Return to Ithaca

[img_assist|nid=657|title=Still Life with Bird|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=199]February. Plowed hills of gray snow bordered Philadelphia, block after block. Clattering trains and muddy sidewalks echoed unkept promises and, each day on the busy streets near his office, Walt heard the unnerving chatter of businessmen and false camaraderie. After work, Walt bent in against cold air, crossing icy walkways under the hulking metal of the Ben Franklin Bridge. He wanted nothing more than warmth. Uncomplicated company. At the Waterfront Bar, American flags snapped and collapsed in the shifting winds, and Walt spent the better part of each night there trying not to be so angry.

April marked the rainiest spring on record. Chernobyl erupted; U.S. planes attacked Libya. Late one night, as the waters rose from river to sea, Walt’s tall teenage son took a chair and threw it into a wall covered with family pictures. He’d been aiming at Walt. As glass frames shattered, as drunk as he was, Walt was still able to wrestle Mack to the ground. Outside, the rain fell. Outside, handcuffed, Walt felt the spray of passing cars and the kick of conscience. The next day the sun returned. Walt’s wife, Diane, centered her shoulders and filed a restraining order and at 42 years old—his car trunk filled with suits still in dry cleaner’s plastic, back seat littered with coffee mugs and black three-ring binders—Walt moved in with his parents.

Summer passed. He called Diane every day; he promised her things would change. From his office window, Walt looked past the cobblestone parking lot at the blue-brown shipping lanes on the Delaware River. The Khian Sea loaded and sailed, bound for the Caribbean, carrying 14,000 tons of incinerator ash. Walt was preparing a proposal for an international cruise line and, in the process, became sidetracked by historical accounts of untimely ends: the Oceanic, wrecked off the Shetland Islands, was scrapped in 1925; the Savannah ran aground off Long Island in 1821; the Arctic collided with the French steamer Vesta and 322 passengers and crewmen died: no rescue drills, not enough lifeboats. Walt drank lukewarm coffee and shook his head to clear thoughts of disaster. His ad campaign would promise a vast blue-green ocean with sparkling waters and dancing whitecaps, brass fittings and well-heeled luxuries, carpeted grand staircases and marbled ballrooms with glittering crystal and unshifting silverware. A scene fit for Odysseus’ return to Ithaca.

Lucy, barefoot, poured red wine at her desk at 4:30 every day. “No one cares about that,” Lucy said, dropping three creamers next to his coffee and glancing at his proposal. “They want sex and a buffet.”


In October, Diane called. It was three in the morning. The police had just brought their son, Mack, home. Six feet tall now, driver’s permit in his pocket, young Mack took a bottle of scotch, Diane’s car keys, and a portrait of himself off the living room wall and drove 50 miles up the New Jersey Turnpike.

“He took the painting?” Walt repeated.

The painting was Impressionistic and garish, with harsh yellow and ochre colors on Mack’s forehead and cheeks, blues and browns splattered in his hair. Mack’s eyes looked particularly forlorn, flecked with red. Diane failed to see the horror of the image. Walt thought that whoever painted the picture should have his fingers broken. But he also knew how much Diane paid for the painting and understood that it couldn’t sit in a closet.

“His drinking wasn’t the problem,” Diane concluded. “He drove through a toll booth without paying.”

Walt had his shoes on now and car keys in his hand. “I’m coming over.”

“I just wanted to call you. I just wanted you to know.”

Walt sat back down, understanding.

She continued carefully. “I don’t want you to make things worse. He’s asleep now. Just come over tomorrow.”

Home. In the morning, Walt woke without realizing he’d slept. He dressed quickly; he had to stop at work first. Before Diane called about Mack, she’d been with Walt, out to see a play. A date—the fifth one since they’d separated. When he dropped her off, they kissed under a flickering streetlamp, Walt touching her carefully, gratefully, until a cold wind circled them. Diane shivered, smiled, then said good night, her heels clicking up the cement steps to the house. He wanted to follow the light on her hair. The streetlight flickered and leaves swirled around his feet. The house looked well-kept; Walt had painted the tan stucco himself. It had taken him three months, climbing the creaking rungs of the aluminum ladder every day after work. He’d fixed the front door light and laid thick wooden railroad ties to border the unruly pachysandra. Then, in the middle of a rain that lasted for days, he woke one morning on the couch, next to tipped chairs and broken glass. He went upstairs and saw Diane pretending to sleep. What happened? he wondered. What did I do now?

Now, Walt walked down the dark staircase of his parents’ house into the kitchen. There was Pop, dressed and ready for work in a navy blue suit and a boldly-striped tie.

“Time for me to go,” Pop said, sipping the last of his tea. “I’ll see you later.”

[img_assist|nid=658|title=Woman by Katherine Hoffman © 2007|desc=|link=node|align=right|width=150|height=199]Walt stared. Pop had worked as a salesman for Add-Tech, where he won trophies for selling adding machines. He retired six years ago. Pop’s navy suit pants were creased sharply, his tie knotted at the neck. But his shirt, tucked deep into his trousers, was unbuttoned, and his ghostly white stomach showed through his open suit jacket.

“It’s Saturday,” Walt said. “No work today.”

The toilet flushed in the next room.

“Where are you going?” Pop growled.

“Work,” Walt said. “Then home.”

Walt’s mother entered the kitchen in a gray robe and slippers. Faded cookbooks lined the shelves near the sink; the kitchen faucet was dripping. Walt’s mother tightened the belt of her robe and reached overhead for a cup and saucer. “Did you get the paper?” she asked.

“I’m on my way into work.”

“Lucy called last night,” she said, taking a carton of eggs out of the refrigerator. Lucy was Diane’s sister. Walt had hired her a couple of years ago. He’d felt sorry for Lucy. Diane promised Walt he would regret it.

“What did she say?”

“I hung up.” Walt’s mother believed that Lucy was the reason for Walt’s separation. She cracked several eggs and began beating them in a bowl. She put the carton of eggs back into the refrigerator and put the frying pan on the stove. Diane would be cooking eggs in her microwave. Her eggs would rise fluffy and golden in a glass bowl, then she would cook bacon in the microwave until the strips were brittle, salty and crisp, just the way he liked.

“I don’t like her calling here,” his mother said. The frying pan sizzled and heat rose in the kitchen.

Walt and Diane had never seen eye-to-eye on Lucy. It’s okay for her to work but not me? Diane said. Walt tried to explain that Diane was nothing like Lucy. Lucy stored her brains in her quick, skinny fingers. She laughed too loud and told dirty jokes and drank like a man. He and Lucy worked late together, sipping scotch from the brown thermos next to her desk. Night after night he arrived home to Diane’s accusations, and he had to explain all over again why he would never fire Lucy: she did her job well. She had a knack for knowing what people wanted, even when they couldn’t pinpoint it themselves. Diane didn’t see Lucy like he did: her skinny body moving like a crab, her heart trailing behind her in the loose belt of her raincoat.

“I have to go,” Walt told his mother.

Diane was home, standing next to the sink. In their kitchen, water from the faucet caught sunlight from the window and a spray of reflected light danced across the walls. The back steps creaked under Walt’s feet. The yard was quiet except for the whisper of wind through dry leaves. Diane was waiting for him.

The car wouldn’t start but Walt refused to get angry. He’d promised he would keep his cool. His breath was visible inside the cold car. Change in season, he thought, turning the ignition again, no reason to get bent out of shape. Sure enough the car started on the next try and Walt thought, all those meetings just might be doing me some good.

The road to 7-Eleven was lined with garbage cans standing like sentries. In the wake of Walt’s car, yellow and orange leaves whirled into the air, scattering like spooked birds. The 7-Eleven near his parents’ house had a solid glass front surrounded by red brick, a parking lot with room to navigate, and a fresh swept apron of sidewalk. Each morning he started here. The place gave him assurance. People knew his name and his brand of cigarettes. The linoleum floors gleamed and the coffeemaker gurgled companionably. From the golden boxes of Land-O-Lakes and promises of Mountain Air-scented Tide, from the Slurpees to scratch-off lottery cards, from sea to goddamned shining sea, Walt thought happily, 7-Eleven had it all, land of the free and home of the brave. A man who stopped at this fortunate port could set for worlds unknown all across the Delaware Valley.

Walt entered and nodded at an unfamiliar teenager sitting behind the cash register, bent over the Philadelphia Inquirer.

“What’s a seven-letter word for trip?” the kid called out to the empty store. The kid wore a patch over one eye that clearly wasn’t a joke.

Donna stood up from between the aisles where she was restocking shelves. “Voyage?” she guessed.

Walt waved to her as the kid mouthed the letters over the puzzle.

“That’s only six letters,” the kid finally said.

Donna walked over to Walt. “Owner’s idiot son,” she whispered, wiping the counter around the coffee pots. Then she bent to open the cabinet beneath the counter and pulled out something wrapped in clear plastic. “Merry Christmas.”

“It’s October.” Walt took the strange package from her and tore it open. Inside was a coffee cup holder in the shape of a green plastic hand, there was a handle where the wrist should have been. Donna looked pleased with herself.

“Tell me, oh Muse,” Walt said, delighted, placing his coffee cup inside the green hand, “where is the cream?”

Donna refilled the empty half and half container. Too many summers of sun had weathered her face and frazzled her red hair, but her freckles gave the bold suggestion of a forgotten girlhood. Walt once told her she looked like a teenager. She believed him. Twenty years in advertising had taught him how to be convincing.

“Odyssey,” Walt said, bringing his coffee up to the teenager at the cash register.

The kid bent to the newspaper, mouthing letters again.

[img_assist|nid=659|title=Claire by Todd Marrone © 2007|desc= |link=node|align=right|width=150|height=177]“I’ll be damned,” he said.

At the front counter, soft pretzels spiraled in a glass jewel case. Walt suddenly realized he’d forgotten his wallet. There wasn’t time to go back. Diane was waiting for him and he still had to stop at the office. Walt explained his problem to the kid and picked up the green hand of coffee. “Let me swing back later today with the money.”

“Sorry,” said the boy, one eye staring at Walt. “I can’t do that.”

“I’m good for it,” Walt said, putting down the coffee and trying to keep his tone even.

“No can do,” the kid repeated, bending back to the puzzle.

For six months now, Walt thought, he’d bought his coffee and cigarettes and newspaper here. He’d bought laundry detergent and ice cream, Kleenex for his mother and Swanson frozen dinners for Pop. He’d been loyal. He’d made people laugh. He was holding a green hand coffee cup holder, for God’s sake.

“My father would kill me,” the boy said, taking the coffee and placing it behind the counter. “I’ll hold it here and you come back.”

Walt couldn’t believe it. “Do you know who I am?”

They locked gazes.

Donna hurried over to the cash register and put a five-dollar bill on the counter. Walt ignored her, staring at the kid with undisguised fury. The boy took Donna’s bill and rang up the coffee. Walt saw how clearly he’d become comfortable in the wrong place. But he wasn’t going to get angry. He turned and walked away from it, the kid and the coffee and Donna and her green hand. He put the key in the ignition and the car started right away. Diane had called him for help, and he’d promised. He wouldn’t get angry.

Twenty years he’d worked in advertising, six years heading up his own firm. Three months ago Walt lost a major account, a medical testing company that overcharged Medicare 250 million dollars. Walt needed some new business, new respectability. His smaller clients ran clinical trials and hoped to help and heal the world—but they weren’t floating his business.

This week he had two meetings: one with Mendon Inc., one with Celebrity Cruise Lines. He had high hopes. The first presentation was with Mendon, a multi-billion dollar conglomerate that owned over 200 hospitals. If Walt had his way, he would arrange Mendon’s advertising coast-to-coast. Diane would see it then: he’d be back on track.

Walt felt rising irritation at the slow forward movement of cars in front of him. Finally, he saw the parking lot by the waterfront office building, where the wind was whipping off the river, flags snapping sharply in the wind. Lucy might already be there, he realized. Last week she’d been working overtime to help Walt with the Mendon presentation while he’d worked on Celebrity Cruises. They worked late two weeks straight, rehearsing details. Both companies wanted hard data on customers; both wanted creative, capable strategies. It was rumored that Mendon ran background checks on all consultants. Walt hoped this wasn’t true.

Lucy recommended they pitch both clients with the same premise.

“Sex and a buffet?” Walt asked.

“Remind them of death,” Lucy said. “Everyone dies.”

Walt laughed. “Where do we begin?”

“Images of last chances. Missed opportunities. Take that red shoe in the rib cage out dancing.”

“We focus on wellness, comfort, security,” Walt said, shuffling through mockups as Lucy shook her head. “People want to be taken care of. They want to know they’re in good hands.”

Walt looked at Lucy, her skinny body slouched in an oversized chair, her skin a sunless ivory. Walt showed Lucy the storyboards for various organizations in Mendon’s group and the ad copy for the research clinics, major urban hospitals and outpatient addiction and counseling programs. In Hawaii, the Ko’olau mountains split the sky while a rosy-cheeked husband and wife hiked above the clouds, mythical and serene. In Chicago the pulse of jazz would underline mother and son in a sunlit waiting room: Father would be okay, his surgery was a success. In Philadelphia, confident physicians would sprint to the bright lights of an ambulance and tend efficiently to emergency care. Walt and Lucy had seen these all before but looked over each sketch and storyboard with a critical eye.

The Celebrity Cruise images were strikingly similar in form and format. It was as if the designer had replaced the hospital with the cruise ship. The rolling gurney and confident physician was replaced by a tuxedoed waiter wheeling a silver cart of shrimp cocktail. There was motion and deliverance. Rescue and relief.

Walt and Lucy rehearsed late into the night.

“We’re thinking of the future,” Lucy said. “Where do we stand?”

“Your business comes first,” Walt said. “I handle your account personally.”

Lucy drank alone. It was late, and the office was stacked with disheveled piles of research and mockups. Walt drank coffee, black, but felt the tug for something else. He found himself imagining Lucy’s body, bony knees, skin pulled taut between her hipbones. Suddenly Lucy leaned close, her loose shirt unbuttoned in a deep V. And then her lips were on his, chapped and dry, the sting of scotch in her mouth terrifying. His tongue dove for the taste of liquor, but her teeth on his tongue repulsed him, and he pulled away.

Lucy sat back, watching Walt carefully. “Your marriage is over. You know that.”

Walt felt a wave of fury rise inside of him. He was sick of defending Lucy to Diane, sick of defending Diane to Lucy. Sick of his parents and their goddamned ghostly lives. “Diane’s not the problem.”

Lucy shook her head. She swiveled her chair and looked out the window to the dark river behind him, her fingers tapping steadily against her cup, a small, insistent beat.

“Tell you what the problem is,” she said. “You’re a middle-aged man living with your parents.”

“Fuck off.”

“That’s all you have to say?” Lucy reached for the thermos next to her desk.

“Okay,” Walt said. He would rise to the performance. “My father recently suffered a stroke. My mother is unable to care for him.” His mother, more accurately, drove his father to unpredictable rages as she mopped up the floor around the dishwasher, calling him names until Pop threw his teacup across the room and Walt heard the shattering of the saucer on the floor.

Lucy applauded.

“You know,” she said, “if you sign either of these clients, they’ll want to go to dinner with you and your wife.”

Fear pitched through Walt with a sharpness that took his breath away. For a moment, just one goddamned moment, he wished to forget the fractures in his life.

“I’m taking care of my parents,” he said fiercely. “That’s the story. My father suffered a stroke.”

Walt called it a night.


Walt’s office was on the waterfront, an old Quaker Meeting house with cobblestone walkways surrounding it. He stalked quietly past Lucy’s office, hoping the wooden floors wouldn’t give him away. Diane was waiting for him. There’d been no mistaking Lucy’s car in the empty parking lot: headlight smashed, bumper dented. He didn’t have time to talk to Lucy now. He had to get home, and she wouldn’t understand. He’d never cared about getting home before. Late at night, Walt and Lucy used to flip through her road atlas, drinking scotch and waters out of coffee cups. They dreamed trips they would never take. They would go see the Jungle Room at Graceland, the sequoias of Yosemite, the Stratosphere in Las Vegas. They’d travel scenic interstates and buy kitschy snow globes at every gift shop along the way. The Mississippi could be followed from Minnesota’s Lake Itaska all the way to the Gulf of Mexico for crying out loud—it was all there if you wanted it: America, the land of opportunity. It was an amazing country, really. Think of all the salad dressings that a person could buy in this country alone, Walt said. Lucy thought that was a scream. Salad dressings! They made batches of stingers in the office kitchen and climbed up the fire escape to the roof, watching the drag races on Delaware Avenue through blurred binoculars, Philly kids drunk and high, car engines roaring and tires squealing alongside the Delaware River. In winter they walked to Frank Clements’s, where bartenders thought they were a couple. They drank and joked about having an affair but didn’t. They were family. At night’s end they sobered up, insisted they were sensible friends, and any trouble in their marriages, therefore, could not be blamed on them.

Sensible? Now, Walt wondered where the hell his head had been. He closed his office door. He had to admit, Lucy was a problem.

The door groaned on its hinges and opened. There she stood, wearing a red sweater that gave her pale skin color.

“Don’t call my mother,” Walt said, sifting through the piles on his credenza. He just needed one binder of Mendon research to take with him.

“Your mother, Diane—what’s the difference?” Lucy sat in Walt’s chair. “How is Diane anyway?”

He needed to get out of here.

“Things are fine.” He’d just give her a minute, get his work and go. “Diane and I went to a play last night. It was her birthday.”

“No kidding.”

He told Lucy how they had fourth row seats, center, while he gathered the budget files for the Mendon presentation and stacked them in his briefcase. Outside, the muddy water of the Delaware churned under the gray sky.

“You treat her well,” Lucy said. She swiveled back in the chair and smiled.

The air in the room changed. Walt wished things could be the way they used to. Walt once told Lucy that his mother would slice store-bought pound cake and layer in strawberry ice cream for his birthday when he was a boy. The next week, Lucy brought the ice cream cake in for Walt, just to cheer him up. They’d been friends, hadn’t they?

Walt continued talking. He told Lucy how, in one scene of the play, a man ran naked back and forth across the stage, spinning in circles. “The only thing you couldn’t see,” he said, “was the deepest part of his belly button.”

Lucy’s eyebrows rose. “What did she do?”

He knew Lucy would love the next part. “She looked like a goddamn goldfish,” he said, “her mouth opening and closing.” Diane had elbowed Walt in the ribs, as if he couldn’t see the naked man twirling across the stage.

Lucy’s hands slapped the desktop.

“That’s not all,” Walt continued. “During the curtain calls, when all 12 actors came out on stage, Diane asked me to point out ‘the one’.”

“You know why she couldn’t tell?” Lucy said. “She wasn’t looking at his face.” Lucy laughed. Walt watched her: bony jawline, dark nostrils, veined neck. She looked monstrous. He remembered the sting of scotch in her kiss. He wondered why he’d told her that story. You can’t be her friend, he suddenly realized.

Walt rose. “I have to go.”

Lucy quieted and looked closely at Walt. “We have to finish things here,” she said.

Walt packed the last file into his briefcase. He was missing one black binder. “I don’t have time to talk.” He looked at his watch. Diane and Mack. “Where’s the research binder?”

“What’s going on here?” Lucy was stonewalling. “What’s going on with us?”

“We work together,” he said, spinning to face her. “I am your employer.” It was a ridiculous thing to say. “Where the hell is the binder for Monday’s presentation?”

“Don’t do this,” Lucy said.

He stood still, staring down at his closed briefcase. “There’s no time for this. Diane asked me to come home.”

“You’re kidding,” Lucy spat.

For the day. He didn’t say that.

He turned and scanned the shelves for the binder. He wanted to be with Diane when they talked to Mack. He needed the binder. It held the final drafts of statistics and research, though Walt almost knew them by heart. Annual mortality for males due to cardiovascular related problems, 439,000.

“Where is the binder?”

“Which one?”

Walt shoved the chair out of his way. “You know goddamned well which one.” It had him now, gripped his insides.

“Christ, Walt, it’s in my car.”

“What the hell are you doing taking that home?” She had taken presentations home before, lost files and spilled things. He stepped away from her, tried to stop what was happening. He grabbed his briefcase and moved towards the door.

“Fuck you, Walt. Don’t treat me like a child.”

Leave, he told himself. Just get out of here. He left the office lights on and took the emergency stairs two at a time. Outside, he felt her watching him from the office window. It was as if she brought the sky down, and the clouds were closing in on him. He couldn’t breathe; he felt as though he’d sprinted a long distance. He reached his car and threw the briefcase inside, then slammed the door and walked over to Lucy’s car, tripping over loose cobblestones. Walt saw the binder on the front seat alongside books and stained Styrofoam coffee cups. He wasn’t going to make it home in time, he thought. This was the last time Diane would ask for help. Walt pulled at Lucy’s door handle. The car was locked.

Walt looked up. Lucy, smiling, gave him the finger.

The cold air stung his eyes and burned in his chest; the wind whipped off the gray water. Walt thought, fuck her, bent to pick up a thick gray cobblestone from the ground, and threw it at the car window. Then the world began to explode and shatter—the cold and the sky and the glass. The first thrust of the stone splintered the window; his fist did the rest. He’d hear that sound later, hand pumping, the dull thud of impact, the glass caving and splitting, the feel of his whole arm swallowed by fire. He reached through and unlocked the door, took the black binder with his good hand, and walked with the wind back to his car.

Walt had trouble putting the key into the ignition with his left hand. His right hand wouldn’t stop shaking, and he buried it deep in the front of his shirt. He was bleeding from the knuckles; his shirt cuff was damp with it. His body shuddered and the car rocked in the wind. He’d lost it. He sat inside the car and rested his head against the steering wheel. I tried, Walt thought. Did everything by the book. Drying out was hard enough—all the other things should have been so easy to handle: his mother’s overflowing dishwasher, his father’s snipped strings of sensibility, or his own flawed mockups of a sturdy teak deck and gleaming brass railings. His hand was bleeding badly but his fist in his chest was the only part of him that was warm. He had to get home. He drove with his left hand, his eyes set on the road. The hand throbbed, his heart trapped in his fist. Remind them of death, Lucy said. Everyone dies. Walt wondered about his own heart.

One late afternoon after he and Diane separated, Walt found Pop at the top of the stairs, Walt’s mother just behind him. No one else would believe or understand, but Walt saw clearly that she was about to push Pop down the stairs. Walt took his father out. They drove along West River Drive and parked across the river from the line of boathouses. There, with the roar of afternoon traffic behind them, they sat. Pop held his cardigan in his lap, his hands trembling like leaves in the breeze. The setting sun lit a warm orange halo around Pop’s head, and their shadows stole away quietly behind them. They didn’t speak. The sun dropped and the river’s surface flickered with the last daylight. One by one, the boathouse lights came on in a slow, steady procession. Across the river, two rowers dragged their boat into the warm, dry garage. The wind off the Schuylkill River suddenly snapped. It was time to take Pop home.

Pop pulled on his cardigan and cleared his throat. “When I die,” he said, “you come here.” His fingers stumbled on the buttons of his sweater; his eyes were red and milky in the day’s failing light. “This is where I’ll meet you.”

Walt reached over and buttoned his father’s sweater. “Okay,” he said. “I’ll do that.”


Now the road before him seemed a vast sea, endless and dark. Walt parked across the street, watching them. Diane stood on the front lawn, dragging a heavy bag of leaves toward the curb. Mack stood with one hand on his hip, leaning against his rake and swinging a foot through a leaf pile he’d collected, saying something to his mother that made her pause and laugh.

Walt sat in the car. What would they think? They would never let him come home. He could never be the man they wanted him to be.

At the curb, Diane looked across the street at Walt’s car. There was no more hiding. Walt stepped out of the car, holding his fist to his stomach. The rake fell from Mack’s hands, toppling into the leaves, then suddenly they were at his side, touching him—his arms, his face, Diane, Mack, overwhelming him. The wind lifted and scattered Mack’s pile of yellow and orange leaves; Diane kept saying, What happened?

What world was this? What place more fragile and merciful? I’m fine, Walt said, scattered from their touch, on his back, his shoulders, their hands leading him across the yard and into the house, Mack’s soft cry, Christ, dad, holding Walt in his coarse young hands. I’m fine, Walt told them, barely audible, I’m just hurt. Christine Flanagan teaches writing and literature at University of the Sciences in Philadelphia.

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