Pips Phelp pretended not to notice. He was a poor substitute for Him, truth be told. He sat there in a gut-hold against the wheel, his fingers strumming. He smelled of gum, or mints, of pretzels, of efforts to stave off tobacco. We knew him as a weak man. We knew him as a man who could be trusted. His wife, Eleanor, carried the look of the perpetually bored; his children were overachievers. You can only guess at the good-cheer stickers on the bumper of his Buick. He was a hedge trimmer, a leaf raker, a model-boat builder; he was a man who never thought of selling. Every spring along the borders of the driveway to his house -- a ranch just past the K&O Cemetery -- he planted red and pink impatiens.
"Pips!" This from Canoe, acting surprised, our signal to converge. Pips looked up, turned off the engine. "Canoe!" he said, our signal to open his doors. Canoe had already slid in the passenger side, yanked the keys from the ignition. Our hearts beat too loud, drumlike. We were not used to intervening.
"What is this?" Pips said. "What's everybody doing here?" His talent was not for acting. He sounded like a commercial you might see on late-night television.
"We're here because we love you," Canoe said. "We're here because we care about your life."
We flushed. Who wouldn't? We didn't care for Pips's life. We wanted Him. We wanted His smooth leather shoes, His argyle socks, His blue cashmere double-breasted coat. We wanted His promise of future appreciation.
"What are you talking about?" Pips said, shifting around to look at those of us in the backseat. Some couldn't fit and leaned on the windows. "What's the big idea?"
We laughed; we couldn't help it. "Please, Pips," Viv said to clue him in. "He'd never say 'big idea.'"
Pips gave us a look and turned back toward the windshield. He composed himself, a man of infinite patience, then shifted around again. "What's the meaning of this?" he said.
"The meaning," said Viv, "is concern. You are a sick person. It's not your fault. You can't help yourself. It's genetic. You need help. We're here to help you."
Some of us bit our fingernails.
Pips laughed like Bela Lugosi. "Sick? Me? What do you mean by these unfounded accusations. I've never felt better. I think you're sick. I think you are all suffering from a serious mental health problem."
This was going all wrong. No one sounded like a real person.
"What we're trying to say," said Judy Sawyer, but she didn't know what. Then came a long and awkward pause. Canoe sighed, audibly. "Come on, ladies," she said. "We've gotten off on the wrong foot." Then she opened the passenger side and got out, signaling for us to do the same. We did, as Pips Phelp waited, pretending, once again, that he had just driven up.
Know that we are a close-knit community. We've lived here for years, which is not to say that our ancestors are buried here; simply, this is the place we have all ended up. We were married in 1953. Divorced in 1976. Our grown daughters pity us; our grown sons forget us. We have grandchildren we visit from time to time, but their manners agitate, so we return, nervous, thankful to view them at a distance.
Most of us excel at racquet sports.
It is not in our makeup to intervene. This goes against the grain, is entirely out of our character. We allow for differences, but strive not to show them. Ours are calm waters, smooth sailing. Yes, some among us visit therapists, but, quite frankly, we believe this is a passing phase, like our former passion for fondue, or our semester learning decoupage.
We've seen a lot. We've seen the murder-suicide of the Clifford Jacksons, Tate Kieley jailed for embezzlement, Dorothy Schoenbacher in nothing but a mink coat in August dive from the roof of the Cooke's Inn. We've seen Dick Morehead arrested in the ladies' dressing room at Lord & Taylor, attempting to squeeze into a petite teddy. We've seen Francis Stoney gone mad, Brenda Nelson take to cocaine. We've seen the blackballing of the Stewart Collisters. We've seen more than our share of liars and cheats, thieves. Drunks? We couldn't count.
Copyright © 2004 by Kate Walbert
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
- PW Starred Review
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