Ronald had first met Cynthia on the fourth of July. It was a company picnic, and while all the other young women were swatting away flies and complaining about the humidity, Cynthia stacked a couple of ice coolers and made herself seven feet tall. She pulled and swung until she was perched on one of the branches of a giant Red Oak. She threw her sandals down for Ronald’s brother to catch.
It was Doug’s company that was hosting the picnic, and it was Doug’s girlfriend who was in the tree.
Scattered throughout the park were men dressed in polo shirts and slacks, kneeling awkwardly on blankets, wives and girlfriends even less comfortable, and children, unattended, playing tag too close to the water. Someone should say something, Ronald thought. But then, he was off-duty today. He didn’t need to play lifeguard or janitor or any of the other roles he had, working for Cincinnati Parks and Recreation.
Cynthia jumped down after Doug refused to toss her a hot dog. “You’re no fun,” she said and then hit him on the shoulder. “I’m going to get my own plate.” She turned to Ronald and smiled. “Ronnie, can I get you anything?”
He shook his head but smiled: only his and Doug’s mother ever called him “Ronnie.” When Cynthia said “Ronnie,” he’d thought of the only time in his life when things made sense.
Four months later, Ronald had grinned while Cynthia lectured Doug about the superiority of European beers to American ones. And he had smiled to himself at Thanksgiving when Cynthia turned down Doug’s first proposal of marriage. She’d said it wasn’t time yet.
On New Year’s Eve, Doug proposed again, this time with a memorized list of why it was their time. Number seven: “I’ll be damned if you marry anyone but me.” Cynthia, wearing a short brown dress that seemed to change colors when she moved, pulled Doug into an embrace and whispered something in his ear. When they finally let go of each other, Doug slid the ring onto her finger.
The wedding was on July 4th, and Ronald took pains not to note that it was the anniversary of when he’d met her.
* * *
August. Saturday at the park. Twelve boys crowded around a picnic table. Some sat politely on the bench while others were on their knees, heads and bodies outstretched. A thirteenth boy, four feet tall and with a cone covering most of his dark brown hair, stood at the head of the table.
“Blow out the candles!” a woman said.
The boy turned to her, tears welling up in his eyes.
“Now, Amir! The frosting going to start melting.”
This caused the rest of the boys to start yelling at him. “C’mon!” one said. “We want cake! What’s the problem?”
He didn’t move. He pulled the blue cone from the top of his head to the front of his face; it looked like a beak and covered his nose and mouth.
The woman mouthed the words I’m sorry to the other adult in the group. Meanwhile, one of the boys kneeling on the bench called “I’ll do it!” and blew out the nine candles in one long puff of air. The rest of them clapped and high-fived.
“Amir, help me cut the cake?” The woman said in a softer voice.
The boy shook his head. The woman put her hand on his shoulder and stood to his side. She took a knife and slowly carved the rectangular cake into twenty squarish pieces. Each was put onto a round paper plate and passed down the table.
Two boys at the end were racing to see who could finish first; one in the middle was licking off all the vanilla icing and leaving the yellow cake on the plate; five were using white plastic forks to eat theirs neatly while six—including the racing boys—were using their hands. There wasn’t a napkin in sight.
The birthday boy had the cone dangling around his neck now and a piece of cake in front of him. He had taken the seat of a boy who had run off yelling “I’m going to puke!”
“Amir, why aren’t you eating? You’re the one who wanted all your friends here,” the woman said.
The other adult, a woman with long gray hair in a formless short-sleeved dress, walked around the table, throwing used plates into a large black trash bag, and the boys took turns jumping off the picnic bench; they started running toward the lake, one after the next.
“Go,” said the gray-haired woman. “I’ll stay with Amir. You keep the others dry.”
Once they were alone, the woman sat across from the boy. “I can’t stand cake. Too sweet. Too dry. Give me some Graeter’s ice cream—mint chocolate chip or butter pecan—and I’m happy as a clam.”
The boy didn’t say anything.
“Do you like ice cream?”
He shook his head.
“I never met a boy who didn’t like ice cream. My mom makes me a gigantic angel food cake every year for my birthday. She always says, ‘I made your favorite!’ I don’t have the heart to tell her I detest angel food cake. You sure you don’t want to eat any of the birthday cake? Your mom made it special for you.”
He pulled the cone back over his head and didn’t say anything.
“Well I got a surprise,” she said and pulled a small bag out of her pocket. “Come with me.”
He followed her to a water pump. Left behind was a table full of cake crumbs and unopened presents. A few minutes later, both reappeared with a dozen water balloons, red, yellow, and blue, nestled in their arms.
“Ready? One, two, three, GO!”
The two ran down the hill toward the lake, yelling the entire way. When they got to the bottom, they beaned one boy after the next with the balloons that burst on impact. A couple balloons skidded away on the grass; one of the racing boys grabbed it and chased the birthday boy until he was able to smash it straight against his chest.
He laughed, pulled his shirt off, and whipped it around over his head.
On the other side of the lake, an elderly couple strolled. Each wore a large straw hat and sunglasses. They were holding hands. Just past them three adolescent girls stood, phones held out in front of them, thumbs busily typing. A teenage boy sat on a bench that overlooked the lake. He wore a Reds cap that was pulled over his eyes. Beyond all of them were three geese fighting over some food that a visitor had left.
* * *
A giant oak tree had stood outside Ronald’s first-floor apartment. In the spring and summer, its leaves blocked off so much of the sun that Ronald couldn’t distinguish 10pm and 10am. But he didn’t mind. Now that Parks and Rec had cut his hours, he found he had a lot more time to sleep; the darkness only helped.
He could make this month’s rent, but he was less certain about next month’s. If Ronald asked, Doug would help. But Ronald didn’t want to tell his brother about his money problems. Doug had enough to worry about: Cynthia was pregnant.
“Can you believe it, Ronnie?” Cynthia had never looked so happy. She kept touching her still-flat belly, as if waiting for tangible confirmation that yes, a baby was growing. “I wonder if it’s a girl or boy? Or twins!”
“I hope it’s a girl,” Ronald said without hesitation. “A little Cyndi.”
She laughed. “I don’t know about ‘Cyndi,’ but I certainly wouldn’t mind a little girl. Either way, we’ll need all the help we can get from our Uncle Ronnie!”
While Doug was in Seattle for a business trip, Ronald visited Cynthia every day. They read pregnancy books he’d checked out of the library and practiced making baby food using a food processor and sweet potatoes. “I hope I can do this,” Cynthia said, looking at the mess they’d created in the kitchen.
Ronald replied, “I know you can,” and rested his hand on her right shoulder.
When Doug returned the following week, he had three bags full of stuffed animals, teething rings, and mobiles. He also decided that he wouldn’t go on anymore business trips: he didn’t want to miss anything.
Ronald stopped coming over as often, and he found himself going on lots of walks. On days he wasn’t working, Ronald still went up to Winton Woods and walked around the lakes. The trees were changing colors, but not as brilliantly as in past years. Usually, his favorite maples went from fiery orange to red before falling to the ground. This process took weeks. But this year had been the driest on record; leaves changed from green to brown and then fell.
His own oak tree, now bare, couldn’t keep the light out of his bedroom. Even with the curtains drawn and his eyes closed, Ronald felt the sun. He pulled his blanket over his head.
* * *
A girl wore a black gown that fell loosely around her tall but thin frame. Her hair, equally black, fell a foot below her shoulders, and her face, pale as flour, had streaks of dark red, as if she’d been pricked by a pin and the blood was allowed to trickle out. She held in her hand a bag of bread.
“The sign says not to feed the animals,” a boy said, arriving by her side.
“But look how hungry they are,” she replied. Four geese had moved out of the lake and onto the cement around the young couple.
The boy, six inches taller than the girl but equally garbed in black, reached into her bag and took out a slice of bread. “Here ya go, buddy.” A brown goose snatched the bread from his hands.
Fifteen miles north of the city, the park’s air was unpolluted and the sky a darkening blue. The boy and girl, out of bread, sat next to each other on the bench.
“Let’s skip the party,” the girl said. “You know it’s going to be stupid. We know exactly what’ll happen. Casey will be wasted before the trick-or-treaters stop coming, and she’ll traumatize them for, like, life. Ben will show up and make a scene about not being invited, proving exactly why he’s not invited to anything. And Nora will walk from person to person, saying, Oh, your costume’s so awesome, you’re so creative! Nora makes me want to punch her.”
The boy laughed. “What is this stuff?” He lifted a finger to her face and wiped it against the red.
“Hey! You’ll mess up my makeup!”
“Who cares, if we’re not going to the party?” He licked his finger. “Either way we gotta get out of here; park closes at dark.”
“Rules, rules.” She stood up; she was holding his hand. “Let’s go get some food then sneak in after dark. We’ll look for ghosts.”
The boy stood up next to her and waved at the geese. The pair walked toward the parking lot where only three cars—and one company truck—remained. They got in a green jeep and drove out of the park.
By now the sun had completely sunk below the lines of trees and dim overhead lights had turned on. The crickets were out in full force, though they weren’t nearly as loud as they were during the summer. In the next few minutes, the company truck drove off, a burly man with an unkempt beard at the helm. The last car, a small, gray Toyota, would be safe there for at least a few more hours.
* * *
It was two in the afternoon, but he’d been sleeping. Ronald moved the phone to his other ear then sat up with a start. Cynthia had never called him before. “What is it? Is the baby ok?”
“I hope you don’t hate me. Doug is stuck in meetings, and I’m dying for a pastrami sandwich.”
“I’ll be there in thirty minutes.” He hung up before Cynthia could thank him.
He stopped at Humbert’s Meats and asked for two pastrami sandwiches, one with mayonnaise and Swiss cheese, and the other plain. That way, she could choose between the two.
Doug and Cynthia’s house was fifteen minutes north on I-75. He stopped in front of the house with low-cut grass and innocuous shrubs (identical to all the other houses); the only distinguishing factor was the big blue University of Kentucky flag that hung over their door. Most other houses had the red and white of Ohio State or the red and black of the University of Cincinnati. Cynthia had insisted on the UK flag, even though Doug said that would make it that much harder to befriend their neighbors. Cynthia said not to worry: as soon as the neighbors found out she was expecting, they would all be fast friends.
Cynthia was sitting on the front stairs, a big blue blanket wrapped around her, when Ronald pulled his car into the driveway. She waved, smiling broadly. She selected the cheese sandwich, which Ronald was glad about.
“I wasn’t going to be one of these pregnant women,” Cynthia said. “You know, with bizarre cravings? Doug and I agreed, I would stick to the diet. But baby wants pastrami.”
Ronald smiled and sat down next to her. He’d never been around a pregnant woman before. Sure, at the park there were women with big bellies, probably two weeks from giving birth, pushing a gigantic double stroller. He didn’t talk to them. They seemed almost a different species. But Cynthia was still the same. She wore the same clothing as before, and her face was still a porcelain kewpie doll’s; she was still the girl who climbed trees at corporate picnics.
As if Cynthia could read his mind, she asked, “Do you remember when your mom gave birth to Doug?”
He was three when Doug was born. When he thought of the hospital their mom had given birth in, he remembered the E.R. after breaking a wrist in little league. He remembered sitting in a waiting room, eighteen years old, as a doctor with yellow hair came out to tell him, his mom, and his brother that, despite “heroic efforts,” Ronald Sr. didn’t make it through surgery. And he remembered, ten years later, almost to the day, his mom squeezing his hand, closing her eyes. The moment her grip loosened was the worst in his life.
“No,” he said.
“My sister swears she remembers when I was born, but I think she’s full of shit. Peggy’s only 18 months older than me. What can an 18-month-old remember?”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Memory’s a funny thing. You think you know something, but then it changes. The past doesn’t change, but your memory does.” Ronald took the brown paper that had wrapped the sandwich and folded it in half three times until it was a small rectangle; not sure where else to put it, he shoved it into his pocket.
“Follow me,” Cynthia said, suddenly standing up. No one would guess she had a baby inside her.
They went inside and then upstairs. The room she showed him was bright yellow. “I’m not teaching Baby Jones gender stereotypes! None of that pink or blue crap!”
There was a gigantic white crib and matching changing table. Lining the middle of the wall was the alphabet, each letter with a corresponding picture. An alligator for “Aa,” a bird for “Bb,” etc.
“What do you think?”
“I think your kid’ll be whip smart,” he said.
Ronald was getting into his car later that evening when Doug pulled up in a silver Ford Explorer. The SUV towered over the small, gray Toyota. “Hey.”
“Hey,” Doug said. “How’s my wife?”
Ronald said she was doing just fine. Watching Jeopardy. Doug’s suit was tailored; he was sure of it. The only time Ronald had had anything tailored was four months ago, for his brother’s wedding. The rest of the time, he wore the beige and green loose-fitting clothing appropriate for the park. Doug’s shoes probably cost as much as Ronald made in one week.
As Ronald slowly drove out of the subdivision, he noticed all the rotting pumpkins still sitting on porches. Halloween was a week ago; jack-o-lantern faces were sunken; frowning. Ronald hadn’t put out a pumpkin. Last year and the year before that, neighborhood kids had thrown it against the oak tree.
Ronald turned out of the subdivision and onto the state route that led to the interstate. He liked to imagine the baby, still growing inside Cynthia, was his. Baby Jones would have his high cheek bones, pointed nose, and thin lips. Baby Jones’ hair would be wispy and dark brown, not course and blond. But Baby Jones would have Cynthia’s hazel eyes.
He didn’t tell his brother these thoughts.
When he got home, he unfolded the brown paper from his pocket and set it on his desk.
* * *
She came every Sunday around four o’clock. The woman, about five feet tall, sat at the edge of the water with her feet dangling. Sometimes she brought a small notebook and wrote furiously. Other times, like this afternoon, she sat and stared.
On the other side of the lake was a Lutheran Church. Because the trees were bare, the squat white church was visible from all directions. Her face seemed aimed in that direction, although it wasn’t obvious what she was looking at.
The geese were long gone, and the only other people at the park were nature enthusiasts examining tracks in the snow. Or they were alone, like this woman and Ronald.
She suddenly stood and looked about, but there was no one in her line of sight. She wrapped her arms around herself and closed her eyes.
“Davey?” she called.
The woman, hugging herself, eyes shut to the world, stayed that way for two minutes. Then she dropped her arms, looked again toward the church, and smiled. She sat back at the edge of the water.
* * *
“You got a light?” a young man asked.
Ronald had just tossed an armful of debris from the previous night’s storm into the back of a truck. He pulled a lighter out of his pocket.
“Thanks, man.” He offered Ronald one of his cigarettes, but Ronald shook his head, took his lighter, and got in the truck.
It had been a mild start to December, and residents were punished with a storm that knocked out power across the tri-state area. But Ronald didn’t care; he missed his last payments to Duke Energy, and he’d been without power since Thanksgiving.
Ronald was mostly tasked with clearing branches from roads and pathways. He didn’t mind this part of the job and hoped it would lead to extra hours, especially with the holidays coming up.
At the end of his shift, Ronald took the truck slowly around the paths of the park, looking for things or people that were out of place. Sometimes he just stopped the truck and watched: he thought about the people in the park. What were they doing, celebrating? what were their relationships? with each other? with themselves? with God?
Ronald was in his own car, watching, when the text message arrived from his brother: “C lost baby. Missed miscarriage.”
But there had been no one to watch. He had been all alone.
Calls to Doug went straight to voicemail. Calls to three different hospitals revealed nothing. He left messages for Peggy.
As he sat there in his driver seat, car running, he suddenly thought about that woman who used to come on Sundays. She’d seemed so sad. So lonely. And then, one afternoon, she smiled; she hadn’t come back the next Sunday or the one after. He wished she was there now.
Ronald left the park and drove north toward the subdivision and the UK flag, still hanging in the winter (“Final Four, definitely,” Cynthia had said).
He let himself in and felt along the wall for a light switch. Cynthia’s dark blue coat was hanging in the foyer.
“Hello?” he called, even though he knew the house was empty. Next to the foyer was a living room that no one ever used (“Why do we even call it a living room?” Cynthia had asked.)
He sat on the sofa in the living room that wasn’t lived in; it was stiff and uncomfortable. On the wall opposite the sofa were framed photographs, carefully spaced apart. Doug and Cynthia, on their wedding day, were in the center. To its right, Doug stood with his arm around Ronald. To its left, Cynthia stood with her arm around Peggy.
He walked from the living room to the kitchen and dining room and family room, with an undecorated Douglass fir, then made his way upstairs. Throughout the stairwell were more pictures. Doug in high school, Cynthia’s college graduation, their honeymoon in Michigan. Cynthia, her sister, and their parents in one of those staged formal pictures. Ronald, Doug, and their mother, standing in front of a gray ocean. Doug and their father wearing matching black and orange Boomer Esiason jerseys. Ronald, standing in front of a birthday cake, nine candles lit, both parents and Doug on each side.
He continued up the stairs into the yellow room and turned on the light. Next to the crib was a framed silver picture of the sonogram. (“Baby Jones is a boy!” Cynthia had told him last month.)
From the yellow room, Ronald could see into the house across the street. On the second floor, a girl sat at a computer, typing, laughing. Downstairs, a tree with colored lights crowded one of the windows. Small white lights trimmed the roof, windows, and porch.
Later, in the darkness of his own room, he would close his eyes and think of those images. The pictures on the wall, the framed sonogram, the girl at her computer, the woman, hugging herself, at the edge of the lake. (“The baby had been dead inside her,” Doug would explain, “but her body didn’t know it.”)
Cynthia would be pregnant again by the next Fourth of July; this one would be a girl. But even though she acted happy, Ronald knew she wasn’t the same and would never climb trees or call asking for pastrami sandwiches again. Ronald had known death already. His brother may have decided fifteen years ago to carry on like nothing was different, like he wasn’t alone, but Ronald knew Death was everywhere and was inside all of them.