Jeanette shook atop the ladder. It’s these fumes, she thought, but really, it was her: she couldn’t stop staring, too-close, into the black gap where the sheetrock wouldn’t meet the ceiling, where her wet spackling sagged down the wall. Paint couldn’t cover that. And even if it could, the Lemon Chiffon — the color she had chosen — looked pissy now, so much paler than in the store.
The rungs crackled against her dimpled knees. She grabbed the top, overreached, and slapped her full roller on the wall, spattering the drop cloth and her little boy.
Billy, five years old, didn’t notice. He was frowning down, working to zip his parka all the way up, getting ready to follow his father out the door and into the rain — to cross the bridge to Mrs. Ashley's, again.
“Hold up right there,” Jeanette said, scowling at the bite in her voice. “You wet the bed again last night? Pajamas in the hamper?”
Billy stooped on the doormat, holding the kitchen door open to the red leaves and mist.
She didn’t need to look again — almost didn’t want to — to know he’d buckled his galoshes and brushed his teeth after breakfast. He was a gift from God; of course he put his wet pajamas in the laundry. It felt like he knew he'd always be her only baby, wanting to make sure she had no regrets. He even used to bring her wildflowers, every day, until Mrs. Ashley started cutting her old roses for him.
Without looking up, he whispered, “Yup.”
The downy nape of his neck made her ache.
Smoke from Al's cigarette slipped inside the door. Billy stepped out after it, into the muddy driveway. Gingerly, he tugged the sticky door shut.
Months back, when they'd first gotten the loan to build a small ranch-style house, it was Jeanette who’d chosen the road. Six other new homes were going up, so she figured there’d be kids for Billy to play with. But he preferred Mrs. Ashley, the old lady who'd bought the original farm, with its ivied cottage, red barn, old orchard, and stone walls, and who’d then cut the fields into lots. No Ashley had ever lived in Jeanette’s town before; she’d never heard the name when she was growing up, out by the tobacco fields; and the only time she’d ever spoken to the old lady face-to-face was during a thunderstorm, when she had to drive down to pick up Billy for supper. On that occasion, standing and waiting on the wood-porch, she'd noticed none of the magical things Billy always talked about, back home — the sea-shell dishes, the apple basket hanging from a brass hand, the stained-glass slides of old cities lined up along the leaded windows. All she saw was Billy's round, golden head behind the steamed porch door. She watched how Mrs. Ashley didn't touch him, but just turned the latch and led him out like a puppet on strings. As Jeanette gathered him in her arms, Mrs. Ashley said, Good evening, drawing it out into four syllables. She had powdered skin and a thin, puckered grin, but once the door shut between them, her white head receded like a ghost's in the fog.
Jeanette remembered having whispered: Thank you.
For what? she now thought. For giving me back my boy?
She's just a lonely old lady , Al always said. Besides, she's teaching Billy things, giving him books. If you don't stop picking, you'll crush him. Al, too, was an only child, so he knew something about it. But even Ma LaRock harped on in the same way: If you had more, but lost him, she’d once said, it wouldn’t be so hard a loss. Who could think such a thing? All Jeanette knew was, that day when she'd called between the lightening strikes to tell Mrs. Ashley she'd come get Billy, and instead he’d answered the phone — saying, Hello, Ashley's residence — so she could hear his sweet breathe moist between the words, her insides seized and she felt doughy until she could get her hands back on him.
But Al needed the odd jobs from Mrs. Ashley. Just three months after they'd moved in, the Vietnam War slowed and the bomb-fuse plant laid him off. Everyone waited in lines to buy gas. They couldn’t make it on his unemployment checks. So he cut Mrs. Ashley's firewood, put up her storm windows, and patched her stone walls. Don't look the hand that feeds you in the eye, he always said, even if that meant Jeanette was left to paint the walls, alone.
Later in the afternoon, Al came home with Billy in tow. Billy quietly went to sit in his little rocker, in the living area. Al strode to the fridge for beer.
“What is it?” Jeanette said. She was making creamed cod, again.
Al swatted her question away with one hand, sat at the table, and picked at the newspaper. Flecks of bark and sawdust stuck at his temples and the hair tufting out of his flannel shirt. His throat sank with each gulp.
She had to ask questions to get at what hurt.
He’d been cutting dead apple trees, he finally said. “Billy visited inside while I split and stacked wood on the porch. A new car drives up with a couple our age and a boy in black shoes and shorts. In October! I say: Hi. He nods. The woman says: Good afternoon. They walk inside, perfuming the rain, and I go back to work.
“Later, when I’m done, I knock on the back door for Billy. Mrs. A always pays me on the wood-porch, so when she opens the door for me, I stay put. I'll wait out here—mud on my boots—pay me next time. You know. But today she drags me in through the kitchen, puts a finger to her lips, introduces me to her son as Mr. LaRock — he nods again — and then she points out Billy and her grandson, where they’re kneeling on the carpet, playing. Billy was putting a block on top of a shaky tower while the other boy watched. It’s a competition, the old lady says, whispery, with a big wink.”
Al imitated this for Jeanette.
Jeanette gripped an edge of the Formica behind her and pushed her big hips back into the counter as she stared.
Al continued: “Billy puts the last piece on top of his tower with his fingertips, and pulls his hand away like a fancy piano player. The victor! Mrs. A says, and they clap a little. Then I call him to the door, but he’s yelling: I won the prize! I won! I hold his jacket for him, and wait at the door, but he’s following the old lady as she walks around on her cane to fetch her purse and dig inside. She pulls out a half-dollar and says: It’s the shiniest one I've got. She bends down and holds it out like a holy wafer, and everyone’s watching while Billy stands there as if he's never seen such a thing, saying, Thank you, Mrs. Ashley! Thank you. But then she turns, plucks my sleeve, and counts out a ten and some ones for everyone to see. And thank you, Mr. LaRock, she says, while Billy skips out the door and the kid kicks the tower over.”
Jeanette puffed her black bangs up from her eyes. She glowered at a point just beyond Al. He shook out the classifieds, cocking his head to the side the same way Billy did, in the living room. Billy was was reading, too — a new A-B-C book she'd never seen before. She saw he’d put his slippers on, and how he’d already stored his boots in the box by the door. She started feeling bitter, again, but couldn’t think through to why.
Al said nothing more — just turned the page. He still had his wet, nylon jacket on. Jeanette noticed a shredding at the armpit. The chain-saw must have bucked on a knot and ripped into the quilting. She reached out for him.
“Didn't cut through,” he said, into the fold of his newspaper, but she had him strip right there under the florescent lights anyway, to see. He’d bled a lot more than he admitted.
As she served supper, Jeanette struck the plates hard with her spoon. Afterward, she announced that it was apple season, and high time she made some pies.
Billy jumped: Hurray!
She saw Al brighten, too. She knew he loved her pies.
She winked at him. “Let's go pick some Macs from down the road,” she said.
But he squinted back. In years past, they’d sometimes snuck a crate from the big growers on the other side of town, under “Great-grandpa's Mountain,”where her Pequot ancestors used to hunt. But never before had they stolen from neighbors.
“Save on gas,” Jeanette said, blinking.
“Those trees have gone to the deer,” he said.
“I saw some looked good to me,” she said. She smiled harder, folding her arms. “C'mon. We'll walk. There's a moon. I'll bake one for Ma, too.”
The day’s rain had cut fresh gullies into the sides of the dirt road, so the three of them walked down the middle, around starry puddles where the night sky looked bottomless. Billy let the burlap sack trail behind him. He also got to hold the flashlight, in case he got spooked, but the moon was as round as the sun.
With her arm curled around Al's, Jeanette took in the world. Wet, newly seeded lawns. Flat homes like hers, a few with garages, blue-white in the moonlight. The DelVecchios were watching TV behind thin drapes, and the Montroys were eating in their kitchen, behind windows blurred with steam. Smoke from a smoldering grill floated flat, in a line, and floodlights shone on tool sheds and clotheslines. All the dogs knew Billy; they’d sniff at his feet, wag their tails, and slink back home.
Al strolled too quietly, with his hands pushing deep in his pockets. Jeanette tried to nuzzle into him as she patted the stuffing back into his quilted coat, over the band-aids, but Billy moped, too, in front of them — face down, wagging the flashlight as the bag dragged behind him, heavy with mud.
“What, Billy?” Jeanette said.
He stomped in a puddle, on the moon. It echoed from a garage door.
“What the deer don't eat will rot,” she said, sharply. “Mrs. Ashley won't care.”
He nodded, a little. “Yup.”
Where did that goodness come from? she wondered. His sweet voice pained her; it made her afraid. By his age, she was already smoking leaves in tobacco sheds. The next year she'd put a dead woodchuck in the doctor's mailbox. Set the ski lodge on fire one summer, by mistake, but never told a soul. Later, somehow, she'd conceived an angel in the cab of a pick-up, and now she was teaching him to steal apples.
She caught Al’s grimmace as he lifted Billy by the armpits, clear over the split rails of the stone wall's gate. As she climbed up, bit-by-bit, Al grunted out loud and gave her rump a push, chuckling — a little joke. She smiled back from inside the old orchard.
Billy froze, pointing through rows of trees to the brick cottage.
“Mrs. Ashley!” he cried.
Jeanette turned fast, to see. In the distance, there was golden light behind the leaded window. She could barely make out a lampshade in the grid; she couldn’t see the old lady at all.
“Mrs. Ashley is tired now,” Jeanette said, quietly.
She tugged the bag from his hand and led him deeper in, away from the road and the neighbors' lights, where the weeds and leaves were soggy between trees. Billy slipped on rotten fruit. Al followed, bending and twisting to avoid wet branches.
Jeanette plucked an apple from up high, and raindrops fell off the tree.
At last Billy laughed, holding his hands up to the shower and sky. Then, just as quickly, he shushed himself, with his palms to his lips.
Jeanette stretched out again to grab a limb and shake it with all her weight before picking more. Al helped. Gently, in silence, they both placed fruit deep in the bag.
Billy tried to join in and slip one past the folds of the sack Jeanette held. She looked down.
“What you got there?” she said.
He held it up to her in his fingertips.
She squatted and pulled Billy into the moonlight. His temples smelled of Ivory soap, smoke, and rain.
“Let's see that light,” she whispered.
They huddled close around the apple he held, low to the ground. It was mostly green under the flashlight, but with a gash where it had struck a branch.
He came closer to study the rusty spot she showed him.
She shut off the light. She made him close his eyes with the apple in one hand, pressing his fingers around the sides to feel for soft spots.
At first, he tried too hard. Then he fumbled to take back the light. Proud, he showed her the bruise.
This time, all she saw were his fingernails, bitten to the quick, and his eyes widening with the darkness behind her as he turned away, for more.