First Thing in the Morning
Mere children, we say when we look back on it now. We were mere children when we first met. High school sweethearts, we'd admit to new acquaintances, a look of surprise crossing their faces, a hint of shy self- consciousness creeping into our voices.
We'd settled into an easy, comfortable love, slipped like a flannel nightgown over my head, warm and fleecy against my skin on a cold wintry night. Neither of us took notice of the widening gap that began as a tiny crack, the fissure of dinnertime silence we may have misinterpreted as the kind of closeness which didn't require conversation, evenings I filled with the distraction of books and magazines.
Sean, our only son, turned thirteen that winter. Even before he crossed the bridge into official adolescence, there'd been signs of his pulling away: the interest in girls, the wary belligerence. The phone would ring and a young feminine voice ask for him by name. He'd grab the receiver, stretching the coils in the cord as far as they would allow from my overhearing ears. But not before I'd listened to his voice calling a deliberately deepened, Hello.
* * *
I sipped my coffee at the kitchen table that morning, the sunlight streaming in through the picture window. I watched our neighbor Dan come out of his house, bundled in a thick down jacket and scarf. He slipped on the ice trying to keep up with his oversized, overeager black Lab. Dan's wife had lost twenty pounds in two short months, then left him for a man fifteen years her junior.
The details have left me now; I remember only how that day edged its way into early winter darkness. After supper you retired to your recliner and Sean went upstairs. The pipes clanged overhead as he started the shower. Old houses are noisy, you'd said when we moved in, and I had become accustomed to the sounds like you maintained I would, the clamoring of water pipes, the banging of steam in the radiators, the creaking floorboards. I had no sooner opened my book when I heard the knock at the front door.
He stood in the doorway, a curtain of tiny white flakes dancing behind him. The frozen blades of grass were already covered with snow, but not enough to have lost their recognizable form. I saw his footprints where he'd cut across the lawn.
He stretched out his arms and grinned that familiar, slightly sheepish grin as if his turning up was always an imposition. Sometimes it was, but we never told him. Steve, who since our high school days the three of us buddy-buddy back then, although there was never a doubt in anyone's mind that you and I were an item and Steve was the best friend drifted in and out of our lives like those falling snowflakes, predictably but often unexpectedly. How were we to know it was the beginning of a blizzard that night? The news had forecasted a three to four inch accumulation.
I fell into his outstretched arms, the snow a light coating of dust on his jacket, a few powdery flakes in his hair, his cheeks red from the cold but surprisingly warm when I brushed my face against them. We embraced, our usual familiar hug, a welcoming gesture filled with the sentiment of friendship. I once swam naked beside him on a hot summer day and never felt anything beyond idle curiosity, whereas the sight of you, your strong legs and muscular chest, would overwhelm me, send me weak and yielding into your arms.
"Come on in," I said and called to you. "Paul, come see who blew in with the snow."
With a surge of energy, you rose from the recliner, clasped his hand. "Hey, what brings you to these parts?"
"On my way to see my folks," he said. "My dad's a bit under the weather." He didn't need to say more. His dad was old, frail; even in our high school days he'd looked more the grandfather than the father. Steve said he'd never really noticed before graduation night the difference in age between his father and the rest of ours. It was having all those parents assembled in the same room that called his attention to it. "Damned arthritis got the better of him. Told him I'd come up and paint, do some work around the house. He's fixing to sell, I guess."
I heard Sean moving about upstairs and next thing I knew he was standing in the doorway. "Uncle Steve," he said, his face lighting up with the swiftness of a search beam shown across it.
"Well damn boy, get over here and let me take a look at you." He leaned as if to wrap his arms around Sean's thin frame, grabbed his forearms instead and swung him in a wide arc. "Look at the size of you. You're too big to pick up anymore."
Sean was pleased; I could see it in his eyes. Remember how anxious we always were for him to eat, to fill out those scrawny arms and legs, that concave chest? But Steve made him feel like Iron Man or Mr. Universe, and he pushed up his shirt sleeve, pumped proudly on his skinny arm. "Get a load of this."
Steve squeezed, not too hard I suspect. "Hey, you been lifting?"
Sean gave me a sideways look. "She says I have to be full grown to lift weights," he said, resentment in his voice giving way to a gleeful spite. "But I got a bar upstairs. Been doing pull-ups. I'm up to eight."
"Keep it up. Every night you do one more than the night before. That's how to build up."
He was strong, strapping, from outside work. Real honest exercise, he'd say, not the artificial nonsense you did in the gym. He'd laid pipeline in Alaska; farmed in the Midwest; built furniture the old-fashioned way, cutting and sanding and polishing by hand, without mechanical or electrical intervention. He liked the feel of things, the satisfaction that came from building and growing with his bare hands, using only the labor of the body. He didn't understand your scientist's ability to sit and ponder, to reason things through. You dealt with the hypothetical, studying data and drawing conclusions, analyzing information in search of concrete solutions.
"You gonna be here a while Uncle Steve?" Sean asked, his voice filled with the open eagerness of youth, a raw and hopeful tone.
"Nah, just the night, buddy, then I'm on my way. First thing in the morning. Before you're even awake."
I saw Sean's disappointment. "Don't worry, we'll let you stay up later tonight," I told him.
But you were not one for breaking the rules. "We'll see," you said. "Don't want you tired in school tomorrow."
I think you've come over time to realize the rigidity of those rules. I saw an inkling of you loosening your standards that night. I gave you a look and Sean appeared so dejected, you added, "Well, maybe a half hour longer."
Sean brightened. I took Steve's jacket, damp from the melted snow, and hung it in the hall closet. He sat with Sean on the sofa and filled him with stories of travel and adventure, what he'd been up to since we'd seen him last. You took two beers from the refrigerator, popped the tops. Steve took a long drink, gave Sean a sip under your disapproving eye. I took small, tiny sips of your beer, the two of us sharing the bottle, although you drank most of it.
The furniture business was long gone, Steve said. He'd given away his share no material gain for him and spent the summer crewing on a sailboat in New York harbor. He'd helped take the boat to its winter home in the Caribbean, then spent several months in the English countryside. He was thinking to go down to Florida after visiting his folks. There was a sailing school where he could give lessons. "Got to work sometime," he said with a rueful smile.
"Okay Sean, bed," you said suddenly, peering at your watch. He seemed about to protest, but saw your resolute look, the iron mask, and reluctantly gave in. He turned to Steve and hesitated. I sensed his turmoil. Was he too old for a hug? Steve did he sense it too? made the decision.
"Get over here, you," he said, spreading his arms for the second time that evening. The two of them locked arms about each others' bodies and hugged. Then to save face, for Sean I think, Steve knocked him over the head a few times, knuckling his skull. "You get to bed like your old man says. I'll see you next trip."
I walked Sean upstairs, oversaw his bedtime routine, the tooth-brushing and mouth-washing and all the spitting involved what is it about boys that they so enjoy the sight and sound of their own saliva ejected forcefully from their mouths? before I followed him to his bed and pulled the covers to his chin.
"I like Uncle Steve; how come he doesn't visit more often?"
"He's a free spirit," I said. "He visits when the mood moves him."
"When I grow up, I'm going to be a free spirit."
"You are a free spirit." I kissed his forehead. "You can dream."
When I came downstairs, Steve was still on the couch but you had moved over to the recliner, although it was in its upright position. It felt cold in the house. I could hear the shutters rattling outside, the air whistling through the windows and blowing through the porch rafters. I couldn't make out your words. I went into the kitchen and looked outside. By the light of the lamppost, I saw that the snowflakes' dance had shifted from a slow waltz to a wild jitterbug, a steady whirl of white swinging madly against a dark sky. Dan was out again, knocked about by the wind, his dog coal black against the snowy backdrop.
"Looks like we're in for a real storm," I said, coming back into the room. I sensed a break in the conversation, an uncomfortable breach.
"Steve was just telling me . . ." you began slowly.
"I was supposed to be on that plane, the one that blew up over Lockerbie last month," he said.
My knees gave way as if, hinged joints, they'd come undone, the bolt which held them released. I sank on the couch beside him.
"I gave up my seat, last minute," he said. "Wasn't going to. Had planned on surprising my dad for Christmas. But this young girl, couldn't have been more than nineteen or twenty, had been in one of those semester abroad study programs in London. She wanted to be home for the holidays. She told me her story and I gave her my seat." His words tapered off. "She gave me a kiss for that seat."
We sat there, I don't know, maybe a few minutes, maybe longer, a silent vigil. I remembered the news of the plane crash, the wildly scattered debris, coming over the car radio as I was returning home from shopping late one afternoon, my trunk stocked with Christmas presents for Sean and Paul. There were believed to be no survivors, the voice had said. Later this information would be confirmed-two hundred and seventy people killed-along with the report of the bomb which had exploded in mid-air.
I shivered, wrapping my arms around me.
"Cold?" Steve asked.
You seemed to hesitate, then said, "How about a fire?"
"That's a fine idea," Steve said. "Don't get up. It's the least I can do for putting me up."
"You mean, putting up with you," you said to lighten the mood.
He removed the screen from in front of the fireplace, bent and picked up a few of the logs we had stacked alongside it. He arranged the wood on the iron grating, alternating the direction of the logs, creating a miniature log cabin. He'd lived in one of those too, I remembered as I watched him, on seven acres of forest in the Catskill Mountains. He worked carefully, his movement slow and exact, with a perfectionist's skill. I studied the back of his shirt, the checkered pattern in the red flannel, mentally tracing the boxes and lines. You followed his movements too, and we watched in silence, what I believe was born out of the gravity of thought, a somber respect for life's uncertainties, the randomness of people's paths crossing at odd, unexpected moments and the consequences of those crossings. It could have been Steve on that plane. Because of a chance encounter, it had been someone else.
"I went on a binge after that," Steve said, as if he knew where our thoughts still resided. "Just spent what little money I had. Didn't care. Money, you know, is meaningless in the scheme of things."
You reached into your pocket, pulled out a coin and held it between your thumb and forefinger for a minute. Then you tossed it into the air, caught it and slapped that hand on top of the other, the coin hidden beneath your palm. "Heads or tails?" you asked Steve.
Steve looked up from the newspapers he was rolling into tight cylinders. "Heads."
You lifted your palm. "Heads it is." You repeated the tossing and palming motions. "Now how many coin tosses until heads reappears?"
"I feel lucky," Steve said, placing the rolled newspapers beneath the grating. "One."
Without checking, you said, "There's no way to know. Could be the first toss, could be the fiftieth."
"So, was I lucky? Is it heads?" Steve asked.
You closed your fingers over the coin and put it back in your pocket. "Yes, you were lucky. No one could have predicted a bomb onboard that plane."
Steve lit a match and held it to the newspapers. They burst into a fast and furious flame, and soon the logs began to catch. The fire consumed the bark first, then more slowly, the wood which ignited with a snapping and cracking sound. The flame leapt up, wavering lines of heat where the blaze dissolved into a shadow of smoke and rose up the chimney.
"When I was a kid, we used to say those pops were ants burning," I said.
"It's just the dampness in the wood," you said. But then you got up and uncharacteristically turned off the lights. The burning logs cast a warm orange glow into the room, while outside a blustery winter storm raged, full-blown. We could see the snow through the window, millions of tiny flakes blown haphazardly about, soundlessly striking the glass. I drew my legs up on the couch, lowered my chin to my knees, and basked in the fire's radiance.
"I hate to break this up, but I'm an early riser," you said after a while, getting up from the chair. "Still leaving first thing in the morning?"
Steve nodded toward the window. "I've driven through worse." He got up off the floor and the two of you did some handslapping, handshaking thing, an abbreviated version of your old high school routine. Standing before the fire, the two of you laughing and slapping, it was as if twenty years had been erased. I could see you both in your leather jackets, hair pulled into skinny ponytails at the nape of your necks. For a moment, when you reached out your arm, I thought you were going to hug him, but you smacked him on the back instead.
"I think I'll sit by the fire a bit longer," I said in response to the unuttered question I read in your eyes. You leaned over the couch, landed a light kiss on my lips and went up to bed.
Steve took one of the fireplace tools from its stand, nudged and prodded the logs. I watched the sparks fly, the flames revived as he repositioned the logs against the red hot cinders.
"He tells me he has a new job. Come with a title too?" he said.
"Chief scientist," I said.
He gave a wolf whistle. "I'm impressed."
"Since when does that sort of stuff impress you?"
"Guess I'm getting old." He poked at the fire. "Shall I throw on another log?"
"Yes, throw on two. We haven't had a fire for what feels like forever. I'm rather enjoying it." I circled my arms around my raised legs and drew them to me.
He picked up two huge logs and arranged them on top of the burning wood. After a few minutes, apparently satisfied, he placed the screen in front of the fire.
"So, what's it like living in someone else's house?" he asked, looking around.
I was confused for a minute. "Oh, it's all right. Wouldn't have been my first choice."
"Why'd you buy it then?"
"Paul wanted to. No surprises. He already knew its problems and weaknesses. So when his parents decided to retire, we made them an offer."
"Don't let him fool you with that talk. Deep down inside, he's really a sentimental guy." He nodded towards the fire.
"Hey, remember in high school how he'd build a roaring fire his mother would yell from the kitchen he was going to burn the house down "
" we used to play Truth or Dare. He'd dare us "
" to lie back and put our feet up on the brick to see who could stand it the longest "
" I always won. My dad used to tickle the soles of my feet when I was little. Dulled all feeling in them whatsoever."
"Still get your feet tickled?" he asked, glancing at my bare feet.
"Not by my dad," I said and laughed.
"Are you game?"
"Don't be silly. We're not teenagers any longer."
He unlaced his boots, then slipped them off, pushing them out of the way into the corner. "Afraid you'll lose?"
"No, I wouldn't. I still walk barefoot all the time, even in winter." He looked at me with that same hopeful look Sean gives me when I've promised him ice cream if he finishes the dreaded peas, and there's still a handful rolling around his plate. "Oh, all right," I said.
He placed the fireplace screen against the wall, then stretched himself out on the rug. I positioned myself on my back beside him.
"Okay, on the count of three," he said. "One, two, three!"
Shoulders touching, elbows nudging, we straightened our legs and placed our feet as close to the flames as we could. I felt the hot brick on my heels, the heat of the fire press against and penetrate my soles. You never were one for playing this game. Until you've held your feet this close to the fire, you wouldn't believe how hot they could get.
"Did you know this was a form of torture in the Middle Ages?" he said.
My feet were roasting. "Is that why we're doing this? To torture me?"
"We're both tortured souls," he said. "Pun intended."
My feet were not as impervious to the heat as they once had been. I thought it would take all my concentration to hold them there, but my mind started wandering to those passengers onboard that plane over Scotland, wondering if there'd been any moments of consciousness after the bomb had blown up. Had they felt the intense heat? Or had the end been quick? Just when I was sure I couldn't stand it any longer, Steve gave an exaggerated yowl and yanked his legs up. I drew mine slowly away from the fire.
"Still one tough broad, " he said, sitting up. He rubbed his feet, looking like a hurt puppy.
"Not so tough that I don't worry about you. No one ever knows where you are."
"That's how I like it."
"You could have died on that plane, sunk into the depths of the ocean and been lost forever."
"Let me ponder my own mortality." He leaned back on his elbows and studied the fire. "It would give a man pause, don't you think?" Then with a change in tone, he added, "But, it's not true. I wasn't even near that plane."
"You don't have to say that to make me feel better."
"I'm not just saying it. I made it all up."
"What about the young girl, the student?"
"Made her up too."
"How could you do such a thing?"
He rolled onto his side, propped his head on his palm. The light of the fire reddened the side of his face. "When you went upstairs to put Sean to bed and I was talking with Paul, I don't know, it just popped out. I didn't plan it. I had been in London, had debated coming home around that time to visit my dad. The rest of the story sort of fell into place."
"Just like that?"
"Don't you see? If I'd been that close to death and been spared, it would have been for a reason. How was I to know Paul would reduce it to chance, a flip of a coin?"
"Don't take it personally. Paul does that to all of us sometimes."
"Hey, at the very least it got you to worry about me." He reached over and put his finger to my lips. "It'll be our little secret, okay?"
All those years I never wanted him, never even dreamed or fantasized about him. He'd always been the best friend and you the one I made-out with in the backseat of the car all night long. But you were upstairs, where I knew I'd find you lightly snoring, sleeping deeply. Not even the movement of me jostling the mattress would rouse you. And he was here on the floor beside me. For a fleeting moment . . . his finger pressed against my lips, seduced by the sleepy warmth of the fire, the radiant heat, my feet still burning . . .
"I'm thinking to leave him," I blurted out. It had floated to the surface of thought like an ice cube to the top of a poured drink. Suddenly it was there, gelled into words, solidified in the thin strip of air between us. Maybe I was trying to make things easier for him. Maybe I was merely trading one lie for what might very well have been another. Who knew which one of his two stories to believe: that he'd given away his seat in exchange for a kiss, or he'd given away a piece of himself in order to justify his being here?
Which one of my stories do you want to believe? That I was tempted and didn't yield to temptation? Or in the stillness of the moment, I looked up expectantly, inviting him to lower his lips to mine?
"Truth or dare?" he said, as he ran his fingers slowly down the length of my arm, along the curve of my hip, his hand, that strong working man's hand, stroking the inside of my thigh. In his eyes I saw the radiance of rising pleasure, the glow off the fire.
His hands were beneath me, raising and pulling, my body arching toward him, my fingers fumbling with all his snaps and buttons, our clothes somehow gone, fallen away. It was hard and furious, what felt like seventeen years of restraint released in a matter of minutes, but also delicious and exciting, an exhilarating freedom, like making surreptitious love in the backseat of a car. Afterwards, we floundered about for our things, dressed furtively by the fire's light. As I slid my shirt over my head and settled back down beside him, I heard a noise on the stairs and Sean calling out to me.
"I can't sleep," he said, coming into the room.
He stood, a black shadow framed by the fire. I avoided his eyes, caught anyway the direction of his gaze by the way his chin angled down to the space between Steve and me which seemed suddenly too narrow and small, much too close.
I smoothed my hair with my fingers. "Come, sit with us."
"What are you doing?" he asked, lowering his body to the floor, the wriggling of those skinny arms and legs widening that space.
"Playing a game," I said.
"What kind of game?" he asked.
"Just a silly little game."
"I want to play."
"Okay. Place your feet on the brick close to the fire."
He did as I instructed. "And?"
"See how long you can hold them there."
He gave me that I-don't-know-what-you're-talking-about, grown-ups-are-nuts kind of look. I saw the fire was almost gone now; he could lie for hours without discomfort, his feet up against, almost touching, the smoldering coals.
* * *
We awoke the next morning to find the snow had stopped. The radio announced there were many roads still needed to be plowed and that schools were closed, a rarity in this New England town. Outside my kitchen window the sky appeared a cloudless blue. The wind the night before had rearranged the fallen snow into peaks and valleys. All I could see of the cars on the street were their blanketed forms. But on the front lawn much of the snow had been blown clear away, and in spots the dormant blades of grass poked through, a pale yet vivid green.
Steve insisted on digging out the car right after breakfast, before the plow came through and buried it further.
"You don't really plan on leaving, do you," you said, a stated rather than a questioning tone to your words.
I stared at you across the table, searching out your eyes. I'd heard something in your voice. Was it possible you knew?
"Soon as they clear your road, I'm out of here," Steve answered. He got up and put his dishes in the sink. An aura of discomfort moved about the room with him, or maybe it followed me, illuminating an uneasy path wherever I stepped. Wordlessly I cleared the table. Finally you rose and went to hunt up a pair of boots for Steve.
"Car's a rental; what the hell do I care if I skid into anything?" he called after you, as if he felt a need, once again, to justify his actions.
Sean was already in his snow gear waiting. I'd left him on the floor the night before after he'd drifted off. He'd awoken early to our sounds in the kitchen, the excitement of fresh snow combined with the news of school's cancellation stirring him to his feet almost as fast as a Christmas morning.
I watched through the window the three men in my life one with a broom, one with a shovel, the smallest with gloved hands. The snow appeared light, almost weightless, beneath your efforts. It flew through the air, propelled by the body, a seemingly endless supply of white powder. Behind me I heard news of the Lockerbie investigation come on the radio.
Over the years I have continued to follow this story with an interest so keen at times it feels perverse to me. As if it might mysteriously yield some truth, Steve's name scratched off some passengers' list for starters. It reminds me that life is full of unanswerable questions. You don't understand such things. The answers you seek, the solutions to your problems, are always to be found buried amidst the data in the printouts you carry home from work, awaiting only for you to correctly interpret the information.
I turned away from the window to finish cleaning up from breakfast, glancing out now and again to see how all of you were progressing. Ours is a small front lawn, the three of you close enough for me to catch the color climbing on your cheeks, your hair matting from exertion. Little by little, the recognizable form of the car began to emerge. At one point, Sean caught sight of me at the window and called out with the wave of his hand. I waved back, but he shook his head, now hatless, "no," and motioned me over to the front door.
The sun felt surprisingly warm and strong on my face as I pulled open the door. "What is it?" I asked Sean.
He scooped a pile of snow off what I could now tell was the car's hood, attempting to shape the feathery flakes into a ball.
"Come out and play. You're missing all the fun."
I looked down at my bare feet. "Maybe later," I said and started to close the door.
"Later it will be all gone."
"What?" I said, opening the door wide again.
Before me, Steve swept away at the highest crest, what looked to be the roof of the car. You poked with the shovel and began to dig where I'm sure you'd determined the left front tire lie. Any progress Sean made was purely accidental; he'd abandoned all labor in favor of play. A movement caught my eye, and I looked past the half-dug-out car to see Dan open his front door and come out with his dog. He stood on his front walkway as if frozen, bundled up against the melting snow, his scarf pulled over his nose and mouth so that all that was visible were his eyes and the pale patch of his forehead.
Sean's clump of snow was no larger than a golf ball, flaking away the more he toyed with it. You reached over and took it from him, adding more snow and somehow managing to shape it into a substantial ball before returning it to his grateful hands. I watched him toss it into the air and catch it, and I remembered that it is this ability you have, to take the intangible, the slippery and elusive, and form it into something solid is what I love about you so much.
Impulsively I stepped out onto the front stoop. The snow felt cold, but not unbearably, against the soles of my feet.
You turned toward me, a look of surprise and amusement on your face. It was that look the arch of your eyebrows, the unexpected grin that egged me on, dared me to do it. I bent and gathered up a handful of white powder. As I drew back my arm, I saw you drop your shovel and begin to amass your own pile of snow. I threw as hard as I could. My snowball flew, a long unbroken flight in the still air.
Peggy Duffy's short stories and essays have appeared in The Washington
Post, Brevity, Octavo, Drexel Online Journal, Smokelong Quarterly, Pierian
Springs, So To Speak, Literary Mama and elsewhere. Her fiction was
recognized by the Virginia Commission for the Arts as a finalist in the
Individual Artist Fellowship program for literary artists. Two of her
stories were selected by storySouth for the Million Writers Award, Notable
Online Short Stories for 2003. She maintains a website at