The following is from Sara Schaff’s collection, Say Something Nice About Me. Schaff’s writing has appeared in FiveChapters, Hobart, Southern Indiana Review, Carve Magazine, The Rumpus and elsewhere. She graduated from Brown University, received her MFA from the University of Michigan, and has taught at Oberlin College, the University of Michigan, and in China, Colombia, and Northern Ireland, where she also studied storytelling.
The kids were happy, the adults were drunk. At 9pm, the Roman candles and sparklers lay on a card table outside the garage, right next to the cupcakes and deviled eggs. Junior Miller, underemployed contractor, stood near the table, gazing absently at his seven-year-old son dunking the skinny Harrington twins in the above-ground pool.
His wife Rina was singing karaoke under a rented tent in Marie and Parker Harrington’s backyard. “Life is a Highway” was Rina’s favorite song that year. Her earnest and off-key voice carried over the splashing swimmers. Over the rowdy group playing badminton with broken tennis rackets. Junior was on his third plate of barbequed chicken and coleslaw. When he looked up from his soggy paper plate, he saw a gray Jeep idling in the driveway.
The car remained running as Marie’s sixteen-year-old daughter from her first marriage climbed out of the passenger side, cursing at the driver. The driver was a shadow to Junior, but definitely a boy, his head bowed over the steering wheel. The girl—for she was still just a girl to him then—wore crisp, white shorts and a blue halter, tied at the neck. He would always remember that, and how her long, blonde hair was pulled back into a ponytail.
Parker called Antonia “the bratty ballerina” because she took dance lessons and generally refused to speak to him. But watching her carry on a heated conversation at the open passenger window, Junior felt oddly protective, and when she spun around and marched toward the house, he followed.
In the kitchen, Antonia began opening and slamming shut the laminated, white cabinets. Hideous cabinets, Junior thought, not for the first time since Parker had moved into Marie’s termite-infested split-level a year before. If only he could gut the house, he believed he could work some magic. “If only,” he heard Rina say, “you could get a real job.”
“You’re going to crack those cabinets off their hinges.”
Antonia turned around, startled. “Junior?”
“I mean, there are worse things.”
“This party, for instance.” She jerked a thumb over her shoulder. “Check out the dude passed out under my dining room table.”
Junior glanced into the next room. Rod Wilson was snoring on his back, t-shirt pulled up to his doughy chest.
“You okay, Tony?”
She narrowed her eyes at the nickname. “Sure, terrific.”
It surprised him when she leaned into him and sobbed. The party was not the best he’d ever been to, but it wasn’t the worst, either. Was she upset about the boy in the car? Teenage girls were a mystery to him. He put both arms around her. Her shoulders were hot and bony.
“It gets better,” he said.
Antonia pulled away, made a face. Junior knew what she was thinking: what did he know about better?
Outside, the fireworks were starting. He didn’t want her to go away upset.
“You want to light some sparklers? That might cheer you up.”
She opened her mouth, and a shout came out of it. Had he made her uncomfortable? When her mouth closed and the shout escalated into a wail, he finally understood. Antonia wasn’t making a sound.
He spun away, back outside.
A crowd had converged at the back of the garage, a spot hidden away from the rest of the party. He pushed through to Connor, lying on the grass and holding his hand to his ear, barely cupping the blood that poured from it. Rina had her arms around him, crying. Her wavy hair was damp with sweat. Her cheeks were still pink from the effort of singing.
The twins were crying, too. Their stepbrother, Jeremy, knelt beside them, his khaki shorts speckled with blood. He was speaking to them in his calm and grown-up voice: “Try to explain what happened.”
He had the same hair as his older sister. The same critical, blue gaze.
“He wanted to show us how to light a firecracker,” Darlene said.
Dara said, “We didn’t think he could do it.”
Rina saw Junior and yelled, “You were supposed to be watching him!”
Marie and Parker stood off to the side in their denim shorts and matching “Goose the Cook” aprons.
“Who keeps their firecrackers next to the snacks?” Junior said, but not too loudly. Parker had been good to him over the years—fixed his truck when it broke down, lent him money.
“We’re calling an ambulance,” Marie said. Her face looked the same as it always did: pleasant and untroubled.
Rina and Junior ended up driving their own car, Rina holding onto Connor in the backseat, pressing her sweatshirt to his ear. She was a nursing assistant at the hospital, and she had already called a doctor she worked with, to let her know they were coming. After devoting her entire night to karaoke and Jello shots, she had still managed to take control of the situation, and Junior was the one who looked like the negligent parent.
It was his fault though, Rina was right. He needed to be more responsible. He would have to take better care of his family. That felt like the right thing to be thinking. But as he drove on dark and empty roads through Helena, watching out for deer, his thoughts turned easily from guilt to Antonia and how the top of her head had smelled like bonfire.
The air felt crisp and promising. The music was easy listening. Marie and Parker’s yard was dotted with lawn chairs, tikki lights, and picnic tables draped with German flags. No one in the Harrington household was of German descent, but Marie had found the flags on sale at Woolworths and decided they were as good reason as any to throw a party. Everyone believed enough time had passed since the firecracker incident.
There were no hard feelings. People made mistakes, and Connor was fine. Better, perhaps, because even though he’d temporarily lost hearing in one ear, he’d learned an important lesson: not to light firecrackers without parental supervision. Tonight, Rina and Junior had hired a sitter.
Junior breathed in the smell of dry leaves and grilling burgers and smiled at Missy Richter, who was looking for a contractor to renovate her bathroom.
“Marie and Parker,” she said, “they sure know how to party.”
Thinking of the celebration Missy had missed that summer, Junior said, “You could say that.”
Missy was looking good. Rina had mentioned it first, but now that she’d said it Junior felt like he was allowed to notice, too. Her hair was darker and shorter than it had been in high school, and her eyes were bright and flirtatious. She’d moved away for a while, somewhere west, but now she was home for good and seemed to have a lot of money. Rina had also mentioned, “You’re old pals. I bet she’d give you the job.”
Now Rina was talking to her sister, Nancy, over by the pool, which was covered by a black, plastic tarp and all the unused plastic cups. Although the night was cool, Rina wore a tank top, and she glanced over her bare shoulder at him and as if to say, What’s taking so long?
Thing was, Junior wasn’t sure how to turn a friendly conversation into a professional one. “Er, about that bathroom,” he said, “I was thinking—”
“Come by on Monday, and I’ll show you around.”
He flushed. He wasn’t sure they were talking about the same thing. “Okay.” He caught Rina staring at him again and gave her a tentative thumbs up. She raised her eyebrows.
Missy tapped her plastic cup against his beer bottle. “You always had a good eye, Junior.”
He felt optimistic about his chances. First Missy’s bathroom, then—”Thanks, Miss.” One step at a time. He still had to come up with a reasonable amount to charge her. An old friend, yes, but a friend with money. He had to see how much work she really needed done. He excused himself to use the restroom.
Antonia and Jeremy sat with the twins on the back deck, playing cards, and he waved at them as he went inside. There was something sad about their little group, quiet in contrast to the lively party going on around them. Again, he felt that tug of protectiveness. Antonia looked older already, a serious look on her face as she zipped up Dara’s hooded sweatshirt.
She did not appear to notice him.
Even in the bathroom, he could hear the music picking up tempo, the bass throbbing. Back outside, Parker stood behind the stereo equipment. “I’m taking requests,” he said into a microphone. “Always wanted to be a DJ.” He laughed. “But then I grew up and had some bills to pay. ” A few people were already dancing, lifting their plastic cups as if they were lighters and this were a rock concert. Missy was trampling the grass with the rest of them, swaying her pretty hips. She winked at him and motioned for him to come out and join her. Junior shook his head; if there was one thing he didn’t do, it was dance.
He rested gingerly on the arm of a deck chair. Jeremy was watching, making Junior feel like his body didn’t fit where he was trying to put it.
“Don’t you kids wanna join them out there?” Junior said. “Have a little fun?”
Antonia looked up from her cards. They were playing Go Fish. “Just what we’re trying to avoid.”
Dara said, “Antonia’s dancing in The Nutcracker next month.”
“Oh yeah?” Junior said. “I’ve heard of that.”
“It’s not what you think,” Antonia said. “It’s a joke—highlights from The Nutcracker, then little kids tap dancing to ‘Jingle Bell Rock.'”
“We’ll come see it,” Junior said, suddenly enthusiastic. “I’m sure it’ll be great.”
Antonia looked surprised. “It’s the dance academy’s annual holiday recital. Only parents go.”
He had more to say, more to ask. What had happened to the boyfriend? How was school? What grade was she in now? But here was Rina coming toward him, calling his name. She looked angry. Junior stood up. She tugged on his hand and came close enough that he could see the makeup gathered in the crevices around her eyes. Anyone watching from behind probably thought they were kissing.
Rina said, “Jesus, you’re such a flirt.”
It took him a second to realize she was talking about Missy, not Antonia.
“Calm down, Rina. I got the job.”
“Well, she’s out there acting like you gave her more than that.”
It was almost midnight, past time to relieve the sitter. He looked back at Antonia, who was
ushering the twins inside the house.
“Wait here a sec, I think I left something inside.”
He made his way through the kitchen, through the dining room, up the carpeted stairs. He could hear the bath running, and then Antonia talking to the twins. Her voice was gentle and reassuring, and he headed toward it, though he wasn’t sure what he’d say if he found her.
A door in front of him opened, and Jeremy stepped out. “Do you need something?” He only came up to Junior’s chest. He was just a skinny teenager. But he had no problem looking Junior in the eye.
“No, I was just—”
“The kids are going to sleep now.”
“—looking for a bathroom.”
“There’s one downstairs you can use.”
Outside, Rina waited for him behind the wheel. “I didn’t think you were okay to drive.”
His head felt leaden. Not swimmy and good the way it did when he was drunk. “You’re probably right,” he said. Slowly, they drove away from the party.
Two hours till midnight, but people were already cheering. Some folks had gone inside. The smart ones, Junior thought. What a dumb idea it was, coming to another party with Rina. Coming here at all! Everyone forcing smiles and holiday cheer while they shivered in their coats and hats, drinking champagne out of fancy plastic glasses. His own cup was starting to melt from where he’d been holding it too close to the fire Parker had made in the middle of the yard.
“Happy Almost New Year!” Marie cried, lifting her champagne.
Her good nature irritated Junior. No one was that happy. She and Parker kissed, and not like they’d been married for almost two years.
In an effort to appear equally cheerful, Junior put his arm around Rina. “It’s going to be a good year.”
“I’m going home.” She moved aside and pouted.
Now he didn’t want to leave. “Party’s just getting started, Ree.”
“Well, you’ll need to get a ride.” They looked at each other for a beat before the flames lit up her sneer. “I’m sure Missy won’t mind.” She nodded her head toward the house, where Missy was standing on the deck, smoking a cigarette and laughing with Rod Wilson.
“Rina, give it a rest.”
“Not until you do.”
There was nothing going on with Missy, except that she was a difficult person to work for. Turned out, she wasn’t looking for anything more than a contractor who could read her mind. She’d been disappointed with how the shower tiles looked, so he’d had to do the work all over again, for free. But he hadn’t told Rina about it, since he was losing money on the job now.
Walking away from him, Rina’s sneakers kept getting caught in the snow. Junior felt pleased to witness her small struggle. He felt his anger at her pressing at his chest from within, and that weight was not unpleasant. It felt like encouragement.
It seemed like a good time to have it out with Missy, blow off some steam. He waved at her, and she nodded her head in acknowledgement. But as he got closer, he could hear her murmuring encouragement in Rod’s ear. The guy appeared to be crying, his thick shoulders bobbing under Missy’s small, reassuring hand. The holidays, Jesus. Seemed like they were just created to get people down.
Junior walked into the house, as if he’d been intending to go there all along. He wasn’t sure what he’d do next, or who he’d get a ride from. The house was full of people who shouldn’t be on the road.
He moved past them and found Antonia pushing a mop around outside the bathroom.
When she saw him, she grimaced. “Someone puked and someone else walked in it. Happy New Year to me!”
The words came to him easily: “You want to get out of here, Tony?”
She half-smiled. “I always want to get out of here.”
They didn’t talk about where; they just started walking. Out the front door and down the driveway, onto the quiet street.
There was no sidewalk in Helena, and they walked in the road, which shone with black ice. Antonia jogged ahead a little and blew into her bare hands, but Junior hung back, his feet unsure and slipping.
“We came to see your recital,” he said, feeling awkward now that they were alone. He never went for walks in the neighborhood.
“I heard.” Her head was uncovered, and in the bright moonlight, her hair looked white. “You went to all that trouble, and I was only in one number.”
They were crossing over the bridge at the center of town, the one over Arbor Creek, now frozen over. Antonia paused and waited for him to catch up.
“You made a good snowflake,” he said, sounding stupid to himself. “The best snowflake.”
Stupid, but honest. He knew nothing about ballet, but even he had seen that her steps had more precision than the other snowflakes, who Junior thought were, quite frankly, mediocre at best. Their toes didn’t stay pointed, they didn’t always move in sync. He’d had to drag Connor there. Rina was reluctant but thought it might be nice to do something to “get in the holiday spirit.” Even so, during the tap and jazz numbers, she laughed at the glittery costumes. “Dress them up like little whores,” she whispered, while Connor kicked the seat in front of him.
A car passed them on the bridge, its high beams on. Antonia gripped the cold metal railing. Junior felt his anger at Rina nagging at him, goading him. He covered one of Antonia’s hands with his own. “You’ll freeze,” he said.
She turned and kept walking.
Past Helena Mills, the large apartment building that once functioned as the actual mill on the creek. Past the old convenience store, burned down last year in a fire everyone in town assumed to have been started by the owner to collect on the insurance. On Main Street, they walked in silence until they reached the cemetery.
“What? ” Antonia said, pushing open the gate. “It’s the nicest place around. Always quiet, and everyone behaves the way they’re supposed to.”
“Because they’re dead?” He felt a pleasant sense of bewilderment. She didn’t answer. He’d never come to this cemetery before—never had any reason to. No one he knew was buried here. No one was ever buried here anymore. It was an old cemetery, and the gravestones were worn and white.
Antonia leaned against a tall one and ran her fingers along the inscription. “One of the founders of our thrilling little village.”
He tried to read it, but there wasn’t enough light, and the inscription had faded. Her face was close to his. He kissed her, very lightly. “It’s probably midnight by now,” he said. “Happy New Year.”
His heart was beating fast, but his head suddenly felt sharp and clear. “Weird looking?”
She shook her head and smiled. “Just old, I guess.” She put her hand on the back of his head and pulled him to her mouth.
“Old,” Junior said into her lips. But he’d never felt so young!
He pressed Antonia against the stone as her icy hands moved under his shirt.
Later, walking back home, the world had a new sheen to it. Junior didn’t dare say it—he knew it sounded crazy—but it felt as if Antonia’s talent had rubbed off on him. He thought he could do anything now—renovate a dozen bathrooms, make furniture for rich people, provide for his family, make Rina happy.
Antonia said, “I’m cold.”
But when he reached out to caress her neck she moved away from him. The moon was behind a cloud now, and that unearthly light that had hovered over her had gone out. She put her arms around herself, visibly shivering.
He handed her his jacket, which she put on without looking at him.
“You okay, Tony?” That clear and shining feeling was shrinking from him, and in its place was a creeping dread. His life had seemed like little more than year after year of the same blank and shapeless thing. What a surprise then, to discover how little time it took for everything to change.
Passing over the bridge again, Antonia walked ahead of Junior, but slowly, and she did not look back over her shoulder. He thought of Rina. When Rina was Antonia’s age. What a happy girl she’d been in high school! What a beautiful girl, with big plans for the two of them. They would build a house, they would take their kids to Disney, they would buy a small boat to take out on the lake in the summers. She hadn’t talked about those dreams in years. And that felt like his fault now, too.
Before they reached Antonia’s driveway, they could hear the fireworks. They both stopped for a moment in the middle of the icy street, several feet between them, and looked above the tops of the trees. The fireworks were cheap ones that Parker had bought from a guy in a neighboring town, but they still managed to clear the trees, and Junior watched one bloom after another, then send down whispering, little sparks.
When the show ended, Antonia was already scrambling up a small hill to her front yard. Junior didn’t move as she disappeared into the undergrowth.
That year and a half at her father’s had been terrible in many ways. Syracuse was ugly and gray, and she’d been practically friendless at the large high school while Jeremy blossomed into a social butterfly and extracurricular-king (orchestra, school newspaper, All-State soccer champion). And there was her stepmother, Jessica, always over her shoulder, checking on college applications and enforcing ridiculous curfews. But at least she’d found a decent dance school that had kept her busy until she graduated, and then she was on a plane in a flash, heading west forever, first to Oregon for a couple years of college and then Seattle, where she continued to live, and where she was a soloist in a small company. It was her fifth year in a row as the Sugar Plum Fairy in
The Nutcracker. To tell the truth, the role had begun to bore her.
Thankfully, she had a little diversion: Jeremy was here for a visit. After several years wandering around the world, finding the best places to surf, and racking up quite an Internet following as a left-leaning political blogger. He was here with his boyfriend, Melvin, a tall and slim man who worked in advertising in New York.
Following the final performance of the season, Antonia took them to a party at a house near Greenlake, a party hosted by Lorenzo, a fellow dancer and on-again boyfriend, but it was kind of a grim scene: everyone was fretting about the state of the world (two wars they’d all protested, climate change) and what would they do once they were too old to dance. So Antonia escaped with Lorenzo and her guests to a little balcony off the master bedroom. Huddling in their wool hats, they gazed out toward the lake.
Antonia leaned against Lorenzo, feeling happy.
“Those kids,” Jeremy said. “All the little mice, the party guests, the girl who plays Clara? How do they do that, get on stage every night?”
“Aren’t they sweet?” Antonia said. “All of them, they’re just really serious, you know. All they want to do is dance! I see a lot of myself in them, actually.”
She felt a sly little look pass between Jeremy and Lorenzo, who was behind her, but she could imagine his face: a knowing grin, yeah, see what I mean? And she ignored it, because this was her night; there were seven bouquets of roses in the trunk of her Volvo.
Tomorrow, Jeremy and Melvin were driving out to La Push, to surf.
“Your brother is crazy,” Melvin said, smiling, proud. “In this weather? I’ll probably just watch from the shore.”
The way he was looking at her now, with sudden interest and admiration, he reminded her of Junior, how he’d looked at her that first time in her kitchen.
“You should come,” Melvin said kindly.
Junior’s face hadn’t appeared to her in years, and now all those feelings flooded back. First, the pleasure and relief of being noticed. Then a wary sense of attraction, the fluttering excitement of walking in the dark with an older man. Of course, there was also the regret, which she had felt almost as soon as she had started to kiss Junior. In a graveyard—so morbid! Not to mention freezing. The whole time, he had clung to her more tightly than her first boyfriend the night they had lost their virginity to each other.
Jeremy smiled at Melvin, then Antonia, and his expression, too, brought back the years, how she had once relied on him. But she knew he would prefer to make the drive without her. She saw that little, warning flash in his eyes. Anyway, she had rehearsal the next day, a new ballet, choreographed by Lorenzo, that the two of them were dancing in together.
“Wish I could,” she said, almost meaning it.
For a little while longer, they laughed and drank their wine while Melvin lit up a cigarette and did imitations of his sad boss, who spent the work day wandering aimlessly around the office, drinking Orange Crush and sharing his favorite lines from last night’s TV shows as if he’d written them.
“He gave up his own dreams of being a screenwriter,” Melvin said, “and now we pay.”
Later, she dropped Jeremy and Melvin at her apartment, then headed back to Lorenzo’s where she would spend the night.
The last time she saw Junior was the summer after her first year of college, when she was just starting to feel nostalgic. The twins were eager to spend time with her, and she’d driven them all over the county every day for a week, swimming in every body of water they could think of, staying out of the house as much as possible because—well—some things never changed. At Settler Falls, while waiting for the girls to change out of their swimsuits, she saw Junior walking across the parking lot, carrying a fleshy baby. She didn’t know whose baby. He and Rina had divorced, but that’s all she knew. Her mother and father wouldn’t talk about Junior to her, because they thought it might upset her. They did not understand how much she’d wanted to talk about him—about everything. For her entire adolescence, it had seemed like everyone was afraid to ask for her opinion. And after news got out about her and Junior, Parker wouldn’t talk to her at all. It was her fault, he said, that two good people had ended up so badly.
The Seattle streets were dark and shining now with rain. Antonia loved driving late at night, when there were few enough cars on the road that she felt like she was in a small town again and that the rest of her life was a big and wonderful thing just ahead of her.
When Antonia had seen Junior at the park, what had surprised her most was how young he looked, how happy. His strides were light and confident. In her memory he’d been weathered and middle-aged, but incomplete like her. She wanted to call out to him, but the twins returned and wrapped their cold wet arms around her waist. “We’re ready,” they said. Antonia could hear Junior laughing with the baby.
From SAY SOMETHING NICE ABOUT ME. Used with permission of Augury Books. Copyright © 2016 by Sara Schaff.