My father moves out of our house on an amazingly warm day in March, the first spring break I can remember that has actually felt like spring. Melted snow runs and drips from the gutters and roofs of our neighborhood, pockets of soft grass already showing through thin, clinging layers of frost. A pale band of early morning sunlight spills onto the front porch, where the three of us—my mother, my twelve-year-old sister, Paula, and I—stand in our pajamas, watching him load boxes into his pickup truck. At fifteen, I am just barely able to support my mother’s weight as she leans into me, Paula leaning into her.
After the last box has been packed, my father turns and motions for Paula and me. I rest my cheek against his chest and feel it shake. Though I know I should say something comforting, something loving, I’m too distracted by the smell of fresh dirt in my nose, unusual so early in rural Illinois, and I strain my chin above the small rise of his shoulder to wonder at a cloudless sky.
The next morning a crew of landscapers gather in our backyard with dirt-flecked hands and sagging pants. Startled awake by the clatter of trucks and men’s voices outside my bedroom window, I stagger down the hall in my pajamas to my parents’ bedroom, half-hoping to see them curled beneath the covers as I flop onto their empty king-sized bed like I used to do when I was little and couldn’t sleep. The sheets on my father’s side are smooth and uncreased, his familiar scent of soil and Dove soap already fading from the pillows. I lie in the dark with my cheek pressed to the mattress, breathing it in, when my mother sweeps into the room and snaps open the blinds with a firm flick of her wrist: “Wake up, wake up!” She’s practically singing.
I groan and pull myself into a seated position on the edge of the bed, squinting against a sudden flood of sunlight. My mother stands with her back to me in front of her dresser mirror, turning this way and that, inspecting her every angle and curve [End Page 53] with an attentiveness I’ve never seen her exhibit before. She applies a smoky color of eye shadow to her lids, blends brown liquid foundation into her skin, sprays perfume, and paces back and forth through a rose-scented cloud. One last glance in the mirror and then she hurries downstairs, drags a kitchen chair onto the lawn, and sits and watches the men work. In the past, makeup had been reserved for special occasions like church and holiday parties at my grandparents’ farm, where she spent evenings bent over the sink with my grandmother, washing dishes while my father and uncles passed cigars and swapped dirty jokes in the living room.
Now, with my father gone, our house and everything that comes with it is in my mother’s control. From her chair, she fans herself with a magazine, yelling above the scrape of shovels, “Watch my gardenias—you can tell your boss where my money’s going!”
The men grin and wave. One puckers his lips, and her cheeks light up—for years, they’ve gone unkissed. Around us, neighbors pause over their gardening. They kill the engines on lawnmowers and make eyes at one another across their fences. Sitting in the grass, picking at the rubber soles of our sneakers, Paula and I pretend not to notice them—our mother has warned us that she’ll need our support over these next few weeks, which she’s explained means never arguing and always agreeing. So we perform a show of clapping and cheering while the men lay bricks; shake mulch from plastic bags; and run pipes beneath the ground for a bronze fountain in the shape of a half-naked goddess, holding a jug through which water trickles. “I saw it in Avon,” my mother says, giving the catalog in her hand a little shake. She smiles as a man with a neck...