School Uniform

A short story

Martha Donovan knew something had to be wrong for her mother to summon her home from the party. She raced up the steps, turning back when she reached the door to give a reassuring wave to Harry, who waited on the curb, resting his arm on the roof of his car.

She opened the front door and stepped inside. The living room was empty. She leaned against the door and took a breath, trying to tamp down the anger that had been building ever since the hostess whispered in her ear, in the middle of a joke about Newt and Hillary, that there was a call for her. The spicy scent of carnations, an overpowering ripeness coming from the bouquet on the mantel, jarred her, as if the ground were shifting under her feet.

She had gone out before, to parties thrown by her brother and his wife and their friends, but tonight was her first real date. Jim, her husband, died 18 months before, marooning her and their four children on an island, clinging to each other, circled by sharks: grief, bill collectors, memories. She had no interest in being with another man, just as there had been nights when she got into bed, fatigue spreading through her limbs like a current, and realized that she hadn’t touched a bite of food all day and yet felt no hunger.

 The older children, like her friends, urged her to get out. On Mother’s Day they chipped in to buy the perfume she wore tonight, Unforgettable. “It really does things for you,” said Martin, who was 13. They were absorbed by their own lives – high school, sports, dates – and tonight they’d disappeared long before dinner, Martin to rehearse with his band, Anna to the mall. The little boys, Brian, who was 11, and Daniel, at 9 the baby of the family, still revolved around her, the only ones willing to go food shopping with her, fighting to push the carriage, arguing with retching protests against green beans and frozen peas and fresh fish.

“Mom. I told Ga not to call you.” Brian stood on the landing in his pajamas, his hair a tangle of brown curls, like his father’s when she first met him, at the wedding of Martha’s college roommate in 1974. Jim was the best man and had switched her place card after catching sight of her in the reception line; they were engaged before he confessed how she had ended up at the head table that day. She pushed away from the door and unbuttoned her coat. “It’s okay, honey.”

After the funeral, she had made sure that each child had something of Jim’s. It was torture to handle his things, but she spread them out on their bed one night after the children were asleep and made choices. Anna draped his rosary from the mirror on her makeup table; Martin kept his paper route money secured in his father’s silver money clip. Brian filled the brass candy dish that Jim used as an ashtray with his POGS and Sega Genesis cartridges. Daniel kept his baseball cards in Jim’s billfold. But as the months passed, they had stopped talking about him and she worried how she could keep him alive for them, especially the little boys, whose memories seemed the most fragile.

There were days she wished she could have thrown everything out, and had she been alone, she might have moved away, started somewhere fresh with nothing to remind her of what had been, all she had lost when he died, leaving her at 38 with four children. And on nights like this, when there was trouble with Daniel, again, she wanted to give up.

Halfway up the stairs, she saw her mother standing on the top landing behind Brian, haggard and gray in her silk bathrobe.

“He’s in Anna’s room. I’m sorry, dear.” The three of them turned down the hallway, a tired parade.

“It’s all right, Mother,” Martha said. “I had a nice time.”

Inside the bedroom, they found Daniel on the far bed of Anna’s twin set, a little ball turned defiantly toward the wall. Martha was surprised to see him wearing his school uniform: a wrinkled white shirt, charcoal gray trousers, skinny plaid St. Mary’s tie tossed over his right shoulder as if he were standing in a breeze; even shoes and socks. Martha had fed them dinner in their pajamas, trying to save her mother the agonies of getting them ready for bed.

“So Daniel, what is it this time?” She tried to make her voice light, but the frustration was beginning to overwhelm her, making it impossible to show the patience that worked best with him.

They had all babied Daniel, even before Jim’s death. Even Brian picked up his little brother’s messes without protest. Daniel had come to expect their services and throw a fit if he didn’t get what he wanted – his favorite show, the last cookie, someone to clean up his room.

“I don’t want to tell you.” His willingness to answer surprised her.

“He’s been like this for hours,” her mother said. With a trembling, blue-veined hand, she tried to stroke his head, but Daniel jerked away. “Crying and crying and won’t say why. Maybe we should call Dr. B.”

When he was four and had a raging ear infection, his temperature spiked at 105. Convinced bugs were crawling on his toes, he kicked at them, screaming, and begged her to get them off. Martha pressed her palm against Daniel’s damp forehead. “No temp.”

“He’s such a baby,” Brian said from his spot in the doorway.

“We don’t need that,” she said. “Were you two fighting?”

“No, I didn’t do anything.”

She waited a beat.

“Honest!”

She turned to Mother, trying to keep her tone calm. “What were they doing?”

“Dear, I don’t know. He stopped fussing right after you left. I watched part of a movie with them and then I was in my room. Everything was fine.”

“Well, it couldn’t have been fine. Now Brian, I want the truth. What did you kids do tonight?”

“Nothing, Mom. I don’t know what his problem is.”

“Well, he’s upset about something.”

“Not something I did. We watched one show. He was fine. Next thing I know, he’s gone. I thought maybe he went to bed, but I found him in here, acting weird.”

“What do you mean, weird?”

“He wouldn’t talk. He just cried. Weird.”  –

Jim Donovan was shaving for a job interview when a stroke killed him on a bitter March Friday morning. By that evening, dishes had blanketed the dining room table, overflowing onto the sideboard, crowding the counters in the kitchen and the tiny pantry. Casseroles and cakes, breads, pies, entire hams and broiled chickens, turkeys still in their bloodied plastic wrapping. Plates of sandwiches, tins of homemade cookies – all of it brought to the door by neighbors, friends, parents of the children’s classmates; the men ashen, the women blotchy-faced. There was more than enough to feed four growing kids for months; so much that the next day, after she and her brother went to Reilly’s to pick out a coffin, a mahogany model with brass hand-rails she couldn’t afford, they also stopped at the Pet Pantry on Field Point Road and rented space in one of the freezers out back that held preserved supplies of horse meat.

On many nights, the only thing that kept her from breaking down was knowing that she could stop on the way home from work and pick up dinner that needed nothing more than time in the microwave. But because this night she was going out, a young widow on her first date, she had decided to make the boys’ favorite, steak wedges, even though the steak was nothing but fresh ground chuck, spread onto a buttered submarine roll, liberally dosed with charcoal powder, and cooked under the broiler.

“We’re going to be at the Town House for dinner,” she said, leaning over the table to cut Daniel’s wedge in three pieces, “and then, the Bryners. The numbers are on the mantle.” She wore her pale green chenille bathrobe over a white silk slip. Fresh from a steaming bath and 20 minutes at Anna’s dressing table, her face glowed with powder, rouge and lipstick. Light from the dining room chandelier shimmered in her hair, which she had had washed and cut in a blow-dry that afternoon at the Hair Cuttery.

“Does he have any kids?”

“A son and a daughter, but they’re older. In fact, he’s going to be a grandfather soon. His daughter’s having a baby.”

“Ketchup,” Daniel said.

“What do you say?”

“Please. He must be real old.”

“No, he was just very young when he married. Brian, don’t look at it, eat it. Now, I want good behavior. Don’t give your grandmother a hard time, deal? Daniel? Deal?”

He let out a sigh, “Deal.”

Then the dog, dozing in the living room, let out his alarm bark. The doorbell rang.

“Oh Lord, what is he doing here this early? Brian, get the door and tell him I’ll be right down.” She charged up the stairs, her hand pinning her lapels.

“Mom, it’s not him. It’s flowers.”

She crept back down and peeked around the wall. Brian was holding a wide-mouthed cylinder of green tissue paper bursting with white and pink carnations. Daniel, mouth rimmed with ketchup, was staring at the bouquet.

The card read, “Looking forward to tonight. Harry.”

“Isn’t that sweet?” She bent her nose into the flowers and breathed in the scent. An image of Jim’s wake surged forward and she was back in that overheated, claustrophobic room, her dead husband a rouged stranger lying on a bed of white silk, a rosary wound around his clasped fingers. There were bouquets of lilies and roses, sprays of mums and daisies, but the cloying, overripe scent of carnations dominated the air. She pulled the flowers away from Daniel. “You boys get back and finish your supper. I need to put these in water.”

Harry, arriving thirty minutes after his gift, did his best to win the boys over. He was a tall, bulky, pipe-smoking accountant in his late 50s whose wife had died of cancer five years before. “Hi fellas,” he said, leaning over, offering his hand. Brian stepped up and shook it, but Daniel held back. Martha bent down, enveloping Daniel in a cloud of Unforgettable, her silk dress rustling. “Be good.”

“Don’t go,” Daniel said, lunging at her.

“Don’t be silly.”

“I don’t feel good.”

“You ate too fast.”

Daniel grabbed one of her legs. “Don’t go.”

“Daniel!”

“Cut it out, you baby,” Brian said.

Harry stepped in, bending down on one knee and facing Daniel who had buried his face in his mother’s dress. “Hey now, your Mom’s going to be fine. I’ll take good care of her and have her back before you know it. And I’ve got an idea, how about you and your brother and me go out for ice cream tomorrow, just us guys? What do you say?”

Martha finally pried herself free. She bent down and took Daniel’s cheeks in her hands. “Now look, I’m going out and I’m coming back, so don’t worry. Now give me a kiss.” She leaned forward, but he twisted free and ran up the stairs.

“Just go, dear,” her mother said. “He’ll be fine. Just go.”

Now, sitting on Anna’s bed, she remembered furiously sweeping up her coat and purse, walking into the night, Harry’s large dark frame casting its shadow over her. She reached over and put her hand on Daniel’s shoulder.

“All right now, I’m tired of this. Daniel, if you don’t tell me what’s wrong with you, there are going to be consequences.”

“Dear,” her mother offered, “I think he just needs a little time.” Her withered cheeks were chalk-white, under her rouge and, once again, Martha remembered that her mother had been alone in the house the day Jim died. She had been sitting in the kitchen drinking tea when she heard the thud of his body falling on the bathroom floor. “Mother, I think you should go to bed too. If I had known it was going to be this difficult, I wouldn’t have gone out. I’m sorry.”

“No dear, it wasn’t that bad. You need to get out. I suppose I shouldn’t have called you, but I was so worried about him. I just hope you’ll explain that to your beau.”

She had to smile. Her mother used to call Jim her “beau” when they began dating. “Don’t be silly. You did the right thing. But go, get in bed. I’ll be in in a minute.” Martha listened to her slippers scraping on the floor and saw the light from her room spill into the hallway and then vanish. Brian had sidled over by the bureau. “Brian, honey. It’s late. I want you in bed too. Now.”

“But, Mom …”

“No buts. I’ll come check on you.” Brian pouted, but he left.

Daniel lay so still she thought he had fallen asleep. But when she bent over him, she saw that his eyes were wide open. She sat back and waited, gauging by the rise and fall of his shoulders when he had relaxed and then spoke to him, so softy she could have been talking to herself.

“You know, at first I thought maybe you were upset because I went out with Mr. Chisholm tonight. I wondered if maybe you were thinking that, if I did that, that it meant that I didn’t love your father.” She could feel him listening. “Because it doesn’t. Is that what’s bothering you?”

His head moved, two small shakes. “That’s not it.”

She smelled the clinging odor of cooked hamburgers, pungent and slightly sickening, a reminder of her futile effort to stave off problems.

“Mom?” He didn’t turn around, but shifted his head so he was looking up at the ceiling.

“What, honey?”

“Can dead people see us?”

“I’m not sure. You mean, like Daddy?” A nod. “Yes, I think they can.”

“Me, too.”

He let her stroke his hair.

“You want to tell me now?” Martha said.

His sniffling started again. “I can’t.”

“Of course you can.”

“I didn’t do it.”

“What? What didn’t you do?”

“I didn’t do it!”

“Daniel, it’s all right, whatever it is.”

“No! I didn’t do it.”

“Do what?”

He turned around to look at her, his face tear-streaked and stretched taut with anguish. “I didn’t kiss Daddy.”

“What?”

“I didn’t kiss Daddy.”

“Sure you did. Lots of times.”

“No, no, I didn’t kiss him in the coffin. Everybody else did, but I was too afraid.” She remembered the children saying goodbye to Jim the morning of the funeral, before they closed the coffin for the last time. Daniel, dressed in his school uniform, stood near the doorway, looking at the book where visitors recorded their names and sympathy.

“I never got to say goodbye.” With that, he turned back to the wall and began to sob; deep terrible cries from the pit of his stomach.  –

The day Jim died, after they had taken his body away and she was alone in their bedroom, she had buried her face in his clothes, inhaling his smells, English Leather, cigarette smoke, his sweat. She didn’t know how she would survive without him, alone, and the fear was so great for a moment she wanted to die, too. But then it was time to pick up the children from school and so she pushed herself off the bed and went on. Now she could barely remember what he smelled like and she had to struggle to imagine what it was like to lie in his arms. She had begun to move on, to imagine life without him, maybe not with Harry Chisholm but with someone. She had wanted to believe her children had healed, but their wounds were too deep and lasting. Daniel, she saw now, was still frozen in his grief. Maybe the older ones too; they were just better at concealing it, out of loyalty to her.

He let her pull him onto her lap and stroke his face, kiss him on the forehead. His dirty blond hair stood up in a cowlick. His blue eyes were clear and luminous as if the crying had purged him of poisons.

“I miss Daddy.”

“Me too.”

“I was afraid of him. He didn’t look like Daddy.” Jim’s complexion was ruddy, but the undertaker had used too much rouge on his cheeks, and they had parted his hair on the wrong side.

“When I think of Daddy, I try not to think of him that way,” she said.

“Are you going to marry him?”

“Who, Mr. Chisholm?” She laughed. “No, honey. He’s just a friend.”

“Will he still take us for ice cream?”

“I’m sure he will. He liked you guys.”

She lay there, rocking him. “We’re going to have to press that uniform before school Monday,” she said, but he had fallen asleep, tears nesting in his eyelashes. She wiped his face with her hand. She pulled off his shoes, shrugged his pants off and loosened the knot of his tie and drew it from his neck. Finally, she unbuttoned his shirt and covered him with the bedspread.

The day of Jim’s funeral, the nuns let the entire school off for the Mass. Three hundred boys and girls, frightened to stillness and dressed in their school uniforms, filled the church.

She went down the stairs into the kitchen. Her mother had washed the dishes, but had forgotten the broiler pan in the stove. Martha filled the sink with hot soapy water and slipped the pan, filmy gray with hamburger grease, in the suds to soak. Then she went into the living room and took the vase with Harry’s flowers down from the mantle and carried it outside. Her breath clouded in front of her. Grasping the carnations by their stems, she upended the vase and drained the water onto the lawn. She walked around to the side of the house, where Jim always kept the garbage cans stacked. She opened one and dropped the flowers inside. Their scent, a hint of cloves, still hung in the air when she walked back in the house.  

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