A face in every window, p.4
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       A Face in Every Window, p.4

           Han Nolan
 
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  Pap stood up and walked to the edge and looked down at me. "You can do it, me boy, and I'll be here to catch you if you fall."

  I started up the trellis. "Gee, thanks, Pap."

  Larry laughed. I climbed up to the roof of the porch, which was as far as the trellis took me. Then I walked down to the edge where that roof met the main roof, careful not to look over. I grabbed on to the edge of the upper roof and swung my leg up, hoisting myself with my arms, and climbed on. "There's got to be an easier way," I said, crawling up the steep incline toward the top. I settled myself behind the Nativity set next to Larry, who slapped my back.

  "No sweat, eh?" Larry said.

  I took a deep breath and looked around. I'd never been on our roof before. I loved climbing trees, but it had never occurred to me to climb on the house. Grandma Mary never would have let us.

  Then I caught sight of what Larry must have meant when he said I had to see something. "Pap," I said. "What's all this stuff? Hey, there's my Swiss Army knife. I've been looking all over for that. And Grandma's shoes."

  Pap nodded. "Her dying-in shoes."

  "She really die in those?" Larry asked.

  "Yeah," I said, looking over all the loot Pap had stashed back behind Mary and Joseph and the Baby Jesus. "There's my baseball cap Grandma Mary gave me for my birthday. And your good pen that she bought you. And the serving spoon. Mam's going to have a fit when she see's all this. Hey! The iron egg skillet."

  Larry slid down toward the Three Wise Men. "That's not all," he said, standing and lifting up one of the figures. '

  "Your fortunes from the fortune cookies, and Grandma Mary's rosary beads, and her knitting needles." I turned to Pap, who was looking down on the objects with a strange, wistful smile.

  "Pap, Mam would have let you keep these if you wanted. We don't have to get rid of all of Grandma's stuff."

  He looked at me, his face brighter, his plump cheeks red from the sun. "Oh, I don't want to keep these, anyway."

  "No, he doesn't want to keep them," Larry agreed, chuckling to himself and lowering the figure. He made his way, crawling, back up to us.

  "I told you, I'm the Three Wise Man."

  "Yeah?" I said, waiting.

  "These are my gifts of treasure for the Baby Jesus, of course, James Patrick, and you should know that."

  I smiled, looking over Pap's head to Larry. "Yeah, of course," I said.

  The phone rang in the house. We all paused and listened. It stopped ringing after three rings and I asked, "Is Mam home?"

  Pap stared down at his feet and nodded. There was a long silence and then we heard a scream. It got louder. Mam came running out of the house from the porch and screamed again. By then I had figured it was a scream of delight, an Ahhhh! kind of scream. The three of us stood up. Mam looked up, surprised to find that now we were three. Then she raised her fists in the air and screamed again.

  "I won! I won the house. I won!" She started jumping and skipping, ignoring the stay-off-the-grass sign.

  "I did it! I won the house! I won the contest!"

  The three of us cheered and slid down the roof to the edge to get off.

  When we'd all reached the ground, Mam stopped jumping around and ran to us, hugging the three of us, and we all laughed and cheered, and they jumped around in a circle as if they were playing ring-around-the-rosy bunny-hop style, while I looked on, the upsets of the morning forgotten. Even I felt victorious. Maybe Mam was right. Maybe this was exactly what we needed. We could move to New Hope and settle down to a new life, one without Grandma Mary but still a good life. Three cheers for us!

  Chapter Six

  THE OFFICIAL ANNOUNCEMENT of the winner came out the next day, August first, just as the ad had promised. Our local newspaper's reporters showed up at our house to photograph us and to get a story. Half the neighborhood got in on the picture. Nothing this great had ever happened to any of us, and it was a celebration for us all.

  I caught Bobbi Polanski watching the action from her porch, half hidden by a post and peeking out from behind it, gnawing on a fingernail. I felt so full of goodwill, I almost called her to come on and get in the picture, but I caught myself in time and didn't.

  Pap, who had spent most of the night in agony from his sunburn, still wore the wet washcloth that Mam had folded and placed on his forehead, pinning the cloth to an old apron string and fitting it to Pap's head so it would stay on without his having to hold it Aspirin and the wet washcloth kept him cool and quiet His nose had blisters on it. The newspaper reporter took Mam aside and asked if Pap were Mam's brother and did he have to be in the picture? Mam called to Pap, put her arm around him, and said he was her husband and that he would stand right next to her for the picture, washcloth and all.

  I felt proud at that moment and wished Dr. Mike had been there to hear it. But then when they wanted a picture of just me, Mam, and Pap, I couldn't do it. I couldn't be in a picture with Pap looking like that, with the caption identifying the man in the washcloth as my father. I managed to wander out of sight for a while and then wander back around when they had given up on the idea of a family photo.

  Mam had notified Dr. Mike that she had won soon after she had come out screaming to us. He said he'd meet us out at the farmhouse the next day when Mam went there to meet the owner and take the scheduled tour. That's when I found out that Dr. Mike, most conveniently, lived in Washington Crossing, just minutes from New Hope.

  Larry Seeley offered to drive us up there for the house tour. I was surprised when Mam agreed to go with him, but then he had a large van, almost a bus, that seated eleven people. It was an old wreck of a thing, painted a dull flat brown, with a rag coming out of the gas tank, a major rust problem across the front just below the windshield, and several bumper stickers on the rear doors and windows asking us to save the environment, whales, earth, rain forests; ride a bike to work; love the color green; and be at peace. Mam, Pap, Larry, Tim, Bobbi Polanski, a couple of friends of Grandma Mary's, and I all rode in the van, black smoke puffing out the back, obscuring all the bumper stickers and Aunt Colleen, who followed behind in her Mercedes.

  When Mam had called Aunt Colleen to tell her that she had won the contest, Aunt Colleen said nothing good would come of a house gotten by such means and Mam had better watch out. "Remember, if it sounds too good to be true, it usually is," she said. "I don't have a good feeling about this. No, not at all." Then she asked when she could see the house and Mam told her we were heading out there the next morning, so there she was, following the van in her Mercedes.

  The greatest part of winning the house was seeing the change in Mam. She had become a new person. Overnight she had grown more confident. She stood tall, proud, her feet barely touching the ground. She had filled out her clothes since her illness, and the warm sunshine had given her good color in her cheeks. Her eyes, flashing first here, then there, smiling for the camera, smiling at her neighbors, held a light, a sparkle in them I'd never seen before. Mam had become this beautiful, gracious stranger.

  We drove through the main street of New Hope, past the playhouse, the boutiques, and the art galleries, past the pricy restaurants and the bed-and-breakfast inns—and it was as if we'd entered another country, so different was it from our charmless street with its pawnshop and Laundromat, the car wash, the Chinese take-out, and McDonald's. What were we doing here?

  More reporters were waiting for us when we rolled up the steep, tree-lined drive of our new home. Pap bounced in his seat and his voice croaked with delight. He poked his arm out the one window that was stuck halfway between up and down and waved to the people on the lawn.

  The cameras flashed while Mrs. Levi, the cheery-looking woman who had placed the ad and chosen the winning essay, introduced herself to us. The reporters asked her why she chose Mam's essay over the more than 3,075 entries, and she said she liked the line Mam had used from Harpo Marx because it had always held a special meaning for her as well. She said, "Mrs. O'Brien wrote that she wanted a house filled with
love, and when she came home from work each day she wanted to see 'a face in every window' smiling out at her." Then Mrs. Levi smiled openmouthed at Mam and grabbed both of Mam's hands and squeezed them. "I've had good times with my family here. I know you will, too. I knew when I read about you wanting a face in every window we were kindred souls." Mrs. Levi pumped Mam's hands and Mam nodded, tears welling in her eyes.

  I thought it was a strange thing for Mam to have said, considering there were just the three of us, but it worked, and I liked the part about the house filled with love. It made me think of the old days with Grandma Mary.

  We walked the grounds first and discovered that a cabin came with the property, along with a two-car garage that would hold all of Pap's junk, and then some, and that had a basketball hoop attached above the garage doors.

  The cabin stood at the bottom of the sloping lawn, about twenty feet into the woods. The owner said it had been built in the early 1800s and had always stood right there on the property. The original family probably lived in it while they were building the main house. We peeked inside, saw some missing floorboards, among other things, and moved on; but Larry stayed behind and I wondered if he had gone in there to pop a few pills or to sniff cocaine. He stayed in there during the rest of the outside tour.

  We discovered that more woods, deeper and thicker, lay beyond the lawn at the back of the house. When we saw this, Mam and I looked at each other at the same time, both of us delighted, both of us thinking about our days at the creek, and Mam nodded and I felt a wave of relief wash over me. Everything was going to be all right. Mam, Pap, and I could settle down to a quiet life in our house with woods and lawns, flowers and fruit trees. We could roam the woods in search of deer tracks and raccoons, watch the changing seasons, hunt for interesting rocks and wildflowers. Yes, it would be all right.

  Dr. Mike arrived in time for the house tour and I could tell by the quizzical expression on his leather-tanned face and his raised bushy brows that he was surprised by Mam's behavior. I think he believed he was going to be "Dr. Mike, action hero," come to rescue his damsel in distress. But Mam stayed in the lead, talking with the owner, asking questions, with the reporters and photographers trotting behind her scribbling in pads and looking for photo opportunities. The rest of us followed behind them, forgotten by everyone except Mam, who would turn to us when she saw something wonderful and exclaim, "Isn't this perfect?" or to me and Pap, "Won't we have fun picking our pears?"

  There were three pear trees, a cherry tree, and a large and very old oak tree that stood near the cabin and had remnants of an old treehouse clinging to it.

  We followed Mam up the stone walkway to the house, a light gray stone structure two stories high. Four windows jutted out from the roof, making me think that the attic space had been turned into more rooms. The house was longer than it was tall. It had black-painted shutters on the windows that looked as if you could really use them, and a deep porch running across the front of the house. The owner had set out rockers and other chairs, all painted a fire-engine red, and there was a table with a checkerboard painted on top. I wondered if we would get to keep them. Then Pap threw himself in one of the chairs and with great energy rocked back and forth and called out, "Is this mine, too? Erin, is this mine, too?"

  Everyone laughed and so did Pap. He tried all the chairs out and asked again, "And is this mine?"

  The owner, Mrs. Levi, said she was leaving some furniture and yard equipment behind, since she would be moving to a much smaller place; and I think both Mam and I were glad Pap had asked, since neither one of us would have and we both wanted to know.

  Mrs. Levi opened her front door and stood in the entranceway, allowing us to enter ahead of her. Dr. Mike pushed his way through the group and caught up to Mam. Mam gave him a hug and introduced him as the one who had convinced her to enter the contest. The reporters gathered around him and he grinned and struck a few poses, hoping, I guess, that someone would take his picture. No one did, but he got to the head of the line and toured the house right beside Mam, as if they were husband and wife, as if this were their new home.

  A couple of times I caught Dr. Mike gazing at Mam instead of the rooms we were supposed to be viewing, and I knew that he was seeing what I saw, the new Mam, the beautiful, well-mannered, most gracious and charming woman. And I saw, too, that he was in love with her.

  I wasn't an expert on romantic love. I had had just two girlfriends in my life, both of them back in seventh grade. It didn't take me long to realize, though, that being in love had used up all my brain power and I was starting to make mistakes in my homework. I'd given up on love, but Tim Seeley fell in love all the time, and the expression he wore whenever he was smitten was similar to the one I saw on Dr. Mike's face that day, and I realized then that no matter how old you got love always wore the same face.

  Watching Dr. Mike made me ill. I knew I needed to do something—attack the man, create a distraction, have a seizure—but these were just thoughts, ideas, plans I knew I'd never put into action.

  I followed Mam and Dr. Mike like a shadow, knowing I was a coward and reminding myself that anytime I did confront something head-on, such as the time I attacked Bobbi Polanski, I came out the loser.

  Mrs. Levi led us from room to room, upstairs and down, and out to the sunporch off the living room, which looked out over the backyard. I counted the fireplaces, making sure there were four, as the ad had said. I counted four, all right, but two of them, said Mrs. Levi, didn't work. The best one was in the kitchen, a tall, wide stone fireplace big enough to stand in, with black pots, the kind used for witches' brews, hanging over a stack of logs. Herbs collected from the garden just outside the kitchen entrance hung down in bunches around that fireplace. The fireplace also had what Mrs. Levi called a beehive oven. She said she still baked bread in it. Pap stuck his head inside it and called hello. He played with the door latches in every room, ran his finger along the stenciling on the walls, and stood where the wide pine floors creaked and he rocked back and forth on them, humming along with the noise.

  Aunt Colleen, who had strolled through each room with her arms folded and a sour look on her face, decided it was time to take Pap in hand. But Pap had become overexcited by all the people and the trip out, and he broke free of Aunt Colleen, shouting, "Hey, yer not me mam!" and took off running through the house, squealing with delight.

  Mam excused herself and asked if she could walk the grounds again with just Pap. Then she made her way past the rest of us and went to him. I saw the reporters shake their heads and one of them said, "That poor woman," and Dr. Mike replied, "Indeed."

  Seeley and I went out onto the porch and found Larry sitting in one of the rocking chairs, watching Mam and Pap holding hands and walking toward the cabin. He looked up at us when we came out, nodded at his brother, and asked, "How's it going at the homestead?"

  Seeley shrugged, and I could see that he didn't want to talk to his older brother. Larry had always been the misfit of the family, the poet in a family of football stars. Mr. Fresca, one of the sophomore English teachers, used to call him Hamlet because he was always so moody, and the nickname stuck. From there, kids started asking him where his tights were, since Hamlet wore tights, and then the rumor got started that he was gay. Tim Seeley hated his brother for the embarrassment he caused him at school and the turmoil he caused at home, fighting with his football-coach father all the time. Mr. Seeley called Larry a loser, the black sheep of the family.

  When Larry asked him how it was going at home, Tim didn't answer. He jumped off the porch and headed down toward Bobbi Polanski, who stood at the bottom of the sloping lawn, shading her eyes and staring up at the house.

  I looked at Larry, who watched his brother and fiddled with the hoop earrings in his ear.

  "So, uh, I hear you're not living at your parents' house anymore," I said, preferring to talk to Larry rather than join Bobbi Polanski on the lawn.

  He shook his head. "I'm in the doghouse."

  I n
odded, tried to chuckle, be cool.

  He rocked back in his chair and pulled his hair forward and began braiding it. "No, really, I'm in the doghouse," he said. "I'm sleeping back of the McCloskys' place, in their old doghouse."

  "Are you serious?"

  He finished braiding his hair and tossed it over his shoulder. "Hey, I've slept in plenty worse. It's big enough. They used to have a Saint Bernard. I take a crap in the woods when I need to, wash in the creek—I do okay."

  "Yeah, I guess," I said, not knowing what else to say.

  He stood up and stretched, looking down at me at the same time. "Don't look so worried," he said. "I'm like a cat; I've got nine lives and I always land on my feet."

  "Maybe," I said, wondering what it would be like to be someone like Larry, to have lived his life. "But how many lives have you already used up?"

  He turned to me and made a fist, and I wondered for a second if he were going to punch me, but he smiled and just gave me a nudge. "You've got a point," he said, not answering the question. Then he added, "I like you, O'Brien. You're smart, aren't you?"

  I shrugged, pleased for some reason that he liked me.

  He stuffed his hands in the pockets of his cutoffs and leaned against a post "So did Timmy tell you about what happened?"

  Now I'd done it. I should have left with Tim when I had the chance. I didn't want to get in the middle of a family feud.

  I looked down at the floor, pretending to study the gray-painted floorboards. "Not really," I said. "Just something about your father seeing you with some—uh—pills, I guess."

  "Vitamin pills. They were vitamin pills."

  "Maybe," I said.

  He shook his head and pulled out a pack of cigarettes from the pocket of his T-shirt. "Man, I'll never be able to live there again." He took a cigarette out of the pack and lit it, stuffing the box back in his pocket. He took a few puffs and looked out at my parents. Pap was spinning around and around while Mam stood watching him, talking to him. Some of the other people had drifted out, coming from around the back of the house to where they stood. I looked for Dr. Mike but didn't see him.

 
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