Going After Lovely
On Christmas Eve, Dad came home from the mall and hammered up a bedsheet in the doorway to the living room. No one was allowed in, and there was crashing and cursing behind it. I had been scanning TV commercials on the small set in the kitchen for any last-minute gems I might have missed during my six weeks of Christmas requests. Mom was locking the windows, and my older sister, Lovely, was at the kitchen table, talking on the phone with her boyfriend, Roger, a kid who would mainly twist my ears whenever he saw me, saying, “Now hear this!”
When Mom saw the hanging sheet, she padded quickly back to the bathroom and ran the water in the tub. Lovely hung up the phone.
“You were listening, weren’t you?” she said. “You’re going to tell them.”
I had no idea what she was talking about. I had just been watching the sheet, hoping for some clue about what was on the other side. Lovely headed toward the living room and pushed the sheet aside.
“Don’t!” Dad yelled. “Get out!”
Lovely turned back, her face pinched with contempt. She turned the TV off as she walked out of the room and gave me the finger. I crept across the kitchen to turn it back on, but kept my eyes trained on the sheet.
Finally, Dad came out from behind the sheet and grabbed me by the arm. “I need your help,” he said. “We have to put this together for Mom.”
A dozen long sheets of frosted plastic, four fluorescent bulbs and rigs, and two big bags of potting soil were laid out on the carpet in the living room.
I recognized the equipment. It was an indoor greenhouse, something my mother had pointed out in the Sharper Image catalog, but I knew — even at twelve — that she didn’t really want this. Dad had filled the small patch of dirt in our backyard with pachysandra specifically because they required no care.
The greenhouse was flimsy and everything snapped into place, but assembling it was still a two-man job. I held a piece, and Dad tried to slide another into it, cursing like I’d never heard him. The plastic wasn’t cut perfectly, but he hammered the pieces together anyway. Then he hung the fluorescent bulbs, and I poured the soil into the bottom when he was finished. He plugged the lights in, and they buzzed and glowed a white-purple above the dirt. I guess the idea was that you could have a garden inside the house.
“She’s gonna love this,” Dad said.
I realize now that Mom was well on her way to becoming completely agoraphobic. She made only one daily, frantic trip outside, never at night. The rest of the time, she stayed deep inside the house, reaching into the dryer, organizing cans in a closet. She had stopped working in October. At the time, I thought it was a move made out of choice — that people either wanted to work or they didn’t. But Mom was probably incapable of holding a job at that point.
Two other conspicuous packages sat in the living room: one for me and one for Lovely, I assumed. Dad always did his shopping on Christmas Eve, and as a result he bought everyone exactly what he thought they might want, no questions asked. It was a strange, vomiting kind of charity. He was helpless and well intentioned, working two jobs now, confused about why his family seemed to hate him.
But I didn’t hate him. I think I just missed him.
Dad turned off all the lights in the living room except for the fluorescent bulbs hanging inside the greenhouse. He meant for it to be pretty, but it wasn’t. It was like someone had put a pay phone in our living room. He looked disappointed for a second, as if he suddenly saw that the gift was ridiculous, and then he just switched off all the lights, and we went to bed.
Lovely came into my room and demanded to know what I’d helped Dad build. I wouldn’t tell.
“Go in and look for yourself,” I said, but I knew she wouldn’t. Dad had scared her earlier. Scared me, too.
“It’s something stupid for me, isn’t it? A dollhouse or something. Know what I really want?” she said. “A backpack. A big sturdy backpack.”
I didn’t know why anyone would want that. She had been hinting all fall that she wanted a car, but even she knew that wasn’t going to happen. At seventeen, her red hair and freckles were no longer cute, but she hadn’t grown into her name yet either. It was part of why she was so angry, I think.
“Weird things are going on, little brother. I found Mom under her bed when I came home from school yesterday. She said she fell asleep. What do you think of that?”
I shrugged. I had seen Mom throw her car keys in the trash two days earlier. I took them out when she left the room and set them on the counter. I didn’t mention that, though. I just said, “Don’t sleep too late tomorrow. I want presents.”
The next morning — Christmas — the sheet was still up in the living room, and we waited outside until Dad came down. Rather than pulling the sheet aside, he plucked at each nail until the curtain finally fell, and there, framed by the doorway and lit up by the sun through the windows, was the indoor greenhouse.
Mom approached it slowly, peering into it as if it might contain some sort of animal. It did look like a drained aquarium, eight feet high and four feet deep.
“What the heck’s that?” Lovely said. “What’s it do? Who’s it for?”
“It’s for Mom. It’s a greenhouse,” Dad said. “For inside.”
Mom opened the see-through door and looked in and then looked back at Dad. He smiled nervously, teeth gritted, and made a “voilà!” gesture with his hands. She shut the door, and Dad handed her a small package. There were seeds inside, and Mom shuffled through the envelopes nonstop like they were playing cards.
I guess at that point Mom was on medication, too. She did seem fainter and fainter, almost blurry to look at, charged with a purpose none of us could understand and focused on something just above our heads and out of the frame.
Lovely opened her package from Dad; it was a telescope. She didn’t hide her displeasure. Dad gave me an archery set. Since we lived in a row home in Northeast Philadelphia, there was no sensible place to shoot an arrow. Also, there were no stars above the lights of the city, telescope or not. A brown smog hung above the neighborhood that brightened occasionally under a full moon. Our stars were only as high as the street lamps, the floodlights at car dealerships, the blinkers at the tops of factory smokestacks.
And when Lovely and I looked around, we realized there were no other presents to open. Christmas was over.
Lovely ran out and slammed the door to her room, leaving the telescope box behind, unopened. Dad walked Mom over to the couch and whispered to her about what seeds would be best to plant first. I went to my room, got changed, and took the bow and arrows outside to see what I could do.
All the other kids in the neighborhood were riding their new bikes and playing with their new remote-control cars...