Careful Habits

By Sarah Sorensen

Under the thick summer sun, the sunburnt boy looked like a flame. He didn’t know that the cops were coming to talk to him; the grandmother hadn’t mentioned it. Anne watched him now as he was setting up her lawn sprinklers, heard him cursing every time that he got wet. The cursing made her wince, although she often used the same words. Jaron’s lip curled and he spat as he dragged the still spraying piece further from the house. Did some part of him know that they were coming? She hoped that he would still be outside when the cops showed up. It would give her time to adjust, to not have to call him in a voice thick with fake surprise. She wondered if he knew that she was watching him out of the window, that she was only playing at doing the dishes in the sink to give her an excuse to spy.

The cops had assured her that it would just be a simple chat, but Anne was well into her adulthood and she knew that they were unlikely to give her much information. They wanted her compliant and a little dumb. It was how authority worked. She was a grandmother and she knew.

Anne had enjoyed that kind of power over Jaron a few years ago, before puberty. Then, all of his thoughts and motives had been simple. She had felt closer to him when he was small because she was brighter than he was and could easily decipher his actions, though he had never been particularly verbal. An elaborate compliment in hopes of receiving ice cream was about as sophisticated a ruse as he was capable of plotting back then.

She smiled at the memory of him dropping an ice cream cone on a sand dune. Back then, he was chubby and she had driven him a few hours north to Sleeping Bear Dunes in hopes that the exercise would do him good. The boy had complained for the entire ride and she had given him a long talk about appropriate behavior. When they arrived, he took the natural splendor for granted and begged for ice cream the second that they saw a stand near the park. She bought it with the insistence that they walk while he ate. She knew he was clumsy and that he would drop it, losing all of those precious worthless calories. She knew that it would make him angry, but she also knew that he would run up and down the dunes afterward, exhausting himself. His small, stubborn mind was predictable.

She could still vividly recall Jaron’s eyebrowless face pinching up as the cone fell from his sticky fingers, landing a slick ball of Rainbow Scoop directly into hot sand. His squinting eyes had struggled not to cry. She pat the top of his close-cropped hair.

“Wait until you see the lake,” she had said. “Keep walking.”

He’d rubbed at his eyes with the backs of his hands. His small hands were curled into fists that still looked babyish, soft. A small ridge of fat shown in a gap between his t-shirt and swim trunks. He wasn’t talking because he was pouting.

When they got to the water, she had taken her beach towel out of the tote bag, set the thermos of water in a corner to help weight it against the breeze and pulled out a romance novel. She’d instructed him to go and play. She had watched him now and again, cheering for more antics while she read a novel about cowboys with terrible pasts and good hearts. She would glance up and shout, “you are the fastest boy on the whole beach!”

He wasn’t. He was, however, gullible. Jaron ran himself up and down the smaller inclines, never really reaching the top. He would occasionally reach her beach towel, panting. She would hand him the thermos of water and wait for him to drink from it, wiping the lip afterward. Then she would clap her hands, begging for more. She acted as though he was an Olympian and she was star struck. Even at this age, she had thought, male vanity is an easy thing to manipulate. She had polished off the novel and drank the shot of tequila that she’d hidden at the bottom of the tote.

“Let’s go home,” she said and a sweaty Jaron had agreed.

He slept the entire ride back and she’d been satisfied. She’d put on the Blue Lake Public Radio and listened to classical music. Once or twice she’d heard him murmur, but only vaguely. His fingers still looked red and blue in spots, as did the sides of his mouth. She couldn’t help the way that it disgusted her. She was trying to love him. Maybe this is how love always was for everybody, just a series of repeated attempts at a dutiful feeling. She had watched the road, careful for deer.

Did she love him now, this teenager?

Jaron was adjusting the height of the water coming out of the sprinkler. She could see the changing heights of the beads, but the boy was out of sight, adjusting the faucet on the side of the house. He was different now. He was shirtless and lanky and, though he was still only a boy, she recognized in him the signs of manhood. He had the deep voiced, tall awkwardness of something from her own youth, her teenage years of new interests. She saw how the neighbor girls whispered every time that they passed her home. It reminded her of the ways in which she and her friends had behaved when they started developing crushes that were less sweet, more sexual.

An uncomfortable memory surfaced of her own self, pulling down her panties into front of a boy working on his father’s car. She remembered how wet she had felt when she saw him shyly cover his erection, blushing and looking away. She hadn’t done anything because he was shy. She knew another boy wouldn’t be. It wasn’t really about any specific boy. It was about hormones and desires.

She didn’t like thinking about any of that now that Jaron was at that age. Jaron never seemed to have a girlfriend, but she had found a ponytail holder in his dirty laundry once and thrown it promptly away. She had watched a number of displeasing reality programs on television in which women her age were forced to house and care for infants because their grandchildren were careless. She lived with him, but she no longer knew him. Perhaps amongst friends he was livelier, more animated.

She had worried then about normal experimentation, now her worries were different, darker.

He had been respectfully distant while she held her book group in the den or as she made a dinner that he would only eat when it was leftovers. He didn’t sass her or belittle her, but he also did not engage. He arrived, occupied a room, and offered nothing in conversation. She had tried to broach topics like school, friends, sports, or clubs. He was so taciturn that she gave up, limiting speech to pragmatics. “Jaron, please mow the lawn this weekend.” “Jaron, do not forget to pick up the flowers for your mother’s grave.” His answer was always, “yes, ma’am.” Then, the chore would be satisfactorily completed.

When Tess died, she thought that the loss of her daughter might be somewhat offset by the youthful vigor of her child’s boy. It was true that he hadn’t visited much past the age of 11, but she held those times dear. It was easier to do with the benefit of nostalgia. She remembered painted hand turkeys showing up with misspelled versions of “I love you, Grandmother” splashed in orange paint across the top. She remembered his tummy ache after she had allowed him two hotdogs on the fourth of July. When he would become too annoying or disagreeable, Tess would announce that he must be tired and he would be packed up into the backseat beside a sealed container of potato salad, ham, etc. Tess did the hard work.

Now, it sort of felt like it was not only her daughter that was gone, but Jaron too. Nobody really talked to her about her grief or all of this new responsibility. People weren’t supposed to rub someone’s nose in the unpleasantness of life, so her friends were largely silent on these topics. When her book group had come over last month, she had tried to broach the subject.

“My grandson Jaron is living here now, you now,” she had said.

There were a series of polite nods while she poured everyone teacups of Earl Grey. Ladies were sprinkling sugar and cream into the cups and stirring, looking down.

“I wonder if I ought to be concerned about him. You know, after Tess passing and all. Do you think he might benefit from counseling?”

“How are his grades,” Nancy had asked. Nancy was a former schoolteacher and she often reminded her friends that she had once been very important. She was pulling at a thread on the corner of her sweatshirt, with a look of concern. “I think grades tell a lot about the health of the boy. Do you have scissors, Anne?”

“His grades are fine and he is active in soccer. But, he is just so…I don’t know. He is so distant. I don’t really know much about his life. It is hard for us to have a conversation.”

“Let him be,” Margery had said. “He is a teen boy. Of course he is going to be silent andmoody. Half the time Dan is still silent and moody.”

Dan was Margery’s husband of twenty-five years. He was about to retire and Margery kept asking him to give it and extra year or two, “for the budget.”

“Did anyone bring the really good cheese from last week,” Gail had begun asking, “Where is that? Can we bring that out?”

Anne had gotten up to get the scissors from her desk drawer and was handing them to Nancy.

“I don’t know,” Laura had said. “But I think we are out of crackers. Was this all of them, Anne?”

“And the cheese?” Gail had persisted.

The grandmother had scrambled to assemble satisfactory snacks. She was peeved. There were sugar granules all over her coffee table and Nancy and Marge had started a side conversation about how to wash drapes effectively without causing snags or frays.

“Yes,” the grandmother had answered. “I suppose that was all of the crackers. There is no other cheese. Maybe we should just start discussing the book.”

She wondered why she had bothered to seek counsel from these women in the first place. They were supposed to be reading The Kite Runner, but nobody seemed interested in having a discussion about it. The few faulty attempts to address the book had all been plot-related comments about the first seventy-five pages. The grandmother had made it to page one hundred and twelve. She also reassured herself that the Havarti that she had so meticulously cubed wasgood cheese. She did not bring up Jaron to them again.

Had they known something, suspected? Were they dodging it? No, Anne concluded. That was before.

It was the woman who styled the grandmother’s hair that had told her about the rumors. The grandmother had mentioned to Lindsay that she was somewhat flummoxed by her new living companion.

“I realize that by the boy’s standards I must certainly seem old, but really at 60 years of age I am not an unrelatable fossil,” the grandmother said as Lindsay shampooed her hair. “I have seen most of the Batman movies and read Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Plus, I don’t do any of the typical old lady stuff—no quilting bee, no adjustable bed, nothing filled with any potpourri around the house. Why does it all have to be so challenging?”

Lindsay started rinsing the grandmother’s hair. Her fingernails scratched into the grandmother’s scalp and she hoped Lindsay would take her time.

“I have a teenaged boy. Goes to Wester? He will be a junior come fall. Boys of that age can be tough to manage. Do you use much conditioner?”

“Wester is where Jaron attends too! He will be a sophomore in the fall. Jaron Foy. Tall boy with short blond hair?”

Lindsey was lathering a small amount of conditioner into her hair, a soothing eucalyptus scent.

“Oh. Jaron Foy is your grandson?”

The pause was so long and uncomfortable that the grandmother felt desperate to break it. Her hair was being rinsed again and then Lindsay had begun wrapping the grandmother’s hair in a large soft towel.

“Yes,” she said, unsure of anything else to say. “He’s my grandson.” Anne was being escorted to a chair in front of a long mirror and cabinet. There were combs immersed in bright blue liquid, oversized bottles of products, and different shapes of scissors.

“Well, sure,” Lindsay said, regaining her composure. “It would be hard to be close to a boy like that. I mean, any teenage boy is difficult, but you’ve really got to be concerned about him.”

The grandmother had assumed that the comment referred to Jaron losing his mother.

“Losing my daughter, Tess, was very hard on all of us.”

Still, when she expressed that she was certain that the boy must suffer the loss, Lindsay seemed confused.

“I’m so sorry, Anne. I guess that I didn’t realize that Jaron had lost his mother. That must be terrible for both of you.”

The grandmother had stared at herself in the mirror as Lindsay snipped away tiny bits of hair. If Lindsay hadn’t been talking about Tess, what did she mean? The grandmother had wondered, but now it was more awkward to ask. Lindsay was combing up strands of hair and cutting straight lines across her uneven ends.

They were silent while the blow dryer fluffed the grandmother’s bob. When Lindsay began smoothing down a couple of flyaways, the grandmother tried again.

“What do you know about Jaron? What are the other children saying about him?”

Anne had not meet her own eyes in the mirror before her, only stared down at the black, water-resistant cloak that was Velcro-ed around her neck. Her hands were clasped in her lap, trying to keep them from shaking.

“Oh, sweetheart. You mean you don’t know?”

The grandmother lifted her gaze to Lindsay, who stopped hairspraying and sighed.

“Please,” the grandmother said. “Tell me.”

“Anne,” Lindsay said. She rested her palms on the grandmother’s shoulders, her orange nails bright against the absurd cloak. “There have been some rumors. About Jaron. You know that little girl that turned up missing? Darcy Kemp? The cops might want to talk to Jaron. About it. They think he knows something, did something, I don’t know.”

The grandmother was shaking her head. Darcy was a neighbor girl just a few streets over from the grandmother’s house. She walked a spaniel with very long ears past the grandmother’s home every day, but she had not seen her for a few days. The grandmother had figured the child was under the weather, or maybe the family had taken a vacation. Darcy was an easy child. She smiled a lot and didn’t ask for favors. Sometimes, if the grandmother was outside, she would tell Darcy what a nice dog it the child had and she’d bring out a chunk of hardboiled egg for it. Luther. The grandmother thought that she remembered that the dog’s name was Luther, maybe Arthur.

Lindsay was still talking, but a kind of tinnitus had set in. She couldn’t hear Lindsay’s words above the roar. It just couldn’t be true. “Oh, sweetheart. Oh, sweetheart.” The words floated through vaguely, mingling with the sounds of dryers and side chatter. Mostly, she heard the ringing inside of her own mind.

Then Anne was crying and all of the other ladies in the salon had been looking at her. She had been able to hear everything then, particularly her own sobs. She cried harder hoping someone would hold her and feel sorry for her.

Lindsay had not charged her for the haircut. When she had gotten home, she had went straight to bed.

“I have a sick migraine,” she had said to Jaron’s open door.

There had been no answer.

The back door rattled and Jaron moved quietly and efficiently through the house. She could hear him washing his hands in the bathroom. Perhaps they were dirty from working outside. He was a fastidious boy in many ways. So careful to clean up. Did a boy like that do a thing like this? And if he did, what had he done with her, to her? Darcy Kemp, with the long black pigtails and blacker eyes.

“My dog is older than me, but only in dog years,” Darcy had said.

She had looked sort of young to walk the dog alone, but he was a small dog and minded well. She had called in to Jaron and asked him to bring her out a popsicle that day. What day was it? A week or so ago? He had done as he was asked. She scanned the moment now. Anne could not remember what the boy had said, if anything.

Anne heard a knock on the door now. She knew who it was and what they wanted.

“Jaron,” she said.

“Please answer the door.”

He walked toward it and stopped, reading her face. His mouth was still, but something hard sat in his eyes.

“Please, Jaron,” Anne said. “I think you should.”

Anne closed her eyes and saw the long black pigtails, the open smile, the black eyes, so dark, like an open pupil.


Next Page