They are playing a children’s game with a tin can and a set of stones. The stones are laid out in patterns on the driveway. The girls take care where they step.
Ruby is wearing a dress over her shorts. It is checkered and made of nylon, one of those costumes they sell at Party City for ten dollars. When she sits her denim shows underneath the skirt.
This morning she knocked on my bathroom door. I was half-naked, bent over the sink. I stood up to open the lock, but when I raised my eyes I saw her in the mirror. She was standing behind me.
“Jesus, Ruby. How did you get in here?” I turned around and covered myself with a towel. “What’s wrong?”
She kept her eyes fixed to the floor. “I want to shave my legs. Can you show me?”
“You’re only nine.” I laughed. “You’re too young for that.”
She began to cry, burying her face in my shoulder. “But I want to be Dorothy on Halloween, and she wears a dress. You don’t understand. I’ve wanted this all my life.”
“It’s only August,” I said. “What are you worrying about Halloween for?”
She was sobbing, her cheek pressed against my shoulder. I put my hand on top of her head. “Okay, okay. I’ll show you how to shave your legs and you can wear Dorothy’s pretty dress. All right?”
I wondered what I was going to tell Gene when he came home.
“All right.” She looked up at me with big, tearful eyes and nodded.
Afterward she went outside in her dress to show off her legs. I watched her prancing for a while among the stones, until the game made her forget, it seemed, that it had all happened, that she had grown up a little more than the rest of them.
There was a big group of them out there, but one by one the children are dropping out as their mothers call them home. Lights turn on in the houses, in the kitchens and bedrooms. Televisions blue the windows.
At last only Ruby is left outside. I go to the door. “Time to come in now,” I call. “They’ve all gone home.”
“Can I stay a minute?” She is standing under the basketball net, dribbling the ball. “I’ve got to make ten in a row.”
I close the door behind me and go to the window to watch her shoot. She makes five and misses the sixth and starts over again at one. Then she misses the third and the ball rolls under the car.
She is standing there watching the ball roll away and suddenly she looks up and stretches out her hand. It seems like she’s reaching for something that isn’t there. Then I see the lights flickering around her face, and I realize she’s catching fireflies.
I hide behind the window, peering out at her, thinking of my own childhood and how somehow I stopped seeing any fireflies. She’s got one now. There is something beautiful about the way she holds her fist above her head like a lantern.
Then she does something that sets me reeling. She lowers her fist to her chest and blows on it, then she shakes the fist like a dice—one, two, three—and lets go. Her hand sweeps out in front of her. A little light is released. It bobs, flickers, and disappears.
Where did she learn to do that? She turns toward my window and smiles.
It is that time of night just between dark and day, when you can’t see inside from outside, or the other way around, unless a light is turned on somewhere. The light is pouring onto Ruby from the garage. But where I am standing the room is full of shadows.
How can she see me here? I am in the dark.
I met Liam on a river in Pennsylvania. We saw each other and parted before we even spoke. We were on inner tubes, spinning down the Delaware, but I was far ahead and moving faster with the current because I was lighter. I noticed him because he had only one leg. He was so young, and, of course, it was the war. He was getting farther behind me, and then the river turned the bend and he disappeared from view.
I was twenty-two and just out of nursing school. My sister Meg and I had taken jobs in a hospital down in Richmond, and before we left we spent a weekend in a tent on the banks of the river.
Later, he and I saw each other again at the campsite. Liam was staying in the tent next to ours. He was vacationing with his niece, and we started talking by the fire while Meg braided the little girl’s hair. He had a prosthetic leg and he attached it before putting the hot dogs on the fire.
He’d lost his leg in the war, he said, during the Siege of Khe Sanh seven years before. He had only been there nine days when it happened, and then he was hot hoisted out and spent three weeks in the woods of France in a chateau they were using as a hospital, before going home.
“Fucken Bo Dois,” he said. “They took my leg and everything else.”
“Does it hurt still?” I asked him, rolling a hot dog over the flames. The war had just ended and it was all anyone seemed to talk about. Meg and I had gotten out of nursing school just a few months too late.
He said, “Damned right it does. After all these years.”
Later, in the middle of the night, he called out in his sleep, and Meg turned but didn’t wake. I crawled through the flap into his tent. He was cursing and rolling with the pain. The little girl was upright, her hands clasped in her lap.
“Shh,” I told him, putting my fingers on his hip. “It’s all right.”
I stayed with him for an hour, rubbing the stump where his limb would have been. I gave him a pill for the pain. When he said, “No,” I told him, “Take it. I’m a nurse.”
I saw between his lashes the beginning of tears. “There were so many fuckin’ heroes,” he said.
“I know,” I said.
“I wasn’t one.”
“It’s okay. It doesn’t matter now.”
“Do you think it will go on like this forever?”
The pill knocked him out before I could think of an answer.
The next morning I decided not to move to Richmond. Meg left without me. It would be almost a year before she would speak to me again. Liam was teaching in a high school in Franklin, and I took a job in a hospital, in the town next to his. I moved back into my mother’s house in Pequannock. It was just the two of us; my father had died from drinking, long before.
Everything was just as I’d left it—the brown and yellow carpet, my poster of Rock Hudson still on the wall above the lamp.
In the evenings my mother and I ate spaghetti on tray tables by the television. At nine o’clock each night she stood up and stretched her arms and said, “Bed for me. Good night, love.” I slept with my hair in curlers and the bathroom light coming in underneath the door.
Liam never stayed the night, except for one time. We’d come home from the movies drunk and gasping, grabbing onto each other.
“That’s it,” my mother told him. “You can’t drive home like this.” She brought the cot up from the basement and Liam slept in the living room by the fireplace.
“Thank you, miss, thank you,” Liam said, his eyes shiny with the liquor. We fell onto the floor, laughing.
We were together for three years. We never lived together; for three years we dated like teenagers. In the middle of the night we snuck into my room sometimes and made love while my mother slept in the room next door. We went to the cinema; in the summers we went to the fairs, where old men sent ducks round a pool with prizes attached to their bottoms. We ate ice from paper cones and bought flowerpots we didn’t know what to do with. We pointed out the beautiful children and gave them lovely, strange names, like Trudy and Sunday and Vienna. Under the Ferris wheel we watched two girls stringing cat’s cradle, and Liam undid his shoelace and we played too, swinging in a car underneath them.
In the evening once, in the park, he chased a firefly over the pond. I remember he ran all the way into the water to catch it. There he was, standing up to his waist in water with the algae around his belt, and he blew on his fist and rolled the fly from his hand like dice—one, two, three. I laughed. “Why do you do that? That poor thing.”
He kissed the tips of his fingers. “For luck, lovely Alice.”
He had chocolate in foil. With the chocolate still in his mouth, he sang an Irish song, “And the band plays Waltzing Matilda, and the old men still answer the call. But year after year, their numbers get fewer. Someday no one will march there at all.”
Liam taught Home Economics to the tenth grade at Franklin High School. He did it because in the army he had been a cook. That was what they sent him over for. Not to fight or fly airplanes or things like that, but to make the meals. He was very good at it, but the students made fun of him. I came to visit him once. I saw the way they looked at him. When he walked with his bad leg they turned their faces away. They spoke in low voices over ceramic stoves. The boys wore their aprons around their heads like bandanas.
I hated them for it. The kitchen was purple and green. The sun came in through the windows, and I waited in the corner until the class had finished. They laughed at me too, then, for kissing him in front of them as they left.
I said to him, “Why do you care what they think of you? You’re a chef—why should you be ashamed of that?”
He laughed. “I’m not a chef. I teach children how to cook. What is there to be proud of in that?”
I moved in close and put my arms around his waist. Reaching under his apron, I undid his belt. He put his hand over mine. “Not here,” he said.
There were nights when I had to work. I was never altogether sure what he did those nights when he wasn’t with me. His sister and his niece lived two hours away; his parents were dead.
I knew he had a few friends nearby, other teachers. He went to the bars with them sometimes. These men were much older than Liam. They had second wives and second homes and gray hair. It was never clear to me why he’d chosen them.
One afternoon I left work early to surprise him. It was the day before his birthday, and my mother and I had made him a cake. We spent an hour on it and left it on the counter to cool and listened to the afternoon program on the radio. Later I put the cake in a white box and tied the box with string and drove to his house as the sun went down.
He lived in the kind of neighborhood a single man could buy on a teacher’s salary—box houses with little lawns and hedges between the driveways. There were vases and knickknacks behind the windows, like storefronts. In the winter, the smell of chimneys.
He had asked me to live with him many times. But I knew that if I did then I could not leave. I could no longer come and go, and we would not be waiting anymore, for the next time. We would grow older eventually, and marry, but nothing would change for us. After the wedding I would come home to the dishes from the morning before. Maybe we would get a new bed. That would be all.
When I turned the corner onto his lane there was a limousine parked out front of his house. Liam came outside with a knapsack over his shoulder. I got out of my car. “Are you going somewhere?” Right away I thought he had another woman in the backseat of the car. He came staggering toward me across the lawn, as fast as he could manage.
“Baby, wait,” he said.
His leg was giving him trouble; he had a hard time walking. I threw open the door as he leaned out to touch me. He stumbled; he tried to take my arm, but he was too far to reach. He fell onto the grass, and the driver came out of the car to help him up. There was no one else in the limousine.
“Tell me what’s going on,” I said. “How are you paying for this?”
Liam held onto the driver’s shoulder to steady himself. “It’s free. It’s a gift.”
“A gift from who?”
“From a hotel. In Atlantic City.”
The driver stood with his hands behind his back and looked out onto the street behind us.
“Why would they be giving you a limousine?”
Liam took a handkerchief out of his pocket and rubbed it across his forehead. “I should have told you,” he said. “I’m sorry.”
“You’ve been gambling?”
“I’m sorry,” he said again, softer this time. “I wanted to surprise you.”
“Surprise me? With what?”
The driver took off his cap and nodded his head to me. “Ma’am,” he said, and got back inside the car to wait.
“I’ve been trying to make enough to buy a restaurant,” Liam said. “Then I was going to stop.”
“How much have you lost?” I asked him.
He mumbled something.
“Twenty thousand,” I said slowly, nodding. “Twenty thousand.”
“No,” he said, his eyes suddenly shining. “I’ve made twenty thousand.”
I was quiet. “Oh,” I said after a moment. “Oh, you’ve made it.”
He seemed disappointed. He took my shoulders in his hands. “Twenty thousand dollars, Alice.” He whooped. “Twenty fucking thousand dollars!”
“I know,” I said. “It’s a lot.”
He frowned. “Why can’t you be happy for me? Don’t you get it? I’m rich.”
I thought about it. “I am happy for you.”
“Well,” he said. “You sure aren’t acting like it.”
I took his hand and smiled. “I love you,” I said. “Why don’t I go with you this time, and watch you play?”
Liam won five thousand more that weekend. He showed me around the casino floor with his chest puffed out and his hand around my waist. He’d been coming one night a week for two years. The waitresses flirted with him; he was the soldier with the missing leg. The bartenders bought him drinks.
He won seven thousand more in the next two months. He left every other weekend to drive down to the casinos. He left on Fridays and came back on Sundays. Before he came home he drove to the bank and put all the money away in a savings account.
Each time he won, he came to my door with roses tied up with ribbon inside a box. First thing he wanted was to make love straight away. Afterward he ran his fingers over my stomach and talked about the restaurant he would open. “An upscale diner,” he said. “Kobe beef and potatoes fried with rosemary.”
During the day he was restless; he tapped songs onto the dinner table with his fingers. After school got out he drove to Mountain Lakes and Mendham looking for venues. These were the fancy towns, he said—the women with tiny dogs; trees like pillars along the road.
At night, though, he began to sleep without waking. At ten o’clock I’d call and remind him, “Did you take your pill, Liam?” and sometimes he was silent for a moment before answering. “Yep, I just did, Alice.” But I started to think maybe he didn’t need the pills anymore. And without them, I wondered whether he needed me either.
In September we drove up to Boston for my girlfriend’s wedding. She and I had been roommates our first year in college. We’d slept in bunk beds in the dormitories. The first week we hung a bulletin board and pasted pictures of men and fashions we’d cut from magazines.
At twenty-five, she was marrying her college sweetheart. They’d met in the student bar, fallen in love. I remembered him with pimples, shaving in his boxers in front of our bathroom mirror. I thought it probably wouldn’t last.
She was wearing her grandmother’s dress. It had long sleeves and open shoulders, and she’d kept it wrapped in tissue paper in her mother’s basement for years. She wore a band of gold around her arm like an Egyptian.
The reception was given in an old theater that had been turned into a banquet hall. The seats had been removed to make space for the tables and the dance floor. But the mezzanine was still there, and the chandeliers and the angels carved into the walls, and you could tell it had once been a place where great performances had happened.
Thick white candles burned on the tables; there were triangles of butter and brown bread. The favors were small chocolate eggs in blue boxes.
The band played jazz music on folding chairs set up on the stage, and as they began their second song the waiters came around holding trays of sweetmeats. Later they served a chocolate ganache cake. The moon came through the skylight and spilled over the tables, and there was a little pool in the center of the room, and a fountain, and the water was whited by the light. We stood by it and it seemed another place all together.
As the music slowed Liam wanted to dance. I said no, the bride was going to throw the bouquet. My college friends prodded me in the side. “You’ll catch it,” they told me, and winked. At school we’d made predictions, and they said I’d be the first among them to be married; I had been seeing a defender on the soccer team at the time.
The bride called the unmarried girls together. She went up to the mezzanine with her flowers, and we stood in a cluster on the floor by the stage. My girlfriends pushed me to the front. “Go on, Alice, go on. You’ve been with him three years.”
Later the bride would throw her garter to the bachelors. I saw Liam sitting with the other men at the tables, waiting and laughing. They watched us struggle to grope our way to the front of the group.
Then, unexpectedly, without counting to three, the bride threw the bouquet off the balcony. I saw it falling and I thought, It’s coming to me. I reached out for it. It fell into my hands, and I don’t know why but I was startled. I let it go. I could have bent to pick it up still, but I didn’t. Another girl threw herself onto the floor between my legs and took it into her arms.
I looked over at Liam. He wasn’t smiling anymore. I had this terrible feeling of having let him down somehow. I don’t know why but it was like the feeling I’d gotten after my father had died, when I woke one morning and couldn’t picture his face anymore.
I met Gene not long after, in a miniatures shop in Chester. Liam was making a dollhouse for his niece’s birthday, and he’d asked me to pick out the furniture. The week before, he’d found a location for his restaurant, in a lot where Mendham Park opened onto Main Street. He spent the weekend making notes on the menu and during his breaks he worked on the dollhouse.
Gene was a toymaker. His store was next to an ice cream parlor. Little girls crowded around his showcases with popsicles in their hands. They touched the tiny lamps and wooden dolls and then drew back as if they would break them.
He was shy. He had delicate hands. I had a wicker basket filled with decorations for Liam’s dollhouse, and at the cash register he handed me a flyer for his toy exhibition. “Anyone can go,” he said. “You don’t have to be a collector or anything.”
I did go. He seemed nice, and maybe a little lonely. When I saw him again I said my name was Alice. He told me his name was Gene. This was sixteen years ago.
Through the window, I see that Ruby’s picked up the basketball again.
Every night the sun goes down and it gets dark. For a long time, I have been seeing things happen around me—Ruby does things, Gene does things . . . I can’t explain them. It’s just that—well, there’s that wedding again, and those little chocolate eggs on the table. And the band is playing jazz on the stage, and around them the ghosts of old actors go spinning to somebody else’s song.