Book excerpt

Muskrat Courage

Philip Lawson

St. Martin's Press

Early in the day of the storm that stole Olivia, I watched in horror as she barely avoided being trampled by the pony I had given her as an indulgent consolation gift. At the moment of her rescue, with her small body shaking in my arms, I realized that this new task of fathering would demand all my wisdom, heart, and courage.
But only her abduction later that day drove home the knowledge that parenting—more exactly, my failure at it—could make me feel like dying myself.
Or like killing the man who, using the storm as cover, had kidnapped her.
That October morning dawned too much like an idyllic autumn Sunday: butterscotch light, a few stray vanilla ice-cream clouds, and sparrows singing in the sycamores. It wasn’t a Sunday, though, a circumstance that left life’s cheap irony incomplete. Instead, I faced another prosaic Wednesday, which people with jobs call Hump Day, the Heartbreak Hill in the Peachtree Road Race of their workweek.
But Wednesday held no such terrors for me, William Keats, Esq., man of leisure. My school-counseling career involuntarily on hold but my bank balance buoyed by my recent modest inheritance, I contemplated another day of reading and futzing about at household chores and home improvements, of listening to music and preparing a couple of unhurried meals. If only Adrienne could have enjoyed a similar schedule. But although my contributions ensured the day-to-day upkeep of the recently purchased old house we shared, as well as a few renovations, Adrienne handled all the mortgage payments. The local First Peoples Bank would have frowned on two ne’er-do-wells in the same household.
Busy in our mint green kitchen at seven A.M., I looked up to see Adrienne pad sleepily through the door. Immediately I quit my breakfast assembly line for a hug. Adrienne, returning my embrace, raised wicked, nonculinary thoughts with a long kiss.
“Do we have time?” I said.
She smiled. “Not really, Will. You and Olivia may have nothing pressing to do, but I’ve got another long in-service day ahead, remember? That was just a foretaste of the time we’ll have when I get home. If I can still keep my eyes open, of course. Besides, I’ve already heard Olivia puttering about.”
“Damn! Well, anticipation will make the hours fly like, um, chickens hungry for their mash.”
“Now there’s an image worthy of your literary namesake. Coffee ready yet?”
“Any second now.” Gliding back and forth between the Formicatopped center island and the stove, gracefully juggling coffeemaker, toaster, and two skillets, I whipped up a breakfast of raisin bagels, cheese-flecked scrambled eggs, and onion-laced homefries. So proficient at cooking had I grown over the past year that I could simultaneously prepare our meal and watch Adrienne sip her coffee as she scanned the Atlanta Constitution. With one smooth leg crossed over the other beneath her checkered flannel robe and her slipper bobbing to the St. Saens symphony in our countertop CD player, she stirred emotions ranging from admiration to idolatry—a narrow bandwidth, maybe, but one that I enjoyed inhabiting.
Just as I slid three full plates onto the table, Olivia, clad in a fuzzy pink sleeping gown, skipped into the kitchen.
“Morning, Mom. Hey, Will. Smells good. Boy, did I have a funny dream last night!” She took her accustomed seat. “Roogy Batoon could fly!”
Olivia, Adrienne’s daughter, had turned eight in mid-June. Because summer had unshackled us all from school, we had made an eight-hour trip by car to Disney World to celebrate. Watching her among the smaller kids cavorting there, I realized that the child with whom I lived had truly begun to mature. She no longer resembled the runty if precocious preschooler I had met when Adrienne and I started dating. In fact, she now manifested not only an emotional stability rare in one her age but also the first faint physical signs of young womanhood. These hints of an early adolescence scared me a little, but also more deeply endeared her to me, for in Olivia’s fair hair and open smile I saw her mother’s luminous girlhood photographs come alive.
Only in the squint about her eyes and her deft but outsized hands did Olivia favor her biological father, Byron Owsley. I hardly regretted in her appearance the absence of any other paternal signatures.
I sat down with my family. Olivia placed her hands palm to palm, then made a gassho over her food. Adrienne and I did likewise, then fell to eating.
“So Roogy Batoon could fly,” I said. “Did she have wings?”
“Nope. I just climbed on her and she took right off into the sky.”
“Where did she take you?” Adrienne asked with unfeigned interest.
Olivia’s face clouded. “I can’t exactly remember. Some new country.” She brightened. “Maybe it was Oz!”
Adrienne lifted an eyebrow. “Oz again? That’s all we ever hear about these days. Exactly what’s so captivating about those silly books?”
Olivia frowned and hunched forward. “If you haven’t read them, you can’t know. They’re just really cool.” She pronounced cool in the late-nineties way, two syllables with the / at the end as a kind of half-swallowed afterthought.
“And that movie. I’m a little surprised your tape hasn’t worn out by now. And that we haven’t all turned as green as the Emerald City itself.”
As the culprit who had introduced Olivia to Baum’s Oz books in response to her fascination with the MGM film, I had to speak up. “I would have thought almost any sort of reading good for Olivia.”
“Not to the point of obsessively rereading. It could make her neglect her other assignments.”
Olivia straightened. “I’m five chapters ahead of the rest of the class in my geography book. And I just finished writing a report on Harriet the Spy! It’s gonna get an A! Ask Will—he read it.”
Lately I had helped Olivia with her homework while Adrienne either graded papers from her own sixth graders or prepared for her next day’s lessons. “A-plus,” I said.
Olivia crossed her arms in a gestural So there. Adrienne started to speak, but suppressed the urge, as if unwilling to further disturb the peace. I bit my own tongue. Exchanging neutral comments about the day ahead, we finished eating.
Adrienne went upstairs to shower and dress. Olivia joined me at the sink to help with dishes. We hurriedly finished that task, and I plonked Olivia in front of the television to watch a new incarnation of a childhood favorite of my own, Captain Kangaroo. Then I hastened up the back stairs to catch Adrienne alone in our bedroom before she descended again. Unfortunately, sex was almost the last thing on my mind.
Adrienne faced the dresser mirror opposite the door, showing me a sleek fall of wheat-colored hair and the trim lines of her backside. In the mirror, her fingers fumbled at the buttons of her jonquil-colored blouse. She had seen me enter but had not turned. I approached her from behind and put my hands on her waist. She essayed an unconvincing smile and continued struggling with her buttons.
“What’s the matter, kid?” I asked in my calmest voice. “Did I step out of line?”
Finally buttoned, Adrienne turned. “No, Will. It’s just . . .”
“Just what?”
“We can’t have two contradictory lines of discipline when it comes to raising Olivia.”
“Discipline? Where did discipline enter this morning’s tussle? Olivia has more self-control and initiative than most kids twice her age. She finishes her chores and homework almost before they’re assigned. She simply got excited about her dream and how it might relate to something that turns her on. The Oz books don’t constitute great literature, but I sure loved them at her age, and only rarely does a scene from one of them induce me to rob a bank or commit an ax murder.”
Adrienne looked at the waxed hardwood beneath our feet. “Maybe that’s the rub. I never read the Oz books. And the Oz books may not represent the only thing I miss out on. You greet Olivia when the bus drops her off every afternoon. You see her for many more hours a week than I do. You two groom her pony together, you go for walks, you color pictures, you build Lego castles, you—”
“Do you mean to say I’m getting too close to her? Wasn’t that the idea when we decided to move in together, part of the reason for combining households?”
“Yes. But sometimes I feel . . .”
I waited for her to finish.
Adrienne turned away and picked up her shoes. Stork-standing on one foot and then the other, she slipped them on. “Forget it. It’s probably just a selfish maternal thing.”
“Now that you’ve raised the issue, how can I forget it?”
Looking at me almost defiantly, Adrienne said, “All right, Will. Here’s my fear, in all its ugly irrationality: I sometimes feel as if Olivia is being stolen right out of my arms.”
An electric ripple traversed my spine. “By me?”
Adrienne leaned toward me. Tears glimmered in her eyes. “No. I mean, I don’t know. Oh, Will, it’s all such a damned complicated mess!”
I caught her and hugged her. “I think I understand. We haven’t adjusted to this whole new arrangement. We still—”
“You mean I haven’t adjusted.”
“No, listen. The three of us haven’t settled fully in. So the arrangement naturally admits of glitches. On top of that, you can sense Olivia stretching her wings, establishing different kinds of independence. Of course it troubles you. Only parents who build walls around their feelings can pretend it doesn’t. But there’s nothing unnatural about Olivia’s blossoming and wing-stretching.”
Adrienne pulled back and studied me. She had heard me shift into sagacious-counselor mode dozens of times, and more than once she had reined me in with just such a look.
“Unless it’s me,” I said shakily. “Unless I’m the unnatural element.”
“Hardly. Half the kids in my school today live with step-parents or unrelated adult live-ins,” Adrienne said. “It may be unnatural—whatever that word means—but it’s not uncommon. And you’re a prince compared to some of the guardians I’ve had the misfortune to lock horns with.”
Prince implied chivalry, and I tried to rise to the call. “What if we got married and I adopted Olivia? If both of you could regard me as her legal father, not just the de facto man of the house?”
Adrienne laughed self-consciously. “I already regard you as her legal father, Will. But I don’t want to make another mistake as humongous as the one I made with Byron. I fear—”
“Thanks. Thanks a lot.”
“Please don’t take it like that.” She kissed my forehead. “I’m not saying never. I’m just saying not yet.”
“Whenever you’re ready, then. I just want you to know that.”
“I know it. I’ve long known it. And I treasure the generosity of the offer, especially after I’ve behaved like such a bitch. Believe me, it would make my life easier among my sterner Protestant colleagues.”
“So accept the offer.”
She pushed me away with one finger. “Not yet.” For now, at least, she had clotured debate. “Damn. I’ve got to reapply my lipstick. If I arrive late, Goldborough will lash my tail.”
I decided not to press the issue. I could not singlehandedly resolve Adrienne’s upsetting sense of estrangement from her daughter. I had a part to play, but not that of initiator.
“Principals live to lash tails. But if anyone’s going to lay a corrective hand on your pretty tush, they’ll have to see me first.”
Adrienne grinned. “And you’d do what?”
“Set up a ticket booth and charge admission.”
The sharp kick to my shin really didn’t hurt that much.
Downstairs, Olivia’s absorption in the antics of Bunny Rabbit and Mr. Moose reassured me that she had caught none of our adult wrangle. I dropped onto a hassock next to where she lay on the carpet. For five or six minutes, we silently watched television together.
Adrienne breezed in, clutching her book-satchel and purse, smiling as if nothing had ever troubled her. “Gotta run, guys.”
Olivia hurled herself at her mother. The intensity with which they hugged startled me.
“Don’t give Will any lip today, sweetheart.”
The long-scheduled in-service day for teachers exempted every kid in Speece County from classes.
“I sure won’t! Unless he starts something first.”
I put up my dukes. “You and what army?”
Olivia returned pensively to her TV program. I walked Adrienne to the entryway where our coats hung, a place she insisted on calling the “mudroom.” As she donned her jacket, I said, “Lasagna and a bottle of Chianti sound good for tonight?”
“Only if you’re dessert.”
I walked her outside and watched her drive away to the east on her twenty-minute excursion to Tocqueville Middle School. Dawn’s clouds had since piled higher, thicker, and darker.
Back inside, I faced a freshly expectant Olivia. “When do I get to ride Roogy Batoon?”
“After lunch. I’ve got some chores to take care of first. Think you can keep busy till then?”
“Can I watch The Wizard of Oz?”
I hesitated a moment, then said, “Why not?”
“You won’t hear a peep out of me for three hours!”
“Hey, I didn’t say you could watch it twice.”
Olivia’s face crumpled.
“Okay. But only two times.”
I left Olivia slotting the tape into the VCR. As I gathered up my tool chest, shrugged into a coat, and went outside, I wondered for the first time if Adrienne had a point about Olivia’s fixation on Baum’s fantasy world.
One of the gutters on the south side of the house had come loose from the eaves. Firmly planting my old wooden ladder, I eyed the sagging aluminum trough and wished for some of my good friend J. W. Young’s mechanical expertise. I climbed the ladder to the eave.
An hour and a half later, after once banging my thumb hard enough to crack a pecan, I had almost completed the job. Scooping clotted leaves from the whole length of the catchment had added extra time to the task. This failed to surprise me. Back in my old place in Mountboro, I had quickly learned that a home constituted an altogether ravenous time-sink.
Atop my repositioned ladder, I paused. Above me, the whipped-cream clouds of the morning had curdled into a sullen mass of gray cottage cheese. The breeze had sharpened into an unignorable wind. I could not recall hearing the forecast during breakfast cleanup, when I had switched the radio on, but the portents suggested slop and slosh.
A hundred yards away, beyond a picket of bare white sycamores, the country road leading to our place showed an approaching blue pickup. Almost no one traveled our road at this hour, and I watched with interest—in fact, with muted suspicion—as the battered and paint-shedding GM truck drew up to the mailbox at the end of our driveway. For approximately fifteen seconds, the truck and its hardto-see driver idled there.
Our mailman drove a white car with a steering wheel on the right side, and I had never seen a delivery person of any reputable express company in such a conspicuous wreck. Maybe, on a dare, a teenager with a Louisville Slugger at hand sat there nerving himself up to launch our mailbox into the trees. This possibility made me drop one foot to a lower rung.
The pickup, however, shuddered to life again and leapt away in a haze of red dust and webby exhaust. A misguided soul looking for someone else’s place, I told myself, and promptly forgot the incident.
I returned to the job and, to escape the worsening weather, hurriedly finished. After stowing my ladder and tools, I went inside. Onscreen, Dorothy, back in Kansas, had just awakened from her gaudy Technicolor dream.
“Okay, Sprout, change in plans. You get your ride early, before the rain hits.”
Olivia jumped up. “Rain? That’s great! We can camp out in the treehouse then!”
“I don’t think so. Your mom wouldn’t appreciate either of us sporting a permanent lightning bolt through our middles. Not only does it hurt like a dozen vaccinations, but it makes it impossible to get through most doorways.”
“You’re crazy!”
“Think so?”
“Yeah. If you had a lightning bolt stuck in you, you could just turn sidewise to go through a door.”
“Good point. Now, get dressed and meet me at the barn.”
The hinges on the peeling barn door needed a shot of WD-40. I made another note on a long mental list. Inside the raftered enclosure, myriad scents assailed me: hay, dung, tar, decaying wood, spilled motor oil, the drying grass caught in the mower’s blades. From her stall, Roogy Batoon whickered and stirred. I filled a feedbag with oats and approached her.
Roogy Batoon, a small sorrel filly, had entered our lives through a caprice of mine. One Friday in April, Olivia, rushing for a bus, had missed a concrete step outside her school. She broke her wrist trying to cushion her fall. The injury could not have occurred at a worse moment for her. As the emergency room doctors tended to her wrist, the other members of her choral group rode that same bus to the big city to attend a joint performance of the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra and the Men’s Glee Club of Morehouse College.
The inconsolable Olivia broke my heart. Her physical and emotional pain, which she bore with better grace than I would have expected, prompted me to buy her an outrageously expensive gift. When the trailer from Big Bear Farms pulled up the following weekend, Adrienne had instantly fathomed the depths of my insanity.
“Well,” I had said, “we’ve got that big empty barn out back and . . .”
To her credit, Adrienne had allowed me my grand gesture. “So you decided to fill it with a couple hundred pounds of love in the guise of horseflesh.”
“Pretty much.”
Olivia ran in from outside screaming deliriously: “Those guys are unloading a pony! Is it for me?”
“No. Our electric bill’s too high. The pony’s going to work a generator treadmill in the basement. Haven’t you seen that setup yet?”
Olivia calmed herself and regarded me dubiously. “If I work the treadmill, can we set the pony free?”
“Absolutely, kiddo. Just stop leaving the bathroom light on when you go to bed.”
Roogy Batoon took her unlikely name from a famous comic strip of my youth. On a recent trip to the bookstore, I had discovered that an enterprising small-press publisher had plans to reissue Walt Kelly’s Pogo in sequence, and I had snapped up the initial volumes. As we read the strips together, an avian character from Baton Rouge named Roogy Batoon caught Olivia’s fancy, and she had adopted the name for her pony.
Now Roogy nuzzled my hand and accepted her feedbag. I shoveled manure as Roogy Batoon chomped. Matching input and disposal of output, we finished at the same time. Olivia still had not joined me, so I opened the outer door in the pony’s stall and shooed Roogy out to run in her enclosure. She took off like a goosed squirrel.
Some vague impulse made me look out into the corral.
Olivia tottered atop the fence, walking the narrow rail as if it were a balance beam.
I flipped. “Olivia, get down from there right now!”
Startled, she turned, toppled, and whomped at full length into the mire of the run. From the opposite side of the corral, Roogy Batoon cantered at alarming speed toward her.
Before I knew I had moved, I burst into the corral with the shovel in my hands. Maybe yelling like a novice bungee jumper and brandishing the shovel did not constitute the most efficient method of diverting Roogy from Olivia’s path, but the tactics worked. My frantic behavior so disconcerted the pony that she drew up sharply, reared back, and retreated to the farthest recess of the paddock.
Instantly, I had Olivia in my arms. The fall had knocked the wind out of her, and only just now had she managed to draw a new breath. Her first halting words lifted something raggedly solid into my throat.
“Sorry, Dad.”
“Not your fault, kid. All mine.”
Needless to say, Olivia never rode that day. After getting her inside and into a bubble-filled tub, I stabled Roogy Batoon again. By the time Olivia emerged from her bath, to announce that she had no bruises and felt fine, the storm had arrived. Starting stealthily, it soon escalated into one of those El Niño-magnified downpours typical of the year, replete with throaty thunder, keening winds, and brilliant jags of lightning. At high noon, the day’s light level suggested early twilight. I took solace from the fact that Adrienne’s Camry had recently passed a full safety check.
Over a lunch of tomato soup and grilled cheese sandwiches, Olivia said, “We don’t have to tell Mom about me falling, do we?”
“I guess not. No harm, no foul.”
Philip Lawson introduced Will Keats in Would It Kill You To Smile. He lives in Pine Mountain, Georgia, and Providence, Rhode Island.