Below is the first chapter of my upcoming novel from Algonquin Books, Is This Tomorrow (May 2013) Hope you like it.
She came home to find him in her kitchen. She was in no mood, having spent the whole morning arguing with a lawyer, but there he was, her son’s best friend, Jimmy Rearson, a twelve-year-old kid home from school at three on a Wednesday afternoon with too long hair and a crush on her, reading all the ingredients on the back of a Duncan Hines Lemon Supreme cake mix, tapping the box with a finger. ”Adjust temperature for high altitudes,” he said, as if it really mattered. She felt a pang for him, a boy so lonely he feigned interest in how many eggs and how much sugar a cake might need. He unabashedly leaned over and turned on her radio, and there was Elvis crooning, ”Heartbreak Hotel,” the words splashing into the kitchen.
“How’d you get in here?” Ava asked, reaching over to turn down the music. No one, except for her, locked doors in the neighborhood. She had her kid wearing a key around his neck like an amulet. Other kids were allowed to run free to wander in and out of everyone else’s houses, something Ava never could quite get used to. It wasn’t that she had anything to steal—truthfully, she had so much less now—but still, there was Brian, miles away, breathing down her neck with a custody threat, telling her he got a lawyer and she’d better get one, too, because he was going to file to revisit their agreement. But in fact, she had started locking her doors the moment the movers left, two years ago and maybe that was what made the neighborhood suspicious. “Don’t you like kids? What’s the matter, do you think they’re going to wreck your house?” a neighbor asked, but how could she explain what she was afraid of?
“Your lock is easy,” Jimmy said. “All it took was a bit of wire.”
“Don’t break into my house again,” she said. She didn’t know if she was angry or not, but she didn’t like the way it sounded. Easy to break into.
“Lewis is at the dentist,” she said. She had given Lewis money to take a cab (it wouldn’t cost much), and by the time Lewis was finished and safely home, Ava would be at work.
“I know. He told me at school. I’m meeting him at my house later. ”
She nodded at the box in his hands, and then glanced at her watch. No matter what kind she bought, the mixes never turned out right. Quick and easy, the labels always said, but the cakes were always dry and powdery, and what good was quick if it was also tasteless? Well, baking was something to do, and they had some time. She didn’t have to be at the plumbing company until five today. It was her day off, but she took an emergency evening shift she couldn’t afford to turn down, not if she didn’t want to go back to retail, which paid less, gave her fewer hours and had no chance of advancement. It was only for an hour tonight, too, typing letters about 14k gold toilets and colored tubs that Richard, her boss, said had to be ready to go first thing in the morning, but even the small extra pay would be something she could tuck in the bank. “Want to bake?” she said, and he looked at her. “Boys don’t cook,” he said, abandoning the box on the counter. “Can we play checkers instead?”
“Sure. Why not,” she said.
She set up the board on her dining room table, giving him the red pieces. She didn’t really like checkers all that much, but she always seemed to be playing it with the kids. She would make sure they beat her so they’d feel good. Today, though, she wanted to take her mind off her problems, so she concentrated and without really meaning to, she won the game.
“Well, what do you know!” she said. She looked over at Jimmy, and then, shocked, saw that he was blinking back tears.
“Why, what’s this?” she asked. “It’s just a game. And you beat me every other time.” She handed him a handkerchief she kept in her pocket.
He rubbed fiercely at his eyes. “I always win,” he said. “I’ve never, ever lost.”
Ava leaned forward on her elbows. “You can’t win all the time,” she said. “I wish you could.” She thought of Brian, saw him moving on a checkerboard towards her. “King me,” he’d say.
“Don’t tell anyone I cried.”
“Who cried? Did someone cry here?” She got up, smoothing her dress. “I have to get to work,” she told him. “And you have to scoot.”
They put the pieces back in the box, and then he waited at the table for her to get ready. He was in his red jersey and green plaid shorts, his Keds scribbled over with Magic Marker. He watched as she rustled around the living room, looking for her purse and the little veiled hat she sometimes wore because she thought it made her look more professional. Sweat beaded along her back. She’d wasted her whole morning and some of her afternoon running to a lawyer to talk about Brian’s custody threat. It was five years since Brian had left them, barely sending money, barely calling, and even though the divorce had been his idea, all of a sudden he was telling her that she now posed a psychological and physical danger to their son. She had had to scramble to find a lawyer she could afford, a man whose name was actually, ridiculously John Smith. He worked out of a tiny overheated office, without even a secretary, and he seemed so indifferent she wanted to shake him. “This is just nonsense, isn’t it?” she said to the lawyer.
“The law is never nonsense,” John Smith said.
She told the lawyer how Brian used to have a drinking problem, one that started after he left her, and that he had called her drunk a few times. She talked about how he’d abandoned his son—and her—after things at his job went bad. He hadn’t even seen Lewis in nearly five years, so how could he possibly think about wanting custody now? She spilled all the details of her life, and the whole time, John Smith didn’t say a thing. He just leaned back in his chair, making a tent of his fingers, waiting until she was finished, and then he shrugged.
“Circumstances change,” he said. “And so do people. You said he has a full time job, but you only work part time, which puts him in a more stable financial situation than you. It could look like a better environment for a kid.”
“You’re joking. My environment is just fine.”
“Is it?” He rolled his pen between his fingers. “You said he thinks you have a lot of men coming over. Can you prove you don’t? Can you show that your bills are paid right on time?”
Ava thought of all the bills she kept in a shoebox, the careful way she went through them every month. She had a whole separate bank account of money she was saving so she could buy her house instead of rent it, and she made sure to put something in it every week, even if it was only ten dollars. “I have savings. I have a house.”
“Correction: you rent the house. You don’t own it. And banks don’t like giving mortgages to women.”
“But I will own it,” Ava said stiffly. She thought of how hard it had been to convince the realtor to rent her the house, how he kept asking her if there was a man who could co-sign the lease. She might have to fight to get a bank to give her a mortgage, but fight she would.
“But you don’t own it now. And if you can’t prove your finances are sound, we may have a problem. How’s your son doing? Does he have friends? Is he doing all right in school?” He shuffled papers on his desk, waiting for her response, but she knew, suddenly, that he wasn’t going to be able to help her, and she knew she was still going to have to pay him for his time. “You want to think about all this, Mrs. Lark,” he said.
She came home, feeling sick, her head splitting like a seam. Jimmy had distracted her, but now she had to get to work, and worry hung on her like a too heavy winter coat.
“Ava,” Jimmy said, and she snapped back towards him. She felt his eyes on her, trailing her as she grabbed up her purse.
“Call me Mrs. Lark, Jimmy.”
“Mrs. Lark,” he said, even though they both knew there wasn’t a husband around, that she was no more a Mrs. than he was. She waved her hand. “I have to get to work,” she repeated.
She knew what she had to do. She had to make that company think she was good enough to hire her full time at regular hours, with benefits, instead of just three days a week or whenever they needed her. She had to pay the bills, including the useless lawyer’s bill and the rent on this little house. It was the only one in the neighborhood that was a rental, smaller and older looking that the other homes, an anomaly that hadn’t been razed when the new development sprung up (Brookstone Family Homes!) because the owner refused to move, and by the time he died, the other houses were all built and occupied and the Brookstone company was long gone. If it hadn’t been a rental and in bad shape, she’d never have been able to afford it, but because it was, she could never feel quite secure.
Ava passed by Jimmy to get to the card table, where she opened the top drawer and retrieved some of the extra pin money she kept for the snack cart at work. Donuts, coffee, what did it matter as long as it helped her get through the shift. She pocketed the money and rubbed at a smear of dirt on the wall with her thumb. Until she could afford paint, soap and water would have to do.
“Mrs. Lark.” She looked over and Jimmy was shifting his weight from foot to foot, staring at her again. She was a grown woman with grown up problems and suddenly she was in no mood for Jimmy’s quiet devotion, for the way his eyes followed her around the room.
“Lewis will be home soon from the dentist,” she said. “You can wait for him at your house.”
Jimmy’s nails were bitten and raw and she wanted to brush his hair back with her hands, wash his face with a cloth. She wanted to bend down and tie his sneaker laces tight, and wash the Magic Marker from them, bleaching the shoes until they were white again. She could see some of what he had written on his shoe: Hep cat. Cool. He was too young to be either. She pointed at his laces and watched while he did the job himself, making tight little double loops like rabbit ears.
The lawyer had asked her if Lewis had friends. Most of the other kids kept their distance, but maybe that was because Lewis was so smart. He could have been skipped ahead two grades if he didn’t keep bringing home bad marks in school. The teachers kept telling her how he wasn’t living up to his potential, that he kept disrupting the class with his questions. “Aren’t you supposed to ask questions?” Ava asked, and Lewis’ teacher sighed. “His job is to listen,” she told Ava.
From the time he was little, Ava had made sure Lewis would be successful in life, buying him books, reading to him, teaching him to read when he was three. Education could prepare you for anything, she thought. But when she sent him off to kindergarten, it wasn’t long before she got a call from his teacher. “He knows how to read,” the teacher accused. She told Ava to cut it out, that Lewis being so far ahead of the other kids was bad for both him and the other students. “Everyone should be on the same page,” the teacher insisted. Ava disagreed. The more you knew, the better things were for you. She kept taking him to the library and encouraging him, and Brian even bought him a set of Collier’s Encyclopedias. Every night, Lewis looked at the pictures in a volume, and read what he could. She still remembered the look on his face when, shortly before Brian had left them, and Lewis was just in first grade, Brian gave him one of his old briefcases so Lewis could carry a volume to school with him. Lewis was so proud, so excited, about learning! But she was no match for that school, or for his new school when they moved to Waltham. “The teacher told me to just do the work she gives me,” Lewis said miserably. Lewis entered second grade and then third, and the teachers were calling her not because Lewis was so far ahead, but because he was behind. She had to sign his failed science paper on the solar system. “But you knew all this,” she said astonished, “you told me last night what all the planets were made of,“ and Lewis stayed silent. She began to find half done homework crumpled on his desk in his room, which she would carefully smooth out and put in a folder. How could he be reading The Odyssey from the library and get a D on a multiple choice test about Huck Finn? How could he read the encyclopedia every night, marking off the sections when he was done with them, regaling Ava with facts at breakfast about how there were three different kinds of volcanic eruptions and you could tell which was which just by the lava, and still fail science? It made her feel panicked because what would become of him if he couldn’t get to college? There was no family business for Lewis to go into, no money to cushion him. The thought of him having to nickel and dime it the way she did made her want to weep and she’d be damned if she let him join the Army. With college, he could have a profession. He could be someone.
At least Jimmy and Rose seemed smart, too, and she hoped they might influence him in a good way. Lewis helped Jimmy with his homework all the time, the two of them sprawling on the floor or his room. She heard him excitedly talking to Rose about The Wizard of Oz, a book they both loved. But still, Lewis brought home report cards peppered with Cs.
He had good friends, Jimmy and Rose. That was something, wasn’t it? The Three Mouseketeers, they called themselves, the moniker from that Mickey Mouse Club program they all watched on her temperamental little black and white Zenith some days at five, banging on the top of the set to stop the vertical hold from swimming. Rose was the odd girl out, pale as paper when the boys tanned like peanuts, her hair a pour of ink down her back, when the boys’ shaggy cuts were sandy brown. Jimmy and Lewis were now in Miss Calisi’s sixth-grade class at Northeast Elementary. Rose, at thirteen, went to MacArthur Junior High on Lexington Street, but different schools didn’t stop them from playing together. They were always riding their bikes around the neighborhood, vinyl strips streaming out from the handlebars, a few of Ava’s old playing cards snapping along the spokes. They walked to the Star Market to check out the magazines and toys. They wasted time at Brigham’s, sugaring up on Raspberry Lime Rickeys. It was a relief because she had worried so much about Lewis finding friends. “You know this isn’t a Jewish neighborhood,” the realtor had told Ava when he first showed her the rental house. He had tried to show her all these crummy little apartments, but she had moved twice already from apartments in Watertown. She wanted something that felt like home, something that felt like hers. She wanted a house.
She was so thrilled when Lewis had found Jimmy and Rose. Of course, they would be together, the only kids on the block without fathers and with single mothers. Ava was grateful, too, that Dot was so open-minded, and they were actually good enough friends to talk over a cup of coffee every once in a while. Dot didn’t share the same prejudices as some of the other parents. Oh, Ava had heard the remarks. Divorced and Jewish, what a combo platter. “You killed Christ,” one neighborhood kid had told her matter of factly as he ran across her front lawn, and Ava had stood there, shaken. It was awful enough that Lewis had to say the Lord’s Prayer in school mornings (“Just fold your hands and shut your eyes and think about what you want to do later,“ she advised him), but when Lewis was in third grade, he had come home with an F on a test, and she was about to yell at him when she saw all the questions were about Christmas, Mary, Jesus and Joseph. Who was Jesus’s mother? She had gone up to talk to Mr. Powers, the principal, but all he said to her was, “I understand your peoples’ sensitivity,” like it was her fault.
Well, these kids were lucky to have one another. You didn’t have to be a genius to see Rose was besotted with Lewis. Ava couldn’t remember how she had felt about love at thirteen, if love had ever unspooled her the way it seemed to be doing with Rose. How could you possibly feel so much when so young? Rose followed Lewis around, her head cocked as if she were waiting for him to say something to her. She looked at him as if she were breathing him in, her shoulders rising and falling. Ava knew Rose went into her room and daubed her mouth with Ava’s old Dubarry lipsticks, that Rose dotted Ava’s Windsong perfume on her wrists, but Rose didn’t know that Ava set them out deliberately to make them easier for Rose to find. Once, Ava had seen Rose slide up behind Lewis while he was painting a model airplane. Rose lifted up her hand and held it just above his hair, as if she were blessing him, her eyes hidden beneath the palm frond of her bangs. He hadn’t noticed a thing. Ava, though, had watched and all she could think was, You poor darling.
She whisked into the den for her white gloves. Jimmy trailed after her, nearly bumping into her when she came back out again. “Jimmy,” she said and he grinned at her. Look at all of them, this round of wrongheaded love. Jimmy in love with her and Rose in love with Lewis. Lewis yearning for his father, and Brian in love with himself. Only Ava couldn’t imagine ever being that lucky again, to have the kind of innocent crushes these kids had, or what she most wanted, a love that might last. You have all those men, Brian had accused. He heard them in the background when he called, he insisted. He said someone he knew from Boston had seen Ava out on the town one too many times, dressed skimpily, with her shoulders and her bosom hanging out, and was that a way for a mother to act? “My pal said you looked drunk,” Brian had insisted.
Ava didn’t drink. And if she had men, she usually had them only for weeks at a time. It wasn’t long before they realized that Lewis was part of the deal and they didn’t want to be fathering someone else’s kid. They soon learned that despite her curvy hips (“Maybe you should wear a cowbell on them so we can hear you coming,” one man, an accountant who had asked her to dinner, had joked when he watched Ava walking), Ava wasn’t advertising anything but her heart, and the kind of relationship she was looking for ended up with a ring on her finger.
A headache pulsed over her right eye. “Can you grab me a glass of water?” she asked Jimmy. He glided into the kitchen. Tonight, she’d come home and she wouldn’t think about how she hated and needed her job. She would put the lawyer out of her mind, and she would forget about Brian, looming like a storm.
Tonight, her latest and longest boyfriend Jake was coming over, taking Lewis and her to Brigham’s for ice cream, and she was thrilled about it. It was a school night, so Lewis had to be in bed by ten, but Ava thought a short first meeting might be just the thing for the first time the two guys in her life would meet. She didn’t give a damn what Brian thought, because this was something. They’d been dating three months already. Still, she had told Jake not to expect much, because when she had told Lewis about meeting Jake, he had said nothing, but had gone to his room and shut his door. “We’ll get along fine,” Jake had said. Usually, she never let Lewis meet the men she saw, not until she felt sure about them, and that didn’t happen often, if ever. But Jake was different. She thought that maybe this time, this one might last. He was the polar opposite of Brian, which had drawn her to him. Maybe he didn’t look as good on paper because he was a performer and he didn’t have the steady job Brian had had, the money, but he was easy-going. Kind. He actually seemed to like and appreciate her just the way she was.
She’d let Lewis get a double decker cone, and while she wouldn’t let him actually ride Jake’s motorcycle, how could he turn his nose up at getting to sit on it?
“Maybe we could play checkers again tomorrow,” Jimmy said. “I know what I did wrong. I shouldn’t have moved so you could double jump me.” He handed her the water, in a purple steel tumbler the guy from the Esso station had given her as a promotion even though she didn’t have the money to fill her tank all the way. She glanced at Jimmy. How could she not understand such loneliness when she felt it herself? “Is your mother at home? Who’s watching you?” she asked and he shrugged, a little offended. “I can watch out for myself,” he said. “I’m not some little kid. I’m twelve.” He stood up, stretching. “Anyway, she’s at the beauty parlor.”
The beauty parlor. Ava remembered when she could afford to spend a whole afternoon being pampered, getting her curly hair permed so it wouldn’t look so untamed, adding highlights so it would glint in the sun, and adorning her toes with polish with names like Rosy Rapture or Midnight Plum. The beauty shop women used to fuss all over her, asking endless questions about Brian, the one they were really interested in because he was so handsome, so charming to all of them when he came to pick her up at the shop. He’s a salesman, she wanted to remind them. He can sell anything to anyone, including himself. She ought to know. Now, she trimmed her own hair at home, pin curled it herself, following the complicated diagrams in Ladies Home Journal, and made dates with Lady Clairol (Does she or doesn’t she? Well Ava certainly did, later scrubbing the dye spatters out of the tub with a stiff brush.)
“If you give me a moment, I can walk you home,” she said, glancing at her watch. It was nearly four. It would take her 45 minutes to drive into Boston to work because of the traffic. She reached for her newspaper, glancing at the headlines. Communists and the pale baked potato face of Eisenhower warning everyone about nuclear disaster. We have to be safe, we have to be safe. Over and over like a drum roll. She had seen Khrushchev on the TV news ranting about Stalin and all she had thought of was Lewis when he was five and how he had had a tantrum in the middle of Better Dresses in Filene’s because he was tired of shopping and wanted to go home. The kids had duck and cover drills at school, curling up under their desks, their hands over their heads, waiting out a fake nuclear attack until the teachers gave the all clear signal, and Ava couldn’t see how anyone would know it was all clear when radiation was invisible, and anyway, couldn’t it chew right through a desk, let alone a person?
Jimmy looked out the window. “I can make it home myself.” He had the same rangy build that Lewis did. Both boys could use some meat on their bones. He sighed, as if he were humoring her. “You can watch me from the window. I’ll be fine,” he said.
“You just be careful,” she said. “And wait a minute. I’ll walk out with you.” Last week, she was running catty corner across the street to borrow some eggs from Jimmy’s mother, Dot, when she had heard the neighborhood women gossiping about a man hanging around the playground at school, staring so intently at the kids that a teacher had strode over to find out what he wanted, but the man had sprinted into the woods. The week before, the Waltham News Tribune had reported a car had swerved onto a curb in Belmont and frightened a little girl. A man had tried to grab her, but she ran away. The kids seemed riled up by the news, especially Jimmy, who kept asking Ava how much faster could a man run than a child? What if the man was in a car? “What do they do to you when they have you?”
“That’s not going to happen, so don’t you even think it,” Ava told him.
“We should watch our kids better,” Ava had insisted to the other neighbors, but one of the neighborhood women had narrowed her eyes at Ava. “It wasn’t one of your boyfriends looking for you, was it, Ava?”
“That’s not what her boyfriends are after,” someone smirked and they all laughed, except for Ava.
Well, things had calmed down. This is a safe neighborhood, people said, a good neighborhood. There were no more reports, and if she still felt uneasy it was probably because all the gossip always seemed to lead to yours truly, Ava Lark, no thank you very much.
Ava grabbed her things, ferreting out her lipstick and swiping it on her lips. She held up one finger, to tell Jimmy to wait, and then she called Jake, just to make sure they were still on for tonight. “You bet, baby,” he said, “See you at eight,” and hearing his voice, rich as maple syrup, she pressed the receiver hard against her temple, and then she turned and saw Jimmy was watching her. “Come on, out we go,” she said. She led him outside, and then she locked up the house. (Fine! Let her be the only one to lock her door!)
It was so unseasonably hot. Everything looked wilted and spoiled in the heat. The tarry road buckled from the sun. Her car was dirty but she didn’t want spend money to have it washed. Maybe it was something she could do with Lewis, or with Jimmy and Rose, too. Make it fun, washing her car.
Jimmy was the only other kid who just had a mom, but his mother Dot was widowed, and Ava knew that that was considered a step up from divorce, like it wasn’t really Dot’s fault that her husband had keeled over from a heart attack while mowing the lawn. Rose was only three and Jimmy barely two when it happened. Dot had told her that her husband had an insurance policy so large, she would never have to work. The neighbors brought casseroles and flowers for weeks. They still invited Dot and her kids to dinner and to backyard barbecues and parties, but when they found out Ava was divorced, they didn’t invite her to any of the soirees, not even to the Tupperware events, which maybe wasn’t such a terrible thing since Ava didn’t have extra money to spend. The women saw their husbands’ eyes following Ava, and they noticed the way the men talked to her as if she were as exotic as a South American parrot. They were always asking her if she needed them to fix her gutters or take out her trash. “Anything I can do,” one of the men said meaningfully.
“Where is everyone?” Ava wondered aloud. Why was everything so empty and still, as if the air itself had stopped in place?
”Our Lady’s, probably,” Jimmy said. “I told you. The church carnival. My mom went with a bunch of neighbors, but you couldn’t get me there if you stuck bamboo shoots under my fingernails. The rides are junky and the hotdogs taste like rubber.” And then Ava remembered driving by the little parking lot by the church over on Trapelo, seeing how crowded with people and tables it was. “My mom won’t be back until after the church supper.”
Jimmy stared into the street for a moment. “Bye!” he said, and then he ran, all arms and pumping legs, her son’s best friend in the world. She was shamed to think that sometimes he was the best company she had. She watched Jimmy sprint out of her house. He tore out across her lawn, crossed the street and veered to the left toward the left toward his home, two houses down, a blue ranch house with red shutters. When he got to the door, he turned and waved with both hands, grinning.
Later, that’s what she told the police. How happy he was. How he smiled.
(C) by Caroline Leavitt
Excerpted from Is This Tomorrow, to be published by Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, May 2013
Causes Caroline Leavitt Supports
The Writers' Strike Writers Against the War PETA