[img_assist|nid=10046|title=Pineapple Landing by Karoline Wileczek © 2013|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=400|height=610]
The summer my father left us, our front yard was filled with deep, grave-sized pits. There was nothing else to look at, nothing to do but watch those cavities and the flurry of activity around them. Grandma and I sat in white wicker rockers, watching from her side porch, which looked directly onto my parents’ property. The house my parents had built stood on four acres, a flat stretch of what was once farmland at the edge of a dense forest.
Mom was getting less waitressing shifts at Longville Tavern and Dad was struggling to sell timeshares. Our kitchen cabinets were lined with cans of corned beef hash and Spam. My little sister and I drew the line when they tried to make us drink powdered milk.
Land was the only valuable thing we had, so my parents called a developer to discuss selling off part of the property. The first step was to see if a second well could be dug.
The diggers came on the last day of school. They must’ve been opening up holes in front of our house while I stood on the stage with my classmates, accepting my blue and gold sixth grade certificate. When Kristine and I came home that afternoon, there in the middle of our yard were four long, deep pits. The only funeral I’d ever been to was Grandpa’s, but the image of the hole that swallowed his silver casket had been burned into my mind.
The pits had a similar look about them. They were three feet by seven and a good six feet deep. Loose dirt was piled around them. We stared. Someone banged on the picture window in the living room and when we turned, Mom scowled at us. Kristine and I trudged inside.
Mom rushed into the kitchen in her work uniform, a white collared blouse and a knee-length skirt the color of hot fudge. “Girls, I need you to stay away from those holes.” She maintained a stern expression while looking up at the ceiling, fumbling to fit her turquoise earrings into the tiny holes in her ears. “They’re coming back to fill them in, but right now they’re too dangerous for you kids to play around, okay?”
Kristine climbed under the table to retrieve a naked Barbie doll. “Okay, Mommy.”
“Sure,” I said, handing my mother the plastic grocery bag with her dinner in it. It smelled unmistakably of corned beef-salty, oily slop from a can. She refused to eat at the restaurant because she’d “seen too much.”
“Alright, I’ll come in and kiss you when I get home tonight. There’s leftovers in the fridge. And make sure you girls do your homework before you watch TV.”
“School’s over, Mom,” I said.
She laughed and gave me a hug. “That’s right-exciting. I’ll see you later. Bye, Krissy Bean!” She waved to my sister, who lay under the table, making Barbie fly over her head.
“Bye-bye!” Kristine called back.
I stuck my certificate on the brown fridge next to the electric bill. Elementary school was over, but I didn’t feel any different. The only thing I was looking forward to was finally working on the tree fort with my dad. Otherwise, I figured it would be a typical summer: I’d play with Kristine and go to Grandma’s every day, and my parents would keep fighting and trying to make it seem like they weren’t. Nothing would really change until the fall. Or so I thought.
[img_assist|nid=10047|title=Bulbs by Helen Wortham © 2013|desc=|link=node|align=none|width=500|height=375]
I found out before anyone else that Dad was leaving. The day after school let out he left a note on Mom’s dresser while she was at work. When she worked Saturday brunches, I often snuck into their bedroom and played with her jewelry-silver bangles, diamond teardrop earrings, a thick yellow-gold bracelet studded with emeralds. I’d overheard Dad trying to convince her to sell some of these, saying that unlike his father’s land, her jewelry was replaceable. Mom told him she would sooner die than give up her jewelry. Besides, she said, it wouldn’t bring in anywhere near as much money as the land.
I stood in front of the mirror, three inches taller in my mother’s patent leather heels as I pinned a purple brooch to my T-shirt. A folded sheet of yellow paper tucked under Mom’s hairbrush caught my eye. I picked it up and opened it.
I read my father’s note over and over, until I couldn’t differentiate between yellow paper and blue ink. With unsteady hands, I refolded it and set it back on the dresser. I kicked off Mom’s pumps when I realized that Dad might hear me pacing their bedroom. He was still home, moving things, banging tools around in the garage…packing? I turned off the cartoon my sister was watching, took her by the hand, and went to Grandma’s. If Dad wasn’t going to say goodbye to Mom, then he wasn’t going to say goodbye to us either.
Grandma’s pale blue eyes seemed to darken when I told her what was happening, but she said nothing. Since I could remember, my grandmother had told me stories from her life: surviving the Great Depression, losing several babies in childbirth, being widowed twice. She wasn’t someone who reacted to many things. Still, I’d hoped she would at least go yell at my dad. Instead, she tapped her thick, reptilian fingernails against the armrest of her chair while the two of us sat on the porch and watched my house. Kristine busied herself in the yard, making a fort out of the clothesline and some old paisley sheets.
Dad and I were supposed to start building the tree house any day. We’d been talking about it for years, and finally we made a plan. A month before school let out, we went to a lumberyard and bought cheap boards, full of knots. We picked out my tree, a gnarled oak behind our house with a wide trunk and thick branches. Dad said he guessed it was close to 75 years old. The two of us practiced hammering nails in the garage and he said I was a natural.
We decided to call my tree house “Annie’s Attic.” It was going to be the one place that was just for me. “You deserve something of your own,” my father had said.
Now I stared at my tree in the distance, the brown-gray knives of its branches stabbing at the sky, and knew that it would never be anything but a tree. I was no carpenter, despite what Dad had said. The boards would rot in the garage until one day Mom threw them away without realizing what they’d been for.
My gaze had drifted to my bare feet, brown with dirt and the beginnings of a summer tan. For some reason my feet always darkened first. I was puzzling this over, when I glanced back up at the house. My father was on the front porch. He descended the stairs and took slow, deliberate steps in the direction of the pits. With maybe two acres between us, I couldn’t read his facial expression. He brought his hands together. It looked like they were wrestling each other. Suddenly they leapt apart and he flung something into one of the pits.
“Lord.” Grandma pulled at a strand of silver hair that had come loose from her bun.
“What was that?” I asked.
“His ring,” she murmured, her chair creaking back and forth.
“Why would he do that?” I asked.
“I don’t know, Anne. Why would he want to sell his father’s land?”
After staring down into the pit, unmoving, Dad got into his car. He drove in our direction and slowed when he was almost to Grandma’s. Had he known the whole time that we were sitting there, watching? He gazed at her, then at me. I didn’t recognize the emotion on his face. My father was the most self-assured person I knew. Even when he shattered a plate from Mom’s good china set, he said it was her fault because she hadn’t rinsed off all the soapsuds.
Dad shook his head, accelerated, and sped off down the driveway in a cloud of dust.
“Do you know who she is?” Grandma asked.
I bent down to scratch a bug bite on my heel. “Who who is?”
“Nevermind,” she said, and kept rocking.
On Monday, they came to fill in the pits. There were no machines, just two guys with farmer’s tans and yellow hard hats, who pulled up in a white truck, each carrying shovels. I hadn’t told my mother about the ring and I doubted Grandma had either. Mom hadn’t even said anything about Dad leaving. As far as she knew, I had no idea he’d moved out.
With every shovelful of dirt, the men buried the ring deeper and deeper.
“Was Grandpa buried with his wedding ring on?” I asked.
Grandma drummed her fingernails on the armrest of her chair. “Men didn’t wear wedding rings when we were married. That’s new.”
“Do you think it’s bad?”
“No.” Grandma hesitated. “I think it keeps them honest. Or at least it’s supposed to.”
One of the diggers, a man whose pale gut sagged over his belt, used his foot for leverage, so he could force more dirt onto the shovel. To him, digging was just a job. He had no idea what was down there. There was no way for him to know that he was helping to erase our family.
We saw them at Happy Harry’s. Mom had to fill a prescription and she told us if we came along she’d buy us candy. My sister picked Sweet Tarts and I chose a Snickers. Mom was talking with the pharmacist at the back of the store. Her eyes were all red and veiny and her brown hair was piled up on her head like one of the twiggy birds’ nests from Grandma’s collection. I had never seen her this way.
Behind me, a woman called out, “Eric, look, they already have a Halloween display.”
At hearing my father’s name, I turned. She was short, not much taller than me, with waist-length red hair. As far as I could tell, she was younger than my parents but older than our last babysitter, who was about to start college.
“Eric,” the woman said again. “Come here. They’ve got pumpkin decals!”
Eric came around the corner and froze when he saw us.
“Daddy!” Kristine flung herself at our father.
He scooped her up in his arms. The woman with the red hair stared at them, her mouth a little pink Cheerio.
“Hey, Annie,” Dad said, setting my sister down. He waved at me and I frowned.
“Are these…?” the woman started.
“My daughters, Kristine and Anne.”
Kristine tugged on Dad’s hand, bare without the gold band. “Where did you go? Who’s that lady?”
“This is my friend Madelyn.”
I pretended to consult my Garfield watch. “We should go. Mom’s waiting for us.”
“Where is she?” Dad straightened, scanning the store for her face.
I ignored his question and motioned for my sister to follow me.
Do you know who she is? Grandma had asked. One of my classmates, Olivia Johnson’s mom had been caught having an affair with their family doctor, a fact Olivia made sure to broadcast. Her soon-to-be-stepfather was a rich doctor, she’d informed us. An affair meant you weren’t a family anymore. It meant your mom or dad loved someone else.
I dragged Kristine through the store, yanking on her wrist until she cried out. I thought we could hold Mom off until they left, but she was already headed for us. “Hey, girls,” she said in her fake cheerful voice. “Got your candy?”
I tried to think of an item we could look for in a back corner, something to take us far away from Dad and the redhead, but all that came to mind was pantyhose and I knew Mom would just look at me like I’d lost my twelve-year-old mind.
“We just saw Daddy.” Kristine twirled her Sweet Tarts like a baton. “He was with this lady named Mandolin, like that thing Uncle Bill plays.”
My mother narrowed her light brown eyes. “What?”
“Oh, he was just-” I began.
Mom swept past us down the feminine needs aisle, and it looked as though her feet never touched the ground. We followed. I knew I should probably stay behind and shield my little sister, but whatever was about to happen seemed too important to miss.
There was screaming as we approached the registers. Mom was yanking magnets off of a spinning rack and throwing them at Dad, who stood like a castle gate in front of a cowering Madelyn. My mother used words that I’d only heard from late night movies and boys on the playground. A bald man in a blue vest appeared and escorted her to the exit. She shook him off, charging ahead of him out the door.
She’d just disappeared from sight when she ran back inside and took my sister and me by the hand, which made my cheeks burn. “This is you taking time to think things over, Eric? You’re a sorry excuse for a man and a father. Come on, girls.”
As she pulled us out the door, I glanced over my shoulder. Dad and Madelyn had their arms wrapped around each other and he was whispering in her ear, the way he did when I had a bad dream.
I went to my tree. Grabbing a low-hanging bough, I pulled myself along the trunk, until I was sitting among the fat center branches. A light breeze, carrying the sweet smell of honeysuckle and mown grass, stirred the leaves overhead. I closed my eyes and imagined being surrounded by the walls of the tree house. If we’d put them up, no one could have seen me sitting there. Without them, I was exposed. If Mom or Kristine came around the side of the house, they’d spot my yellow tank top and jean shorts outlined against the tree. My sister would beg to join me, while my mother would demand I get down before I broke my neck. I wondered if my father even remembered the tree house.
After Dad and I had bought the building supplies, we got milkshakes. He asked me what he should get Mom for her birthday. I sucked too much cold, thick chocolate through my straw and got a brain freeze. If I complained, I knew Dad would just tell me that I should learn a little self control, so I forced a smile and said, “There was this green shirt we saw at JC Penney the other day. She really liked it. I could show you if you want.”
“Listen to you. When did you get to be so grown up?” He ruffled my long, dark hair. “Let’s go get the shirt on Friday then. Just you and me.”
I took a satisfactory pull on my milkshake.
“He wasn’t even wearing his wedding ring.” Mom slammed a pan on the stove and pulled a familiar blue and gold can of Spam from the cabinet.
“Maybe he had a reason,” I said
“Oh, I’m well aware of his reason,” Mom said, jerking metal tab on the can. “I wonder if he sold it. He was always trying to make me pawn my jewelry.”
“He didn’t sell it,” I blurted out.
She dumped pink squares of meat into the pan and as they sizzled, I thought of the egg in those commercials about “Your Brain on Drugs.”
“Don’t be stupid, Annie,” Mom said, more to herself than to me.
“He threw it in the pit,” I mumbled, resting my chin on the kitchen table.
“What?” she lurched in my direction, greasy spatula in hand. She hadn’t spanked me since I was Kristine’s age, but the wild look in her eye and the way she clutched the utensil gave me chills. “What did you say?”
I swallowed and sat up. “I said he threw it in the pit.”
“Your father may be an idiot, but I don’t think he’d be so petty.”
“I saw him do it,” I said.
The spatula clattered to the floor.
Grandma and I sat on her porch, cloud watching. Kristine was sprawled across the floorboards between our chairs, her tummy poking out from her pink My Little Pony T-shirt. After spotting no less than twelve clouds shaped like puppies, she’d fallen asleep.
Grandma gestured to a long, bumpy cloud. “A lilac.”
“And the one next to it, a hairbrush,” I said, pointing.
“Even flowers have their vanity,” she said with a chuckle.
A low rumbling sounded from the direction of my house as my mother raised the garage door and stepped out into the sunlight. Her disheveled hair was knotted in a low ponytail. She wore black sweatpants and the green shirt I’d helped Dad pick out for her birthday. It was short-sleeved and ruffled, with buttons down the center. She had been so surprised when he gave it to her. I’ve never understood why he even bothered.
The shirt and all of its implications might have held my attention longer if it hadn’t been for the shovel slung over my mother’s shoulder. Her posture erect, she strode toward the pits.
“Did you tell her which one it was?” Grandma asked.
“No. I just said…” I cocked my head. “How’d you know I told her?”
Grandma’s blue eyes met mine. “Well, it wasn’t me, and I’d wager it wasn’t your father.”
Mom started one pit over from the one that contained the ring. Unlike the men who had filled the pits in, who seemed most interested in scratching themselves, my mother appeared to be stabbing something every time her shovel met the earth. She sifted through each shovelful with her bare hands. Mom had taught me not to stare when we passed a car crash, but now she was the accident, unfolding with terrible slowness, and I couldn’t take my eyes from her.
Her movements grew jerky, almost theatrical. After an hour, she marched to the next pit, dragging the shovel with her. I hoped to God she would find the ring soon.
Kristine sat up, her pigtails askew. She followed our gaze. “What’s Mommy doing?”
“Digging,” Grandma murmured.
“But she said those holes were dangerous.”
“They are,” I said.
Mom scoured the second pit, flinging dirt high overhead once she’d combed through it, not bothering with piles anymore. Still, she didn’t come up with the ring. Daylight receded, though it was only mid-afternoon. My mother moved on to the third pit.
Grandma fixed her eyes on the sky, which had turned the color of a grape freeze pop. Lightning slashed the sky like a white hot zipper. I used the trick Dad had taught me and counted the seconds between the lightening and thunder to see how close the storm was. One, one-thousand. Two, one-thousand. Three-Boom! Thunder rattled the porch. Less than three miles.
“Mommy’s gonna get wet,” Kristine said.
On any other day, Grandma would have herded us inside at the first sign of a dark cloud, but she just sat there, gripping the armrests of her chair, her eyes glued to my mother.
I chewed my nails. “Should I go see if she’s okay?”
“She’d likely beat you silly if you did,” Grandma said.
The sky opened up on my mother, the water turning the dirt around her into slick piles of mud. She continued digging. After awhile, the rain came down so hard that we couldn’t see her anymore. It sounded like nails were striking the tin roof over us.
Leaning on her good hip, Grandma pulled herself to her feet. “Let’s go inside.”
Kristine was quick to follow, but I remained, staring into the wall of water, trying to see my mother, to understand what she was thinking.
After the rain stopped, I took my sister home. Mom was no longer at the pits. Her bedroom door was locked when I tried to open it. She mumbled something that sounded like “go away,” and so I did.
Hours passed. Kristine and I played Chutes and Ladders, I made mac and cheese for dinner, and when my sister complained that she was bored, I put on The Little Mermaid for her. I tried Mom’s door again, and this time she said clearly, “I’m fine, Annie. I’ll be fine.” I mimed the expression I knew she was making on the other side of the wall, the same look of fake optimism that she would need from me in the coming days.
It was dark outside now, cloudless. The stars came out, plugged into the sky like so many little nightlights. I stood in front of the pits. Who knew where the ring was now that my mother had flung around the dirt that held it hostage. I stuck my hand into a pile of mud, as though I could find it by dumb luck.
I decided if I ever did find the ring, I wouldn’t tell her. Just like if she ever found it, she would probably never tell me. But I knew we’d both continue to search. It would become our ritual: on days when his absence grew a little sharper, one of us would go out there, sometimes with a shovel, usually with just bare hands, and dig. Neither of us would acknowledge why grass never grew back over the pits, why they were like scabs that wouldn’t heal.
Melanie Unruh received a BA in English and Spanish from Rider University and an MFA in fiction from the University of New Mexico. Her work has appeared in New Ohio Review, Post Road, Echo Ink Review, Pear Noir!, and The Inside Mag. She lives in Albuquerque with her fiancé and their two cats. Currently she is finishing a YA novel set in her hometown, Kennett Square, Pennsylvania.