I should have known better.
I should have known better than to ever have walked through the door of her house. All the saints and angels couldn’t save me now. Maybe I can save myself, but I’m no saint and no angel, and I wonder if it’s even any use trying.
Not that it was a bad evening, or that anything particularly dramatic happened. Actually, if you had videotaped the whole thing, I don’t think anyone would be able to point out anything wrong or unusual. Certainly nobody would be able to say, “This -- this, then, is the point at which John Sullivan once again lost control of his life, his heart and the sense he was born with and placed it into the hands of a woman.”
It wasn’t obvious. It never is when it’s real. But the heart knows what the mind will not allow.
I got to Grace’s house around 7:30. The address she gave me turned out to be a nice little brick house in West Park, nothing fancy but a solid, pretty little post-WWII bungalow. Turning onto the street and approaching the house, I noticed immediately that there were rosebushes surrounding the porch -- mostly floribundas, but one climber on a trellis. I wondered if they had come with the house or if Grace had planted them herself. The floribundas were nothing special, but the climber was a Gloire de Dijon, I was pretty sure, even though it would be a few months before it broke dormancy. The canes had a familiar look to them, and it was the right growth habit. Gloire de Dijons will pull down a trellis and even a wooden porch if they aren‘t pruned carefully. From the look of it, someone had known what they were about with a pruning shears. I wondered if it had been Brad or Grace.
I hadn’t brought wine -- I just couldn’t see opening a bottle of wine with dinner all for myself. Grace doesn’t drink, Seanny isn’t supposed to and Kate is nine years old, so what would have been the sense in that? But I did have one arm around a big bag of groceries: some fresh French bread, a sack of apples, some fresh vegetables for a salad, a few bags of snacks for the kids. In my free hand I carried a 12-pack of Vernor’s ginger ale, to which Grace ad always been partial. I figured if she wasn’t drinking any more, it might be appreciated and…
My thoughts were interrupted by a four-legged Fury of brown fur, drool, tail and toenails flying a me from behind the shrubs at the side of the house, knocking me flat on my ass and sending apples rolling down the driveway from the spilled grocery sack. “AOOOOOF! AOOOF! UFF! AOOOFF!” roared The Thing.
The front door opened and an auburn-haired little girl ran out and down the steps after the dog. “Tick! TICK! STOPPIT! BAD dog! BAD, bad dog! STOPPIT!”
Tick stopped it, all right, long enough to grab the loaf of French bread and run like hell toward the back yard.
I pulled myself to my feet, attempting to retrieve the renegade apples and dust sidewalk salt off my navy blue trousers without looking too stupid. Much easier said than done.
“Hi,” I said, extending a hand. “You must be Kate. I’m John, an old friend of your mom’s.”
“She said your name was Sully.” She said this not with an air of inquiry but as if straightening me out on a matter regarding which I was obviously confused. She shook my hand firmly and quickly -- more like shaking on a bargain that a “how do you do“. “C’mon. I’ll get the rest of that. You ought to go in and sit down. Honestly, that damn dog -- sorry.”
I wasn’t sure if she was sorry for the language or the dog’s behavior, but she didn’t give me much time to consider it. “I’m Kate,” she said, grabbing up the Vernor’s, and proceeded to steer me by the elbow up the front steps and into the house.
As soon as the door opened, the rich aroma of roast beef made with garlic greeted my senses. There was something else, too -- cinnamon? A pie? I accepted Kate’s instruction to “Sit down right there on that couch, and I’ll get Her for ya.” I chuckled at the slender little figure retreating through the swinging doors of the dining room. The square shoulders, the brisk gait, the absolute no-nonsense attitude with which she seemed to regard her world -- whoever had told me she was like Grace had been wrong. Kate was Grace at that age.
I looked around the living room, which was furnished with very simple, sturdy furnishings in neutral tones -- Grace’s picks, I was sure. The décor was simple, earthy and welcoming -- a stoneware vase with some dried sunflowers, a low coffee table with a few picture books -- “Ireland: A Photographic Portrait”, with an introduction by the redoubtable J. P. Donleavy, a book of Ansel Adams’ work, and a photo album bound in unbleached muslin with a few sprigs of some dried herb tied on with ribbon.
I started to open the photo album when Grace came through the dining room doors, wiping her hands on a linen apron and looking flushed from the stove heat. Her haor was out of place in charming disarray, a wavy strand falling into her eyes.
“Well!” she said, grinning broadly. “Look what the dog dragged in! I hear you met Tick.”
“Oh,” I said. “Then it was a dog. I thought maybe you’d taken to raising wildebeests.”
“Sorry about the bread. That great idiot. I just fed him, too, to make sure he’d behave while you’re here. Ah, well,” she finished. “What’ll you have, John?”
“I brought some Vernor’s. I’m fine with that.”
“Sure you won’t have a beer? I bought a six pack of Anchor Steam in honor of your visit. Nobody here will drink it, so if you aren’t having one now I’ll send it home with you.”
“Oh, you didn’t have to do that. Um, sure, I guess; thanks…if it’s not going to bother you.”
“If it’s going to bother me, I’m in more trouble than can be fixed by your not having one,” she said a little cryptically. “I want you to enjoy yourself. It’s not much of a recovery if I’m not capable of showing hospitality, now is it?”
I had to allow as it wasn’t. Being tremendously fond of Anchor Steam, I concluded the only polite thing to do would be to drink it. Manners are so important.
Grace brought back a small tray bearing a cold bottle of the beer with a frosted mug, and a stemware glass filed with something effervescent, a neat curl of lime peel dangling from the rim. “Pellegrino water,” she said. “I’ve become a mineral water snob, I’m afraid, and this is the only stuff I like now.”
I admired this. I always thought of people who “couldn’t drink” as being relegated to consuming Hi-C from plastic tumblers. I found the sophistication endearing. Not sure if “brave” is the right word, and certainly not a word she’d want me to apply, but there was something heartwarming about it. Okay, another word Grace wouldn’t want me to apply.
As we sat and made small talk, sipping our drinks, I watched Grace’s face intently. Not so that she’d notice and be uncomfortable, but still, I wanted to take in every detail. It occurred to me that what I was doing was memorizing her in case this was the last time I saw her for a long time. “Taking pictures with the heart,” we used to call it, a hundred years ago when we were dating. A hundred years ago, they didn’t have digital cameras, I thought. This made me smile.
“Well, it’s nice to see you smile, anyway, John,” said Grace.
“Ya bring that out in me, Grace,” I said, broadening the smile to a grin.
But I remembered that I hadn’t come to talk of the weather, nor to flirt with Grace, and I asked her, “Grace, is Seanny around?”
“Oh, he’s around, up in his room, I imagine, unless he snuck out. He does that a lot. I tried to get him to promise that he would stick around tonight, at least for dinner, but I’m afraid if he knows that’s what I really want, he’ll do the opposite. It’s as bad as that.”
“Yep. The only reason he even agreed to stay tonight was that we’re having roast beef, which he loves, and apple pie. That and the fact I told him you were coming. He still remembers you. He adored you, remember?”
I did indeed. I remembered Seanny as a sturdy, active, outgoing little fellow with a huge cheery grin and a warm, friendly manner.
Which is why I was so ill-prepared for the person coming down the stairs, I guess.
Seanny had changed, all right. He had grown tall, muscular but lean, with finely planed features and rugged good looks. At least, what you could see of his face. He had hidden most of it under a maze of facial hair, cut in lines and patterns according to the current “raver” fad. We had a young guy at the firehouse who had done this. We called him “Crop Circles” until he shaved.
Seanny’s attire was a Hot Topic goth/raver/punk collection of skull wristbands and necklace, a black t-shirt bearing the jolly lowercase motto “you suck“ -- quite the icebreaker -- clown-wide black jeans with enough hardware to open a Home Depot fasteners counter, and bright red-orange tennis shoes with flames airbrushed onto them. For a tall kid with not much to him, the effect was unfortunately more comic than scary.
“Seanny,” Grace said. “You remember Sully, right?”
“Hi,” said Seanny flatly, looking bored.
I extended a hand. Seanny continued to stand there. It was awkward. Ugly awkward. As it was obviously intended to be.
“Right,” I said, and withdrew my hand, trying not to let my irritation show. Something told me it would have pleased him immensely to piss me off, despite his apparent flat affect.
“Seanny,” Grace said, an edge barely discernible in her voice, “why don’t you go wash up for dinner, okay?”
Seanny mumbled something and disappeared back up the stairs three at a time.
“You’d think he’d trip in those pants,” I commented.
“I wish he would,” muttered Grace. A pained expression clouded her features, and she pressed her lips together. We sat silently for a moment. At last she spoke again. “John, I didn’t say that,” she said. “I know I said it, but that wasn’t me. It’s been….rough.”
“I kinda gathered that,” I said. “He’s not exactly running for office around here, is he?”
“I don’t mind the sullen stuff, the brooding stuff, the rebellion. That’s natural. But Jesus, John, sometimes I think he hates me. Or maybe not just me. I think he hates everybody. Or maybe just himself….” she finished, musingly.
“Well, part of it’s the age. But I think maybe a part of it too is what’s happened. And maybe the problems with alcohol affected him. Uncle Eamonn drank a lot, and you say you had a problem, so who knows? Maybe it’s true, this stuff they say about it being hereditary. Is he drinking a lot?”
“Mostly I think it’s the drugs. But he’s drinking too. I think he just pretty much uses whatever he can get ahold of. And these friends of his are just…God, John, they’re just such assholes.”
For Grace, possibly one of the least judgmental people I know, to lump a whole group into the “asshole” category seemed at least as good an indicator of the severity of the situation as anything. (I was going to say “pigeonhole”, but then you have “pigeonhole” and “asshole” and the whole thing just doesn’t work…well, anyway.)
Kate burst into the living room and announced, “The potatoes are done. Ya better come on and eat, because they’re not gonna keep.”
We got up and headed toward the dining room, Grace calling briefly at the foot of the stairs for Seanny, who appeared momentarily. He seemed a little less sullen but I couldn’t be sure if this was because of an effort to improve his disposition or the prospect of roast beef and apple pie.
Dinner was, incidentally, absolutely delicious. Roast beef rare, rubbed with garlic and herbs, a potato souffle type dish with cheese and fresh green beans with bacon and onions. Kate had taken the fresh vegetables from the groceries I had brought and put together a very presentable salad. I have done my share of cooking in the firehouse and if there’s one thing I can appreciate it’s a good meal, especially one that someone else took the trouble to prepare. Everything was wonderful.
We had a very pleasant meal together. Seanny snapped out of his funk well enough at least to speak when spoken to. Grace and I were exchanging news on mutual acquaintances, and Kate supplied stories of schoolmates and offered a rundown of Tick’s genealogy. “He’s part Boxer and part Malamute,” she said, “and Ma thinks he may have some Airedale in there too. He is,” she finished with authority, “a mutt’s mutt.”
When we had finished the main course, I got up to help Grace take the plates into the kitchen. We were getting dessert plates for the pie, and Grace called out, “Seanny, will you please put these out on the table?” when we heard the front door close with a soft click.
“Dammit! He always does this,” said Grace.
“Ditches the dishes?”
“No, leaves without telling me where he is going. He’s off to get loaded with the friends, probably.”
“Will he be back tonight?”
“I hope not,” said Kate, who had come in to expedite the pie delivery system. She said this quite matter-of-factly while taking the vanilla ice cream from the freezer.
I was struck by such bitterness in one so young, but said nothing. It showed in my face though, known so well to Grace.
“She’s just used to it, Sully. She’s had to put up with a lot. Last week he swiped her bike to go to a friend‘s, someone took it, and we found it in a dumpster. And he said it served her right for leaving it unlocked.”
“Oh, shit. Seriously?”
“Jesus Christ, Grace, he’s twenty years old! What kind of grade school bullshit is that? Doesn’t he even want a job? Or to make something of his life?”
“Sully, it’s as if the ability to care about anything was just left right out of him. All he seems to care about is partying and avoiding work. And getting on my last nerve,” she finished, putting the ice cream neatly on top of the pie slices. “He’s really had it in for me, for some reason.”
“Probably because he knows you won’t go anywhere. I mean, look -- he never knew his biological father, right? And God knows I didn’t stick around long. And then there was Brad -- well, you left him, but still, you‘re the one consistent person in his life. He knows you aren‘t going anywhere, so you‘re the lucky recipient of all his “angry young man” bullshit.”
“When did you become John Sullivan, licensed psychologist?” laughed Grace. “But you know what? I think you’re right about all that.”
We retired to the living room after dessert. The incredible Katie, who was fast becoming my favorite kid after my nephew Jay, offered to make us a pot of coffee. “I know how,” she assured me. “I help Ma when the AA’s come over.”
“Katie, darlin’, you’re my good girl,” said Grace. “But no thanks, sweetie. I think it’s about time for you to get ready for bed. Is your homework all done?”
“Nah. But it’s just spelling words. I already know ‘em.”
“Katie….” Grace cautioned.
“I know, I know, ‘there’s always room for improvement’, okay, okay.” She did a little sigh-and-eyeroll bit indicating that no matter how many times you explained things to some adults, they just didn’t get it, and it was a waste of breath arguing with them.
Katie stuck out her hand briskly, and I solemnly shook it.
“It’s nice to meet ya, Johnny Sullivan. Yer all right. Stay safe, okay?” Before I could respond, she had scampered halfway up the stairs.
“What an incredible kid,” I said.
“Thanks. She’s a handful, but it’s mostly because she’s very bright. She’s actually not a behavior problem excepting when she’s being stubborn. You have to know how to handle her. She’ll do anything for you if you work with her, but draw battle lines with her and you’ve already lost.”
“Imagine that,” I said.
“Are you being smart?”
“Oh, no, no, no. Not at all. It’s just that I have never known anyone like that in my life and can’t fathom where she gets it.”
Grace smacked me playfully with a small couch cushion. There was a time when that would have quickly resulted in some pretty rambunctious sex. I’m not saying it wasn’t an attractive idea, but it wasn’t appropriate even to think of it. Or was it? This was confusing.
“Well, anyway, she’s a great kid. Now. About the Seanny question….”
“I was hoping you would talk to him. Obviously, that isn’t going to happen tonight. But you see what I’m dealing with.”
‘Yeah, it’s bad. Seriously, do you think he’d listen to me?”
“I don’t know. You stand at least as good a shot as anyone. Certainly better than I do.”
“Well, I’ll try. I don’t know how much I have to offer him, though.”
“Sully, I wouldn’t have called you if I didn’t think you could help.”
“Well, maybe the best we can do is for me to try to get ahold of him again a little later. At least now he knows I’m around….”
“Well, yeah. I’m around if you need me. You called, I came over, right?”
There was something she and I weren’t’ saying, and I didn’t know where to go with this. I tried changing the subject.
“So, this AA thing, this sobriety -- it’s working for ya, huh?”
“Sully, the drinking just had to go. I was a mess.”
“Hard to imagine, but I’ll take your word for it. You were never a mess that I knew of.”
“We all have our bottoms. Mine still hurts where I hit it.”
I laughed. “You’re a caution. Always were.”
Grace smiled fondly at me. “Yeah, well, you tore up a few miles of road yourself back in the day.”
We looked at each other. It seemed like a very long time passed. Finally, Grace lifted her hand and touched my face.
“John, I don’t want you to feel obligated here. I turned to you for help because I don’t know what else to do with Seanny. I’m not looking for anything else.”
“But if something else should come of it?”
Long pause. Long, long pause.
“We…I guess we shall see, won’t we?”
“Yes, Grace, I guess we will.”
I leaned toward her and gently kissed her. She returned the kiss, gently at first. But it was like we never had been apart. People say that sometimes, and until you’ve felt that way you just don’t know…how close, how quick, how dear….how passionate…and how fast it all comes back….
Memories washed over me. I wanted more and knew more was not mine to take. Grace’s soft, warm mouth, her agile tongue, her soft lips…
“Grace.” I stood up, hugged her to me a little bit. “Grace, I have to go.”
“I know,” she whispered, her eyes lowered. “I’ll walk to the door with ya.
We walked to her door, and I gently kissed her forehead, and she raised those eyes to me, those hazel and olivine eyes, so tender and expressive, and stood on tiptoe, kissed me quickly on the mouth, and said, “Stay safe, Johnny Sulivan. Until we meet again.”
I got halfway across the porch, turned and said, “That will be…when?”
She looked at me, shook her head, blew a kiss and closed the door.
God damn it. I’d settle for a night’s sleep, let alone a way to figure this out….