Cobblestones

It was the only time in my life I was good. Back home in Seattle, after running away with the money I made from selling my grandfather’s vintage Fender Telecaster and my grandmother’s wedding ring, I spent three months attending weekly AA meetings at St. Elizabeth’s Church. I would get behind the wheel of my grandfather’s Chevy pickup truck and drive twenty minutes to the church, the road surrounded by thick foliage, fresh air and cloudless nights filled with stars shining over the mountains.

My grandfather forgave me. “It was just a few old things without value,” he said. He had no choice but to move on. After all, it had been just the two of us for the last twelve years. Grandma died of a heart attack when I was ten. After that, we moved out of the two-bedroom duplex where my grandparents had lived there for twenty-five years, the same duplex where they had raised my irresponsible mother.

Mother left me in their care when I was two weeks old. She promised to return but never did. She took jobs as a maid and a cook, here and there. Then she got herself knocked up by a married doctor. My mother died giving birth to her second bastard child, a stillborn daughter.

Grandfather bought a two-bedroom house with a big backyard for me to grow up in. He spent his weekends hammering in new floors, fixing leaking pipes, replacing broken boilers and exterminating squirrels from the attic. “A fixer-upper,” he used to call it. I was by his side at every step, holding nails for him in my tiny hands, cleaning paintbrushes and picking out the cobblestones.

He built a cobblestone driveway, gray squares patterned together. They reminded him of the old country, a small fishing village in Ireland where he grew up until he was twelve. The driveway was long enough for him to park his red Chevy pickup and his white fishing boat. He painted the house leaf-green to remind him of the grass in Ireland and planted some wild flowers. Often he would talk about the Irish cliffs overlooking the sea, as the fishermen returned to harbor.

I met Roxanne during my time in AA. Roxanne’s uncle had been directing the program for some time; he had been an alcoholic for ten years before getting sober. She was there to support her uncle who had taken her in when she lost both her parents in a fire. She didn’t remember her parents, and I didn’t remember mine. It was an instant connection.

When I first saw her, she was next to the food table, placing donuts and pastries on the platter. I sat on a metal chair in the circle, surrounded by alcoholics. I pretended to listen to their stories, but I was looking at Roxanne the entire time. I told my own sad story to the group, about an orphan boy who betrays the only person who’s ever loved him and is trying to redeem himself. When the meeting concluded, Roxanne was waiting for me with a glazed donut and a cup of coffee.

“I was very moved by your story,” she said. When she handed me the donut, her hand brushed mine. Her touch was tender, and I never forgot the way she looked at me that day, the way a worthy man deserves to be looked at. A man who doesn’t betray people like I did.

Instead of attending the meetings once a week, I was going three times. I sat as close to the donut table as possible. I took on a part-time job in a bakery and began contributing. I would arrive early and help her set the pastries on the table, waiting for her hand to brush on mine. Her uncle, who had given up drinking only to succumb to overeating, had only kind words.

“I haven’t seen such enormous effort in a long time,” he said.

I spent more time with Roxanne. We talked about our dreams, hers of being a mother, mine of owning a towboat business. She was the only one who never doubted I could make it happen. I wasn’t a screw-up in her eyes. Roxanne was the only woman I ever introduced to my grandfather. He thought she was the perfect woman for me, with her white silky skin, dark wavy hair and the perfect splash of freckles on her face.

“True natural beauty. Pure virtue,” he said. She learned to make his favorite corned beef sandwich, toasted with mustard and two scoops of sauerkraut.

When his health declined, I began spending less time at AA and more time with my grandfather. Roxanne also spent time with him, trying to make him comfortable for whatever time he had left. That was the kind of person she was—always there when she was needed and never asking for anything. When his sight got worse, she would read the Sunday newspaper to him, and he would complain about the stock market and how sports hadn’t been the same since the 1960s. She would cut up his food, give him his medicine on time and help him to bed, never forgetting to tuck him in with his favorite throw blanket that my grandma knitted.

He died on the first day of spring, before the sun came out on a warm, sunny morning. I was not spiritual, but I imagined it was God’s way of telling me he was in a good place. He had a traditional Catholic funeral. Six men carried his casket. I was right there on the front, holding my grandfather shoulder-high. At the burial—with the sun bright, the ground wet and the flowers blooming—his soul carried to heaven, along with the sound of the bagpipes.

I promised him the night before he died I wouldn’t drink again, but I went to the liquor store on the very day of the funeral and bought the best bottle of Irish whiskey. Roxanne was waiting for me on the steps of the house.

“Please don’t,” she said, reaching for my hand. “You have worked so hard.”

“It hurts too much,” I said, pushing her away.

“I can’t let you. You promised him, and he believed in you. And I believe in you, as well.”

I let her hug me. She stayed with me all night. After she was asleep, I shelved the bottle inside a cabinet in the garage, behind my grandfather’s things.

Two weeks later, I got a visit from my grandfather’s lawyer. The house mortgage was paid for, and he had left me his life savings, the boat and that old truck, which I would crash a few years later. I sold his boat and bought a towboat to start my own business. I named it The Roxanne.

I asked Roxanne to marry me a year after we met. Did I love that girl? Yes, I did. She was great to me, and I wanted to be great to her. I got the blessing of her uncle, the only remaining family member she had. He suffered a stroke in his sleep a few days after that. With all the loss in our lives, Roxanne and I decided not to wait any longer. She wore a long white dress with lace sleeves and daisies in her hair. The ceremony was brief—and then we were Mr. and Mrs. Glen Marshall.

My wife was pure on our wedding night, only having been touched by me. I took my time with the buttons on the back of her dress. I stopped before the dress was off, but she nodded me to keep going. Most women I had stumbled upon in my life of alcohol and drugs were nothing like my wife. From time to time, I would wake up to broken mirrors, bleeding knuckles, unused lines of cocaine and a naked whores, whom I didn’t recall meeting.

My life was good at that point; blessings became frequent, like leaves departing branches in autumn. The business took off.  For once in my life, money was not an issue, so Roxanne quit her job and stayed home full-time to fix up the house. I never missed any of my wife’s home-cooked meals. We didn’t miss date night for a year. I would have challenged anyone who disagreed that our life was perfect.

We took the towboat out to the San Juan Islands during whale-watching season and had a picnic on a little hill overlooking the mountains and the sea. The day was hot, and small white clouds were forming. Sweat was soaking through my red polo shirt. Roxanne’s blue polka-dot dress flowed with the warm wind, exposing her legs, and tiny drops of sweat dotted her nose. Rain began to pour, soaking the tuna sandwiches. We took the yellow blanket, held it over our heads and ran to the boat.

“I need to tell you something,” she said, while we waited in the boat for the rain to stop.

“What is it?”

“I’m pregnant.”

It had never been my dream and I didn’t know if I would be a good father, but I was excited. There was a brand new life forming in my wife’s belly—and I would be responsible for that life, to make up for the fact that life hadn’t been good to me.

She was only four weeks pregnant, but we cleared out that second bedroom. I brought home baby-blue paint. Roxanne wanted me to paint a few white clouds on those blue walls—the same clouds that had adorned the sky on day she told me she was pregnant. We began talking about what the baby would look like, and I suggested my grandfather’s name.

On the first day of autumn, without a warning, our bed sheets were soaked in blood. The doctor said we could try again in a few months.

“I wish you hadn’t brought home the blue paint,” she said to me one night. Her body turned against me for the first time.

Of course we tried again. I held back my excitement. I avoided kissing her belly and I didn’t point at babies at the supermarket. I had gotten so used to the idea of becoming a father that it was all I could think of. She became pregnant again, and things were moving along. A week before the twelve-week mark, I drove her to the doctor’s appointment.

“I can’t wait to give this baby my last name, and name him after my grandfather,” I said.

The doctor showed us the image of the baby on the sonogram, a tiny little sack. I watched as Roxanne waited anxiously to hear the heartbeat. We waited. The doctor turned up the volume on the machine—but only silence resonated off the walls.

I tried to cheer her up, bought her flowers, dedicated songs to her. I even took her back to the San Juan Islands to have another picnic. On the way back, as I navigated The Roxanne through the calm sea, we spotted a pod of orcas, swimming together after the sunset.

“Look, Roxanne,” I said. A calf got near our boat, its fin cutting through the water at a steady pace. The mother fetched her calf before reaching our boat. “Don’t worry,” I said. “We’ll have a baby, too, one day.”

“Stop talking about babies. I don’t want them,” she said. “And your grandfather’s name is bad luck.” She didn’t look at the whales and didn’t look at me.

Roxanne would go on to have two children with her second husband.

That night, our bed turned cold. I could feel her blaming me for all of it. Once again, the woman who was supposed to love me no matter what rejected me. I left our bed and went down to the garage. The whiskey was waiting for me; the burning sensation in my throat brought me comfort; any other feelings I would deal with later. And so I drank, to my dead babies, my grandfather. And I bid a farewell to the best days of my life.

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