If pressed to give directions by a co-worker, for example, or by a stranger passing on the street, Steven Pei would not be able to do so accurately. He might be able to point to a loose square of streets and corners which might or might not harbor the hobby store, but even this direction he would be hesitant to offer. No, if approached by such a stranger more than likely Steven would just wander along with him, shoulder to shoulder in lost brotherhood until they both, hopefully, stumbled across the store. And though Steven might not need to visit the hobby store that day or that week, not sensing any dire emergency in his children’s lives, no festering turmoil that would require a visit to Petreus’ Hobby Store, he would find this particular method of generalized wandering familiar, it being the daily means for finding his way through life.
“Dad saw you, you know.”
“Saw you playing with that paper while you were yelling at him. Sitting here. Folding and unfolding it. That paper
“I wasn’t yelling. And so? What about it?”
“Just saying. Don’t be surprised if he brings something home tonight.”
He was bad with directions, wandering his only method, precision never entering into it, all this from a man whose professional capacity was that of head actuary for the Great American Insurance Company, a position and title that demanded exactness, accurate knowledge, and an awareness of the murky forces of life, moreso than the average soul walking the streets, certainly moreso than some wandering lost one. His office was headquartered just blocks from the frequented yet mysterious hobby store, but at lunch when he left through the big glass and brushed nickel doors of the Great American Insurance Company, Steven Pei left all precise brilliance behind him, much to the chagrin of his three children. He wandered. Increasingly as he grew older, the outer reaches of the world seemed to become more ill-defined, hazy, borderless; he sought to confine his living to an area somewhat resembling one of the postage stamps his son John collected, or in theory collected. For this reason he moved his family to the older, yet to some, more fashionable section of that university town just off to the west (at least he thought it was west) and downhill (he was sure it was downhill) of downtown, away from the new subdivision miles away across the interstate where his children had always lived. The “new” house was a much older house, much older, and more expensive and smaller, but also one which sat on a corner, a corner of easily remembered and in theory easily navigated right angles to his office. Indeed, he could see the top of the Great American Insurance Company building from his sagging front porch, and those times he felt particularly aimless, never took his eyes off it the entire walk into work. He walked on all days, to and from, so there was no longer any chance of getting lost, a frequency in the last months of living in the gated subdivision across the highway. His three children, Mary, John, and Susan, greeted the move and the first steps into the new old house with all the enthusiasm of walking into an abattoir: horror screwed to their faces, a carefulness not to brush too close to any of the old plastered walls, a poking and sniffing in its corners. But the house was also blocks from their alternative downtown schools, so there was no longer the embarrassment of their father getting lost when he drove them. They could walk. He could walk. And for all of them, they could shed the unspoken burden to maintain that figurative “light in the window” in the gated subdivisioned house for his runaway wife and their errant mother since it was clear she would never be returning home to the Midwest. By the grace of the State of Washington and a twenty-year sentence, mandatory, she would not be back.
“The clown thing is strange, Dad.”
“You got me there.”
“Why would she dress up as a clown to rob a bank?”
“Why would she do anything, dummy?”
“I mean, seeing a clown in line at the bank . . . that would sorta attract attention.”
“Maybe she was conflicted about the whole thing. What do you think, Dad?”
“Conflicted’s a good word . . .”
The oak trim of the old house, Mission-style, dark and ammonia-fumed, seemed to take a new family moving in with some alarm, popping out at various points, in random corners, at odd angles, all around the new old-house. He had never possessed a bent toward tools or handiness, his adult life lived in a world of statistics and tables and percentages. And there had been no real need to repair in the previous house, “bought fresh” by Sandra, as she put it, eight months pregnant with Mary. All that he owned was a single small hammer with a hollow metal handle in which screwdriver heads had once been stored until the end-cap vanished. He attacked a particularly troublesome popped trim that threatened to trip up anyone descending the stairs the first week, and all three children gathered behind him to watch not without some tension. But his strike was true and his heart was pure, and from that initial repair, the children came running with his tiny metal hammer whenever good trim went bad.
Mary, John, and Susan eventually bore their new old home as they seemed to bear everything – with great patience – even bearing their own plain names Steven was forced to choose by himself with his breathtaking lack of imagination when Sandra refused to even consider the task. (Neither would she breastfeed them. And with each birth cut her maternity leave shorter and shorter from her nursing home administrator job). Still, the three children seemed content with stunted childhoods, this despite a mother who did not care for them except for brilliant moments of exploitation and a father who fared no better in the everyday world than they did, most times faring worse, until there was a daily question of who led whom across the street. He asked them more than once (it was a favorite game in his own childhood, the only son of elderly but freshly immigrated parents who purposely gave him as American and as plain a name as possible) what they would change their names to if they could. Any name in the world, go on, any one. He would be very willing to start the process, file the papers, get the ball rolling . . . But they never seemed the least interested in playing his game, in not even entertaining and supposing new identities. They only wished to play their own game.
“So when she hijacked that truck in the Dakotas . . .”
“It was a van in Minnesota. A Meals On Wheels van.”
“. . . in Minnesota, you wonder if there was pistol-whipping.”
“How do you know about pistol-whipping?”
“There were two 70-year old volunteers driving it.”
“Still, they could have been lipping off.”
“They had their hands full of styrofoam containers. She just got in and pulled away.”
He worried his lack of imagination extended to them, that no flights of fancy graced their days, that the hardness of their lives, the daily turmoils that seemed so large to children, would crush them. So when a whiff of crisis was in the musk of the old house – by his nose, by the only nose that counted, the father’s nose — something just that much off to be fodder for crisis, Steven Pei would set off from his office at the Great American Insurance Company at lunch and start wandering as if into a pleasant recurring dream he wished to revisit and always in that firm four-block grid (he was certain of this much . . . he thought). And if that grid proved fruitless, he moved on to the next grid. Eventually he always found it, there on a side street he never thought of noting for future reference because it wouldn’t do him any good, behind a non-descript brick facade under a fading black and white painted sign. “Petreus” And in the window a red steady neon “Hobby Store” glowed.
“Is your son taking to philately?”
“John? Well . . . I saw him standing in his room looking down at the card table I set up for him . . .”
“I just got in a new shipment of grab bags . . . over there on the end. Twenty different countries they promise in each bag . . . That’s it. So he’s showing interest then?”
“I wouldn’t say it’s an interest. From what I could see from the landing he seemed to be holding his head in his hands. John is a very neat young man. Doesn’t like a lot of extra clutter. My guess is he was contemplating starting a fire.”
“So is that it today? Nothing else?”
“No . . .” His eyes settled on the origami books by the cash register, and he remembered Mary’s impatience with him that morning, could see her slender, elegant, though nervous hands playing with a piece of paper at the table, fingers ready, eager, to make something beautiful of the world if only she knew how, if only her father showed her the way. But then John’s hand stopped her, and they both looked at him washing the breakfast dishes at the kitchen sink and whispered to each other . . . Had they figured him out before he was even close to deciphering them?
“No, that’s it I think. For now . . .”
“Ten-fifty. I’ll eat the tax for you.”
“So we’ll see . . . I might be back tomorrow.”
He took all opportunities to foster their talents, evident and imagined, to draw them out, to expand and enrich them. At least this is what his resume as a father claimed, this is what his name tag implied. Truly, he had his doubts. He feared he was sloughing off things to Mr. Petreus and the hobby store, much like working parents slough off their children to grandparents, or the richer ones to au pairs, much as most parents do with television. He was not a good Dad: he feared this most of all. He would try harder.
“Do you think Mom lost her sanity?”
“Maybe. In a manner of speaking.”
“Just how? This is what I’d like to know. Just how? I read somewhere on the internet that the stuff in the water makes you go insane.”
“I don’t think so.”
“But how do you know? How do any of us know?”
“I don’t have the data on that to hold an opinion.”
“Data. You’re hung up on data, Dad.”
It was not always a daily exercise, this game, but occurred often enough to be considered de rigueur at dinner, and not just instigated by Susan, as youngest, but by all three. The early days of his own dread of the subject matter and of dinner itself had faded (surprisingly to him of set right-angled ways) and were replaced by a calm and a steadiness. Indeed, even how he held himself in his chair indicated a certain ease now, an aplomb even; all three children appeared to appreciate his presence; it only further spurred them on to play their game. Truly, it seemed his reactions to the questions and his measured, thoughtful responses were the children’s active motive in playing rather than the actual answers he gave. Yet they did want to know about their mother. They wanted possession of facts. And they each wanted in their own distinct ways that fit their own distinct lives, now forming and shaping in this new old-house, a clear and logical understanding of why she was the way she was, why she did those things, what sinister motives propelled her through those jagged movements that in turn transported her into legend.
“You think it was an imbalance, Dad?”
“Could very well be.”
“If so, we might want to all get checked out. Could you make us appointments?”
“Is imbalance the same as crazy? And what’s the difference between just crazy and batshit crazy?”
There was a curious lack of judgment on their part during the game. But no, that wasn’t quite right: the judgment itself seemed to be a given owing to the outrageousness of Sandra’s actions. It was more a reserving of judgment for their mother, for the woman who gave them birth. Or maybe the reserving was an appreciation of those left behind, the one who suffered, the one who, like them, had become a child.
“I just think it would behoove all of us to hang on to our sanity.”
“’Behoove.’ That’s a good one. I’m going to use that word tomorrow. A lot.”
“Good luck with that. Drink your milk.”
“I’ve also read that milk is full of genetically-modified hormones.”
“Then have some water.”
“Batshit crazyjuice? No thank you to all that.”
“I need a homecoming dress, Dad.” Mary blurted the words out in a rush like a hydrant, and then sat on her hands in an act of pristine self-restraint, staring wide-eyed at Steven. He stared back, his mind automatically searching the aisles of Petreus’ Hobby Store, and everyone was still and quiet while he did so. Was there a rack in the back corner? Certainly there were sewing kits. Small looms. She could fashion her own dress. An all-consuming, multi-outletting project. He read of a girl who made her prom dress from duct tape last year. Would Mary enjoy such a project? Possibly, if he could package the kits as presents, gifts . . . But there was a jolt at the word “homecoming” and an image of Sandra pulling up at the old new-house in the subdivision in a Meals On Wheels truck, a light on in the window, the door standing wide open.
“Oh” was all he could muster.
His daughter looked across the table at him with an expectant look, an almost pleading look, maybe for him to say more, for Steven to be the adult, or at least to have the self-awareness of an adult. “Oh.” He searched the kitchen with his eyes for some other answer, some thing, bright and shiny, that he could hand her to play with and distract her as he used to when she was a baby and crying. “Well, I do still have my driver’s license, you know.” Should he take the offended route? the aggrieved? the ignorant? Mary did not blink. No use.
“Actually, I just need some money. Janey’s Mom is taking us this evening.”
She was of legal age to drive, and so was John for that matter — at least he thought so; he would have to figure out John’s actual age later — but neither had brought any pressure to bear on the matter, as if they had willingly allowed that signpost to pass them by on the road. Ambivalence or indifference? Or fear? And what fear? Of the responsibilities of age? Or of their father taking them out practicing on a county road and losing them? Or maybe it was fear of inheriting his own hideous sense of direction and driving skills (he drove – when he did drive anymore—twenty miles under the given speed limit and in the extreme right portion of the right hand lane so as to brush the sidewalls down to the threads on city curbs). But no, that was his fear: that they would end up like him. He imagined that eventually they would somehow circumvent him and obtain their licenses, doing whatever it took, and not bother him with this small detail of life, not tax an already overly-taxed soul, like some touchy but necessary old mechanism in the new old-house that wheezed and whistled along but was not to be touched or even looked at too closely so long as it functioned barely.
At a point, early on after Sandra left, enough time after her escape, that he could act with some objectivity, adopt some sort of academic distance in which to study her migratory habits, he toyed with the idea of making a trip to the hobby store for himself and getting a wall map to trace her movements by way of bits of news that filtered in, especially when he got a suspicion that she would not confine herself to the continental United States. He received word of a misdemeanor arrest and release (always a release, always her enormous charm at work, imagining her violet eyes deeper than ever) in Lubbock and then two weeks later a request for a job reference at a convenience store in International Falls. But she did not cross the borders, almost to his disappointment. No, she seemed to be using the country’s borders as walls, careening off them to gain some sort momentum toward something bigger. No, in those months that she crossed the country and only toyed with the borders (she made a mad dash first thing after leaving Michigan for Nevada; divorce papers arrived weeks later; Steven signed them, only realizing later that this was Sandra’s version of a kindness to him), the stories trickled in from the nursing home (albeit many of them dementia-fueled rumors) of patients’ personal valuables pilfered — gold watches, heirloom brushes, pendants, always those shiny valuables of obvious value — and he was never sure if these stories were emblematic of the victims’ or the accused’s special madness. And then there was a poor man – a retired auto worker and minister of some sort – who claimed his gold fillings missing, swore that it was Sandra herself (“Baphomet in the flesh!” he condemned), straddling him in the dead of the night with a pair of pliers. This accusation was treated with some humor in the newspaper during the brief flare of reported Sandra stories — Sandra, the infamous “Cancer Mom” who had fled that university town as the prosecutors mulled the likelihood of fraud charges in the recent incident involving her son — until the articles simply died away and the newspaper moved on to the next grotesqueness. But Steven could never wholly dismiss the image of Sandra skulking around the nursing home halls with dental tools.
“Was it the thing with John that made her leave, Dad?”
He paused and looked at John. John simply looked back at Steven, as they all did during the game, ungrazed, unbothered by any question.
“I think so. It certainly put her over the edge.” Did he owe it to them to be more expansive for once? To offer more than just one settling statement in response? To tell in detail of how their mother faked her own son’s cancer: shaving his head, drugging his meals, lying about doctors and tests and hospitalizations in order to fraud fundraising efforts already in motion at school and in town, and only through his own suspicions — Steven’s, the father’s – and a trip to the doctor himself (then, it seemed, he could find his way about town, could navigate across town and function like an adult when Sandra was still there) that he discovered the truth.
“I knew I was never sick,” John said matter-of-factly, and he was telling the truth, probably waiting out the mother, the mad mother, to see where this latest careen would take them.
Susan said, “There’s a board hanging loose over my bed. I think it’s going to kill me in my sleep.”
“I’ll get my hammer,” he said. And he followed her upstairs, thankful that he would be occupied when Janey’s mother came to pick up Mary and miss the mandatory sympathetic tones, another cocked head, more pitying eyes toward the noble father fending for his three children, alone.
In the mornings, no time ever for the game, and for this he was relieved, the regular tick of life carried them all along, a sweet regularity pushing all four of them along and around the table and out the door.
“Birthday tonight, Dad,” Mary called back over her shoulder. “So don’t forget. Don’t get lost on the way home.” The laughter of all three was still there on the sagging front porch when he walked out the front door, buoying the porch and him, and he smiled to himself. But then he stopped cold and thought, “. . .but whose birthday?”
“And you say you need birthday presents for all three? That’s quite the coincidence.”
“Well, the thing is, we like to celebrate every birthday like it was Christmas . . .,” Steven lied.
He was a big stout man, Mr. Petreus, resembling Santa Claus in fact, except though his hair was white, his beard was still bright red. He was a helpful man; like Steven Pei, Mr. Petreus was there to help. They gathered up things, new things, new avenues of expression for each child, Steven hopeful that one of the new directions would stick with one of them, open up their lives to new imagination. He steered away from more stamps, feeling guilty that he was beating that drum too loudly and daily. But he could not resist the origami at the end by the cash register for Mary. Who knew?
“Who knows, Mr. Petreus?” Steven mumbled into the air. “Who knows . . .”
“Oh, I’m not ‘Petreus’.”
“Oh, I’m sorry.”
“Oh no, I get that a lot. No, that sign’s been up forever. Half the time I forget about it. I sent a handyman up there when I first bought the place years ago, but he said it was cantilevered into the building somehow . . . I dunno. I just left it. The funny thing is, when I was a kid this place used to be a candy store – I’m an old Westender, you know – and the old man who owned it . . . well, he wasn’t ‘Petreus,’ either!”
“So what was Mom like when you first met?”
“Was there something wrong then? Could you tell?”
“What did you see in her then?”
“She must have been very beautiful. Why are there hardly any pictures?”
“I remember her running away at the sight of a camera. You think she had a secret before you met?”
“Yeah, maybe she had a whole history you didn’t know about.”
She would steal newspapers from driveways during their walks, otherwise quite sylvan and lovely strolls as they held hands, but she did take her opportunities when presented. At cash registers she would take all the change from the take-a-penny-leave-a-penny bowl. “Adds up,” she would state matter-of-factly on the sidewalk, counting into her palm. Grocery stores were her buffets, opened packages and crumbs left in her wake. She shoplifted endlessly, at first in a seemingly legitimate manner by forgetting to take everything from the cart, then in more obviously deceptive ways – stuffing garments within garments, removing tags – but then maybe it was just that her ways were becoming more and more obvious to him. But even this, all these things, what could they mean? and were they supposed to mean anything? and was it required of him, the spouse, the lover, to add up the incidents of the other’s days?
In the beginning, before their beginning, in classes he held in common with her at that university, he thought her very quiet and very still. Very quiet and very still and very beautiful — except for the terrifying look she always held in her eyes which he, when he first fell in love with her, took to be a characteristic of her beauty. A terrifying beauty. But after a while he suspected the terror came from a different place altogether and was a byproduct of something more strategic. A kind of weighing and waiting of all things around her. Even on their walks, he felt as if he were along as a kind of accessory, a disguise, a hat pulled down to cover her terrifying eyes. It was an early summer session – some sort of statistics class that he absorbed easily into his very breathing – and even in that room of closed-angled subject matter, the windows were thrown wide open to the birds and trees and abandon. After class as they were gathering themselves up, there was a frank exchange of looks, then an invitation (could it have been made by him, the first verbal grapple?), then walks out into that midsummer of all possibilities. And then one dusk passion erupted in a little-frequented, if-ever-known-before-that-moment, box canyon of a courtyard between three old academic buildings, seemingly only got to by a maze of an inverted “Z” (or was it a double-“Z”?) and then by inching sideways through a phalanx of boxwood. The lovemaking in the secluded courtyard was such a knock and a jar to his own regular view of the world, the steady cadence of his clock, his own staid and well-mannered upbringing by two ancient immigrants from the old world, the very old world, that he considered this gush the correct way the world revolved, this heated open-aired sex of midsummer, such an obvious cataclysmic event, that he did not for the longest time notice her regular and regularly-odd behavior.
“Dad, it’s your birthday, of course.”
“Well, of course . . . I knew that.”
“I don’t lie.”
“He’s right. Dad never lies.”
“Then what are all these presents for us?”
“A coincidence. In some countries it’s custom to give on one’s birthday. So what do we have here? For me?”
“It’s a tool belt! And a new hammer. Your little one is a bit pathetic, we decided.”
“Served me well . . . but thank you.”
“I got it when I got my homecoming dress with Janey.”
“So you bought a homecoming dress and a tool belt?”
“Nice. Very nice. How do I look?”
And what was gained from this manner of lunacy? From a warm dusky passion in youth? From a moonlit evening of delicate maneuverings in a little secluded courtyard, a grassy hillock under an unknown Greek statue on a midsummer’s eve? A stranger as a lover. A stranger as a companion. A stranger as a wife and mother of children. A stranger who was very strange indeed, so much as to seem like another species. A stranger locked away on the other side of the country, assuredly and completely for years to come. The amount of effort it took in deciphering the curl of her lips alone so overwhelmed him that it used up what little adult function he ever accidently came to possess. And yet there it was. Somewhere, there it was. Somewhere, whatever answers he thought owed him, to be searched for there in a misty grid of streets and corners. There. Somewhere. But for now, here it was, this bright, shiny thing hanging from a leathern belt, presented by his children, presented to amuse and distract, presented to take in hand and seek out the jagged corners of this old house and make new.
BD Feil has credits in Mississippi Review, New Plains Review, and Best Ohio Fiction, among others. He lives in Michigan with quite the brood.