Kentucky springtime was upon us, so mild that when my afternoon art students (eighteen first-, second-, and third-graders) begged to have class outside, I agreed. I told the boys to get mats from the storage cupboard, wrote a note on the chalkboard of where we could be found, and herded my noisy pupils from the art room to the woods at the edge of the school grounds.
The year was 1951, and I’d returned to teaching once my war injuries had healed. I left my home in California for Kentucky, bluegrass country, far away from the ravages of war. I hardly thought about the forests of Germany, at least in the daytime.
Goodwin Academy was a hundred-and-fifty-year-old institution located outside of Louisville, the starting place for many a midwestern banker, politician, and doctor. Goodwin students ranged in age from six to thirteen. Art was one of the few classes when several grades met, which meant that two of my lover’s sons, Alan and Frankie Davenport, were both in the afternoon class.
As we left the tidy gardens for the woods on the fringe of the school grounds, the boys ran ahead except for Alan and Frankie. He was six, shy around bigger boys, and stuck close to Alan’s side.
As we walked, his hand slipped into mine that wasn’t holding my cane. “Mr. Malcolm?”
“Yes, Frankie?” I answered.
“Um,” he said and looked at Alan, who trotted by my other side, a folding chair awkward in his arms. “Can I carry your satchel?”
I looked down at Frankie’s hopeful face. He had his father’s dark eyes and hair and olive skin, and a dusting of freckles inherited from his mother. I could carry the satchel myself with no trouble, but he was so sweet I couldn’t refuse him. “Sure,” I said and stopped long enough to drape it over his shoulder. “Thank you.”
He grasped the strap with both hands. His walk took on a strut, and I hid my smile. I tried not to show any favoritism to the Davenport boys, no matter how often I fucked their father, but it was hard not to indulge them, even with little things.
We reached the dry creek bed where I had told the boys to wait. I found them gathered on the banks, their mats and pencil cases abandoned on the grass as they chased each other in an impromptu game of tag. I had them sit, thanked Alan for setting up the folding chair for me, and eased into it, my cane at my side and my bad leg stretched out in front of me.
“All right, boys,” I said, “today’s assignment is to take ten minutes and find one thing — a branch or a leaf or a rock, something small — and draw that one thing. Now, now,” I said, holding up my hand at their groans, “I know you like drawing battleships and airplanes and whatnot. Later. Master the little things first. Then you can move on to the bigger ones.”
Into the woods they scampered. I shouted, “Ten minutes!” and noted the time on my wristwatch so I would know when to call them back.
I had no illusions that any of my students would become artists. The most talented among them might become graphic designers; there might be future engineers or architects in my classes, but most of them took art because it was part of the curriculum, not because they enjoyed it. Most of my students would do little art in twenty years other than occasionally doodle on their blotters as they invested money or practiced law. Adults had praised me for my talent when I was small, but I taught high school French before the war rather than trying to make a living as a painter or illustrator.
Sometimes I toyed with going back to Europe to study art properly, but that seemed like a pursuit for men whom the war had left whole, or at least less visibly broken than me.
As I waited for the boys to return — one ear cocked for sounds of trouble — I took my sketch pad out of my satchel and opened it to a blank page to do the assignment. My classroom sketchbooks were sanitary to the point of dullness — studies of hands or faces, copies of Old Masters, and the occasional still life. Things I enjoyed drawing stayed in the sketchbooks I showed no one, carefully locked away in my rooms.
The boys trickled back in twos and threes, and many of them proudly showed me the pretty leaves or interesting rocks they had found. With Alan’s help, Frankie found a stick with a caterpillar crawling up it, which we carefully set up in a clump of grass so the caterpillar would stay long enough for Frankie to draw it.
When ten minutes had passed, I shouted, “Time’s up!” and left our little group to gather the rest of the boys. I did a quick headcount once they sat on their mats, and all eighteen were soon bent over their drawing pads, their pencils or crayons grasped tightly in uncallused, stubby fingers. I walked among them, leaning on my cane for balance when I needed to stoop down.
I was advising one boy on how to capture a complicated vein in a leaf when Alan said, “Mr. Malcolm, I hear shouting.”
My hearing hadn’t been the same since the war, so it took a moment for me to hear it too — the head of the school, Archie Goodwin, calling, “Malcolm! Malcolm Carmichael!”
“Stay here, boys,” I said and climbed up the path that led from the creek bed to the woods. I saw Archie on the main trail with two other teachers and waved to them. “Is something wrong?” I said when Archie puffed up to me.
“I need to talk to you alone.” He gave me a quick smile that wasn’t as reassuring as he intended it to be. We returned to the students and Archie said, “Boys, we need to cut art class short today. Go back with Mr. Douglas and Mr. Vincent. Don’t complain,” he said at their response. “You’ll finish your projects in the dining room.”
The boys gathered their mats and packed away their pencils, and went dejectedly up the path, guided by the two other teachers. Both of them gave me sympathetic looks.
Alan Davenport lingered at the back of the group. “Mr. Malcolm? Who’ll carry the chair for you?”
“I will, Alan,” Archie assured him. “Don’t keep the rest of your class waiting.” He watched until Alan was far up enough on the path that we could no longer see him, then turned to me.
I’d never had a premonition in my life, but at that moment I knew what brought Archie here in the middle of the afternoon. I didn’t need to look at the telegram he held out. I covered my eyes with my hand and sobbed.
Archie said, “Would you like me to read it to you?”
“Yes,” I said.
Archie read the short sentences — “Mother gone stop, funeral Saturday stop, love Dad stop” — in a gentle tone, then folded the telegram and put it away in his coat pocket.
“I’m sorry, Malcolm,” Archie said and directed me to the folding chair. I sat, one hand wrapped around my cane like it was part of the carved wood, and hunted in my pockets for a handkerchief.
“Thank you.” I gave a sharp, bitter laugh. “Three pencils, but not a handkerchief to be found.”
“Here.” Archie gave me his, and I wiped my eyes and blew my nose. He waited until I stopped honking and sniffling to say, “Was this sudden?”
“No,” I said. “She’s been ill for several months. Lung cancer.”
“Oh, my God,” Archie said.
“Yes.” I inhaled, slow and shaky. “I thought we’d have more time.”
“We always think we have more time,” Archie said. He was a round little man who radiated kindness, which made him beloved by his students and admired by his staff. This softness was deceptive, however — he was as reluctant as any other veteran to talk about the war, but I knew the military had made use of his mathematical skills in still-classified ways. “You’ll want to go to California for the funeral.”
“I’ll catch a train tonight.” It was over a day’s travel by train from Louisville to San Francisco, but there was enough time before the funeral for me to get there, as well as my sister and her husband to travel from Chicago.
“We’ll have a groundskeeper drive you to the station,” said Archie. “Send a telegram when you come back and someone will meet you.”
“Thank you.” I scrubbed my hand through my hair, trying to think. “I should — I should —“
“You should pack,” Archie said. “I’ll arrange for the faculty to cover your classes. Where are your lesson plans?”
“I’ll bring you my planning book before I go.” I looked toward the school with a sigh. So much to do, to prepare for, and so little time to sit and process this.
“Come on,” Archie said, and once I hauled myself upright, he folded the chair and held it under his arm for the walk back.
The windows of the dining room looked out into the gardens, and as we approached, I could see the faces of my students pressed against the glass. The boys poked each other and whispered when we came into view, and Archie said, “I’ll tell them what’s happened and that you’ll be away for a few days.” He patted my shoulder. “Don’t worry, Malcolm.”
“Thank you, Archie,” I said, and headed for the teachers’ dormitory. The school gave unmarried teachers small bedroom-cum-sitting rooms as their living quarters; they were plain but granted us privacy, always welcome after a day spent in a classroom.
I picked up the lone photo on my desk and sat on my bed. The photo was of my family before the war, the last time all six of us were together: my older brother Zachary, handsome and tall in 1941, dead on the Pacific Front in 1943; my sister Katherine, who would be married in 1942 and widowed at Iwo Jima; me, before German bullets tore me up in the Battle of Hurtgen Forest; and Duncan, a boy of thirteen. The photo included my parents, my quiet father and my war-bride mother, who still held hands like sweethearts. It was a boisterous photo, if I can describe photos that way; we were happy that day, crowding together into the frame so that we all would fit, my parents indulgent and amused behind us. We did not know what was in store for us, for the entire world.
I had to wipe my face again.
Mechanically, I packed a dark suit and a few days’ worth of clothes, and took my overcoat from the back of the closet. It would be cold and rainy in San Francisco, even in springtime. The last time I wore the overcoat was New Year’s Eve, and the scent of the evening lingered in the fabric — cigar smoke, expensive champagne, cold that never turned to snow.
I buried my face in the wool and inhaled. The scent filled me with longing, and longing filled me with resolve.
I put the coat down and went to the phone nook at the end of the hall. There was no one around to overhear me. I dialed Oliver’s office number.
“SJD Construction,” Oliver’s secretary, Isabel, said crisply. She was a graduate from Bowling Green, one of those incredibly intelligent women who would have been more than a secretary had she been a man. I liked her. I never said, as she did not like me one bit. I doubted she knew the truth about Oliver and me, but our public relationship — close and comfortable for teacher and parent — triggered her disapproval.
“This is Malcolm Carmichael from Goodwin Academy,” I said, “calling for Oliver Davenport.”
There was a pause, and then she said, “One moment, please,” and put me on hold. As I waited, I leaned my head on my hand and breathed in through my nose and out through my mouth, the way I did after a nightmare.
The line clicked back on. “Oliver Davenport. Is Frankie all right?”
“Frankie’s fine,” I said. “I called for me. My mother died.”
“Oh,” he said softly. “I’m sorry to hear that.”
I thought he’d say more, but when he didn’t, I said, “You’re not alone.”
“That is correct.”
“Damn it.” I passed my hand over my face. “I’m leaving for the funeral tonight. I’ll be gone for a few days. Will you come with me to California? Please, Oliver. I need you.”
“My schedule’s full right now. I don’t know if I could get away.”
“Please,” I said. “Tell Elizabeth it’s a business trip. I’m taking the first train west that I can. I’ll buy two tickets. Please, Oliver. Please come with me. I can’t do this alone.”
“I’ll look into it.” He paused as I tried not to weep again, and he said gently, “Thank you for calling me. I’ll get back to you soon.”
“All right,” I said, and we hung up our phones.
I stayed in the telephone nook for a few minutes more, my head buried in my hands, then hauled myself to my feet. I went back to my rooms to wash my face and finish my packing.
Instead of the groundskeeper as I expected, when there was a soft tap at my door, it was Henry Forrester, another teacher. “Ready, Malcolm? I’m going to drive you to the station.”
“Don’t you have classes this afternoon?”
He picked up my luggage. “We’re doing study hall for the rest of the day. Archie deemed it best, given the rearranging we’ll have to do to cover your classes. It’s fine,” he added when I apologized. “No one minds.”
We walked downstairs to the drive in front of the school. I got into the passenger seat of the town car as Henry put my luggage in the trunk.
I watched the countryside become the suburbs in silence as we drove into the city. Henry turned on the radio, and I closed my eyes as the strains of “We’ll Meet Again” filled the car. He must have noticed, because he snapped the radio off.
“I’m sorry for your loss, Malcolm,” Henry said. “Your mother must have been a lovely woman.”
A few more miles passed. “We haven’t talked lately, you and I.”
“I suppose not,” I murmured.
“You’ve hardly talked to me at all since you met Mr. Davenport.”
I looked at Henry. His tone and expression were mild, but his hands gripped the steering wheel tightly enough that his knuckles were white. “Henry,” I began.
“What does he have that I don’t? He’s ancient—“
“He’s married. He has children. We teach his children.”
I said slowly, “What I see in him is between him and me. You and I were never anything serious.”
“I was serious about you.”
“We slept together once.“ I hadn’t considered our brief liaison anything more meaningful than the furtive meetings I’d had with fellow soldiers during the war. That Henry thought of it as something worth keeping was news to me since over a year had passed since that night.
As we drove in icy silence, I thought about the longing looks, the way Henry took any opportunity he could to be alone with me or work alongside me, the way he let our hands brush. I had interpreted these moments as familiarity, rather than a request for more.
“He’ll never make you happy,” Henry said. “He’d never endure the scandal of leaving wife number two for another man. Never.”
“Is this why you offered to drive me? To tell me off?”
Henry sighed. “I wanted to talk to you. I should have known better. You won’t listen to me. You never listen to anyone.”
Something of the Carmichael stubbornness made me want to protest that I listened to people when they had something helpful to say, but I kept my mouth shut. Arguing with an ex-lover about the current one never ends well for either party.
I said, “Unless you’re planning to expose us, I don’t see how this is any of your business — and if you’re planning to expose us, I’d give it serious thought. Oliver Davenport is a well-respected and powerful man in this community.”
“I’m not planning to expose you,” Henry said. “I don’t want you to go to your mother’s funeral alone, and I know you are because you want Oliver to join you. He won’t, you know.”
“You know nothing about it,” I muttered.
“Stubborn as a mule.” He paused. “I’m fond of you. I wish we could have made it work. I’d go with you if you asked me to.”
Looking back on it now, I wonder what course my life would have followed if I had. Henry was a sweet boy, handsome, gentle. We might have found our own happiness.
I didn’t ask. I wanted Oliver and no one else.
We arrived at the train station, and Henry took my luggage out of the trunk as I climbed from the auto. Henry said as I shouldered the knapsack, “Malcolm. I don’t wish you ill. But you know he’s going to break your heart.”
“He won’t be the first,” I muttered in reply, and then concentrated on getting up the steps into the station.
The next train to California didn’t leave for another hour and a half. I bought two tickets and a compartment, sent a telegram to tell my father when to expect my train, and sat near the platform to wait. I had a sketchbook with me, but my usual method of passing the time was no good today — all I wanted to draw was my mother’s face, but I knew that doing so would start a fresh bout of weeping. The looks the cane got me were bad enough. I didn’t want to add “pathetic” on top of “cripple.”
The platform grew steadily more crowded, with mothers trying to keep track of their children, single girls glamorous in their New Look suits and red lipstick, businessmen with newspapers folded under their arms. My heart leaped every time I saw a dark-haired man in a suit, and every time I was disappointed.
My train pulled into the station and many of its passengers disembarked. Porters and new passengers boarded the train, with more calling back and forth. I picked up my knapsack and garment bag, and a porter came over to help me — a Negro fellow with scars on his face and neck that told me he was a veteran like me. “Can we wait five more minutes?” I said, and he looked at his pocket watch.
“It’s cutting it awful close, sir.”
I sighed. I knew that. I kept hoping if I gave him more time — but I had to face the truth. Oliver wasn’t coming.
I followed the porter on board to my compartment and tipped him generously for being patient. The compartment enabled me to stretch out more than an ordinary seat would have, which I did once the porter had gone. No dark-haired figure rushed through the waving crowd; no one came running down the corridor to throw open my door and apologize for being late.
I would have to do this alone.
At dawn two days later, the train pulled into the San Francisco station. I was one of the few to disembark, many passengers having reached their destinations or changed trains for Los Angeles and other points south.
I spotted Duncan at once. During the war, he had grown from a gangly boy to a solid young man, and now at twenty-three, he looked like he should commute to a steady job in a suit and pork pie hat rather than lingering on a train platform in dungarees, cap, and leather jacket.
I said, “Duncan,” and he answered, “Malcolm,” and we hugged each other. He pulled back to look at me, his hand on my neck. “You look done in.”
“I feel done in.” I waited until the porter brought my things to ask, “How’s Dad?”
Duncan shrugged, one-shouldered. “You know Dad. He’s the strong one, no matter what.” He took my luggage from the porter and waited while I tipped him. Duncan nodded his head in the direction of the parking lot. “Car’s this way.”
“And you?” I said as we walked. “How are you holding up?”
“It’s weird,” Duncan said. “Most of the time she was so heavily medicated that we couldn’t have a conversation, but the last time I saw her, she was calm. Cheerful, even. Said she loved me and would see me soon. Dad said after I left, she exhaled and was gone.”
It didn’t sound weird to me. Death, in my experience, was a quiet thing, no matter how much noise and blood preceded it.
Duncan opened the car door for me and I got in. Dad had finally traded in his pre-war paneled jalopy for a ’47 Ford sedan, and when Duncan turned the key, the engine woke with a rumble. Duncan said as he steered out of the parking lot, “Uncle Greg and Uncle David have been with Dad since that night. One thing about the Carmichael clan, we can be counted on in bad times and good.”
I smiled as I looked at the sleeping city. My family — my extended family — was sprawling and ridiculous, and I loved them for that. “I can’t imagine getting through something like this alone.”
“Seems like the whole neighborhood has brought flowers or casseroles.” He paused. “The only thing that’s upset Dad is when someone says Mom’s in a better place.”
I winced. “After thirty-three years of them not going to church, you would think our neighbors would know better.”
“I think with death, nobody knows what to say, so they fall back on cliches.”
I looked at Duncan, who was watching the road. “When did you get to be wise?”
“I’m not a kid in short pants anymore, Mal.”
I laughed and looked out the window again.
My parent’s house was a narrow, tall place in the Potrero Hill neighborhood, built after the great ‘quake of ’06. Not one of the famous Victorian painted ladies that most people associate with San Francisco — the house was earthy shades of brown and cream, porches and window-frames free of ornamental gingerbread, more Craftsman style than Victorian. Its plainness had always suited my parents; the inside of the house was as simple, our furniture Shaker or Mission style, our pictures and decorations few. Instead of knickknacks, we filled the shelves with books; instead of a radio, we had a piano; our art was hand-drawn pictures, photos, framed labels of the family whiskey.
Duncan parked in the garage at the back of the house — it had been a carriage house when first built — and got my luggage as I climbed out of the sedan. We went through the garden to the back door that opened to a sun porch, and I asked Duncan, “What about Matilda? Is she coming?”
“I called her,” Duncan said. “She’s coming.”
“Good,” I said. Matilda and Zachary had been high school sweethearts and married as soon as he enlisted. My niece Zoë was the result, a blonde and blue-eyed girl who only knew her daddy from pictures. I hadn’t seen either of them since the army shipped Zachary’s body home from the Pacific in 1949. “I’m looking forward to seeing them again.”
“She doesn’t visit often,” Duncan said. “I can’t blame her.”
I took off my hat and paused on the porch. Through the kitchen window, I could see people moving about as they poured coffee or served themselves from pans on the stove or plates on the counter. Uncle Greg, Aunt Rhoda, various cousins — no one I didn’t expect. It was a relief.
Duncan paused, his hand on the doorknob. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing,” I said, and hoped it would last.
We went inside, and Duncan called, “Malcolm’s here!”
At once, various relatives enveloped me in their arms, with kisses on my cheek and many concerned queries about my journey and state of being. Duncan took my luggage upstairs as the Carmichael clan took my hat and coat, herded me to the dining room table, and set a plate full of scrambled eggs, bacon, and toast in front of me. Dad sat at the other end of the table with a similarly loaded plate, and we smiled at each other ruefully. Talk would come later, when the relatives retreated.
Eventually, Dad convinced the relatives to let me sleep since I’d been stuck on a train for so long. I retreated to my old room and stretched out on what had been my bed from the time I was four until I left home. Zachary and I shared this room until he left for college, and it still bore the stamp of two growing boys: outgrown clothes in the wardrobe, adventure novels on the bookshelves, and I was fairly certain if I worked up a certain loose floorboard there would still be some French postcards and jazz cigarettes underneath. It was in this room that I confessed to Zachary that I was in love with my oldest friend; it was in this room that I announced my intention to enlist; it was in this room that Zachary decided to marry Matilda before he shipped out instead of waiting until he came home. We had whispered secrets to each other from one twin bed to the other for years.
Looking at the empty bed now made my throat ache. I longed to see Zachary opposite me, smiling at me in his indulgent way, ready to say, “Stop feeling sorry for yourself, Mal.” He had comforted me through the first, worst grief of my young life, but Zachary was also the one to talk sense into me.
I searched for a pocket handkerchief and came up with two pencils and a paper cocktail napkin. I used that to wipe my face. Coming home would always be this way, it seemed — one reminder after another of all that I had lost.
Shoes still on, I awoke an hour later at the sound of rapid footsteps on the staircase before a brisk tap on the door. “Malcolm!” Katherine said and bounced into the room, her five-month-old daughter Rosemary on her hip.
“Katherine,” I answered as I sat up and held out my arms for Rosemary, who came into them willingly. Katherine kissed my cheek and sat cross-legged with me on the bed. “And little Rosie. Where’s George?”
“Bringing up the suitcases. There is so much paraphernalia necessary for traveling with an infant, Mal, more than you’d think for something so small.”
I held Rosemary up so that her feet rested on my knees, and she made jumping movements and waved her hands. She was much more lively than the first time I’d seen her when she was just a few weeks old and had done little aside from sleep and nurse and occasionally blink in confusion. Katherine leaned her head on my shoulder and smiled when Rosemary squealed.
“I see you, my baby,” Katherine said to her, and asked me, “How are you doing?”
“It doesn’t seem real yet,” I said. “You?”
“The same. I suppose having Aunt Rhoda in the kitchen instead of Mom is definitive proof.” She stroked Rosemary’s head, which was covered with soft dark hair — the baby took after George in her coloring, with curly brown hair and big hazel eyes. She would probably have the Carmichael height, I thought, since she was a long, slender baby rather than the roly-poly kind. “At least she got to meet this little one. I’m glad about that.”
“Me, too,” I said quietly.
Katherine had left the door ajar, and George peeked in before joining us, first stooping to give his daughter and wife a kiss, and then he shook my hand. “Good to see you, Malcolm.”
“You too, George,” I said. Rosemary leaned out of my arms for her daddy, and George took her and gave her a few more kisses.
He sat on the other bed with the baby on his knee. “How long are you planning to stay in San Francisco?”
“Not long,” I said. “Goodwin gave me as long as I need, but I don’t think I’ll take more than a few days. What about you?”
“I have a week off from the paper,” George said. “It depends on what Arthur needs, really.”
“Of course, Duncan will be here,” Katherine said.
“They’ll be two bachelors fumbling around,” said George.
Katherine gave him a patient look. “Don’t underestimate him. Mom and Dad taught my brothers how to cook and do laundry, just like they taught me how to change a tire and build a campfire.”
“It’s true,” I remarked. “She makes excellent cowboy coffee.”
They smiled at each other like they shared a secret — which, I realized, they must, after four years of marriage. It was an odd feeling, knowing that my sister no longer told me everything — a little loss, a little envy. What must it be like, I thought, to know someone so well you could have a conversation in complete silence?
I’d known that comfort once.
I picked up my cane. “I think I’ll go for a walk.”
“Are you sure you’re up to it?” Katherine asked, all motherly concern.
“I’ll be fine.” I picked up my jacket, too, and pulled it on.
Katherine pressed, “Are you planning to visit anyone?”
I smiled at her humorlessly. “No one’s left to visit.”
I left the house. None of my relatives tried to stop me for a chat. The house was quieter now anyway, everyone having gone back to their regular lives for the day.
Downhill was easiest to walk, so downhill I went, trying not to look too closely at the houses of my friends who hadn’t come home from the war. The last thing I wanted to see were long-gone faces peering at me from between the curtains.
At the corner of the block was the Hoffman place, a house I hadn’t been inside since before the war. I paused, gazing at it from across the street. It was a modest little house, like most of our neighborhood, with a white picket fence and green shutters. The Hoffmans’ only son, Daniel, had been my best friend when we were children. We had played marbles on the front walk, built a treehouse in the backyard, patched up our skinned knees, taught each other to kiss.
Mr. Hoffman was in the front yard, weeding the victory garden. He sat back on his heels when I stopped at the front gate. “Good morning, Malcolm,” he said with a nod.
“Hello, Mr. Hoffman,” I said.
“I’m very sorry to hear about your mother,” he said as he got to his feet. “She was a good woman. Very kind.”
“Thank you,” I said. Behind Mr. Hoffman, the front door opened and Mrs. Hoffman came onto the porch.
“Malcolm,” she said warmly. She came down the front walk and opened the gate in their little picket fence. “So good to see you.”
“Hello, Mrs. Hoffman,” I said and bent to kiss her cheek.
“Won’t you come in, dear? The walk from your house must tire you.”
I glanced at the house, then smiled at Mrs. Hoffman. “I’d love to.”
She held my arm as we climbed the steps. The house was austere and tidy, as it had been when I was a boy. A framed photograph of Daniel, taken on the first day of our senior year of high school, rested on the upright piano. The frame had a black ribbon across one corner.
“There’s fresh coffee,” Mrs. Hoffman said.
“Yes, please,” I replied. “May I?” I gestured to the photograph, and she smiled, sad and small.
“Of course you may, dear.” She bustled into the kitchen as I went to the piano and picked up the frame. I had no pictures of Daniel of my own, but his face had never grown faint in my memory. I knew every line, every freckle, the width of his eyes, the fullness of his mouth, as if we had seen each other yesterday.
I glanced up — and then nearly dropped the frame, for there in the wing chair sat Daniel, wearing the sweater and trousers they had found him in, his shirt collar not quite high enough to hide the rope burns around his neck.
I squeezed my eyes shut and told myself, Not real, not real, until I heard Mrs. Hoffman’s returning footsteps from the kitchen.
“Are you all right, dear?” she said, and I managed a friendly expression, if not a genuine, smile.
“I miss him very much.” I perched on the sofa with my cane beside me, and took the coffee cup she handed me. She sat in the armchair where I had seen Daniel moments before and dropped a sugar cube into her cup.
“I understand you’re teaching in Kentucky now.”
“Yes, that’s right.” I had a sip. It was European-style coffee, strong and acrid. “It’s an all-boys school called Goodwin Academy.”
“You must be very good with your students,” Mrs. Hoffman said and looked down at her coffee cup. “You were always so patient with the neighborhood boys.”
“I hope so.”
“I loved watching the two of you play. I think Daniel wanted to be a teacher too, because of you.” Her eyes met mine, and then she looked at her cup again. “As much as I would have liked to see him teach, I’m glad he missed the war. We’re not all cut out to be soldiers.”
“That’s true, ma’am,” I murmured and had another sip of coffee.
“I suppose coming home is the best anyone could hope for.” Her gaze fell on my cane, and I knew the words she couldn’t say — she would trade any amount of mobility for the chance to have her son alive again.
At her side, Daniel gazed at her, his face full of sorrow. He lay his hand on her shoulder. She trembled as if she felt him, and her arms goose-pimpled.
I put my cup on the little tea table between us and got to my feet. “I’m sorry, Mrs. Hoffman, I shouldn’t have come.”
“Malcolm,” she said, standing too. “Please — I’ve never had a chance to ask you — please — before he — did he ever tell you anything, let a hint drop, about why?”
I looked down at her, my eyes stinging. I couldn’t say the real reason even though I knew it: because he loved me, and he knew his parents would never accept it.
I croaked, “No. I’m sorry,” and left the house as quickly as I could. Daniel, I was grateful to see, did not follow.