While I'm Falling Part 24

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My mother frowned. "Honey. You just saw him a couple of years ago."

"I know. What is he, eighty?"

"Maybe." She looked annoyed. "But that doesn't mean he's about to die, Elise. He's still having parties, for goodness' sakes." Now she smiled again. "And he called to invite us, which was very nice. I think we should go."

Elise and I looked at each other, unsure of what to say. It was a neighborhood party, after all. We didn't belong anymore. Also, every year, our father had come with us. He liked pie, and he got a kick out of Mr. Wansing's stories about playing minor-league baseball in the fifties. It would seem strange, and maybe a little sad, to go without him.

"How did he find you?" Elise asked my mother. "How did he get your new number?"



"He Googled me." She shrugged. "I have a landline in the dorm. And I never did change my name."

Of course. I pictured old Mr. Wansing sitting in front of a computer, typing in my mother's name. Had he bothered to type in my father's? He probably hadn't, and that made sense. After Mrs. Wansing died, my mother had been the one to call Mr. Wansing in icy weather, to see if he needed anything from the store or the pharmacy. And because she was the one who walked Bowzer, she was the one he regularly bumped into on his own slow morning walks. I believed Mr. Wansing liked my father. He thought my father was funny, "a real pistol," he said. But my father had not gotten a call this morning. If he had, he would have said something. I think he would have wanted to go. But Mr. Wansing had known he had to make a choice. And so he chose my mother.

So there it was. My father got remarriage and a disposable income. And my mother got the neighborhood pie party. When I considered all this, I changed my mind. It seemed okay for us to go without him.

We took two cars. Elise didn't want to move Miles's car seat, and we couldn't all fit into her Volkswagen. My mother and I took the van, and she let me drive, my new key in the ignition. There was no traffic; the streets in Lawrence had that eerie, empty feel of a city on holiday, all the banks and businesses closed, and so the whole way to Kansas City, I followed Elise's car closely, as if I didn't know the way.

"Do you think she's okay?" my mother asked. She nodded at the back of Elise's car.

I looked at her, surprised. "I think so," I said. "Why?"

"I don't know. She seems tired. I mean, of course she does. It's hard, what she's doing. It's hard in a way she probably wasn't used to." She appeared deep in thought, her gloved hands crossed in her lap.

"You gave her the babysitting," I reminded her. "That should help."

She looked at me and smiled kindly, as if there was much I didn't understand. She shook her head. "I'll talk to her," she said.

After that, she was chatty on the drive, humming along with carols on the radio and clearly in a good mood, but as we got closer to our destination, she grew quiet. We both gazed out the windows, passing landmarks of our old life: my grade school, the grocery store where my mother pushed shopping carts for thousands of laps, the Italian restaurant where my parents had gone for anniversaries and special occasions, the park where we took Bowzer to run off energy when he was young. Just two years ago, I might have closed my eyes out of boredom with the suburban scenery. I had watched it roll by too many times from the back of a school bus or my mother's van. But now that we were on the path to all that was lost to us, the very familiarity of the houses and quiet streets gave them an almost magical sheen. The past wasn't elusive. We could go back anytime we liked, just by following the old route home.

But at the last minute, I didn't. As we pulled off a main road into our old neighborhood, Elise turned onto the street that Mr. Wansing lived on; but I didn't turn, because it also would have taken us by our old cul-de-sac. The roof of our house-the roof that had begun the unraveling-would have been visible from the street. Maybe Elise could drive by it, but I didn't want to, and I didn't think it would be good for my mother to drive by it. By taking the next turn and then winding around, we would approach Mr. Wansing's from the opposite direction, and not see our old house at all. When my mother noticed that we were not turning with Elise, she looked at me, but said nothing.

The longer route took us past the Butterfields' house, or what had been the Butterfields' house. The fountain had a wreath on the front. The stone lion was gone now, replaced by a regular mailbox with a lock.

"I just talked to Pamela last week," my mother said. "She was a little down. Haylie couldn't come home for Christmas. It's their busiest time. But she really likes it out there, I guess."

I nodded. Haylie had dropped out of school and was working at a ski resort in Colorado. Her mother told mine she was making good money, saving it up. I didn't know if dropping out of school had made her break up with Jimmy, or if it was the other way around. Whatever the case, Jimmy had a new girlfriend, dark-haired, almost as pretty as Haylie. He didn't work at my dorm anymore, but I would sometimes see them in his car or walking around campus. He kept his arm laid across her thin shoulders, steering her around. Because he was big, and because he still shaved his head, he was easy to spot from far away, and so I always had time to cross the street or duck into a building before he saw me. For a long time, that's what I did. And then one sunny day in November, for no particular reason, I didn't. He was alone, and walking toward me, and I kept walking straight, my head raised, not looking away. We passed each other without incident, his eyes vacant, staring straight ahead.

We parked behind Elise, in front of Mr. Wansing's. There weren't any other cars. There were a lot of people inside-we could see them through the windows. They were all current neighbors. No one else had come far enough to drive.

"I'm nervous all of a sudden." My mother looked up at Mr. Wansing's house. Green Christmas lights blinked from the edge of the roof, though the sun hadn't yet gone down. "I haven't talked to any of these people since..." She shook her head. "I don't know what they know, what they think."

"Do you care?" I asked. I really was surprised. It was hard to believe that after everything she'd been through, a little neighborhood party would scare her. Elise and Charlie were already walking toward us. Elise wore the carrier this time, Miles snuggled inside.

My mother shrugged, her fingers moving over her new scarf. It was too warm out for a scarf or a hat, but she was wearing both. "I don't know." She looked up in the direction of our old house. "I used to love coming to this thing."

"Why?" I asked. I wasn't being sarcastic. I really wanted to know.

She laughed. She looked back up at the house. "I guess because we did it every year. If that makes sense."

It did. "Then let's go now," I said.

Once we got inside, she was fine. People were happy to see her-or us, but mostly her. She was hugged repeatedly. She was told how good she looked. Elise and Charlie and I sat in the corner on folding chairs, watching her and eating pecan pie, smiling at children we didn't recognize. Carols played on a tape player, but not so loud that we couldn't hear the talking around us. Some people told my mother they were sorry to hear about the divorce, and I heard her say, "Oh, thank you, but it's fine, actually," her voice more adamant each time. Creepy Mr. Shunke tried to hug her for too long, and our former next-door neighbor, Nancy Everton, cut in to save her.

"Oh Natalie, you just missed the Piltons," she said, handing my mother a piece of pumpkin pie so Mr. Shunke couldn't hug her again. "The people who bought your house? They're lovely." She lowered her voice. "They don't mow their lawn like they should, and they let your roses go to hell." She raised it again. "Really, they're very nice. Two little boys and one on the way. No wonder they had to go early. She was probably tired."

"Good for her," Elise said, distracted. Miles had woken up, squirming and crying in his carrier. After a quick consultation with Charlie, Elise leaned over and tapped my knee. "We're going to go," she said. "If you're smart, you'll come with us. She's in her element. Who knows how long she'll be?"

But I decided to stay. I wasn't miserable, just sitting there and watching people, and I didn't want my mother to feel pressured to leave. She was clearly enjoying herself, sipping wine and laughing with Nancy Everton. I ended up having fun, too. I talked to two girls I'd babysat when I was in junior high, who were both now taller than I was; and I talked to Mr. Wansing himself about his new computer and the warm weather outside. When my mother was clearly out of earshot, he lowered his voice and asked how my father was doing.

"Please tell him hello," he said, his pale blue gaze gentle under bushy silver brows. His voice was clear, his gaze unclouded. He might outlive his wife by another ten years, at least.

"I was sorry to hear about your family's...troubles," he said. He seemed hesitant, concerned that he might be offending me. But he clearly wasn't looking for information, or passing judgment in any way. He really sounded like he was sorry to have heard. "I always liked all of you so much." He frowned and looked into his wineglass. "I guess it happens now, these days. But it must be sad for you and your sister."

"It's fine," I said, feeling as adamant as my mother had sounded when she said the same thing. But there was real sympathy in his eyes. I didn't want him to think that he had gone too far, saying something too personal. It wasn't too personal. I had known him-we had all known him-since I was girl, and when his wife had died, I remember not knowing what to say to him, and not wanting to even look up at his bewildered face. I knew he meant well now, and that he cared about us. But it really was fine-the divorce, everything. "Really," I said, touching his arm. "Thank you. It was bad for a while. But I think it's starting to be fine."

On the way out, my mother apologized for staying so long. "I didn't even see Elise and Charlie go," she said, walking with me back to the van. She sounded a little dreamy, and she seemed surprised to see that it was getting dark. She'd only had one glass of wine, and she hadn't even finished it. She was just happy.

She wanted to drive, she said. When she started the van, the radio came back on, playing a wordless version of "Good King Wenceslas." "Hey!" she said, pointing at the dashboard, and I knew what she meant. It had been the first song on the program when we'd gone to hear Marley play just a few weeks earlier at Vespers. Actually, we didn't hear Marley play-or at least I didn't. There were four other French horns in the orchestra, and I heard only a general horn sound coming from their section, which was really just background for the choir. When I realized this was how it would be for the entire concert, I was a little startled, considering how much Marley practiced, all the time and effort she put in. I knew she was good-she was only a sophomore this year, but she'd told my mother she was second chair. For some reason, I assumed she would have at least one solo. But she didn't. She did all that work and practice just to add to something beautiful, a sound so big that she herself couldn't be heard. When it was over, she seemed happy, smiling out at the clapping audience. I don't know if she saw that I was there or not.

My mother hummed along with the radio, pulling the van away from Mr. Wansing's. She tapped the rhythm on the steering wheel for a while and then reached up to turn on the heater. When we neared the entrance to our old cul-de-sac, she slowed.

"Okay if I just pull in real fast? Will it upset you to see it?"

I shook my head. She was hunched over the steering wheel, already peering past me. "Will it upset you?" I asked.

"I don't know." She turned on her blinker, though there was no one behind us. "Guess we'll find out."

We saw the changes right away, even in the fading light. There was no way to know, in the middle of winter, if my mother's rosebushes had really been killed. But they'd painted the door red, and the shutters, too. New trees, their spindly trunks held fast with ropes, followed the slope of the driveway to the street. An Irish setter sat placidly on the porch. The window of the room that had been my father's office was covered with superhero stickers. A light was on in my old room.

"Weird," my mother said.

"Yes," I agreed. "It is."

"But not that weird," she said, now maybe talking to herself. Her chin was raised, her head tilted. She was still wearing the scarf and hat. "I mean, people move. People move all the time."

I waited for her to say something else, something sad. But she was just quiet for a while, her hands resting at the top of the wheel. When she did talk, she said, "I hope Miles is awake when I drop you off. I'll just come inside for a minute."

With that, she took her foot off the brake and followed the curve of the cul-de-sac back to the street. There wasn't anything more to say. It was just the house where we used to live, and we didn't live there anymore.

Acknowledgments.

I would like to thank the women and men at Children's Learning Center in Lawrence, Kansas, for taking such great care of my daughter during the weekdays while I wrote this book.

I am very much indebted to Lucia Orth, Mary Wharff, Mary O'Connell, and Judy Bauer for their thoughtful responses to drafts. I feel fortunate to have met fellow writers whom I can learn from and also call friends. And thank you to Ben Eggleston for being such a positive presence in my life as well as Vivian's. It must be good for my head, and therefore my work, to spend time with someone I admire so much.

I am also grateful for the honesty and intelligence of my excellent agent, Jennifer Rudolph Walsh. Ellen Archer's kindness and support have been constant. My editor at Hyperion, Leslie Wells, is a discerning reader and a thoughtful advisor, and her enthusiasm has been so encouraging.

ALSO BY LAURA MORIARTY.

The Center of Everything

The Rest of Her Life

While I'm Falling Part 24

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While I'm Falling Part 24 summary

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