When Laurie Weber was eight, her father decided to build her and Joel a tree house. Since he was a doctor, she worried he wouldn’t know how. He wasn’t like other fathers she knew who’d built tree houses, who also played golf, read the sports page every morning, and said bad things about President Kennedy. He was different and Laurie thought he should stick to what he was good at, which was cutting into people.
Her mother asked, “Do you know what you’re doing? Isn’t it supposed to rain?” She was worn out, not for any reason.
Her father said, “I’ve got blueprints.”
Her mother shrugged and went back to ironing, so Laurie said, “I always wanted a tree house!” She hoped she sounded cheerful, so her father wouldn’t feel sad and just give up.
Joel asked, “Can I help build?”
“I want it to be a surprise,” her father said and then went out to the garage, where he kept his tools.
Seeing Joel’s face, their mother put down her iron and hugged his shoulders, then leaned down to kiss the top of his head. Laurie wondered why Joel didn’t know how to talk to their father the way she did. Then she looked for a glass in the cupboard, so she wouldn’t have to see.
“When’s he going to build it, Mommy?” Joel asked.
“Maybe it’ll be finished when we get back from Cleveland,” she said, like she didn’t think it would be, and also like the air she breathed was sadness.
Laurie’s mother had grown up in Ohio, which was another state, and she was taking Laurie and Joel back to her nephew’s wedding. Laurie would have been happier if her father was going, even if that meant she and Joel had to stay behind with Aunt Hannah, who smoked.
Laurie’s mother was the only one in the family who came from somewhere else. She knew what it was like to walk to school in the snow. She called Coke “pop.” She was different from them, far away even when she was in the same room. It made her glamorous, like a movie star, and also hard to see, float-y like a ghost, half in one place and half in another.
“Is Milton Stern going to be at Jimmy’s wedding?” Laurie asked.
Her mother didn’t look up from the slip she’d gone back to ironing. “Oh, no. He doesn’t know them. He was my friend. My dear, dear friend.”
He was, Laurie knew, the man who had asked her to marry him, a long time before she had married Laurie’s father. He had gotten down on one knee and was too poor to afford a ring. Her mother cried when she said no, and he said, “Well, I had to take a shot.” The picture of him in her mother’s album was taken at an amusement park. Milton was holding cotton candy. On the edge of the yellowing black-and-white photograph, he had written, I’m ready! Are you? “Were you?” Laurie asked once—only once—and her mother had sighed and turned away.
Laurie wished she was more like her mother, beautiful because of her name—Belle, which even meant “beautiful”—and the smells of laundry starch and lipstick, and the way she laughed at I Love Lucy reruns, and how she hummed along when “Red Roses for a Blue Lady” was on the radio. And also because two men had wanted to marry her, which meant she had figured out exactly the right way to be.
In Cleveland the trees had soft, green leaves, and the heat took up all the space, so it felt like there wasn’t any air. Laurie climbed into the backseat of Uncle Arthur’s car and missed California, where it was easy to breathe and the red seats in her father’s old Imperial were cracked and felt soft under her thighs.
At dinner Aunt Elsie sat at the head of the table. She was twelve years older than Belle, with orange hair and a bent nose pointing down. After their parents died of flu in the same week, Elsie had gone to live with Great-Aunt Tilly, and Belle was sent to an orphanage because Tilly didn’t have room.
An orphan. Another way her mother was different. And Tilly not wanting her—no one wanting her—was something Laurie couldn’t think even think about, like the part in The Incredible Journey when she was sure Bodger was dead.
Dinner was served by Rosalie, the maid. Laurie didn’t know anyone at home who had a maid. Rosalie wore a uniform and held the silver tray of meat down low with her brown hands so Belle could pick Laurie’s piece.
After dinner, in the room with two beds where she and Joel would sleep, Belle took Laurie’s nightgown and Joel’s pajamas out of the suitcase. “Get ready for bed and Rosalie will play cards with you.”
Laurie didn’t know how to talk to a maid. “Why can’t you play?”
“I’m going out.”
“With Aunt Elsie and Uncle George?”
“No, they’re going to the rehearsal dinner.”
“Why aren’t you going to that?”
“That’s just for people in the wedding. I’m going out with other people. Friends.” She zipped the suitcase closed. “Rosalie is loads of fun. You’ll see. She’ll play cards with you.”
Joel yelled from the bathroom, “I hate cards!”
“Well, then you can watch TV.”
Laurie said, “I still don’t see—”
“Oh, Laurie.” Her mother was achy with wanting to be somewhere else. “Come on now. I have to get ready.”
Laurie watched her swishing skirt as she left the room.
“What friends?” she called out, but not loud enough to be heard.
She and Rosalie sat at a card table. Joel sat on the floor watching Rawhide. When Rowdy Yates shot someone, he whispered, “Pew! Pew!” and his fingers shaped themselves into guns.
Rosalie balanced a Lucky Strike on the edge of a glass ashtray while she dealt the cards. “Look for runs or three-of-a-kinds. You know what those are?” She put the cigarette between her lips and sucked in. “It’s hard to play with just two,” she said, smoke gushing from her mouth and nose like a dragon.
“I can watch TV,” Laurie said, trying to please, to be small.
Rosalie looked at her hand, squinting through the smoke. “Come on now. Show me what you got.”
“Then how can I win?”
“This is practice. Don’t worry ’bout winning.”
A relief. They played for three hours, even after Joel fell asleep on the floor and Rosalie stooped to shake him awake and walk him to bed. Laurie thought Rosalie would tell her to go to sleep too, but she came back to the TV room, lit another cigarette, and dealt a new hand. They played through Route 66 and The Twilight Zone, barely talking.
Once Rosalie said, “Your mama sure looked nice tonight. Where’s she going?”
“Out,” Laurie said. “She used to live here. She has a lot of friends.” Then she held her breath, waiting for what Rosalie might say.
But all Rosalie said was, “Uh-huh.” And then, “Your mama is a nice lady. Very friendly. Courteous.”
Later, lying under the bedspread in the strange darkness, Laurie tried to think about her mother as someone other people knew and had opinions about. Was she nice, friendly, courteous? To think of her being those things meant thinking of her as a person and not a mother.
She tried hard to stay awake until she heard the click of Belle’s heels on the hallway floor but she couldn’t. Just before she slept, she hoped that other people weren’t trying to pretend her mother was someone she wasn’t: a person who had nothing better to do than be courteous to everyone and go to parties and not pay attention to her real life, which had people in it that maybe other people didn’t even know about.
Laurie and Joel were eating pancakes the next morning when their mother entered the dining room and poured coffee from the percolator.
“You look like someone on TV,” Joel said.
She laughed, something she almost never did so early. Or ever. “Well, thank you, sweetheart.”
Aunt Elsie came out of the kitchen, followed by Uncle George. They were dressed in tennis clothes and looked sweaty.
“Belle, you’re not wearing that?” Elsie said.
“I’m just having breakfast with the kids.”
“We’re leaving in an hour. We can’t be late. George, tell her about the traffic on Fairmount.”
Uncle George said, “There’s traffic on Fairmount,” and winked at Laurie.
Her mother laughed again, took another sip, then gave her cup to Rosalie, who was setting out a platter of eggs. “Thank you, Rosalie. The coffee was delicious.”
She was so sweet, remembering to be kind to Rosalie, leaving the room gently. Laurie’s heart hurt with loving. She stood up, pushing her chair backwards.
Her aunt winced. “Oh, honey, the parquet!”
Rosalie said, “Don’t you want to finish your pancakes, Miss Laurie?”
Remembering her mother, she said, “They were really good. Thank you for making them. But I have to get dressed too.”
“Well, honey, what are you getting dressed for?” Aunt Elsie was buttering a slice of toast at the sidebar. “You and Joel are going to play in the pool today.”
Laurie’s face burned; she hated when her mistakes were noticed. “I thought—”
“The wedding is just for grownups. And we have the pool, and it’s such a pretty day.” She nudged George aside as she reached for eggs. “Doesn’t that sound like fun?”
By the time she reached her mother’s room, she had swallowed the tears that had begun to clog the back of her throat. She pushed on the door without knocking. “Why aren’t we going to the wedding?”
Her mother stood in a white slip and nylons, unzipping the green dress hanging on the back of the closet door. Without turning around, she said, “You and Joel? It’s too much sitting for you.”
“Why did you bring us? Why did we even have to come?”
Her mother slipped the dress off the hanger and stepped into it. “Because I thought it would be fun. The airplane ride, Aunt Elsie and Uncle George. The pool. A little trip.”
“We could have stayed with Dad!”
Belle turned away from the mirror and knelt in front of her. The shoulders of her dress slid down her arms. In the mirror Laurie could see her unzippered back and the hook of her white brassiere.
Belle grabbed her hands. “Listen, Laurie. I want to talk to you about something important.”
Laurie pulled her hands free. “I want to talk to Dad!”
The main thing: not to let the words come out of her mother’s mouth.
Laurie could tell she wanted to keep talking, but Belle sighed and flipped her wrist over to check her watch. “If he’s working on the tree house, he might not hear the ring.”
She was right: No one answered at home. It wasn’t even 8:00 in California. Her father liked getting an early start. Not like her mother, who could take a long time—maybe even years—to figure things out.
After they all left—snapping at each other, hunting for keys, smelling like Chanel No. 5 and White Rain—Rosalie said, “You children want to swim in the pool?”
Joel shook his head up and down fast, being funny. Laurie said, “I guess.”
“Well, now, you just wait ’til I make the beds and then we’ll go outside. Go on now. Get in your bathing suits. And go to the bathroom!” she called after them. “No peeing in Miz Elsie’s pool!”
By noon the air was thick with heat. Laurie splashed her way to the deep end. She hoisted herself partway out of the water and let her upper half rest against the hot cement.
“They must be married now,” she said to Rosalie, who sat at a table under an umbrella, smoking and reading the Plain Dealer.
Rosalie nodded without looking up. “I expect so. I expect your mama and your auntie been doing a lot of crying by now.”
“Do you know them?”
Rosalie closed the newspaper on her lap. “Who, Jimmy and Annie? I know Jimmy since he was two years old.”
“Do you think they’re in love?”
“What kind of question is that?”
“Do you think they’ll stay married?”
Rosalie peered at Laurie as though she were a speck in a tin of flour that might be a weevil. “Married people stay married. Don’t you know that?”
“Me and Mr. Grant been married twenty-eight years now. Had some hard times, like everybody. Still married, though.”
“What kind of hard times?
Rosalie glared at her for a moment, like she was mad. But then she said, “You just stick it out, no matter what. The two of you. Just you two. No matter what comes.” The phone was ringing; she stood. “Now you children get out of the pool until I answer that.” She watched as Joel flopped into a deck chair and Laurie pulled herself all the way out of the water, then smashed out her cigarette and slid the glass door open.
Laurie lay on the edge of the pool. She watched a droplet of water sizzle and disappear on her arm. She was almost asleep when she heard the door open again. “Who called?”
“Someone for your mama.”
“Nope,” Rosalie said, sitting back down, picking up the paper.
Laurie slipped back into the water. She floated on her back, squinting at the blue-blazing sky, feeling the tiny waves lapping against her ears. She forced herself not to think about arguing in her mother’s room, how the bed was perfectly made before Rosalie said she was going to make it, the spread pulled hard across the mattress, tight, un-slept-in.
She and Joel, limp and bored, red-eyed from chlorine, were watching TV when the grownups crashed through the afternoon quiet. Her mother and Uncle George were laughing like crazy people, and Aunt Elsie said, “You two,” and then, “How’s dinner coming, Rosalie?”
Rosalie said something Laurie couldn’t make out that sent her mother hurrying out of the room. “Not much for us, Rosalie,” Aunt Elsie was saying. “Just do a couple of cutlets for the children.”
Laurie rose from the floor and stepped into the hallway. She put one foot carefully in front of the other.
“I, for one, would like one of Rosalie’s cutlets,” Uncle George said.
She tiptoed down one hall and then another, coming to a stop outside her mother’s closed door. She could hear her voice but not most of the words she was saying, except at the end when she asked, “You’re sure?” and forgot to whisper. Silence, the click of the phone being hung up. And then something else: the bed creaking and sobs being shoved into a pillow.
On the drive home from the airport, she watched her parents carefully as the night whizzed by. They talked about the wedding, how hot it was, Rosalie’s cooking. The twinkly lights of towns made shadows crawl across their faces. She wished her father would reach over and hold her mother’s hand, but that wasn’t how they were, and she tried to like that nothing was different.
The next morning her father woke her up early. He was dressed for work. “Want to see the tree house?”
It was down a hill, under fluttery leaves. A real house, not just pieces of wood hammered into some branches. It was small but it had a roof and a deck running all the way around. Cut into the deck, a trap door to be pushed from underneath, and a ladder from the ground to get to it. It had window holes with shutters that could be pulled closed and a door that swung open and shut.
She loved how the tree branches were like a mother’s arms, carrying everything important, offering home. “It looks like a house in a coloring book,” she said.
He laughed. “How ’bout we sleep in it tonight?”
“All of us?”
“Mom probably wouldn’t like sleeping on a hard floor all night. But you and Joel and I can use our sleeping bags. How’s that sound?”
She said it sounded fine.
All day she thought about sleeping in the tree house. Joel packed a bag with stuffed animals, a pretend hammer, and a plastic fireman hat. She decided not to bring anything, knowing her father would take care of the flashlights and whatever was important.
Just before he came home from work, she found her mother in the kitchen, sitting at the table. She was staring out the window at the old loquat tree shading the hot side of the house.
“What are you doing?” Laurie asked.
Laurie sniffed to see if she could figure out what they were having.
“In a minute,” her mother said.
Laurie went to stand next to her. She had been staying away, afraid her mother might want to have the talk she had started in Cleveland. But her voice—shaking from excitement and too much happiness that day—was back to flat now.
Carefully she put her hand on her mother’s shoulder. “You could sleep in the tree house with us.”
Belle shifted out from under the touch and rose from her chair. “Camping’s your dad’s department,” she said.
Laurie watched as she went to the refrigerator and stood before the open freezer door. She pulled a package of lamb chops off the frosty shelves. And then stood there, in front of the open door, not moving.
“Can we have them with applesauce?” Laurie asked.
Her mother stood there a few more seconds and then closed the door. She set the chops on the counter and pulled a pan out from one of the cupboards. “I waited too long.”
Only after she held the lamb chops under hot water at the sink did Laurie understand that she meant the meat was still frozen.
Joel had a fever after dinner, and Belle made him go to bed. He refused and lay on the living room floor, sobbing and kicking. Laurie saw looks pass between her parents—her father’s like begging, her mother’s like no—and then her father said, “You and I will do it next weekend, son.” Joel cried harder because thinking about something happening wasn’t as good as when it happened now.
She and her father carried sleeping bags, flashlights, and a bag of marshmallows down to the tree house at dusk. Under the trees the light disappeared: she had to concentrate on the dim, wobbly beam thrown by her father’s flashlight to know where to put her feet. She followed him up the ladder, through the trap door, and onto the deck, already dirty with leaves and acorns. And then into the house itself, which was just one room, and empty.
Once in her sleeping bag, the taste of marshmallow still on her teeth (which she had brushed up at the house and which now felt stained and filthy), she tried to sleep. She liked the smell of the wood that had just been cut, but she tossed and turned on the hard floor. She heard paws on the deck and then on the roof, and acorns falling, and once, a barking dog.
Finally, late in the night, she woke her father and asked to go back to the house. They rolled up their bags and stepped out onto the deck. Her father flipped on the flashlight and held the trap door so she could ease herself down the ladder. Then he threw the bags to the ground and followed her.
“I’m sorry,” she said as they made their way up the path.
“It’s all right,” he said, still half-asleep. That was how he was: He never fought for his way, never minded anything. It was like a knife going through her. She almost hated him.
She knew he thought she had to go to the bathroom or was afraid of the dark or wild animals. But it wasn’t any of those things. And it wasn’t that the tree house was flimsy, ramshackle, not as perfect as she thought at first.
It was wrong, the way they had divided themselves up.
She was the only one who could see it. Right then she knew they would always need her to be the one to spot what was almost invisible—tiny cracks, splinters where it was supposed to be smooth, shards of shattered glass: all the brokenness—and prop up what sagged, all the neglected, tumbledown parts.
In her own bed at last, knowing that, for now, she had done everything she could and didn’t have to be responsible for what might or might not come, she finally slept.