The Stages of Object Permanence

When Daniel Garvey was alive, he had bad habits. He had never been dishonest or violent, but he had other, and also domestic, flaws. For one thing, he never remembered to knock the mud off his boots before he came in the house, and cleaning up after his clod sodden trail fell to one of his girls, or his wife, as if they had the time to coax mud from a rug while supper was burning on the stove and homework and housework of a legitimate nature waited for fair attention. If his Missy or the junior Carol, Susie, Raycene, Anna, or Viola, had asked him to clean up his own messes, he would have said yes, and he would have meant it. He wasn’t ornery, but the trouble in getting his outdoors mind to understand what to do with an inside problem, where to find the spray bottle of rug cleaner, the sponges, the paper towels, and then to put it all away again, would have taken more time and effort than simply bending a knee to erase his mud and motor oil wake as he tramped, work-booted through life.

And then Daniel Jarvey stopped tramping along through life and died. On that day, a Friday in August, he spent the morning with his head under the hood of Missy’s car. The Bonneville she drove was old enough have a real engine, the kind with belts and tie rods, the apparatus in whole responding to the attention of someone with a wrench and a will to look for loose bolts to tighten up. It was half past noon when Viola, who, being thirteen and four months, had recently traded her job as Daniel’s shadow for a spot in front of the bathroom mirror, yelled out the garage door for him to come in. Ma had dinner ready. In his usual way, he strewed streaks of tarry 30-weight and a general sheen of grime as he came through the door, a 10 millimeter ratchet still in his hand.

“For Godsake take your shoes off, at least! And could you take that stupid filthy wrench outside?” Missy waved the hand not holding a tray of hot rolls at him. His oldest daughter, Carol, was already in the pantry, rounding up the carpet shampoo.

There had been an unaccountable pause in the room at that moment, a glitch in the way time passes smoothly without notice from one instant to the next. Nothing long, just the impression of skipped over sound, halted breath. The next moment, Daniel had walked slowly over to the table. He had stood behind his chair, looking down at the socket wrench he held, saying in a voice that everyone afterward agreed was eerily high pitched, “I’m here on leave from Tillamook, you know. And these aren’t the clothes I brought.”

His location in reality did not improve through that afternoon or evening. Midnight found all but his youngest two girls trying to doze between bouts of wringing worry while sitting stiff and gangly legged in the blue plastic chairs of an emergency room. Down the hall, behind an ugly striped curtain, at least ten different doctors in color coded scrubs were trying to figure out what they were seeing in Daniel’s head to toe images. His tests showed them spots and shadows, they called up words like “striations” and “palpated lesions”, but it was his heart that finally cleared up the mystery by stopping at exactly 2:17 a.m., five minutes short of fourteen hours since he had come in for lunch and time had stopped and started, only to stop again.

When all efforts to prod him back into medically defined existence proved useless, his wife and three mostly grown daughters were sent back home. They didn’t know what to think until they saw that in their absence no one had cleaned the living room rug. Something about his footprints, the curve made by the boot heel his wife was carrying in a sack, the black-amber path to the empty table chair, proved to them all that the naturalness of life was suddenly gone. They stood in a huddle and wailed their confused mourning so loudly, the youngers woke up, heard the dark news, and joined their mother and sisters in tears.

A funeral was arranged. People from the hardware store nursery came to say how sad his passing felt to them. Some of them offered to look in on his garden. Dozens of casseroles came to their door. For months, the reduced family methodically worked their way through the frozen surplus, following routine in the traces. They left Daniel’s chair where it was, they left his tools, his clothes, his garden all just the way he kept them. But by bits and inches, things began to drift away from the anchor of Daniel’s habits. Missy started serving dinner buffet style. Now they ate in front of the television. No one ever came from the hardware store and the vegetable patch Daniel fed most of the neighborhood out of followed its tender. By the end of the next winter, hillocky rows had slumped into piles of dirt, so Missy had the yard leveled and seeded for Bermuda grass. She bought lawn chairs and a new car, the kind that has two motors and a computer screen to explain which one is running. By June, she had found a job as a teaching assistant at a school for children who need school in the summer, and she and Carol were both enrolled in college, taking education classes together like girlfriends. They would be a family of teachers, and with that idea, their winter of sad thoughts and strange new ways warmed to summer.

The night before her first final exam in thirty years, Missy went to bed late, her eyes dry after hours of study cards and a scorching bout of heartburn she blamed on menopause. Now she stretched out under flower patterned sheets, propped up on pillows against another reflux attack, and fell asleep mumbling her way through Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, never making it beyond secondary circular reactions, the thought of which was a drug. Somewhere around two in the morning, she began to dream.

At first the dream was not unpleasant. She found herself standing behind the stove, soaking a calf’s liver in milk to make one of Daniel’s favorite dishes. She could smell the earthy stench of the meat as it fried, feel the sting from cutting onions in her dreaming eyes.

In this familiarly unwinding pattern she carried steaming food to the table. Carol brought dishes, Susie brought tea glasses filled with ice, Raycene was looking everywhere in the cabinets and pantry for the last slices of white bread to put on the table. Anna and Viola were sitting side by side, reading a book about zodiac signs. The front door opened. She heard boot steps cross the threshold. In the dark bedroom, her body writhed and rolled until the fitted sheet came loose at its flower colored corners. In her sleep, she served her waiting husband his dinner, watched him stare down at it the way he had stared at his hands that last day. Blank, tired. Did he know he was dead?

“Jesus, Ma,” Anna looked down at her mother’s coverless bed by the light of day.

“Don’t say Jesus that way,” Missy disliked it when her teenagers cussed.

“Fine. Holy shit, Ma, you’re an animal!”

“Anna Brenda Garvey, you are worse than your sisters put together,” Missy tried to scold, but the memory of the dream drained her interest. “Watch your—sayings.”

“My what?”

“Your language. Oh for Chrisake, just go eat some cereal,” and she led the way to breakfast.

From down the hallway, a livery smell hung thinly in the morning air.

“I’m crazy,” she thought, “it’s my ridiculous imagination and maybe test anxiety.”

She reproached herself, went back to make up her bed, and forced a smiling effusion of motherly love on her daughters as they fought over bathrooms. Marching to the kitchen window, she pushed it open to send her fretting silliness out to the birds where it all belonged. Missy enjoyed a nearly normal feeling for most of the day and into the weekend.

On Saturday morning, at an hour closely associated with Friday night, Missy was awakened by Viola, who stood at her mother’s bedside whimpering, shivering.

She rose to hold her tall child. The dark sat up around her, her heart already trying to fly away from whatever bad news was coming. “It’s okay, honey bunny, it’s not real, it’s just a dream,” she said to her youngest before the girl explained anything at all.

“Go look in the kitchen,” Viola hissed. But Missy didn’t want to go to the kitchen, so she yelled for Carol, who could always calm her little sister down. When Viola was only six, Missy had piled the girls into the Bonneville, her mind on groceries and outgrown shoes, and backed out over the family dog. He liked to sleep under the car in the cool of midmorning. He could keep an eye open for birds to chase and still keep dry and warm and never be more than a few feet away from the porch where Missy insisted his bowl of Gravy Train should be kept. He loved Gravy Train. One of the girls had stopped to fill his bowl as Missy sat waiting behind the wheel, so distracted by all the noise of a car full of little girls, all the errands they had to run to, and when the last one got in, the sense of finally pushing off to get it all done. She put the car into reverse, gave only the slightest tap on the gas. She forgot all about the dog’s morning naps as they backed down the driveway. A little jolt under them, instantly understood, one high pitched cry of animal agony, and then all the girls began screaming, and Missy screamed, too. Long after the others had sunk into quiet sobs, Viola fought on, clawing at her face and eyes like she could peel away what she knew had happened. Only Carol found a way to console the wild-eyed Viola. She had put the little girl in the shower, washed her down in warm, soapy water talking all the time about playing in the rain, and then spent hours brushing and braiding her hair, trying different styles, colored ribbons, while their father cleared away all evidence that they’d ever had a pet.

But now, Viola stubbornly refused to shake off the nightmare and listen to reason or absorb the comfort offered to her by mother, sister, or a cool cloth Carol brought to put on her neck.

The cure Carol proposed next was efficient and sensible. “I know, let’s just us walk right to the kitchen and then you’ll see. There is absolutely nothing funky going on.” Missy’s heart raced again, but it must have been her exhaustion from the work week, the school week, that set her to shivering as the three of them toured the house, turning on lights as they went.

“See, Viola?” Carol poured teacherly patience on her little sister. “Typical creepy nightmare stuff. Monsters in the kitchen. Teenage hormones. You’ll get used to it. Right, Ma?”

Missy nodded, watching as Viola searched the empty kitchen wide-eyed, reached out, felt the stovetop.

“Is it cool?” her mother asked. Carol pulled a face, but Missy was riveted. “Is it cool, Viola?”

“Yeah.”

After they took turns eating chocolate ice cream from the carton, all three of them went back to bed full and sugar-drugged. Though Missy could not sleep again that night, the house settled down and they did not speak of it the next or any other day.

Summer blistered its way forward, but August bogged down in monsoons.

The girls took to eating dinner in their mother’s room, for no reason in particular. Her television was almost as big as the one in the living room and they could sprawl on the bed. It felt better in there, cooler, drier. And take out could be eaten anywhere.

As late rain flooded gutters and thunder rattled windows, the Garveys sprawled on Missy’s king sized bed, draping long legs over each other, eating Chinese delivery from communal cartons, watching a love story set in a zombied future.

Missy was poking her chopsticks around in the dregs of a chicken carton, looking for one last cashew while thunder rolled behind enthusiastic theme music, so that the swish, clap of the front door opening and closing was nearly lost.

Swish, clap again. The door opened and closed one more time. Those two little puffs of outside air were felt more than heard. Something about barometric pressure and recognition. Raycene noticed it, though she was wearing ear buds and singing French pop songs.

They all stopped and peered into thin air as for a clear sign of what to do. The logical thought, Missy knew at once, was to worry about an intruder. Or to see if the storm had somehow damaged the porch or the door.
Raycene unstoppered her ears. “What just happened?”

They all walked down the hall together, holding onto one another. The front door was closed tight. No robbers or tornadoes were waiting, but in the air, the smell of rain and garden and earth.

“Get up, Ma. You’re being so weird,” Susie tried to haul her mother up from where she was crawling along the carpet in a line between the door and the table.

“It’s wet,” her mother said to the floor. “It’s damp. Not muddy, but damp.” She looked up at them. Her face seemed on the edge of splitting, halved by the vein bulging from her hair down the offset middle of her forehead. “Do any of you understand this?”

The next night they did not eat supper in the bedroom. The day plagued them in an issue of half-baked theories and confessions about nightmares, sounds in the night. The dreams had come to all of them. Raycene explained that this was the reason she had taken to wearing her music, so she couldn’t hear anything. Anna said that she was fucking terrified and Missy did not correct her. Viola cried her eye makeup off five times.

At supper, they stood at the kitchen counter, their plates empty, Daniel’s favorite foods on the stove. No one meant to do it, no conscious decisions were made, but nostalgic smelling food was cooked, and here they stood, far from hungry.

At seven, Daniel came to the kitchen door. No one heard him come in. There was no warning bell that tolled, no blast of icy wind preceded him. He was just all of a sudden there, his usual self. He looked tired. He stared at the table blankly, in a replay of that last day. Only Carol was able to muster some sense.
She whispered fiercely to Raycene, “Put the white bread on the table.”

Raycene obeyed. Missy brought potatoes and chops. Susie poured tea. Anna motioned for Carol, had to search for her voice in a dry throat. “Does he know he’s not alive?”

“I don’t know what he knows,” or how it could be that after a year of condolences and defrosted funeral food, she could not think of a thing to say to him.

“Should we tell him?”

“Ask Ma,” was all Carol could manage. Her thoughts were growing wordless.

Daniel sat down. They all did. They kept staring at him. Viola lifted a hand as if to touch him, but didn’t. They all wondered if he knew he was not alive anymore. That things had changed. Did he notice the yard? Their different cars? He stared at his plate, which his widow had filled with food he had loved to eat. No one knew what to do next. Maybe Daniel didn’t know either, because slowly, he got up and left, walking out the front door, taking care to close it. They all stayed where they were, wondering if he would come back, but he did not return that night.

The next day, Missy made an appointment for herself with a counselor.

“Have you heard of group psychosis?”

Yes, but this wasn’t that.

“But it was. The only choices are that it happened or it didn’t happen. Since it couldn’t have happened, the real choices are either you’re lying right now, which would be an attention seeking behavior, you’re too delusional to know what was going on at all, in which case you need a greater degree of help, or you somehow shared your delusion, your sleep terror if you will, with your daughters and their participation amplified the experience. Smell, you know, can be a powerful psychotropic. You say you all cooked his favorite foods?”

That night they did not cook. Daniel came home at seven. He arrived at the kitchen door without a sound, conjured by something other than a smell. He stared at the table that they had not set for him. Scrambling, they brought him ham sandwiches, thrown together with pimento loaf and yellow mustard. He liked sandwiches made with mustard. He was the only person in the house who liked pimento loaf. But he did not eat it. He looked down at his hands resting in his lap. His shoulders slumped. None of them could approach him, speak to him.

“I think we should tell him he’s dead,” asserted Susie under her breath. “He may be stuck between worlds. Like on ghost shows.”

“No,” Missy stood fast in her conviction that you should not upset a dead man.

Susie whispered in her ear, “Ma, I think he needs to know. To hear it from us.”

“No,” again, and she shook her head, wearing nonchalance in case he was watching. But he only looked passively at the plate of cantaloupe Raycene had cut up and dashed to the table. Maybe he knew it wasn’t from his melon patch. Missy considered how that might make him feel. “No saying anything that might upset him.”

After about an hour, without looking any other direction than ahead, Daniel got up and walked out. He was careful to close the door softly behind him. His sandwich sat on the table until the next morning when Missy, a towel wrapped around her hand for no reason she allowed herself to think about, plunked it in the garbage with its plate.

The girls began to refuse to go out, except for Susie who went to stay with her boyfriend and refused to come home. She was old enough, so no one stopped her.

Missy went to visit a preacher at a nondenominational church.

“Have you ever heard of something called wish fulfillment?” the pastor asked her. He was so tan, and young. His untroubled face beamed with certainty.

“Is there maybe an older pastor? Someone more senior than you?”

He laughed like a baby, lifting his arms up, titling his head back. “I can promise you I’m the real deal. It’s me or up a tree, as they say.”

“What?”

“Sister, have you prayed to God to ask him to ease your heart, your grieving state of mind? Our widows and orphans are His blessings, you know.”

On her way home Missy decided that next time, she’d try the Catholics, who at least appeared to take the dead seriously.

That night, a few minutes after seven, Daniel came to supper again. This time, they had decided to fix him a feast, entice him to notice them. Ask him if he wanted brown bread or white, though they knew what the answer had always been before now. They hoped he wouldn’t notice that Susie was missing. But he said nothing, did nothing. He watched his food sweat its heat off on his plate. He glanced past Missy, Carol, Anna and Viola as they held each other. He ignored their questions, seemed not to hear them. Then he got up after about an hour of doing nothing and walked out the door. His family didn’t stop him because they didn’t know how or if they wanted to.

None of the girls slept in their own rooms anymore. They pulled the double mattress off Susie’s bed and stuffed it between the wall and their mother’s bed so that Viola and Anna could sleep there, but only when they couldn’t stay awake another minute. Carol and her mother took the big bed, but most nights now, after Daniel’s visits, they all ended up sleeping together in a heap, waking in shifts through the night, not by plan but by instinct.

They weren’t afraid of Daniel. But they felt afraid in general. Walking into any room required time at the doorway to be sure that everything was where it should be, that nothing unusual was up and walking around. They all found it impossible to go to work, to school, to do anything much. Their only outing was the daily trip to the grocery store for calves’ livers, for potatoes, corn oil, egg noodles, steaks, pork chops, sausage. They cooked like every night was Thanksgiving, though no one felt thankful, and Daniel never ate a bite.

Missy and Carol did try prayer.

“Dear God,” Carol started it, “We are asking for an answer to a mystery.”

“No,” Missy frowned over their folded hands. “Dear God, please take my husband back to Heaven or just to Heaven if he can’t find the way to begin with.”

But he only found his way back to them. Evening and Daniel arrived on time. He did not look any more heavenly, just weary as ever.

It was nearly October when Susie came home for a visit. She came in the morning so that there was no chance of being there when her father arrived. She came in the back way, through the laundry room. None of them used the front door anymore.

Viola and Anna flung themselves on their sister, hugging, crying. Susie loved them with presents, a horoscope magazine and a casserole from her boyfriend’s mother, but she squirmed out of their hugs, held back from her mother and older sister.

“Hey,” was all she said before she spent ten minutes listing the ingredients of the casserole.

“Are you doing okay?” Missy asked, not wanting to be overbearing but wishing for a hug or a kiss or some sign Susie might come home. But Susie didn’t come any closer. She only held out her arm to show off a little pink and blue butterfly tattooed on her wrist. As one, they bent together to see what Susie had done that Missy would never have allowed. When they turned back, Daniel was sitting at the table.

“Hurry,” Carol jostled her mother, “Get some sandwich meat. Or maybe some eggs.”

“Cereal!” cried Anna.

“I’ll get bread. Where’s the bread?” Raycene said to the pantry.

“Coffee, Mama, is there coffee?” Viola whistled under her breath.

Missy reached to hold Susie by her butterfly wrist and said, “Susie, Susie. Can’t you do anything?”
Susie pulled free, walked closer to Daniel.

“Daddy,” she said though the others breathed shushing sounds at her. “Daddy. You’re not supposed to be here. Don’t you know that? You’re dead. You’re dead. You’re dead. You’re dead.”

He stood. He walked nearer to where his family stood. So close, he smelled neither of sweat nor soap nor aftershave, the mix of him they all knew. If he had an odor to breathe in now, it was something like the air before or after rain.

Then he spoke. He said, “I can’t do this anymore.” He turned and walked out.

The girls stopped making emergency breakfast. Susie left. No one said anything to her about her tattoo or about what she’d said to Daniel. The day passed. He did not come home at supper or again on any other night. Eventually it was clear his visitation was over, sudden as it was. The whole season of his return had been a jumble of ending and beginning and ending again. They returned to the life they had known while he was dead the first time. They never figured his reasons for returning or tried very hard to decipher his message, if he had one, since any thought of it made them each and every one feel instantly exhausted. They stopped shopping for his appetites, stopped making his evening meals as if he might come home for them, and spoke only in cautious roundabout of any lingering questions, theories, possibilities, though for many years, even after the girls grew up and moved away to different cities, different states, all of them kept a bowl of Gravy Train on the porch of every house they called home.

 

Shelly Weathers

About Shelly Weathers

Shelly Weathers’ work has appeared or will appear in appear in Redivider, REED Magazine, and Clockhouse Review, and has received the 2013 Beacon Street Prize for Fiction, as well as the 2014 John Steinbeck Fiction Award. She currently lives in Arizona with her husband, David, and daughter, Olivia, and her wonder dog, Frida.
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