Matt & zoe, p.10
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       Matt & Zoe, p.10

           Charles Sheehan-Miles
 
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  She throws her head back and laughs, then hiccups. “Fair enough. You always did hate dealing with drunks.”

  “I’m guessing you get your share of them here.”

  She smiles. Then she says, “Oh, so what ended up happening with Jasmine’s teacher? And where is she now?”

  I finish chewing my burger, then say, “She’s over at Armstrong Farm. Paul slid her into one of his classes.”

  “You said her teacher came by the house?”

  I nod. “He seems—very considerate.”

  Nicole’s eyes narrow. “Considerate? What the hell is that?”

  “I just—I don’t know—”

  “Holy crap,” she says. “You’ve got a thing for him. What’s going on?”

  “Nothing’s going on!”

  “There is. Zoe, I’ve known you your entire life. Something is going on.”

  “Nicole, stop—”

  Her smile grows. “You’re blushing.”

  “Shut up.”

  “Zoe, seriously—”

  “No, you listen,” I respond. “Think about it a minute. What if I get involved with this guy and it turns out to be crap? Jasmine needs him. We don’t have any relatives around, you know. It’s just me, and she doesn’t know me worth a damn.”

  Nicole sighs. Then she says, “That’s pretty defeatist.”

  I shrug. “It is what it is.”

  “I think you should have him over for dinner. Tell him to bring a friend, that you want to set me up with someone.” Her words come out sounding like an order.

  “You’re crazy.”

  “I want to meet this guy. Where is he from?”

  “Central Florida. He didn’t get more specific than that. But I’ll tell you this—he’s spent his life around horses. He rides tricks—he’s good enough to be performing.”

  “Woah,” she says. “But he’s a teacher.”

  “Thanks for the news, Nicole.”

  Nicole grins. “You set up dinner.”

  I sigh. She’s right. I do need to know more about him. I close my eyes, then say, “Fine. I’ll call him.”

  “Excellent. I’ll wait.”

  “What? Right now?” I hate that my voice squeaks.

  “When is better?” She raises one eyebrow. That’s because she sees right through me.

  “Fine,” I mutter. I take out my phone and find Matt’s number, then dial.

  It rings. Three time. Four times. Five times. I’m about to disconnect when it goes to voicemail.

  “Hey, this is Matt Paladino. Leave a message. Please make sure you leave your number and when is a good time to call back.”

  I take a deep breath, then another one, suddenly uncomfortable. The phone beeps.

  “Hey, uh… uh… Matt … this is Zoe. Zoe Welch. Listen, um… I’m having a friend over for dinner Friday. This is going to sound weird but… maybe you could come? Bring a friend. Um… call me.”

  The whole time I talk, Nicole stares at me, a bemused look on her face. When I disconnect, she says, “Well, that was smooth.”

  I almost choke with embarrassed laughter. Then I almost just choke. Did I just ask Matt out to dinner?

  The Professor (Zoe)

  Jefferson Welch—my dad—was a great big bear of a man. Just a little over 6 feet tall, he had the broad shoulders of a football player. He was a gentle giant—he wore square, plastic framed glasses long before they became retro-stylish. His gray hair—gray for as long as I can remember—was always a little bit too long, a little bit too disorganized. Even on special occasions, when he would wear his tuxedo and mom would wear a dress, his hair was still a chaotic mess.

  His beard grew and shrank with the years. When I was in elementary school, the beard had the wild unkempt appearance of an isolated hermit living in the mountains. One of my earliest memories was tugging on his beard. He would let out a great big laugh and tickle me until I screamed. In the last few years, probably from around the time mom got pregnant with Jasmine, he’d taken to keeping it trimmed short and neat. I think it was even though the hair on his head had been gray for years, he felt sensitive about the beard, because it was the last to go.

  Those early memories of my father are all short flashes and images. Dad sitting in his office in the back of the house upstairs. He had always planned to build in bookshelves, but never got around to it, so for most of my childhood there were stacks of books against two walls in his office, many of them taller than I was. His desk was an antique, but not a valuable one. I think he and mom bought it at a tag sale when they were still in graduate school, and he just wasn’t concerned with upgrading to anything fancier.

  Dad kept his desk turned toward the window which overlooked the pasture behind our house—from his seat while he worked, he could see mom riding. My father never talked much about his work life. He taught English literature at Mount Holyoke and was a highly respected member of the faculty. Eventually he became the department head, and I have to assume he had a lot of academic publications. I’ve never read any of them. I still haven’t been in his office either, and I should go in there soon, if only to make sure there isn’t an old coffee or tea cup on his desk growing mold.

  I was seven when dad took me to work with him on “Take Your Daughter to Work Day.” I had to sit through a couple of classes, but boredom wasn’t as big problem as you would expect for a child that age in a college classroom. The girls in the classes instantly adopted me. I still remember one of them—her name was Samantha—let me sit in her lap during class, and drew flowers with me. She made me laugh, and I cried when I realized I wasn’t going to be able to come back every day.

  It’s not that I didn’t love Mom. I did. It’s just that she seemed to always fill up whatever space she was in, and not always in a good way. She loved to laugh, to tell funny jokes and stories, and she loved her horses. If I was outside and she saw me, I was automatically drafted into whatever it was she was doing. It’s not that I didn’t love working with the horses, but I also loved other things. I like to sit under the trees and read books, and when I was younger than that to play with my dolls. That was all a little too much for her—so by the time I was nine or 10, I was well-versed with all of the necessary chores around the stables and grounds. I spent Saturday mornings alongside mom while she gave lessons—just as Jasmine ended up doing.

  That’s why sometimes my dad’s garage was a refuge. I’d never been allowed in there by myself—Dad was incredibly disorganized, but had eidetic memory. He would set his tools down randomly, and know where he could pick them up the next day, week, or year. If someone else came in and moved a tool, it could mess him up for days. When I think of the garage, I think of stacked automotive manuals, Dad’s secret vice. A wall and workbench laden with tools, many of them mysterious to me when I was younger, but more and more familiar as I grew older. On Saturday afternoons for most of my life, Dad disappeared into the garage where he tinkered with and tweaked the Austin Healey.

  Along the wall on one side were pictures of the evolution of the car. When he bought the car it had no discernible color—it was mostly rust. Both headlights were missing, the three remaining tires were dry rotted and flat, and the fourth wheel rested loose on the tow truck that brought it to the house. The soft top wasn’t just down, it was missing. Significant rust holes marred the body, and a spider web of cracks interrupted the tiny windshield.

  I was too young, but I can imagine the conversation that must’ve ensued when the wreck of a vehicle appeared in our yard. Mom was nothing if not a practical woman, and even her hobbies were related in some way or another to her professional life. She never understood how Dad—a literature professor after all—could spend his weekends covered in grease and dirt as he lay on his back underneath that tiny car.

  I understood completely. Not that I’m particularly interested in cars, although I know a lot about them thanks to the time I spent in the garage. No… I understand because the garage was quiet. Mother and her horses never intruded. Mom and Dad lov
ed each other deeply, but they were very different in personality—sometimes Dad just needed a break. Over the course of my childhood and into my teenage years, I watched in silence, and sometimes helped, as Dad rebuilt the vehicle from scratch.

  The transformation of the car did not proceed the way anyone would expect. Dad’s lack of organization carried into his rebuilding efforts—he tended to jump around from one thing to another depending on what had caught his interest. Not just that, but finding parts for a more than 50-year-old car was sometimes a challenge. He participated in online discussion boards, periodically visited junkyards, and found deals where he could. He learned to do his own body work, and I remember many months sitting in the corner with a book watching him as he welded and shaped sheet metal into new body parts, replacing large swaths of rust and holes.

  I was almost 12 when he took the engine out with a chain hoist and began to rebuild it. For the next year, the body of the car stayed in the driveway, carefully secured underneath a protective tarp. In a more organized fashion than I had ever seen, dad meticulously took apart every single piece of the engine, labeling and organizing them across the floor of the garage. There were hundreds of parts in varying degrees of decay. Almost lovingly, he rebuilt it, cylinder by cylinder, valve by valve, as I watched and sometimes helped.

  His instructions were usually terse. “Get me the Phillips screwdriver,” he would say. “Come hold this while I retighten the bolts.” Such instructions were normal in the garage, but unlike the Jefferson Welch everyone else knew. Outside the garage, he was talkative, exuberant. Inside the garage, I saw a different man—one who was tightly focused, deeply absorbed in what he was doing. I often imagined this was what he looked like at work when he wasn’t teaching classes. I wondered sometimes if anyone else saw my father the way I did.

  That knowledge made me feel privileged to see him in ways that were mine alone. Not even Mom was around him when he worked like this.

  I was a freshman in high school before I was allowed in the garage alone.

  It had been a particularly tough week...well...that’s not true. It had been a particularly tough few months. In August, Mom had rescued two horses from the feedlots, something that wasn’t supposed to even exist anymore in the United States. Feedlots were large auction houses that would gather hundreds of horses, many of them in varying degrees of health. They would auction them off to the highest bidder—and those they couldn’t sell would be sold in bulk to truckers who ship them to slaughterhouses in Mexico. A large informal network of activists and horse lovers work to try to buy the horses before they are sent to slaughter. Sometimes they’re successful—and sometimes they aren’t.

  As always, buying a feedlot horse was a chancy thing, and this time was even more so than usual. Both of the horses were extremely sick, and one died within a week of their arrival. They had to be quarantined from the rest of the horses, and the surviving one required almost 24-hour attention for several weeks. Then that horse died too. Mom was heartbroken—it truly was horrible for her. During that period, I’d had no time to myself at all. I fell behind on homework, and found myself sometimes dozing off in class. Mom never asked me if I wanted to spend 12 hours a day assisting her with taking care of the horses. She just assumed I would. I would get home from school and go straight to the stable.

  Two months of this took me to the breaking point, and when my midterm exams arrived I was failing two classes. Up until that point I’d been a straight A and B student—and I went home that day with my report card dreading the outcome. I knew that Dad would be disappointed, and mom angry. I never expected the reaction I got.

  “I cannot believe that you’re failing classes,” she shouted. “Jefferson, I insist that she drop her extracurricular activities until she brings her grades back up. If she can’t pass her classes, she doesn’t need to be in cheerleading and sports.” I stared at her in disbelief. How could she possibly say that? I had already dropped out of cheerleading, because she hadn’t allowed me to go to the required four night a week practices. My response was instinctive, and came out without thought or preparation.

  “It’s your fault! I already dropped out of cheerleading! I’d be passing my classes if I didn’t spend all my time taking care of your damn horses!”

  She looked as if I had kicked her in the face. I had, really. Her horses were everything. It wasn’t that she was intentionally forcing me to do anything—it was just that she couldn’t see anything else but her own need to rescue those animals. Her response was instantaneous, outraged denial. “That’s not true. You need to take responsibility for your—“

  “Lucy.” Dad’s voice was quiet, but firm.

  “What?” She said, giving him an irritated look.

  “She’s right. She spends every free second helping you with the horses. You need to let her go. She needs to spend some time on school. And on her own life. She hasn’t even been out with Nicole in weeks.”

  Mom’s mouth had closed. Then she sagged and said, “I didn’t realize.” She thought for a moment… then a moment more… then looked at me and whispered, “I’m sorry.”

  Without a moment’s thought, I rushed forward and wrapped my arms around her. She was my mom. A hero in her world of horses. And no matter how old I was, the love of having her arms around me never left.

  That night, my Dad knocked on my door as I was getting ready for bed.

  “Come in,” I said.

  He opened the door and leaned in. “Hey, Zoe. Listen … I was thinking earlier, about the whole thing with your Mom. I know sometimes she gets … involved, and kind of pulls you in too. If you ever need to just get some space, feel free to go hang out in the garage.”

  I blinked in shock. I’d never been allowed in there alone. “Really?”

  He nodded. “Yeah. I know you’ll leave my things alone. And … just so you know … I’m proud of you. You did good tonight.”

  “Thanks, Daddy,” I had whispered.

  With that he had ducked out and closed the door.

  No right (Zoe)

  I lean over the vanity as I finish my mascara. Waterproof. I don’t usually bother with much in the way of makeup, but today is different. Today is my parent’s funeral.

  Today is my parents’ funeral. I have to close my eyes at the thought. I tell myself to get it together. I don’t have time for this, and Jasmine needs me to be stable.

  I take a steadying breath and open my eyes.

  In the black dress I’m wearing, I look like a zombie. I’ve never had much color in my hair or skin—the most colorful part of my body is my eyes.

  It doesn’t matter, really. I walk down the hall to Jasmine’s room.

  She’s sitting on the bed, staring into space. She wears a black dress too.

  Children her age should never wear black dresses.

  I have a hundred things I want to say to her. But I can’t. Instead, I walk into the room and sit on the bed beside her.

  She immediately sniffles. “Do you think they’re in heaven?”

  I wince. Because she would start out with a question I don’t know about, don’t understand, don’t believe. I don’t know what I believe. I start to just say yes, of course they are. Jasmine has a finely-tuned bullshit detector, and I’m not a very good liar.

  After a good minute, I say, “I don’t know much about heaven and hell and … all that stuff.”

  “Do you believe in God?”

  I nod. “I do. I don’t know if anyone knows what happens… you know… after we die. But I think they’re in a good place. I think they’re still watching out for us.”

  She sniffles. Then she says, “I miss them. I miss them.”

  “I do too.”

  She whispers, “I’m scared to go to the funeral.”

  “Oh… how come?”

  “They’ll be in a box right?”

  “An urn,” I say. “They were cremated together, and they’re sharing an urn.”

  “That’s good,” she whispered. “They l
oved each other.”

  “Yeah. Yeah, they did.”

  I stand and take a breath, then I hold out my hand. She takes it, and we walk downstairs where Nicole is waiting for us. The three of us step out of the house together. It’s a little chilly this afternoon, and a couple of the trees in the yard have begun to transform into a bright yellow color. I shiver. “Are you cold?”

  Jasmine nods.

  I duck back inside and search in the front closet, retrieving two of Mom’s wraps—one green, the other black.

  Jasmine smiles gratefully when I wrap the cloth around her. “Let’s go,” I say.

  The wrap smells like Mom’s perfume.

  None of us speak as we get into Nicole’s patrol car. I’m not up to driving today. Jasmine rides in her booster seat, which Nicole already moved over. Once again I’m reminded how much I wish Mom were alive. She’d want to see Jasmine grow.

  Nicole turns around in our driveway, then pulls out onto College Street. In less than a minute, we’re passing the campus at Mount Holyoke College. We park across the street from the chapel.

  Men and women I don’t recognize are streaming across in singles, couples and small groups.

  “Are you ready?” I ask.

  “Yes,” Jasmine says.

  I don’t think she is, but there’s nothing we can do. I look over at Nicole. She’s gripping the steering wheel hard. This is tough for her too—my parents often acted as a second set of parents for her.

  The three of us walk across College Street, Jasmine holding my hand. People gather in knots in front of the chapel. Most of them go quiet as they see us approaching. We pass by the groups silently, and ascend steps of the chapel.

  Like most of the rest of the Mount Holyoke campus, Abbey Chapel is a large building constructed of brownish-red stone. When I was in high school I would sometimes wander around the campus, and occasionally spent time at the library, a Collegiate Gothic building next to the chapel. It’s a beautiful campus… large gothic buildings spaced around wide green spaces.

  Inside, the chapel is huge, with towering rows of columns rising sixty feet to pointed arches. Rows of stained glass windows flank both sides, and at the far end a giant blue and purple flower in stained glass. The chapel seats hundreds, and while it isn’t completely packed, it’s far from empty. Most of the attendees are students—current as well as past. I also see a smattering of my mother’s friends from the horse-show circuit. There’s no way my parents knew all of these people. Then I realize—my parents were killed in a bizarre freak accident. A flying commercial oven? It was in the news for days. I bet some of these people are just freaks. Curious freaks, who want to see what’s left after a violent and nonsensical death.

 
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