Winner – Drew’s 2009 Goin Prize in Writing
Mr. Peterson liked the way the world streamed before his eyes when he rode in the car. He liked when his wife drove and he could place his left hand on her thigh and sing “Oh darling, oh darling” in unison with the oldies radio station, giving the flesh of her leg a firm squeeze to help him keep the beat when the singer on the radio paused for the musical interlude to pass between the fourth and fifth verses. So it was in that way that he and his wife drove three hours across Pennsylvania and pulled into the long, winding driveway of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Peterson’s oldest daughter, Kathy, in Chadds Ford.
“Lots of leaves,” Mr. Peterson said, opening his door.
“Pardon?” Mrs. Peterson’s hearing, even at its best, never was what his had been.
“Lots of leaves, Meryl,” Mr. Peterson repeated. They were scattered on the lawn, woven together in a quilt of color. Tod, Kathy’s husband, never did make time to rake them, so on Thanksgiving it was always Mr. Peterson who would pull down a rake from its hook in the garage and form piles in the front yard. Sometimes the younger grandchildren would fling themselves into his piles or beg to be lifted into the large brown bags the leaves got placed in and help stamp them down.
“What? What did you say?”
Mr. Peterson reached behind his wife’s ear like a magician about to produce a coin. He turned up the dial of her hearing aid. “I said, I love you.”
“Oh good.” Mrs. Peterson looked up at Mr. Peterson and there was no part of her that didn’t believe he meant what he said. “Let’s go inside.”
“Was the drive here okay?” Without waiting for an answer, Kathy was pulling off his coat, slipping the limp jacket onto a hanger. “Tod could have picked you up. He wouldn’t have minded.”
“Your mother likes to drive.” Mr. Peterson watched through the blinds as Tod walked Mrs. Peterson up the driveway, one hand on her back, guiding her closer to the door as her walker stuttered over the chunks of gravel on the driveway.
“I know she does, but—”
Tod opened the door and the foot of Mrs. Peterson’s walker passed the threshold. She banged straight into a chair, like she hadn’t even noticed it was sitting against the wall, and Kathy gave Mr. Peterson a look that he hated. That “you-know-I’m-right-and-you’ll-do-what-I-tell-you” look and he knew she was right but didn’t want to do what she said. Though maybe he would be the one to drive home, Mr. Peterson considered, as Mrs. Peterson knocked over the plastic plant next to the deep brown loveseat she sank into.
“Go kiss your mother hello,” Mr. Peterson said.
“I will, Dad.”
“And after dinner I’ll rake your leaves.”
Mr. Peterson watched Kathy look towards Tod, who was straightening the picture frames on the table next to the couch. “You don’t have to do that.”
“I rake your leaves every year.”
“You’re our guest, is all I’m saying. You don’t have to do that.”
“I’m your father, not a guest.”
“I know, Dad.”
“I like to rake leaves.”
Kathy looked at Tod again, when she answered. “We’ll worry about it after dinner. Marge just called and said she and Bethany would be a little late, but Laura and the kids will be here soon.”
Mr. Peterson took a seat beside Mrs. Peterson on the couch. He picked up the picture frame from the end table. It held three photographs, the largest of which was of Kathy and Tod’s entire wedding party. Below that were two small portraits of Kathy and Tod’s sons, Thomas and Andrew, both dressed in colorful sweaters, sitting tall in front of plain blue backdrops. Those photographs were clearly several years old. Andrew was still wearing glasses in his; now he only wore the contact lenses he’d gotten two years ago. Thomas was missing far too few baby teeth in his picture; now it seemed like every time Mr. Peterson spoke to Kathy she told him Thomas had had yet another visit from the tooth fairy.
Mr. Peterson replaced the frame before he reached for his wife’s hand. She had fallen asleep already. Mr. Peterson felt his own head falling forward until his chin touched his chest. Sleep started to clear the pictures behind his eyelids, and the words “oh darling, oh darling” whistled through his head as he squeezed her hand.
Mrs. Peterson’s hand was no longer pressed against his when Mr. Peterson jolted awake from his nap and it made the transition from sleep to wakefulness even harsher. While raising three kids, he’d rarely had the luxury of a nap. There was always some small crisis to avert or sibling conflict to settle. If he did somehow fall asleep on what he thought would be a calm Sunday afternoon, he’d gotten too used to waking to the shouts of “it’s not fair, I’m telling Dad” and “Dad, come downstairs and play now, you promised” to let his body fully relax into sleep. Now, waking up from naps was like slamming on the brakes and only narrowly avoiding a car accident, motion jolting to a stop only when he opened his eyes and realized he was just where he’d left himself.
It wasn’t yet dinnertime but Mr. Peterson could smell the creamy gravy and sweet yams mixed with orange marmalade from where he sat. More relatives had arrived while he was sleeping, pulling the chairs away from the couch on which he slept so they could chat.
“We didn’t want to wake you,” Jeremy, Mr. Peterson’s oldest grandson, said by way of explanation. “Aunt Kathy said you’d had a tough drive.”
Mr. Peterson looked to the empty couch cushion to his right.
“Mom’s in the kitchen. She woke up a few minutes before you did,” Laura, his youngest daughter, told him. She got out of her seat and came over to give him a kiss on the cheek. “Let me help you up so you can go sit with Mom.”
Mr. Peterson shook his head and waited until Laura stepped back from the couch before attempting to get up. He made a heaving sound he hated as he lifted his body off the couch. He couldn’t quite make it and two tries later Laura and Jeremy were by his side, each taking one elbow and lifting him until he was standing tall.
“Dinner smells delicious. Do you know what time it’s going to be ready, Kath?” Mr. Peterson asked, smoothing the wool of his sweater to bide his time until he felt steady enough to walk towards the kitchen.
“I’m Laura, Dad. Kathy’s in the kitchen.”
Mr. Peterson looked at her. Of course it was Laura. He’d been thinking it was Laura just a minute ago when she’d kissed him hello. He’d just made a mistake. People mixed up their children’s names all the time. But Laura wasn’t looking at him like he’d made a funny mistake. She wasn’t looking at him at all. She was looking at her husband who still sat in the circle of chairs, eyes a little watery, that way children’s eyes sometimes got when you told them no and they’d desperately wanted to hear a yes. They looked at you like you’d broken their heart a little when all you’d done was speak.
“I meant to say Laura. Still waking up, I guess.” The words sounded far more like an excuse than Mr. Peterson had meant them to, and it didn’t seem fair to him that the truth should sound so weak. It had just been a slip. He was confused because he’d just woken up. He’d meant to say Laura.
Meryl was sitting at the kitchen table while Laura’s twin daughters were chattering to her about the duet they would be singing for the high school’s winter talent show. Two pots were on the stove, with the gravy and yams Mr. Peterson had smelled from the couch, and the oven couldn’t contain the smells of turkey and garlic. The counter was scattered with boxes of Domino sugar, two large red bowls with wooden spoons sticking out of them and bags packed with miniature spice containers. Kathy looked unhappy, back bent over a cookbook. But then, didn’t all women look unhappy at Thanksgiving?
“Do you need me to help with something?” Mr. Peterson asked.
“Almost done,” Kathy assured him. “We’ll eat in about half an hour.”
Mr. Peterson nodded. “I thought I might take a look at those leaves in your yard now. You shouldn’t let them sit on the ground too long and the township probably only takes a couple of bags each week.”
“I know how to rake leaves, Dad.”
“You’ll want to get them up before the snow starts to fall or you won’t like what you see when spring comes.”
“I just said I know how to rake leaves.”
“You never used to like to though. And it looks like Tod doesn’t have time for them. I remember when you were 10 and I made you start helping around the house but all you wanted to do was play in the leaf piles. I was ready to turn you into a regular yard-worker but you wouldn’t have any of it. You just wanted to play.” The story was funny to Mr. Peterson now, though it hadn’t been when it happened. He’d been so angry, Kathy launching her body into the mattress of leaves, scampering off with a laugh as soon as he called out to her that she needed to help re-rake the pile. But years had softened the anger and he liked how that had become a happy memory for him, how he could file it away with stories of the other household chores gone awry.
“We’ve just been busy. Tod will rake them after Thanksgiving.”
“I have time now. I’ll rake until dinner.”
Kathy raised her voice, the first time in years, maybe since she was a teenager. “You can’t rake the leaves, Dad.”
Meryl and the grandkids looked up from their conversation. The wrinkles between Meryl’s eyebrows bunched and Mr. Peterson hated seeing that look on her face. He wanted her only to look at him like she had earlier, when their car had pulled up the driveway and he’d said “I love you” and she looked at him like she’d never heard anything sweeter.
“We’ll talk about this sometime when your mother isn’t around,” he said.
Kathy lowered her voice; Mr. Peterson could barely hear it over the simmering of the pots. “You can’t rake leaves, Dad. You have to take it easy on yourself. You can barely stand up.”
If Mr. Peterson could be sure that his children wouldn’t be talking about him as soon as he and Meryl left to drive back home, he would have protested: “I can stand up just fine.” But he knew Laura would tell on him to Kathy and then he’d hear about it from both of them for weeks. If Marge, Mr. Peterson’s youngest daughter, was here maybe she would have defended him, but she had yet to arrive, so instead he said, “I’ll sit down with your mother.”
“Kids giving you a hard time?” she asked softly as he sat down. The twins had moved into the next room in search of someone else they could practice their duet for.
Mr. Peterson nodded. Said with a smile, “I guess it’s our fault, we raised them, right?” He laughed.
“A long time ago,” Meryl said and she moved her left knee slightly so it pressed lightly against his leg. “They’re giving me a hard time, too. Kathy has all these questions about dialysis and what does Dr. Fermer say about this and that.”
Mr. Peterson felt like he and Meryl were co-conspirators and he thought about saying something like, “Let’s make a break for it.” But he wasn’t really sure where he would have wanted to go except to some other point in time, some family gathering when it had been everyone driving to his and Meryl’s house, taking directions from them as to how to best stay out of the way so she could finish the meal and he could complete last-minute household chores.
It was when Mr. Peterson first got married that he’d begun to associate seasons with housework. And while he knew household chores had less to do with getting married than they did with the fact that he and Meryl had moved into a house only three months after they married—the first house either of them, lifelong apartment dwellers until that point, had ever lived in—he’d always associated their wedding with the housework.
But really he didn’t know if it was right to call it work if the chores were things he loved that much. There was comfort in the twist of his wrist as he unscrewed storm windows and replaced them with screens each spring, and he loved the vibrations the hammer’s pound left ringing in his hand when it was a fence around the yard that he was building—something Meryl had always wanted. She had this picture in her mind of a perfect home with a back porch and a fence and a dog digging holes beside the tall oak trees. Mr. Peterson was allergic to dogs so there would be none in their house, but he could give her everything else. So he built a fence and bought deck furniture for the back porch, and in the fall when the tall oak trees dropped their leaves he raked them into piles.
He remembered the first year they were married he’d looked up from the leaves he was raking and seen Meryl’s face in the window, hair tucked beneath a red handkerchief, washing dishes in the kitchen sink, and he’d thought “that’s my wife,” and he’d known he could do this forever—rake leaves and build fences, change light bulbs and replace screens in the windows. This was what he could offer her.
The doorbell rang and it was Marge with her daughter, Bethany. That, at least, made Mr. Peterson feel like he had another ally present. It was the second year Marge had come without her husband, the first year since they were officially divorced. Supporting Marge as she went through the divorce had brought them closer. She was the only one of his children who, like he and Mrs. Peterson, had endured being the topic of everyone’s conversation without ever really being talked to. She’d had to listen while everyone else in the family spoke about the decisions they thought she should make, how sad her situation was, what would be best for Bethany. They discussed what should be done to fix her problems and, if Marge didn’t follow their advice, seemed so offended, like she had strayed from an agreed-to plan. When she had been married, sometimes family gatherings had been held at her house. Not anymore. Now, Tod and Kathy and Laura and her husband rotated hosting dinners and reunions, something they did because they thought it made life easier on Marge. But Mr. Peterson knew differently. He understood what it felt like to have that responsibility taken away. For a long time he had been the patriarch of the family until family dinners had been moved to Tod and Kathy’s because everyone thought it was too much work for him and Meryl. And along with taking over host responsibilities, Tod had taken over the seat at the head of the table—a fact that Marge brought up when Kathy called the family to the table and Tod pulled out the chair to sit down.
“Kathy,” she said, within Mr. Peterson’s earshot, though he wasn’t sure whether that was intentional or not. “Don’t you think maybe Dad should sit at the head of the table?”
Kathy brushed aside that concern, reasoning, “That chair doesn’t have armrests. We’re going to put him at that chair in the middle of the table, so he can push against the armrests when he needs to get up.”
And, a few seconds later, Jeremy went into the kitchen to walk with Mr. Peterson to the dining room and helped him into the chair in the middle of the table. Mr. Peterson didn’t hear whether or not Marge protested any more on his behalf.
Scolding again—hadn’t that always been his job? Further down the table he could hear Marge scolding Bethany.
“Why didn’t you take any cauliflower?”
“I hate cauliflower, Mom,” Bethany answered.
“No you don’t,” Marge was insisting. “It’s your favorite.”
“Broccoli’s my favorite.”
“Well, you need some more vegetables on your plate.”
And at his end of the table, it was Kathy doing the scolding.
“Dad, you know you’re not supposed to eat that. You’re watching your cholesterol.”
Mr. Peterson wished Kathy would just come out and say what she really wanted to say. She should tell him he’s old and he can’t do what he likes anymore and he has to listen to her now because she knows best. And he should say he’ll do what he likes and she would understand that there was more to life than preserving your body, never going too far or too fast so you never stumbled, never fell and broke a hip, stayed in good health while bits of the life you loved dropped away. But all he said was “pass the potatoes,” and she did.
“Grandpa didn’t say please,” one of the grandkids, Andrew, no, Thomas, protested.
If Mr. Peterson wanted potatoes, he’d damn well get them no matter how he asked. He’d eat what he liked. Mr. Peterson took a slopping forkful of potatoes that filled his mouth with garlic. Kathy had used his mother’s recipe. He knew that mix of flavors, he remembered the bright orange bowl his mother had molded herself at a pottery class and placed those potatoes in each Thanksgiving. But Kathy made the recipe even better than his mother had. He didn’t tell her that, but he did say, after he swallowed, “Thank you.”
Everyone, or at least it felt like everyone, had urged Mr. Peterson and his wife to stay, but he could see the look in Meryl’s eyes when Kathy offered them the guest bedroom. She wanted to be home. An apartment, now, not the house they’d always lived in, but it had the afghan Meryl had crocheted over 20 years ago lying across the same creaking bed in which they’d always slept, and so it was home. And they couldn’t stay even if they’d wanted to. Mr. Peterson had promised an elderly neighbor whose husband had died earlier that year that he’d change the light bulb in her kitchen. She wasn’t steady enough on her feet to do it herself and had confided this problem first to Meryl, who’d passed it on to Mr. Peterson. Their neighbor needed his help so he had to return home.
Kathy took his coat out of the closet and helped him into it, the empty armholes livening as he slipped his limbs into them. Mr. Peterson helped Meryl into her coat, letting her lean on him when she had to take her hands off the walker. They walked down the driveway towards the car and Mr. Peterson opened the passenger door while Meryl got in.
“I’ll drive on the way home, so you can nap,” he explained.
“I like to drive.”
Mr. Peterson sighed. “I know, but you can’t do all the things you used to, Meryl.”
She nodded, which surprised Mr. Peterson. He’d expected more of a fight out of her.
“Lots of leaves,” Meryl commented as Mr. Peterson started the car.
“What did you say?” The noise of the engine had rumbled over her words. Mr. Peterson watched Kathy, Laura and Marge, who were all looking out at him and Meryl from the front door. Laura waved and Kathy and Marge blew kisses as he backed out of the driveway.
“I said lots of leaves. Don’t you usually rake them?”
“Not this year.”
“Oh,” Meryl said, understanding, he thought, though he couldn’t be sure, that he no longer raked leaves the same as she no longer drove the car home.
Mr. Peterson turned on the radio, started to whistle to a song he recognized but whose name he couldn’t think of. He put his right hand on Meryl’s thigh, merging onto the highway with only one hand on the wheel. He’d warned his children about driving like this, one-handed, in fall when wet leaves, which could so easily send car tires spinning, were stuck to the ground. But his children were not here, now, to witness his disobedience.
Meet the Author | Lisa Apple
Readers of “Disobedience” have been struck by the fact “that I was able to put myself in the shoes of someone who is aging,” says Apple, the 22-year-old winner of Drew’s 2009 Christopher Goin C’78 Memorial Prize in Writing. A philosophy major from Oreland, Pa., Apple plans to keep writing no matter what profession she chooses. That’s an excellent thing in the eyes of her thesis adviser, Assistant Professor of English Tiphanie Yanique: “She ranks at the top of any fiction students I’ve had anywhere.” Apple, now a Teach for America corps member in Washington, D.C., also won Drew’s 2009 Academy of American Poets University and College Poetry Prize.