Patsylu comes back with the bottle warming in a glass of water. She shakes her head at his plate. "You have to eat more than that. You've got to start thinking about nutrition. You're a family now." She sets the glass down; she moves to another table.
A family. My God. An orphan, he doesn't know anything about family except he is almost one. The only things he knows about his own parents are the stories that his aunt Pearl, who raised him, told him. Pearl was a lean, hard woman living on her husband's Social Security and her teaching pension, and she loved Gary as much as he loved her. "I'm sharing my retirement with you," she told him. "What could be better than an old lady and a little boy?" Pearl had snowy white hair she tied up with a rhinestone clip. She wore satiny suits in ocean colors and she let him wear whatever he wanted. She never cut his hair until he told her it was in his eyes. She loved him. They went to plays and movies and she baked him pies and cookies and told him tales at night, and some of them were about his parents.
"Your folks were wildcats," she said. "They didn't have room in their hearts for anyone but each other--and you."
He has photos of them, his mother pale and luminous, her hair spun sugary blond, pinned up with a flower, or skating down to her shoulders. In one photo, his favorite, she's lifting one hand against the sun, but it looks to Gary like she's beckoning to him, like she's calling, Come here, come here, come here to me. His father is tall and thin with a slick of dark hair and a toothy grin. He always wears suits and ties and a fedora at a snappy angle. His shoes are shiny and his fingers look like they are snapping to the beat of music. Pearl said Gary's parents took him everywhere, to restaurants and movies and department stores, to ball games and roller rinks and walks on the beach at night. "You were good as gold," Pearl said. "Portable as a box of popcorn." They took him with him the day they were killed.
They were grocery shopping, carrying brown bundles of food, maybe something special for dinner, maybe something romantic like chocolate cake or oysters or a half-decent bottle of red wine. They were wheeling Gary in his blue stroller and it had started to rain. Lightning sparked the sky. Thunder boomed. His parents were struggling with the stroller and the groceries. The brown bags were tearing, spilling food across the damp ground. They were trying to get the stroller and Gary up the steep front stairs to their apartment and finally they must have decided to take him out, just until they could get their bearings. The car was parked in front, a turquoise Plymouth with cream trim, and they sheltered Gary in it, laying him across the front car seat, shutting the door. Just for a moment. just to protect him. And then they both put their hands on his stroller, to get the groceries packed underneath, to collapse the carriage, and the only thing wrong was that they touched the shiny silver metal handlebars the same exact moment the lightning did. "Freak accident," Pearl told Gary, rocking him in her arms, soothing his hair as he tried to imagine it. The spark and fire of life. The brilliant sudden sizzle. Did they think about Gary or did they turn and see only each other or did they think nothing at all but the quick shock of it all? They died instantly, but he, Gary, had slept in the car for two hours, lulled by the rhythmic pounding fizz of rain. It took a neighborhood kid, running home without his red rubber boots and duckprinted umbrella, to find Gary's parents, and then to find Gary, small and compact, and perfectly asleep.
He has photographs, but no memories. Pearl died four years ago, and now Molly and Otis are all the family he has. Has, he says. Present tense. Has. He feels himself rustling like leaves.
"How about some ice cream to top that all off?" Patsylu says. "We've got peach, fresh as a June day."
Copyright Caroline Leavitt. All rights reserved. Reproduced by the permission of the author.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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