Reconciliation or Not
Kaosky took a seat at the circle of desks arranged for the department meeting. Surrounded by his colleagues, the dying stink of routine on their breaths, he could take some pleasure that the summer was just around the corner, and with it an experience that came to few high school Spanish teachers. The letter of employment from the Drug Enforcement Agency was in his planning book, almost filled with another year's lessons through May 23, the last Monday of the month before Memorial Day. The recently opened envelope stuck secretively out of the plastic covers as he plopped it on the desk with a confident smack. Karen gave him a nasty look and continued to speak.
Almost nobody knew why the documentation of their professional development hours would now require two online forms, Karen relayed, her voice droning on in Kaosky's head. One, the PD5, could apparently calculate totals automatically, but you needed to set it up correctly. The problem was that nobody had explained to them how to set it up. Karen shrugged and shook her head sadly. Kaosky looked around with a mix of pity and satisfaction. His professional development this coming summer would consist of wiretapping Dominican drug gangs in Massachusetts. He couldn't tell anybody, was in the last stages of securing a security clearance that would be jeopardized if he so much as whispered it. Kaosky could not picture what the words spelled out. Dominican drug gangs. Might as well have been Zoroastrian lizard lickers. The dark side of the moon was Lawrence, Mass. Just an hour or so drive down the highway, it was the same to this bunch, he thought, as half-way across the world.
Nobody else even reacted. The part-time Latin teacher had zoned out, dropping his forehead onto his fingers as they lay on the plastic student desktop. The twenty-something French teacher looked at Karen with wide-eyed enthusiasm at this bit of realia slash crisis. Karen, as the department head, was hoping they could now blame this absurdity on the administration in its fervor for updating curricula and professional development practice. Kaosky looked at their faces as he gauged the moment. Just another bit of grit in the sandpaper of the department meeting, he thought. It would soon pass, taking an imperceptible amount of soul with it. He chose to let his mind drift, float away on a tide of regret and worry, dock it at the feet of Jesus, who somehow remained above the fray, as if He was somebody who could have foreseen the banality of the way things ended in a whimper.
By the time he got out, there were few kids left in the parking lot -- a straggling bunch of middle schoolers from some special program waiting for the late bus. They stared at him from the grassy bank on the side of the playing field. An object of faint curiosity, fear and derision, Kaosky felt his gravitas like a scourge on this spring day. There were geese circling the fields, honking at them from a pure wilderness, a state of grace that was like his youth, something now unattainable and yet prized, like an ode, or a urn.
Karen bolted from the side door, avoiding the front of the building and the office. She hurried to her car and glared at him, apparently angry that he had beat her out of there. He smiled and waved.
“Next year it’s you,” she screamed across the lot at him.
“What?” he yelled back. But she had already climbed in her Prius hatchback and started it in one swift swing of the elbows.
His car, the late model Kia Spectra, had the battered back plastic fender still hanging like a banner of Live Free or Die pride, where he’d hit on a late morning in the school parking lot, backing up to a bank of cruddy snow after the first ice-storm of the season. He felt the heat radiating off the dust-laden dashboard now, six months later. It burnt his lungs and lifted the few hairs remaining on his head. He took a deep breath and melted a little into the seat. He put on the sunglasses and lowered the window on the driver’s side with a touch of the button. Then he started the car. Self-consciously, he felt his arm go up on the door, a tic of rebellious posing, and left it there as he cruised towards the exit. He knew it was a trope, the teacher gone over to the bad, and he knew he was not that teacher. But his particular balancing act had always required a certain dipstick of reflection. Yes, it was still there, the flicker of anger and resentment at what it meant to spend a day in the maw of the bureaucratic mangling of youth that passed for public education. It meant he was still alive, still a man, and still hopeful that one day he could look back and say he had survived, had escaped. To what further state he could not say.
The drive was not unpleasant. He had been doing it for a swiftly rushing decade. It gave him a chance to unwind, listen to the radio, let his mind wander. Left to its own devices it tended to float in a reverie of pleasant enough memories and daydreams, as if he had devised a life that was proving useful to the extent that it shielded him from the major cause of pain and awkwardness -- proximity to strangers, with their barely hidden impulses and hungers, their need to hoard the sunlight for their own ends. His was a commute against the flow of traffic, and today, a Friday, there was more than the usual amount of that traffic northbound, denizens of the southern New England states driving large and overloaded Subarus and Suburbans to their campgrounds or lakeside chalets in the forested dreamscapes of New Hampshire and Vermont.
Everyone was in the same boat. Trying desperately to escape the madness while locked in an internal, solipsistic mental loop that told them the madness was about to kill them, targeting them personally for destruction, in the form of an errant eighteen wheeler or terrorist refugee. It was all the same thing. That was the reason Americans were so prone to manipulation by advertising or cheap political slogans, thought Kaosky. A way of life predicated on the tension between the outward mask of grace and the inward lock of paranoia could spiral upwards for a historical time. But now the time had passed. All that was left was the unraveling and the proliferation of useless and cheap messaging. Kaosky slammed the Spectra into the passing lane and pushed its two-liter engine to the outer limits of what the gearing could bear.
An expert was crowing about the demise of Big Oil on Fresh Air. Kaosky could not bear to think and switched it to the ubiquitous country pop radio station: the Wolf, where testosterone laden male voices crooned sexual desperation amid tractor wreckage. He wasn't sure what they were selling: gracelessness, oblivion? This was a better background to his personal inferno, he thought. Actually, he didn’t have it that bad. Not at all. A wife and three beautiful kids, a house with a functional roof over their heads and a view out to the back of Keiser Conservation District. But some day everything would be right. He wouldn’t be making the drives to and from Bainbridge High School, wouldn’t be massaging frail teenage egos so they could pass the Spanish Advanced Placement exam and get into the college of their parents' choice. And even here it could be worse, he knew. He could be selling War Bonds, or even more desperately, working for a tech startup in Somerville like Randi’s kid, Ryan. When he thought about it, the worst thing about the working life was the opportunity costs involved in any particular pursuit, which was strictly a theoretical concept since he could not imagine easily a reality that did not exist -- himself as another person, in another, more satisfying role. But he was sure, like everyone else, like the assholes on the radio, that it existed and that someday he would find it.
There was a new sign along the road on the long hill outside of Enfield. It was a guy named Mike McGill. He'd heard him a couple of times on the radio, on local talk shows with a story about being conspired against by the powers of the state. In a white dress shirt and tie, moustache and solid build like a successful salesman, McGill held up a sheaf of papers to the southbound traffic.
"I've got it all here. Don't let them silence the truthsayers," said the sign. There was a telephone number.
At the last second he remembered and exited the highway. His mother had some boxes of clothes for the girls and Jonah. She was old, sharp as a tack still. However, her body was failing, and although they were not particularly close, they were better than they had been in the past, when she had unconsciously, he believed, associated him with his father. They communicated intermittently, and she could stand more visits from him, but today was the day he said he’d come by and get the boxes. She lived in Tanglewood, the intentional community by the lake in East Salisbury.
He slowed down for the flagman. They were digging up the Road ‘Round the Lake and replacing the macadam. The water gloomed a dull pewter behind the giant roller, and the men lounging by the police car changed into their civvies. Turning the radio down on Kenny Chesney singing “Save it for a Rainy Day,” he smiled and lifted his hand off the wheel.
The terrier was loose in the driveway. He ambushed the back wheels as Kaosky parked. The dog yipped at his heels until the screen door opened and her voice rang shrilly out of the interior of the low-slung ranch.
“Get back inside, you evil little creature.”
“Hi there. You mean Willy,” he said.
“He won’t come in. He roams the neighborhood. I’m going to have to do something. Can you get him?”
“Come here, Willy.” He grabbed the dog and pulled it by the collar up the steps. Willy whined bitterly. Elvira scooted him in with her foot and held the storm door open long enough for Kaosky to straighten and squeeze in. Kaosky felt the fleshy pulp of her shoulder with some tenderness for what she was going through. She was wearing earrings and had her hair colored in a reddish hue as if to go out, but by the unfocused look in her eyes he knew she had been inside the house, shopping online and drinking white wine. The goblet was still on the side table by the over-large, cream-colored sofas.
“Can I get you something to drink?” she asked. “The boxes are by the back door,” she added before he could answer.
“Yeah, sure,” he said.
“No, I’ll…” he said.
She went on to a story about her bridge partners. Kaosky quickly inspected the boxes while she spoke, not listening. There were six of them, from different online outlets. One of the bridge partners was a lady who had lived in Estonia during the breakup of the Soviet Union. Kaosky responded with appreciation and wonderment, he hoped.
Elvira was quickly running through her inheritance, the same way she had gotten into trouble after the death of her first husband "Lightbulb" Kaosky.
“What’s in them?” he interrupted.
She held out for him a large glass of cold, black coffee she had filled with ice cubes from the tray in the bottom door of the deluxe refrigerator. Ten fingers with ruby red, artificial nails and bluish gemstones like spacers among them clutched the Napa highball.
“Just odds and ends, some tee shirts for the summer. There’s a blazer you and Jonah can fight over.”
“Yes, neither of you own a decent blazer. Now there obviously are occasions in a man’s life...”
“Occasions? Like what.”
“Like a decent meal in a club, genius.”
“You still imagine I’m working on Wall Street and living on Park Avenue. This is not that universe, Mom.”
“Well, how about Jonah? He…”
“Jonah? In college? Are you kidding? His idea of dressing up is putting on a tee shirt with a more moderate, non-political slogan.”
“I’m sure that’s not true. Just show it to him when he comes home. By the way, when is that?”
“Next couple of weeks. I think,” said Kaosky, distanced once again, thoughts pounding in his head, letting the adolescent rage melt away with a little mindfulness. The itinerant quality of life was beginning to clarify on him.
“Sit down. You look a bit peaked,” said Elvira.
“A bit peaked? Since when do you sound like Martha Stewart?” snorted Kaosky, trying unsuccessfully to put a gentler sound in his voice. Elvira laughed.
“Is she still in jail?” she asked.
“No. There’s no justice for the wicked.”
“No, there isn’t. It’s not that universe,” said Elvira.
They sat on the sofas. The iced coffee brought to mind the comforts of summer. There was time still to make things right. Kaosky thought it came down to the gifts of women to make life worth living. He needed to be less hard on his mother.
“Tell me about work. Almost done with the year?” asked Elvira.
“Almost. It can’t come soon enough,” said Kaosky. Where to begin with how he felt about work? But Elvira was already off on a rant of her own, something about the new lack of morals in the American family and the impending apocalyptic demise. She was sounding more and more like her father, whom she had once rebelled against with her marriage to Lightbulb. This Kaosky, the elder, had fathered the protagonist in his own drama -- Gillum Kaosky -- and his three younger sisters, Randi, Mandi and Margot. Someday he would have to write a book in which he would detail the exciting multi-cultural romp, the cities they had lived in around the world in escape from the Internal Revenue Service that had been his and his sisters’ childhoods. Of course, you couldn’t count against them, Lightbulb and Elvira, the drinking and the physical violence perpetrated by both sides against each other. That was part of the territory of the past, adding just another layer of complexity to the cool sophistication and American exceptionalism that was fast disappearing from the larger world, if it had ever existed in the rural precincts in which they now found themselves. It would really be a fascinating study, he thought.
“You have your father’s ears,” said Elvira. “Your sisters all missed out on them. They have them laid back. But I just noticed yours. Like two handles on a pot. Just like Lightbulb. Did you know that he was once offered a job in the movies?”
“No, I didn’t know that,” said Kaosky, lying. He had heard the story a dozen times. But it was her way of reconnecting with the world, to bring up their ties to the still vital past. In many ways it was increasingly more alive, as the present pressed down with greater weight on their fragile skulls.
“Oh, yes. We were in Barcelona. You know the Catalans, they love their outdoor gatherings. I could never really be bothered with all that. I needed my sleep, but Lightbulb was a great one for the carousing in the plazas.”
“I know. The movies,” he brought her back.
“Oh yes. Well, he was consulting for Deloitte and they called him in and it was John Huston who called him up and said he wanted to cast him for a role. Your father refused, but it made the rounds. Everywhere we went that summer people knew him as the American who had turned down the great John Huston.”
“I think it's on his tombstone.”
“Don’t be cruel.”
“Not cruel. Just slightly irreverent.”
“He doesn’t have a tombstone.”
“Never wanted one.”
The past and its pleasures were well-known, but not so well-known was the bubble that formed in front of his eye and took over his mind. That could be frightening if he believed for a second it would not pass. There was no real solution except holding his breath. Sometime ago it had not gone away and Elvira had had to bring him in to be fixed. Setting a course for the future, he decided, had to do with closing off opportunities for the bubble to form in his mind. Even a temporary reprieve from duty was enough for it. It seemed to be a question of pressurization. If he had been of an academic bent he might have studied it and found a satisfactory answer. As it was, his contribution to society was much more mundane.
“Dear, don’t you think you should gather up the boxes so that you can more easily…?”
“Yes. That’s a good idea.”
He carried the boxes and slung them one by one in the back seat. It would all be sorted out eventually.
Jonah had owned a globe with a soundtrack and a pointer. He’d found it in the swap shop of the town’s transfer station one day going in with Kaosky, and immediately had begun to play even though the batteries didn’t work. Kaosky had replaced the batteries on the way home that muddy afternoon, stopping at the Rite Aid on Route 202 at the Birmingham exchange. The people in there were amazing examples of the generations since the exodus to Ohio, the hanging triceps like hams on the old women and astonishing variations of the Donegal side chops on the old men. He’d felt a great sense of accomplishment after changing the batteries. The soundtrack had kicked in with Jonah sitting alone in the back seat still redolent of coffee grounds and stale cheese. It beeped and asked him to find Zimbabwe or the capital of the Garden State. Hours of pleasure with the globe and the pointer and sound track ensued over the next few years. Kaosky had devised a game of his own of memory. He heard the beep and would name a place in his mind and think of a memory associated with that place. That way he played silently along with Jonah, and the two were involved in parallel pursuits that were not obvious to each other. “Find that time you and Randi played in Asturias with the cat by the drain holes in the back wall … Find that time you camped in the Pine Barrens by the highway … Find the lights of Phoenix in that clearing in the scrub … in Baja where you fasted and ate the peyote buds ... on 15th St. in exchange for the Joni Mitchell records.”
Jonah became the Derryfield Community School geography champ starting in the fourth grade and continuing through his seventh grade year, when he’d discovered that skateboarding made him more popular with the kids in town. He’d spent entire summers at the school park and then down by the rope swing, which had been the best part of his education and something he’d written about on his college applications and something neither of his parents could have prepared him for -- a totally fortuitous period of time in his development for which Kaosky was grateful.
The car pulled off the dirt road into the sparsely graveled drive. He turned the motor off and listened to the ensuing silence. The hardwood trees were lit by the glow of the setting sun on the opposite horizon. Full of new leaf, they mysteriously swayed together in gusts of high-pressure wind. The first swallows of the season, already nesting, swooped around the edge of the barn and below the maple at the side of the drive. The lights were on in the kitchen, and he heard female voices, his two daughters and Sibyl, just a couple of words, as if they had been waiting silently for the moment when he arrived and now were noting the indicated event. He trudged stiff-legged up the steps and opened the door.
“Hi there,” said Kaosky.
“Hi,” said Sibyl, from the kitchen. She was sitting at the table with Gabriella and Hope, drinking tea.
“I’ve got some boxes,” said Kaosky. “There’s more in the car.”
He brought the rest of them up the steps one at a time and dropped them in the dining room. Gabriella, Hope and Sibyl opened the boxes and went through them, putting the clothes in piles on the dining room table. Most of it was unusable, either the wrong size or inappropriate style. But some things were good, one pair of shorts that might fit at some point when Gabriella had grown, perhaps next summer, and a sweater that Hope might try in the fall. The blazer would hang in Jonah’s room until he could have a look at it.
“How was your day?” asked Sibyl.
“Well, it’s done,” said Kaosky.
“That’s true,” said Sibyl. She was resigned to his sense of loss. It would pass, like most things. She was the daughter of an insurance salesman from Great Barrington, Massachusetts who did not believe that words were a decent salve on the stings and bruises of the day. She fell in the middle, like Kaosky, neither fish nor fowl. They kept company through the years despite their failures or their successes, most of which, on both sides, seemed to be not of their own making.
The girls went up to their rooms, carrying the piles of clothes.
“We’re accumulating so much junk,” noted Sibyl, as they left for upstairs.
“I know,” said Kaosky. It was a fault that his lineage was so crooked, reamed through with decadence and dependent on self-medication. Not like Sibyl’s. Solid, middle-class, like the proverbial city on the hill, unassailable, she had appeared in his life and reached out a guiding hand to the huddled masses, and he, although not biting the hand, was constantly chafing at the implied placement on his sloping, working class shoulders.
“And we can’t get the money back because there are no receipts.”
“I'll just take the stuff we don’t want back to Elvira.”
“No, you can’t do that. That would just be an insult to her,” said Sibyl, sensible as usual.
She rose and turned towards the kitchen. Dinner was rice with a fricassee vegetable dish and kimchi tofu. Kaosky mixed a salad and set the plates on the kitchen table. When the girls came down, he went into the bathroom and washed his hands and came back to the kitchen. Hope and Gabriella were serving themselves from the stovetop. Sibyl turned off the radio on the counter by the refrigerator, which had been playing the market news from NPR, something about a tech summit with President Trump.
“Thanks, Mom, said Gabriella dutifully. They sat at the table. Sibyl held out her hands and they all spread out their own. Hope had lately been rebelling by not actually taking anybody’s hand at this moment around the table at dinner every night. Although she was not churchgoing, Sibyl insisted on saying grace. She turned to her husband across the table.
“Will you say something tonight, Gillum?” she asked.
Kaosky raised his eyes to meet hers. Their blue had a steely glimmer. Her fire was contagious. He found the words.
“Bless us tonight and the food we are about to eat. Let’s try not to dwell on the past too much. Just enjoy ourselves and we can do that. Amen,” he said. Kaosky let go of Gabriella’s hand on his left and felt Hope’s brush his on its way to her lap. He picked up the fork and dug in. He was hungry.
“Did you send the email to…?” Sibyl asked Hope a question. Kaosky did not hear the end of it. He couldn’t hear Hope's response either. Some rushed words. And then Sibyl said something else to Hope he could not hear. They were purposely keeping their voices low, mumbling. He swallowed his food, stopped the fork in mid-flight and listened. He looked at Gabriella. She would not meet his eyes. He looked at Sibyl, but she was locked in a glaring contest with Hope. He put the fork down on the plate.
“What's the point? It doesn’t really matter at this point,” said Hope, sounding adult and mature in her voice suddenly, as if she knew Kaosky would tune in at that moment.
“What’s the point of what?” asked Kaosky. Nobody answered him.
“Gabriella. Can you tell me please what’s going on?” he asked. Gabriella, as the youngest, was still in some way liable to him. Once they reached teenage status, they stopped responding to a father’s entreaties. But Gabby didn’t answer either.
“It’s nothing,” said Sibyl.
Now he needed to know. Dinner could wait. He glared at his family.
“Looks like somebody here is hiding something,” he said.
“Dad. It’s none of your business, but I made a date with Mrs. Cheever to see her after classes for some extra help in math. I didn’t go because I went with Bailey and her friends to the store for ice cream.”
“She needs to send an email to apologize,” said Sibyl.
“I will,” said Hope.
"Sounds good. Get the help you need. Send emails. Always send emails," said Kaosky. Hope glared at him.
With the point of order taken care of, Kaosky could now eat. He proceeded to shovel the food down for a few bites.
“I saw Willy this afternoon. He’s had some adventures in the neighborhood,” he said, patting his lips with a napkin and swallowing.
“Oh, God,” said Hope, flinging her fork across the table.
“What the hell?” said Kaosky.
“I don’t want to hear about stupid Willy and his stupid adventures," said Hope, glaring at her father.
"It's just Willy. He can't help being the way he is," said Kaosky.
"Well, maybe he needs to learn. This food sucks,” said Hope, pushing back from the table. She stood and walked out of the kitchen, leaving Kaosky dumbfounded and sad. The changes were leaving him whiplashed.
“What did I say?” he asked.
“Don’t worry,” said Sibyl. “Finish your food.”
She looked at Gabriella.
“There’s mango ice cream,” said Sibyl. “I went into Concord today,” she said, explaining to Kaosky.
“That sounds alright to me,” said Kaosky. “I’ll go get Hope and tell her,” he added.
“No, let her be. She doesn’t want to be around us right now. Besides, she already had her ice cream.”
“What is going on with her?” he asked.
“Just, stuff. It’s not important,” said Sibyl, getting up and going over to the cupboard for the ice cream dishes.
“Well, that’s not right. I want to know what’s going on here.”
“Dad,” said Gabriella. “Just let it be. You don't always get to know. Chill out.”
“The two of you,” said Kaosky.
After the ice cream, Kaosky went outside and wandered in the back yard, inspecting the roses he had planted last year. They needed weeding. It was better to get things done early in the flowerbed before the weeds took over. Sibyl came out and joined him, looking over his shoulder as he kneeled in the grass.
“What do you see?” asked Sibyl, her eyes crinkled with concern.
“Crabgrass,” he said. “My father used to go crazy trying to get this stuff out the year we had the house in Glen Falls.”
“I don't know why. Grass is grass,” she said.
Kaosky stood up. He looked Sibyl in the eyes, gauging her mood. Could it be that she actually loved him?
“What do you want to do this summer?” he asked.
“Well, you’re working, right? I don’t know if we’ll have a lot of time for anything.”
Since getting home he'd forgotten that he needed to go for the interview that week for the security clearance.
"Tell me why again you want to work for the DEA?" asked Sibyl.
"We always need the money, what with Jonah in college."
"Jonah? He has a full ride," said Hope.
“Yeah. But the girls," said Kaosky.
"The girls," she snorted. "That's not the reason. You're in this for your own selfish reasons. I know you too well, Gillum."
"We can still make a camping trip together, either right at the beginning or later in August,” said Kaosky, changing the subject.
“Well, Billy has the family on Fourth of July weekend. We can’t skip that,” said Sibyl.
Billy was her brother who lived on the Cape alone since the death of his wife.
“I thought he had the back operation,” said Kaosky.
“He did. But he wouldn’t skip Fourth of July, I don’t think.”
“Probably not. Probably we pick up the slack and make sure the extension gets cleaned and the fires get put out.”
“And the fires get built.”
“Well, we always do that anyway,” said Kaosky. They always piled the firewood in the trailer for the trip to the Cape and Billy’s house.
"Maybe this summer will be different," said Sibyl.
"Ï hope not," said Kaosky.
Gabriella came out the back door and walked over to the swing set Kaosky had built with Jonah the previous summer. It stood in a triangular A-frame and swayed the higher Gabby swung. It was based on a design Jonah had come up with. It had needed some extra stability, so Kaosky had tied down the sloping legs with large ground screws before the ground had frozen. He watched Gabriella swing, in wider and wider arcs, the frame shuddering with her exertions.
“Swing harder, Gabby,” he said.
“No, don’t,” said Sibyl. “I don’t think it’s safe,” she added to him.
“We’ll see,” he said.