What We Were, What We Lost, by Dean Jollay

When Mitchell’s mother begged him to lie for her—lie to his father no less—he was nine, going on ten. School had begun three days earlier. After a week at his uncle’s Lake Huron cabin over Labor Day, just he and his mother enjoying summer’s last hurrah, they were back in crummy old Ohio, stuck in their boring lives again. The air buzzed with heat. Mitch’s classroom was stifling. Leaving streaks of perspiration, his arms stuck to the wooden desk like strands of gooey spaghetti. Notebooks damp as wet washcloths curled in the humidity. Their teacher, Mrs. Larsen, taught class with the energy of a half-drowned cat. He counted the minutes till school let out. When the bell rang, he shot out of his desk and hustled home to cool off in the whirring air of their big window fan.

Mitch was in the kitchen making a peanut butter and jelly sandwich when the doorbell rang. In the basement doing laundry, his mother couldn’t possibly hear, so he answered, cracking open the door with one hand, eating his PB & J with the other. A man with a cast on his left wrist and a greasy ponytail stared back. Stick figure scrawny, the stranger picked at blister oozing on his right temple and wiped his hand on the gray T-shirt that hung loosely from his shoulders. A green army duffel bag laid at his feet, the name Jacobson and some numbers stenciled in black letters.

The stranger told Mitch his name was Kurt. “I’m an old friend of your mom’s. She around?”

Mitch kept his hand on the knob, eyes fixed on stranger, and yelled, “Mom, there’s a man at the door!”

Kurt told Mitch that he looked like his mother, which was so queer because everyone said Mitch looked like his father. He ducked as the stranger reached through the opening to pat his head. The man laughed and said, “I won’t bite. Promise.”

Mitch finished off his sandwich. He wasn’t so sure.

His mother’s feet pounded up the basement stairs. Out of breath, she came up from behind Mitch and put her hands on his shoulders. He turned and gave her a look: What planet is this douche bag from?

She hesitated. “Kurt? Is that you?”

His mother’s expression turned from puzzlement to recognition. She was wearing a baggy yellow cotton shift, sandals, and no make-up. A blue bandana covered her straw blond hair. From their week in Michigan, her skin was still light brown, her nose freckled. His mother was beautiful but tried not to draw attention to herself. Mitch guessed that she wanted to fit in with the less foxy women in town. Tried but could never quite pull it off.

Palms upward, the stranger twirled in a circle like Tinker Bell. “Voilá. None other. It’s been a long time.”

“What are you doing here?” His mother seemed annoyed, as if the postman had delivered a crate of rotten oranges. “Here” was Hollings, Ohio, population 7,856 (East Jesus, Mitch’s mother called their village), fifty miles southwest of Toledo.

“Passing through. Thought I’d take a chance and look you up. Mind if I come in?”

As far as Mitch knew, only migrant farmworkers, encyclopedia salesmen, Mormon missionaries, and county fair carnival workers passed through Hollings.

His mother folded and refolded her arms. “Well…I…it’s such a surprise.”

“Cup of coffee would be nice.”

“Maybe, I guess…” She invited him inside. Mitch followed them to the kitchen. She told him to get going on his homework.

He said he didn’t have any.

“Then go to your bedroom and do the homework you don’t have. Please, Mitch, no arguments.”

Why all the hush-hush? This stray dog named Kurt was hardly CIA material. Definitely not cool. He didn’t seem like a person who might’ve once been his mother’s good friend. From his bedroom Mitch tried to listen to their conversation, but couldn’t make out what they were saying. He finished the homework he didn’t have and wandered back to the kitchen.

“Kurt’s staying for supper,” his mother said. “Set the table. He’ll be spending the night, sleeping on the couch.”

*

After dinner his mother told him to watch TV while she and Kurt did the dishes. Truly weird because she always made Mitch do them. Later he heard them laughing, so he turned down the sound. They were talking about a night their senior year. They’d gotten drunk at a bar and decided to steal some farmer’s sign. It had a big American flag painted on it. Underneath the flag it said, “America, Love It or Leave It,” plus something about a John Birch Society. They drove to the farm after midnight, hid their car in a ditch down the road, and crept up onto the property.

The sign was in the farmer’s front yard. Kurt said it must have been booby-trapped, because when they tried to lift it out of the ground, a white flash exploded and lit up the yard like noontime. They ran back to the car. A few seconds later a shotgun blast came from the direction of the house and kicked up dirt on the road. “Thank God, we had a head start,” Kurt said.

Neither spoke for a minute or two, then Kurt added, “If it weren’t for that damn war, we’d have gotten married.”

“Maybe,” his mother answered.

“Maybe what?”

“Life moves on, war or no war. Mine did.”

“That why you didn’t come see me at the hospital?”

“I went to the hospital, but you were messed up and…you didn’t recognize me.”

“So you moved on.”

“I had to.”

“You could’ve waited…”

“Don’t.”

It was quiet then. Mitch clicked off the TV, slipped out of the den, sneaked down the hall to his room, and closed the door carefully so Kurt and his mother wouldn’t know he’d been listening. He undressed and pulled on his pajama bottoms. The night was windy and no cooler than daytime. His window was open. Bugs crashed against his screen. Wide-awake, hands behind his head, he rested on top of his sheets. The half-moon gave off a blue-white light, casting shadows on the ceiling as the tree outside his window swayed in the breeze.

Laughing, Mitch and his mother stumbled down the hallway and went into his parents’ bedroom. Minutes passed. Mitch slipped out and lay on the scratchy carpet by his mother’s closed door. He held his breath and waited. His mother cried out, but Mitch couldn’t tell if she was in pain. Unable to decide what to do, he bit his lip and nearly peed his pants. He was about to run in and save her when he heard her giggle. Thinking she was probably okay, he crawled back to his room, wondering what they were doing in there. Though it took a few more years to fully comprehend, somehow he realized then that everything had changed. In some as yet unknowable way, Kurt was now part of their lives. The sounds of his mother and Kurt in her bedroom, the taste of blood in his mouth, the feeling of helplessness, of not knowing what to do—all of it would remain forever in his memory. Later, as a husband and father, he realized his mother had circled back and crossed the deep divide between present and past. Cataracts of love lost had clouded her sight, blinding her vision of the here and now. She was never the same.

*

Sitting at the kitchen table the following morning, Mitch was about to have breakfast before he set off for school. As she made him scrambled eggs and sausage, his mother dabbed the corners of her eyes with a tissue.

“Where’s Kurt?”

“He had to leave. They needed him back at work. He said to tell you good-bye and that he enjoyed meeting you.” She fixed Mitch’s plate and sat down across from him. Her elbows rested on the table. She squeezed her face between her fists so hard, her lips puckered like a fish.

He stuffed half a sausage into his mouth.

“We need to talk.” Her eye sockets were tinged with violet. Tufts of blond hair stuck out all over her head as if she hadn’t combed it in a month. This morning she seemed as old as Nana. “You have to do something for me. It’s important.”

Not if the something had to do with Kurt.

“Your father will be home tomorrow.” She stopped to gnaw on a thumbnail she’d already chewed till it was red. “What are we going to tell him about Kurt?”

“You mean what will you tell him.”

She pressed a hand to her chest. “I made a horrible mistake. And if your father finds out, I don’t know what he’ll do.”

Mitch considered the possible consequences of his father discovering the truth, and was no longer hungry.

“Telling your father about Kurt would make him angry.”

“Yeah, I know. So?”

“You’ve got to help me.” She pulled a fresh tissue from her jeans pocket and blew her nose. “Sometimes we have to keep a secret from people we love to protect them.”

“I won’t lie for you…I won’t.”

“I’m not asking you to lie,” she sniffled. “Forget Kurt was ever here. Can you do that for me?”

“So it’s okay to have secrets?”

“Sometimes.”

Mitch thought about what she was asking him to do, but he couldn’t see the difference between a lie and a secret. “Mom, I can’t. What if Dad finds out I knew about Kurt and didn’t tell him?” He just couldn’t promise her.

“Believe me,” she said, “he won’t blame you.”

“Really?” It seemed as though Mitch was talking to another stranger, a stranger as unknown to him as Kurt, rather than to his mother. Her attempts to reassure him were as empty as cardboard gift boxes the day after Christmas.

She leaned back and sighed, “There’s so much you don’t know.” Slowly she laid her open hand on the table, as if she expected him to take it, but he shoved his plate toward her and scooted his chair the opposite direction. She brushed the tip of her tongue across her teeth. Crossing her arms, she rocked and began to hum “Slow Boat to China,” a song she sang to him when he was little.

“Shall I tell your dad? I’ll do it if you’d like.”

Mitch thought a moment. No, he didn’t want that.

“Okay,” he said finally. “Promise never to see Kurt again.”

“Sure,” she said. “Never again.”

His half of the deal remained unspoken.

Mitch’s father returned from his business trip. Weeks passed. Mitch felt guilty and kept telling himself that he’d confess the truth to his father whenever he had the chance. But he never did. Mitch and his mother couldn’t discuss their arrangement. They were uncomfortable around each other. As if his mother had just adopted him, every single day seemed like the first day they’d ever spent together.

*

A few days after Halloween, when he got home from school, Mitch found his mother hunched over two sheets of paper at the breakfast table. Her hands were folded on top of the pages. She’d quit smoking last year, yet an ashtray full of cigarette butts spilled onto the tablecloth. The house smelled like wet leaves burning.

He dropped his backpack and climbed into the chair opposite her. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.”

“You’re smoking again. Must be something.”

“Just grown-up stuff.”

“It’s Kurt, isn’t it? You promised.”

She coughed. “It’s nothing, I told you.”

He leaned slowly over the table, trying to peek at the words in the letter. The pages were lined, three holes punched in the left margin, like school notebook paper. Mitch couldn’t read the writing because it was upside down. Some of the words had smeared. He tilted his head, but his mother was too quick. She snatched the pages and stuffed them in a Ladies Home Journal on the chair beside her.

“Want to hear about our field trip today?”

She didn’t answer.

“We visited a turkey farm. Hundreds of dumb birds wandering all over the place. They made horrible noises and the place stunk like the dickens.”

She pulled the article from the magazine and began to read again.

“We had cider and donuts after.”

She looked up. “What was it about turkeys?”

He started to explain again, but there was no point. This was how it was going to be.

For now, at least, his mother’s only interest was Kurt and the letter. Mitch knew they were up to something, something that would really mess up their family.

*

His mother flew to Boston after Thanksgiving. She told Mitch’s father that some college girlfriends were having a reunion. He complained about the cost of the trip but agreed she should go—she’d been acting depressed, and it would be good for her to get out of the house for a few days. She knew that Mitch knew that she was going to see Kurt. She was breaking her promise. Her visit had something to do with the letter. Mitch thought she’d try to explain or beg him not to squeal, but she never did. Maybe she didn’t care anymore if his father found out. Perhaps she expected Mitch to do what he did—think about how much it would hurt his father if he spilled the beans. So Mitch kept his mouth shut, just like before, hoping this trip would be her last time with Kurt, that she’d never see him again, like she’d promised in September. He hoped Kurt would be out of their lives for good once she got her fill of him.

Mitch worried that his father would find out about Kurt. If he did, what then? Nana had come to stay with Mitch while his mother was gone. But if his father got wise and sent his mother away, Nana’s babysitting him might become permanent. The thought of his grandmother raising him was terrifying. She was crabbier than ever that week because she had a terrible cold. Since she was sick, Mitch had to wash all the dishes, dust, and vacuum. It would have been just his luck to spend the rest of his life cleaning the house for Nana.

Friday night his father returned from his business trip, and Nana skedaddled the next morning. After she left, his father said he had a bunch of errands to run, so they jumped in the Chevy and headed downtown. His dad was quiet at first—just stared straight ahead as they drove along Quincy Street. He seemed to be concentrating on his own thoughts, so Mitch didn’t disturb him.

At the high school they stopped for a red light. As they sat waiting for it to turn, his father drummed his thumbs on the steering wheel and glanced over at Mitch. “How’d you get along with Nana?”

Mitch closed his eyes and sucked in his face.

“That well?”

“She’s a pain.”

“Son!” He sounded disappointed.

“She is.”

“Well, Mom will be home tomorrow.”

“Yeah?”

He turned to Mitch and squinted, the corners of his eyes like spider webs. “You don’t seem excited… Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.” Mitch turned away and caught his own reflection in the window. He drew his lips together, determined not to spill his guts. Perhaps his father wouldn’t notice.

“Has Mom seemed…uh…different lately?”

The heater blasted hot air in Mitch’s face. He unzipped his coat partway and loosened his scarf. “I don’t know.”

“She’s…nervous…distant…a little sad?”

“Doesn’t seem so to me.”

“You’d tell me, wouldn’t you?”

“You bet.” His mother was wrong. A secret and a lie were one in the same.

The light turned green and they rolled through downtown. Christmas trees hung on every lamppost. Evergreen ropes, draped with big red letters that spelled out “Seasons Greetings,” stretched across the streets. “Oh Come, All Ye Faithful” played on loudspeakers as they turned left at the square, made another left, and pulled into the parking lot behind the savings and loan. Mitch’s father grabbed his checkbook and a manila folder off the seat and said, “I’ll only be a minute. Want to go in?”

“No,” Mitch said, happy to have a moment to regroup. “I’ll stay here.”

Mitch watched his father stride down the sidewalk in his tan camelhair coat and businessman’s hat. An older couple walked in the opposite direction. He was a head taller than they were, graying at the temples, distinguished-looking, Mitch thought. His father stepped into the gutter to let the couple pass. As he disappeared around the corner, Mitch remembered his mother and Kurt in Boston and decided that he and his father would stick together no matter what it took.

*

Mitch’s mother returned to Hollings and acted as if nothing had happened. Her nonchalance drove him crazy. Even though he asked her, she didn’t say a word about Kurt. She told his father that the reunion had been fun, that she enjoyed catching up with her friends, but was really glad to be home. Mitch believed the last part, and that made him happy. Plus, she didn’t get any more letters from Kurt.

*

Thirty-three years later, in a morphine-induced coma, Mitch’s father will lie dying of cancer. Sitting at his bedside, Mitch and his mother will tell their favorite stories about him. Hers will be about their family road trip to Chicago for her kid sister’s wedding. Near the Indiana Dunes they stopped at a frozen custard stand. In the car they’d been discussing astronauts who circled the earth at thousands of miles per hour. In the parking area, to demonstrate how centrifugal force worked, Mitch’s father swung his chocolate milk shake in a circle, wind-milling, telling them how gravity would always keep the liquid in the cup. But when he stopped abruptly, the melting ice cream went hurling from the container and splattered all over his mother’s crisp white linen summer dress.

Mitch’s story will be about the day his father, angry that Mitch had overslept and missed the bus, walked him all the way to school in the deep snow and cold. Dressed in his navy topcoat and three-piece suit, no hat, he lectured Mitch for the entire two miles on the importance of responsibility and of showing up on time. “No excuse,” he said. “People who make excuses are losers.” Most of the way to the elementary school there were no sidewalks. Mitch wore boots but his father had none. His feet were surely frozen, his shoes destroyed. In the principal’s office Mitch’s father explained to Mr. Gilbey how concerned he was about his son who was definitely headed in the wrong direction. “He’s in second grade,” Mr. Gilbey said, holding back a grin. “Don’t worry. He’ll be fine. You wait and see.”

Mitch and his mother will laugh at how earnest and serious his father was, serious and goofy all at the same time.

After his memorial service they will drive by the two-bedroom brick bungalow where they lived in 1983. They will venture up the driveway, intending to ring the doorbell and explain that this had been their home way back when, and ask whether the owners would mind if they had a look. But, after pressing a dozen times to no avail, they will give up and wonder if there were people inside ignoring them. Mitch will wonder what would have happened if he’d never answered the doorbell on that warm September day. Perhaps, like he and his mother, Kurt would have gone away. Looking over their shoulders, Mitch and his mother will retrace their steps to the car and depart. They won’t discuss Kurt or why there were no more trips, just the two of them, to his uncle’s cabin on Lake Huron. For now, as it’s been all these years, those walks along the shore will remain untaken, waiting for just the right week before Labor Day, a week that will never come.

***

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Dean Jollay received an MFA in creative writing from Queens University. His short fiction has appeared in Notre Dame Review, The New Plains Review, Limestone Journal, and elsewhere. In addition to pursuing diverse careers, he founded AHEAD, a nonprofit organization dedicated to removing barriers to academic success that confront at-risk students. He lives and works in St. Petersburg, Florida.

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