Stoop  |  Alexa Mergen

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             Desperation nipped at Ben’s heels like a cattle dog. Iris had no idea how in hock they were. He could not tell her. After all, he had promised to take care of her. He had taken her away from her parents’ twelfth-floor apartment, lined with black lacquered shelves heavy with books and silver candlesticks that—Iris’ mother, Annabelle, informed him on his first visit, placing one like a weapon into his sweaty, callused palm while he shifted like a nervous horse standing in the hall—had been in her family since her ancestor, John Plane, sailed up the Rappahannock River in 1717, with soapstone sculptures Frank Collins collected on treks to the Arctic, Central America, Africa, places he had lectured as a professor of the study of man. When Ben Tattel, by some dumb luck, collected this finishing-school beauty from her apartment and married her, brought her, he thought, like a fairytale princess to the forest in the city, he promised that, though she would not be rich, she would always be safe. He considered his wife fragile and cherished her innocence. He wanted her to be happy.
             Friday night, when Iris suggested over a dinner, just the two of them, Abel and Cici off with their friends, that he ask his sister to pay him for his share of their parents’ house, his first impulse was to saddle Moss, the quarter horse mare he had not ridden in months, and keep riding along the river until he reached the Chesapeake Bay. By horseback, though, even in 1981, that would be a journey of days, the way blocked by highways, houses, and bridges. There was no room anymore for creatures afoot. Maybe that was the problem. People took the new subway (His father would have been dumbfounded by that system, and the rats its construction stirred up.), buses, and drove their cars, even with the price of gas creeping up. And they rode bicycles, like his own son, Abel, who preferred a bike to the horses they had at Tangle Creek City Stable. Ben’s second impulse was to go to the boat. This he did on Saturday morning. He could think when he was walking, on a horse, or on the water. Movement made him aware of the future and the past and emboldened him to move forward.
             Zach’s Boat House was tucked under the Whitehurst Freeway near Key Bridge. Ben kept a canoe there that his father had christened the Durham, named for the type of vessel George Washington used to cross the Delaware River in 1776. Ben’s Durham was a simple plank canoe, painted the creamy white of mock-orange flowers. His father had been barred from military service during the Second World War due to a severe limp, a legacy of childhood polio. The man had trained as a plumber joking, You spend most of your time on your back reaching up. Not much need for the legs, and an amateur woodworker. On land, Ben and his sister, Bebe, often waited for their father to catch up to them, embarrassed by his loping gait when other fathers strode steadily. But on the river, Patrick Tattel moved the balanced boat with grace, dipping the birch paddle noiselessly. On the river, you could remember that everything in life begins with making something, whether it’s a pie, like Bebe made with their mother, Marie, or a boat, or a business, like Patrick did with Tattel Plumbing. Make something of yourself. Make something of yourself. Patrick always delivered the command twice in a row, once for each child. And then, a third time, Make something of yourself. A charm. Bebe repeated the phrase three times in a whisper to her doll, curled up on an old patio cushion in the center of the canoe. Ben was placed in the bow, and his father’s voice from the stern pushed him on.
             The only print Patrick Tattel read was daily papers, the Post and the Star, but he could read water, whether it was gurgling up through a tub drain or flowing toward the sea. Much of his job was routine, Patrick told 12-year-old Ben, as they glued strips of marine plywood into place along the boat’s frame: the routine was clogged commodes, stopped-up sinks, tree roots in sewer lines—but river water told a new story every day. It was like the hymns they sang at St. Peter’s: though the words never varied, changing voices altered the resulting sound from Sunday to Sunday.
             Ben’s truck was the only vehicle parked on the shoulder of the road by the boat house. Thin sheets of ice floated in the Potomac River and huddled against the bank of Roosevelt Island, on the far side. If he were a younger man, Ben would have lifted the boat from the rack—space 22, a paddle balanced on the thwarts—and put in anyway. It always cheered him to see how the boat found her center as she bounced up after being set in the water for adventure.
             But today, he needed solutions, not adventure. He needed money.
             Ben unlocked and slid open the boat-house door. The rowing shells, canoes, and kayaks waited in darkness like the crocus and tulip bulbs Iris dug into the soil, rich with their own horses’ manure, that bloomed mid-spring to form elaborate patterns of color that she called her “Turkish carpet.” Thinking of these flowers brought Ben a tremor of hope. They still had six horses. Between his daughter Cici and himself, maybe they could manage without hiring more help in the stable. He would just have to get used to a shovel again.
             With bare hands, Ben brushed cobwebs from the Durham. He used his sleeve to burnish the brass nameplate. When Iris’ flowers bloomed, he promised himself, he would get Abel and Cici back on the river, the three of them, like they used to do when the kids were small. And today, he would ask Bebe for his share of the money from the house. It was all they had been left by their parents.
             It seemed long ago, now. When Marie got sick, Patrick stayed home more and more, holding her hand. She wanted to be read to from collections of Ripley’s Believe It or Not. Facts weird and true calmed her: that fruit-bat soup was a delicacy in Palau, or a woman survived a fall from the 86th floor of the Empire State Building, or a cat in England can purr as loud as a motorcycle. There were hundreds of thousands of facts, enough to read for hours on end, to speculate on. Immobilized, wasting, she could suspend her belief and swallow novelty, even if she could not suspend her pain and swallow soup. These random oddities bound Patrick and Marie like superglue. Bebe took to bringing her parents a tray, usually homemade pie and lemonade, both of which her mother had taught her to make.
             Gradually, the business of Tattel Plumbing faded along with the lettering on the side of Patrick’s truck, left parked in the sun so long, city traffic enforcers fitted the front tire with a yellow boot. Ben had to walk to the police station and pay the fine with money saved from mowing lawns. Marie died after four years of suffering, years of midnight trips to Providence Hospital, and long days when Bebe and Ben sat opposite each other on the front stoop playing jacks, scared to go to the park that their mother might die when they left, and they would miss saying goodbye.
             They were outside when Marie and Patrick died within the same hour, when Ben was fifteen and Bebe twelve. The coroner’s report said congestive heart failure for Marie and stroke for Patrick. Patrick had left the paperwork for a life-insurance policy in plain view on the dresser. The children received a thousand dollars in cash and the house fully paid. Ben lied to the medics who came in an ambulance to take the bodies away, saying his uncle was coming to stay. It did not seem like a lie, as the day felt ordinary. The ambulance did not sound its siren. The children had for a long time fended for themselves. Patrick’s brother, Chad, did arrive at Union Station with his overnight kit in a grocery bag. He slept on the couch for six nights. He paid for plots at Tangle Creek Cemetery and headstones with stacks of dollar bills rolled with a rubber band. He even stood by the children as a priest said the right words to make Patrick and Marie rest in heaven. Then, Chad Tattel lied to the priest and said he would stay with the kids, while Ben and Bebe watched. When he left the children by the red, white, and blue bus stop, pressing a five-dollar bill in each child’s hand, and walked away to catch the train, the brother and sister decided to go to Roy Rogers for roast beef and fries. They were suddenly very hungry. And in no hurry to get home.
             On that cool fall day, no one else attended the funeral service. The leaves of the trees of Tangle Creek Park caught the golden sunlight and held onto it greedily. The Tattels’ friends had faded away when Patrick stopped answering the door or opening the curtains. Some neighbors wondered if the house was unoccupied. They paid little attention to two children living alone. Ben dropped out of high school, ducking the truancy officer for a couple of weeks, then went to work at the stable, a few times sleeping in the barn to avoid his sister’s repeated inquiry, Are you okay? Bebe finished high school, babysitting evenings and weekends, then married the first boy she kissed. All that was a long time ago, Ben thought. He had been good to his sister, as he had promised. The siblings could work something fair. Ben knocked on the Durham’s gunnel for luck and locked the boat safely.
             Traffic was light. Ben reached the old row house after just two songs on the radio and the hourly news summary. As he parked, he noticed paint peeling from the bricks, the front gate leaning on its hinges, plastic wrap tacked in the windows to keep out drafts. The house had been white for as long as he could remember, until a few years ago, when Bebe had it painted rose red and green. As more and more people bought up the historic houses and redid them in subdued shades of gray and beige, Bebe’s stood out like a schoolgirl whose clothes are not quite right.
             When he approached the iron steps to Bebe’s front door, Ben’s resolve wavered. He conceived of life as an obstinate horse that, if controlled with clear authority, had no need for cruelty. Right now, he was not sure what the command was. He wanted to shake the lead rope and tell life to back-up.
             “Ben! Are you okay?” Bebe cried, wiping her hands on her apron. “I saw your truck pull up. I’ve been baking, don’t you know? You wouldn’t believe what some of these new neighbors will pay for a pie, Ben. I can hardly keep up. They love to have parties. Oscar Brown, next door, he squeezed 200 people into his backyard, and it’s not any bigger than ours. He ordered 20 shepherd’s pies and 25 fruit.” She descended each step haltingly, pinching her eyes. “It’s these knees,” she explained. “Just like Mom, remember? Poor thing.” In imitation of Bebe, the four following children stepped and stopped behind their mother. “I’m not sick, though,” she added hastily.
             “Henry around?” Ben asked. Bebe shook her head, and the eldest boy looked at his mother. Ben remembered that the boy was born around the time of Jimmy Carter’s inauguration, so he must be about four. That boy held the littlest, who was born on Lincoln’s birthday, a year ago. From her hospital bed, Bebe had told her big brother that the auspicious date was a sign that her youngest would be an important politician. She even named him Lincoln. Henry, who Ben suspected drank too much, seemed dazed the day of Lincoln’s birth and merely nodded as the nurse filled in the certificate. Why would be object? His parents had named him Henry Ford. It struck Ben as he watched the details of a new life being logged, how people carry papers, like horses do, and cannot escape those first definitions. The baby would forever be Lincoln Ford. It sounded like a car dealership.
             The oldest was called Scott. Ben and Iris were his godparents, though he had to admit, they had not done much about it. The two girls were Stacy and Shelly, but he was not sure which was which. Bebe finally reached the brick path.
             “It’s a good thing I canned peaches and strawberries last summer,” she said. “It was plenty hot in that steamy kitchen last August, but Henry gets the bruised fruit for next to nothing. And Oscar said the pies tasted like the ones his mama used to make. That’s high praise. He said, ‘Bee’—he calls me Bee, which I don’t mind; I’m surely busy as a bee.” She stopped to laugh at her own joke. “‘Bee,’ he says, ‘you can expect many more pie orders from me.’” She took Lincoln in one arm from Scott, who handled the baby over willingly, and said quickly, “Scoot, Scott. Take the girls in for me.” She placed her other hand on Ben’s arm and lowered her voice. “It’s a good thing, Ben, that I am earning pin money from those pies. We’re stretched thin as a sheet of strudel dough.”
             Ben did not know how thin strudel dough was, but her meaning was clear. He ran a hand through his hair. “I’m sorry to hear that, Bebe.”
             She sat down on the step. Cici had told her aunt last summer when she was over helping with canning that siblings share more genes with each other than with either of their birth parents. How can Abel and I be so different, then? Cici had asked her aunt over the sound of boiling water, holding her sad face in her hands, surrounded by jars of gold and red where the girl sat at the kitchen table.
             Bebe patted the step for Ben to sit beside her. “What brings you over our way, Ben?” she asked, holding the baby’s arms and gently making him clap. Lincoln opened his lips in a gummy smile.
             “Oh.” It felt good to sit on the stoop with his sister again, to feel the cold rise up through his pant legs from the iron step.
             “Look at that robin. So early,” Bebe exclaimed. “They nest in that silver maple every year.”
             Ben heard his mother’s voice surfacing from the furthest corner of his brain where he stored geometry formulas and snippets of songs from the ’60s. Beatrice walks on the sunny side of the street, she said. And his father’s voice, closer, ringing like tinnitus: Take care of your sister.
             “Bebe,” Ben said, “I was just passing by and thought how long it’s been since I saw the little one.” He took Lincoln on his lap to hold him close, then wrapped the baby warmly with his own soft muffler.

♥ End ♥

After Alexa Mergen was kicked out of a second-grade slumber party for scaring the other little girls with a ghost story, she was hooked on telling tales. She worked for years as an English teacher, which was a great excuse to read a lot with smart people and talk about writing. Her fiction, poetry, and essays appear in numerous journals. Alexa lives in Sacramento, and is an assistant fiction editor at Fifth Wednesday Journal. [Author photo by and © Matt Weiser. Used with permission; all rights reserved.]

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Search tag: Go Read Your Lunch.  Kindle picture by NotFromUtrecht, modified by Maximilian Schönherr, used under Creative Commons license via Wikimedia Commons.  All stories are submitted by the authors, are used with permission, and are not to be reused in any way without the authors’ consent.

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