“Guys think I’m too easy,” Leanne Bartlett said, then shook her head, as if to contradict herself. Her black curls shivered over her tiny, heart-shaped face, hiding her freckles momentarily. “And I am too easy.”
“Naah, you just like guys” said Deedle while she thumbed through one of Leanne’s old Entertainment Weekly magazines. The two of them were huddled on Leanne’s bed talking in low voices, while Mrs. Bartlett made supper and listened to old tunes on WSNO in Montpelier, the tinny AM station. It was January and Leanne’s room was chilly, but Leanne wouldn’t open the door to let in more heat.
“I just like some guys.”
“Not always the right kind of guys, is all.”
“Mortie, Joe, Ronnie. They’re all the same. They come sniffing around here like dogs. Woof woof.” She giggled.
“Ronnie Prevost? Jesus, Leanne, I heard he’s just out of rehab.”
“I’m his rehab now I guess.” She giggled again, then sighed. “See what I mean?”
Deedle snorted in disgust. “You really ought to think about getting a life.”
The Bartlett house was a tiny one-story rectangular box of flimsy construction, painted a pale pink, on a half-acre of land along a dirt road in East Barre, Vermont. It had a roof of metal flashing and a small front yard, and a noisy frog swamp in the backyard which might or might not be interfering with the septic system. Deedle grew up in a large white Colonial on Upper Camp Street on the outskirts of Barre until she moved out after high school and attended the University of Vermont. Now she worked as a teller at a Fleet Bank in town and had her own apartment. She believed her real life was just around the corner.
For most of Deedle’s life, from before her earliest memories, in fact, the Bartlett house had been her home away from home. Leanne’s father, Clyde, built the house when Leanne was five, right around the time when the girls first became best friends. Two years ago, when the girls were 19, Clyde fell down the basement stairs, drunk, breaking his neck.
A copy of Clyde’s obituary sat in a small black frame on Leanne’s paneled bedroom wall. The headline was in larger type than the usual newspaper obits, “CLYDE BARTLETT, WAR HERO, WAS 58.” It noted him as a Captain in the Army during the Korean Conflict, mentioned medals, a citation from the Secretary of the Army. The rest was brief: worked as a supervisor at the Splitt Ball-Bearing Plant in Barre for many years, retired three years before, VFW, American Legion. Married former Virginia Bellefleur, one daughter, Leanne.
Except for Clyde’s obituary, Leanne’s bedroom walls were bare, without even a mirror, only the smoothness of the artificial woodgrain and thin black grooves, running from floor to ceiling. The room had a single bed and three open suitcases, which Leanne used as clothes drawers, in case, she told Deedle, of the need for a quick escape.
“You’ll find someone real. Someday it’ll just happen,” said Deedle.
Supper was spaghetti with sauce out of a Ragu jar, green beans from the small garden plot in back, blanched and frozen, thawed and recooked. The taste gave Deedle an odd sensation of summer.
Mrs. Bartlett kept up most of the conversation, like she couldn’t tolerate silence for long. She was short and thick waisted and over the years Deedle had known her, had developed a large rump, a cap of gray hair permed into place. She had a heart-shaped face, like her daughter, as well as Leanne’s small features and freckles, only on Mrs. Bartlett, they appeared chiseled in rough stone. She wore a striped apron over her plain brown work dress. She was a secretary at the Tax Department in Montpelier.
“Girls, you’ll never guess who I ran into the other day. Mr. Cross from your grade school. I know you remember him. He remembers you both, of course. He asked about you, Leanne. When I told him you’d graduated from high school, he shook his head in surprise. His hair’s gone gray and he stoops, but otherwise he still looks the same. He was in Campion’s, the lingerie department, I have no idea why. He looked kind of lost in there, being the only man.”
Deedle and Leanne exchanged a look and smothered a snicker.
Mrs. Bartlett went on, oblivious. “You used to like him, remember? He’d put stars on all your papers. I remember once you came home with a red star, all upset because it wasn’t a gold or silver one. Penmanship, I think it was.”
In all the childhood years Deedle had known her, Leanne’s mother had sat at this same supper table as quiet and quiescent as a hamster, never uttering more than a monosyllable, and sometimes not even that. Clyde hated talk in the house, except what came over the police-band scanner. He was a volunteer fireman and so his radio would crackle and buzz and snarl for hours while he sat beside it in his black Naugahyde easy chair, drinking whiskey sours, smoking a pipe. He was a small, thin man with a triangular jaw, and a nose the color of raw rhubarb. His chin and neck were often imperfectly shaven, so that the skin was blighted, a mess of short white whiskers and scabbed over blood. He always wore green work shirts and pants, what Deedle’s mother referred to as “janitor clothes,” faded from hundreds of launderings, and heavy maroon Dunham boots on his feet. He had chalk-white hair, yellowing at the ends, a tuft of which would sometimes fall over his left eye as he sat motionless in the chair and monitored the scanner, listening to the laconic exchanges, the short metallic bursts of code words, nonsense phrases. Occasionally, an excited series of shouts would erupt, amidst plumes of static, from out of the vast emptiness. At these times, he would lean slightly forward in his chair and puff a little faster on his pipe. But that was all. It was as if he were recording these hours and days and nights of electronic information in his brain for some later use, known only to him.
On the other hand, Deedle had never imagined Mrs. Bartlett capable of sustaining memories, of keeping a record of so many of the finer details of her life lived in such a silent and oppressive house. But after Clyde’s gruesome death, something opened up in Mrs. Bartlett, and ever since, the details of that life had come spilling helplessly out.
“I used to tell you how important it was to have neat handwriting, what kind of impression it would make in the business world. You would practice your capital ‘Qs’ and ‘Zs’ for hours, remember? Because they’re so hard in cursive. Your cousin Wendy had the same trouble as you. Oh, I remember how you girls used to tease her about her backwards ‘Ss’ and ‘Es.’ The way she would cry and carry on? Heavens! She was always a sensitive girl, couldn’t stand to be criticized. Such a girly-girl, too. I never did understand how she ended up in the army.”
A week later Deedle was trying to watch a PBS Frontline special on insider trading when she dozed off on the couch. The phone woke her up.
Leanne whispered, “Deedle, you’ve got to get over here right now. I really need you.”
“Leanne,” Deedle said while massaging her eyelids, “What are you talking about?
“It’s Mom. I don’t know where she is.”
“What do you mean you don’t know where she is? Where could she be? And why are you whispering?”
“Because she might be downstairs. I think she’s in the basement but I’m scared to look.”
“You mean she’s in the house?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. I think so. Listen Deedle, something bad happened and I really need you here right now.” She started to cry.
“Just calm down and tell me what happened.”
“I had Mortie Michaelson in here. I was screwing Mortie in my room this afternoon, okay? And we must have lost track of time because all of a sudden, right in the middle, I heard the front door slam and guess what? It’s Mom, home from work.”
“Oh Jesus.” Deedle said.
“So I hear Mom come in and I tell Mortie to quit it and be still but he keeps whispering things and giggling and moving around. Then Mom knocks on my door and says, ‘Leanne, is that you?’ Mortie freezes up where he is, which is right on top of me, of course, so I can barely choke out the words, ‘Yeah, Mom, I’ll be out in a minute.’ She’s quiet for a second, then she says, ‘Are you feeling alright, dear?’ I say, ‘Yeah, I’m fine, Mom. I’m just reading a book.’ Which wasn’t the most brilliant thing to say, I know. When do I ever read a book? But it was all I could think of at that moment. She’s right outside the door; I could tell she was thinking about opening it and checking on me. Finally, she says, “Okay, dear, I’m starting supper.’
“Meanwhile, Mortie’s all over me again, you know the way he is, and before I know it, my old bed starts squeaking away again, up and down, up and down.” Despite her tears, she chuckled and after a minute Deedle did too. Deedle recalled her own mother saying, years before, “Leanne’s so small and beautiful, but she has such a dirty laugh.”
“Leanne, you are certifiable,” Deedle said.
“No, wait, wait. So I’m underneath him and I’m whispering in his ear, ‘Mortie, you got to be quieter’ and he says ‘I’m trying, I’m trying’ but the bed keeps on squeaking, as loud as ever. I’m expecting Mom to burst in any second. But old Mortie, he keeps on going and going. So I decide to let him; I mean, what else could I do? Then, as he’s approaching the big moment, my head starts banging up against the headboard.”
“Oh. My. God.”
“I’m frantic but I can tell that it’s too late; Mortie’s eyes are bulging out of his head, like a big old bullfrog.”
Deedle burst out laughing.
“It’s not funny!” Leanne said but she was laughing too.
“Alright,” Deedle said after they’d settled down. “Alright, So then what happened?”
“So, after he’s done, he’s lying on top of me, panting. But now I’m worried about Mom. I listen, but there’s nothing but silence. No sounds at all coming from the kitchen or anywhere. Mortie’s kissing me all over but I push him off me, tell him to get dressed, to leave through my window, which he does, eventually. Then I put on my robe and go out into the living room. I call, ‘Mom, are you okay?’ But there’s no answer. There’s just this weird silence. I’m thinking, ‘Oh shit, we must have driven her right out of the house.’ But I look out the front window and the car’s still in the driveway. Deedle, please, I’m begging you. I really need you here!”
The drive to the Bartlett house took just fifteen minutes but Deedle used the time to wonder, not for the first time, if this should be the final act in her long, tumultuous friendship with Leanne Bartlett. High school was high school; now maybe it was time to move on.
At the top of Trow Hill, the woods came right up to the road — thick pines heavy with snow, birches and maples stripped of their leaves, limbs webbed together above the road against the starless winter sky. She flipped on the radio for company, searching for some decent rock n roll. But all she got with any clarity was WSNO, which was in the middle of a cornball Patsy Cline song.
“He never fails to call and tell me I’m on his mind
And I’m lucky to have such a guy, I hear it all the time
And he does all the things that you would never do
He loves me too, his love is true. Why can’t he be you?”
Despite herself, the melancholy mood of the song made her reflect upon her own three and a half boyfriends who’d inhabited her life, one by one, since high school. The advice columns even had a technical term for such a love life: serial monogamy. The term sounded as dreary and clinical as the affairs themselves had, for the most part, been. The exception had been the one-half, her big adventure, the tall sleepy-eyed, leather-clad guy who, preposterously, called himself Tex. They shared an eight-hour Amtrak ride in a sleeper car from Burlington to Penn Station and then three wild days and sleepless nights in the bars and borrowed lofts of Manhattan before he abandoned her without pretense on the steps of the Metropolitan Museum of Art. He told her it had been fun but he had an appointment he couldn’t be late for and she never saw him again.
The problem was that except for Tex she always saw the end in the beginning. Only with Tex she never saw it coming.
Leanne greeted her at the front door of the pink house, dressed only in her flimsy robe. She whispered, “I heard this noise from downstairs, like someone sobbing. I think it’s her.”
“Of course it’s her. Who else would it be?” Deedle said.
“It could be the septic tank. It sometimes makes noises like that.”
“Yeah, the septic tank.”
“Go down and talk to her, okay?”
“You and me both, gal pal.”
They went down together. It occurred to Deedle that she hadn’t been down those wooden rickety steps since Clyde had taken his fatal tumble. The thought jolted her a little. The cement cellar was cold and damp and smelled of heating oil and very old mildew. They found Mrs. Bartlett over by the water tank, sitting on an old milk crate, her head in her hands.
Deedle put her hand on her shoulder. “What’s the matter, Mrs. Bartlett? Are you okay?”
Mrs. Bartlett looked up at Deedle, her eyes shiny with wetness. She didn’t seem surprised to see her. “Oh, it’s not me, dear” she said. “It’s just the septic tank is acting up again, banging away to beat the Devil and I don’t know what’s wrong, how to fix it anymore.”
She looked away and said in a low, shaky voice, “Leanne’s father would know what to do about this. He always knew just what to do about everything. I miss him so much. Every day I miss him more, it seems. Isn’t that strange?”
Leanne was hovering at the bottom of the stairs, shivering in her bathrobe. Deedle looked at her and pointed toward Mrs. Bartlett. Leanne shook her head. So Deedle said “Mrs. Bartlett, Leanne has something she wants to tell you. Something important about the septic system.”
With great reluctance, Leanne sidled across the room and knelt down next to her mother, “Mom, mom, please.” She sighed. “The septic system is fine. There’s nothing wrong with it.”
Mrs. Bartlett shook her head firmly. “Oh no, no, Leeanne, it’s not fine. Just an hour ago, I heard it acting up. You must have heard it too: Bang, Bang, Bang. We can’t afford a new pump. What if we have to get a new pump? We have no money for one.” She began to weep.
“Mom, Mom, listen, I’m trying to tell you.” Her voice was quavering. “It wasn’t the pump. It was me up there making the noise. Not the pump. It was me and Mortie Michaelson!”
There was a silence. But then Mrs. Bartlett began shaking her head. “Oh no, Leanne,” she said, “Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault. You know the trouble we’ve had with the septic system. Ever since your father built this place, it’s been one big problem.”
Leanne threw her arms around her mother, sobbing. “I’m sorry, Mom. I’m so sorry.”
And Mrs. Bartlett enfolded her daughter in her arms. “It’s not your fault, Leanne. It’s not you fault. Your father would know what to do. We both miss him so much, don’t we? Oh it’s not your fault. Not at all. You’re my little girl, my little angel. It’s not your fault.”
“Oh mama I’m so, so sorry! Please forgive me!”
Deedle, feeling relieved and suddenly very tired, sat down on the bottom step of the stairs where Clyde Bartlett, whiskey glass in hand, had met his untimely demise. She watched the women he left behind hold each other and cry on the damp and chilly basement floor, Leanne begging for forgiveness and Mrs. Bartlett’s voice crooning: “There there, my darling angel. It’s not your fault. It’ll be okay. We both miss him so much. Oh don’t cry my darling daughter. Oh my sweet angel. You musn’t blame yourself.”
About the Author
Steve Young has spent most of his career as a print and public radio reporter, editor and news director. He’s filed over 150 stories and features for NPR covering, among other things, education, crime, poverty, terrorism and gay marriage. He has won a number of national awards, including in 2007, the DuPont-Columbia award (the broadcast equivalent of the Pulitzer prize) for his groundbreaking NPR series on hidden poverty on Cape Cod. Young also has an MFA in fiction from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. He’s had seven previous short stories published, two of which were nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best American Short Stories. He also recently completed a novel and is looking for an appropriate publishing home for it. Young grew up in Vermont and now lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico.