We’d been bouncing along the dirt road through spires of evergreens and leafy maples forever. I hung my hand out the window, catching the air in the mitt of my palm.
Beside me in the driver’s seat of Uncle Maury’s pickup, Aunt Louise had begun to whistle, something I’d never heard her do before.
“What is that?” I asked.
“Wild Rover,” she said. “Didn’t you ever hear Grandpa sing it?”
I tried to remember Grandpa singing. Even though his team moved to California, he’d belt out “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” every single time when the Dodgers played on his transistor radio, “Cockles and Muscles” while making his famous Manhattan clam chowder. When everybody got dressed up for a church holiday, Grandpa would even try to tap dance without taps as he burst into “Puttin’ on the Ritz.”
“Good thing Monsignor Dubois didn’t see you do that,” Aunt Louise would say, shooting me a little wink.
Despite those gigantic ears, Grandpa had a wretched voice that made Aunt Louise’s neighbor’s hound howl and cover his ears with his paws; the fillings in Uncle Maury’s teeth ache.
We were on our way to pick blueberries for Fourth-of-July pies. Aunt Louise had awakened me that morning to announce she had a surprise. My cousin, John-o was taking my brother Joseph on a fishing expedition so I got to spend the day with my aunt all by myself. The road grew more rutted as we rounded another switchback and climbed out of the trees, parking in a little pocket in the road before a high, grassy hill.
“Put on your sweatshirt, Cate,” Aunt Louise said. She climbed out of the car and arched back, rubbing the small of her back.
“Grandma’s rheumatoid?” I asked.
Aunt Louise nodded.
My grandmother’s ghost visited my aunt through the ailments she planted long ago in her body.
“I used to come here with Grandma,” Aunt Louise said, as she rummaged in the back of the truck for metal pails and handed me my cousin Cheryl’s old one.
The cool air smelled of the trees below–like Christmas. I turned toward Aunt Louise’s gaze to where deeper and deeper shades of green lined the valley as it descended in ruffled bands to the river. But it was White Face Mountain, still streaked with the tinsel of snow like Aunt Louise’s hair; that knocked the wind right out of you.
It took me a minute to feel Aunt Louise’s hand on my shoulder.
“Come on, Cate,” she said. “We have work to do.”
We marched up a narrow dirt trail that cut sideways across the shaded hillside, swinging our pails. Higher and higher, goose bumps spreading over my bare legs and causing my teeth to chatter. On the other side, we squinted out into sunlight, dewy grass giving way to a fine stubble threaded with tiny daisies and bluebells I longed to press my ear to for their secret song, eventually leading to a thicket as far as you could see.
“Did you pick blueberries here with Grandma?” I asked.
“And raspberries in August and September,” Aunt Louise said.
“The ones we make my favorite jam with?”
“What was Grandma like?” I asked, as my aunt bent to study the bushes for the best fruit, even though I knew it was a tricky question. No one ever mentioned our grandmother except to praise her cooking skills. Everyone said she had health problems that forced Dad to go live with Aunt Louise when he was eleven. My mother told me she died in a hospital two weeks before Mom and Dad got married but lips snapped shut for good when I asked what killed her, as if stitched together by the darning needles that swarmed around the lake at Aunt Louise’s camp. On the lookout for kids who talked too much, Grandpa said.
“Large-boned,” Aunt Louise said,” setting down her pail. “This one is perfect,” she added, squatting in front of a bush heavy with fruit, its leaves the color of Grandpa’s eyes; Dad’s and Joseph’s, too. She spread out the old towel she’d stuffed into the pail for us to kneel on, picked a plump berry, and held it up to me. “Look for ones that are blue all the way around, like this. Here, try it.”
I popped it in my mouth—sweet, but with a touch of sour, too. “It has a little pickle taste,” I said.
“Pickle?” Aunt Louse repeated, and started to laugh.
“I like pickles. The sour ones you make.”
“Dill,” she said.
Aunt Louise reached down and tried one. “Well, I’ll be damned, Cate. I taste a little pickle, too.”
She knelt down again and examined the berries.
I joined her on the ground, cross-legged on the warm, moist earth, began sorting through berries and dropping them in my smaller pail.
“She had that wavy auburn hair of yours,” Aunt Louise said.
She nodded. “And those same round, wide-set eyes.”
It made me happy to know I looked like someone. “So, we are the same,” I said. “Except for I’m not large-boned.”
“Well, that’s an understatement. You got your slight frame from your mother. But with those legs of yours, you’re going to be a tall one, like Grandma and me.”
She stood and reached her arms over her head, stretching that bad back again, before kneeling back down.
In the grass beside us, a big bird had appeared and stood watching through apple-seed eyes, ringed with yellow.
“That’s a rusty blackbird, Pickle,” Aunt Louise said. “They’re a secretive species. It’s very rare to see one out in the open like this.”
“But I mean, what was Grandma like?” I tried again, avoiding the bird’s eyes, dropping more berries in the bucket.
The rusty blackbird cocked its head, staring straight at Aunt Louise now.
Aunt Louise rose up on her knees, crossed her arms, pressed a knuckled fist to her mouth, and looked up at the scudding clouds. “I don’t think she ever really got over leaving Brooklyn after she married Grandpa.”
“She didn’t like it up north?” I asked.
Aunt Louise shrugged. “Either way she was the love of Grandpa’s life,” she added, reciting the same line everyone used when I asked about Grandma, in a voice I knew well, the same one she used with my cousins, my father, and Uncle Maury when she was absolutely finished talking about something.
“Will you look at that sun? It’s going to be a scorcher today. We need to pick as many berries as we can so we can get to those pies before the heat of the day comes on.”
The bird and I studied each other. Something about it or the breeze picking up made me shiver. When I held a blueberry out to its grey beak, it took off, cawing; definitely tone deaf, but anxious to spill its secrets just the same.
Last Fourth of July at home in Waynesburg, my mother was still alive. We woke to the smell of bacon frying on the griddle in the kitchen, coffee hiccupping in the metal percolator on the counter. The yeasty scent of pancake batter resting in a metal bowl beside the blue clay ashtray I made for Father’s Day in Kindergarten, all mixed up with the smoke from his cigarettes.
I carried the cup of coffee Dad gave me to bring my mother down the hallway, pausing between each step, the way I did when I practiced walking with a book on my head to improve my patience and concentration. Mom was still in bed, shades drawn, turned away from the door. Joseph screeched past me and hurled himself at her, risking a scolding by prying her eyelids open with grimy fingers, even though he was old enough to know better.
We went to the parade later that morning and watched uniformed World War I and II veterans along with Revolutionary War reenactors, slinging muskets and hauling a cannon, march by to a brass band. We chewed taffy and Tootsie Rolls and smoked candy cigarettes the firemen tossed out from their trucks as we lay sprawled on the hill in front of the stone Presbyterian church our neighbors attended. Their kids got to go to Sunday school, sing silly songs and make Bible figures out of Popsicle sticks instead of kneeling in our boiling Sacred Heart church, choking on incense and trying not to vomit. Bleeding-to-death-to-save-your-sorry-soul Jesus fixing us with pleading eyes.
At the town park later that afternoon, we splashed around in the shallow, cement kids’ pool, nabbing guppies and salamanders in the nearby creek with mesh kitchen strainers, sucking on honeysuckle and shining buttercups under each other’s chins. Later, we made ourselves sick on hot dogs and Italian sausage spitting fat on giant grills, corn on the cob and slabs of watermelon. We chugged plastic cups of birch beer from a keg while the grownups washed down clams on the half shell, shucked by the Jaycees, with the real thing, and a loudspeaker blasted Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days of Summer. Later, at home, we rolled down the hill in our backyard with the neighbor kids until dusk fell and the fathers helped us light sparklers.
“Hey, Pickle—where are you?” Aunt Louise asked. She had squatted down to my level as I stood at her kitchen counter mashing the ball of dough, she had given me to make my own pie into smithereens with the heel of my hand. I had wandered away again in my head, the way I did more and more that summer we stayed with our aunt and uncle after Mom died, my thoughts on a mission to locate my surviving parent in time and space.
“Sorry,” I said, looking down at the mess I’d made. “I got thinking about Dad.”
Aunt Louise stood, floury hand grazing my shoulder. “Let’s just start over.” She raked up ragged strands of dough with her fingers; slapped them back into a ball. We’ll just stick this in the freezer for a few minutes. How about a glass of iced tea and then I can show you how to make a lattice-crust top for this pie I’ve already got going?”
I held the cold glass of tea to my forehead. The morning had slipped away from us in moist, dizzy clouds. The temperature in the kitchen, even though we’d shut all the windows and blinds to keep in the morning coolness, had risen sharply in tandem with the preheated oven.
“Do you think he’s working today?” I asked.
Aunt Louise scraped the cooled blueberries we had boiled with sugar and cornstarch into the perfect pie shell she had just lifted from its first short bake in the oven.
“Why doesn’t he answer the phone?”
“I don’t know, honey. Maybe he was mowing the lawn or went over to a neighbor’s house,” she said. But she still wouldn’t look at me.
“He probably went to the parade and then down to the park to help with the cookout,” I said. But in my head, I could hear the whistle Grandpa would make whenever he caught someone in the act of telling a tall tale.
“Probably. So, I already rolled out this dough for the top piece. The next step is to cut it into strips like this. You try.”
I held the giant knife and pressed down on it with my left the way my aunt had, slowly rocking it toward me and then starting at the top again, inching the dough away with my fingers to free another lattice.
“It’s crooked,” I said, suddenly afraid I might cry.
“Nothing wrong with crooked. If it was perfectly straight, how could anybody tell it from the store-bought kind?”
We assembled the rest of the pie, turning the pan after pressing down the first round of strips and adding the second to create a top crust that resembled a wobbly drawn game of tic-tac-toe. We took my original ball of dough out of the fridge again to roll out but even though I was trying to concentrate this time, the dough kept falling apart and Aunt Louise had to fix it.
“I think some people have pie hands and some don’t,” I said, as I watched my aunt’s muscular appendages work their magic.
“Nonsense, Cate. Grandma had natural pie hands but I sure didn’t. I worked hard to learn. It just takes patience and practice.”
But Grandpa’s ghost blew the whistle on that one, too.
I didn’t know why I felt like crying again now, even though the pie I made turned out pretty good and Aunt Louise got everyone at the picnic table—even John-o—to oohing and aahing over it.
We had already finished our burgers and hot dogs, the potato salad I helped Aunt Louise make yesterday, the 24-hour salad with a boiled dressing mixed with Cool-Whip, fruit cocktail, mini marshmallows, and canned orange sections I pretended I liked to keep from hurting cousin Cheryl’s feelings. Aunt Louise and me and Cheryl had already cleared the table, disposed of the red-white-and-blue paper plates, and boiled the water you had to pump in the kitchen sink to wash the silverware and serving dishes.
Now we all sat at the picnic table on the flat-stone deck, built into the hillside behind the camp. Uncle Maury, John-o, and Dad had used a tractor to dig out and level the earth, set the stone with their bare hands. Below us a crooked dirt footpath zigged and zagged down through the mossy, tangled roots of birch and evergreen and ferns to where the sagging, wooden dock sliced into Lily Lake. Water bugs stood at attention on stilted legs, balancing on the water’s taut surface. The heat of the day steamed skyward in great, golden sheets.
“Best pie I ever had,” Uncle Maury said, polishing off a second piece, along with another slice of stinky cheddar cheese.
Squirming in her high chair, Cheryl’s baby Monique tilted behind her mother’s back to play peek-a-boo with me. She shook her head, brown curls dancing, kicking her plastic pink sandals against the bottom of the picnic table with surprising force, rattling the pie pans and causing Cheryl to exclaim: “That’s enough of that, missy!” as she swiped her right out of that chair and headed inside, Monique wailing.
Cheryl’s husband Sean grabbed his beer can and headed for the house, too.
“Is it time for sparklers, yet?” Joseph asked, for the millionth time.
“Joseph, I told you we will wait until it’s almost dark,” Aunt Louise said, trying to stave off the migraine my brother could give a saint, by rubbing her temples.
Joseph had been on a tear since coming home from fishing with John-o hours earlier, charging around the property, thundering up and down the steps, in and out of camp, banging the screen door. Repeatedly canon balling off the end of the dock hard enough to splash Aunt Louise and Cheryl, stretched out on the nearby Adirondack chairs. At one point he crept up behind me as I played with Monique to dangle an engorged, wriggling night crawler in my face. After getting into John-o’s secret stash of firecrackers and nearly blowing off his hand, Aunt Louise banished him to one of the bedrooms for a half hour to cool his jets. But even after he served his time, they were firing on all cylinders.
Now, the last of the sun caught my brother’s face, dusted with fresh freckles from his time on the lake that morning, his crew cut bleached to pale down around his hairline. He blinked those downturned, chameleon eyes of his like an advertisement for altar boy of the year. Before anyone knew what was happening, he shot to his feet and dashed, barefoot, still in his damp swim trunks but without his life jacket, right off the end of the dock, as if trying to break as many of Aunt Louise’s rules as possible in one fell swoop!
And then I was on my feet, too, running and jumping in to save him, swimming to where Joseph thrashed and flailed. I tried to get my arms around him but he threw himself around my shoulders and I went down. Joseph tried to climb me like a ladder but I beat my way back to the surface for a strangled breath before be pushed me under again.
I opened my eyes and saw my mother, then, a few feet away. She was wearing the one-piece bathing suit I helped her pick out, like the one Deborah Kerr wore in From Here to Eternity, and that white, rubber bathing cap that buckled under her chin to keep the water out of her bad ear. My mother smiled and waved at me, blowing bubbles like a mermaid, and I wondered if I had already drowned before I shot to the surface, coughing and choking, John-o’s big arm wrapped around me and Joseph both as he swam with the other arm to shore. Aunt Louise and Uncle Maury had waded out into the lake and John-o dragged us past them onto the rocky ground, smacking me on the back to get the rest of the fishy water out of my lungs.
After she had wrapped us in towels, planted us on fold-up lawn chairs, and made certain we hadn’t killed ourselves, Aunt Louise, still shaking mad, demanded to know what the hell we thought we were doing. She acted like Joseph–who could hardly even swim—and me trying to save him; was all the same crime, just like my mother always had with Joseph! After a while I just couldn’t take it anymore and started yelling back.
Uncle Maury stepped toward my aunt; hand on her arm, as if to keep it from swinging.
Joseph, blue-lipped, baby teeth chattering except for the missing front two he lost last week that made him lisp, started screaming “Help, police (poleeth), help!”
“Get in the house, Cate and get a grip on this,” Aunt Louise shouted over my brother. “Now!”
I dashed away—barefoot! —pounding up the steps to the camp past the sitting room that looked out on the lake, where Cheryl sat in the rocker, Monique mashed against her chest, Sean on the couch beside her, nursing his beer. I rushed into the bedroom Joseph slept in when we stayed overnight, slammed the door behind me, and flung myself on the bed—its metal springs groaning—and cried my eyes out.
After a while Cheryl stuck her head in the door and asked if I was OK but I pretended to be asleep. A few minutes later, John-o barged in with Joseph, carrying my sandals, and stood over the bed.
“Put your shoes and your sweatshirt on, Cate, it’s time for sparklers.”
I buckled my sandals and found my sweatshirt hanging by the hood on the coat stand near the door.
Back at the lake, Aunt Louise sat smoking beside Uncle Maury, who had started a fire again in the pit.
“You alright, Pickle?” she asked, squinting up at me.
I nodded. I knew I should say I was sorry but I wasn’t, couldn’t.
“No more crazy business, got it?” John-o said, handing Joseph a lit sparkler.
My brother started hopping around, waving it in the air and whooping like he’d gone mental.
“I think I will take you up on that rye,” Aunt Louise told Uncle Maury.
He rose and headed inside to mix her a drink.
John-o handed me a lit sparkler, too.
It fizzed in my hand, firing little shocks at my wrist. I held it away, carried it to the end of the dock, and stared out at the silky water, the color of my mother’s hair. I thought about seeing her ghost underwater. I didn’t even know she could swim. She never went in over her head, and never would go under because of losing one eardrum to Scarlett Fever when she was little. But I had seen her, I had—waving, smiling right at me. She might still be out there. I lifted the sparkler high, moved it back and forth slowly.
“Jesus Christ, Cate—you look like the God-damn Statue of Liberty!” John-o called.
Clear across the lake, in the gap between trees where the road passed over the water, the first star winked on the horizon. From somewhere far away, a rusty blackbird cawed.
“Star light, star bright,” I whispered, made my wish, and waited, certain I would see her long fingers emerging from the water’s skin.
“Cate!” Cheryl called, from the top of the stairs. “Your Dad’s on the phone!”
“Daddy!” Joseph screamed, and took off running.
I stood for a moment more, searching the water’s surface. “Shit,” I whispered, the blackbird inside me now. Shit, shit, shit.
Then I was racing toward the house, tossing the last of my sparkler in the fire. Screaming at my little brat of a brother: “It’s not your turn, doofus—it’s mine!”
Susan Dugan lives in Denver, Colorado, and writes everything from newspaper and magazine articles to ad copy, marketing brochures and radio scripts, as well as fiction, essays, and poetry. Her short fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry has appeared in literary magazines including eclectica, JMWW, Carve, Amarillo Bay, The Saint Ann’s Review, RiverSedge, The River Oak Review, The Esthetic Apostle, and Sad Girls Club.