me in the eye. Orange Bowler returned with a blue icepack, wrapped it in a towel, and set it on her forehead. I was about to speak when my eyes and hers connected.
“He just called, your dad,” she stammered. I’d almost forgotten that the phone rang before. “He wants to eat breakfast with you tomorrow.”
“He said . . .”
“What?” I said. “What did he say?”
“He wants,” she said, “he wants a divorce!”
I fell silent. Orange Bowler and I stayed with her for the rest of the night.
When our omelets arrived, I finished telling my dad what had happened yesterday, from Orange Bowler’s arrival to my mom’s panic-stricken episode. He tucked his napkin under his collar and began to cut his omelet into equally sized pieces. I waited for him to respond, wondering if I’d told him the story clearly enough. After the first bite of his breakfast, he looked at me and nodded, a sign that he retained every detail. Then he replied, more to the restaurant table than to me, “That’s nice. She’s renting out the spare bedroom?”
That wasn’t the response I’d anticipated. I nodded and turned to my breakfast.
A half hour earlier, my dad had picked me up in his old car, which sometimes backfired like gunfire, and while we pulled out of the driveway, I looked out the passenger window at the sycamores that lined the block, foliage like plumage rising above the houses. Though it was early summer, spring lingered in the rain puddles on the sidewalks. Sometimes deer would cross the street, and I’d follow them to the southern rapids, where I’d look over the edge of the sandstone cliffs and gaze at the sun-soaked whitecaps. Then I’d close my eyes and nap.
It wasn’t hard for me to guess why I preferred living outside the city: I loved the quiet among the trees, the lullaby of the rapids. I never understood why my dad preferred the city, with its colossal buildings, its clamorous businessmen. Before I learned about my dad’s desire to leave, I believed my dad hated living outside the city because he detested the smell of wet earth. That would’ve explained his aversion to my mom’s garden. I couldn’t recall a single time he’d stepped into the garden. Every woman needs a garden of her own, he once told me. The garden was her territory.
At the outdoor café, I expected him to express more interest in the fact that another man had just moved into the house, that Mom was beginning to act erratically, that our family seemed to be drifting apart. I knew he’d ignore my concerns if I shared them explicitly, the way I truly wanted to. He’d call me emotional, not a real man. But I didn’t want our conversation to end. It had hardly started.
I said, “His name’s Orange Bowler.”
“Who?” my dad asked.
“Mr. Jon Deerborne. I call him Orange Bowler because he wears an orange bowler hat, a gift from his wife.”
“Men don’t wear bowlers anymore.”
“That’s why I thought he was queer.”
“He might be. Even queers marry women sometimes.”
“I guess you’re right.”
“I am right,” he said. “Takes all kinds.”
I wanted him to tell me more about the divorce he mentioned to my mom last night. All I knew about divorces was that they were rarely spoken about in public.
My dad removed the napkin from his collar and leaned back. Out of respect, I leaned back too. I copied him whenever I wanted to impress him. I followed his gaze to the street, where trucks honked by, where car exhaust seemed to slither up the skyscrapers, blinding white in the sun. He and I looked at the female passersby, women in espadrilles or ankle boots, sundresses or blousons. The wind was hot like summer, then cold like spring. My dad and I wore matching blazers. Now it was getting hot, so I took mine off. He left his blazer on, his eyes trained on the women. When they passed, he turned to me. “I first saw your mom in a crosswalk.”
He’d told me the story before: he’d been on his way to work at his uncle’s law office when he started a random conversation with a woman who’d later be my mom. He made her laugh and soon dated her. A year later, they got married.
“You’re still in love,” I said. “That’s what marriage is. Love.”
“It’s not so straightforward, sport.”
“You already have Mom—and me.”
“I’ll always love you. It’s just, things change.”
He paused. “Sometimes people fall out of love.”
“You’ll move back home, right?”
“The divorce won’t be finalized for another month.”
“But you will move back,” I pressed.
“It’s not that easy.”
“Why not? It’s our home.”
“It’s not so straightforward, sport.”
“Why not!” I stood up. People at neighboring tables glanced at me. Some even gawked. My dad gestured for me to sit, but I remained standing. “If you’re not getting back together with Mom,” I said, “then what’s the point in talking?”
“Sit down. I’ll explain everything. A divorce is when—”
“I know exactly what a divorce is!” I lied. I wanted to run away. At the nearby intersection, several cabdrivers honked their horns at pedestrians in the crosswalk. The air suddenly smelled sulfurous, but I realized most of the stench came from the omelet taste at the back of my throat. “What’s the point?” I exclaimed.
He pounded the tabletop and the silverware rattled off the plates. I jumped back. He slammed a twenty dollar bill on the table. “We’re leaving.”
I put on my blazer and followed him to the sidewalk. I’d never cursed in front of my dad before. As he hailed for a cab, I came up with a million ways to apologize. He’d spanked me once for tracking mud through his study. Defying his authority in public and cursing were probably worth several spankings. I opened my mouth to speak, but he squeezed my arm and forced me into a cab. Instead of climbing in with me, he slammed the door shut from the outside.
“Where to?” the cabbie asked my dad.
He handed money to the cabbie through an open window and told him our address. When the cabdriver pulled into traffic moments later, I was too afraid to look at my dad through the rear window. During the drive, I didn’t think I’d ever stop crying.
Alone in the kitchen, I walked to the full body mirror next to the refrigerator and checked my eyes – still red from my weeping. I practiced smiling in the mirror, a proud grin, the kind other boys and men use to hide their pain. Then I walked outside to the garden and stopped several yards away from the mutilated lavender bush. Kneeling side by side, their backs to me, my mom and Orange Bowler faced the bush. I couldn’t see their faces, but I pictured them frowning with dismay. He wore his bowler. She was hatless. I considered skulking away, but a part of me wanted to stay. This was the first time a man other than my dad had ever visited my mom’s garden. I remained silent, unnoticed.
“You’ll grow another one,” he said. “Better than the last one.”
“Don’t patronize me.” She preened her hair in the sun. “It’s not right,” she mumbled. I remembered the same line from last night, but not knowing what it meant. “Jon, it’s not right.”
“Everything turns out right eventually,” he said. “In fact, my wife telephoned me an hour ago. She said she’s feeling better.”
“That’s wonderful, Jon,” she said. “You know, I’m glad you showed up in my life. With everything going on, it’s comforting to speak to someone who understands me.”
“You’ll feel better.”
“I hope,” she said. “I tend to my garden, but it still doesn’t look right. I accidently overwatered my petunias and tulips, and I still need to move the sunflowers away from the shade—they’ve already began to droop. I feel like I’m drowning.”
He patted her shoulder softly. “You still have Robert.”
“I don’t want to lose him too. It’s just . . .”
“It’s just,” she said, “I don’t know what to do.”
“You know what to do. You’re his mother.”
“A horrible mother.”
“Evelyn, don’t say that.”
“And why not?” she demanded. “Every child needs a mother and a father. That’s what God intended.”
“Life’s not always that simple.”
“Jon,” she said, “I don’t think I have what it takes. I just don’t. I’m a horrible mother and I’m scared. I feel so stupid.”
“Don’t say that, Evelyn,” he said. “Don’t say that.”
I backed out of the garden, then ran among the trees beyond the neighbors’ houses. I ran until I reached the rapids. Balmy breezes seemed to emanate from the water. I inhaled its freshwater scent—the damp aroma of limestone, algae, moss. Lying on my stomach, I looked over the edge of the cliff and tried to peer through the water’s frothy surface, my mind wandering, lost to the sonorous beating and slapping of the whitecaps against the cliff. I envisioned jumping over the edge and landing on a bed of foam and wondered how far the rapids would carry me before I drowned. The idea exhilarated me at first: my body purified in the water, a large water font. Then the image horrified me. I’d never thought of anything so disturbing. I left quickly.
When I made it back home, I found Orange Bowler drinking beer in the kitchen. My mom was in the kitchen too. I looked at her with the same smile I practiced earlier.
“How was your time with your dad?” she asked.
“Fine,” I said. I feared she’d see right through the smile. “Just fine.”
“That’s good,” she said noncommittally, and walked back to the garden. In silence.
Orange Bowler leaned against the refrigerator and took a sip of beer. “It’ll take time, Robert,” he said. “It’ll take time.”
The next day I spied on my mom talking to my dad over the telephone. From the living room doorway, I could tell she was trying her best not to cry: preening her hair one moment, biting her nails the next. She spoke calmly, though, but raised her voice whenever she said my name: “Robert is just a boy,” “Robert is staying with me,” “Robert can make his own choices.” I had never heard her sound so eager, so anxious, saying my name before. It pleased me yet scared me. I always assumed moms were supposed to be level-headed, but with the separation, that assumption started to sound like a lie. I went back to the kitchen, where Orange Bowler was reading the paper.
My mom came in a short time later with her coin purse. “Robert,” she said, “I need you to pick up some gardening supplies from Mr. and Mrs. Anderson. They’re expecting you, so change into something nice.”
“What’s wrong with my overalls?”
“The Andersons are old-fashioned, sweetie. If they see you dressed up like a farmer’s son in this neighborhood—”
“What do you mean?”
“The Andersons are old-fashioned,” she repeated, and turned to Orange Bowler. “Mr. Deerborne, do you have plans?”
Orange Bowler lowered the paper. “I don’t work today.”
“Would you mind helping me reseed my lavender bush?”
“It’s been a while since I last gardened,” he said, “but I’ll be happy to help.”
She handed me her purse and told me to take a wheelbarrow with me because the items she wanted were heavy. I changed into a blue polo and gray slacks, then walked to the front yard, where a red wheelbarrow lay. I wheeled it down the street to the last house on the right—a house with green shutters, with matching green flowerboxes in the windowsills. A green lawn out front. A white picket fence enclosing the property. I found Mrs. Anderson in the front yard, near her mulberry bush. Dressed in a starched shirtwaist, her silver hair pulled back, she waved me over.
With everything happening in my life, I considered turning around and heading home without saying hello to Mrs. Anderson, without the supplies. I loosened my hands on the wheelbarrow, prepared to abandon the rickety thing, when Mrs. Anderson ran up to me and pinched my cheek. A disillusioned stakeholder in my mom’s request to get her damned gardening supplies, I followed Mrs. Anderson to the backyard, where her garden, much smaller and less vibrant than my mom’s, encircled a stone patio. I said hello to Mr. Anderson, who was reading the paper at the patio table.
I first met Mr. Anderson last year at a luncheon held at my house. I remembered him talking about golf all throughout the luncheon, impressing my dad with his vast knowledge. Mr. Anderson tried to include me in the conversation, but I knew nothing about golf. He asked me about school; I gave a forgettable response. He asked me if I was starting to court girls; I shook my head. He asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up; I said the first thing that came to mind: a professional gardener. He told me I could do better, and at the time, I agreed, regretting not saying something more expectant, like fireman or businessman.
At the other end of the patio stood a workbench rife with gardening supplies. I helped Mrs. Anderson stock the wheelbarrow with seed packets and thin plastic pots and bags of mulch. Mr. Anderson called me over. I paid Mrs. Anderson, who then told me she’d put the rest of the supplies in the wheelbarrow. I didn’t want to look awkward or indifferent in front of Mr. Anderson, so I thought of some talking points on my way to the patio table. When I sat down across from him, my mind went blank.
“How are you, young man?”
“Good, sir,” I said. “You?”
“I sprained my wrist playing golf. The doctor, however, says I should be good to go by next week.”
“Good to go?”
“To golf, of course. Unless I’m mistaken, your father plays golf.”
“He never telephones.”
“Not to you, I suppose.”
My hands started to sweat. I cleared my throat. “He just moved out of the house.”
“Is he all right?”
“Then why did he move out of the house?”
I wondered whether he was curious or nosy or both. I heard Mrs. Anderson walk over. “Tea, gentlemen?”
“No, thank you, Mrs. Anderson.”
“Give him a cup,” Mr. Anderson said. “He’ll appreciate your mulberry tea.”
“And cookies?” she asked me.
“No, thank you.”
“I made apple pie.”
I relaxed a little. “My mom makes cider from the apples she grows.”
“That’s wonderful,” she said. “I could give her my apple pie recipe in exchange for her apple cider recipe. I’ve never made apple cider before, but I have baked apple streusels many times.”
“Dear,” Mr. Anderson said, “Robert doesn’t want to listen to you talk about apples.”
She blushed and apologized to me and went through the patio door to the kitchen. Mr. Anderson collapsed his paper. He even grunted when he moved his sprained wrist too fast. I crossed my arms at the table and he eyed me. “May I ask you a question, Robert?”
I nodded reluctantly.
“Well,” he said, “on my way home from work yesterday, I saw a man outside your house. He was picking apples in your front yard.”
“Was he wearing an orange bowler?”
“Yes. It was a strange sight. I didn’t know people wore orange hats.”
“There’s a lot we don’t know about a lot of things.”
He eyed me. “True, but who is he?”
“Mr. Deerborne. He’s renting the spare bedroom while my dad’s away.”
“So, your dad is all right.”
“I don’t know when he’s coming back.”
“Back from where?”
“Don’t know,” I said.
“You don’t know where your dad is when he isn’t at home or work?”
“Not for the last week.”
“It’s sort of personal.”
He looked disappointed. “I understand.”
“No, it’s just, I promised my mother I wouldn’t mention the divorce.”
It took me a moment to realize what I’d just said. I should’ve lied, kept the truth to myself, should’ve restrained my anxiety. He muttered divorce under his breath, as if the word had left a bad taste in his mouth, a rotten apple taste. He grimaced, then smiled, incredulous. “Good Christians don’t divorce,” he said.
“I didn’t mean divorce. I meant—”
“Lying’s impolite, Robert.”
“I wasn’t lying, sir. My parents aren’t getting a divorce.”
I could tell from his eyes that he knew the truth, that I couldn’t do anything to retract my confession. Not even an avalanche of lies could mask the scorn across Mr. Anderson’s face or extinguish the shame burning in my gut. We sat there quietly until Mrs. Anderson returned with apple pie. “I hope you’re hungry, Robert,” she said.
I wanted to say no, thank you, which was the truth. I eyed the wheelbarrow, then Mr. Anderson. My mom was right: the Andersons were old-fashioned.
“It’s time for Robert to leave,” Mr. Anderson said.
I got the hint. I stood up.
“You sure?” she asked me. “I can show you around the garden before you leave. It’s not much, but I think you’ll like it. I’ve started to grow nasturtiums.”
Mr. Anderson stood up. His wife and I looked at him in silence. “It’s time for him to go. Is the wheelbarrow loaded, dear?”
She looked confused. “Yes.”
“Good. It was nice talking to you, young man.”
He went into the house, leaving his wife and me at the table. When he closed the patio door behind him, I walked over to the wheelbarrow and looked around Mrs. Anderson’s garden: the perfectly arranged flowers in their perfectly straight rows disgusted me. My mom’s garden was more impressive—more chaotic and colorful, but authentic. I started toward the front yard with the wheelbarrow.
“You don’t have to go, Robert.”
“Thank you, ma’am, but I think I should.”
“Was it my husband? Don’t mind him. He’s usually very sweet.”
“I understand, but my mom’s expecting me. Goodbye, Mrs. Anderson.”
I left. I didn’t look back.
While I sat at the kitchen table eating dinner with my mom, Orange Bowler was already in bed. I tried to picture my dad across the table, a reminder of his presence in my life, in our home. But my mom kept talking. I looked up.
“I haven’t seen you since you left to pick up the supplies,” she said.
“I went to the rapids when I got back,” I said.
“You should’ve told me.”
“I go to the rapids all the time.”
“That’s not the point. I barely see you anymore.”
“That’s not my fault. You’ve been hiding in the garden.”
“I just want to know where you are. That’s all.”
“Sure,” I mumbled.
“I don’t want to lose you.”
“Like you lost Dad?”
I wanted my mom to know what I saw in the back garden when I got back from the Andersons’. But I didn’t want to remember the nausea and contempt I had felt hours earlier.
Pulling the wheelbarrow up the street had taken a lot of strength. My mom’s new pots and new bags of mulch and new bundles of plant seeds weighed me down like a caboose pulling me backwards. I made it to the backyard and hoped to spend the rest of the day in my bedroom or daydreaming in the apple tree in the front yard. Then I saw them, my mom and Orange Bowler, on the large mound of dirt that her lavender bush once occupied. I assumed they had fallen on top of each other, struggling to get back up. I was about to run over and help them when I heard a moan. Then another. Then another. Then I noticed it: Orange Bowler’s pants were down and my mom’s pants were wrapped around her ankles. An act not rooted in love, but something else—something sinful, something perverse. They weren’t making love. They were fucking.
I didn’t know what to do, so I left the garden and sprinted down the street, past the Andersons’ house and out of the neighborhood. At the rapids I collapsed on top of a limestone cliff and listened to my heart thundering in my ears. I needed to cry, but instead, I closed my eyes and fell asleep, hoping by the time I woke up, everything decent and loving and pure that had disappeared would return.
I slept for many hours, but when I awoke, I felt the same: confused, hurt.
At the kitchen table, my mom covered her eyes. Her hair fell over her face like a curtain. I apologized for bringing up my dad, then hated myself for all the apologies I’d given since the problem began, with my mom’s gardening obsession, even though I feared the problem started before then, even before my dad left, maybe before I was born. She brushed back her hair and wiped the tears from her eyes. “Your dad telephoned,” she said suddenly.
“What?” I exclaimed.
“He’s stopping by tomorrow morning to pick up some paperwork. You’re not meant to disturb him.”
“Not ‘to disturb him’?”
“Try to understand.”
“Understand what? I spoke with Mr. Anderson earlier today and he made me feel awful because of the divorce. And now I can’t even begin to understand how I’m supposed to be feeling!”
I ran off to my bedroom. For the rest of the night I stayed in bed, hoping my solitude would last forever.
But I did get up the next morning. The sky was sunny, the air warm and smelling of sycamores. Then by midday, thunder broke out and the sky darkened. Now as I reclined on a high branch in my mom’s apple tree, I feared it was going to rain. I didn’t want to return to the house with my mom and Orange Bowler nearby, I didn’t want to see them commiserating with each other about their imperfect marriages, and I didn’t want to catch them fucking again, although last time I checked, she was in the back garden, he in the spare bedroom. I closed my eyes. The breeze played with my blazer, the one that matched my dad’s. I was waiting for him. It was already noon. I thought of what I might say to him: I’m sorry for upsetting you the other day, I’m sorry I don’t understand how divorces work, I’m sorry I didn’t defend you in front of Mr. Anderson, I’m sorry I didn’t telephone you to say I caught Orange Bowler with Mom in the back garden, I didn’t know what to think, I didn’t know what to do.
I thought it thundered again, but when I opened my eyes, I noticed my dad’s car. It had backfired as he pulled up to the curb. Leaving the engine idling, he started toward the front door of the house. He was dressed as usual: blue suit, teal tie; his hair oiled back, his patent leather derbies clicking quickly on the walkway. I wondered why he was in a hurry to get into the house, but before I could climb down and ask, he reached the front door. When I reached the stoop, the door was open. He wasn’t there.
“Are you the boy?”
I turned around. A woman stuck her head out the passenger side window of my dad’s car. She gave me a quizzical look, then got out. For a moment I assumed she was a Hollywood starlet, like all the women in my mom’s magazines. The woman wore a white capelet on top of a blood red sheath dress. Her shoes, white kitten heels, also made quick clicks down the walkway. She stopped a few feet from me and pulled out a cigarette from the purse. While she smoked, my eyes were trained on her voluminous blond hair and cleavage. I didn’t want to look insensitive, so I extended my hand and she shook it.
“So,” she said, “you’re Robert?”
I nodded. She blew a ring of cigarette smoke at the gray clouds overhead.
“Coming with your dad and me?” she said. “He just bought a condo in the city.”
“Why did he do that? Isn’t he moving back home?”
She chuckled. “That’s not how divorces work.”
My stomach sank. “Are you the other woman?”
“I’m your dad’s girlfriend.”
Another drag, another ring of smoke.
“Is he going to talk to me before he goes?” I said.
“You’ll have to ask him.”
“You don’t know?”
“Listen, son, I’m just waiting for your dad.”
“Don’t call me son,” I snapped. “You’re not my mom.”
I wanted to curse at her, pull the pristine capelet off her shoulders and throw it in the mud. But instead, I hurried into the house. I paused in the doorway to my dad’s study. He was filling his attaché case with paperwork. I cleared my throat and he stopped, eyes fixed on me, his breathing gruff. He gestured for me to speak.
I cleared my voice again. “Sorry I was rude to you.”
He said nothing and went back to his case. I hated my apology because my dad deserved more. As his son, it was my responsibility to follow his example. But how could I have understood him at that moment, me in the doorway to his study, he snapping his case shut? I didn’t know how to appease anyone, but I knew I had to try.
“I need to talk to you, Dad.”
He started toward the hallway. “You just did, Robert.”
I blocked the doorway. “Please.”
“We can talk next week. I have a business meeting.”
“It’s serious. It’s about Mom and Mr. Deerborne.”
“The man who’s living in the spare bedroom. I saw him and Mom together.”
“Together?” He looked away for a moment, frustrated. “Get your trunk.”
“Your clothes,” he said. “We’ll talk in the car on our way to our new home.”
“Did Joanne talk to you?”
“The woman in the car? Yes. She told me everything.”
“We’ll see about that.” He nudged me into the hall. “Get your clothes.”
“Am I going to live with you?” I would’ve said anything, done anything, for just five more minutes with him.
“I wouldn’t invite you if I don’t want you,” he said, and started toward the front door. “I’m driving away in three minutes!”
Before I could rationalize what I should do or needed to do, I ran to my bedroom and filled my plaid travel trunk with random articles of clothing: undershirts, overalls, socks.
When I got to the front door, though, I heard a crash, not loud like thunder or my dad’s car, but sharp, like glass shattering.
I hurried outside and witnessed the middle of a fight: a smashed ceramic pot on the walkway, my mom throwing a pot at my dad’s head, my dad rushing to his car, the other woman in the car looking on in terror. I thought it was a hallucination, a nasty trick of the mind; that I was still daydreaming in the apple tree; that my dad hadn’t yet arrived to pick up the paperwork. I ran to my mom.
“You’re crazy!” my dad shouted from the car.
“Why are you doing this?” my mom screamed. “You’re my husband!”
“Go away!” He looked at me. “Get in the car. Now.”
My mom finally noticed me. “What are you doing?” she demanded. “You’re not leaving me too, are you?”
I wanted to stay, but I needed my dad to listen to me. My heart thundered, my palms perspired. I almost dropped my trunk, but I held on to it as if my life, everyone’s lives, depended on it. I took a step forward.
“You can’t go!” she cried. She reached for the trunk and I fell back. I pictured her picking me up and carrying me away, far away from my dad. I told her to go away. She seized the trunk handle and we started to yank the trunk in opposite directions.
“Hey!” my dad called.
She seized the trunk and threw it at my dad, who was rushing toward us. The trunk missed his feet by inches. She grabbed my left arm and began to drag me to the house. My dad grabbed my other arm. I thought they were going to rip me in half and keep a half of me for themselves. I started to cry.
“You’re hurting him!” they shouted in unison.
I was about to scream at them to leave me alone; that I no longer loved them; that no real parents would harm their son. Then my dad’s car backfired. My mom and my dad flinched, dropping their guard. I extricated myself from their grasps and ran to the top of the apple tree. My mom followed me, but since she couldn’t climb well, she waited at the bottom, as if I were a cat stuck in a tree. I watched my dad return to the car and he didn’t look at me or my mom as he drove off. On the sidewalk, I saw two older people gawking at the broken pots on our front walkway. Avoiding my mom, I jumped from the tree and ran up to the gawkers. It was the Andersons.
“We heard fighting from down the street,” Mrs. Anderson said.
“Everything all right, my boy?” Mr. Anderson asked.
Every part of me raged with indignation, anger burning inside me like a fever. I scowled at the Andersons and they looked at me wide-eyed and scared.
“What are you looking at?” I shouted. “My mom and dad are getting a divorce and they hate each other and I hate you two phonies so fuck off!”
Stupefied, their mouths agape with bewilderment, they took each other by the hand, then hurried away. They rushed up toward their perfect, little house. They gave me several cold, backward glances, but I didn’t care. Not anymore.
It started to downpour. I trudged to the stoop, where Orange Bowler stood.
“What happened?” he asked. “I heard—”
I shouldered him out of my way and returned to my bedroom. He didn’t follow me. Not even my mom followed me. And for the rest of the day, I stayed in bed and listened to the rain.
The next morning I walked into the kitchen, expecting to find Orange Bowler reading the paper. Instead, I found a note on the table.
Thank you for allowing me to rent your spare bedroom. However, I think it would be best if I return to my wife. I shouldn’t have left her when we lost Rupert.
I’m sorry it ended this way. You’re a good mother. Everything will turn out fine.
I left the letter on the table and went up to the spare bedroom. The bed was made, the air still smelling of my dad’s aftershave. I was about to head back downstairs, relieved by Mr. Deerborne’s sudden departure, when I noticed something peeking out from under the bed. I picked it up. The orange bowler. It probably fell under the bed while he was packing his duffel bag last night or this morning. The hat was larger than my head. I considered tearing it apart or throwing it outside in the mud. But I took the orange bowler with me into the backyard.
The sky was gray—no sun, no breeze. I walked over to my mom sitting near the patch of dirt. Her head craning toward the earth, she gripped a packet of lavender seeds and a trowel. She didn’t acknowledge me. Not until I sat down and showed her the bowler.
“He’s gone,” she said, her voice scarcely louder than a whisper. She took a deep breath, her face drained of color, deep wrinkles beneath her eyes. “Robert, I shouldn’t say this, but Mr. Deerborne and I—”
“I know,” I said. “I know.”
“I saw you two in the garden. Where the lavender bush used to be.”
She looked away for a moment. “I need companionship, Robert.”
“I think I understand,” I said. And meant it.
“I need to be loved, Robert. Is that too much to ask?”
“No, it’s not.”
I wrapped my arm around her shoulder and cradled her head against my neck. She didn’t cry. She didn’t sob.
“I destroyed my bush,” she said.
“So we’ll grow another one.” I scooped dirt into the orange bowler and told her to open the packet of lavender seeds. “We’ll grow the best lavender bush in the world.”
She chuckled. “Why in the hat?”
“Because why not?” I said. “It’s our hat now.”
She opened the packet of seeds and scattered several into the bowler. “It’s not big enough for an entire lavender bush,” she said.
“I know,” I said. We filled the remainder of the hat with dirt. “But we’ll make it work.”