It was a humid Sunday night in late June and the muggy air settled on Carolyn Leland’s skin like a silk sheet. She stood at the head of the driveway stretching her hamstrings and studying the neighborhood of Westhill. The purple dusk was diffusing to black and the din of the suburb tapered, as if obeying the shifting sky. In front of her the Randolf house sat in stillness and a breeze startled the dogwoods fringing their porch.
The women of Westhill were predominantly housewives, taking care of Blairs or Camerons or Chelseas or Merediths while their husbands worked in the banks and federal buildings in Washington, but Carolyn took pride in the fact that she labored long days as a tax attorney and still managed to be a devoted mother to Sam. She turned back to her house and saw her 15 year old son’s silhouette through the window of his room. Contentment tugged her lips as she turned and began to run.
The streetlights spilled amber puddles as Carolyn sank and rose between their glow. No one else was out tonight and she preferred it this way; no social exchanges, just her nikes gently padding the road. Her runs were one of the few things she could do in complete solitude, away from clients, work associates, laundry, the kitchen. Running was not a task to be completed or cheesecake retribution, but rather a tranquil exertion.
The air was thinning and the stars emerged as Carolyn descended the first hill. She felt the sweat begin and welcomed the sticky beads, associating them with cleansing.
The Wayburn’s sprawling yellow colonial at the base of the hill marked a mile. Dr. Wayburn was Sam’s pediatrician. He was a crouching, deliberate, hazel-eyed man whose shyness was often mistaken for pretension. She had been to his office only yesterday, after noticing some changes in Sam’s behavior. Usually ravenous, his appetite had been diminishing for nearly a month now. He had made it a habit to sleep until two or three in the afternoons on the weekends, and since it was summer Carolyn was inclined to believe he did the same during the week. He had refused to go to the doctor at first, but after eight days of observing his continued lethargy Carolyn insisted. Dr. Wayburn examined Sam in his large office downtown and feared mono. He conducted a bloodtest, the results of which would arrive tomorrow. She desperately hoped Sam’s behavioral shift was due to adolescence or heartbreak, anything less then mono, because the boy deserved a good summer, a good life.
Her heart rate drummed rapidly as the second mile began. A minivan passed to her left and she felt the slow gust brush the hairs on her arms. Most of the houses had their sprinklers on, and the small sterling funnels feathered the lawns. A waning crescent moon lounged in the sky, its nacreous glow giving the wet blades of grass an emerald sheen. A pair of rust colored dragonflies hovered in Carolyn’s path, she accelerated around them and turned towards the entrance of the subdivision, hearing the somnolent hum of a garage door closing in her wake.
Immense, tiered homes passed: a crème one, watchful on the apex of a hill, a sprawling ranch house accented with a sapphire fishpond, a flint Victorian hidden in a wooded alcove, all unlit, all decadent. This was the oldest part of the neighborhood, the houses that existed before its expansion 30 years ago. Many of the people in this area were strangers to Carolyn, geriatric apparitions she had seen rarely in her twelve years here. She always speculated about their pasts during this stretch. Were they lonely widows or widowers reading dense non-fiction volumes on ages past? Were the inhabitants sentimental about their long removed children in banking or real estate on the coasts? Or did the dwellings merely contain aged couples watching TV in dark back rooms where the screens blaze could not stretch to the windows? She did not know, but the uncertainty and prospect of her own physical declination quickened her pace to a near sprint.
Carolyn rounded another corner and hit the straightaway where it came into view like some burlesque headstone. It being the elaborate Westhill sign carved from balsam that stood stoic and vigilant in a planter overflowing with begonias. The sign bisected the lanes of the cross street which served as the entranceway to the neighborhood. It was always illuminated at night by the brown light from the cast of lamps that sprouted from the soil around it. It was a designation of privilege, an inoculation from the rest of the world. There were countless other impressive suburbs in the city; Rivermeade, Whispering Meadows, Blissfield Court, Harbor Point, but none as stately and elite as Westhill. Charles had chosen the location so long ago, she the three and a half million dollar Cape Cod complete with 4 balconies and crescent pool. Her husband Charles had been dead for eight years. She began to run 3 months after he shot himself in their bathroom, ran to vindicate her strength in the face of his surrender.
For the first 4 years she futilely strained to find reasons for him to leave a loving wife and 7 year old son buried under the debris of a crumbled cornerstone, and found none, only the visions of his worn and detached face in the weeks before he pulled the trigger. She would offer a “what’s wrong,” and he would respond with a perfunctory hug and a furtive murmur of “nothing,” or the scarier and bare, “I love you.”
The Snows were having a bonfire, Carolyn could tell from the rumors of cedar smoke in the air, and the hollow, choral collection of voices that reverberated off the oaks and birches. It was the unmistakable sound of wealthy socialites indulging in the warmth and privilege of another Maryland summer, they never missed a chance, and why not? She and Charles never had.
They had hosted many outdoor get-together’s themselves. Carolyn now pictured him, auburn beard and prominent jaw, setting in a chair with friends around the fire pit with a tumbler of scotch and guitar in hand. He would play Woody Guthrie songs, and the tumbler would be set aside, alcohol and inebriation mattering no more. He would not be conscious of company when he released, and his neighborhood reputation (so precious and delicate in Westhill) was only strengthened by the cool indifference of his strumming. She loved him so much then, when the tears tripped almost imperceptibly down his face as he sung about dust bowl blues and vigilantes. Her missile gaze would be set upon him through the glass door as she answered an airy cocktail party question inside, feeling oh so lucky to have a man with such passion.
But towards the end, a nostalgic sorrow lurked beneath his eyes, and Carolyn could not determine its cause. Sometimes he would come home from work and sit on the black canvas chair in the living room looking out with an eerie stare, a laser beam from the departed greens, as if he had left his body and was watching the years and vitality escape him from a distance.
It was spaghetti and garlic bread for dinner that particular and fateful night of his end, the marinara evidenced itself as portent. He said very little and ate less during supper. Sauce was painted on his beard when he excused himself, giving Sam a kiss on the forehead and Carolyn a wink with no conviction. He carried the Sports Illustrated with football player Rodney Davis on the cover to the bathroom. The gifted halfback had blood on his masked face less then ten minutes later.
If the suicide was premeditated then the audacity of his casualness at dinner was haunting. He was gone; coroners, questions, consoling, continuance. Then, months later the vanilla Nikes with the chartreuse checkmarks found Carolyn’s searching eyes and idle feet.
She was experiencing a runner’s high, adrenaline rising to meet the effort expended. Three miles. It was routine now, legs churning and thoughts exhausted, autopilot. The Westhill sign was nearing and beyond it the cul-de-sac marking her turn around could be seen. Just before the sign a match lit and the orange tip of a cigarette punctured the night.
Realtor Blake Elmin was doing 95 down Interstate 50 in his charcoal jaguar with a pastel sunset pursuing. He promised Teagen to be home at seven for her customary Sunday dinner. It was now 8 o’clock. But the showing had gone well and Elmin was quite certain that the Willet family would purchase the 4.3 million dollar row house in the heart of D.C.’s business district, a commission he expected would arouse spousal forgiveness for his tardiness. It was refreshing to cruise with no impediments on a highway he had become accustomed to driving 15 maddeningly gridlocked miles on most evenings. The sunroof was open and the Chesapeake’s brackish air fell in and out of his lungs. Bob Seger charged through his satellite radio, and Elmin sang the lyrics in a strained tenor. Even with the music the evening was quiet, coaxing solace. The highway fed into Jones Station Avenue and the green lights allowed the supermarkets and gas station’s neon signs to swim by. He slowed and turned right on York Street, the road ribboned out in front of him and was smothered by the mute yellow dusk. After three miles the sign marking Westhill approached and Elmin slowed even more, cautious of playing children or loose pets. His four story estate was adjacent to the suburbs entranceway. The gravel crunched beneath his wheels as he relaxed the machine into the driveway.
Teagen was chopping lettuce on the wooden island in the kitchen when Blake entered. “Hi,” she called over her shoulder, “I figured you wouldn’t be home on time so I started dinner late, everything is ready, I am just fixing the salad. Call Jason and you guys can sit down. How did the meeting go?” She asked as an afterthought.
“90% certain they will buy it. I am going to make a drink.”
After 15 years his marriage had fallen into a waltz of monotony, yet Blake still found his wife beautiful and compassionate. Resuscitation was always possible, but comfort was the enemy of any marriage and they were both quite settled in, he thought as he extracted the vodka from the wet bar in the living room.“Teegs, do we have any olive juice?”
“Not in the fridge, but I think there is a new bottle in the kitchen cabinet. Make me one will you?”
Blake poured two dirty martinis before asking, “whats the young one been up to?”
The light coming through the kitchen window grew faint, and the crickets in backyard crowded any silence between them.
“He hasn’t been out of his room all day, I am sincerely worried about him Blake,” she looked up from the salad bowl and brushed the yellow hair from her concerned blue eyes. “He is going to be a senior, he hasn’t shown any interest in going to college, and I think he is smoking marijuana again. I found a pipe in his pants pocket while I was doing the wash yesterday. We need to speak with him, he is drifting away from us. I see him collapsing into himself,” the urgency in her voice increased with every word and her gaze never left Blake’s eyes.
“I talked with him this week, even got him thinking about going out for football in the fall. He will be fine, I’m sure the marijuana is a passing habit, and you can’t honestly tell me you were researching colleges during the summer of your junior year of high school,” as he finished Blake waved a hand in dismissal and simultaneously swallowed his vodka.
“It’s not just that, he comes in at five in the morning, walks around the house with his head down, and he doesn’t speak a word to me. I know he is getting skinnier. I am serious Blake, these are things you don’t see when you are at work.”
“Don’t bring work into this Teegs, I will talk to him and try to find out what’s going on. Are we ready to eat then?”
“Alright, yes we’re all set, go get your son.”
The martini had made Blake feel light, and he moved towards the stairs with a buzzing fluidity. He ascended the two flights in a jog and was greeted by John Coltrane. The jazzman’s pensive face stared out from the poster tacked to Jason’s closed door. The hallway light was off, Blake flipped the switch and knocked, the carpet felt good on his bare feet. “Jay, dinner. Your mom made steaks”. He could hear Neil Young singing behind the closed door. “Hey when did you start listening to that? Neil is my man. You know I saw him in Arlington in 1972,” he swung the door open as he spoke.
Dull brown light from a desk lamp revealed a room littered with clothes and papers. The smell of something burnt hung in the room. Jason lay on his bed in the back corner. He was fully dressed with half closed eyes, suede boots on his torpid feet. The boy showed no reaction to his father entering. Blake made his way over to his son, “Have you been smoking in here?” he asked in accusation.
Jason lifted his head slightly at the sound of the question and mumbled, “Dad get outta here, I wanna be alone,” the words were empty. Blake hovered over his son’s bed, seeing his face for the first time. His skin was pallid, and his greasy black hair disheveled, but it was his eyes that frightened Blake, they were sanguine.
“Jesus Christ Jason, what the fuck have you done to yourself,” Blake said pushing his open palm on his son’s chest and bouncing him violently on the bed. “Stop Dad,” the boy shouted sedately, “get away.” After thirty seconds of this, the father’s ire shifted to concern, “Are you alright? What did you do?” Blake looked around the room in desperation, his eyes finally finding a spoon and syringe on the boy’s dresser. “Teagen, get up here,” he screamed. “What the fuck are you doing, that’s heroin, Jesus Christ your shooting heroin. Teagennnn!” he screamed hysterically. A dead minute passed with Blake biting his lip in disbelief.
“Yes, yes, I’m right here,” she was out of breath. She hung in the doorway gaping at the sunken countenance of her son. Finally asking in a slight, faltering voice, “What happened?”
Jason caught sight of his mother and shot up rigid as if he had been injected with adrenaline. He met her stare with frantic, crimson eyes, “I have to go. I have to leave right now,” there was a wavering desperation in the words no longer muttered. Leaping out of the bed he attempted to sprint passed Blake who clasped his arm with a steel grip. Jason thrashed violently, but Blake refused to let go. Finally his wild pupils found his fathers, and with his unencumbered hand he threw a right hook that landed solidly on the realtor’s jaw. Blake recoiled in shock and pain, releasing his son’s arm. By the time he reoriented himself the room was empty, save his wife who knelt crying in the doorway. Framed like a penitent.
The tobacco smoke curled from the outline of the man and Carolyn, now only thirty feet away caught its intimation. She ran at night to avoid car exhaust, smoke was even worse, and she moved to the opposite side of the road with a trace of condescension on her face. Suddenly a hoarse voice called out, “Excuse me, excuse me miss.” She stopped, began jogging in place, and looked over at the smoking man curiously from across the street, his face was obscured by the darkness.
“Can I help you?” she asked brusquely, still chopping her feet.
“I am sorry to stop you, but did you happen to see a young man around the subdivision since you’ve been running?”
“No, sor-, Blake is that you?” she stopped jogging and walked over to the rangy man in the white shirt and gold tie.
“Oh, Carolyn I didn’t recognize you, I’m looking for Jason he bolted out of the house earlier and neither Teagen nor I can find him, but his car is here so I’m assuming he walked,” his words were almost whispered.
Carolyn searched his despondent face and could tell he had been crying. His right cheek was bruised.
“I’m sorry I haven’t seen him. What happened Blake you look shattered?” Elmin was a good friend of theirs before Charles died, always coming to their parties with his wife. It had been a long time since she had spoken to Blake. He was a kind and funny man whom Carolyn had always liked.
“Just a row, some miscommunication with Jason,” he paused, stroking an open palm over his gray hair until it clasped the back of his neck. “It is difficult being a parent,” he measured carefully.
“A series of survivals,” Carolyn offered.
“Yes, yes I suppose.”
They stood in silence for nearly a minute before Carolyn said sympathetically, “I’ll keep an eye out for him. Take care Blake everything will work out.” He nodded as she turned and began running away.
By the time she rounded the cal-de-sac and passed the Elmin’s house for the second time, Blake was gone. Their brief conversation and his solemn, abstract manner danced puzzlingly in her mind. She wondered what his son could have done to leave him in that state. She remembered the boy. Years ago Carolyn had driven him to school in a car pool organized by the neighborhood parents. He had been the largest of the children, probably 2 or 3 years older then Sam. She now pictured the tall, slender kid walking to her car with awkward movements, as if his motor skills had not yet agreed with his size. No matter the weather or season he would always wear a sweat suit with the elastic of the pants hugging his slender ankles. His black hair was cropped short and accentuated a face that was incongruously chubby. When he got in the car he would offer a hello, then drop silent and stare out of the rear window as if bewildered by the trees, houses, and shops he had passed a thousand times before. These were the scarce memories she had of Jason Elmin. The car pool dissolved after some months and she hadn’t seen him since.
The Maurel’s terrier yelped shrilly behind a fence as Carolyn gusted by, and a light, wispish rain began to fall from clouds she could not see. The sixth mile was always a battle, her knees ached and made palpable the forty-seven years they carried. She knew she could simply walk the rest of the way, but stubbornness and pride would not allow it. Head now sagging, she watched the tips of her shoes doggedly kick invisible walls of fatigue. Constellations were embedded in the summer sky, sequin sentinels presiding over Carolyn’s labored steps. She coasted down the final hill, relaxed, and allowed gravity to pull her tired body. Home was near now, she lifted her head and found the copse of maples that guarded her house. Often she would sprint the last few hundred yards to her driveway as a final victory, but tonight she just continued steadily to her goal.
It was subtle, yet she had the feeling of triumph she always felt after completing her run. She stood erect with hands on the back of her head, taking deep, controlled breaths of the summer air. The night seemed slow, as if it could not accommodate her invigoration. She turned to her house and the motion light mounted above the garage immediately came to life. It surprised her to discover that Sam’s window was dark this early in the evening, he normally went to sleep much later then she. Making her way to the door she could hear the docile swish of the pool water out back.
She entered the dark foyer and was greeted by their cat Bruno, who snaked around her leg and purred in welcome. Carolyn crossed the foyer to the stairs, the oak floor whining meekly from her weight. The kitchen was lit and still carried wafts of the chicken she and Sam had shared hours ago. Tea and a warm bath, Carolyn decided as she placed the kettle on the range. She grazed the paper that lay on the snack bar for a moment, went into her room to run the bath, and climbed up to the third floor to say goodnight to her son.
Even in their most bitter fights, much to Sam’s consternation, Carolyn never neglected to say “sweet dreams” and kiss him on the forehead before she went to sleep. She had a mother’s compulsion to conclude each day of their interaction this way. It was as natural as anything for her.
The corridor was lit and the bathrooms exhaust fan murmured. Sam’s door was shut, but the glassy, bouncing sound of vibraphone jazz slipped from behind it. Carolyn deftly turned the handle and pushed opened quietly.
His black hair had grown longer, and his face had thinned, but even from the side she recognized him, hunched over a wan back scattered with acne that could only be her sons.
They hadn’t seen her. She walked away, her stomach felt as if a trapdoor had just opened and her knees felt tremors. The tea kettle was left whistling as Carolyn sunk down the stairs, and opened the front door. She paused outside and squatted for a moment before beginning.
Mr. Randolf was returning from the store. Walking inside, he caught site of Carolyn’s silhouette and said hello. The only reply he got was from her feet, sticking and rising on the damp road, their echo hanging in the languid summer evening.