From Park Mart, we headed over to Lumber and Stone, the home improvement superstore, which Eli informed me opened early for contractors. Which we were not, but they didn’t seem to care, letting us walk right in. I tagged along as Eli stocked up on a new wrench set, a box of nails, and a value pack of lightbulbs: while he checked out, I sat on a bench by the front door, watching the sun begin to rise over the parking lot. By the time we left, it was almost six, and the rest of the world was finally waking up to join us.
‘I saw that,’ he said as I stifled a yawn while sliding into the front seat of his car.
‘This,’ I said, ‘is about the time I usually crash.’
‘One last stop,’ he replied.
It was, of course, the Gas/Gro, where the same older woman, now reading the newspaper, was behind the counter, a cell phone pressed to her ear.
‘You need anything?’ Eli asked, and I shook my head, sliding down in the seat a bit as he got out and went in. Just as he walked up to the door, a little blue Honda pulled in a few spaces down. I was in the midst of another yawn when I saw someone get out, shutting the driver’s-side door and also leaving a passenger to wait. He was tall, wearing rumpled khakis, a plaid shirt, and black-framed glasses.
I leaned closer, taking in his profile as he went in. Then I turned slowly to look down at the Honda, where, sure enough, I saw my mother sitting in the passenger seat. She had her hair piled up on her head, her favorite black sweater tied over her shoulders, and she looked tired. Inside, her grad student was pouring himself a coffee. I watched him grab a pack of gum, and then an apple pie, as he headed up to the register, where Eli was chatting with the woman working as she rang him up. What do you know, I thought. My mother was dating a store-goer.
When Eli came out, a bottled water and bag of Doritos in hand, I watched her study him as he passed, eyes narrowed as she took in his too-long dark hair, the worn T-shirt, the way he jangled his keys in his hand. I knew she was cataloging him instantly: high school education, not college bound or even interested, working class. The same things, if I was honest, that I would have thought, once. But I was one night, and many hours, further away from my mother now. Even with this short distance between us.
She might have still been watching when Eli got in the truck, shutting the door behind him. I didn’t know, because by then I’d already turned to face him, my back to her, unrecognizable. Just any girl, nodding in reply as he asked if I was ready, finally, to go home.
I opened my eyes, blinked, then shut them again. Maybe I was dreaming. A moment later, though, I heard it again.
‘Done! Finished!’ A door opened and shut, followed by footsteps, coming closer. ‘Hello? Where is everybody?’
I sat up, then glanced at my watch. It was four fifteen, and I’d been up until six A.M. the morning before. Or that morning, actually. These days, it was kind of hard to draw a distinction.
I slid off my bed, then walked to my bedroom door, easing it open just in time to see my dad approaching Thisbe’s room, one hand already outstretched to the knob. ‘Hey,’ he said to me, ‘Guess what! I –’
Lightning quick, I reached out, intercepting his fingers just as they made contact and pulling them back. ‘Wait,’ I whispered. ‘Don’t.’
‘What?’ he said.
I wrapped my hand around his, pulling him into my room and shutting the door gently behind us. Then I motioned for him to follow me across the short distance to the window, the farthest spot from the wall between the baby’s room and mine.
‘Auden,’ he said, his voice still loud. ‘What are you doing?’
‘The baby was really colicky last night,’ I whispered. ‘And this morning. But she’s finally sleeping, so I bet Heidi is, too.’
He glanced at his watch, then at my closed door. ‘How do you know she’s sleeping?’
‘The baby. Or Heidi, for that matter,’ he said.
‘Do you hear crying?’ I asked him.
We both listened. All that was audible was the noise machine. ‘Well, this is anticlimactic,’ he said after a moment. ‘I finally finish my book and nobody cares.’
‘You finished your book?’ I asked. ‘That’s great.’
Now, he smiled. ‘Just wrote the last paragraph. Want to hear it?’
‘Are you kidding?’ I replied. ‘Of course I do.’
‘Come on, then.’
He opened the door, and I followed him – quietly – down the hallway, back to his office, where he’d pretty much been living for the last couple of weeks. This was obvious by the collection of mugs, empty water bottles, and broken apple cores in various states of decomposition that I spied as soon as I stepped inside.
‘Okay,’ my dad said, sitting down in front of his laptop and punching a few keys. A document appeared, and he rubbed his hands together, then moved the page down so only a couple of lines were showing. ‘Ready?’
I nodded. ‘Ready.’
He cleared his throat. ‘“The path was more narrow now, the lacy boughs of the trees bending to meet each other as I walked beneath them. Somewhere, ahead, was the sea.”’
When he finished, we just stood there, letting the words settle around us. It was a big moment, although I was somewhat distracted as distantly, I was pretty sure I heard a yelp. ‘Wow,’ I said, hoping I was wrong. ‘That’s great.’
‘It’s been a long haul, that’s for sure,’ he said, leaning back in his chair, which creaked beneath him. ‘Ten years, all leading up to those twenty-seven words. I can’t really believe it’s finally done.’
‘Congratulations,’ I said.
Thisbe was definitely crying now, the sound growing louder from down the hall. My dad sat up straighter, hearing it, then said, ‘Sounds like they’re up! Let’s go share the good news, shall we?’
And with that, he was out of his chair, a bounce in his step as he walked back down to Thisbe’s room, pushing the door open. Instantly, the crying went from low level to full on. ‘Honey, guess what?’ he was saying as I caught up with him. ‘I finished my book!’
All it took was one look at Heidi to know that, frankly, she probably couldn’t have cared less. She was still in her pajamas from the night before, a pair of yoga pants and a rumpled T-shirt with some kind of damp stain on the front. Her hair was flat and stringy, her eyes red as she looked at both of us, as if we looked familiar, but she wasn’t quite sure why.