I’ll Be Here for You
Tartt First Fiction Winner!
Robert Mckean
Synopsis:

Set in the hardscrabble western Pennsylvania mill town of Ganaego, the interconnected stories in I’ll Be Here for You: Diary of a Town present an ethnic and generational stew of lives and passions.



ISBN: 978-1-60489-252-9 Trade Paper, $18.95        Sale $9.50

ISBN: 978-1-60489-256-0, Hardcover, $25.95           Sale $13

Binding
About the Author:

Robert McKean’s The Catalog of Crooked Thoughts was first prize winner of the Methodist University Longleaf Press Novel Contest and was published in 2017. The novel was also named a Finalist for the 2018 Eric Hoffer Award. A recipient of a Massachusetts Cultural Council grant for his fiction, McKean has been nominated three times for Pushcart Prizes and once for Best of the Net. He has published extensively in journals such as The Kenyon Review, The Chicago Review, Armchair/Shotgun, 34th Parallel, Kestrel, Crack the Spine, and Border Crossing.

 
Excerpt from Book:

However Innocently, However Unwittingly

 

 

 

 

Spring 2009

Heady things, humble things.

Her father’s pet phrase, something the old man would mutter as he went about his housebound days in frayed slippers, whether he was parsing Virgil or cleaning the trap beneath a bathroom sink. It was, in fact, her father’s coming-apart-at-the-seams slippers that Maddy was thinking about on her way to check in on him when, at the left-hand turn across traffic onto Linden Street at the T&V Supermarket she always dreaded making, she lost her nerve and caused the accident . . . well, the first accident.

“That’s why I’m here,” the police inspector who turned up at her house that evening explained. “The officers, you told them it was your fault? No disrespect . . .”—he consulted a tablet he withdrew from a pocket—“Mrs. Schoolcraft, but how do you figure you was to blame?”

The inspector, a tall, solemn black man, wore a light-colored suit as stiff as cardboard. Since he was not in uniform, he’d shown her a badge pinned to the inside of his wallet. Not that she could really see it. Why do officials display their IDs so quickly you never have time to read them?

“Ma’am?”

“I’m sorry.” To steady her thoughts Maddy focused on the damp spots on his sleeve. “I was thinking of my father, I’ve been worried about him, and as I was inching forward to make the left there—you know, at the T&V?—I suddenly changed my mind. That’s when he bumped me. I couldn’t see—because of the rain—and I just stopped. I’m sorry, I’m not a very assertive driver.”

The loose skin of the inspector’s forehead drew up in pleats. “Still don’t get it. We got all sorts of laws against driving recklessly, but not against driving cautiously.” His voice took on a lecturing tone. “It’s for the motorist behind, ma’am, to have control of his vehicle. The boy did hit you, that is correct, is it not? The woman behind him”—he consulted his tablet again—“said he got out of his car, looked at your car, then got back in his and swung around you to your right? Now, that’s how it happened, am I not correct on that?”

She was forty-one, divorced. She worked at the community college as an administrator. People did not always regard her as a serious person, and here she was taking up the valuable time of the police. “I’m sorry,” Maddy recanted, “I shouldn’t have said that. Yes, he hit me, I mean it was only a tap, I’m sure there wouldn’t have been anything for him to see back there, but he did exactly as you say. Is he going to be all right? He didn’t die, did he? What about the truck driver?”

The vexing question of her guilt dispensed with, the inspector permitted himself to relax; his shoulders lowered, the muscles of his long face slackened. He stowed away his tablet. “The fellow in the truck? Oh, plenty shook up and he’s lost his livelihood—that was his rig, he’s a private contractor—but at least he walked away from it. As for the boy, it’s pretty grim, but I’ve been told he’s got a chance. And let me tell you, if he does pull through, he’s going to be the luckiest kid in the world. By all rights he should be laid out tonight on a slab in the basement of Butterworth’s Mortuary. He was thrown out on the road and got his face slashed, so that message he’ll carry with him the rest of his life. But you, are you going to be all right, ma’am?”

No, not really. After the solicitous inspector left, Maddy made the ground beef and macaroni casserole that her son, home soon from his track meet, would wolf down in gulping mouthfuls. As she worked, she tried to erase from her imagination the scene before the T&V. She had not gone on to her father’s. So violently was she shaking that, after the police had taken her puzzling statement and dismissed her, she could manage only to steer her car up Sutton Post Road and home—shaking that had gone on in the gray silence of her bedroom. The smeary windshield, her old Honda with its all-but useless wipers, the relentless procession of oncoming cars—how selfishly, how unforgivingly, people drive nowadays—her lurch forward and panic, jamming her brakes and then the slight jolt from behind. The young man leapt from his car in the pouring rain. He was shouting, revolving his arms. She heard his obscenities even before she rolled down her window to apologize. An apology he had no intention of accepting. As she turned to fetch her papers from the glove compartment, he screamed at her—called her a cunt! a word she hadn’t heard in thirty years—and stalked back to his car. To fetch his papers? No, as Maddy watched in disbelief and went on re-watching in the theater of her mind, his car inexplicably spurted past hers onto the shoulder on her right, then swerved recklessly—and yes, that word of the inspector’s was the proper one—across her front: taking his left anyway, the hell with her.

Without looking.

Her husband, former husband, an engineer for the power company, would no doubt have dispassionately explained the dynamics of such an event, two bodies traveling at great velocities attempting to occupy the same space at the same time, one a low-slung red sports car with spoked rims that flashed in the rain, the other a truck, one of those massive dump trucks you’ve begun to see more and more often. But no mathematical formulation of forces and counterforces on Dale’s whiteboard could mitigate the shock of that impact, the enormous truck in a deafening shriek of rending metal and exploding glass crumpling and sweeping away, now on her left, the much dwarfed car.

The truck, it occurred to her, could have driven the boy’s car into hers.

But it was her son who put a period to this disconcerting, jarring day. Sliding his gangly body with its oversized clownish feet into his chair at the dining room table, Ethan said, “There was an incredible wreck today—Terry Boswell.”

“You know who it was? The boy?”

“Mom,” Ethan spoke in impatience with his mother, “Terry Boswell’s in my class!”

~ ~ ~

One lesson Maddy had fully absorbed in life was never to doubt her father. Now retired, but once beloved school teacher—Latin, French—Pop Warner coach, community-garden founder, pancake-breakfast and spaghetti-dinner organizer, chaperon for adults on tours to the Alhambra and for hormonal teenagers on senior trips to the nation’s capital: Who knew how many travelers cheerful, unrufflable Albert Victorine had steered through the muddles that humans will inevitably make of things? But with his failing eyesight and periods of distraction, Maddy had begun to question her father’s grasp, and walking in on him this afternoon brought her no reassurance.

What must have represented every scrap of clothing he owned, as well as whatever stray pieces remained of her mother’s, was strewn across the sofa, the table, the floor: shirts, sweaters, socks, dresses, coats, scarves, hats, belts. It looked like the Mission after a two-for-one sale. And for the first few seconds when from the center of that disorder her poor wizened old papa blinked at her, perplexed, she feared it was even worse than it looked.

“Dad, what’re you doing?”

“Simplifying?”

“You have everything everywhere?” She had taken the afternoon off to drive him to his appointment with the retinal specialist. She stepped over the tangle of clothes. “We’ll have to put everything back—and we don’t have time now.”

“But I don’t need all this, Madeline, really, I don’t.”

He looked down, as she did, at his slippered feet, the slippers whose tattered bindings had worried her yesterday. Nearby, a striped jersey lay, the kind of shirt that referees wear in sporting events. At least he was right about having too many things. Didn’t they all have too many things? “Do you have a system?” she asked hopefully. “What you’re keeping, what you’re discarding? You do, don’t you? You always have a system.”

“I do.” Albert brightened. “Anything with three or more colors goes.”

“What do I smell? Something burning?”

The empty saucepot on the burner was glowing. It was nearly translucent; you could smell the metal—preparing to melt? Maddy turned off the gas and, using two potholders between her hands and the handle, doused the quivering pot under the cold-water tap. Great clouds of vapor rose up, fogging her glasses.

“Dad, we need to talk.”

“We used to have one that whistled, well, screeched.”

“Why don’t I,” she said, “make some tea for us? Then you need to get ready. You do remember you have an appointment, don’t you?”

Her father looked around the kitchen he’d spent sixty years in. What did he see, what glimmered against those damaged retinas? Paths worn in the linoleum, rounded cabinet corners, paint on handles rubbed to wood? When her mother fell ill all too early in life, he had assumed household duties, becoming, no surprise, an inventive chef. He gazed at her thoughtfully. “Should I change it to two colors? Your mother had a beautiful frock—of many colors. Stripes. You probably don’t remember it, she wore it in the summer. She looked like a walking rainbow.”

He’d been her best friend, perhaps her only friend. She had wanted to talk with him about yesterday. The accident continued to distress her, the shattering, convulsive violence of that impact, the image which she blessedly hadn’t seen, but imagined, of a human face being flung against a pavement. From talking with Ethan, she gathered that Terry Boswell ran in a different crowd than the nerdy and jock crowds that Ethan bounced between, a fast, loose crowd. But still: It could have been Ethan. Not that Ethan was likely to burst from a car and begin hurling profanities at a stranger, but seventeen-year-olds were creatures of impulse. Editor of the school newspaper, basketball and track star, cycling enthusiast, Ethan would graduate in a month and intern again this summer for the Citizen Chronicle, the town newspaper. Her son’s sports worried her, his cycling tours through the mountains, his nights out with his chums, even the long-legged girls he’d begun to date. Were girls any more responsible than boys? And come fall he would be off to college.

“Is this Terry Boswell some sort of spoiled rich boy?” she had asked. “Is that what you mean?”

“You hear stories. He got suspended for something last semester, I don’t know.”

He did know. She let it pass. “Did your father come to your meet?”

And this, Ethan could not dissemble. His eyes lingered vulnerably on hers, the soft eyes of a boy not yet a man, then fell away in sorrow and confusion. “Didn’t see him, Mom.”

Would it be embarrassing for Ethan if someone in school identified his mother as the person who had provoked Terry Boswell? But now, this afternoon, was not the moment to burden her father with her troubles. The piles of clothes would have to wait until tomorrow, Saturday, but since she had fortuitously taken the entire afternoon off there was time to get him made presentable for his appointment. The doctor’s office was nearby, in the assemblage of medical suites in a wing of the hospital. Reaching the suites required taking the elevator in the lobby and crossing a glass bridge. Albert had macular degeneration, the wet kind, and the consultations every six weeks were lengthy affairs. Before they could meet with the specialist, Albert had to be led away for dilation and returned to wait for the solution to take effect, then fetched again for a scan and returned, then finally summoned to an examination room. Most of the patients Dr. Giannetta saw were aged, the delicate machinery of the eye succumbing to time’s ravages in advance of the sturdier body. The doctor, a bulky, perspiring man with a florid face framed by white hair, would rush, harried, from one room to another. With a few stock pleasantries, he’d raise her father’s seat, swing a piece of equipment like a mask before his face and peer into his diseased eyes. Barking out his conclusions in acronyms to an assistant who typed his comments into a computer, the doctor would strap on a helmet with a light attached—much like, Maddy would think, what a spelunker might don before descending into a cave—and gaze through a scope into his patients’ eyes. With the four of them crammed in the small room, the atmosphere seemed pressurized, claustrophobic. On visits when Dr. Giannetta determined that her father’s condition had worsened, the afternoons would be even more prolonged by his needing to receive a shot directly in the affected eye.

“It’s all right, I don’t mind the needle.” Albert patted, in anticipation perhaps, his eyes in which the pupils had begun to grow as large as the pupils of cartoon characters. “One has to be stoical. If I have to get a shot, then I shall. I’ll think of Homer.”

She looped her arm around him and whispered in his ear. “I don’t expect anyone else here is thinking of Homer.”

Sometimes he would have a different kind of scan that resulted in his urine turning bright tangerine. When that occurred, even a proper, circumspect man as Albert Victorine could hardly let such a remarkable occurrence pass without comment. He squeezed her hand on his shoulder. “Vive memor leti; fugit hōra.”

“That’s Homer?”

“Persius.”

“And means . . .”

“Shame on you, Maddy. Live mindful of death, the hour flees.” Albert glanced around the waiting room at the old men and women, more women than men, the remnants of his generation either stupefied by age or become garrulous, squawking at their adult children. “Except here.”

She hugged him again. “I remember Mama’s striped dress. It shimmered in the sunlight.”

~ ~ ~

Today’s appointment did end with an injection of Lucentis. As her father explored with his fingertips the black pirate’s patch on his right eye, Maddy guided him across the glass bridge in the falling sunlight. She kept her hand on his arm. Stoical or not, a needle directly in one’s eye would give pause to even the most stalwart of individuals. As the elevator doors began to close, two nurses came bundling in, chattering excitedly, their heads pressed together.

“What? When? I only came on.”

“Now, now—I just heard it!”

“I thought he was out of the woods? What happened?”

“I don’t know, organ failure, blood clot, I don’t know! I’m going to find out. They called in practically the whole attending staff, but they couldn’t do it, couldn’t bring him back.”

“God, I know them—her, his mother. The father doesn’t live with them. She was all in a dither because she didn’t think he was going to graduate, but then he pulled it off somehow, got the school’s approval. He probably sweet-talked his teachers. He was quite a little operator apparently, a real heartbreaker with the girls. God, this is so awful!”

Driving to her father’s today, Maddy had avoided the left-hand turn at the T&V. Had gone out of her way to wend a zigzag through Ganaego’s old brick streets, and now, driving them home, her father dozing beside her, she did the same, plunging the car down one road after another, doing anything to bypass that turn. When she bumped the car at last up into his drive, Albert started awake.

“Here, already?”

“Dad?” She pictured the clothes strewn every which way, the glowing saucepot, an old man with diminishing sight scuffling through the rooms in ragged slippers. “I’m going to go in and pack a bag for you. I want you to stay with us for a night or two.”

“Maddy, don’t be such a—”

She put a hand on his sleeve. “You can make your famous buttermilk pancakes—Ethan’ll love them. Please, for me?”

He folded his arms across his chest. “Oh, all right, if it makes you happy. I’ll come in—I know what I want.”

“Tell me, I’ll get it for you. You know, I think it’s coming time you’re going to have to let me start doing more things for you?”

“Heady things, humble things?”

“Heady things, humble things, yes, Dad.”

“One night.”

“Two.”

He was sound asleep when she slipped back into the car, an old pirate whose ship was entering troubled waters, and she was suddenly furious—this out of nowhere—with Dale, her ex-husband, who had missed unconscionable amounts of his son’s childhood for his troubleshooting trips to far-flung regions of the country. Dale’s circuits always took precedence over his family—until one day he came home to discover he no longer had a family. Now, he was missing Ethan’s final days with them, these glorious, valedictory days of youth: a boy grown tall, who wore the most outlandish Lycra biking costumes and pedaled in dense, fast, synchronized packs of his fellow cyclists for hundred-mile stretches, who sprinted four-hundred meters in school-record time, whose name appeared above stories in the Chronicle—missing all that for a bunch of damn transistors.

A boy had just died.

A boy not all that different from their son, and she, however innocently, however unwittingly, had had a hand in it. Irritable—not only with Dale, but with herself, with the world—Maddy did not take a circuitous route home, but determinedly headed up Linden Street. If at rush hour the left into Linden was a trial, the left out of it onto Sutton Post Road was nearly impossible. She joined the string of left-turning automobiles and pickups creeping forward. Ahead, against the ruddy sky loomed the shoulder of the T&V. As the building drew nearer, its blocky shadow crept closer and closer until darkness fell across the car. What friends did Terry Boswell leave behind? Had he had brothers and sisters, aunts and uncles, grandmothers and grandfathers? Did he have a sweetheart? That abandoned mother, who longed to see her child graduate, where was she when his life ended? In the hospital, one prayed, and what was she doing right now? Actually, Maddy knew what Terry Boswell’s mother was doing: You go home after the death. She knew that. It was what she and her father did after her mother died. Home to your familiar rooms, which no longer look familiar, and you call Butterworth’s or Flipovitch’s or Hoover’s, or any of the score of mortuaries in Ganaego, and you sit in the gray silence of your bedroom and pretend that whoever you have loved and lost is in heaven and that your life will go on safely and securely—and, of course, neither of those things is true.

Her father groaned in his sleep, sighed.