Willie Green I met in Group down in Seaside. He sat across from me in a camouflage rain poncho that rustled so loud during opening prayers that Victoria had to ask him to please take it off if he wouldn’t mind, and make himself comfortable.
“No problemo,” Willie said to her. “You got it,” and then he folded it up into a tight triangle shape that made me think he’d slept outside a lot.
In Circle, he introduced himself to everybody as “a forty-seven year-old dreamer in a world without dreams” when we went around with greetings, which made me totally embarrassed for him at first. Then we all had to go around the circle again and name a fantasy animal to describe ourselves. I looked at the carpet and said “eyelash viper” when it was my turn, and Willie said he was a South American tapir, which was okay, except after Victoria was finished with the exercise, he raised his hand and requested to change his animal.
“I’m sorry,” Victoria told him. “But I really want people to try and stick with whatever came into their heads first, just for an experiment in self-trust.”
Besides Pop and Didi and the kids, Victoria is just about the nicest person I have ever known. On the first night I came to Group holding on to Didi’s elbow, she came right up to us and pulled me into her arms without even stopping to think about it.
“We’ll take care of her, Mrs. Storms,” she said to Didi, squeezing me tight. “This tiny little thing.”
“We’re very concerned about our granddaughter-in-law,” Didi said. “This is Lonnie Olivia.”
Then Victoria put a warm brown hand on each of my cheeks and stepped back so that she could take a look at me. I couldn’t meet her eyes at first, but she lifted my chin up even with hers.
“Lonnie Olivia,” she said, smiling down into my face as if it was a pleasure just to say my name. “Are you ready to forgive yourself, girl?”
The Coping-Forward Group meets in the basement of the Lamb of God Church on Tanana Street two blocks off the Boardwalk. It’s close enough to the beach that we can hear the ocean when the blowers are turned off, and sometimes in winter when the tide is up, the water sounds so close I imagine it tickling the foundations of the Lamb building or, in a bigger storm, slamming up against the double glass doors all black and frothy. Victoria always makes sure that new people understand we are non-denominational, but she is a Unitarian from Hartford, Connecticut. Sometimes we call ourselves the sheep and Victoria the shepherdess, but we don’t say those kinds of things to her face.
When we aren’t in these conference rooms, the Lamb needs them for Sunday school classes, so we have to use the mini-chairs that are for kids. I’m pretty small-boned myself, but all the men look like giants in the chairs, especially Robert Paradise, who is Hawaiian and weighs over three hundred pounds. Robert has to have Victoria bring in a special folding chair from home that she says belongs to her life partner, Yvonne, which always makes Pierre Aziz roll his eyes up into his head because he says people from his culture do not go in for those kind of sleeping arrangements.
During coffee break, Willie Green wandered around the edges of the room for a while, and then he came over to where I was sitting under the yarn God’s Eye altar and gave me a “Cheers” with his Styrofoam cup. Up close he smelled like Pop, all cigarettes and sweat, and there were stiff gray hairs poking out of his goatee.
“Nice animal, by the way,” he told me, and when our two cups brushed together, they kind of squeaked. “So,” he said, waving his hand around the room like he was showing it to me. “Lonnie, isn’t it?”
I told him it was.
“Thought so,” he said, and whenever he talked his face looked odd, I noticed, like somebody took an old man’s skin and stretched it over somebody who was still a lot younger underneath. There were deep crow’s feet around his eyes and long lines in the middle of each cheek where the dimples had set into the skin like scars left over from too much happiness. “I’m curious, Lonnie,” he said. “Where do you originate from?”
“Sorry, I need to go to the bathroom right now,” I said to Willie Green, even though it wasn’t true.
The rest of Group we had to go around the circle and tell the worst thing that ever happened to someone we loved because of our behavior. I opened my locket with Doc’s commencement picture inside it and held it up for everyone to see while I talked about what I did, and I noticed that the whole time I was speaking about black ice on the road at Arch Cape and the swerving roll I took there on my twenty-second birthday in Pop’s Lemans, Willie Green was staring at my ankles and knees, and the space on the carpet right in front of my boot tips.
“Anybody else have anything to add?” Victoria asked, after everybody took their turn except for Willie Green. “The floor’s open.”
“That means she wants you to talk, Dreamweaver,” Pierre Aziz shot out during the long silence before Victoria could shush him, but all Willie Green would admit was that he was more a victim of our government’s foreign policy than anything else.
After Group, Victoria gives some of us who don’t have cars a ride home in her orange Vanagon. Usually, it’s me, Robert Paradise, Pierre Aziz and Stan Schick whenever his girlfriend is out of town. Except that night, while we were waiting in the Lamb lobby for Victoria to go to the bathroom, Willie stayed there with us, pacing back and forth at the bottom of the stairs in front of the doors. Outside it was pouring, and stormdrops smacked the glass like plastic tacks.
Willie Green wasn’t saying anything, just looking out into the dark, empty parking lot like he was waiting for the weather to stop, but I could tell it was making Pierre Aziz very hyper him being there, because Pierre kept bending each of his fingers backward one at a time to pop his knuckles and the toothpick he had in his mouth was swishing back and forth like a cat’s tail. I knew he was trying to get me to look at him, but I pretended to be busy, flipping through the hanging copy of “In Jesus’ Palm” on the activity board until finally he came over and tried to grab my arm.
“Stroke off,” I said, but Pierre was already sliding down the banister to the landing.
“Hey, Kawasaki man,” he said in a loud voice aimed at the back of Willie Green’s head. “Thought I saw you come on a bike.”
Willie Green turned from the door and looked up at Pierre very calmly as if he was a regular person. “Don’t think I can get it started, buddy.”
“Well, Homes,” Pierre said. “Why don’t you let me try and look at it before we have to go?”
Willie smiled up at Robert Paradise and me. “Bike’s old,” he said, winking at us. “I don’t think so.”
“Well I do.” Pierre took the toothpick out of his mouth and pointed it down the stairs at Willie Green. “You don’t think I know bikes, Mr. Peppermint? I know fucking bikes.”
Willie Green held up his hands as if Pierre Aziz might be trying to mug him with a squirtgun. “Sure thing, Boss,” he said, trying to keep a straight face. “Let’s step outside.”
“You got it.” Pierre sauntered past Willie and kicked the doors open with his boot heel.
“After you,” he said, sticking his hand out into the rain.
Then, after the doors slammed shut, it was just me and Robert Paradise and the thick, wheezy sound of his breathing until Victoria came back from the bathroom wearing a new plummy-colored lipstick that I’d never seen on her before. I told her it looked pretty against her skin and she squeezed my arm twice for a thank you.
“Where’s Pierre, though?” she asked.
I opened my mouth to tell her, except Robert Paradise cut in and started chattering away about how he couldn’t believe that he, Robert Emmanuel Paradise, was actually in Group with somebody like Willie Green who was in V. Nam with his uncles and dad. While he was talking, Victoria switched her long purse strap from one arm to the other. She smiled and nodded at Robert Paradise through the whole thing in that extra patient way she has, because Robert had a head injury in grade school that makes him say and do weird things, like memorize all the names of the lakes from Washington to Alaska. Sometimes after group he’ll recite them if we ask him to, Oswego, Horseshoe, Round, Cowichan, and like that, except he goes ballistic whenever Pierre Aziz tells him to do rivers or creeks.
Victoria waited for Robert to finish every word before she tucked her palms around his and my elbows. “Let’s make a run for it, gang,” she said. “Our boy is around here somewhere.”
Outside, Willie and Pierre were standing next to the Vanagon in a pool of misty blue light from the streetlamp. Willie had the hood of his poncho up but Pierre didn’t have an umbrella or anything and his spiky black bangs were plastered to his head. The motorcycle was a few spaces away, leaning on its kickstand next to the Lamb of God Dumpster.
Victoria dead-bolted the entrance doors and linked elbows with Robert and me.
“Ok, you two,” she said. “Prepare to get soaked.”
“I can’t prepare,” Robert Paradise said, which made Victoria laugh and take a deep breath.
“Come on,” she said, pulling us into it, and as soon as we were out from under the awning, she gave a high girly scream. “Go,” she said. “Run,” and her acting a little crazy and alive like that made Robert start stomping on all the puddles flat-footed, trying to splash us on purpose.
“Get me, get me,” Victoria dared him. “Just try.”
At first the rain felt stinging cold, but as I ran, holding onto Victoria’s arm, it started to feel plush and warmer, so I closed my eyes and opened my mouth, letting it splot down on my tongue.
“Lift your faces to it,” Victoria said to us. “It’s beautiful. Go on,” and as I felt the drops reach down inside the collar of my jacket like grabbing fingers, I was so full of my good feelings for Victoria right then, that halfway across the Lamb parking lot, I jumped up on her back, whooping loud, and she gave me a piggy back ride the whole rest of the way. While I was up on her, with my arms and knees around her neck and waist, I forgot all about myself for a minute, forgot who or where I even was, and I pretended she was Doc carrying me, and as I pressed my face into the back of her beaded corn-row braids, her perfumey smell turned smoky, like his, and I could feel my whole body going away.
When we got over to the car, we were all out of breath and Robert Paradise’s T-shirt had climbed halfway up the soft overhang of his belly.
“Here we are,” Victoria sang out to Willie Green.
“Here you are,” he said, glancing up at me as I slid off down off Victoria’s back. “And I’ve got a little problem with my ride. Can I catch one from you?”
“Fine by me,” Victoria said, as she dug through her big purse for the keys.
Robert pulled his shirt down over his stomach and asked Willie did they find out what was wrong with the bike.
“Better check with your buddy,” Willie said, cocking his head at Pierre, but when Robert turned to ask him, Pierre was already holding up his middle finger at an angle out of Victoria’s sight.
When we ride with Victoria she has us rotate riding shotgun so nobody feels resentful or thinks there is favoritism. That week it was Pierre’s turn to sit in front, so I slid into the middle seat after Willie Green, and Robert Paradise scrunched into the way back. The windows were all fogged, so as soon as Robert Paradise got settled, he put his finger up to the glass and started in with his initials in cursive. R.E.P. P.E.R. PRE. Victoria has asked him before not to do it, but that night, while the engine was warming up, she turned on the overhead light instead, and got busy trying to find something she wanted from her purse.
“I’m sorry, you guys,” she said, “but if I lost this grocery list Yvonne is going to have a conniption.”
“Uh oh,” Pierre said, reaching over to turn on the heat full blast. “We don’t want that.”
“No,” Victoria said grimacing into her purse. “We don’t.”
In the way back, Robert Paradise drew hearts around his initials on the glass, and through the spirals and curves I could see the pointed spire on top of the Lamb of God, glowing like a yellow icicle.
In the middle seat, Willie Green’s poncho looked like a wrinkled lily pad between us. He didn’t look at me ever, but when the hot air made my teeth start to chatter, he reached over and covered my knees and thighs with it so that both our legs were under its green cocoon. His breathing was light and quiet, but sometimes, when he inhaled deeper, the air would catch for a second in the back of his throat and that jag made my heart speed up a little, thinking how I was sitting next to somebody who might have killed people on purpose in a war instead of just by accident like some of us, somebody who was only fifteen years younger than Pop.
“Oh, to hell,” Victoria said, after she emptied her whole purse and still couldn’t find the list. “We gotta get out of here.” She put the Vanagon in gear and looked into the rearview mirror at Willie. “We go Haystack, Nickel, Maynard and I end up in Tolovana Park. Where can I drop you?”
Willie looked into Victoria’s eyes in the mirror. “By the last one,” he said.
“Ecola Cottages actually. Staying with a friend.”
“You got it, Sir,” Victoria said, yanking the Vanagon into a tight U-turn. “Hold on.”
Instead of heading toward Pierre Aziz’ mother’s apartment house, Victoria sped us into the Mariner Market parking lot and pulled up next to the pay phone outside the doors.
“I need to call Yvonne for the shopping list,” she said. “It’ll just take me a minute to pick some things up.” She turned off the ignition, and the wipers died midwindshield. Pierre handed her the purse, and after she hopped out, she stuck her head back in the open door. “Anyone who wants to can come in,” she said. “But we’ve got to hustle.”
“That’s me,” Pierre said, lifting the collar of his jacket up over his head. He bolted out the passenger door and slid open the side of the Vanagon. “Let’s go, Paradise. You can front me some smokes.”
“Okay,” Robert said, and when he had both tennis shoes on the pavement, Pierre pulled Robert’s T-shirt down for him and lifted his belt buckle up to meet it. When they were done, they both looked in at me, waiting, and after a minute Pierre’s eyes darted to the poncho covering my legs.
“Come on, Lonnie,” he ordered, careful not to make eye contact with Willie Green. “She said hustle up. Let’s go.”
Except before I could follow, Willie Green slid his hand under my knee and cupped it there. He did it without disturbing the poncho either, so quiet and stealthy that I couldn’t move it or my leg without Pierre seeing.
“Come, Lonnie,” Robert Paradise said, but as soon as he spoke Willie Green’s fingers reached all the way around the top of my calf and squeezed so much warm blue electricity up my leg that the white window lights of the Mariner Market dribbled away, its butcher paper signs advertising thin spaghetti noodles and rib eye roast, and all I could imagine as I bit down on my tongue was Willie Greem in black soldier’s paint, crawling on his stomach in the night along the jungle ground.
“I’m waiting, I think,” I said to Pierre Aziz. “For Victoria.”
Pierre looked over at Victoria’s back hunched over the receiver, still talking to Yvonne, then turned back to me as if he couldn’t believe his ears. “Okay, wait for her then Lonnie, he said. “Whatever.” Then he crooked his elbow around Robert Paradise’s neck and led him away like a big bear before I could say anything else.
Out the side door of the Vanagon, I could see Victoria hang up the pay phone and head for the entrance to the Mariner Market. As she passed by, I peeked at Willie Green sideways, but he was staring straight ahead as if he wasn’t even sitting there next to me, as if his hand was not anywhere near my leg.
After Victoria disappeared from our sight, I counted to sixty, then looked down at Willie Green’s covered-up hand. “Ecola Cottages are nice,” I said, trying hard not to whisper. “They’re by where I live.”
“Yeah, I’ve seen you over there,” said Willie Green. “On Maynard Court. You’re in the house with the old people. The one with all the whirligigs and the flag.”
I looked over at him and Willie Green smiled.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I’m not spying. You’re on the front porch all the time. Watching those things spin.”
He rested his cheek against the cold window and the grip he had on my leg tightened.
“What do you call those handsome little kids of yours?”
“I don’t know if you know this,” I said, “but Victoria has a rule. Nobody in Coping-Forward can see each other or anything. If any people see each other and Victoria catches them-”
“Hey, guess what?” Willie Green said. “I want to show you something. Watch.” He closed his eyes and turned to me and his face looked serene right then, like my babies do when they are sleeping. “Do you know what I can see?” he asked. “I can see you, Lonnie. I’m seeing you now, and you know what you remind me of? Do you?” Willie Green didn’t wait for an answer. He kept smiling to himself, and the place on the back of my knee where his hands were felt like a throbbing burn. “A seashell is all,” he said. “Just a little seashell.”
“I think I’m going,” I said, yanking my leg away from the hand. “I’m going in with them right now.” I imagined at first, as I scooted across the seat, that he might stop me, he might reach out and grab my wrist or come up close and breathe on me, but Willie Green didn’t do any of that. He let me go.
I ran into the Mariner Market without looking back at the Vanagon, and burst through the electric doors, past the office plants and greeting card racks and straight to the Brach’s candy bins by the registers where I started filling little brown bags with candy corn and Neapolitan chews for the kids. I had five bags full before Victoria, Pierre and Robert came up behind me with the grocery cart.
“There you are,” Victoria said and when I whipped around, I dropped three of the bags and the colored candy fell all over the shiny floor around their feet like a broken piñata.
“Sorry,” I said to them.
Pierre looked down at the mess and shrugged. “De nada,” he said and the three of them cracked up.
Victoria paid for the groceries while Robert and I picked up the Brach’s. She carried her two shopping bags out to the Vanagon, one under each arm, and Pierre followed a few steps behind, carrying the twelve pound turkey that Yvonne wanted her to cook for the equinox.
When we got back to the Vanagon Victoria had it started up, lights on and wipers going. I let Robert climb in first, but when it was my turn to get in, Victoria and Pierre both stared at me before their eyes moved to the empty space on the middle seat.
“How about that, Lonnie?” said Pierre Aziz. “He’s gone.”
When I got home, Didi had set up Arnold John in his playpen next to Pop’s chair and Liddie and Jeanine were on the floor, playing speedway with Doc’s old matchbox cars.
“Here comes, Mamma,” Didi said, as soon as I came in, but neither of them came to me. Instead, Jeanine stood up and trundled over to Pop’s easy chair. She stood in front of him and held out a red corvette. Pop took off his glasses and squinted into Jeanine’s face. “Which one are you?” he asked.
“Jeanine,” I said, and Pop nodded. Without his glasses on, his eyes looked filmy and gray. He took the car out of Jeanine’s hand and held it up in front of her nose. “You’re a crazy kid,” he said. “You know that?”
“Look who’s home now, Father,” Didi said in a loud voice to Pop. Then she smiled up at me and asked me how was the meeting and how did I feel.
“It was nice,” I said. “I’m fine.” And then she followed me into the kitchen and helped me off with my jacket and sweater.
“Group could be canceled for a while, though,” I said. “Victoria has a problem.”
“Uh, oh,” Didi said, lowering herself down into the breakfast nook across from me. “What is it?”
“Something with her feet,” I said. “It could be serious.”
“Well, that’s a terrible worry,” Didi said, shaking her head. “Bless her heart.”
“I know,” I said, without looking over at her, and my tongue felt like it would swell halfway out of my mouth from all the lies.
In the living room, Pop hacked a few times, ugly and wet. He pressed the adjust button on his easy chair and the electric buzz of it sounded like a bee trapped in the curtains. “I’d like to get to those greyhounds tonight, Mother,” he said. “Sooner or later.”
It took forty five minutes to get everybody fed, and while Didi was giving the girls their bath, I called Victoria to tell her I was coming down with something and might have to miss next week.”
“You seemed fine earlier, Lonnie,” she said. “Are you sure?”
“Maybe,” I said, keeping my voice low, “except I’ve had walking pneumonia before,” and after I told her a list of symptoms, and she told me to get off the phone right away and go rest, I asked her something else.
“Victoria?” I said, and she said “Yes, Lonnie?” and I asked her what if I was ever to meet somebody who could want me out there. Somebody that I liked. “Not as much as Doc, though,” I said quickly, clarifying. “Never as much as I loved Doc.”
Victoria waited for me to go on. After a minute she switched ears, and I could hear her hair beads clicking against the receiver.
“But Doc is dead,” I said into the phone, because I knew that’s what she was thinking.
I was on a kitchen stool and I pressed my forehead against Didi’s cupboard. In the other room, I could see Arnold-John on his knees in the playpen, listening to my voice, staring at me through the white mesh.
“What if I met someone new, though?” I said, “and I was to ask them to go somewhere with me. Where do you think I should ask them to go?”
“Where is somewhere you’d like to go with them, Lonnie? she asked. “Let’s imagine some places together.”
“There’s nowhere for me to go anymore in this town,” I said. “Anywhere I’d go, I’m not supposed to be there.”
“What about the Boardwalk?”
I thought a minute. “But the Boardwalk is a mile long,” I said. “You mean just walk up and down on it with each other?”
“That’s exactly what I mean, Lonnie, she said.” For starters just go to the Boardwalk together and walk up and down.”
“But do you think I’m ready for something like that?” I whispered.
“Hang on a second, Lonnie,” she said, and just then I heard Yvonne’s voice in the background telling her something, and while I was sitting there waiting for Victoria to come back, I imagined her in her kitchen. I’d never seen it, but I was sure it smelled like her and was decorated all in her own taste and I could picture Yvonne there too, with her sleeves rolled up, pouring yellow macaroni into a big pot.
“I have to go now, Lonnie,” Victoria said coming back on the line. “I’m sorry. Yvonne and I are dealing with something. But I think a walk will be fine.”
“You do?” I said. “Can I ask you one more question?”
“I’m sorry,” I said, “but if someone calls you a shell, do you think it’s meant as a compliment? A seashell, I mean. From the beach.”
Victoria paused. “Lonnie,” she said, “I’m sorry too, but I really have to put the phone down. Let me think about it for a while, okay? Feel better and I’ll see you next week. Promise?”
“Yes,” I told her, “I promise,” and then it was the dial tone and Didi was calling for me to tuck the girls in. “We’re ready for you now, Mamma,” she was saying, over Liddie’s high squeal. “Here we go.”
“Wait,” I said, “I’ll put them down. Let me do it,” but I couldn’t move from where I was sitting in their kitchen, looking at the wall above the bouquet of silk flowers, where Didi hung the sand dollars and Pop’s Audobon calendar and the cedar crucifix Doc made for her in woodshop with the words burned black into the center — “God is Watching.”
And right then, right before I went in to do final diaper check and kiss the kids and smell their clean hair, I clasped my hands and bowed my head, just like I had earlier on the way home from the Mariner Market in the Vanagon when I was sitting in Willie Green’s warm, empty place, and just like I would the following Tuesday if I kept my promise, when everybody in Group would walk down the stairs into the sub-basement, and Victoria would turn the lights down on the dimmer switch before greetings and say the verse from Matthew about Jesus taking our infirmities and bearing all our diseases just like Isaiah said he would.
“Teacher,” she would say, holding the closed Bible against her chest, “I will follow you wherever you go,” and then she would gesture in our direction and we would all join hands like links in a chain.
“Why Lord?” we would try to ask in unison, with everybody always out of sync, and Victoria would answer, “Because foxes have holes and birds have their nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head. Is this true?”
“Yes, Lord,” we would say. “Thy will be done.”
And two hours later, after we got up from our tiny seats, she would drive us all home.