We stop on the porch, Mallory about to knock. She looks me up and down.
She shakes her head, No.
We’ve passed this farmhouse on Route 781 hundreds of times. Mallory always saying the same four words, dryly: “My sister lives there.”
I never thought I’d meet the sister. Or the mother. Or the twenty-five-year-old son who lives in Cleveland.
It’s ninety-five degrees and I’m sweating. A big black lab bounds onto the porch, mounts me from behind. Drooling. Clawing. I spin around, catch his paws and hold them. “I like it this way, big boy,” I say, then kiss him, right on the mouth.
“They sell insurance,” Mallory says. “Can you believe that?”
* * *
The house is decorated French-country a la Wal-Mart. I expect maple syrup or homemade cornbread wafting from the kitchen, but it’s burnt coffee and take-out Chinese. Charlene, Mallory’s sister, never acknowledges me. I thought we were there to pick up tomatoes and fresh basil from the garden but I see now that was Mallory’s idea of a joke. I stand just inside the front door, hear the dog scratching on the other side, watch Mallory disappear into another room with her sister. They’re both talking as fast as they can.
Mallory’s niece, Lucille, is watching cartoons, eating cereal standing up at the coffee table. She’s four.
“Hi,” she says to me, one eye still on the tube.
“You’re Aunt Mal’s friend.”
“Yes,” I say.
I hear the dog retreat, bark a defeated goodbye from the yard.
“You like Cap’n Crunch?” Lucille asks.
“Yes, I do.” I sit down on the couch; Lucille pushes her bowl toward me.
“I couldn’t eat your breakfast, though,” I say. “You have to grow up and get strong, like your Aunt Mallory.”
Lucille smiles, giggles, buries her face in the couch pillow.
“Have you seen your Aunt Mallory run? Do you know how fast she is?”
Lucille shakes her head no, then scrunches up her face, stares at me, glassy-eyed. I’m more fascinating than cartoons. More exotic than a talking sponge.
* * *
I don’t realize the quiet until Lucille switches off the TV and runs out of the room, splashing drops of milk from the cereal bowl. I stare down the hall Mallory and Charlene vanished into, nearly twenty minutes ago. Family pictures on the wall, and I can’t resist. I go to them, search for little Mallory: dimples and natural blonde curls. I’m smiling, can’t help myself, when a large man in an orange sweatsuit appears in the adjacent door frame.
“Oh,” he says.
“I’m Vicky,” I say. “And you’re David?”
He stares at the wall behind my shoulder.
“Any idea where Mallory might be?”
He shrugs. “Haven’t seen Mallory in six months. She’s here?”
“Huh,” he says, and leaves me in the hall, examining his baby pictures.
* * *
When Mallory returns, she’s walking briskly and carrying a small wooden box. She points at the door and I follow her. Charlene is holding Lucille’s hand.
“Bye,” I say to Lucille.
She waves and her mother pulls her closer.
In the car, I don’t ask about the box Mallory put in the trunk. I don’t ask about Mallory’s sister or brother-in-law or niece, or why they live in that big farmhouse when the yard is overgrown with weeds and they must drive fifty miles each way to sell insurance in an office building in town.
I pull slowly onto Route 781, reach out for Mallory’s hand and she grips it, squeezes my fingers in between hers. I take her hand with me as I turn up the radio, knowing she won’t let go of me for hours now. Then she leans as far away from me as she can, still holding my hand, she rolls her window down, tilts her head out, lets the wind whip through.
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