SPOT ON THE SUN: A Story
I have never forgotten the aroma of a certain bright red tomato my grandmother sliced into eighths and sprinkled with salt as the summer sun speckled through the wooden latticework shading the porch. It had been freshly picked that morning from the vegetable patch in the garden behind the house that was weeded and watered by my mother whenever she had a chance, which wasn’t nearly often enough to turn out anything like huge mounds of zucchini, radishes and cabbages we saw for sale at the farmers’ market down the road. When we’d drive over there in our battered station wagon, the four of us children piled into the back amidst yellowing newspapers, candy wrappers and kernels of sticky Crackerjacks, an old toothless farmer in a plaid shirt and overalls would stoop down and pull a bunch of carrots out of the nearest furrow, handing them out with a flourish, as if he were offering a lollypop or a stick of chewing gum. They still had their green leafy tops, and the dark earth clung to them. “Go ahead, eat,” he’d say, and we’d look at him in wonderment. “Don’t be afraid. The mud is the best part.” At his urging, we would warily bite in, glancing for reassurance at Ma and Pa who stood nearby.
Pa had rented a summer place for the seven of us up in the mountains. We stared open-mouthed as we drove up to it on that first day, having anticipated something so much flimsier. A log cabin, perhaps, considering that it was situated on the edge of the Appalachian Trail. For weeks, Pa had been reading us selections from the encyclopedia about great mountain ranges and the 2,000-mile trail once roamed by the Indians and Daniel Boone.
He felt there were certain things people should know. I was only six, but I could tell you that the Kosciusko Bridge was named after a Polish general, and LaGuardia Airport after the mayor of New York.
On the other hand, there were things he thought it better we should not know. I could tell by the hushed tone of the conversation when Ma and Pa discussed Uncle Herbert, usually when we were out driving and my grandmother stayed behind to catch up on the cooking. From my seat in the back, I strained to hear what they were saying. Most of the words were drowned out by the roar of the motor, but I was certain it was something bad. Next time we visited Uncle Herbert, with his scratchy, pock-marked face, I hid behind my mother to avoid having to kiss him.
The summer house was a weighty-looking pillared structure built of rough pitted stones that seemed to be stacked randomly on top of one another. There was no indication of any plaster or cement binding them together. The door was up a narrow flight of stairs towards one side, flanked by a trellis-covered porch. The house stood far back from the road on a hill, and the driveway was gravelly and made crunching sounds under the weight of our car. There were no neighbors in either direction as far as the eye could see, and no fences or gates. Both the house and trail were hidden behind a dense tangle of thicket, and if you didn’t watch carefully, you could miss the turn-off. Pa sometimes did, and we’d have to back up the lane a couple of yards to find our entrance.
Once you were past the thicket and the house sat high before you, the view to the right opened up on rolling stretches of glorious sunlit green dotted with dandelions. Butterflies flitted freely and wild raspberries and blackberries ripened on prickly bushes. We, too, ran free and wild, playing cowboys and Indians, searching for arrowheads or some other remnant of the people who had lived there long ago, and whooping until we were hoarse. The noise bothered no one. We chased the furry squirrels and chipmunks, hoping to catch one like my best friend’s brother had, but of course we were careful because he’d nearly got his finger bitten off and had to have stitches. Anyway, that’s what she told us.
We were fascinated by the swarms of shiny black ants and spent hours watching them drag seeds and bits of chaff to their anthills. My little brother liked to stomp on the hole with his foot to see what would happen.. I told him it was a sin, but he wouldn’t listen. Ma found some straw baskets in the pantry and gave them to us to fill with berries. When she called us home for lunch, the baskets were overflowing with juicy fruit. The bottoms, and naturally, our clothes, were blotched red and purple.
On rainy days, we sat on the scuffed wooden planks of the living room floor lining up the bottle caps we had collected during the week from the general store. There were always dozens of them on the countertop and littered around the square ice chest in the corner from which a bottle opener dangled on a long string. I liked to lay them out in long rows according to the brand and see how many I had of each. Pepsi cola usually won. Sometimes, when it was very cold, we’d go downstairs to the cavernous basement room which had an enormous stone fireplace and light a fire there, although my mother hated the mess of the ashes and the soot. She was supposed to be on vacation, she complained, but Pa took no notice. The table ran nearly the whole length of the room, and when I sat at the far end, I felt like a queen at court. As the rain splattered and driveled down the window, we counted out the pennies that were kept in an oversized pewter beer tankard on the mantelpiece. The copper-colored pennies glinted orange in the light of the fire.
The closest I ever came that summer to contact with the outside world was our weekly trip to the laundromat. The summer house, which was otherwise well-equipped, had no washing machine. It must have been hard on Ma, having four children to keep clothed. None of us was in diapers anymore, but all week the laundry piled up in the basement and was stuffed into bags that reminded me of the sacks of money I once saw being unloaded from the back of an armored bank truck.
A trip to the laundromat took a whole day. The only one was in a town miles away. I felt very important as I sat there on a stool next to my older brother, waiting to drop more nickels into the dryer when the clothes stopped tumbling. All kinds of people came into the laundromat and I liked to watch them and imagine who they were and where they lived. But when Ma took too long at the grocery store, I began to get fidgety and wonder if she were ever coming back. Not that I had any reason to believe she wouldn’t.
The summer house had only three bedrooms: one for my parents, one for my brothers, and one for my grandmother. But I was quite content with the little cot that had been set up for me in a niche at the foot of the stairs. Being a girl amongst a bunch of boys, I had my privacy, and I could read my books without being taunted and disturbed. Back home, one of my favorite places was the public library. Pa used to drop me off there when he was doing errands, and I savored every moment with exquisite pleasure, breathing in the smell of books, fingering the slim volumes in the children’s section and wondering how long it would take to finish them all, which I felt was my duty before graduating to the thicker books on the other shelves. Before the summer, Pa took all our library cards and filled an enormous suitcase with books, most of them for me. I kept them near my bed.
One night in August, I was wakened by a loud screeching noise outside followed by a dull thud. I heard rustling upstairs, feet scurrying around the creak of doors being opened. Rays of light streaked through the rectangle of dark framed by my window. I listened hard for the sounds of the night, for the crickets chirping and the frogs croaking, but they were gone. I threw my blanket off and tiptoed to the window. Someone was standing at a distance from the house, shining a flashlight into the hedges. It was too dark to see. I crept up the wooden stairs that creaked underfoot and peered into the living room. A lamp was burning in the corner, and on the sofa sat a man in a rumpled suit with a tie draped loosely around his neck. Standing over him was my mother, holding a striped dish cloth to his forehead. He was very pale, and seemed to be mumbling under his breath. The smell of liquor was in the air. I thought of Uncle Herbert.
Just then, Pa pushed the screen door open and came into the room. I stayed crouched in the corner, too frightened to come out or say a word. Pa looked like a towering colossus silhouetted in the lamplight. I heard my grandmother moving around in the kitchen, turning on the faucet, filling the kettle. What a strange time for tea, I thought. Not that Grandma ever drank anything else, even in the hottest weather. The man on the sofa was moaning, and spittle ran down his chin. He said something and Pa bent closer to hear. Pa’s sturdy back eclipsed the light.
I felt a prickling in my foot and shifted my position slightly on the stair. The wood squeaked. Pa whipped around and caught my eye. “And what do you think you’re doing, young lady? Off to bed with you, right this instant!”
I flew down the steps and threw myself into bed, burying my head under the covers.
Next morning, there were no signs that anyone had been in the house. Pa sat reading near the window, a lock of black hair falling over his forehead. Ma was pairing socks from a basket of laundry and Grandma was setting the breakfast things on the table. The boys had made a tent out of their blankets and were playing some game of make-believe inside. The talk at breakfast revolved around ordinary things. About the lettuce needing watering, and the car needing tuning, and about when we would go to the beach.
When breakfast was done, I swept the breadcrumbs on the table into a little heap and went out to feed the birds as I did every morning. The sun shone warmly and the grass was still wet with dew. I watched a ladybug climb a green stalk and picked a yellow buttercup. Then I noticed a splash of color that seemed out of place amid the green. I bent down and picked it up. It was a tie, reeking of vomit.