by Jocelyn Cullity
No one else was up; not a car moved down South Morgan Street in Auburn Gresham. The early morning air was not yet damp with Chicago smog, and the porches outside the bungalows were as quiet as death. It was a Saturday morning in late August. During the week, a neighbor’s door would slam, and people would hurry down the road. During the week, Dan would be on his way to the University of Chicago, hoping for a good start.
His gray hair askew, his blue sweats thrown on, he jogged over to Vincennes Avenue, up its yawning curve, turned left on West 87th towards the shops and his predetermined finish line at Albert’s Jamaican Foods. Dan was forty-five, of Irish descent, still slim. He’d jogged for years on weekend mornings, in any weather, along the same route that took him around the block and back to Morgan.
He walked the last fifty yards to his house where he lived with Sheila. They’d been here since he became a professor in Political Science, and they could afford to move out of the apartment. It was a small but tidy brick home with black-eyed Susans and orange lilies on either side of the porch steps. There were two bedrooms with hardwood floors in the back. The second was occupied, almost all the time now, by their daughter, Denise.
In the front room, Dan drank a glass of water and watched the end of Through the Olive Trees, an Iranian film they’d rented yesterday evening, but had been too tired to finish. The coffeepot sputtered and sighed in the kitchen, and he went in. He retrieved a second mug from the cupboard since Sheila would be up soon.
“I’ve brought you an Orangina,” Sheila said that afternoon, in her daughter’s room. It was something Denise had missed when she was in Afghanistan, and from time to time, even a year after she’d returned, when they thought it might bring cheer, Dan and Sheila would come back from a shopping trip with a cold bottle of Orangina.
At her computer across the room, Denise nodded her thanks, as if she was too drained to speak. Even her lips were pale, and Sheila saw that her arrival had startled their daughter.
Denise had moved her bed and her desk to the far side, where the sun shone. The window was open and each curtain had been tied up in a knot so the breeze wouldn’t be hindered. At night, she kept the overhead light on.
Denise spent most days in her room at her computer. Sometimes she told them she was working on job possibilities; sometimes, she didn’t bother to say. Two months ago, on her twenty-fourth birthday, she’d refused more therapy.
In the hallway, Sheila touched several of the Tibetan prayer flags hanging on the wall, and she adjusted one of the old photos of rural Ecuador. They were taken on the banana plantations near the city of Guayaqil. Dan and Sheila had volunteered there with the Peace Corps during their first years of marriage. They’d worked with the local farmers to compete against bigger international players like Dole. The prayer flags used to sit above the fireplace, but Sheila had moved them to the wall between the bedrooms. She thought the presence of the flags might bring their daughter comfort.
In the front room, Dan read the newspaper. “I feel too lazy to go,” he said as Sheila stopped at the door. Every summer, Marion and Jack Douglas held a cocktail party for their old university friends at their home in River North. Dan had already changed into a straight-hemmed shirt, cotton pants and his good sandals.
“Typical last-minute feeling. That’s all,” Sheila said, wishing they’d for once make the spontaneous decision to cancel.
She had a look at her sundress in the front hall mirror. She wore her hair loose and long, the blonde mixing with gray now. The skin beneath her eyes had prematurely aged, but her smile still spread a glow across her features.
In the kitchen, she rinsed a plate at the sink and put it on the drying rack. “Ready?” she called. Dan took one more look at a list of sale prices on digital cameras, folded the newspaper, and got up.
Denise was lying on her bed dreaming: she was cramped by her gear in the back of the armored Humvee, racing in the convoy along the road. It was hard to hear anything over the diesel engine. In front, the commander listened through the static on his headset and directed their driver. In the middle of the vehicle, Veronica Styles, the turret gunner, stood up, her upper body through the hole in the roof and behind the rack that held her machine gun. Someone said that they weren’t very far from Kandahar Airfield now. Out the thick glass, brown dust hung in the air, over the pale green brush and the debris strewn along the road.
The sound of the blast wasn’t clear; it was the dust kicking up and the sudden disarray of vehicles that tipped them first. The side of the Humvee ahead of them had been blown open; they could see the soldiers inside. The driver of Denise’s Humvee swerved out of the way and rolled. In such a situation, it was Denise’s job to pull Styles back into the vehicle by her legs. She had tried hard to pull Styles back into the vehicle.
At the cocktail party, there were plenty of old friends strolling in the garden in their summer suits. They’d all attended the University of Chicago. Most of the men had resided in Hitchcock Hall, and the women lodged at Snell.
“Greetings,” Jack Douglas called. He wore his old paisley jacket, and waved a bottle of wine from behind the bar. The guests had come through the house, across the slate floors in the open kitchen. A sushi chef worked at a long table already bearing several lemon pies inscribed with “1980,” their graduating year. Out the french doors to the back garden, where the party congregated, there were wrought-iron chaise lounges, Adirondack chairs smelling of cedar, red geraniums in planters, and a black plunge pool. Some of the guests’ children, who now attended the University of Chicago themselves, sat with their legs in the water. Even though it was still early, Marion Douglas was lighting the citronella lanterns that hung from the trees bordering the garden.
Dan and Sheila held out glasses for white wine, because that’s what Jack had in his hand. As he poured their drinks, Jack instructed his son, a young man at Yale, when to bring out the champagne. Dan and Sheila hovered for a moment, but not wanting to obstruct preparations (there would be time to catch up later), they moved away into the garden where the party was in full swing.
“Long time, Sheila,” said Garth, putting his hand on Sheila’s shoulder. Garth was a thin man wearing a bow tie. “Do you know who I bumped into last month? Social Convenor George.”
“There you are,” John Smyth-Tyler said to Dan.
“It’s been a bad year, Dan,” his wife added.
At the last few summer gatherings, the Smyth-Tylers found Dan to be a sympathetic anchor. They worked for the American embassy in Quito. They usually only mentioned Ecuador in passing, even though Dan, too, knew the country well. The couple spoke instead of personal concerns. Dan stood with his back to a purple rose of Sharon wishing he were in a bigger patch of sun. They told him they’d returned from Ecuador permanently this year, only to be consumed by a family feud.
“They’re horrendous,” John said, referring to his parents. “They won’t leave it alone.” He lowered his voice. “We sometimes wonder if Jen will marry her just to spite them. It’s hard enough getting back into things here without all of this going on.”
“We thought the road travel was bad in Quito, but it takes some doing driving on the interstate again,” Ann, his wife, picked up. “We’re exhausted most of the time. It was hell getting the moving company to pay for our damaged furniture. Several items got smashed. And as for parents, my mother isn’t any better.”
Sheila, having reminded Garth that she hadn’t known George the Social Convenor personally, nonetheless listened to Garth’s description of George twenty years later, still playing penny stocks. “Our Dean used to play those,” Sheila said, and began to tell Garth about how she’d bumped into the old lady last year, but she trailed off when Garth stifled a yawn, his nostrils widening. Garth turned to a man she didn’t know. The sushi chef offered Sheila sashimi from a platter, and she ate it while she gazed at a little water fountain situated within a mass of pink phlox. She wondered if her anecdote really had been uninteresting, or if some people had lost the art of listening. She couldn’t decide.
“Amazing that we’ve all been coming here for over twenty summers,” a woman’s voice said just behind Sheila. “I don’t think it’s rained once.” Sheila turned to see a couple whose names escaped her. They were both lean with freckles. At university, the woman won the triathlon twice. Now, they lived outside the city where they owned a stable. They look so well, Sheila thought. They began to talk about a Hackney horse they’d bought that year.
The bottle of Orangina sat on the desk where Sheila had left it. Denise lay on her bed. Out the window, a siren sounded, somewhere far into the city, and she felt the dream coming on again. Her eyes were open. She saw the little girls right there in her room. How good they were to stand in such a straight line, and not fool around. None of them complained about the heat, although perspiration stood out on their foreheads. The car blew up; Denise could see the firebomb. The children looked at her, and then Veronica Styles disappeared as the Humvee rolled. She pushed the dust away by squeezing her eyes shut. The distant drone of a lawn mower came through the window. The saliva started in her mouth, and she felt, what was it exactly, a sort of carsickness. She opened her eyes, the room swamped with afternoon light. The hum of the computer steadied her.
Denise had a headache. She wanted some ice. She always wanted ice, she thought. She wouldn’t go to the kitchen to fetch some. She touched the mouse by her computer so the screen would come alive, and poured the Orangina. It bothered her that all she had was warm Orangina.
“That was the limit, Dan,” Ann Smyth-Tyler said. “To think my mother would cut her out of the will.”
Dan’s back pressed against the rose of Sharon. He tried to step out from the shrub but the Smyth-Tylers stood very close to him. “That’s a difficult situation,” he said.
A man in a white suit walked towards them, and John Smyth-Tyler raised an arm in invitation. “Lawrence,” John said, and turned to him, partially blocking Dan. “We were just discussing our rotten year.”
From the direction of the bar, a succession of corks popped, and someone shouted, “Bravo!” The warm smell of Citronella hung in the air, and the shadows were longer on the lawn. Sitting at the plunge pool, the college students laughed at something one of them had said. They all had their legs extended, their toes gently splashing the top of the water.
“She was the third mare we purchased this year,” the lean, freckled man said to Sheila. “We broke the others in. But this one’s wild.”
“When I was a kid, they used to say, ‘Straight to the glue factory.’” His wife crossed her arms, holding the stem of her empty glass between two knuckles. Her face was chiseled, like her husband’s. “Of course we wouldn’t do such a thing.”
Jack and Marion Douglas were working the garden with bottles of champagne and fresh glasses for those who wanted them. The champagne came courtesy of the bank where Jack worked in senior management, an annual gift for years of service. The couple moved efficiently. They’d been together in high school, and they were the only pair anyone knew who’d made it through college and so much further beyond.
Glancing past the lean, freckled couple, Sheila saw that Dan was still pinned by the bush, and not quite in the conversation.
“We lost two Ginkgo trees last month,” the lean, freckled woman said to Sheila. “Do you know how large those trees get?” When Sheila shook her head, the woman continued. “Enormous. They gave such wonderful shade. One fell on the roof, right over our bedroom. That’s when we found out the trees were both hollow and had to come down. It cost a small fortune.”
“We don’t like it without the trees,” Tony said. “It’s spoiled the whole feel of the place.”
A man named Michael walked up, cocky, his boyish face ruddy from red wine. At college he’d been infamous for saying that he attracted women like flies, and he still frequented the dance clubs downtown, despite his age. The lean, freckled couple excused themselves. Michael smiled. They weren’t on speaking terms, he explained. Joan (that was her name) had had an affair with the horse trainer who worked for them, and Tony (that was his name) was miserable about it, even though they’d patched it up.
“The trainer still works for them,” Michael said. “Who in their right mind would put up with that? I told Tony so. He clearly told Joan what I’d said.” He laughed. “All their talk about horses and trees. He’s sunk.”
He put his hands in his pockets and surveyed the people in the garden. The Smyth-Tylers over by the rose of Sharon had become awful bores, he said. The man with them in the white suit was the restless type, moving from one government job to the next, and from one woman to another. He was in a ferocious property battle with his ex. Gay Garth, the thin man with the bow tie who’d said hello to Sheila when they first arrived, had had such trouble coming out back then; he still held the men accountable for past jokes. Being here made him uncertain, as if he was back in the dorms. “The tail end of the boomer generation is going out with a fizzle, not a bang,” Michael said. Jack Douglas, their host, had a chronic cocaine habit. Marion didn’t know, even though everyone else did.
Sheila looked at their hosts. What had been a youthful strength in both of them at college had been replaced by an easiness that came from knowing success. A void between them seemed unreal. “It’s true,” Michael said, reading her doubt.
Michael made it his business to be alert about people. He was a permanent cynic, but he didn’t tell lies. The tip of a thought rose in her mind, how he might speak of Dan and herself, and she shut it down.
Michael was studying the young adults at the plunge pool. “A sarcastic twenty-one year old holding the attention of two women,” he said, referring to a young man who smirked as he talked. “All those years of being dragged to his parents’ marriage counseling. He’s got to be a little mixed up.”
Sheila gazed at the youth, as if she was considering what Michael was saying. It was better to let such talk evaporate into the summer air, just like it was better to make new arrangements out of old, beloved prayer flags, and it was better to be attentive to what moved people, as she’d tried to be with the several people she’d spoken to here, and as Dan himself was also doing. It was a lovely summer shirt that Michael wore, even if he was sneering.
“This year was a total write-off,” John Smyth-Tyler said to Dan at the rose of Sharon, and over John’s shoulder Dan saw Sheila go. It was as if she’d physically left the party. It happened to both of them; you never knew what might trigger it.
Sheila’s face had paled; Dan knew she was back three years when Denise told them she was going overseas. For both Sheila and Dan, that discussion divided them from the past. Their daughter’s announcement merged with their sense of a time when the world changed, twisted like steel.
Dan could read the whole of the struggle in Sheila’s taut expression. The memories cloaked them both. Denise had sat in on Dan’s lectures on human rights. She’d shown an interest in Sheila’s work as editor of a not-for-profit sustainable development magazine. Denise’s scholarship at the University of Chicago, her marks in Biology, the possibility of graduate school. Among the poster displays for a variety of clubs and activities at the student union events, Dan and Sheila had seen the Armed Forces booth when they themselves were undergraduates. They wouldn’t have dreamed of actually talking to those people. Denise supported America’s role abroad, she said. They had to respect their daughter’s choices. All they’d wanted was her happiness.
Dan slipped away from the group at the rose of Sharon. It was harder for Sheila, he thought, going to her. After Denise had come home, Sheila quit her job at the magazine to look after their daughter. But there wasn’t much she or anyone could do. Sheila had little to take her mind off things.
They walked past the plunge pool where the Douglas boy was refilling the college students’ glasses, past a huddle of people at the bar, and back through the house to the sloping front lawn. The guests who knew about Denise would be sympathetic about their need to leave. In conversation, the others were always careful to avoid the topic of war since it had been confirmed that Denise had a chronic form of PTSD that would likely persist throughout her life. The lean, freckled couple talked about their horse to the Smyth-Tylers, who were really more interested in each other. The Smyth-Tylers still had plenty to say about their parents’ attitudes toward same-sex marriage, but they sipped their drinks, not comfortable speaking about the issue when Garth, the slim man in a bow tie, stood nearby. Michael, his boyish face even more ruddy from wine, assessed a chubby woman who’d recently arrived.
A stubborn sadness filled Dan as they got off at Auburn Gresham’s commuter rail stop at West 87th and Vincennes Avenue, where it had been so quiet when he’d jogged there that morning. Now the small shops were full, and kids in soccer clothes hobnobbed beside one of the spindly trees on the sidewalk. A group of Jamaican grandmothers crossed with the traffic light, pulling heavy shopping bags on wheels behind them.
“Oh, God,” Sheila said as they walked down West 87th. Her voice was weary; she’d done it again.
“It’s bound to happen,” Dan said. “Don’t be hard on yourself. What about some take-out?”
They went into Albert’s Jamaican Foods to order jerk chicken and curried fish. While they waited for Albert to prepare the meals, they sat on a bench outside, and watched the people hurry by. Dan was frowning. Sheila could guess his thoughts.
The daily worry in their household while Denise was in Afghanistan was replaced by an overwhelming relief when she was sent home. But her medical condition cut into their relief. She’d been involved in heavy fighting with the Taliban, and had survived bombings that had killed both American soldiers and Afghans. The mental health specialist said that PTSD could be twice as bad for women. But a positive response might still occur, the woman said. Denise had made it through, after all, and could grow from that experience. Dan sometimes exclaimed, “What on earth could become positive about the experience of terror, for anyone?”
“We’ll see,” Sheila said.
Dan half-shrugged, and gazed at a bus unloading a crowd of people. Friends attempted to look on the bright side. Thank goodness Denise wasn’t dead, they liked to say. Being so wrecked, Dan thought, wasn’t, frankly, much better.
Dan and Sheila sat on the bench in the cooling air. They’d given up asking Denise to attend social engagements with them. She suffered from extreme avoidance and intrusive flashbacks. Sometimes she was argumentative, yelling loud enough for the neighbors to hear, and sometimes Sheila held her tightly, in silence. Always the computer was on, humming away, just like the overhead light that shone into the hall, a reminder to Sheila and Dan in the middle of the night, when they tried to rest, that everything was not right.
Looking down West 87th in the approaching dusk, they agreed on how the neighborhood had grown. They could speak easily with each other when they were alone, as if language returned to them, the words usually wiped from their mouths at parties. Eventually, Sheila conveyed Michael’s gossip: Joan’s affair with a horse trainer, their host’s ongoing cocaine use. Dan knew Michael’s mocking tones, how his tongue rolled people like sour candy in his mouth. He saw what had triggered Sheila in the garden. The yearly gathering with its display of what one’s life had come to added tension, of course. It wasn’t the lines around Sheila’s eyes, or the furrow on Dan’s brow, but a certain grief on their faces. What bitter irony, Michael would have said with a smile, that a soldier-daughter had happened to the most idealistic among them. Dan’s and Sheila’s politics hadn’t helped anything then. Instead, their situation somehow confirmed to people like Michael that attending to the underdog was a useless exercise. Dan could hear Michael say wryly that the world was not a loving place.
They continued to discuss the party, trying to remember who the chubby woman who’d arrived as they were leaving might have been. When Albert called them, they went inside to pay for the food. They walked down South Morgan towards home, each holding a plastic bag with hot containers of food, little puddles of brown gravy sliding around the bottoms of the bags. They could open a bottle of wine. Dan told her what happened at the end of the film, Through the Olive Trees, because Sheila would never stay up to finish it. How strange, Sheila thought, as they walked and she listened to his praise for the final scene—how strange that calmness could exist between them when everywhere, everywhere it seemed, trouble boiled.
Jocelyn Cullity is the Director of the BFA in Creative Writing at Truman State University in Missouri. Her short stories have appeared in numerous publications, including Everywhere Stories: Short Fiction from a Small Planet (Press 53 / International Book Award Finalist), Blackbird, and Hayden’s Ferry Review. Her first novel, Amah and the Silk-Winged Pigeons, was published by Inanna in 2017. Her second novel, The Envy of Paradise, will be published in 2019. Read more at https://www.jocelyncullity.com.