On Monday we began dusting the shelves in every room. I mostly just removed the items and set them elsewhere while Ms. Crespo dusted, then returned them to their proper arrangement. A wide array of trinkets lined the shelves in her living room—primarily little glass and ceramic figurines of sparrows and finches, some in repose, perched on a thin branch, and others in mid-flight; some transparent and others opaque. I only encountered two picture frames, one displaying a younger Ms. Crespo holding a miniature, beaming Giana above her head, both dressed in bright red sweaters. The other was a collage of Giana’s class pictures from kindergarten to seventh grade; she was posed similarly in each so that one could easily see the gradual elongation of her face and neck, the lengthening of her hair, and the slight diminishment of her smile. There were no pictures of her father anywhere; it was as if the birds had conquered the space where those might have been.
As we finished with the living room I heard light footsteps, then the creaking of the house signaling someone’s descent.
“Well, there she is,” lilted Ms. Crespo. “Gee, and only half past noon. Say hi to Aaron—you remember him from the other day?”
Giana remained standing on the bottom step for a few seconds, wearing a navy blue polo and tan shorts, her hair tied up in a long ponytail.
“Hello,” she said, impassively, her voice golden as ever. “We were in Mrs. Reynolds’ class together last year, Mom.” She sounded irritated.
I was elated that she remembered me so specifically.
“I see. I wish I would have known that. Aaron’s been such a help around the house. You could learn something from him!” Ms. Crespo gradually raised her voice as Giana walked around the corner to the kitchen. She was obviously trying to avoid conversation with her mother, who followed her. I could sense the tension between them and feared the onset of a dispute.
There was little I hated more than being caught in the crossfire of an argument. It reminded me too much of my parents’ final weeks together. No wonder so few countries remained neutral; it was painfully awkward. At the age of seven the word fuck and its several uses entered my vocabulary, along with the minor curses. They were ammo in my parents’ arsenal, tearing into one another and occasionally deflecting to hit me, the wide-eyed kid who had never before seen the veins in his father’s neck and forehead. After a few months of verbal and psychological retaliation, the warring sides settled on a grudging truce, the terms of which forced my dad to move a half hour away and gave my mom primary custody. Father-son time was limited to the first weekend of every month, and I had mostly accepted this arrangement.
While the Crespos skirmished I counted the bird figurines—twenty-seven in total. I wondered where they all came from and when they were purchased. Any one of them might have held a history worth examining or abandoning on a dusty shelf, lifeless and ignored.
Ms. Crespo returned, ignoring the spat that had just taken place. Giana remained in the kitchen. “Well, we’re almost done with this, Aaron. Follow me!”
We made our way upstairs, which I hadn’t anticipated. We passed the closed door of what I presumed to be Giana’s bedroom, adorned with a plain white calendar still stuck in June, and proceeded into Ms. Crespo’s room. I felt more uncomfortable than I had moments earlier during their argument. I hated being in my own mother’s bedroom—there was something private about it, forbidden—and being in Ms. Crespo’s room felt even more like trespassing.
Her bed was unmade and dirty laundry was piled in the far corner— nightgowns and shorts, bras and other items in a tangle. I tried to avert my eyes; I couldn’t help thinking I might come across something I shouldn’t see. A large mirror hung over her dresser, harboring a small crack in the bottom left corner that branched out across half of the surface, as if it were the victim of a gunshot or some other projectile. An unfamiliar smell lingered in the air, a combination of various perfumes and womanly products that danced in my nostrils; I had just recently begun to notice the scent of women and was as drawn to it as I was repelled by it. It was unknown territory and I stumbled as I entered it.
“Sorry for the mess.” She laughed warily. “Don’t worry, all that’s left is clearing off this dresser.”
A few more photographs were on display, none of which included Giana’s father, of course, though one in a small square frame showed a young boy, maybe three or four years old, sitting on a wooden bench, wearing a Greenville Braves baseball cap much too large for his head. He held a melting vanilla ice cream cone with both hands and appeared to be laughing so hard his eyes were closed. In the mirror’s reflection I noticed Ms. Crespo looking at me.
“I see you’ve met Angelo,” she nearly whispered, her reflection somewhat contorted by the diverging lines in the broken mirror.
“He’s cute,” I said. But something felt off, like I was looking into a different time and place, a world that existed only in this photograph. There was no other one like it in the house that I could see.
“He’s gone now,” she said.
I didn’t know what to say. I know now that no one, no matter how young or old, ever knows what to say about the loss of a child. I told myself maybe he was gone in a lighter sense, living elsewhere, with Giana’s elusive father, perhaps. But I knew Angelo was dead. Deep down, I knew that much. I involuntarily stepped back and tripped over the bed right behind me.
“I’m sorry.” I felt lightheaded and remained seated. The room appeared to vibrate and flash on and off, static encompassing my vision and hearing.
“Are you okay, Aaron?” She touched my shoulder and placed the back of her hand on my forehead. “My God, you’re on fire! Here, lay down…”
I awoke on Ms. Crespo’s queen-sized bed, everything fuzzy and oversaturated. She came into focus, sitting cross-legged on the other side, watching me. She gave me the concerned-mother look that I associated with the time I was eight and choked on a piece of hard candy. My mother placed her capable hands on my diaphragm and forced the air, and the deadly confection, up and out of me.
“Careful, Aaron. You passed out.” Ms. Crespo reached for my head again. “How long?” I held the back of my skull, as if this would solve things.
Then I noticed Giana standing in the doorway, also watching me, her arms folded. I sat up and straightened my back, mortified.
“It’s only been a few minutes,” Ms. Crespo said. “Here, have some water.” She handed me a glass. I took small sips.
“You scared me so much, Aaron.” She placed her hand on her heart. “Let me call your mother. Does this happen to you a lot?” She began walking towards the phone on her dresser.
“No, it’s just this heat. I’m fine. Really,” I lied, taking another sip. “I should call her.”
“No. She’s too busy. Don’t worry.” I got to my feet and my eyes caught Giana’s for a moment. We both looked away, but I saw her face redden.
Ms. Crespo fed me again and walked me home. We didn’t say a word to each other until we reached my house.
“Just take it easy, okay? If you need anything, give me a call. When does your mom come home?”
“In a few hours. When do you need me to come by again?”
“Don’t worry about that. I’ll let you know. Here.” She reached into her pocket and held out another twenty. “Have a good Fourth of July. Have some fun.”
My mom worked most holidays, so I walked to Town Hall alone on the Fourth. Most of my friends had gone out of town with their families to celebrate, and the rest were too cool for organized events such as these. But I enjoyed the atmosphere—the smell of fried anything, the little kids bouncing around, the world still so large to them and full of wonder. I saw the Petersons in the distance, Mr. Peterson holding his little girl on his shoulders to give her the best view of the local jazz band.
As I walked between the corndog and funnel cake stands I felt a poke on my shoulder. It was Giana. She was alone too, this time wearing a breezy yellow sundress. My heart nearly stopped.
“Hey,” she said, laughing nervously and avoiding eye contact. “I didn’t know you’d be here.”
“Nothing better to do, I guess.” I laughed back. I was just as surprised, not so much by her presence, but her approaching me.
“Feeling better?” she asked, finally looking at me.
“Yeah, I’m alright. I don’t really know what happened.” Then I asked, “Where’s your mom?” Her face tightened. I immediately regretted that.
“She’s with some guy, I don’t know.” She sounded frustrated. “Oh.”
“Are you staying for the fireworks?” she asked. “I planned on it, yeah.”
“Come with me. I know the perfect spot.”
I followed her past the screaming and laughing children, past the tipsy adults, and up a steep hill away from everyone and everything. When we reached the top, I could see the whole town was nothing more than a simple grid—straight lines like the ones I carved in the grass. The sun had just buried itself behind us. The fireworks wouldn’t start for another half hour.
“Guess we got here kind of early,” she remarked, sitting down cross-legged.
“That’s okay. I like the view.” I squatted next to her. An oddly comfortable silence overcame us.
“Whatever my mom did to you, I’m sorry,” she said, picking the grass.
“What do you mean?” I surveyed her profile, trying not to stare at its fortunate dimensions.
“I think we all feel that way about our mothers.”
“No, I mean she’s actually crazy. She gets paid for it.”
I had no idea what she meant, so I kind of grunted and joined in the grass decapitation.
“She hasn’t worked in years,” she continued. “When my brother died she blamed my dad for it. They fought all the time. It was just words at first but then they started hitting each other. I don’t know why I’m telling you this.” She bowed her head.
“It’s okay.” I wasn’t sure if she wanted to say more, so I held up my end. “My parents fought too. They got divorced six years ago. Now my mom works so much I barely see her.”
“What does she do?” she asked.
“She’s a nurse.”
“You’re lucky. Your mom fixes people.”
I had no reply. I’d never felt lucky about my family before.
“They arrested my dad for hitting my mom too much. I was seven, too,” she said.
The world was full of coincidences.
“The whole time my mom had stopped going to work because she could barely do anything. I had to help her get dressed in the morning and I had to learn how to cook.” Her soothing voice seemed ready to break. “The only money we had was from government checks. After a few months my mom started doing things herself again, but it wasn’t easy for her. The checks kept coming and she got used to it. They have to cut her off soon, though, because she’s able to work again. She hasn’t for years, and I don’t know what we’re going to do.”
I felt a riptide form in my chest, sucking out whatever delusions I had held just a week earlier. I had never heard of a government check before, or of people so broken that they couldn’t dress themselves in the morning.
I asked her what happened to Angelo. He got sick. It started with the flu and quickly escalated to pneumonia. They did everything they could but nothing fixed him. He was young, fragile, and born with a weak immune system. She spoke clearly as she told me this, as if she was reading Frost, as if she had trained herself to recall this catastrophe without stammering or hesitation.
I understood then that Giana, this girl I had put on a towering pedestal, was far more broken than I was. She was so much more than the idealized figure I made her out to be in my head. She had strength and compassion and flaws, and I admired her more at that moment than I had before.
“I’m sorry.” I hated saying that with all my being. It was so trite, so far removed from the depths of my sympathy. But the English language provided no more sufficient option.
I learned later from Mr. Daley that they finally launched Discovery that Independence Day. “It’s just amazing what we humans can do, isn’t it?” he said.
I continued to help Ms. Crespo the rest of that summer, mostly mowing her lawn and doing various other tasks she felt she needed me to do. I never told my mom about Angelo or my passing out in Ms. Crespo’s bedroom—she dealt with others’ pain enough in her own life, and I would have been selfish to add to it. Any money Ms. Crespo gave me I stored in an old cookie tin under my bed. There it remained, untouched, until I went off to Mississippi State. By that time, Giana had moved to New York to study fashion merchandising and Ms. Crespo had sold the house. I never found out where she went, though I imagined she took her birds and pictures with her.
As I gathered my things for the semester I came across the dusty tin and the money inside. I drove into Jackson and picked up some things for my mother: a bouquet of flowers, a new toaster, and the best chocolates in the city. I left them on the kitchen table where she would find them after her shift, and then I got in my car and left for school. We had said our goodbyes the night before and I wouldn’t be far away.
I wish I could say Giana and I became lifelong friends, or more even, but after that summer we would merely smile at each other as we passed in the halls of Pearl Junior High. Too much had been said, too many truths revealed, so we said nothing.
I’ll never forget that Fourth of July when we sat on the hill, overlooking the town that built and beat us. Darkness had taken over and the world had finally cooled for a bit. The fireworks were about to begin. But I had seen fireworks before, and I knew they were just explosions disguised as beautiful things.
Ethan Keeley is a senior English (Creative Writing) major at SUNY Geneseo. He has lived most of his life in Rochester, NY. His short story, “Half,” was published in Gandy Dancer 2.1. He would be best friends with Huckleberry Finn because of his philosophical nature and adventurous spirit.