The Sound of a Car in the NIght
The car drove away. Tilly hadn’t been awake so had no idea if it had driven by her house to drop someone off or to pick someone up. Had one of the sons just crept out of the house and gone off in that car? Or had one of the sons just been dropped off and was now creeping his way back in? She would not roll over to check the clock. She would not get up. Would not go checking to see if the sons were abed or adrift. She counted them over, seeing them in her mind’s eye, like telling beads, she thought. There was the youngest, Jerome, tucked into his closet-cum-bedroom, fitted up with sleeping bag, book bag, snack bag, clamp light, shelf for shoes, shelf for folded clothes and five hangers on hooks for what had to be hung. The closet had been built under the stairs, and had an unusually high ceiling on one side, so what couldn’t be put down could be hung up, one way or the other. “At least you’ve got some privacy,” a brother said. “Only when the door’s closed. It’s in Mom’s room, you know,” Jerome replied. “Yeah, but with a window. And on the ground floor,” the brother shot back. “Privacy plus access.” “Not old enough to care,” Jerome said, “and not big enough either, which is how come I fit in the closet.” Got smacked on the back of the head for his troubles.
Aden, next to oldest, slept folded up in his beloved string hammock - once brightly-colored, now faded from seasons outside where it hung between the twin catalpa trees out front. Now it was strung from two giant hooks Micah had securely screwed into the ceiling of the back room nook. Tilly couldn’t understand how he slept, all rolled in on himself. She guessed it was a means of having privacy. No one else wanted it, so no squabbles over rights of ownership. Peace and privacy. What she wouldn’t give!
Greerson, oldest, and Abe, next to youngest, now slept each in one-half of a sawn-apart bunkbed placed high up under the peak of the roof in a tiny garret with unfinished flooring. A relatively new arrangement, so Micah and she could work on wall board and windows, sheet rock and paint in a forever-‘til-now unfinished room the two sons had been sharing.
“Watch yerself on them bare roof nails overhead.” That was their sorta-great-uncle, Micah. “And pay attention ‘cause them beds is just kinda nailed to that gawd-damned no-floor-floor. I drove some gawd-awful-big nails in on an angle t’go through the legs a th’ bunks an’ attach ‘em to them old slop-for-beams. I done it the best as I could, but you guys gotta be careful.” Micah had managed to attach the beds, head to foot, in the narrow length of pitch-roofed garret. “Just mind how you step,” was Micah’s final warning, “or you’ll be down in yer mother’s room!”
“Slop for beams, stew-for-brains,” Abe’d muttered. And much as she wanted to come down on him for being rude, Micah’s poor hearing protected him from such jabs and besides everyone who did hear Abe’s muttering, smiled. Micah could be downright confusing.
Micah. Micah, her personally-assigned guardian and inherited poor relative, combined. He had to be almost seventy. He was lame. He was going deaf. Ever a jack of all trades, master of none, he’d dropped out of school early, to his family’s eternal embarrassment. Wastrel, his father, her snobby uncle, had called him and had thrown him out, bag and baggage and forever, soon as he turned eighteen. Micah just picked himself up, dusted himself off and put himself to work doing odd jobs here and there in town. Micah had been a devoted firehouse groupie from the time he was a kid. Always on hand to help wash and polish the town’s two fire trucks or to run errands for the guys - pick up a paper or some gum or a soda. When his family put him out, the fire chief let him eat at the firehouse and bunk there. Micah began picking up jobs doing rough work around town, turning his hand to anything that came up. Poorer folk hired him first, paying him in room and board and hand-me-downs for the duration of a job. That set a standard that pleased Micah. Later, when richer folks had come to admire his work ethic of earliest up and earliest to bed and to accept his limitations: rough work only as his finishing skills were - well - unfinished, they began hiring him and paid in the same form plus laundry privileges and threw in what they had too much of or had bought new or just didn’t want. Micah was allowed to store such things in the lean-to attached to the fire station.
Winters, he plowed and shoveled, cut and stacked wood, cleared roofs of snow, steps and dooryard of ice, town business streets by hand if needed. In more clement weather, he harrowed back lots, pulled off or slapped on shingles, scraped off or put on paint, pulled out or planted bushes, tore down or built pens, put in or took out fencing. Year round, he was one you could always call on to help out in a pinch - lug packages, walk dogs, even watch kids. Whatever needed doing and would keep him busy. Most town folks liked and trusted Micah. If there were some who couldn’t understand him or what made Micah tick, who maybe even disapproved of how others accepted and supported his odd way of life, their doubts were sure to have been sown by his father and siblings as they continued to spread the idea that Micah, a bit simple, they said, was perhaps capable of behaving, well, let’s just say, unsuitably. All of this offered in an apologetic, what-can-you-do tone, as justification for their disowning son and brother.
In fact, though not schooled and a bit rough-spoken, Micah could always beat Andy Jackson at chess. Jackson, the town newspaper editor, no slouch in the brains department, was trained in classic chess, often winning state tournaments. Micah, self-taught, beat him handily. As he beat Greerson, an unconventional and brilliant player who on occasion also had beaten Jackson, more frequently foxing him into draws with moves Jackson never saw coming. But Micah beat them both. Handily.
Despite being ignored by his rigid, rich and rather mean-spirited family who lived right in town, Micah viewed them as good, always greeting any he happened to see. They always looked right through him. Just as they looked right through Tilly. They had always disapproved of Tilly. Disapproved of her moving back to town. Disapproved of her marrying Finn McCavit. Hugely disapproved of them having four children, never mind the children themselves. And that was before Tilly and Finn split up. Well, Finn split. Which split them up. Finn left. At night. Walked out of the house and into a car and split. That was the sound of a car at night that broke her heart.
It was the next day that Micah came to live at Tilly’s. Appeared at her door the day after Finn left. Knocked at her door and told her he’d come to stay. Told her he’d live in the barn, that he could fix it up good. She needn’t do nothin’, was what he said, he could take care of hisself, he wuz just there to see her and the sons kept safe. Then he’d stopped talking and just stood there smiling at her. While she talked and talked and talked, until she just ran down and gave in. He either couldn’t or wouldn’t hear her excuses and reasons. Why it wasn’t necessary, couldn’t work, wouldn’t work, wasn’t right for Micah, wasn’t right for her, and so on. It was the sons that made her give in. He was their family no matter what else. Even old and lame and going deaf, he was a better man than Finn. A better man for them to be around. He’d walked to her place, four miles out of town. She’d seen him coming but thought he must be on his way to a job. And he was. Just, she turned out to be the job. Come limping up into the dooryard, gripping three obviously heavy burlap bags in his big hands, set them down, knocked at the door and stood there until she gave in. Sighed and shrugged. Hugged him. Took one of the heavy burlap bags out of his hand and carried it in. After all, she thought, when you go on a spree, you go the whole hog and pay the postage too. She brought it in along with him. Sat him down for a cup of tea and some ginger snaps and there they stayed, mostly in silence, for the rest of the afternoon, until the sons came home from school. Then they helped him lug his bags out to the barn, whereupon he thanked them and sent back. Later, not long before she was due to leave for work he knocked, entered and took over the kitchen, setting about putting together a big pan of macaroni and cheese. When she went to leave, he gave her a bear hug and she felt strangely young and comforted.
And so he’d settled in. Went on doing what he’d always done, only difference being he asked his payment include a ride back out to Tilly’s rather than a bed to sleep in. She knew her neighbors, who saw everything and heard everything and gossiped about everything thought him to be, as Mr. Saunders from across the road, who thought himself a wit, put it, “odd-man-about-the-house.” Operative word, “odd.” Micah made himself a home in the small barn out back. The boys helped. The boys had wanted to bunk in there with him, but Micah’d said no, and then he’d made the barn home to a passel of feral cats who kept the half-acre property free of mice and garter snakes and other pests she’d as soon not know about. The cats seemed to understand Micah and left him alone, but spat and growled at anyone else. Even their dog, Daisy, steered clear. Daisy, also old, lame, and half-deaf. Like Micah.
Damn, she thought. She sighed and dug deeper into the pillow and her covers. It was her fault, the boy’s sleeping accommodations. This place had been Finn’s last hurrah. He’d bought it from the bank, abandoned and half falling down. More of a cottage than a house and more of a hovel than a cottage when they moved in. Finn’d done all right in bringing it back, weatherizing it, making it secure from roof to sills. But part of it was still unfinished. Micah had been steady in working at what he could handle. She waitressed from 6-11 mornings at the Slip-In and again from 5-9 evenings at Dagget’s Bar and Eatery. She didn’t make a whole lot, but the house was free and clear and what she earned, together with food the restaurants gave her, kept them in food and clothing. Kept the lights on and the wolf from the door. Wolf. Huh. She should be so lucky. She smacked at her pillow and buried her head in it. She was trying to take Dorret’s advice and make herself sink back into sleep. Dorret’s commandment for single mothers of teenage sons was that you should sleep while you could because trouble would wake you don’t imagine it won’t and if it does, you need to be on your game, not wound tight from watching clocks, pacing floors and drinking too much coffee. Coffee laced with bourbon, she added, and frowned at Tilly. She frowned at Tilly a lot. It was in love, Tilly knew. But. All the same she’d rather have had someone hug her and smile at her.
She did turn over then but to the side away from the clock. When she was young and in love there’d been years when she’d thrilled to the sound of a car in the night, waiting for Finn to come pick her up and take her out on back roads where he’d race other crazy teens. Then they’d go further, into country lanes, and park for a late night snogging. Finn’s word, snogging. She loved it. She loved Finn. Would still be still in love with him but she knew better. You can’t love someone you don’t trust. She was probably in love with the idea of him. Shoot. She pushed down in the pillows, remembering again the car in the night that took Finn away. When he’d run away from her and the sons. Picked up by a traveling salesman and taken off, into a new life, she guessed. She never heard from him and never heard of him either. Only the sons made him real. That and her dreams. She heard the boards creak overhead and then the stairs complain. Well, if one of the older boys had snuck out over the roof and shinnied down the catalpa trees, he was back now. And needing to pee. If he went into the kitchen and drank the last of the milk, she’d skin him alive. No. She wouldn’t have to. His brothers would do it for her.
She smiled and turned over again. Avoiding the clock, she felt the breezes of after-midnight across her face and sighed. She tried to think back to good things that she could remember about the sound of a car in the night. There was the time someone’d left two pairs of ice skates on the back porch. Late November, it’d been. She’d heard the car and knew it stopped. She’d been about to get up and explore when she heard it take off again. It had been quiet, both coming and going. That was before the boys were big enough to worry about them sneaking out. Micah’s friends at the fire station helped him flood a low place in the back field for skating. It made the kids happy. They took turns with the skates, and the ones without used large plastic trash bags. With a fast head-start run they’d flop down and skid along on their stomachs. Daisy was still young enough that she’d chased after them, skidding and sliding dog-fashion on the ice. They never did learn who’d made the drop-off. That was a good car in the night sound. There were others. When she’d had her last tries at romance. Cars in the night, bringing her back from dates, Micah waiting up for her like an old mother hen. Six months of that and she’d run through all the likely local prospects, fended off all the husbands with roving eyes, and even stiff-armed a couple of women who’d let it be known as how they found her attractive. She might’ve given it a try if it weren’t for the size of the town, the waggling of tongues, and the fact of four sons, to none of whom she’d like to’ve tried explaining herself.
All too tiring, all that. She found herself leaking tears and gave in for a brief storm of self sorrow and weeping. Good thing Jerome slept like the dead. Well, good thing for moments like this. Not so easy for getting him up in the mornings. Summertime it didn’t matter. School time it did. But once he got his paper routes, he was up before her. Nothing like pocket money to get you up and running. She should know. This time she did look at the clock. Shoot. She had to be up in three hours! C’mon, Tilly. Close your eyes, wipe your nose, and think way back to when you had your first car. Before Finn. Before the sons, and the cottage, and Micah. Before now. How exciting it was to be out late at night, by herself, in the car, driving the old roads and exploring new ones. Out all hours, just for the thrill of it. Those were the days, she thought. That had been fun. If she listened, she could hear her car hissing on wet tarmac, crunching on gravel - ticking, after she coasted into the dooryard and shut the engine off.
Night breezes ruffled across her face. A lone owl hooted. But Tilly was back in the old Ford, running the roads out by Black Pond, alone and free and young. On a hot summer night. Happy.