Martin Saint Francis, five foot three, a hundred and eighty-three
pounds, head bookkeeper at North of the Notch Insurance
Agency, admirer of the science fiction of Ray Bradbury and
the jazz ballads of Sarah Vaughan, was lying on the braided
rug in his living room with a package of raspberry fingers,
studying a page of Asimov's The Robots of Dawn, when
he heard his mother's voice on the answering machine.
"Oliver, are you there?"
she began. "This
is your mother. Oliver? Okay. So this is just a reminder. Maggie and I are leaving tomorrow morning for Manchester.
We're flying out at noon, and we sail out of Miami
the next morning. The cruise lasts two weeks. I'm just calling to remind you to check the house. Bring in the mail and all that jazz. Also, those kids have been hanging around
your father's woods again.
I wish you'd have a word with them. You don't have to do anything fancy--just tell them I said
they needed to get.
I'm leaving numbers here where you can reach me,
but I don't expect you'll need to."
Oliver shook his head sadly,
groaned and struggled to his feet, carrying the raspberry
fingers and the Asimov across the room to the sofa and gingerly
lowering himself into it.
When his mind finally cleared of visions of his mother,
all sixty-nine years and ninety-four pounds of her, in her
lime-green pant suit, stalking a swing-dance partner aboard
the cruise ship Maria Rosa, he closed his book, took
off his glasses and began to figure up the hours to the
next afternoon, when the plane went into the air and he
would be free of her for two whole weeks.
He was thirty-seven years
old, but part of him still dreamt of rebellion, at least
of finding a way to retrieve the time he had already given
her: pealing apples for her tart, crunchy pies and cobblers,
helping her with her crocheting on long winter nights after
he got home from work.
A picture of the two of them hung on the wall over
his television--identical fake smiles, two red oval faces
with wet blue eyes behind tiny silver spectacles.
There had been something comforting about her then,
right after his father died, so many things that, almost
without realizing, he had come to love: her scent, like
a dusting of nutmeg, left by the dozens of desserts she
baked for him, crisps, cobblers, cakes and crumbles; the
circle of yellow light her reading lamp made on the sofa
at night, and the flicker of the television across the room;
the vodka cranberries she mixed on Friday nights and special
occasions, placing the heavy glasses on the coffee table
in front of them as if she had just struck gold: even her
wiry body's warmth as he sat beside her, and she put her
arms around him. He
was the only one she had to lean on, after his father was
gone, and he had even loved that.
"You're my little
sausage man, Ollie.
That's what you'll always be to me." It seemed
he'd been listening to these words since he was old enough
to understand them.
At first they'd made him feel special: he remembered
squirming in his father's arms, at the age of four or five,
delighted with this image of himself--cute, chubby and hopelessly
he got older, though, he became aware of certain emotional
hurdles he perhaps should have already cleared, typical
teen trials and trouble spots--lost fist fights, drunken
drives home from illicit, reckless parties--that he had
no idea how to get himself into.
By the time he was in his twenties, there seemed
an invisible barrier between the world he lived in, home,
office, library, bank, grocery store, and the other world
he felt he'd never be part of, the ski slopes, beaches,
pool sides and house parties where a single invitation might
tumble him at last into the arms of an understanding girl.
Oliver couldn't imagine
his father--lawyer, community leader, outdoorsman--letting
things go on the way they had.
But now that he was gone, there was no one to turn
to except his mother. Oliver hoped it would make her happy to see him now that he
was finally on his own, a fat man lying on the sofa on Friday
nights, after drinking a row of vodka cranberries and wolfing
down an entire frozen banana cream pie, bloated and bewildered
and utterly unable to begin his own life.
He sighed, reached for
his glass and looked away from the picture. That night he slept beautifully, and woke up the next morning,
Saturday, with a song in his heart. It was seven--she was on the road. At twelve, when the plane was scheduled to take off, he had
lunch, a thick bologna and cheese sandwich with six or seven
pickles, and poured himself a drink to celebrate.
At two, a little flushed from the alcohol, he drove
out to his mother's house to see what he could do about
Her house was on the North
Prescott Road, about three miles out of town. It was white with green trim, with a screened-in porch that
wrapped around one side, and a garage topped with an old
CB antenna, bent and twisted by the wind that blew across
the highway from Muncie's Reservoir a few hundred yards
away. As soon
as he pulled into the driveway he saw them, three or four
figures standing in the wooded area behind the house, and
the courage the drink had given him vanished.
His mother had been complaining
about the kids off and on now for months. Though at least a couple of them were the grandchildren of
the frank, friendly old couple who owned the small dairy
farm down the road, they reminded Oliver's mother of the
kids she'd read about in the papers, the ones whose idea
of fun was to go into a cemetery at three in the morning
with hammers and chisels and a half-dozen cans of spray
"They're just customers,
think of them as customers," he told himself as he went around the house.
"They're customers who're behind on their
premiums, and they need to pay up." He crossed the yard, past the wooden raccoons,
elves in sunglasses and mischievous little boys in blue
knickers that ornamented the lawn--figures his father had
spent Saturday mornings in his workshop making, with a jigsaw,
patterns, paints, finishing one a week and bringing it down
to Oliver's mother with a shy smile--and continued around
the garden, coming at last to the wooded half-acre where
his father and uncle used to target shoot with their twenty-twos
and twelve gauges.
The kids were in a clearing
halfway out. They
hadn't seen him yet.
There were two boys with fluorescent hair, green
and orange, and two girls with blue eye shadow and their
long hair dyed jet black.
Everyone was dressed in baggy jeans, the boys in
t-shirts, smoking cigarettes, the girls in tank-tops, drawing
in the dirt with their sneakers.
He cleared his throat as
he approached them, tried to catch his breath, checked quickly
to see if his fly was up.
"Hello there!" he called out.
"I'm Mister Saint Francis.
My mother has asked that you all find somewhere else
replied the one with orange hair.
He was even shorter than Oliver, scarcely five feet
tall, and his face was covered with acne that reminded Oliver
of pimento loaf.
"This is my grandfather's
property," the boy with the green crew cut said.
He was tall, confident and good-looking.
Both he and the one with the orange hair had dropped
their cigarettes and stepped on them as soon as they heard
Oliver's voice. "You know Bert Clough?"
"Actually, their land
ends at that stake over there.
The one with the red ribbon around it."
"We see it, we know
all about it," the taller of the two girls said. The lettering on her tank top simply said, "OZZY." "Darrin's just like being an idiot."
"Shut up," Darrin
said Orange Hair.
pipe down," said the other girl.
She had strikingly beautiful eyes, like Elizabeth
Taylor's in National Velvet. Her tank top had three horizontal stripes--Navy,
lime green, Navy--and the word "Juicy" where a
breast pocket might've been.
"You're all idiots."
"That's my sister,"
"Everything on this
side of the stake belongs to my mother," Oliver interrupted,
dabbing at his forehead with his sleeve and pushing his
glasses back on his nose. "And for insurance reasons, she'd
like you to please stay away.
If any of you kids were to get hurt out here--"
"Okay, okay, that's
cool," Darrin said.
"We just like it because our grandparents can't
see us when we're out this far. They don't like us smoking. But we don't mean to piss off, like, your
mom, or whoever.
We'll go somewhere else."
Oliver said. "We
would appreciate it."
"Goodbye, Mister Saint
Francis," Madeline called back over her shoulder, with
a sudden warm, sly smile that he might've called flirtatious,
if he'd been sure he knew what flirtatious looked like.
"Hasta la vista, Senor."
Oliver, smiling back, with half a wave, picking up the cigarette
butts when the kids were out of sight, thinking to himself
as he walked back to the house that his mother would have
That Monday, they broke
into his car.
The sales staff was at
a conference in Nashua for the day.
Oliver had just returned from lunch, a corned beef
sandwich and a can of tomato juice in the upstairs lounge,
and was settling down at his desk to get back to the May
sales reports, when Robin Putnam, one of the part-time secretaries,
called to him from the record room in back.
"Oliver! There's someone in your car! Are two girls supposed to be in your car?
You better get out there!"
He kicked back his chair, barreled down the hall
and around a partition to the record room, where Robin stood,
looking out the window.
Outside was his Escort, with its hatchback open,
and two girls scrambling over the back seat.
Oliver burst out of the
room and down the short hallway through the back door, trotted
through the small executive spaces to the back parking lot,
where his car was parked beside Robin's Mazda.
Standing there now were two completely different
kids, a girl in a blue and red striped shirt, with her arms
folded, a ponytail flipped over her shoulder, and a boy
in a baseball cap, holding a yellow Frisbee.
"Get away from
that car!" he yelled when he got close, keenly
aware of the thunderous sound of his shoes pounding on the
pavement, the layers of flab swaying around his waist as
his tie flapped foolishly around his neck.
"What?" the girl
"Get away from that
"What are you talking
"Did you see two girls
going through this green car here?"
"My god. My god!" He trailed off, let the two kids continue
on their way, then went around to close and lock the hatchback. When he was done he got in the driver's
side to see what they had taken.
Nothing seemed missing except some loose change he
kept in the cup holders.
But they had left something behind.
On the passenger's seat was a folded piece of notebook
paper with a message written in green ink.
"Hasta la vista, Senor."
Oliver locked the doors, checked the hatch again,
then trudged back up the hill to the Agency, crumpling the
piece of paper and shoving it in his pocket. Inside, Robin was still holding a file
folder in her hand.
"They ran as soon as you went out.
Do you want me to call the cops?
I think we should call the cops."
"No." Oliver ran his hand through his hair.
"No, no. I know who it is."
"You do?" She spit her gum into her hand and threw
it at the garbage.
Oliver watched it hit and cling, a c-shaped pink
wad, to the inside of the can.
"They didn't take anything anyway."
"Just some loose change, I think."
He decided not to mention the note; he didn't have
the energy to explain it. "I know who it is," he said
again. "I'll just have to deal with it myself."
When he got home that night
he took out the note, flattening and smoothing it on the
kitchen table, taking time to study the girlishly looping
letters. "Hasta la vista, Senor."
It had to've come from Madeline, the one with the
Elizabeth Taylor eyes.
His mother's voice interrupted when he tried to picture
bound to happen someday, Oliver, I know it. Some girl will bat her eyelashes at you,
and in no time at all you'll be head over heels." Of course that was something she'd said twenty
years ago, when Oliver was Madeline's age, and if anything,
what Oliver should've been thinking about now was Madeline's
mother, or at least someone her age, who in his imagination
would be funny and course and bold enough to anticipate
the moves he should've been making himself but didn't know
That night he dreamt of
Madeline, only she was also partially a girl he'd known
in school, Elise Miller, short, full-lipped and sweetly
curvaceous, without Madeline's nerve or "Juicy"
shirt, her breath coming in soft puffs of Lifesaver wintergreen. In the dream he sat with her on his boyhood
bed and read her Ray Bradbury--The October Country,
A Medicine for Melancholy, The Machineries of
Joy, the vivid fantastic stories about the dwarf, and M. Munigant,
the bone specialist, and Tom Fortnum, who grew mushrooms
in his cellar--and when he was finished he held her in his
arms, until she became, just before the dream melted into
music from the radio alarm, his childhood teddy Ta-ta, with
two loosely flopping button eyes and a frayed ear. When he was fully awake and struggling
to find his slippers, he remembered something else his mother
had told him not long ago.
"Someday you'll love someone else as much
as I love you."
he wondered why she didn't understand yet that no one would
be able to get that close to him until she got out of the
The sales staff--the Tiltons,
father and son co-owners, plus John Cook and Pepper Dodge--had
a good laugh at his expense the next day, taking turns telling
embroidered versions of the story, until by the end of the
day they had him waylaying the bad guys by smacking them
over the head with his Quicken manual. The Tiltons got an especially vivid charge out of it. Toward the end of the day, Tilton the
elder came over to Oliver's desk with glistening lips, as
if he'd just eaten a butter sandwich.
"Take a break for Christ's sake, Oliver, and
talk to me."
He put his hand--it was more like a claw, hard and
bony, like the rest of him--on Oliver's shoulder.
"How are you?
How's your life? How's your mother's vacation? Have you heard from her?" He was close enough that Oliver could
smell the liver and onions he always had for lunch.
Oliver turned, flashed him a thin smile that meant,
"I wish you were dead," and replied, "Just
let me finish this section."
But by the time he had, it was six-thirty, and no
one was left but Tilton's son Brad, smoking a cigarette
with his shirt unbuttoned and his ankles crossed on his
desk, whispering sweet nothings to his girlfriend on line
four while his wife was on hold on line two.
The rest of the two weeks
passed quickly once Oliver established his routine. After work he drove out to his mother's
house, checked the outside for signs of a break-in and brought
in the mail. On Thursday he stole his first drink from
the liquor cabinet: Coke and Bacardi. He drank it out of a coffee mug decorated with jellyfish and
dolphins, and it was so delicious that he poured himself
another when it was gone.
He had something to drink every night after that. Vodka cranberries Friday and Saturday, to satisfy tradition;
a shot of straight whiskey on Sunday, back to Bacardi to
begin the workweek.
Wednesday night, the Clough bunch was back at his
mother's place. He saw their cigarettes burning in the woods from the kitchen
couldn't hear voices, but imagined he could: joking, taunting,
sharp and sarcastic, rising to a shrillness they hoped he
would hear. "Come
on out, Saint Francis," he imagined them saying. "We see your car, we see the light
in the window. We
dare you to show your face.
His face burned as he watched
the window, hunched over a serving of the enormous peach
cobbler his mother had left him.
He didn't dare confront them in the dark, but this
was what the situation called for.
His mother would be home in a couple of days; something
needed to be done.
Turning off the kitchen
light, he sneaked out onto the porch and ducked behind the
porch swing to listen.
He had the notion that if he stayed out there long
enough, his resolve would harden, and he could stride decisively
into their midst, like a hero into a villain's lair, and
send them all back home with nothing more than an authoritative
air and a few brisk commands.
Perhaps he'd even take Madeline and the other girl
aside and explain a few things to them about maturity and
responsibility, with one hand on each of their shoulders
as he spoke, his words gentle, considered and calm.
He gripped the arm of the
porch swing with one hand and pushed his glasses back on
his nose with the other.
There wasn't much to hear: cedar branches brushing
against the porch screen, the murmuring of voices, an occasional
exclamation or loud snort of laughter that made him start. With a shudder he realized he had locked
the door behind him, then remembered the keys were still
in his pocket.
Something exploded across
the road, like a gunshot, and footsteps echoed along the
highway. "Who is it?" Oliver heard
himself cry. He
jumped up to investigate just as someone disappeared into
the Clough's pasture across the road.
"Stinking kids!" He swung open the screen door and stepped
heavily off the porch, his anger giving him courage, and
crossed the road to pick up his mother's mailbox, split
down the seams, in pieces beside the highway.
He knelt on the edge of
the pavement, breathing heavily, muttering to himself, careful
not to cut his fingers on the mailbox's sharp metal edges. "I can't believe this, Jesus I can't believe it, my god,
she'll want to kill them." He
barely heard the words that tumbled out of his mouth. "God damn it. Why
can't they leave us alone?
Why can't they leave us alone?"
He carried the mailbox
pieces to the house and set them on the porch, switching
on the outside light as he walked back down the steps into
the yard, where he could now see that the raccoons and rabbits
and mischievous wooden elves were all missing heads or arms
or torsos, cut or broken off somehow and scattered across
the lawn. He shuffled over and picked up a raccoon
tail from the dewy grass; he was blinking back tears, picking
up more splintered pieces, when he heard a voice near the
"Mister St. Francis?" It was a girl's voice. Madeline and Darrin were standing by the
road, watching him.
They stepped onto the lawn.
"Is anything wrong?"
Madeline was first to approach him.
She had her hair pulled back, and looked at him with
a sad smile and moist inquisitive eyes.
Bits of his dream still clung to her, like a perfume;
he could almost feel her hand, or maybe sweet Elise Miller's,
reaching for his.
"Mister Saint Francis?
I heard the noise, I hope you're all right?"
He swung at her before he knew he was going to, but
she ducked back in plenty of time, and her brother stepped
forward and shoved him down, all so quickly it was like
one movement. Oliver
hit the ground tumbling, and bumped his head against a cedar
tree. For a moment he was dazed, and couldn't
seem to move or think straight.
At last he rolled over and righted himself with a
groan, just in time to see four of them walking calmly away
up the road.
"Forget about it, he won't say anything."
"Tried to hit her!"
"He was drunk, you could smell it.
He didn't know what he was doing."
"We ought to call the cops on him."
"Just forget about it."
When he'd fallen he'd dropped the pieces he'd collected. Now, after rising unsteadily, he began to gather them up again--an
elf's hat, a rabbit tail, an armless Yosemite Sam with a
lopsided smile--and he held the broken pieces and chipped
partial faces to his chest when he went back inside, crying
softly, to look for the numbers his mother had left him.
Boudreau lives, works and writes in northern New Hampshire. He is currently working on a collection
on short stories.