Just before leaving forever, little Jack Morton’s father bought a small red bicycle with removable training wheels and told Jack that the man of the house needed his wheels. His father said this with tears in his eyes and pressed hard whiskers against Jack’s cheek. For this reason, the bicycle was Jack’s favorite possession even before his feet could reach the pedals. Anne, Jack’s mother, thought it was a dumb idea to give a boy an oversized bike.
“He couldn’t ride the thing for a year,” she complained later. “He just climbed on it and sat there with a faraway look in his eyes.”
Every day Jack took the bicycle to the sidewalk and gazed silently ahead while Anne pushed him from behind. Anne called her husband’s disappearance a flight. This brought to Jack’s mind the image of a jet airplane and the sudden ascent of birds—to Anne’s mind it brought mainly disgust. She had a two year succession of bad jobs and worse boyfriends. Jack grew sullen. Anne put on weight. They had only each other for comfort.
* * *
The summer before Jack started kindergarten, they moved to the country. Anne found a job as a waitress at the Grass Lake Café and looked for apartments.
This was how she met the Whites.
The childless couple lived alone on Grass Lake. Mr. White knocked a few dollars’ rent off the little cottage behind his house and let Anne move in with Jack. He came over in person to collect the weekly rent; then he began coming over more often.
Anne made coffee and told stories. She told him she had known all along that her husband would leave, had known from the first time she felt Jack wriggling inside her. She never heard from her husband and hadn’t spoken with her parents since before Jack was born. They were alone in the world, she explained. She told him the story of the red bike. Mr. White shook his head and whistled through his teeth. He looked at Jack, then back at Anne.
Jack hated Mr. White because his gums showed when he smiled and because those smiles were for his mother. One day over coffee and cupcakes, Mr. White offered to teach Jack how to ride without training wheels. Jack stamped his foot: Mr. White would never touch the bike. “Never!” he shouted with another stamp of the foot.
“Jack…” Anne crumbled a cupcake and smiled thinly. “That’s not polite.”
Mr. White tried to defuse the situation with a pink flash at them both.
In the bedroom, Anne breathed hot air into Jack’s face. “Don’t you embarrass me, goddamnit,” she hissed. He smelled her clean clothes and sour coffee. “I will not let you embarrass me.”
She sentenced him to a nap. The door slammed hard behind her.
From the window, Jack watched Mr. White and his mother walk down the hill together toward the lake. There were geese down there, each the size of a small dog. Jack wished they would honk like trucks, pound their large wings, and chase Mr. White away from his mother and into the lake.
* * *
Mrs. White was plump and her gums didn’t show when she smiled because she never smiled. To Jack she was a feature of the landscape, like the tall pine trees across the lake or the apples ripening in the breezeway. Every day that fall, the school bus dropped Jack at the end of the Whites’ driveway. He collected fire-colored leaves from the front yard for his mother but forgot to show them to her when she came home. It was decided that Mrs. White—who was the victim of weak nerves—would babysit Jack while Anne was at work. The leaves in the yard turned brown. The slate sky shed snow. Jack and Mrs. White became friends.
She baked cookies and asked questions. “What do Mr. White and Mommy do when he goes over there?”
“Gimme another cookie.”
She gave him another cookie. “Do they talk or do they do other things?”
“They talk.” Jack chewed. “They do other things.”
“What kinds of other things?”
“Walks by the lake,” he said. “Other things. You wouldn’t believe.”
The more he talked, the more she fed him; that winter she and Jack discussed what Mr. White and Jack’s mother did with their afternoons. Mr. White came over to shovel out the driveway, to check the furnace and the pipes, sometimes just to talk. Jack stood off to the side, watching. One night the fuse-box overloaded and the lights went out. Anne had to call Mr. White. He showed up at their back door in a whirl-wind of snow. Anne crept behind him into the basement with a flashlight, dressed only in her nightgown. These were the sorts of things Jack told Mrs. White.
* * *
Jack and Anne spent Christmas with the Whites and after that they began to visit each Sunday for dinner. A routine emerged. Anne worked double shifts every Saturday that winter, slept in until ten or eleven with Jack on Sunday. After, she drank coffee and took a shower. She cleaned Jack up, slicked his hair back, and dragged him to the Whites’ house.
Anne’s life had always been a disordered affair and she was as thankful for a routine, any routine, as she was for greater things: her job, her son’s health, the roof over their heads. After dinner, the four of them sat in the living room with the TV turned down, and a fire crackling in the fireplace. Mr. White talked about the gas station he ran in Michigan Center. Anne talked about the people at the café. Jack was only in kindergarten and Mrs. White seldom left her home. There wasn’t much for the two of them to add to conversations and they just mostly listened.
Anne did not want to jeopardize her new life with impropriety, but she was lonely, and Mr. White treated her and Jack well. Sometimes they held hands in the rental house, or behind Mr. White’s tool shed. They spent melancholy afternoons, wishing their lives had followed different, more romantic paths. Jack noticed how his mother smiled at Mr. White. Mrs. White knew what it meant when her husband kept remaking the part in his hair and sucking in his pot-belly in front of the mirror. Little fatherless Jack feared loosing his mother to another man. Mrs. White had no desire to live her later years alone. She and Jack exchanged glances, but suffered their hurt feelings in silence.
* * *
Mr. White said Jack needed someone to teach him manly arts. Anne agreed that Jack—who was the victim of a bad attitude—might benefit from male companionship. Mr. White put their plan into action one arctic Sunday after dinner. He began pulling on his tall boots and parka. Anne put Jack into his coat and plastic snow pants.
“What’s going on?” Jack said. He looked around the room for help.
“Ice fishing,” Mr. White said.
The fire in the hearth swelled when Mr. White opened the back door. Then he and Jack were gone.
Anne looked at Mrs. White.
“Your husband,” she said, “is a very good man. He’s very caring.”
“I always thought so,” Mrs. White said with a brittle smile. She held Anne’s eyes as long as she could before looking away.
* * *
Jack’s fingers and toes were numb. It was not late. But the sun had already dropped in the sky and was getting ready to set beyond the white expanse of Grass Lake. Snow danced and skated in the wind on the frozen surface. Mr. White helped Jack onto the ice from the dock. Frost blew through Jack’s scarf and froze his throat.
In the shanty, Mr. White lit a lantern. Greasy smoke rose from the shade. Soon it was warm enough for them to remove their coats.
“Where’s the fish?” Jack said.
Mr. White tapped the ice. “Under here,” he said. “Swimming.”
Mr. White opened a hole with an awl and set up a line. He sat back.
“Now what?” Jack said.
“Now we wait for the fish, son.”
It was shadowy in the shanty, it stunk of fish and kerosene. Mist rose from the ice.
“You’re not my dad,” Jack said.
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
“I don’t like you.”
“What would your mother say about that?”
“She doesn’t like you either.”
“You’re so cute.” Mr. White bared his gums. He made Jack sit still on a box while they waited for a fish to snag on the line under the ice.
* * *
Later Mr. White led Anne into the breezeway to look at the fish they had caught. Mrs. White made hot chocolate. She helped Jack into a chair at the table.
“What did you two talk about?” she said.
“My mom,” he said.
“The whole time.”
“Yes, I see.”
Mrs. White gave Jack his hot chocolate, and sat down in the living room, wondering why it was taking so long for Anne and her husband in the breezeway. Presently, she grew short of breath. She felt for her pulse, then went for one of the little pills she used to calm her nerves.
* * *
When snow melted and water became visible at the center of the lake, Jack wanted his red bicycle. Mr. White pulled it from the garage on a day when the breeze smelled of open lake and the earth was soft and green.
Jack’s legs were long enough to pedal alone now. But Anne only allowed him to ride in the front yard and only when one of the Whites or she herself supervised; he was forbidden from riding in the road, and in the backyard, which sloped precipitously toward the east end of Grass Lake.
He loved that bike too much to disobey. Every afternoon he pushed it out onto the smooth grass while Mrs. White watched from the living room. Jack rode the bike, he imagined, like a man, up and down the front lawn. Sometimes he waved at Mrs. White. She waved back.
That spring there was a snowstorm in April; Jack got up in the morning and stared out the window. School was cancelled, the Grass Lake Café was closed, and Mr. White was busy plowing snow for the town. A mound of snow stood near the driveway. Jack looked at it for a long time before he realized what it was. He called is mother.
“See,” she said. “I told you so. You should have brought it in. Now it’s going to rust and fall apart.”
Jack imagined his shiny red bike transformed into a heap of brown metal in the junk yard he saw on his way to school. Tears came into his eyes.
“Oh for Christ’s sake,” she said, “don’t cry about it.”
“I’m trying not to!”
A few minutes later, Anne put on her coat and helped Jack put on his. She took his hand and they went out to unbury his bike and bring it in from the snow.
* * *
In June, a postcard came in the mail. It had been rerouted a few times, but the writing was as legible as ever. Anne showed it to Mr. White. On it Jack’s father had written that he was fine, working in Arizona. He hoped that Anne and Jack were okay. Here’s how he wrote it: hope your ok.
He left no return address. Anne wasn’t sure whether to show the letter to Jack. But Mr. White thought she should.
Jack asked to keep the postcard. It showed a desert scene—the angry sun over a parched world of cactus and lizards. When Jack sat on the floor pretending to read the words, Anne thought she was seeing vision of the loneliness life held for her and her son.
He carried the postcard in his pocket, folding it and unfolding it so often that the cardboard creases grew soft and frayed like cotton. Jack understood that the card was from another state, but the landscape on it seemed as alien as Mars. He imagined a spaceship bearing his father away to some distant planet. Jack missed his father more than ever and took the postcard as a sign of his imminent return. There was not a thing in the world Jack wouldn’t have given, little red bike included, to have him back.
* * *
Spring is the time for lovers—a thought that tormented Mrs. White incessantly that June. She had no proof, of course, that there was anything going on between her husband and Jack’s young mother. But her suspicions provided thin comfort.
She didn’t have much to worry about. Mr. White had kissed Anne one day after doing some kind of chore, and Anne had not exactly stopped him. But it had been awkward and she fled the scene in embarrassment. After that, they seemed on guard around each other, waiting for some next step to occur.
* * *
It was a warm green day, smelling of grass and tall summer weeds. Mr. White was visiting the cottage, explaining to Jack, who was dressed in swimming trunks, why it was not safe to go swimming in Grass Lake. Jack refused to listen and prepared to throw a temper tantrum, but Anne was ready. She whisked him away to the bedroom.
“I’m tired of you being rude, young man,” she said. “And after everything Mr. White’s done for us.”
“He never did nothing for me.”
The door closed hard behind her.
It was hot. Jack prayed to suffocate or die of heat stroke. He had heard of things like that. How he’d love for his mother to find him dead in his bedroom! He wondered how would she account for his death when his father finally came home.
Jack stood on his bed. He peeked over the windowsill. His mother and Mr. White walked down the steep hill together towards the lake. Mr. White took his mother’s hand.
Jack climbed from the bed. He put his pants on over his swimming trunks. He got out his boots and put on a shirt. He let himself out of the room and then into the front yard. A truck rumbled by on Grass Lake Road, raising a cloud of dust that Jack could taste. His bicycle was next door at the Whites’ house.
He pushed it around the house. He stood at the top of the hill from where he could see his mother talking to Mr. White. Jack climbed onto his bicycle and pushed off toward the lake. Soon the bike began gaining speed on its own. Jack’s feet left the pedals. They spun faster than his feet had ever turned them.
He held grimly onto the handlebars bouncing on the hard seat. Anne and Mr. White didn’t even know he was out of bed until he hit the dock. He raced past them looking straight forward. Momentum carried him and the little red bicycle to the end of the dock and straight into the water.
Ducks scattered into the sky. A surge of bubbles burst the surface of the water where Jack went in. Anne and Mr. White were paralyzed. Then Anne jolted herself to the end of the dock.
“That stupid child,” she would say later. “He was looking up. I mean, he was standing there on the bottom, with his head back, looking up through the green water.”
She didn’t gaze long into Jack’s eyes long before she was on her stomach, plunging her hand into the lake. She grabbed the first thing she felt, which was Jack’s hair.
Jack sputtered lake water. “I want my dad!” he said. He ran up the hill to the house.
Anne watched him run up the hill. She turned to Mr. White. “I hate that boy,” she said. “I can’t stand that little boy.”
And for the first time since she’d learned she was pregnant, she cried. What could poor Mr. White do but put his arms around her and draw her to his fat, well-intentioned chest? The intrusion of mortality, the thrill of saving Jack, and the act of crying in the arms of a man on a homemade dock on Grass Lake—these were the closest things to romance that Anne had ever experienced.
* * *
Mrs. White, who had chosen to look out back at the moment young Anne Morton fell sobbing against her husband’s chest, stood in disbelief at the kitchen window. Her pulse surged and beat high and thin in her ears. But her senses rallied. She slammed through the back door and headed for the dock.
“Whatever you two choose to do behind my back,” she said, “is beyond my control. But I will not allow myself to be publicly humiliated.”
The flesh beneath her chin trembled and she stared into Anne’s eyes.
“Sorry,” Anne said.
Mrs. White faltered. “I’m sorry, too,” she said.
She took her husband by the arm, and marched him back up the hill.
Inside the house, Mr. White tried to explain himself, but Mrs. White interrupted him. “I can’t stand it,” she said. “I can’t stand it!”
She was seized by a fit of trembling, she grew pale, and her eyes rolled in her head. Mr. White rushed off to fetch her little white pills.
* * *
Anne stood at the end of the dock. She looked down at Jack’s bicycle which shimmered just below the water. Her clothes were wet and her shoulder ached from pulling Jack out of the water.
She turned around and headed up the hill to where Jack was waiting. She took his arm and led him inside.
“You stink like the lake,” she said. “You need a bath.”
“I don’t like Mr. White.”
She turned on the hot water and stripped Jack. “Get in.”
Jack stepped in.
“We have to go get my bike out of the lake, Mom.”
“Ha!” Anne said. “Fat chance there, buddy.” She started scrubbing Jack’s ears. “You can kiss your bike goodbye.”
Jack sat there brooding. He was prepared to cry but he was unsure how much further his mother could be pushed.
“Will you quit your pouting,” Anne said. “Will you quit making my life miserable.”
“Leave me alone!” Jack said. Because he had never really known him, because he could appeal only to imagination and not memory, Jack wished his father were there to take him away from this hateful woman who, for reasons beyond his control, was his mother. But he held his tongue and sat there hunched over, naked in the tub.
* * *
That night Anne was in the kitchen cleaning lake muck from inside Jack’s boots. She had heard nothing from the Whites; she had thought about trying to explain to Mrs. White that there was nothing going on. But everything she thought of saying made it sound just as if something really was going on. Jack came into the room.
“Look,” he said. He held out a wad of gray soggy matter.
“What’s in the world is that?” she said.
“My letter from Dad.” He sat on her lap. “I ruined it in the lake today. It’s ruined!”
He cried and cried. She smoothed his hair, held him against herself, and rocked him back and forth.
* * *
The next morning, Mr. White came over to explain why Anne and Jack would have to leave. He smelled of cut grass and gasoline. He studied his feet as he spoke.
She was stunned. “Why didn’t you tell her that nothing happened between us?”
“So what’s the problem?”
“I couldn’t convince her nothing was going to happen.”
“Are you kidding me? What’s wrong with her? You two are our only friends.”
Mr. White averted his eyes. “It’s not her. It’s like, I’m not sure I can trust myself. Or you. Neither of us.”
She was slow to comprehend. But when she did, she couldn’t hold back a laugh. “Well, someone has a high opinion of himself.”
Mr. White twisted his cap in his hands. “I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m awfully sorry.”
* * *
Anne knocked on the door to the main house the next morning. Mrs. White let her in, and they sat at the kitchen table. Anne attempted, then, to explain that nothing ever had been, was, or would be going on between her and Mrs. White’s husband.
Mrs. White shook her head wearily. “But you don’t understand,” she said.
“I think it’s you who doesn’t understand,” Anne said. She had begun to lose her patience. “This is our home.”
Mrs. White hesitated. “Mizz Morton,” she said. “This isn’t the first time something like this has happened with a tenant.”
For a while Anne had nothing to say. “Oh, I see,” she said finally.
“Men,” Mrs. White said.
Men, Anne could not disagree.
* * *
Mr. White went to the garage where his wading boots hung from a nail on the wall. He walked down the hill to the end of the dock, put on his boots and, to the soft purring of the ducks, he stepped into the water. His feet settled into the grassy muck. He reached into the water, grasped one handlebar, and pulled, trying to free Jack’s bike from the mud on the bottom of the lake.
Jack found it the next morning on the porch, with its seat still wet and weeds in caught the spokes, but otherwise in fine shape. He rode it around the yard unobserved.
* * *
When the FOR RENT sign went up in the front yard, Jack asked his mother what it meant.
“It means Mr. White is a jerk.”
“See,” Jack said. “I told you so.”
Anne took out the apartment listings, began searching the columns, circling an ad here and there.
“Maybe my dad will come take us away,” Jack said.
“Don’t count on it,” she said.
But the mailman was pulling up outside and Jack was pedaling his bike toward the road to see what he was bringing.