I’d climb out after bedtime, look through the lit windows, and see Mrs. Garrett doing the dishes, one of the younger kids sitting on the counter next to her. Or Mr. Garrett wrestling with the older boys in the living room. Or the lights going on where the baby must sleep, the figure of Mr. or Mrs. Garrett pacing back and forth, rubbing a tiny back. It was like watching a silent movie, one so different from the life I lived.
Over the years, I got more daring. I’d sometimes watch during the day, after school, hunched back against the side of the rough gable, trying to figure out which Garrett matched each name I heard called out the screen door. It was tricky because they all had wavy brown hair, olive skin, and sinewy builds, like a breed all their own.
Joel was the easiest to identify—the oldest and the most athletic. His picture often appeared in local papers for various sports accomplishments—I knew it in black and white. Alice, next in line, dyed her hair outlandish colors and wore clothes that provoked commentary from Mrs. Garrett, so I had her down as well. George and Patsy were the littlest ones. The middle three boys, Jase, Duff, and Harry…I couldn’t get them straight. I was pretty sure that Jase was the oldest of the three, but did that mean he was the tallest? Duff was supposed to be the smart one, competing in various chess competitions and spelling bees, but he didn’t wear glasses or give off any obvious brainiac signals. Harry was constantly in trouble—“Harry! How could you?” was the refrain. And Andy, the middle girl, always seemed to be missing, her name called longest to come to the dinner table or pile into the car: “Annnnnnnnndeeeeeeeeee!”
From my hidden perch, I’d peer out at the yard, trying to locate Andy, figure out Harry’s latest escapade, or see what outrageous outfit Alice was wearing. The Garretts were my bedtime story, long before I ever thought I’d be part of the story myself.
On the first sweltering hot night in June, I’m home alone, trying to enjoy the quiet but finding myself moving from room to room, unable to settle.
Tracy’s out with Flip, yet another blond tennis player in her unending series of boyfriends. I can’t reach my best friend, Nan, who’s been completely distracted by her boyfriend, Daniel, since school ended last week and he graduated. There’s nothing on TV I want to see, no place in town I feel like going. I’ve tried sitting out on the porch, but at low tide the humid air is overpowering, muddy-scented from the breeze off the river.
So I’m sitting in our vaulted living room, crunching the ice left over from my seltzer, skimming through Tracy’s stack of In Touch magazines. Suddenly I hear a loud, continuous buzzing sound. As it goes on and on I look around, alarmed, trying to identify it. The dryer? The smoke detector? Finally, I realize it’s the doorbell, buzzing and buzzing, on and on and on. I hurry to open the door, expecting—sigh—one of Tracy’s exes, daring after too many strawberry daiquiris at the country club, come to win her back.
Instead, I see my mother, pressed against the doorbell, getting the daylights kissed out of her by some man. When I throw the door open, they half stumble, then he braces his hand on the jamb and just keeps kissing away. So I stand there, feeling stupid, arms folded, my thin nightgown shifting slightly in the thick air. All around me are summer voices. The lap of the shore far away, the roar of a motorcycle coming up the street, the shhhh of the wind in the dogwood trees. None of those, and certainly not my presence, stop my mom or this guy. Not even when the motorcycle backfires as it peels into the Garretts’ driveway, which usually drives Mom crazy.
Finally, they come up for air, and she turns to me with an awkward laugh.
“Samantha. Goodness! You startled me.”
She’s flustered, her voice high and girlish. Not the authoritative “this is how it will be” voice she typically uses at home or the syrup-mixed-with-steel one she wields on the job.
Five years ago, Mom went into politics. Tracy and I didn’t take it seriously at first—we’d hardly known Mom to vote. But she came home one day from a rally charged up and determined to be state senator. She ran, and she won, and our lives changed entirely.
We were proud of her. Of course we were. But instead of making breakfast and sifting through our book bags to be sure our homework was done, Mom left home at five o’clock in the morning and headed to Hartford “before the traffic kicks in.” She stayed late for commissions and special sessions. Weekends weren’t about Tracy’s gymnastics practices or my swim meets. They were for boning up on upcoming votes, staying for special sessions, or attending local events. Tracy pulled every bad-teenager trick in the book. She played with drugs and drinking, she shoplifted, she slept with too many boys. I read piles of books, registered Democratic in my mind (Mom’s Republican), and spent more time than usual watching the Garretts.
So now tonight, I stand here, stunned into immobility by the unexpected and prolonged PDA, until Mom finally lets go of the guy. He turns to me and I gasp.
After a man leaves you, pregnant and with a toddler, you don’t keep his picture on the mantel. We have only a few photographs of our dad, and they’re all in Tracy’s room. Still I recognize him—the curve of his jaw, the dimples, the shiny wheat-blond hair and broad shoulders. This man has all those things.
Mom’s expression morphs from dreamy bedazzlement to utter shock, as though I’ve cursed.
The guy shifts away from Mom, extends his hand to me. As he moves into the light of the living room, I realize he’s much younger than my father would be now. “Hi there, darlin’. I’m the newest—and most enthusiastic—member of your mom’s reelection campaign.”
Enthusiastic? I’ll say.
He takes my hand and shakes it, seemingly without my participation.
“This is Clay Tucker,” Mom says, in the reverent tone one might use for Vincent van Gogh or Abraham Lincoln. She turns and gives me a reproving look, no doubt for the “Dad” comment, but quickly recovers. “Clay’s worked on national campaigns. I’m very lucky he’s agreed to help me out.”
In what capacity? I wonder as she fluffs her hair in a gesture that can’t possibly be anything but flirtatious. Mom?
“So, Clay,” she continues. “I told you Samantha was a big girl.”
I blink. I’m five two. In heels. “Big girl” is a stretch. Then I get it. She means old. Old for someone as young as her to have.